Steele, Thomas (Tom) (1788–1848), engineer and political activist, was born 3 November 1788 at Derrymore, Co. Clare, son of William Steele, gentleman, and Catherine Steele (née Bridgeman). In July 1805 he entered TCD, graduating BA in spring 1810. He then studied at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he graduated MA (1820), becoming an associate member of the Institute of Civil Engineers in the same year. In 1821 he inherited Cullane House, near Craggaunowen, Co. Clare, on the death of his uncle. Of an enthusiastic and adventurous nature, in 1823 he decided to support the cause of the liberals in Spain who had rebelled against the autocratic rule of Ferdinand VII in 1820. Mortgaging the house and lands at Cullane, he bought a large quantity of arms and shipped them to Spain on board the ship Iris. Commissioned in the Legion Estrenjera of the liberal army, he distinguished himself in the battle of the Trocadero and the defence of Madrid; he later published an account of his experiences, Notes on the war in Spain (London, 1824).
Returning from Spain with his fortunes ruined, he began experiments with underwater diving apparatus, patenting ‘Steele's improved diving-bell’ in 1825. In the same year he became a partner in the Vigo Bay Co., which attempted to recover gold and silver bullion from Spanish ships which sank in Vigo Bay in 1702. After extensive diving operations using Steele's diving-bell, the company was wound up at an acrimonious meeting of shareholders in September 1826. Despite claims by some of the shareholders that bullion had been found, the scheme was a total failure.
He was involved in the Catholic Association and, a close friend of Daniel O'Connell (qv), was active in the emancipation campaign although himself a protestant. In 1828 he seconded O'Connell's nomination for Clare in the general election of that year. Appointed by O'Connell as ‘Head Pacificator’, he toured the country collecting weapons and discouraging the rural population from engaging in faction fighting. There was a certain irony in this appointment, as Steele's own volatile temper was well known; a noted duellist, he fought in 1829 an inconclusive duel with William Smith O'Brien (qv), who had opposed O'Connell's second candidature for Co. Clare. In 1828 he was a founder of the Limerick Independent Club.
An associate of the diving pioneers John and Charles Deane, he dived on the wreck of the Intrinsic, off the Clare coast in January 1836, using their new diving helmet. He then began developing equipment to provide underwater illumination, and in 1840 dived with the Deane brothers off Plymouth on the wreck of Henry VIII's ship, the Mary Rose. Yet he was in serious financial difficulties, which were not helped by some of his more eccentric building projects. It was said of him that ‘he seemed utterly incapable of rationally estimating the value of money in his own case’ (Webb, 492). He began renovating, at great expense, a ruined castle that stood on his land at Cullane. He also later had a large standing stone, known as the ‘Umbilicus Hiberniae’ (‘Navel of Ireland’), removed from Birr, King's Co. (Offaly), and taken to his house. At Cullane it was set up as an altar and used for mass whenever O'Connell or members of the Catholic Association visited; it was not returned to Birr until 1974.
Known as ‘Honest Tom Steele’, he was deeply devoted to O'Connell, and was one of his key lieutenants during the repeal campaigns of the 1830s and 1840s. He took his title and responsibilities as O'Connell's ‘Head Pacificator’ so seriously and generally expressed himself with such long-winded pomposity that he became something of a figure of fun for opponents of O'Connell and for many of the younger men in the Repeal Association. Tried on conspiracy charges after the prohibition of the Clontarf monster meeting, he was one of the six ‘traversers’ imprisoned with O'Connell in Richmond jail (May to September 1844). Strongly supporting O'Connell's repudiation of physical force, he chaired and took a prominent part in the peace resolution debates of July 1846 in which the Young Ireland group walked out of the Repeal Association. After the death of O'Connell (15 May 1847), he fell into a deep depression and, financially ruined, jumped from Waterloo Bridge in London on 19 April 1848. Pulled out of the river by a Thames boatman, he survived for a number of weeks. Former political opponents, including Lord Brougham, offered financial help but he refused. He died 15 June 1848, and his remains were taken to Dublin, where he was waked at Conciliation Hall, the headquarters of the Repeal Association, on Burgh Quay. He was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, beside O'Connell's tomb. Steele appears as one of the figures on the O'Connell memorial in O'Connell St., Dublin.
He never married, but harboured an unrequited passion for a Miss Eileen Crowe of Ennis, Co. Clare, and was often to be seen standing on a large rock (which came to be known as ‘Steele's Rock’) on the banks of the River Fergus in Ennis as he tried to catch a glimpse of Miss Crowe, who lived across the river.