Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Taaffe, Denis

TAAFFE, DENIS (1743?–1813), Irish political writer, a native of co. Louth, where he was born about 1743, was of a good catholic family. His parents, anxious that he should enter the priesthood, for which he had manifestly no vocation, sent him to Prague, where he was educated and ordained. After some years abroad he was sent to Ireland on a mission. He speedily became acquainted with the more active spirits among his co-religionists, and allied himself with the extremer nationalists. His habits, however, became so disorderly and his manner so violent that he got into difficulties with his ecclesiastical superiors, who frequently reprimanded and finally excommunicated him, but whether before or after his formal abjuration of Catholicism does not appear. He entered the protestant ministry about 1790, but eventually returned to the religion he had abandoned (Watty Cox, Irish Magazine, 1813, p. 384). He joined the United Irishmen, and fought during the rebellion in Wexford, being wounded at Ballyellis (1798), whence he escaped to Dublin in a load of hay. He was known as a vigorous writer, and boasted that he could fight as well as he could write. After the union, which he fiercely opposed by voice and pen, his excesses became more and more pronounced, and he was reduced to abject poverty by intemperance. He lived in a garret in James Street, Dublin, during his last years, supported by Dr. McCarthy, the benevolent catholic bishop of Cork, who allowed him a pension of 40l. a year. He died in Thomas Street, Dublin, in August 1813, and was buried in the graveyard attached to St. James’s Church.

Taaffe’s works show him to have been a powerful writer, possessed of genuine eloquence and satirical force; but he was careless about his facts, and his best-known work, a ‘History of Ireland,’ in four volumes, published in 1809–11, seems to have been written rapidly and without much reference to authorities. Though an intense nationalist, he strongly opposed, among other things, the scheme of the French invasion of Ireland, and declared that France would, if successful, speedily exchange Ireland for one of the sugar islands (O'Reilly, Reminiscences of an Emigrant Milesian). He was a good scholar, had a perfect knowledge of Irish, was one of the founders of the Gaelic Society, Dublin (1808), and, if Watty Cox is to be believed, knew most of the languages of Europe, ‘was eminent as a Greek and Latin scholar, and was conversant in the Hebrew and oriental tongues.’

His chief pamphlets are:

  1. ‘The Probability, Causes, and Consequences of an Union between Great Britain and Ireland discussed,’ 8vo, Dublin, 1798.
  2. ‘Vindication of the Irish Nation, and particularly its Catholic Inhabitants, from the Calumnies of Libellers,’ 5 pts. 8vo, Dublin, 1802.
  3. ‘A Defence of the Catholic Church against the Assaults of certain busy Sectaries,’ 8vo, Dublin, 1803.
  4. ‘Antidotes to cure the Catholicophobia and Ierneophobia, efficacious to eradicate the Horrors against Catholics and Irishmen,’ 8vo, Dublin, 1804.
  5. ‘Sketch of the Geography and of the History of Spain,’ translated from the French, 8vo, Dublin, 1808.

To him is also attributed ‘Ireland’s Mirror, exhibiting a Picture of her Present State, with a Glimpse of her Future Prospects’ (by ‘D. T.’), 8vo, Dublin, 1795. Some of his tracts were signed ‘Julius Vindex.’

[Madden’s United Irishmen, 4 vols.; Fitzpatrick’s Irish Wits and Worthies, 1873, pp. 132–6; Dublin and Lond. Mag. 1828, p. 218, Milesian Magazine, 1813; authorities cited in text.]

D. J. O'D.