Abduction Clubs in 18th Century Ireland

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Abduction, or forcibly carrying off heiresses, was another of those crying evils which formerly afflicted Ireland;  but it was an outrage so agreeable to the spirit of the times, and so congenial to the ardent and romantic character of the natives, that it was considered an achievement creditable to the man, and a matter of boast and exultation to the woman.

From the time that the King of Leinster abducted the frail Dervorgil, and royalty set an example of carrying off ladies, it was a constant practice.

When once it went abroad in Ireland that a woman in any station in life had money, she became the immediate object of some enterprising fellow, who readily collected about him adherents to assist in his attempt.   No gentleman or farmer felt himself safe who had a daughter entitled to a fortune;  she was sure to be carried off with or without her consent, and he lived in a constant state of alarm until she was happily disposed of in marriage.

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It was generally the wildest most ‘devil-may-care’ fellow who undertook the enterprise, and unfortunately such a character was found to have most attractions in the eyes of a young and romantic girl.

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The frequency of this offence was such a crying grievance that the legislature, at an early period, conspired to prevent it, and the law on this subject was made, and continued, more stringent in Ireland than in England. So early as the year 1634 a Statute had been passed for punishing such as “carried away maydens that be inheritors.”    But this being found ineffectual, and so in 1707 forcible abduction was made a capital felony (penalty of death), and at the same time provisions were made for punishing those who carried off heiresses, though not forcibly, and preventing their ever enjoying their wife’s property.

This latter Act contains a curious clause, telling the story of one John O’Brien, who was a person of no property, and had forcibly carried off Margaret McNamara junior, who was entitled to £2,000 and provides a special remedy for saving the £2,000.   The Parliament would be not a little surprised at a private anecdote of this kind being introduced into a modern Bill.

The law was however inoperative, from a notion which prevailed, that the offender was not punishable if the woman abducted him.   The girl carried off was accordingly placed before the man on the horse, who thought he might thus evade the punishment;  and the maidens so frequently, like the Sabines, became reconciled to their ravishers, that prosecutions bore a very small proportion to the number of offences.

A memorable instance of this occurred in a distinguished literary family in Ireland.   Captain Edgeworth, a widower, with one son, married Mrs. Bridgeman, a widow, with one daughter.   The young people formed an attachment for each other at the early ages of 15 and 16, and declared their love to their parents.   The mother, however, was decidedly hostile to the match, and refused her consent.   The young lady was an heiress, and the penalty of abducting her was known;  so to avoid it she first mounted a horse, and assisted the young man to mount behind her.   In this way she galloped off with her lover, and they proceeded to church and got married.

An association was formed in the south of Ireland, which could not have existed in any other country.   This association was ‘an abduction club,’ the members of which bound themselves by an oath to assist in carrying off such young women as were fixed upon by any members.   They had emissaries and confederates in every house, who communicated information of particulars - the extent of the girl’s fortune, the state and circumstances of the family, with the details of their intentions and domestic arrangements and movements.   When a girl was thus pointed out the members drew lots, but more generally tossed up for her, and immediate measures were taken to secure her for the fortunate man by all the rest.   No class of society was exempt from their visits;  and opulent farmers as well as the gentry were subject to these engagements of the clubs, according to their rank in life.

The persons who were most usually concerned in such clubs were a class of men abounding in Ireland, called ‘squireens.’   They were the younger sons or connections of respectable families, having little or no patrimony of their own, but who scorned to demean themselves by any useful or profitable pursuit.   They are described by Arthur Young, and other writers of the day, as distinguished at fairs and markets, races and assizes, by appearing in red waistcoats, lined with narrow lace or fur, tight leather breeches and top-boots, riding ‘a bit of blood,’ lent or given them from the stables of their opulent connections.

Hurling was at that time the universal amusement in which the gentry as well as the peasantry engaged, and in this athletic sport the squireens excelled.   They were generally addicted to a base and brutal advantage sometimes taken in this noble exercise.   It frequently happened, in pursuit of the ball, that two antagonists came into collision, and in the shock one of them, thrusting the handle of his hurley under his arm, took with the point of it his antagonist in the side, who in some instances fell dead, and in others remained with crushed ribs, a maimed and disabled man for life.   This base act was not only practised, but applauded as a dexterous and justifiable ruse.   On occasions when districts or counties challenged each other in this game, the rival parties were headed by the gentry of this class, who thus became identified with and united to the peasantry.

