In early days the possession of a title signified that its holder or one of his ancestors had rendered signal service to his country on the field of battle. As the world grew older the system of awarding honours for meritorious service rendered was departed from and many instances are related of the peculiar motives – often sordid and mercenary – which prompted either the bestower or recipient of a title to confer or solicit such advancement in the social scale. To such an extent did the abuse grow that in many cases the bearers of the title were looked on with contempt and derision, while those who justly earned the honours scornfully refused them. Many stories are told of these queer conferrings of dignities , but there are few if any stranger than that which relates the circumstances under which Thomas Cuffe of Kilbeggan was raised to the noble order of knighthood.
Lord Townshend, who was Lord Lieutenant ofIrelandfrom 1767 –1773, left Dublin in the year 1773 on an official visit to Roscommon. Accompanied by his aides–de–camp he travelled in the Vice-Regal carriage drawn by four horses. On the evening of the second day of the journey an axle of the vehicle broke and, as the necessary repairs would occupy several hours, the travellers were compelled to seek shelter for the night. This they secured in the modest hostelry of Thomas Cuffe of Kilbeggan near which village the accident occurred. The humble inn was a marked contrast to the noble mansion near Tullamore in which the party had arranged to spend the night and this fact, coupled with the unexpected mishap to his vehicle , put my Lord Townshend, who was noted for his love of physical comfort into very bad humour indeed. The innkeeper gave the party a very cordial welcome and, although he saw that his guests were of undoubtedly high rank, he had no idea that he was entertaining beneath his lowly roof such an exalted personage as the Viceroy of Ireland. A meal was ordered and the guests withdrew to a parlour to await it’s preparation. Overhearing a remark that they expected . “the fare would be commensurate with the appearance of the house,” Cuffe resolved to give the party an agreeable surprise and retired to the kitchen to consult with his wife who was an excellent cook. The good lady “rose to the occasion”, with the result that their distinguished patrons were, in a short time, partaking of a good dinner well cooked and well served.
The welcome and unexpected sight of excellent fish and fowl, joints of meat, a variety of vegetables, and the many other little but necessary accessories to a good meal made the Lord Lieutenant and his attendants feel on very good terms with themselves, and their annoyance at the unexpected interruption to their journey quickly disappeared. Then, as now, Kilbeggan was famous for it’s good whiskey and copious draughts of this excellent liquor still more enhanced the opinion of the Earl and his companions of the entertainment provided. Under the influence of the good things, Townshend, who was as remarkable for his personal jollity as he was for his fondness of the pleasures of the table completely unbent and forgot his previous discomfiture. Quip jest and story helped to make the hours pass quickly and time and again the noble revellers drank the toast of their host and hostess. While his guests thus enjoyed the fare provided, Mr. Cuffe had busied himself arranging for the repair of their equipage and his assurance that it would be ready for the resumption of their journey the following morning raised him still more in their estimation. In addition they were certain they would sleep in comfort as one of the Viceregal attendants on inspecting the sleeping apartments pronounced them as equally good as the menu.
These were days of hard drinking when men, in particular those in the higher walks of life, boasted of their powers to carry a large quantity of liquor. The noble lord and his companions were no exception to this, and by midnight when the time for retiring had arrived, they were all, more or less under the influence of the potent beverage. And now, Lord Townshend in an intoxicated condition, commanded that Cuffe, who by this time had learned the identity of his principal guest, be brought before him. Escorted by a semi-inebriated aide-de-camp he appeared in the Viceregal presence. The Lord Lieutenant in an affectedly grave speech thanked his host for the excellent fare he had provided. And then, prompted by that imp of mischief which is so much accountable for the irresponsible acts of the devotees of Bacchus, Townshend said:
“Mr. Cuffe, I cannot find words to sufficiently express my thanks, but that you may know how great my gratitude is, and that the country may know how much I am indebted to you I purpose to record my thanks in a manner, which while you live , will demonstrate to your countrymen how faithfully you have served, in his hour of need, your king’s Irish representative. In short Mr. Cuffe, I propose to to confer upon you the Order of Knighthood.”
“My Lord!” remonstrated one of his suite.
“Think of what you are doing,” added another.
“I am quite serious,” said his Excellency in answer to these protests. “What are orders for if not to reward merit? Here, Cuffe, kneel down.”
But Cuffe, bewildered by the turn things had taken stood in dismay and glanced at Townshend’s companions in mute appeal.
“Kneel down, sir!” repeated the nobleman raising his sword and waving it in the direction of the frightened innkeeper.
