Secret Service Under Pitt



Armstrong was another man who, unlike Turner and Magan, boldly betrayed, and by baring his name to popular odium, bared his breast to its penalties. He lived to old age in a district specially burrowed by agrarian crime; but, though often taunted with his treachery, never suffered a pin-scratch at the hands of the people.

Before Armstrong comes on the scene it is well to give some account of the men he so cruelly betrayed.[692] This becomes the more imperative, inasmuch as unpublished letters of Sheares, containing important explanations, were placed in my hands for historic use by the late Mr. Justice Hayes.

The father of John and Henry Sheares was a banker and member of the Irish Parliament, remarkable for having introduced a bill, which became law in 1766, for the regulation of trials in cases of treason, and under which his sons were afterwards tried. He was a person of culture, too, author of some touching reflections on ‘Man in Society, and at his Final Separation from it.’ Several passages seem to reveal a presentiment of the great domestic tragedy which he did not live to see. A practical Christian, he published an essay elaborating the great fact that unless man forgives, he can never himself be forgiven; and these inculcations, it is hoped, helped to calm the closing thoughts of his suffering sons. Mr. Sheares founded a Debtors’ Charity in Cork, and an amateur performance of ‘King Henry IV.,’ in aid of it, introduced as its chief histrions the subsequently historic brothers. Their career was highly dramatic. Henry successfully competed for the hand of Miss Swete with a young barrister, Mr. John FitzGibbon, who, as the Lord Clare of after years, is said to have shown that he neither forgot nor forgave. In 1792 Henry Sheares visited France to see his children at school. The Revolution was then at its height; he and his brother John became intimate with Brissot and Rolande, and thenceforth may be dated the birth of that bias which finally made both easy prey for Armstrong. In July 1793, Henry Sheares challenged his early rival, now Lord FitzGibbon, to explain or retract what he called an ‘infamous calumny,’ conveyed in a speech wherein the chancellor referred to two men, agents of the French Jacobin Club, who had employed themselves in disseminating its principles in Dublin. But even John Sheares was not the revolutionist which party spirit loved to depict him. A letter appears in the ‘Castlereagh Papers,’ in which the writer, Redhead York, describes John Sheares at Versailles, falling on his knees and vowing that he would plant a poignard in the heart of any person who would hurt a hair on the head of the Queen of France. In 1792 Henry, a barrister of some years’ standing, secured the house, 128 Lower Baggot Street, Dublin, now the Ulster Bank. It was at that time a corner house; but Sheares, shortly before his death, assigned a plot of ground adjoining it whereon the two houses between Sheares’s residence and Pembroke Street were built. The large block of buildings between St. Stephen’s Green and Sheares’s house did not then exist. Miss Steele saw, from her father’s back windows in the Green, the soldiers surrounding Sheares’s home when, in May 1798, treason was deemed sufficiently ripe for a coup. John Sheares, the junior of Henry by nine years, lived with him, and the utmost fraternal love subsisted between both.

Captain John Warneford Armstrong, the descendant of a Scotch settler in Ireland, was at heart a supporter of oligarchical principles, but acted so well the part of a flaming patriot, that Byrne, a democratic bookseller, led Armstrong to his private room and presented him to Sheares as ‘a true brother on whom you may implicitly depend.’ Henry declined to hold converse unless in presence of his brother John. Armstrong said he would wait until John came. Conversation, however, had commenced before his arrival; he at length appeared with Byrne, and the latter introduced Armstrong in an equally impressive way. Armstrong deposed on the trial that John Sheares said–‘I know your principles very well,’ and asked him to join the cause by action as he had already done by inclination. Armstrong replied–‘I am ready to do everything in my power for it, and if you can show me how I can assist I will serve you to the utmost.’ John, an impulsive youth, said that the best way he could help was to gain over the soldiery, and confer with him as to the best way of seizing the royal camp. Armstrong appointed to meet him at Baggot Street with this end; he did so, and on Sunday night, May 13, paid another visit–both brothers being present. On the 15th he called twice; John Sheares said he would like to introduce him to a friend of his, Surgeon (afterwards General) Lawless, with whom he might consult and advise in his absence–he [John] being obliged to go down and organise Cork. All this time Henry Sheares is found reticent, and at some of the interviews he was not present at all. However, on Thursday, the 17th, both brothers appeared to this apparently zealous convert to their cause; Lawless was also by, and (according to Armstrong’s testimony) said: ‘He had lately attended a meeting of deputies from almost all the militia regiments, at which meeting there were two of his [the approver’s] men.’

