And who exactly was this young adventurer, Alexander de Courcy Potterton?
The second son (and one of twelve children) of Thomas and Eleanor Potterton, he was born on 25 November 1818. This branch of the Pottertons lived at Balatalion, Kildalkey, County Meath and Alexander was baptised in the family’s parish church of Athboy. He was called Alexander probably after his paternal uncle who was a merchant (actually a hatter) in Dublin and also a Freeman of the City. The name ‘de Courcy’ (by which our Alexander was sometimes to refer to himself) was not a family name as would have been the custom at the time. Instead, it was a fancy of his parents to call him that.
Alexander’s people – his father was a farmer – were not very wealthy, but nor were they very poor. Balatalion, which had been acquired by Alexander’s great-great grandfather in 1731, was a farm of 250 acres; the house, tacked on to an earlier dwelling, was probably built by his grandfather in the 1770s. His mother, born Hinds, had a modest dowry of £900 when she married his father in 1813.
Like at least two of his younger brothers, Alexander may have been educated at Bannow Grammar School in Wexford. This was a ‘progressive’ school, exclusively a boarding establishment, and also exclusively Protestant with numbers limited to forty-five pupils. The Prospectus for the school (founded in 1830) states that its ‘object was to afford a useful and comprehensive education…without enormous expense’. ‘Terms’ for Tuition, Board and Washing’ were £30 a year. Vacations were limited to four weeks in summer and two weeks in winter. ‘Corporal degradation’ was eschewed in favour of ‘other modes of punishment’. The school provided a ‘Classical Education’ that included English, Mathematics, History, Geography, Astronomy as well as French, Latin and Greek. Additionally, ‘Land and Coast Surveying, Mapping, Delineation of Charts and Plan Drawing was taught…as preparation for situations in the Army, Navy and other Public Offices as well as for Architectural, Mechanical, Civil and Military Engineers’. Alexander, as we will see, would draw on many aspects of this education at various stages in his later life.
Alexander was not the first of his family vested with an adventurous spirit: his great-uncle was a famous traveller. This was Robert Wood (1716-71) whose sister, Mary, had married Alexander’s grandfather, Thomas Potterton of Balatalion. Wood’s father, also called Alexander, was the Presbyterian minister in nearby Summerhill, Co Meath from 1710 until his death in 1747 (he is buried in Agher churchyard) and Robert (and probably Mary too) was born in the manse there. Robert Wood, who was educated at Glasgow and Padua universities, is famous as the author of The Ruins of Palmyra (1753) and The Ruins of Baalbec (1757), the result of his travels to Damascus (via Egypt and Athens) in 1750-51. He was certainly a very distinguished forebear and, as copies of his books were kept at Balatalion (they survived there until the late-20th century), they, and the memory of their author, Great-uncle Robert, may have inspired Alexander de Courcy to pursue adventures of his own by travelling to the new, as opposed to the ancient, world.
Alternatively, as the family farm of Balatalion would be inherited by his older brother, William, and with five younger brothers to be provided for, Alexander de Courcy – as the second son – may have deemed it sensible to seek his fortune elsewhere and in this he would probably have been encouraged by his parents.