I have not seen The Abduction Club, which stars Matthew Rhys, Alice Paine, Sophia Myles and Daniel LaPaine, so I cannot really comment on its quality. I think it looks like tosh (I could be wrong though, I do admit) but that is by the by.
Although its premise sounds far-fetched the film is indeed based on a real phenomenon – the kidnapping of unsuspecting Irish heiresses by ‘squireens,’ the younger sons of respectable families, who had no other fortunes in prospect. The club achieved notoriety through the extraordinary and shocking antics of two of its members, Garrett Byrne and James Strange.
In 1779 they carried off sisters Catharine and Anne Kennedy, aged 15 and 14, hauling them around Ireland from one place to the next until, their resistance worn to shreds by threats, they gave in and were married. After five weeks, during which they continued to refuse their husbands sex (Strange was said to have been so angered by this that he struck Anne in the face with a pewter pot), they were rescued at Wicklow and restored to their family and friends.
Byrne and Strange fled to Wales but were caught and tried at Kilkenny. Letters purporting to be from the Kennedy sisters, in which they invited the men to take them off, were proved to be forgeries concocted by Byrne’s sister. Other letters, in which the Kennedy sisters wrote of Byrne and Strange affectionately and called them their ‘dear husbands,’ had clearly been written under duress.
One interesting feature of the episode is the deep esteem in which Byrne and Strange were held by the populace. Their fate excited so much sympathy that all the shops in Kilkenny and nearby towns were shut on the day of their execution and the military were on hand to prevent riot and disorder. The men were gentlemen, they had married the Kennedy girls rather than simply raping them and abduction was not seen as a serious crime, so many of their supporters were astonished that their sentences were not commuted.
Resentment towards the Kennedy sisters was visceral. They were hissed, booed and harassed in public, and despite subsequently marrying respectably they both died in misery. This was seen as a just ending for their treachery, the vengeance of heaven. Byrne and Strange, on the other hand, were idolised as heroes and their kidnapping was seen as a noble act of courage.￼
Abduction was rare in England. In Ireland, however, while it could not be said to be common, it happened with much greater frequency. One of the most famous incidents was the abduction in 1772 of wealthy heiress Charlotte Newcomen by Thomas Johnston.
Charlotte was staying with her elderly guardian Mr Shepherd in Longford when Johnston, the son of a respectable yeoman farmer, together with a gang of helpers, marched up to the house, seized and bound the old man, dashed up to Charlotte’s bedroom and dragged her downstairs. Charlotte resisted heroically, clinging on to bannisters and scratching her abductor’s face, but Johnston managed to force her on to his horse and rode off with her. He did not get very far. Some reports say that Mr Shepherd, released from his ropes, shot one of the gang with a blunderbuss, others that it was his outraged son. Either way, one of the gang died, and Johnston was later executed at the gallows.
Charlotte, who was engaged to a wealthy Dublin banker at the time, had earlier in the day danced with Johnston at a party given for the tenantry. She went on to marry her fiance but she never fully recovered from the shock of the events at Longford. According to an obituary of her son, Lord Viscount Newcomen, ‘The melancholy catastrophe permanently depressed her spirits.’
John Edward Walsh, Ireland Sixty Years Ago. Dublin, James M’Glashan, 1847.