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These things, with a prestige in favour of family connection of pretension to the rank of gentlemen, made young men of this class most popular and special favourites with the peasantry, who were ready and delighted to assists in any enterprise in which they were concerned.   When a girl fell to the lot of a member of the club, it was probable he never had known or spoken to her, but it was his care to meet her at a public ball where he generally contrived to make himself agreeable and in the bustle and confusion of breaking up to put her into a chaise, or on horseback, with or without her consent.

Catherine and Anne Kennedy were the daughters of Richard Kennedy, of Rathmeadan, in the county of Waterford.   Their father was dead, and they lived with their mother in much respectability;  they were each entitled to a fortune, under their father’s will, of £2,000, a large sum at that time as a girl’s portion in Ireland;  but even that was exaggerated and they were looked upon as co-heiresses of immense wealth, and, as such, were objects of great cupidity to the abduction dubs.   The fortunate persons to whose lot they fell were Garrett Byrne, of Ballyaun, in the county of Carlow, and James Strange (pronounced Strang), of Ullard, in the county of Kilkenny. They were young men of great popularity in the country; dissipated, dashing, careless, spirited fellows, but of different dispositions.   Strange was irritable, impetuous, and tyrannical, sacrificing everything to accomplish his ends, and little regarding the means or feelings of others.   Byrne, on the contrary, was amiable, and, as far as his pursuits and propensities permitted, of a kind and gentle temper, particularly to women, with whom he was a universal favourite.   He had attached himself to Catherine Kennedy, whose disposition was somewhat like and congenial to his own.   Strange had fixed his regards on Anne, who, in like manner, resembled him in determination and haughtiness of temper.   In the intercourse of the country they had occasionally met at race-balls and other convivial meetings, and the men had endeavoured to render themselves agreeable to the girls, with such success that it was reported, on the authority of their confidential maids, that they were actually invited by them to avail themselves of the first opportunity to carry them off, as there were no hopes that their mother and friends would consent to their marrying men of such desperate fortunes.

While these communications were progressing, Catherine was but 15, and her sister Anne but 14;  they were both very lovely girls, but Anne was most distinguished, and her form and face gave promise of something eminently beautiful.

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On the 14th of April 1770, the girls accompanied their mother, aunt, and some friends, to a play enacted at Graiguenamana, a small town in the county of Kilkenny;  and before the representation was concluded, a notice was conveyed to them that Byrne and Strange had formed a plan to carry them off that night from the play, and had assembled a number of adherents round the house for the purpose.   In great alarm, the girls, with their mother and aunt, left the theatre, and retired to another room in the same house, accompanied by several gentlemen, their friends, who resolved to protect them.   They bolted and barricaded the door, and remained for two hours without any attempt being made on the room.

At length a violent rush was felt and the door gave way, and the party outside entered.   There was a bed in the room, and the girls hastily retired behind the curtains, endeavouring to conceal themselves, and impress on the minds of the rioters that they had escaped from the apartment and were no longer in the house.   For an hour or more the men seemed irresolute, and used no violence, but at the end of that time they rushed to the bed, and drew the girls from their concealment.   They now displayed arms of all kinds, swords and pistols, with which they were provided, and in spite of all the opposition of the girls’ friends, whom they fiercely attacked and threatened with instant death, they dragged them into the street, where they were surrounded by above 100 armed men with shirts covering their clothes, by way of disguise, the then common costume, in which originated the name of ‘Whiteboys’ secret society.   Two horses were ready saddled. Catherine was forced to mount one, and placed before Byrne, and Anne was placed upon the other before Strange;  and in this way, surrounded by a desperate body of men, sufficient to intimidate and overawe the country, they were carried off from their friends.   To allay the terror of the girls, it was proposed to send for other females who would be their companions. They received the proposal with joy, and they were speedily joined by some women, who proved, however, to be sisters and near relatives of the abductors, and prepared and in readiness to promote their criminal conspiracy.

