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Hennessy, Richardfree

  • Harman Murtagh

Hennessy, Richard (1729?–1800), brandy distiller, was born at Ballymacmoy, near Mallow, co. Cork, the second son of at least six children of James Hennessy (d. 1768), one of a close-knit group of minor Catholic gentry in the Blackwater valley, and his wife, Catherine Barrett (d. 1770). His early education was probably with the Catholic schoolmaster in the parish of Monanimy. In 1748 he joined the French army, enlisting in the Irish regiment of Viscount Clare in which his kinsman, an earlier Richard Hennessy, had served with distinction. His army record describes him as 6 feet tall, auburn-haired, and blue-eyed, with a handsome, freckled, oval face. Warm-hearted, kind, and convivial in personality, in later life he was a freemason. His military career was brief, and he saw no active service. Commissioned sous-lieutenant in 1753, he was by then already absent from his unit and attempting to start a business career in Ostend, with the consequence that the following year his service was terminated. He remained on good terms with Hiberno-French army officers, however, and in 1757 secured a certificate from Lord Clare falsely stretching his military service to ten years to qualify him for de facto French nationality. In 1759 he volunteered his services for Choiseul's projected invasion of the British Isles, but his offer was rejected.

Hennessy's early abandonment of the army was almost certainly prompted by the lack of prospects. Ostend was the location of the brandy-exporting business of his uncle, Charles Hennessy, but no partnership in the firm was offered to Richard, and he can have enjoyed only a precarious living there until his marriage in January 1765 to Ellen (Nelly) Hennessy, née Barrett (d. 1781), the widow of his Ostend cousin, James, and a kinswoman of his mother. She was also a cousin of Edmund Burke, a childhood friend and schoolmate of Hennessy with whom he remained in periodic contact. The expectation of his wife's dowry (paid only belatedly, if at all) persuaded him to leave Ostend and acquire premises and an adjoining warehouse at Cognac, the centre of the brandy trade in which a number of Irishmen were involved. His wife and infant son, James (b. October 1765), joined him in May 1766. A daughter, Bridget (Biddy), was born in 1767. The volatility of the brandy trade, his lack of capital, and his deficient commercial and accountancy skills made much of Hennessy's career in business very difficult. He visited Ireland briefly in 1755 and again in the summer of 1768 during his father's final illness, but his hope at that time of exploiting his Cork connections to develop his trade was frustrated by competition from cheap American rum. Although he never returned again to Ireland, his correspondence shows that he always maintained an avid interest in the happenings and personalities of the district of his birth. A partnership with the Irish firm of Connelly and Arthur in Dunkirk did not provide the access to the London market for which he had hoped. He seriously contemplated emigration to the West Indies, but instead in 1776 he moved to Bordeaux. There he formed a partnership with George Boyd at a premises in the Chartrons district of the city where he developed an impressive sixteen-still capacity. The trade was chiefly with Ireland, much of it carried by smugglers.

In 1781 Hennessy experienced great personal tragedy with the death in September of his wife, whose health was always frail, followed in October by the deaths of his two youngest sons from scarlet fever. Mounting losses undermined his relationship with Boyd, and in 1787 he was driven out of distilling, becoming for a time a brandy jobber and broker. His surviving son, James (Jemmy), after education at Douai, had eschewed the offer of a military career in the Franco-Irish regiment of General Arthur Dillon to enter business, first in Dunkirk and from 1785 in the Cognac house of his father's friend and fellow Irishman, John Saule. On Saule's death in 1788 the Hennessys, father and son, took over his business, and the following year the partnership was expanded by the addition of Samuel Turner, nephew of the Hiberno-Huguenot brandy merchant James Delmain. Having re-established himself in Cognac, Richard Hennessy travelled to London to promote the brandy trade in the winter of 1791–2, visiting Edmund Burke during his stay. James Hennessy and Turner proved capable and hard-headed businessmen who developed their house into the largest brandy business in Cognac during the revolutionary era. The Hennessys had no difficulty in accommodating themselves to the political changes of the time. Richard was appointed lieutenant of the garde nationale in Cognac, and James in time became its commandant, leading 150 men to join in the suppression of the La Vendée royalists in 1793. Following the outbreak of war the Hennessys benefited enormously from government contracts to supply the expanding French army and navy, while Turner developed a lucrative export trade through Hamburg. In 1795 James further consolidated his position by marriage to a daughter of the rival Martell house. An estate was acquired at La Billarderie, near Cognac, and it was here, in the role of country squire, that Richard Hennessy spent his declining years until his death, after a short illness, on 8 October 1800.


  • L. M. Cullen, Irish brandy houses of eighteenth-century France (Dublin, 2000)
  • L. M. Cullen, ‘The Blackwater Catholics and county Cork society and politics in the eighteenth century’, Cork: history and society—interdisciplinary essays on the history of an Irish county, ed. P. O'Flanagan and C. G. Buttimer (1993)
  • Burke, Gen. Ire. (1976), 574–5


  • Archives, Cognac, France
  • Archives Départementales du Morbihan, Vannes, France, Warren papers


  • oils, 1790–1799, Hennessy collection, Cognac, France; repro. in Cullen, Irish brandy houses

Wealth at Death

probably quite extensive due to success of brandy house, acquisition of property, etc.

J. Burke, (1899); 2nd edn (1904); 3rd edn (1912); 4th edn (1958); 5th edn as (1976)