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

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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 – 19 May 1798 Francis Magan betrays Lord Edward Fitzgerald

 

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Today neither a birth nor a death, but an act of supreme betrayal.

Everyone knows that a variety of Irish revolutionary organizations were, over the years bedeviled by informers. Contrary to Brendan Behan’s famous axiom, it would appear that the first item on the agenda of such groups was not ‘the split’ but the decision on who would be the most effective government spy.

One of the most enthusiastic of those was Francis Magan—his most distinguished victim was the charismatic and highly romanticized United Irishman leader, Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was the almost anonymous Magan’s polar opposite, aristocratic, idealistic and captivating. He had fought in the British Army in the American War of Independence, journeyed down the Mississippi river with an escaped African-American slave, Tony Small, who had saved his life on the battlefield, was elected to the Irish parliament as a supporter of the ‘Patriot’ leader, Henry Grattan, and joined the United Irishmen. Fitzgerald, despite his elevated social status, was pledged to the establishment of an Irish Republic, along French lines. In the planned rebellion of 1798 Fitzgerald was to lead the Dublin-based rebels.

Magan, born in 1774, was a lawyer who had come into a decent inheritance and was a man of independent means, but not fabulously wealthy like Fitzgerald, son of the Duke of Leinster. However, Magan didn’t exactly want for money, so his betrayal of the United Irishmen’s cause cannot be explained away simply by the pursuit of thirty pieces of silver. He joined the United Irishmen in 1792, and became a prominent member of the organisation’s Dublin committee.

Magan’s conduit to the government was the infamous Francis Higgins. Known as ‘The Sham Squire’ Higgins was the proprietor of Dublin Castle’s favourite newspaper, The Freeman’s Journal, and a long-standing government agent. Higgins informed the Under Secretary, Edward Cooke, Britain’s spymaster in Dublin, about Magan’s availability and his unrivalled access to the revolutionary plans of the United Irishmen. Cooke immediately recognized that the lawyer could prove to be an invaluable asset. He wasn’t far wrong. After negotiating a nice little earner for himself—£1000 for information leading to the arrest of Fitzgerald—Magan went to work.

In order to help him locate Fitzgerald, Magan organized a meeting of the Dublin United Irishmen in his own house, on the night of 17 May 1798. Lord Edward may even have spent the night in Magan’s home, at No. 20 Usher’s Island on the south quays. The authorities failed to apprehend Fitzgerald on that occasion, however. Time was running out for the Castle. On 19 May Fitzgerald was due to lead more than a thousand rebels in an attempt to seize the capital city. Enter Magan one more time. He kept the Castle informed of Lord Edward’s whereabouts—he wasn’t too far away from them, on Thomas Street—and this time they got their man. Fitzgerald was wounded in the attempt to arrest him, lingered for a few days, and died in Newgate Prison, on 4 June. The rebellion of the United Irishmen, as a consequence, failed utterly in Dublin.

The spies, however, fell out amongst themselves. In 1802 Higgins died without having handed over the £1000 that had been promised to his protégé. The Castle had been under the illusion that Magan had been paid off, and were dismayed when he sued the Higgins estate. They did not particularly want their machinations being discussed in open court, so the erstwhile informer was bought off with an award of £500.

Magan got away with it in his own lifetime. He died in 1834, and prior to that had been an active member of Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association. There is no evidence that his career as a ‘spook’ was extended into the 19th century, though he did offer to rat out a few more rebels in 1801. He was not outed as an informer until 1859, by the historian William J.Fitzpatrick, who also exposed Francis Higgins as a gifted but corrupt ‘supergrass’. Fitzpatrick, unaware that Magan was a relatively wealthy man, assumed that his actions had been prompted solely by greed.

Francis Magan successfully betrayed Lord Edward Fitzgerald to the British authorities two hundred and nineteen years ago, on this day.

 

 

On This Day – Drivetime – 13.2.1820 – Death of the informer Leonard McNally

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There are spies, there are informers, there are traitors, and then there is Leonard McNally. He was one of the most effective and enduring British spies in the ranks of an Irish revolutionary organisation. The unlucky, or careless, rebels were the United Irishmen, the men of 1798.

McNally, a barrister and playwright, was actually a prominent and radical member of the United Irishmen. He was eager for the organisation to accept military assistance from revolutionary France. But when William Jackson, an agent of the French government, was arrested in Ireland in 1794, McNally, rather than wait to be shopped for treason by Jackson, took a more pro-active course and offered his services to the Crown in exchange for not being hanged, drawn and quartered. Given what actually happens to someone who is hanged drawn and quartered he might well be forgiven for this initial capitulation. But the fact that he was still providing intelligence to Dublin Castle a quarter of a century later suggests that it had become more about remuneration than self-preservation.