They rode all night, surrounded by a strong armed guard of ‘Whiteboys’, to a place called Kilmashane, 15 Irish miles from Graiguenamana.   During the journey they were repeatedly solicited to consent to marry the men, and threatened that if they did not they should be carried to a distant country, where they never should see either mother or friends again.   The women who had joined the party urged the same thing, and threatened, if they persisted in their refusal, to abandon them, and leave them to whatever treatment the men chose to give them.   In this place they obtained some refreshment, and continued for a considerable time subject to the constant importunity of the party.   At length a man was introduced who was reported to be a priest, before whom Byrne and Strange took a solemn oath that they would harass them night and day, by riding through the country with them, till they should be exhausted with fatigue and suffering;  but if they consented then to be married by the priest, they should be immediately restored to their friends.   At length, terrified and subdued, they became passive, and a short form of ceremony was read, and an extorted assent was given.   They then claimed the promise to be immediately restored to their friends, but it was evaded till night came on.   The girls refused to retire to rest till solemnly assured by the females that one should sleep with each of them;  they, however, abandoned them at midnight, and the men took their places.

From this house, which appeared to be a waste place and belonging to no master, they again were set on horseback as before, and, accompanied by their lawless patrol, they rode on to Borris, where they passed the next night.   The exhausted girls entreated to be allowed to sleep with the females, but this was refused.   They persisted in their remonstrances against the violence offered to them, when it was threatened to carry them to Castlecomer, and bury them there for ever in the coal-mines;  and Strange, in a paroxysm of anger, struck Anne in the face with a pewter pot.   This brutal violence sank deep into her mind, and rankled with an inextinguishable resentment never to be forgotten.

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The village of Castlecomer, 1832

It will hardly be believed that, for five weeks, they were paraded night and day, accompanied by their lawless cavalcade, and resting at miserable houses, through the counties of Waterford, Kilkenny, Carlow, Kildare, and so on to the north of Dublin, where they stopped at Rush, a small fishing town within a few miles of the City.   In this place they were put on board a vessel, accompanied by the whole party, and sailed to the town of Wicklow; there, with a feeling of perfect indifference and security, some of the party went on shore, but while they were absent, the vessel was boarded by a Mr. Power, accompanied by an armed party, who rescued the harassed girls, and restored them to their friends.   In the meantime Byrne and Strange made their escape to Wales;  but they were instantly pursued, and were apprehended at Milford on the 6th of July, and lodged in the gaol (‘jail’) of Carnarvon.

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It was long doubtful whether they would not claim the girls as their wives, and a belief was entertained that no prosecution would ensue.   Catherine was said to be strongly attached to Byrne, who had always treated her with gentleness and affection, except in the manner of her abduction;  but Anne’s animosity to Strange was irreconcilable, and the brutal indignity of the blow was only to be effaced by his death.   Though so young her energetic resentment overcame the reluctance of her elder but more yielding sister;  her resolution was confirmed by a near relation of her own, distinguished by the number of duels he had fought, a Mr. Hayes.  It was by the unshaken determination of Hayes the men were brought to trial.   The joint depositions of the girls were taken before the Lord Chief Justice Annaly, and Byrne and Strange were tried at the Kilkenny tent Assizes, on the 24th of March 1780.   Letters were produced from the young ladies, containing the most tender expressions of affection, and inviting their respective lovers to carry them off in the way usual in the country, to which they were ready and willing to consent.   These letters, however, were clearly proved to be forgeries by the sister of Byrne, who was heard to boast she could perfectly copy Miss Anne Kennedy’s handwriting.   Others were read, really written by the girls, speaking of the men in an affectionate manner, and calling them their dear husbands, but these were proved to have been dictated under the strong impressions of threats and terror.   The men were found guilty, and sentenced to death.