Henry Sheares, now familiar with Armstrong as his guest and constant visitor, let fall some remarks by which the betrayer succeeded in implicating him as having knowledge of the military organisation. This was not enough for Armstrong; that evening he returned to their house. Henry did not appear; John came down and obtained a written introduction from him to a sergeant in his regiment, known to be a United Irishman. The most sickening part of this story has yet to be told. Armstrong continued to worm himself into the hearts of his victims. He accepted their invitations to dinner, mingled with their family, listened to Mrs. Sheares singing at the harp for his entertainment, and, as Curran declared, fondled on his knee the child of the man whom he had marked for doom!

The time was now coming, and coming fast, when the blood of the Sheares was to be set free–a fact the more painful, when we know that two of their brothers had already given their lives in the service of the King. Armstrong in the year 1843 said, in presence of Mr., afterwards Lord, O’Hagan, that ‘Lord Castlereagh persuaded him to dine with the Sheares with a view to gather further information.’ Dogging their steps, scenting their hot blood, and measuring the days they had to live, he at last gave tongue, and on May 21 both brothers were seized. That evening, while John was a prisoner, but as yet ignorant of Armstrong’s perfidy, the betrayer is found paying him a visit of condolence, probably hoping to gather, during the excitation of his victim, facts which would compromise absent friends. Any evidence which could incriminate Henry was far less than that affecting John. It is surprising that the wonderful caution shown by Sheares when a younger man should not have made him more guarded in his intercourse with Armstrong; and at this point it is curious to look back at Collins’s report (p. 168 ante) where he describes Sheares warning the Society of United Irishmen that spies were spreading snares around.

Anyone reading this trial, with the light now available, cannot fail to be struck by a circumstance which has heretofore passed without comment. The outlook was black for the brothers when their counsel, Plunket, Curran, McNally, and Ponsonby, held a conference to see what could be done. A good point was at last detected; one of the Grand Jury who found the bill appeared to be a foreigner, or, as legally termed, an alien. Law books had to be looked up; some searching inquiries made. McNally, meanwhile, had been despatched to the Court of Common Pleas to appease the judges, who had been waiting for some time and waxed impatient. McNally explained that there was a deliberation among the counsel on a serious point of law, and, until they came in, he could say no more. The court made an effort to draw him, but he parried it with seeming firmness. The case stood adjourned, and when Plunket, Curran, and Ponsonby arrived to spring a surprise, they found Attorney-General Toler (the Lord Norbury of after years) fully prepared, not only by a written ‘replication’ bristling with points, but by an elaborate oral argument, and, between him and the prime-sergeant, they met the objection with a readiness quite wonderful, and which meant ruin to the brothers. The court of course overruled a plea which counsel for the Sheareses hoped would have quashed the proceedings, and it cannot be doubted that the point had been betrayed to Toler by one of the counsel engaged in the conference.

The Attorney-General said he would go on with the trial of John; but at another conference of their counsel it was decided, in evil hour, that both brothers should go into the dock together and join in their challenge. The luckless suggestion is likely to have come from McNally. Curran was not a great lawyer, his forte lay in cross-examination and classic eloquence; he revered McNally, as has been already shown, and he was not the man to differ with him. Two witnesses, it will be remembered, were then necessary to convict for treason in England; the Irish judiciary were satisfied with one. The amazement of the Sheares on beholding Armstrong enter the witness-box can be guessed. Curran drew a picture of the children of his client sitting in the mansion where Armstrong was hospitably entertained–the aged mother supported by the devotion of her son–and it was suggested that the informer ‘smiled upon this scene, contemplating the havoc he was about to make.’ Midnight had passed when the evidence closed. Armstrong’s first cousin, Thomas Drought, testified, among other damaging facts, to atheistical expressions used by the approver.[693] Lieutenant Shervington, an uncle by marriage, heard Armstrong say ‘that if there could be no other person found for the purpose, he would, with pleasure, become the executioner of George III., and glory in the deed.’ His uncle replied that if such were his principles he ought to throw up his commission and go over to the enemy at once.

