On This Day – 14 July 1798 The Sheares brothers are hanged in Dublin



Irish rebellions should probably all come equipped with something we could call an IQ. That’s an Informer Quotient. This is a scientific measure of how many British agents from among the ranks of the rebels it took to betray the insurrection.

The scale would go all the way from ‘Genius’ at one hundred and fifty, to Witless Imbecile at zero. Let’s take a couple of examples. Obviously the 1798 rebellion was so riddled with spies and informers that if it had been a boat it would have sunk in a calm and windless cup of tea. So, we’ll call that one hundred and fifty. Then, right at the other end of the scale, there’s the 1916 Rising. Here the rebels desperately tried to tip their hand repeatedly, even to the extent of calling the whole thing off in a newspaper advertisement, but the exceptionally dim British authorities had no idea what was going on under their noses. We’ll call that an IQ of zero.

Totally off the scale of course is the War of Independence where Michael Collins’s own spies and informers were tripping over each other in Dublin Castle. That would be a minus IQ of about fifty for the rebels.

But the prize for individual revolutionaries most beset by informers has to go to the United Irishmen, the Sheares brothers. It took not one, not two, but three spies to bring them down. Given the going rate for intelligence information in 1798 it must have cost the authorities almost as much as the bribes paid to pass the Act of Union two years later.

The brothers Sheares, John and Henry, from Cork were both lawyers who had witnessed the French revolution and the frequent use of the guillotine. On the boat back home from Calais they met an utterly disillusioned Daniel O’Connell, pledged to non-violent political action, based on the bloodthirsty slaughter he had observed in Paris. The Sheares brothers were not so easily put off. When they got back to Dublin in 1793 they joined the United Irshmen. Both began organizing in their native Cork.

Enter Spy Number 1. His name was Conway and he kept the Castle well informed of the activities of the brothers, while passing himself off as an enthusiastic supporter.  He gets the bronze medal.

While busying themselves in Cork the brothers were also part of the Dublin Society of the United Irishmen. Here their nemesis was Thomas Collins, another apparent republican fanatic but, in reality, a well-embedded British spy. Because he ratted on so many other prominent revolutionaries he gets the silver medal.

But the gold unquestionably goes to Captain Warnesford Armstrong. You’d think his name would have given him away. How could you be called Warnesford and not be a British spy? After the capture of most of the members of the United Irishmen’s Directory (note the French influence) in March 1798, John Sheares took over and ordained the date of 23 May for a nationwide uprising. Armstrong insinuated himself into the confidence of the brothers, to the point where he was a regular visitor to their house on Baggot street, and dandled the children of Henry Sheares on his treacherous knee. He recorded that he didn’t even have to take an oath in order to become a member of the United Irishman. Not that he would have let something as silly as an oath get in the way. John Sheares himself actually warned Armstrong not to come to the house on one occasion, because certain activists believed him to be in the act of betraying the movement, and were intent on murdering him!

Two days before the planned rising John and Henry Sheares were arrested, on information supplied by Armstrong, and put on trial. Armstrong himself, clearly pleased at his handiwork, testified against them. Despite being defended by the great advocate John Philpot Curran, it took the jury a mere seventeen minutes to convict.

John and Henry Sheares, victims of three separate informers, were hanged, drawn and quartered, two hundred and nineteen years ago, on this day.






On This Day – 7 July 1930   Death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle



He is such a quintessentially English writer, that it is still something of a surprise to discover that he was actually born in Scotland, of an Irish mother, and with a paternal Irish grandfather. Though he himself was a master of the written word he came from a long line of cartoonists. He was the nephew of the famous Punch magazine illustrator, Richard ‘Dickie’ Doyle, and another uncle, Henry, became director of the National Gallery of Ireland. As a writer, he was drawn towards his own historical novels, but nobody really cares for them that much and today, even fans of his work would be hard put to name a single one of them.

That’s because, in 1886, he created the immortal detective Sherlock Holmes. The first appearance of the master-sleuth, and his affable but somewhat dim-witted companion and chronicler, Dr. John Watson, netted Arthur Conan Doyle the not terribly princely sum of £25, though it was probably the best twenty-five quid the publishing company Ward Lock & Co ever spent.  A Study in Scarlet united the two heroes of Doyle’s most enduring fictions. Subsequent stories, like The Sign of Four, The Valley of Fear and The Hound of the Baskervilles made him the best paid author of his day.  By that time Watson’s old war wound, incurred in the Afghan war, had miraculously migrated from his arm to his leg.

Within five years Doyle was already profoundly sick of his creation. In 1891 he wrote to his mother. ‘I think of slaying Holmes,… and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.’ His anguished mother wrote back, ‘You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!’ He didn’t! She was, after all, an Irish mammy who must be obeyed in all things.

But two years later he defied even his poor Irish mother by having the cleverest Kerryman ever invented, Professor James Moriarty, toss Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls. ‘Good riddance’, said Doyle, ‘time to get back to the character who will really establish my reputation, Brigadier Gerard.’ Sadly, it wasn’t to be and today few people would even remember the estimable French Brigadier had a rather decent thoroughbred racehorse from the 1970s not been named after him.

After killing off his supersleuth Doyle had to endure the opprobrium normally reserved for figures like Rasputin, Kaiser Wilhelm and Dr. Crippen, the infamous wife killer. Reaction to the demise of Holmes was a bit over the top, apparently extending as far as death threats. But, ever the stoic, Doyle resisted all temptation for a Holmesian return. However, if the Stone Roses can make a comeback, so could Sherlock, and in 1901 Doyle reintroduced him in a pre-Moriarty novel, the gothic Hound of the Baskervilles. This was a prelude to bringing him back to life in a new series of stories in 1903. Mammy Doyle was beside herself.

In addition to his novels and short stories, Doyle was, of course, a medical doctor. He was also a failed politician, a Liberal Unionist—a fancy name for a Tory. Not even the creator of Sherlock Holmes could get elected in the two Scottish constituencies in which he stood in 1900 and 1906. He was also an accomplished sportsman, playing soccer for Portsmouth, and cricket for the MCC.

Doyle was also a noted mystic and spiritualist, whose unfortunate gullibility led him to accept the bona fides of one Elsie Wright in 1917 when, as a sixteen-year old, she took an infamous photograph of her nine-year old cousin Frances Griffiths with four alleged fairies. In the ensuing controversy surrounding the so-called Cottingley fairies, Doyle came down emphatically on the side of fairy-ness. He chose to believe that Elsie had managed to do what no one else had ever done before, to catch those shy and elusive creatures on camera. He was more than half a century dead before Elsie admitted, in the 1980s that it was all a hoax and that the fairies were cardboard cut-outs.

By the way, ‘Conan’ was his middle name, not part of a compound surname. His knighthood went to plain ‘Arthur Doyle’, though the man himself had begun to add the second barrel to his surname at an early age.

There is a commemorative statue in Edinburgh outside the location of the house—long since demolished—in which he was born. It’s of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle would have loved that!

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the immortal Brigadier Gerard, and the barely remembered Sherlock Holmes, died eighty-seven years ago, on this day.