Turncoat, informer, abuser of power, or dedicated public servant – it all depends on your political perspective when it comes to Major Henry Sirr. Let’s face it, if you were a member of the United Irishmen you probably wouldn’t have liked him very much. He was to that revolutionary organisation what Eliot Ness was to Al Capone.
Henry Sirr was a police chief extraordinaire. He dedicated his life to catching bad guys for two decades at the turn of the 18th century. Well, a lot of his life anyway. He was also a wine merchant. That would be a bit like Garda Commissioner Noreen O’Sullivan owning a few pubs on the side.
Sirr served in the British Army from 1778-1791 where one of his military acquaintances was a certain Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Hold that particular thought for just a few minutes.
In 1796 he became Acting Town Major of the city of Dublin – effectively Chief of the City’s police force. He became a member of the Orange Order and was permanently appointed to his new role in 1798 – a significant year I’m sure you’ll agree. It was certainly significant for Sirr and for his relentless pursuit of the revolutionary element of the Society of United Irishmen, who were planning a rebellion for that year. Sirr appears to have been well-informed by a network of spies about the activities of the leading lights of the United Irishmen. So much so that he caught almost the entire committee of the Leinster Branch at a covert meeting on 12 March 1798 in the house of the woollen merchant Oliver Bond. The only man he missed was his old Army colleague Lord Edward Fitzgerald, but he atoned for that oversight on 19 May when he shot and killed Fitzgerald after the aristocrat had tried to stab him to avoid arrest. A few days later he also caught the radical Sheares brothers in two different houses on the same day, this may have given rise to his reputation for bi-location.
Five years later Sirr added to his lustre – assuming you were a major fan of Dublin Castle – by apprehending the young rebel leader Robert Emmet, a month after his ill-starred Dublin rising. He also burst into the home of the eminent barrister John Philpott Curran in a frustrated attempt to locate correspondence between Emmet and Curran’s daughter Sarah.
Raiding Curran’s house must have given Sirr considerable pleasure as the two men had ‘previous’. In 1802 Curran had represented one John Hevey in the case of Hevey v Sirr . In 1798 Hevey, a well-known Brewer, happened to be in court at the trial of a man named McGuire, being prosecuted for insurgency at the behest of Sirr and being damned by informer evidence. Hevey was familiar with the informer, an unloved and dishonest former employee. He testified to the witness’s total lack of reliability and was believed by the jury. Sirr was suitably enraged at the collapse of his case. He threatened Hevey and three years later delivered on the threat by arresting the brewer. Hevey later sued for assault, battery and false imprisonment. Curran went to town on Sirr, and Hevey duly won damages of £150 – more than £10,000 today. Testifying to Sirr’s lack of popularity bonfires were lit all around the city and church bells were rung when the verdict was announced.
Sirr paid a personal price for his pursuit of the United Irishmen, he escaped at least three assassination attempts, and was forced to move his family home on no less that six occasions before being quartered inside Dublin Castle. A noted collector of antiques and curios he is believed to have obtained and retained copies of every broadside, cartoon or satirical article in which he featured.
Sirr, however, was not a stereotypical central casting villain. He was a deeply religious man who was involved with the wonderfully named Association for Discountenancing Vice. He must have had a low opinion of the morals of Dublin hackney drivers because he could often be found haranguing them. Though he might simply have been objecting to excessive fares or lack of availability. He was also a founder of the Irish Society for Promoting Scriptural Education in the Irish Language. Later in life he became a magistrate, was an admirer of Daniel O’Connell and supported the 1832 political Reform Act which curtailed aristocratic privilege in the House of Commons.
Despite doing the state much service he was never elevated to the peerage. Perhaps the civil authorities and the monarchs of his day felt that he was just a little too prone to the odd bit of abuse of power. Or maybe they felt that someone called Sir Henry Sirr was just too much tautology.
Major Henry Charles Sirr, Dublin Chief of Police in interesting times, was born two hundred and fifty two years ago, on this day.
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