When the trial had proceeded for fifteen hours, Curran, sinking with exhaustion, moved for an adjournment, but Toler opposed, and at eight o’clock next morning a verdict of ‘Guilty’ was returned. At these words the brothers fell into each other’s arms. At three o’clock both were brought up for judgment. Lord Carleton, who presided, was said to have been appointed by Sheares’s father the guardian of John, but it is correct to say that he had been only the attached friend of their father.[694] This judge was visibly affected, and made touching reference to the past. John, with his full blue eyes and open countenance, as Maria Steele describes him, made an earnest appeal for his elder brother’s life, declaring that he knew nothing of a fatal manuscript that, admittedly written by John, had been found in Henry’s desk; all in vain: Toler seemed impatient for the sacrifice, and both were sentenced to be hanged next day. Sir Jonah Barrington prints a painful letter addressed to him by Henry, but which by some mistake did not reach him, he says, till the fatal morning. Henry could not believe that an adverse verdict awaited him, and when at last it came, he was utterly stunned by the blow. Sheares begs Barrington to see Lord Clare:–

Oh! speak to him of my poor wretched family–my distracted wife, and my helpless children; snatch them from the dreadful horrors which await them. Desire my mother to go to Lord Shannon immediately, and my wife to the Lord Chancellor…. We are to receive sentence at three o’clock. Fly, I beseech you, and save a man who will never cease to pray for you–to serve you. Let me hear from you, my dear fellow, as quick as possible. God bless you.

Newgate: eight o’clock.

Sheares’s wife sat for hours in a sedan chair at Lord Clare’s hall-door; and when, at length, he appeared, she threw herself at his feet, clasped his knees, and implored him to save her husband, but failed. Barrington, tardily acting upon Henry’s letter, had more influence with the chancellor.

I immediately waited on Lord Clare [he writes]; he read the letter with great attention; I saw he was moved–his heart yielded. I improved on the impression; he only said ‘What a coward he is! but what can we do?’ He paused. ‘John Sheares cannot be spared. Do you think Henry can say anything, or make any species of discovery which can authorise the Lord Lieutenant in making a distinction between them?–if so, Henry may be reprieved.’ He read the letter again, and was obviously affected. I had never seen him amiable before. ‘Go,’ said he, ‘to the Prison, see Henry Sheares, ask him this question, and return to me at Cooke’s office.’ I lost no time, but I found on my arrival that orders had been given that nobody should be admitted without a written permission. I returned to the Castle–they were all at Council. Cooke was not at his office: I was delayed. At length the secretary returned, gave me the order. I hastened to Newgate, and arrived at the very moment the executioner was holding up the head of my friend, and saying, ‘Here is the head of a traitor.'[695]

Barrington says nothing of Lord Shannon, who was related to the Sheareses, and it is certain that the message for him miscarried. This peer, with the object of offering condolence, called upon their mother[696] the day of the execution, and was greatly distressed when she threw herself upon her knees to beg the favour of his intervention for John; she did not know that Henry had been implicated, and, of course, was ignorant that either had already suffered death. Lord Shannon, in an agony of mind, and unable to explain, rushed from the room.

There was a butchery displayed in the immolation of the brothers which, if employed at the present day on a beast in the shambles, would evoke angry protest. The ‘New Cork Evening Post’ of July 23, 1798, while supplying some painful details, bears out Barrington’s recollection:–

They requested that they might not continue long exposed to the gaze of the multitude, and, having each an halter fixed round his neck, and a cap drawn over his face, holding by each other’s hand, they tottered out upon the platform in front of the prison. In making the rope fast within, John Sheares was hauled up to the block of the tackle, and continued nearly a minute suspended alone before the platform fell. It did fall, and instantly both were suspended. After hanging about twenty minutes, they were, at a quarter after three o’clock, let down, when the hangman separated their heads.[697]

