There can be few people with a more unfortunate name as Clotworthy Skeffington, a cruel trick played on him by his parents, but one he tried hard to live up to.
Born in 1743, he was then the latest in a long line of Clotworthies, the family having adopted the first name from John Clotworthy, the Anglo-Irish politician who became the first Viscount Masserene whose title passed to his son-in-law, Sir John Skeffington.
Clotworthy the younger was something of a strange character. As a young man of twenty-seven he visited Paris where he got himself drawn into a business venture that he really didn’t understand and when it failed he found himself imprisoned for debt.
All Skeffington had to do to secure his release was admit his guilt, pay the debt and slink off back to Ireland, but he proved to be rather stubborn. Instead he opted to stay in prison for 25 years when his debt would be cancelled under French law.
Now you might think that this was simply a skinflint’s way of saving money, but not so. Keeping himself in the manner he was accustomed to cost him £4,000 a year during his incarceration.
Not that friends and acquaintances (and mistresses) minded too much – they were quite happy to enjoy Skeffington’s company in prison and the sumptuous dinners cooked by his private chef.
It was while in gaol that he married Marie Anne Barcier, the beautiful daughter of the prison governor. After eighteen years in La Force, Skeffington finally escaped in 1789, the day before the storming of the Bastille, after Marie Anne bribed a mob to force open the gates.
Skeffington returned to Antrim Castle and embarked on a military career. He formed his own yeomanry to defend against the anticipated Jacobite uprising, training his men himself in his usual eccentric fashion.
They were drilled without weapons and simulated musket shots by clapping their hands
They were drilled without weapons and simulated musket shots by clapping their hands and presented arms in a complicated pantomime involving a series of hand signals. He also developed a number of entirely original manoeuvres such as Serpentine and Eel-in-the-Mud.
Skeffington convinced himself that he was a natural leader of men, a view not shared by the military establishment, although his yeomanry corps did some useful service at the Battle of Antrim in 1798.
Domestic life was equally odd. Skeffington would sometimes order his dining table and chairs to be set up on the roof and what couldn’t be carried was hoisted up through windows on pulleys.
Then just as the guests would settle themselves down to their sumptuous alfresco meal, Skeffington would declare himself dissatisfied and order the whole lot be carried back indoors again.
And when his wife’s dog died, all the local dogs were invited to the funeral, fifty of them acting as a guard of honour dressed in white scarves.
The loyal and unappreciated Marie Anne died in 1800 and soon after Skeffington married a servant girl and with the help of her family and her lover, she succeeded in gaining control of the family fortune before Skeffington died in 1805.
With acknowledgement to The Man Who Ate Bluebottles: And Other Great British Eccentrics by Catherine Caulfield