Hennessy, Richard (c.1729–1800), brandy merchant and distiller, was born about 1724 according to his army record, but more reliably about 1729 according to his marriage certificate, in Ballymacmoy, Co. Cork, the son of James Hennessy. He was the first member of the famous brandy dynasty, important in the social and political life of the Charentes region in subsequent centuries and, along with the Martell family, rarely out of the first or second place in the ranking of brandy houses. A catholic enclave of Hennessys and Nagles, despite adverse political and religious circumstances, had held on to land and status in the vicinity of Mallow. The Hennessy family owed its position to a pre–1704 lease (or leases) from the branch of the Nagles at Ballygriffen, Co. Cork, possibly benefiting also in post-1704 times from the legal acumen of a Ballygriffen younger son and lawyer, Joseph Nagle. So convoluted was the title that the Ballyduff Nagles held their demesne lands under a Hennessy lease. At times in the troubled politics of the Blackwater valley the Hennessys, along with the Nagles, were marked men, and Edmund Burke (qv), whose views were formed in this milieu, was a boyhood acquaintance of Hennessy. Burke spent much time with his aunt (a Nagle of Ballyduff, two miles from Richard's birthplace at Ballymacmoy), and continued to visit every summer during the mid–1740s, when Richard would still have been there. The Hennessys and Burkes were already related, and Hennessy's future wife of 1765 was a first cousin of Burke.
Richard's father, married to a Barrett, was described by Burke in 1767 as ‘sensible and gentleman-like a man as any in our part of the country’; in 1758 he had been one of twenty ‘gentilshommes du comté de Cork’ who certified the gentility of an Irish colonel in France. His eldest son, George, in 1768 inherited his property. A new lease of 1786 was for 644 plantation acres; the rental in 1775 was £550, less head rent of £80. A younger son, James, was a merchant in Cork. The marriage of three daughters linked the Hennessys to the business houses of Shea and Comerford in Cork, and to the powerful Roche house of Cork and Limerick. The earlier marriage of a paternal uncle linked them to the Goolds, who, with the Roches, were the leading catholic business family in Cork.
Richard, the second son, was destined for the army. His army career is often embellished: he is said to have been a member of Clare's regiment at Fontenoy (April–May 1745), and it is even suggested that his father and son served in the brigade also. However, Richard never served a single day as an officer, and neither father nor son had army careers. The army repute of the family is due to another Richard Hennessy, a lieutenant colonel, entrusted with delicate missions (though the relationship cannot be established in a documentary sense). Such repute belatedly secured Richard a place as a second lieutenant in 1753, but he had already left the army by then. Lord Clare, for practical reasons, gave him a somewhat false certificate in 1757 saying that he had served ten years. Dated in modern times incorrectly from his officer place of 1753, it would have placed his entry in 1743, and hence prompted the assumption that he was with the regiment at Fontenoy. The record of his induction, as opposed to evidence of his ‘délaissement’ in 1753, though long sought, could never be found, as joining the army in 1748 without an officer place his entry is recorded as homme de troupe, and he was still in this lowly position when he abandoned the service.
Hennessy visited Ostend at the outset of 1753, before going to Ireland, apparently to open trade contacts, and then returned to Ostend, where an uncle had a long-established house. That house, with its own misfortunes in business and in family deaths in 1758–60, had already too many dependants to welcome a new partner. Richard relied on small commissions. His hopes were further blighted by the situation in Cork of his brother James, who apparently encountered both business difficulties and family problems (he seems to have abducted his bride, a Ballylegan Nagle, in the teeth of opposition from her family). Richard's first stroke of good fortune occurred following the death of one of his Ostend cousins in 1760, as he married the widow at the outset of 1765. Fortified by the prospect of a dowry of £800, which was never paid – at least in full – he went to Cognac as the junior member in a partnership with the Dunkirk house of Connolly. A boom in brandy for the Irish market, because of a scarcity of rum and whiskey, and Connolly's wish to have a buyer in Cognac, accounted for the venture. However, Hennessy's timing was unfortunate. A decade of bad seasons following his arrival led Paris merchants increasingly to replace Loire brandy with Cognac brandy, in the process quickly raising brandy prices to foreign purchasers well above the prices of competing spirits, rum and whiskey. He had little support from Cork, where, the problems of his brother James apart, cheap rum flowed in. Hennessy's little business depended on a small flow of London orders secured through the Connollys, and which he dispatched to Dunkirk, where they shipped them onwards. He remained in dire difficulties, and at times in poverty.