Much feeling was roused by this sanguinary act. Classic students who lived in the past started in horror, comparing the Sheareses to ‘the hapless victims’ described by Gibbon: ‘the two brothers of the Quintilian family whose fraternal love endeared them to posterity–whose bodies seemed animated by one soul–and whose union in death is due to the cruelty of Commodus.’ Grattan loudly condemned the men ‘whose misrule had brought Ireland to so black a crisis. The question men should have asked was, not why was Mr. Sheares upon the gallows?–but why was not Lord Clare along with him?’ And two years later, in a speech of resistance to the Union, he declared that the treason of the minister against the liberties of the people was far worse than the rebellion of the people against the minister. But even in the latter sense, Henry Sheares must be held guiltless. John, pouring out to his sister, in an agonised letter, his most secret thoughts, writes: ‘Heaven is my witness how assiduously I sought to keep aloof, in any of my political concerns, from him;’ and there is not a line in the evidence of Armstrong to prove that Henry took any active part in the treason. Addis Emmet, Arthur O’Connor, McNevin–all the men who had been at the head of it, and its very soul, were at that hour in gaol. O’Connor declared that he and his colleagues knew nothing of the Sheareses; and it is certain that neither of them had ever intrigued with France, as O’Connor and the others had done. The names of the Sheareses find no place in the list of marked men that Turner gave Downshire (p. 7, ante). This omission can be easily accounted for. Arthur O’Connor, in a letter to Dr. Madden, which pointed out some inaccuracies, writes:–

You seem to think the Sheares were leading men in the Union,[698] whereas, I may say, they never entered it, so as to be known to us. The fact is, they were just entering it when they were cut off. It was the younger Sheares’s Proclamation, which was an act purely personal, without the knowledge or concurrence of the Union, that has misled some to think he and his brother were deeply engaged in the Union.’

The following is one of the letters, already promised, and now published for the first time. It is written by Henry previous to his trial:–

Dear Sir,–Accept my best thanks for the friendly readiness with which you consented to present my letter, which I hope has been received. I am now to trouble you on a subject more immediately relating to my unfortunate situation. I have apply’d as is usual in those cases to my different Friends to come forward on my tryal, and to give me a character such as they think I deserve, and to put it in a manner most likely to produce a beneficial effect. From my knowledge of the goodness of your heart, from a sympathy which I am sure you feel for a fond husband and an affectionate father, from the regard which I am sure you have for Mrs. Sheares, I feel a hope that in this instance you will gladly embrace this opportunity of saving us both. You know that on these occasions a general character is not admissable so that it must apply to the political character. And so far to the domestic as will go to establish the political.

Taking it this way may I hope that you can say that you know me to be a man of domestic habits, fondly attached to my wife and children, so as to make it highly improbable that I would suffer my political conduct to endanger their happiness; that you consider me a man of liberal but not violent principles; that I go no farther in them than the first characters of opposition in the English and Irish Parliament have done, namely being an advocate for a reform in Parliament and a renovation of the ancient purity of our constitution; that I am not a friend to violent systems, and that I am not an advocate for Revolution.

This is what, from your knowledge of me, I trust you can say without going farther than will justify you to yourself. And for this friendly service I shall seize with pleasure every opportunity of showing how much I shall feel myself obliged to you for it.

As it is usual and necessary for the use of counsel to have the witnesses’ names which they are to prove arranged in the brief, I have given directions to my agent to wait on you for that purpose whenever it may be convenient to you, as also to go through the form of giving you a summons.

Your very much obliged and grateful Friend,


Kilmainham Gaol: July 10, 1798.

The superscription of this letter has been removed–probably by the recipient–and it seems very likely that he left his friend in the lurch, and did not come forward for his defence. The prosecuting counsel of those days loved to taunt such witnesses with a participation in the views held by the accused; they were browbeaten and bullied, and often left the court wincing under some dark innuendo, dropped with jibing leer.

John, the younger brother, wrote two letters to his sister, from which it is clear that–constituted as the jury panel was at that day–he had no hope of acquittal. The matter omitted deals with sundry small debts which he desired should be paid:–

Kilmainham Prison: July 10, 1798.

