Lightfoot and the Lord-Lieutenant

One episode in Michael Martin’s stories of Captain Lightfoot and Captain Thunderbolt stands out from the others, for a multitude of reasons: the robbery by Martin of the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in his own garden. It should be viewed as the penultimate crime in the whole tradition of Irish rebel outlaws, with Martin (alone, without Thunderbolt to take partial credit) striking at the very head of British rule in Ireland, trespassing on his treasured land (the formal garden), stealing his wealth, watching him beg, and then taking by trickery his precious toy, a snuff box fitted with a spyglass lens–used by its owner to view his own servants through keyholes, which more than hints at perversity. Martin, as Captain Lightfoot, leaves his victim totally emasculated. Generations of Irish balladeers and storytellers could not have imagined a more triumphant yarn, calculated to humiliate the nation’s oppressors.

It is almost too easy to dismiss the story as the work of a talented fabulist…except for that detail about the snuff box. Martin was referring to a device that only wealthy aristocrats in Great Britain Europe would have known about and been able to acquire.

Mentions of these toy optical devices are difficult to find. A copy of Martin’s description was sent to Neil Handley, curator of the museum of London’s College of Optometry, which has a large collection of antique spyglasses and other optical instruments. His assessment:

“The combination of a snuff box with a spyglass is not unusual for the period under discussion. See, for example,

“I would contend that multifunctional optical ‘toys’ (the word by which their vendors often described them) would have been readily available in [Lord-Lieutenant] Chetwynd-Talbot’s time, probably sourced via a London optician, many such  items being originally made in Paris.”

Martin himself was unfamiliar with this device; he said he was told about it by a servant girl in the Lord Lieutenant’s household, who was reluctant to bring Martin into any of the servant’s quarters:

“She objected, saying that the Lord-Lieutenant would find it out — that he had a machine, by which he could see into any room in the house, by holding it to the key hole. I did not believe it; and as she was so much afraid of this machine, I was anxious to see it, and get it away from him if possible. She described it as an elegant gold snuff-box, the top of which was covered with diamonds.”

Later, Martin tricks the Lord-Lieutenant into handing over the snuff box and then…never mentions it again.

If Martin was weaving a fantasy, why would he introduce such a curious detail into his story–describing an object that no one listening to or reading his story would recognize–and then fail to elaborate on it? At some point in his history, Martin must have seen or been told of such a device. Where would he have had that opportunity, unless was told this by another thief or stole one himself?

This is just one example (but perhaps the best one) of the way in which Martin made his stories of Lightfoot and Thunderbolt more credible by the addition of extraneous detail. Looking at these details, it must be judged that some parts of his exploits, if not the whole, are true.

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