Friday, July 4, 2014

The Abduction of Anne O’Donel

by Paul B. McNulty

While writing my historical novel, The Abduction of Anne O’Donel, I never expected that this 18th century Irish story would have contemporary relevance. However, the recent abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria reminded me that the horrid practice is still prevalent. It was Anne O’Donel’s abduction, first documented in 1839, that prompted my study of the crime. Even though my novel is based on the experience of a young woman rather than a group of schoolgirls, all would have been terrified by the abduction itself, and by the subsequent fear of violation.

Even if rescued without violation, the prospect of marriage for any woman in the late 18th century would have been negligible because people generally believed that the worst would have happened. I can only hope that a more understanding attitude will apply to the Nigerian girls once they are released.

When Anne O’Donel refused to marry the elderly Timothy Brecknock in 1785, he lured her out of her house late at night using a letter forged with Jasper Martin’s signature. Expecting to meet her handsome lover, Anne is abducted by four masked horsemen and taken to a remote island on Lough Conn. She is held prisoner by the Mitchell family who are under threat of eviction should she escape. Brecknock secretly visits Anne on the island, still believing he can persuade her to marry him rather than force her and risk death by hanging. However, incensed by her attempts to frustrate him, Brecknock is determined to have Anne, willingly or not. Having finally rejected his proposal of marriage, she prepares to fight for her virtue, and perhaps her life. When a drunken Brecknock finally assaults Anne, she is saved at the last minute by the arrival of Jasper on the island.

The Castlebar schoolteacher, Matthew Archdeacon, recorded the abduction of Anne O’Donel in Legends of Connaught in 1839. Further reference to her abduction appeared in the 1916 play The Spancel of Death by T H Nally in which O’Donel was described as the godchild of Sir Harry Lynch-Blosse, the male protagonist in my debut novel, Spellbound by Sibella.

While Archdeacon claimed that “almost every incident … is founded on fact,” Mary MacCarthy cast doubt on its veracity in Fighting Fitzgerald … in 1930. Her doubt is emphasized by the lack of primary sources to confirm the existence of Anne O’Donel, her father, Judge O’Donel, and her betrothed, Jasper Martin. However, Archdeacon’s story, based on the oral tradition, is generally believed to be true.

In contrast to the uncertainty surrounding Anne O’Donel, none exists concerning Timothy Brecknock. His colourful career is well documented, although no mention of his reputed abduction of the young Irish heiress has been found in any primary source. The son of a Northamptonshire farmer, Brecknock matriculated to Pembroke College, Oxford aged seventeen in 1736. Having left Oxford without a degree, he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1738. Thereafter, he practised as a lawyer and writer in London.

Towards the end of his career, George Robert Fitzgerald of Turlough, County Mayo, appointed him as his law agent, a post that ultimately led to his demise. Aged sixty-seven, Brecknock was hanged in Castlebar, Co Mayo, in 1786 along with Fitzgerald for complicity in the murder of Pat Randal McDonnell, Colonel of the Mayo Volunteers. I have suggested in my novel that this outrage was linked to Anne O’Donel’s abduction.

Archdeacon, Matthew, “Fitzgerald” in Legends of Connaught, Dublin, 1839, p 1-165.
Brecknock, Timothy, “A Letter from Mr. Timothy Brecknock in Castlebar Gaol, to his Sister
in London, dated April 15, 1786,” in Fitzgerald (George R.), The Case of G. R.
Fitzgerald ...,   1786, p 53-69, British Library, Villanova Library.
Dalsimer, Adele, “The Spancel of Death: A Play by T H Nally” Irish Studies, New York,
            1983, 21 p, National Library of Ireland.
Kelly, James, “The Abduction of Women of Fortune in Eighteenth-Century Ireland,”
            Eighteenth-Century Ireland / Iris an dá chultúr, vol 9, (1994), p 7-43,
MacCarthy, Mary, Fighting Fitzgerald and other papers, London, 1930, 230 p.


I write historical novels based on real events in 18th century Ireland. My credentials include editorship of a student magazine, The Anvil, followed by publication of scientific and popular papers during a career in Biosystems Engineering at University College Dublin. After retirement, I studied The Genealogy of the Anglo-Norman Lynches… through which I discovered my historical stories. My first novel, Spellbound by Sibella, was published in 2013 by Club Lighthouse CLP, Canada who published my second novel The Abduction of Anne O’Donel in May 2014.

I live in Dublin with my wife, three children and two granddaughters. The wild splendour of Mayo and Connemara inspires my writing. Links to social media include Facebook and Twitter, and my website address is

I have also self-published The genealogy of the Anglo-Norman Lynches… in 2013 and a novella, A Rebel Romance in 2014, both with CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. The novella deals with the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the reputed relationship between John Moore, a United Irishman, and Cecilia Lynch, the illegitimate daughter of Sir Harry Lynch-Blosse of Balla, Co Mayo and the aforesaid Sibella Cottle by whom he was reputedly spellbound.

The Abduction of Anne O’Donel is available as an e-book on Club Lighthouse Publishing, Canada and as both a print book and e-book on Amazon UK and

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