Seeing that he was determined to carry out his intention the members of his suite uttered no further words of protest and, more in dread than joy, poor Cuffe at another peremptory command from the earl, fell upon his knees looking up terror-stricken at the raised sword of Viceregal authority. Then laying the weapon upon the innkeeper’s shoulder Townshend repeated the words which formally elevated Thomas Cuffe to the Noble Order of Knighthood.
“Arise, Sir Thomas!” said the Earl at the conclusion of the ceremony and he gravely shook the newly-made knight by the hand. Each member of his suite did likewise.
Then the party broke up and retired for the night, their astonished host making his way to the kitchen where his wife awaited him. When he informed her of the honour which “had been thrust upon him” she received the information with mixed feelings of doubt and surprise. At first she thought that her spouse had been imbibing some of the good Kilbeggan whiskey with his roistering guests and it took him a considerable time to convince her that his statement was true. Finally, seeing that her husband was not trying to tax her credulity the good lady believed his story, and with no small feeling of elation tried to realise her sudden accession of honours. Her womanly vanity too, was touched when she was addressed by her husband as, “Lady Cuffe!”
The coming of morning saw the Viceregal party astir in preparation for their journey, and now thoroughly sobered by the night’s rest. At breakfast one of his entourage ventured to remind his Excellency of his foolish freak of the previous night, and he himself reviewing the incident in his sober senses very much regretted his prank. Perplexed as to what action he should take he expressed the opinion that Cuffe would not take advantage of an act performed while in his “cups.”
“Bring him here,” he said, and I will ask him to keep the affair a secret.”
While Thomas Cuffe, as became the plain, blunt honest fellow that he was, was agreeing to consider the incident as not having occurred, it was not so with his wife. Even though the period for which she had worn the title was exceedingly brief Lady Cuffe was loathe to relinquish it and declared as much in unmistakeable terms to her harassed husband. While he was anxious to show deference to the wishes of his distinguished guest he was equally desirous to refrain from offending his good wife. Placed thus in a dilemma he philosophically decided, as he afterwards expressed it, “not to fall out with the woman I’ll have to live with all my life for the sake of a man whom I would most probably never see again, even though he was the Lord Lieutenant himself.”
Following the stormy interview with his wife Cuffe returned to the presence of Townshend and, taking his courage in both hands, announced that his lady was very much opposed to the relinquishment of the title. Despite the pleas and protests of the now irate aristocrat the newly-made knight refused to budge and, in despair the Viceroy decided to accept the situation quietly. Then Sir Thomas produced a liberal quantity of the brew of his native town and under it’s soothing influence the Viceroy became mollified and began to see and enjoy the humour of the previous night’s incident. When the repaired coach was brought to the door the Viceregal party took a cordial leave of Sir Thomas and Lady Cuffe, and continued their journey to Roscommon…..
The entire country was soon ringing with the story of the unusual conferring which in the course of the telling received many embellishments. It brought to the innkeeper knight the custom of the curious, of both high and low estate, who came from near and far to visit Cuffe’s hotel and it’s titled proprietor. While some ridiculed others no doubt were of the opinion that the knight and his lady were more entitled to their honours than many of the titled adventurers who had received them under circumstances which showed that they acted against the interests of their country.
The most famous place in Kilbeggan was the Volunteer Inn. It was a stopping off point for travellers heading west and catered for them by providing food and drink, comfortable beds and another service was the provision of horses, sidecars, long cars and coaches with all the necessary facilities. Later in the 19th century the novelist Charles Lever in his book “The Knight of Gwynne” described a stop off to change horses at an Inn in Kilbeggan and it was very likely the Volunteer Inn. It was owned by Thomas Cuffe and his wife who are said to have employed a housekeeper named Mrs Browne and her daughter Sally, a boy named Able, and three men in the yard who looked after the horses, drove the vehicles, sowed the garden and assisted travellers in general. The Inn became famous at the end of the 18th century arising out of an incident when the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Townsend knighted the owners Sir Thomas and Lady Cuffe. The coach had broken down and he spent the knight in the Inn. After a wonderful meal and some of the local whiskey he was so impressed that he knighted the proprietor and his wife. The next day he tried to pass off the incident as a joke carried too far. Cuffe said that he had no objection to foregoing the title ” for a proper consideration” but the problem was ” what will my Lady Cuffe say?” (see Appendix for a full account of the event). They held the title for the rest of their lives and the Inn was visited by many just to meet the noble innkeepers. It was said that Cuffe became something of a snob after receiving his title and when a neighbour greeted him familiarly “Hello, Cuffe” he responded “Do you know I am Sir Thomas Cuffe, knight baronet and knight of the garter.” The man quickly replied “If you’re Sir Thomas Cuffe, knight baronet and knight of the garter, you can go to hell, tonight, tomorrow, and the night after”