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It was supposed the sentence would never be executed.   Their respectable rank in society – being connected with all the gentry of the country – their actual marriage with the girls, and the frequency of the act of abduction, which made such a marriage be considered a thing divested of all criminality, created a strong feeling in their favour.   The intercession of powerful friends, including, among others, a Minister from the Court of Vienna, was earnestly urged in their behalf.   But Scott, afterwards Lord Clonmel, was then Attorney-General, and conducted the prosecution.   He openly declared in court that, if this abduction was suffered to pass with impunity, there would be no safety for any girl, and no protection for the domestic peace and happiness of any family, and he called upon the Government to carry out the sentence.

His remonstrance was attended to, and the unfortunate gentlemen were hanged, to the great astonishment of their numerous friends and admirers. So strong and general was the excitement among the peasantry, that a rescue was greatly feared, and an extraordinarily large force of cavalry and infantry was ordered to attend their execution;  and such was the deep sympathy for their fate, that all the shops were shut up, and all business suspended in Kilkenny and the neighbouring towns.

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The subsequent fate of the girls was melancholy.   Whenever they appeared in the towns of Waterford, Kilkenny, or the vicinity, they were assailed by hissing and hooting of the mob, who followed them with execrations through the streets.   They both had a pension from Government, settled on them as a remuneration for their sufferings and their conviction of felons. This the common people considered as the price of blood, and could not conceal their abhorrence whenever they were seen.   They were, however, respectably married.   The eldest, Catherine, married a gentleman named Sullivan;  but even he could not escape the superstitious credulity of the country.   He was a worthy but weak man, and fancied himself haunted by the spectre of Byrne – frequently shouting out at night, when waking from a frightful dream, and declaring that he stood before him.   He always kept a light burning in his room, as a protection against this apparition.   His handsome wife fell into flesh, and preserved but little of that comeliness which attracted her lover, and she sought, it was said, the indulgence of smoking, to drown reflection!

The fate of Anne was more severe.   She fulfilled the promise of her youth, and became a dignified and magnificent beauty.   She was married to a gentleman named Kelly.   Her married state was miserable, and she died an object of great commiseration – sunk, it was said, in want and degradation. The common people declared her fate a judgment, and continued to execrate herself while living and her memory when dead.   The very act of a man hazarding his life to carry her off was deemed a noble act, her prosecution a base return, and her misfortunes nothing but the vengeance of heaven visibly visited upon her.   (The same popular view of abduction is to be found in many Irish ballads, e.g., In the Lamentation of Hugh Reynolds, executed in Cavan in 1826 for the abduction of Catherine McCabe.   The piece was included by Sir Charles Gavan Duffy in his ‘Ballad Poetry of Ireland.’   Another popular ballad on the same subject is ‘The Abduction of the Quaker’s Daughter’ by John McGoldrick.)

Another awful catastrophe of this kind occurred in a different part of Ireland, about the same period, which is, perhaps, one of the most interesting and melancholy on record.

On the Derry side of the Foyle, and about two miles from the city, is Prehen, the seat of the Knoxes.   It is highly wooded, and covers a considerable tract, descending to the river, and overhanging the broad expanse of water in this place with its dark shade.   The circumstance which marked its ancient owners with affliction is of such a character as to correspond with the gloom that pervades its aspect; and no traveller passes it without many reflections on the sad event which happened there.

John McNaughtan (1722–1761) was a native of Derry.   His father was an opulent merchant, and gave his son all the advantages of a most liberal education.   He graduated from Trinity College, Dublin;  but having inherited from his uncle a large estate, which precluded the necessity of engaging in any profession, he commenced a career of dissipation, then too common in Ireland.   He married early, but his extravagance soon involved him in such distress that he was arrested by the sheriff in his own parlour for a considerable debt, in the presence of his pregnant wife.   The shock was fatal.   She was seized with premature labour, and both wife and child perished.   Being a man of address and ability, he was appointed to a lucrative situation in the revenue by the then Irish Government, and in the course of his duty contracted an intimacy with the family of Mr. Knox, of Prehen, whose daughter, a lovely and amiable girl, was entitled to a large fortune, independent of her father.   To her McNaughtan paid assiduous court, and as she was too young at the time to marry, he obtained a promise from her to become his bride in two years.