After the 1798 rebellion McNally defended many United Irishmen charged with involvement in the abortive insurrection. He didn’t win a single case. It could have been because his clients were guilty to begin with, or because he was fiendishly unlucky. But his winless streak was more likely to have been related to the fact that he was passing information on his clients to the prosecution. Not really the done thing for a defence attorney I’m sure you’ll agree.

Among the men he defended were William Jackson, Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald and, in 1803, Robert Emmet. So, were there an Irish Pantheon he would probably have contributed to the presence of about half the occupants. In the case of Emmet he advised the Crown that his client would enter no defence and allow cross examination of no witnesses on his behalf, as long as they did not misrepresent the facts. So the trial would be a walkover for the prosecution and Dublin Castle didn’t even have to bother fabricating evidence that might come back to haunt them in court.

After 1803 you’d have thought McNally would have quietly and gracefully retired. But a £200 bonus, on top of his hefty pension of £300, ensured that ‘JW’, the code name by which he was known to his spymasters, stayed in business until his death in 1820.

In a doubtlessly fruitless effort to mitigate McNally’s evil reputation it should be pointed out that he was also a successful playwright and librettist. One of his songs, The Lass of Richmond Hill, became a huge hit in its day, 1789, and a favourite of King George III, the one who had occasional bouts of madness. It was written about McNally’s first wife Frances and describes her as ‘a rose without a thorn’.

In one of those wonderful ironies for which a fiction writer would be pilloried were it to appear in a novel, a legal treatise, written by McNally the year before his betrayal of Robert Emmet, was pivotal in the definition of the principle of guilt being ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ before conviction.

His espionage activities did not become apparent until after his death when his son sought to have the payment of his pension continued post mortem. When the Lord Lieutenant inquired as to why a pension had been paid to such an ardent nationalist, the truth began to emerge.

Leonard McNally, barrister, playwright, serial informer and a rose with many thorns, died 195 years ago, on this day.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND ROBERT EMMET – www.soundcloud.com/irishhistory

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On this day – 20 September, 1803

They are two very different orations. One is short, a mere 269 words and lasting barely three minutes. The other is in excess of 3,000 words, and must have taken closer to half an hour to deliver. The earlier speech was given by a man marked for a judicial death, the later by one who would be mown down by an assassin’s bullet within eighteen months.

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States of America, was born five years after the execution of the young rebel United Irishman, Robert Emmet, but the bizarre connections between the two men are compelling and inescapable.

Both were Republicans, both are perceived by their acolytes as martyrs and both have become elements of two distinct Pantheons. Emmet, a post- Enlightenment Irish Republican, atoned for the hapless nature of his one day rebellion on 23 July, 1803 in Dublin by making the single most famous, effective and affecting speech in Irish nationalist history. Lincoln was one of the founder members of the anti-slavery Republican party and its first successful Presidential candidate in 1860. His election precipitated the debilitating four year American Civil War (or the War Between the States if you happen to be a southerner). His Gettysburg address was a model of rhetorical clarity, creativity and brevity. Ironically, the principal speaker on the day was Edward Everett, an unsuccessful Vice Presidential candidate in 1860. His speech was a whopping two hours long. In central Pennsylvania. Outdoors. In November.

Emmet’s speech, made after his conviction for High Treason in Green Street courthouse in Dublin, is famous for its passionate peroration, made as he faced death by hanging the following day.

‘Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them rest in obscurity and peace, my memory be left in oblivion and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.’

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, made on 19 November, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetry at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, scene of the decisive battle four and half months earlier, is more famous for its iconic opening line  – ‘Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’

Emmet’s speech marked the death of one man – Lincoln’s grieved at the sacrifice of thousands. They do, however, have one thing in common. No one is agreed on what exactly was said. There are five extant versions of the Gettysburg address and as many of Emmet’s Speech from the Dock.

But did Emmet’s speech influence the creation of the most famous short speech in history? Very likely. As a boy in Indiana (where his family had migrated from Kentucky) Lincoln is known to have learnt Emmet’s valedictory off by heart. As a gangly teenager he would often deliver it as a party piece for dignitaries visiting Perry County, where he lived.

More than a quarter of a century later, at the first Republican National Convention, in New York, in 1856 the explorer and ‘pathfinder’ John C. Fremont was chosen as the party’s Presidential nominee. Soundly defeated by William L. Dayton for the Vice Presidential slot was Abraham Lincoln. The Chairman and keynote speaker at the Convention was a New York Judge and politician, Robert Emmet, the Dublin-born son of Thomas Addis Emmet (United Irishman and 1798 revolutionary) and nephew of his celebrated namesake. In his speech Emmet attacked the rival Democratic Party and how its newly chosen standard bearer, James Buchanan, had proven himself to be aligned with slave interests.