The troublesome scene of life, my dear Julia, is nearly closed, and the hand that now traces these lines will in a day or two be no longer capable of communicating to a beloved and affectionate family the sentiments of his heart. A painful task yet awaits me. I do not allude to my trial, or my execution. These–were it not for the consciousness I feel of the misery you all will suffer on my account–would be trivial in comparison with the pain I endure in addressing you for the last time. You, Julia, who have been kind to me beyond example; your solicitudes for my welfare have been unremitting, nor did they leave you a moment’s happiness. As a wayward fate seems from the earliest moment of my life to have presided over my days, I will not now recapitulate the instances of a perverse destiny that seems to mark me out as the instrument of destruction to all I love. Robert–Richard–and Christopher, dear, valued brothers! If it be true that the mind survives the body, I shall shortly join you, and learn for what wise purpose Heaven thought fit to select me as your destroyer! My mother too–Oh! God! my tender revered mother, I see her torn looks–her broken heart–her corpse! What have I done to deserve this misery? I must forbear these thoughts as much as possible, or I must forbear to write.

My trial comes on the day after to-morrow, and the event is unequivocal. You must summon up all the resolution of your soul, my dear Julia; if there be a chance of snatching my afflicted mother from the grave, that chance must arise from your exertions; my darling Sally, too, will aid you; she will, for a while, suspend her joy at the restoration of her husband to her arms–for of his escape I have no more doubt than I have of my own conviction and its consequences. All, all of you must forget your individual griefs and joys, and unite to save that best of parents from the grave; stand between her and despair; if she will speak of me, sooth her with every assurance calculated to carry consolation to her heart; tell her that my death–though nominally ignominious–should not light up a blush in her face; that she knew me incapable of a dishonourable action or thought; that I died in full possession of the esteem of all those who knew me intimately; that justice will yet be paid to my memory, and my fate be mentioned rather with pride than shame by my friends and relations. Yes, my dear sister, if I did not expect the arrival of this justice to my memory, I should indeed be afflicted at the nominal ignominy of my death, lest it should injure your welfare, and wound the feelings of my family. But, above all things, tell her that at my own request I have been attended in my latest moments by that excellent and pious man, Doctor Dobbin, and that my last prayer was offered up for her. While I feared for Harry’s life, hell itself could have no tortures for the guilty beyond what I suffered. I pictured you all, a helpless, unprotected group of females, left to the miseries of your own feelings, and to the insults of a callous, insensible world. Sally, too, stripped of a husband on whom she tenderly doats, and the children of their father–and all by my cursed interloping, and by my residence with them! Yet, Heaven is my witness, how assiduously I sought to keep aloof in any of my political concerns from him. My efforts, however, have kept him clear of any of those matters that have involved me in destruction. When Sally has got him back to her arms, and that I, who caused his danger, and her unhappiness, am no more, she will cease to think of me, perhaps, with reproach. This I trust she will do; she ought, for she herself could never have done more for his salvation than I endeavoured to do. But the scene is changed, I am no longer the frantic thing I was while his danger appeared imminent. A calm sorrow for the sufferings that await you on my account, and a heart-felt regret at being obliged to quit your beloved society for ever, has succeeded; yet all this will soon have an end, and with comfort I already anticipate the moment when your subsiding grief gives you back to the enjoyment of each other. Still, my dearest Julia, even when I shall be no more, your plagues on my account are not likely to cease….

Good night, Julia. I am going to rest, thank God! free from the consciousness of intentional offence, and from any wish tainted with personal resentment.

John when in France had been an ardent admirer of Rousseau, whose style he now unconsciously catches:–

Wednesday night: July 11.

It is now eleven o’clock, and I have only time to address my beloved Julia in a short eternal farewell. Thou sacred power! whatever be thy name and nature, who has created us the frail and imperfect creatures we are, hear the ardent prayer of a creature now on the eve of an awful change. If thy Divine Providence can be affected by mortal supplication, hear and grant, I beseech Thee, the last wishes of a heart that has ever adored Thy goodness. Let peace and happiness once more visit the bosom of my beloved family. Let a mild grief succeed the miseries they have endured, and when an affectionate tear is generously shed over the dust of him who caused their misfortunes–let all their ensuing days glide on in union and domestic harmony. Enlighten my beloved brother; to him and his invaluable wife grant the undisturbed enjoyment of their mutual love, and as they advance let their means of providing for the sweet pledges of their attachment increase. Let my Julia, my feeling–my too feeling–Julia, feel the consolation she has so often sought for others, let her soul repose at length in the consummation of all her wishes–let her taste that happiness her virtues have so well merited. For my other sisters provide those comforts their situation requires. To my mother, oh, Eternal Power! what gift shall I wish for my matchless parent? Restore to her that peace which I have torn from her–let her forget me in the ceaseless affections of my remaining sisters, and in their growing prosperity–let her taste that happiness which is best suited to her affectionate heart, and when at length she is called home, let her find in everlasting bliss the due reward of a life of suffering virtue. Adieu, my Julia, my light is just out, the approach of darkness is like that of death, since both alike require I shall say farewell for ever. Oh, my dear family, farewell–farewell for ever!