When the circumstance was made known to her father, he interdicted it in the most decided manner, and forbade McNaughtan’s visits to his house This was represented as so injurious to McNaughtan’s character, that the good-natured old man was persuaded again to permit his intimacy with his family, under the express stipulation that he should think no more of his daughter.

One day the lovers found themselves alone, with no companion but a little boy, when McNaughtan took from his pocket a prayer-book, and read himself the marriage ceremony, prevailing on Miss Knox to answer the responses, which she did, adding to each, “provided my father consent.”

Of this ceremony McNaughtan immediately availed himself; and, when he next met her at the house of a mutual friend, openly claimed her as his wife. Again he was forbidden the house by the indignant father.   He then published an advertisement in all the newspapers, declaring the young lady was married to him.   By a process, however, in the spiritual court, the pretended marriage was entirely aside.

In the course of these proceedings McNaughtan wrote a threatening letter to one of the judges of the court of delegates, and, it was said, lay in wait to have him murdered when he came on circuit, but fortunately missed him in consequence of the judges taking a different road.   The result was, that McNaughtan was obliged to flee to England.   But here his whole mind was bent on obtaining possession of his wife;  so at ‘all hazards’ he returned, and lay concealed in the woods of Prehen.   Warning of this circumstance had been communicated to her father, but he seemed to despise it.   There was, however, a blacksmith, whose wife had nursed Miss Knox, and he, with the known attachment of such a connection in Ireland, always followed his foster-daughter, as her protector, whenever she ventured abroad.

To detach his daughter from this unfortunate connection, Mr. Knox resolved to leave the countryside , and introduce her to the society of the City;  and in the beginning of November 1761, prepared to set out for Dublin.   McNaughtan and a party of his friends having intimation of his intention, repaired to a cabin a little distance from the road, with a sack full of firearms.   From hence one of the party was dispatched to the house of an old woman who lived by the wayside, under the pretence of buying some yarn, to wait for the coming up of Mr. Knox’s carriage.   When it did arrive, the woman pointed it out, named the travellers it contained, and described the position in which they sat.   They were Mr. Knox, his wife, his daughter, and a maid servant.   It was attended by but one servant, and the smith before mentioned.

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Brougham Carriage

The scout immediately ran before, and communicated to McNaughtan the information he had received.   The carriage was instantly surrounded by him and three other men.   McNaughtan and one of his accomplices fired at the smith, whom they did not kill, but totally disabled.   The blinds were now close drawn, that the persons inside might not be recognised.   McNaughtan rode up to it, and either by accident or design discharged a heavily-loaded blunderbuss into it at random.   A shriek was heard inside.   The blind was let down, and Mr. Knox discharged his pistol at the assassin.   At the same moment another was fired from behind a stack of turf by the servant who had concealed himself there.   Both the shots took effect in the body of McNaughtan.   He was, however, held on his horse by his associates, who rode off with him.   The carriage was then examined.   Miss Knox was found dead, weltering in her blood.   On the first alarm she had thrown her arms about her father’s neck, to protect him, and so received the contents of the murderer’s firearms.   Fire balls of the blunderbuss had entered her body, leaving the other three persons in the carriage with her unhurt and untouched by this random shot.

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The country was soon alarmed and a reward of £500 offered for the apprehension of the murderers.   A force of light cavalry scoured the district, and amongst other places were led to search the house of a farmer named Wenslow.   The family denied all knowledge of McNaughtan, and the party were leaving the house when the corporal said to one of his companions, in the hearing of a countryman who was digging potatoes that the discoverer would be entitled to a reward of £300.   The countryman immediately pointed to a hay-loft, and the corporal running up a ladder, burst open the door and discovered McNaughtan lying in the hay. Notwithstanding his miserably wounded state, he made a desperate resistance but was ultimately taken and lodged in Lifford Gaol (‘jail’).   Some of his accomplices were arrested soon after.   They were tried before a special commission at Lifford and one of them was received as king's evidence.   McNaughtan was brought into court wrapped in a blanket and laid on a table in the dock, not being able to support himself in any other position.   Notwithstanding acute pain and exceeding debility, he defended himself with astonishing energy and acuteness.   A singular trait of Irish feeling occurred in the course of the trial.   One of his followers implicated in the outrage, named Dunlap, was a faithful and attached fellow, and his master evinced more anxiety to save his life than his own.   As a means of doing so, he disclaimed all knowledge of his person:  “Oh, master dear,” said the poor fellow beside him in the dock, “is this the way you are going to disown me after all?”