In despair, in 1776 Hennessy left for Bordeaux, encouraged by an upturn in Bordeaux distilling, to become a distiller. Bordeaux brandy, badly made and weak in strength, was of low proof even after redistilling by Hennessy or by others. Whatever the false prospects caused by a deceptive flicker of demand, his business in the longer term depended on the erratic custom of Irish smugglers, who, when supplies failed elsewhere, made an abrupt and sometimes unannounced appearance. His business was in crisis in 1781–2. The year 1781 was darkened too by family tragedy, his wife, never robust, dying in September and two sons of fever in October. His only period of prosperity was a fleeting one in 1784–5, when, in foolish response to good times, the sociable Hennessy, in company with much younger men, expanded his social life. Crisis recurred by 1787. Lacking capital, he had shortly after his arrival gone into a partnership with George Boyd, a young merchant backed by his successful Boyd and Skinner relatives in Bordeaux. Content to neglect the books (which were his responsibility), Hennessy failed to note that Boyd was syphoning off resources into a second business he ran further down the Gironde estuary, and, when the matter was belatedly raised with Boyd, was unable to counter claims from the latter that he himself actually owed the partnership money. In order to avoid bankruptcy, he had to cede the business at a capital loss to Boyd.
Hennessy's eldest son was at Douai from 1777. In 1781, with the outlook for business grim in wartime, he secured a promise of places for all three sons (James and the other two boys, who died later in the year) in Dillon's regiment (successor regiment to Lord Clare's and yet another sign of the military repute of the family). With a prospect of peace in 1782, and his father even thinking of migrating to the West Indies, James (1765–1843), the sole surviving son, obtained uncertain employment in the house of the Blakes (earlier associates of the Ostend Hennessys). However, he soon returned to Cognac to enter the business of John Saule, Hennessy's closest Cognac friend. Although to the lively and extrovert Saule James had seemed dull and undazzling, he ran the house with great success in Saule's three-month business absence in London in 1787.
Yet another death, the unexpected one of Saule in October 1788, provided an opportunity for Hennessy to return to Cognac. Saule's death, at a time when he had over-expanded his business, made it impossible to avoid a composition with the creditors of the house, and the good will of the business was offered to Hennessy by the widow. Saule had, however, a very good book of customers (some of them won by his charm, which he used to great effect in London visits in 1784 and 1787), and by the time of his death his business was a close second in scale to that of Martell. Had he lived, the local view was that bankruptcy would have been avoided. A partnership formed in December 1788, of Hennessy, his son James, and Samuel Turner (nephew of an Irish merchant, James Delamain of Jarnac), launched the successful ascent of the house. In a legal sense this was the foundation of the modern business and, when Turner left in 1812, it became Jas. Hennessy and Co.
The two young men in the new partnership did not hesitate, as did others, to do business with the revolutionary regimes, and in the 1790s the house became the largest, at least temporarily displacing a timid Martell house from its dominant position. Richard Hennessy's effective role in the business ended with a business trip to London in 1791–2. His capacity for friendship, however, still continued to pay dividends. John Shoolbred, whom Hennessy had befriended many years before in Ostend and now a major London businessman, was a vital support to the business in the second half of the 1790s when trade with London, badly disrupted in the mid–1790s, revived.
If a bad – or at least unfortunate – businessman, Hennessy had a rare capacity for friendship. At forty years of age in 1769 he began a remarkably close friendship with the eighteen-year-old John Saule (c.1751–1788). They later conducted a frequent correspondence – Saule, well read and fluent, commenting on larger issues, Hennessy warm and writing of friends and social occasions. Saule, the younger man, was often Hennessy's advisor and confidant in crisis. Had he lived, he would either have made a name for himself under the revolution or, more probably, because of his outspoken manner, been marked out for the guillotine. Hennessy's letters to Saule survive from 1776 to 1788 (a sole year missing); Saule's letters to Hennessy from 1769 to 1776 (when he left Cognac) and much more fitfully for later years (they are few except for the crisis of 1787–8, when he advised Hennessy in long letters which the latter brought back with him to Cognac). Letters from Hennessy also survive in the Warren papers in Vannes. An army officer, Richard Warren, lodged with the Ostend Hennessys in 1757, the start of a friendship for which Hennessy's letters survive until 1762. Hennessy, on his return to Cognac in 1788, remained a regular visitor to Bordeaux for the festive season preceding Lent until the revolution entered its dark phase in 1793. However, letters from Bordeaux, and especially entertaining and informative missives from James Woods, are the best account of the Irish colony in a difficult decade.
Hennessy visited Ireland in 1768 (for the final illness of his father) and projected doing so again in the course of his London visit in 1791–2 (though abandoned it, as it would ‘I think be attended with more pain than pleasure’). In London he sent a copy of Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution to James and spent a night at Beaconsfield (the letter in January 1792 survives). He died in 1800.
James, his long-lived son, died in 1843. Bridget or Biddy (b. 1767), his only surviving daughter, who never married, died in 1812. The house in Killavullen (close to the older house at Ballymacmoy), built in the 1820s by the senior branch of the family which had remained in Ireland, was latterly owned by a member of the Cognac family. A very fine though little-known portrait of Richard in National Guard uniform survives in Cognac (not to be confused with the frequently reproduced modern image).