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Saturday, 9 July 2011


In 1800 the Acts of Union abolished the Irish parliament in favour of direct rule from London. 26 new peerages, the so-called Union peerages, were created in Ireland to ease the passage of the bill, and one of the very last peers to be so elevated – on 27th December 1800 – was my 6x great uncle Eyre Massey, 1st Lord Clarina of Elm Park in Co. Limerick. (There was already another Lord in the family, so after 1800 Eyre added the e to distinguish his lordship from that of his brother Hugh, 1st Lord Massy of Stagdale.)

It’s claimed that Eyre sought the honour not for himself but for his wife, in an attempt to console her for the early death of their eldest son George. And the title that he sought was not Clarina but Niagara. Not in Limerick but in North America. Why, you may ask?

The arms of the Barons Clarina
incorporates two Grenadiers of the 27th Foot,
Eyre Massey’s regiment of 60 years

As the youngest of six Massy brothers he had lived his life with no prospect of inheritance, and had therefore had to work for a living. This he did by a distinguished military career, serving for over 60 years with his regiment the 27th Foot, the Enniskillings. He fought campaigns in the West Indies, Spain and Scotland with them and in 1757, on secondment to the 46th Regiment, he sailed to North America as Major Massy, their second in command.

Britain was embroiled at the time in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) – a world war fought by the forces and allies of Britain and Germany on the one hand and France and Austria on the other. It was conducted on several fronts, in Europe, Scandinavia, Western Africa, India, Central and North America. The diplomatic causes of the war were complex, but the expanding British and French Empires of the time frequently collided in the jostle for control of new overseas territories. This was particularly true in what France was calling New France, the lands of the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes, which both powers saw as the gateway to further acquisitions in the West.

New France in 1750

Hostilities had been rumbling on in the region since 1754, largely with French success. But after early British setbacks, the tide turned. Britain was in general more willing than France to send troop reinforcements overseas instead of relying on locally recruited militias. Eyre’s arrival was part of this policy, which resulted two years later in the besieging of a French base on the south shore of Lake Ontario at the mouth of the river Niagara.

There is considerable dispute about who really won the Battle of Fort Niagara for the British. General John Prideaux, the British commander at the beginning of the siege of the fort, was killed early in the siege by shrapnel from one of his own guns. Sir William Johnson, a war hero and former major general who had commanded provincial auxiliaries rather than British Army regulars, assumed command and insisted on retaining it even after a more junior but regular army officer arrived. The fate of the fort was decided by a skirmish on 24th July called the Battle of La Belle-Famille, which Johnson is supposed to have planned or even led. But there is some question as to whether he was even present and to what extent he overstated his role and abilities in official reports.

left: Major General William Johnson
(in 1756, after a portrait by T. Adams)
and right: Major Eyre Massey
(in 1803, then a general, by Robert Hunter)

Eyre Massey claimed in his (let's face it) self-promoting memoirs that he, not Johnson, was the commander and tactician of the victory, which prevented a much larger French relief force from reaching the fort and resulted in its surrender two days later. It was a decisive engagement, and it allowed Britain to attack the French heartlands of Quebec from the west as well as the east. No doubt Eyre’s desire to become Lord Niagara on his elevation 41 years later was an attempt to cement his claim; and no doubt his elevation instead as Lord Clarina reflects the lack of documentary proof of that claim.

New France fell in September 1760, and Quebec (renamed Canada) began its long relationship with the British Empire and Commonwealth. As I write, 251 years later, the future British king and his new bride are in the middle of a Canadian tour, their first as a royal couple, which began with their celebration of Canada Day.

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