In February, 1865 Lincoln, who had been forced to grapple with many grave moral dilemmas during the Civil War, was reviewing the death sentence on a young Confederate spy. He was considering an appeal for the boy’s life from a Delaware Senator, Willard Saulsbury. The identity of the petitioner alone would have been enough for lesser men to have arbitrarily confirmed the sentence. In January, 1863, Saulsbury had referred to the President as ‘a weak and imbecile man, the weakest that I ever knew in a high place.’

Saulsbury was both frank and astute in his appeal to Lincoln. He wrote –  “You know I am no political friend of yours. You know I neither ask or expect any personal favor from you or your Administration . . . All I ask of you is to read the defence of this young man, (Saml B. Davis) unassisted by Counsel, compare it with the celebrated defence of Emmet, and act as the judgment and the heart of the President of the United States should act.”

Saulsbury knew his man. The death sentence was duly commuted.

In 1939 the distinguished playwright Robert Sherwood, friend of Dorothy Parker and one of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table, won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Abe Lincoln in Illinois. It starred Raymond Massey, who later reprised the role in the 1940 film version directed by James Cromwell. Massey, after playing the role 472 times on Broadway, seemed to take on the form and characteristics of Lincoln. He spoke and dressed like him. This caused his friend, the playwright George S. Kaufmann, to observe that ‘Massey won’t be satisfied until someone assassinates him.’  The significance of the play is in Sherwood’s middle name, Emmet. He was the great-great-grandnephew of the executed patriot. It was as if the Emmet family, having accepted the homage of the young Lincoln, was repaying the compliment.

Emmet  would have been proud of the peroration of his celebrated acolyte – ‘ . . we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’

Robert Emmet, died on a scaffold in Thomas Street in Dublin 210 years ago, on this day

On this day – 24 May 1772 – Francis Magan, spy and informer

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Francis Magan was something of a trailblazer in his early twenties and a traitor before he reached his thirties.

Magan came from a well-to-do Westmeath Roman Catholic family. His father was a woolen draper with a premises in High Street in Dublin. Magan attended Trinity College. In 1793 he was one of the first Catholics admitted to the Bar. This happened by virtue of an important Catholic Relief Act passed that year.  Sadly he was not a very good barrister and was soon in financial difficulties as he tried to maintain an establishment in Usher’s Island in Dublin, close to the Four Courts.

He was, however, a far better spy. As a young man he joined the Society of United Irishmen and was privy to the work of that organisation’s inner councils. He was recruited, in 1797, as an informer by the infamous Francis Higgins, the so-called ‘sham Squire’ and proprietor of the Freeman’s Journal, a newspaper solidly supportive of government policy. Magan was one of a number of spies being run by Higgins, who answered directly to his own spymaster, the under secretary based in Dublin Castle, Edward Cooke.

Magan insinuated himself into the United Irishmen to the point where he became friendly with the acknowledged leader of the Dublin section, the charismatic Lord Edward Fitzgerald. He unsuccessfully attempted to betray Fitzgerald to the authorities on 17 May 1798 but the city’s leading policeman, Major Sirr, failed to arrest the United Irishmen leader as he left Magan’s house. Magan was more successful two days later. Information he supplied led to the apprehension of Fitzgerald, who died of the wounds incurred resisting arrest. The death of Fitzgerald was a huge blow to the revolutionary prospects of the United Irishmen in Dublin.

Magan, like that other notorious informer, fellow barrister Leonard McNally, always managed to remain above suspicion. Indeed, on the night of Fitzgerald’s arrest, he was elected a member of the executive committee of the United Irishmen in Dublin. He continued to pose as a committed Catholic nationalist after the suppression of the 1798 rebellion. He spoke against the Union in the Dublin bar and became active in the early struggle for Catholic emancipation. In all of this he had his own agenda.

Magan was well paid for his efforts. He received £1000 for betraying Fitzgerald,  and £500 for spying on William Todd Jones, a northern Protestant advocate of Catholic Emancipation. He also enjoyed a secret pension of £200 a year from a grateful administration in Dublin Castle in the latter years of his life. He remained a respectable member of the community until his death, becoming, for example, a life member of the Royal Dublin Society. Magan died in 1843 leaving his fortune to his nearest relative, a sister. When she, in turn passed away, she left £14,000 in her will, much of which would have come to her from her brother.

Magan was not finally ‘outed’ as a spy and informer until the publication in 1892 of W.J.Fitzpatrick’s book The Secret Service under Pitt.

Francis Magan, unsuccessful barrister and accomplished informer, was born 241 years ago, on this day.