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Light Cavalry of the period

On the day of execution McNaughtan was so weak as to be supported in the arms of attendants.   He evinced the last testimony of his regard to the unfortunate young lady he had murdered, of whom he, was, passionately fond, and whom he mourned as his wife.   The cap which covered his face was bound with black, his jacket was trimmed with black, having jet buttons, and he wore large black buckles in his shoes.   When lifted up the ladder, he exerted all his remaining strength to throw himself off, and with such force that the rope broke, and he fell gasping to the ground.   As he was a man of daring enterprise and profuse bounty, he was highly popular, and the crowd made a lane for him to escape, and attempted to assist him.   He fiercely declined their aid, declaring, in a manner characteristic of the impetuous pride of his nature, that “he would not live to be pointed at as the half-hanged man.”   He called to his follower, Dunlap, for the rope which was round his neck, the knot of which was slipped and placed round his own. Again he was assisted up the ladder, and collecting all his energies, he flung himself off, and died without a struggle.   His unfortunate but faithful follower stood by wringing his hands as he witnessed the sufferings of his dear master, and earnestly desired that his own execution might be hastened, that he might soon follow him and die by the same rope.

This murder and execution took place on the road between Strabane and Derry;  and as the memory of them still lives among the locals, the spot is pointed out to passengers, and recalls traits of what Ireland was like about 300 years ago, even in the most civilized county.   Abduction was then a common mode of courtship in the north, as well as in the south, and a man was deemed a man of spirit if he so effected his marriage.   Any fatal accident resulting to resisting friends was considered a venial offence, and the natural effect of their unreasonable obstinacy.

The circumstances and character of the parties in this affair rendered it one of the deepest interest.   The young lady was but 15, gentle, accomplished, and beautiful, greatly attached to the unhappy man, devotedly fond of her father, and, with the strongest sense of rectitude and propriety, entangled in an unfortunate engagement from simplicity and inexperience.   The gentleman was 38, a man of the most engaging person, and a model of manly beauty.   His manners were soft, gentle, and insinuating, and his disposition naturally generous and humane;  but when roused by strong excitement, his passions were most fierce and uncontrollable.   His efforts on his trial were not to preserve his life, which became a burden to him after the loss of her he loved, but to save from a like fate a faithful servant, and to exculpate his own memory from a charge of intended cruelty and deliberate murder.

However, the handing on the tale by word of mouth over the years has perhaps led to an overly-gracious picture being painted of John McNaughtan …

By the time of his death McNaughtan was a habitual gambler.   He was born into a landed Anglo-Irish (Protestant) family and attended Raphoe Royal school in County Donegal.   In 1740 he inherited his family estate and, in the same year, entered Trinity College Dublin.   However, he was quickly enamoured of the extravagant lifestyle of Ascendancy Dublin where he became a popular and colourful character.   He developed an addiction to gambling and squandered away a large part of his inheritance, running up substantial gaming debts.   By 1760 he was penniless having lost his estate in a card game.   Mary Ann was the daughter of Andrew Knox, a wealthy land-owner and Member of Parliament who lived on an estate at Prehen about 2 miles outside the City of Derry.   She was already a substantial heiress having received some £6,000 and would have collected a further legacy if her brother died without issue.   They first met when Mary Ann was only 15, when Andrew Knox was trying to help MacNaghten overcome his gambling addiction.

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Raphoe, County Donegal

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Trinity College Dublin

The attempted kidnap of Mary Ann, judged with 21st Century eyes it is an evil act, however the practice of abduction and marriage was prevalent in 18th century Ireland among young men of social standing but with little property.   And, within their society, it was tolerated.   The practice was the subject of the 2002 romantic comedy ‘The Abduction Club’ starring Daniel Lapaine and Sophia Myles.

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