“A particularly bright, holy and gifted child” – the life and losses of Richard Robert Madden


In The Church of the Assumption, Booterstown, Dublin we find the above poignant plaque. Here is the text as the above turns out to be a little blurry:

MADDEN. Of your charity pray for the soul of
/Richard Robert Madden, M.D.
/formerly Colonial Secretary
/of Western Australia &c. “A man who loved his Country.”/
Author of “History of United Irishmen” and many other works.
/Remarkable for Talents Piety, and Rectitude, the 21st and last surviving son of/Edward Madden, born in Dublin August 20th 1798 died at Booterstown Feb 5th 1886
/and interred in Donnybrook Churchyard/
also for the soul of his relict Mrs Harriet T Madden, the 21st and last surviving child of
/John Elmslie Esq. Born in London August 4th 1801
/converted by a singular grace to the Catholic Faith in Cuba (circa) 1837
/died at Booterstown Feb 7th 1888/
A woman of rare culture, endowments and piety, a most loving Mother, and died as she had lived, her mind unclouded, her last breath a prayer.
/and for the soul of their loved son William Ford Madden/
who was drowned in the Shannon March 29th 1848 in his 19th year/
On whose souls sweet Jesus have mercy, Amen
also in loving memory of their grandchildren William Joseph H Ford Madden/born Jan 10th 1871 died Sept 14th 1871 and of Bridget Gertrude Harriet Madden (Beda)/a singularly bright, holy, and gifted child, born July 17th 1875 died on the 16th June 1882 in her seventh year.

I find these plaques moving in general, and this one even more so than most. One considers Madden’s long, interesting life, and the losses of his son, infant grandson, and later granddaughter. There is a certain restraint to the simple plaque which is a counterpoint to the ornate language.

Richard Robert Madden lead an extremely varied life: playing a role in the abolition of slavery and as a historian of the United Irishmen. The Egypt Sudan Graffiti page has images of Madden’s various graffiti on Egyptian antiquities.

From the DNB:

Madden, Richard Robert (1798–1886), author and colonial administrator, the youngest son of Edward Madden (1739–1830), a silk manufacturer of Dublin, and his second wife, Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Thaddeus Forde of Corry, co. Leitrim, was born at Wormwood Gate, Dublin, on 22 August 1798. He was educated at a private school in Dublin, and studied medicine in Paris, Naples, and St George’s Hospital, London. While in Italy he became acquainted with Lady Blessington and her circle, and acted as correspondent of the Morning Herald. Between 1824 and 1827 he travelled in the Levant, visiting Smyrna, Constantinople, Crete, Egypt, and Syria; he published an account of his travels in 1829. He returned in 1828 to England, where he married Harriet (d. 1888), the daughter of John Elmslie of Jamaica; they had three sons, including Thomas More Madden.

Madden was elected a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1828, and was made an FRCS in 1855. He practised as a surgeon in Curzon Street, Mayfair, until, in 1833, he went to Jamaica as one of the special magistrates appointed to resolve disputes between black apprentices and their white masters in the transitional system which, in 1834, replaced slavery with apprenticeship as a preliminary to full freedom. His energetic support for the apprentices brought him into conflict with the plantation owners, and he resigned in November 1834. He published a two-volume account of his experiences, A twelve-month’s residence in the West Indies during the transition from slavery to apprenticeship (1835).

In 1836 Madden was appointed superintendent of the liberated Africans and judge arbitrator in the mixed court of commission in Havana. During his four years in Cuba he published a number of works on slavery, including an Address on Slavery in Cuba, Presented to the General Anti-Slavery Convention (1840). He left Cuba in 1840 to accompany Sir Moses Montefiore on his mission to Egypt to plead for a group of Jews from Damascus accused of ritual murder. Again he wrote an account of his experiences. The following year he was sent to west Africa as a commissioner of inquiry into the administration of British coastal settlements, where he exposed the ‘pawn system’, which was a disguised form of slavery. From November 1843 until August 1846 he acted as the special correspondent at Lisbon of the Morning Chronicle. In 1847 he was appointed colonial secretary of Western Australia, where he strove to protect the few remaining rights of the Aborigines. After returning to Ireland on leave in 1848, he took up the cause of the famine-stricken peasantry, and in 1850 resigned his Australian office in favour of that of secretary to the Loan Fund board at Dublin Castle, which he held until 1880.

Madden’s interest in his homeland provided the source of his most enduring work, The United Irishmen, their Lives and Times (7 vols., 1843–6), which was issued in a second edition in 1858; A History of Irish Periodical Literature from the End of the Seventeenth to the Middle of the Nineteenth Century (2 vols., 1867); and Literary Remains of the United Irishmen of 1798 (1887), a collection of ballads, songs, and other united Irish literary works. His other work of importance was the three-volume The Literary Life and Correspondence of the Countess of Blessington (1855). Madden had been an intimate of the Gore House circle since his meeting with the Blessingtons in Naples in 1821; despite this advantage, and despite his access to the papers, it has been remarked that ‘no one who attempts to use his book can help but deplore the chaotic arrangement, the faults of copying, the digressions and the frequent errors in plain statement of fact which disfigure it’ (Sadleir, 388).

Madden was a member of the Royal Irish Academy, and a corresponding member of the Society of Medical Science. He died at his residence, 3 Vernon Terrace, Booterstown, co. Dublin, on 5 February 1886 and was buried in Donnybrook graveyard there.

Madden’s medical career is almost incidental in the above. Interestingly, he was a “convert” to homeopathy

Among his many books is The Infirmities of Genius Illustrated by Referring the Anomalies in the Literary Character to the Habits and Constitutional Peculiarities of Men of Genius, . This has an arrestingly blunt opening:

It is generally admitted that literary men are an irritable race, subject to many infirmities, both of mind and body; the worldly prosperity and domestic happienss are not very often the result of their pursuits.

In the midst of the many words written by and about Richard Robert Madden, I can’t help longing to hear the voice of Bridget Gertrude Harriet Madden, Beda, the “particularly bright, holy and gifted child” lost at the age of seven. This is not to downplay the other losses recorded for posterity; her brother William Joseph, Richard Robert’s son William Forde Madden. There is something strongly affecting about the closing lines of this plaque, and whatever one’s beliefs (or lack thereof) surely a longing that Richard Robert and his granddaughter would have some kind of reunion is an entirely understandable one. As the final words of the plaque say, Requiesicant in Pace. Amen.

One thought

  1. Reblogged this on A Medical Education and commented:

    Richard Robert Madden was one of those polymathic doctors of the 19th Century whose medical career, as I observe in passing here, was almost incidental to a life packed with incident and scholarship (thought clearly some disputed aspects of the scholarship) Nevertheless, he evidently rose through the institutional ranks of medical memberships and fellowships – and became a “convert” to homeopathy to boot (at a time when, after all, “mainstream” medicine was not exactly evidence based itself)


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