In dealing with Armstrong’s conduct in this case,[699] I regret being obliged to take a tone different from that of Mr. Lecky, who has placed his character in a somewhat favourable point of view.

The sealed chest in Dublin Castle, which was opened some years ago, contained McNally’s secret reports, signed ‘J. W.’ Among them is the following, dated by McNally, July 14, 1798:–

Lord Cork’s First Letter

Lord Cork writes: ‘Mr. John Warneford Armstrong was certainly in my regiment and quitted it in a most disgraceful manner. From his conduct while there I would not pay much attention to what he did say, nor give much credit even to his oath.

‘I would send a person on purpose did I not think it would be too late.’

[Dated by Lord Cork, July 9.]

Lord Cork’s Second Letter, dated 11th

‘Mr. Sheares’s letter did not reach me till to-day. I lose no time to inform the Lord Lieutenant circumstances concerning Mr. Armstrong that I hope may be of service to the unfortunate brothers.'[700] …

It has transpired [adds McNally], perhaps without foundation, that amnesty is to be held out to-morrow–chearfulness is the consequence.

The letters above alluded to are in the hands of my friend [i.e. himself]. He has kept them private.

Sheares and McNally had been old friends. Sheares stood by him in the hour of danger.[701] These ties were strengthened by the fact that McNally was counsel for him on the trial.[702] Assuming that McNally had the letters in his possession of which he sends copies, it seems quite indefensible to have kept back Lord Cork’s, dated July 9, until the very day on which the brothers were hanged. The execution took place in Dublin at 11·45 A.M. on July 14, 1798. Sir Jonah Barrington mentions that a reprieve was granted but did not arrive in time. It cannot be assumed that McNally humanely used these letters in any other quarter, for, as he assures Cooke, he ‘has kept them private.’

Sir Jonah Barrington, who was constantly consulted by the Irish Government, says, when noticing Armstrong’s evidence against the Sheares, that, unlike Reynolds–a man of spotted fame and impoverished finances–‘Armstrong had a stake and a status to lose; but he took the bold course of sacrificing openly the honour of an officer and a gentleman.’ These words he would not use had Lord Cork’s letter seen the light.

Armstrong, forty-five years after the execution of his victims, held, in a conversation with Dr. Madden, that Curran’s statement as to taking ‘baby Sheares’ on his knee could not be true because he was never fond of children. An unscrupulous man, however, playing a desperate game, and in the excitement of hot pursuit, may have done things contrary to his usual habits. Armstrong’s sole effort was to extort the confidence of the Sheares; and he could not forget that he who takes the child by the hand takes the parent by the heart. It is to be feared that Armstrong’s oral ‘pooh pooh’ is untenable. The following anecdote, now told for the first time, rests on the high authority of Lawrence Parsons, Earl of Ross. Armstrong, shortly after the death of the Sheareses, when landing from Holyhead at the Pigeon House, and anxious to avoid hostile greetings from the mob who always awaited the coach which brought to Dublin the usually seasick passengers, crossed the Strand to Sandymount, and when midway observed approaching a lady in black accompanied by two children. The latter on recognising Armstrong ran gleefully to meet him.[703] Needless to say they were the widow and orphans of Henry Sheares. Another authentic anecdote ought to be told. The grand-aunt of Mr. Gray, F.T.C.D., gave him the following curious reminiscence. Her family resided near Armstrong in the King’s County, and he was intimate at their house. One evening in 1797 the lady heard angry voices in the parlour, where she had left the gentlemen after dinner, and on turning the handle to re-enter a loud smash followed. Armstrong had talked so much treason that it excited her brother to disgust; and this feeling gave place to rage when Armstrong, having left the room for some minutes, had returned dressed in rebel green. The former seized a decanter and hurled it at Armstrong, who ducked, and the panel suffered instead of his head.

The Rev. Dr. Dobbin, who attended the brothers at their execution, now claims to be heard in a letter published for the first time. It is addressed to Captain William Flemyng, a cousin of the Sheareses:–

Finglas: July 16, 1798.

My dear Sir,–Agreeably to your desire I send the letter which Mr. John Sheares addressed to me, and which I received from his own hands on Saturday morning after his participating in the most solemn rite of our religion. However criminal I may consider his conduct to have been in other respects, of the charges from which he is so anxious his memory may be vindicated I acquit him from my soul; under this conviction I shall chearfully comply with his request, and embrace every opportunity of explaining his real intentions in writing the paper which has so much irritated the public mind. You, I trust, will exert yourself in a similar manner; when you have taken a copy of the letter you will be so good as to return it. The two unfortunate brothers, who forfeited their lives last Saturday to the violated laws of their country, were the sons of an eminent banker in Cork with whom I had lived, many years since, in intimacy and friendship. The elder brother I was but slightly acquainted with, but Mr. John Sheares I knew more intimately. I admired his uncommon talents, and still more the distinguished humanity and philanthropy which marked the whole of his conversation and demeanour. It was, therefore, with equal surprise and concern I heard of his being under confinement on a charge of high treason. With still greater astonishment, if possible, I heard a paper had been found in his handwriting, the tendency of which was to excite the people to violent and sanguinary proceedings: this was so entirely irreconcileable with the humane and liberal principles which I was persuaded had ever directed the conduct of J. S. that I ardently wished for an explanation. An opportunity soon occurred. On Friday morning I received your letter informing me of the conviction of the two brothers, and conveying an earnest request from J. S. that I should visit him as soon as possible. I undertook the melancholy office with mingled pain and satisfaction. I continued with them some hours that day. What past during the solemn interview was, I trust, suited to the awful circumstances in which they were placed, and becoming the character and situation in which I stood. I shall only trouble you, however, with what relates immediately to the subject of the letter, or is connected with it. The charge of sanguinary intentions he disclaimed as most abhorrent to his nature and repugnant to his principles, asserted his object to prevent the effusion of blood, and assigned more fully and more at large the motives and reasons contained in his letter. The whole was delivered with a serious, solemn, and unembarrassed air, such as usually accompanies truth, and must have imprest on my mind the fullest conviction of his sincerity. There is one fact he mentioned on this occasion, which I shall relate to you as nearly as I can in his own words: ‘To the taking away of the life of a fellow creature where it can be prevented my nature is so abhorrent that I was called by some of my democratic friends “the Informer”: assassination was mentioned, and I reprobated the idea with horror and positively declared that, unless it was instantly given up, I would myself inform against them: in consequence of my peremptory declaration it was given up, and the lives of some persons were preserved.’

On my strongly representing to him the fatal and unjustifiable part he had taken, and the miserable condition of his country, he made the following reply: ‘Dr. Dobbin, many wished for reform who did not think of rebellion, but you know the progress of the human mind; where demands, just in the opinion of those who make them, instead of concession produce further coercion, discontents are encreased, and a man is gradually led on step by step to lengths he would in the beginning shudder at.’

His behaviour with respect to his near relatives was tender and affecting; resigned to his own fate, he expressed the strongest desire to save, if possible, the life of his brother. When I was parting from him at my last visit, he conjured me in visible emotion with tears in his eyes to visit his poor mother and endeavour to console her.

Adieu, my dear Sir,[704] most truly yours,


Finglas: July 16, 1798.

The enclosure does not seem to have been sent back by Flemyng as requested. The original of John Sheares’s letter is now before me, preserved within the decaying folds of Dr. Dobbin’s manuscript:–

To the Rev. Dr. Dobbin.

My dear Sir,–As to-morrow is appointed for the execution of my brother and me, I shall trouble you with a few words on the subject of the writing produced on my trial, importing to be a proclamation. The first observation I have to make is that a considerable part of that scrolled production was suppressed on my trial; from what motive, or whether by accident, I will not say–certain it is that the part which has not appeared must have in a great measure shewn what the true motives were that caused that writing, if it had been produced. To avoid a posthumous calumny in addition to the many and gross misrepresentations of my principles, moral and political, I shall state, with the most sacred regard to Truth, what my chief objects were in writing, or rather in attempting to write, it, for it is but a wretched, patched and garbled attempt. It was contained in a sheet of paper and in one or two pieces more, which are not forthcoming–the sheet alone is produced. It is written in very violent revolutionary language, because, as it in the outset imports, after a revolution had taken place could it alone be published–and the[705] occurrence of such an event I thought every day more probable. The first sentence that has produced much misrepresentation is that which mentions that some of the most obnoxious members of the Government have already payed the forfeit of their lives–I cannot state the words exactly. From this it is concluded I countenanced assassination–Gracious God!–but I shall simply answer that this sentence was merely supposititious, and founded on that common remark, oftenest made by those who least wished it verified, that if the people had ever recourse to force and succeeded, there were certain persons whom they would most probably destroy. The next most obnoxious sentence–more obnoxious to my feelings, because calculated to misrepresent the real sentiments of my soul–is that which recommends to give no quarter to those who fought against their native country [unless they should speedily join the Standard of Freedom]. With this latter part of the sentence I found two faults, and therefore drew my pen over it as above. The first fault was that the word ‘speedily’ was too vague and might encourage the sanguinary immediately to deny quarter, which was the very thing the whole sentence was intended to discountenance and prevent–the next fault was that it required more than ever should be required of any human being, namely, to fight against his opinions from fear. The sentence was intended to prevent the horrid measure of refusing quarter from being adopted: by appearing to acquiesce in it at some future period, when the inhuman thirst for it should no longer exist. But as the sentence now stands in two parts of the sheet it would appear as if I sought to enforce the measure I most abhor. To prevent it was, in fact, one of my leading motives for writing the address: but I had also three others that are expressed on the piece or pieces of paper, which made part of the writing, but which, tho’ laid all together in the same desk, have disappeared.

The three objects alluded to are these, the protection of property, preventing the indulgence of revenge, and the strict forbiddal of injuring any person for religious differences.

I know it is said that I call on the people to take vengeance on their oppressors, and enumerate some of their oppressions. But this is the very thing that enables me to point out the difference between private revenge and public vengeance. The former has only a retrospective and malignant propensity, while the latter, though animated by the recollection of the past, has ever only in view the removal of the evil and of the possibility of occurrence. Thus the assassin revenges himself; but the patriot avenges his country of it’s enemies, by overthrowing them, and depriving them of all power again to hurt it: In the struggle some of their lives may fall, but these were not the objects of his vengeance. In short, even the Deity is said in this sense to be an avenging Being; but who deems him revengeful? Adieu, my dear sir. Let me entreat you, whenever an opportunity shall occur, that you will justify my principles on these points. Believe me your sincere friend,


Newgate: 12 o’clock at night, July 13.[706]

The Proclamation which brought John Sheares to the scaffold (Henry had no part in it, and died, so far, innocent) ended with these words:–

Vengeance, Irishmen, vengeance on your oppressors! Remember that thousands of your dearest friends have perished by their merciless orders! Remember their burnings–their rackings–their torturings–their military massacres, and their legal murders. Remember Orr!

These declamatory words of a young barrister and amateur tragedian, who probably had no serious design of going red-handed into revolution, were by no means confined to his mouth. In the Appendix will be found some account of William Orr. Meanwhile, the late Henry Grattan, son of the greater Grattan, writes:–

‘Remember Orr!’ were words written everywhere–pronounced everywhere. I recollect, when a child, to have read them on the walls–to have heard them spoken by the people. Fortunately I did not comprehend their meaning. The conduct of the Irish Government was so reprobated, that at a public dinner in London, given in honor of Mr. Fox’s birthday, in one of the rooms where the Duke of Norfolk, Lord Oxford, Mr. Erskine, Sir Francis Burdett, and Horne Tooke sat, two of the toasts were,–‘The memory of Orr–basely M–D–D. May the execution of Orr provide places for the Cabinet of St. James’s at the Castle!’

The fate of the Sheareses was soon forgotten, but occasionally a pilgrim in thoughtful mood wended his way to their last resting place. William Henry Curran sent to the ‘New Monthly Magazine,’ in 1822, an account of St. Michan’s crypt, Church Street, Dublin. This vault possesses the rare virtue of preserving human remains.[707] He was struck on entering to find that decay had been more busy with the tenement than the tenant:–

In some instances the coffins had altogether disappeared; in others the lids or sides had mouldered away, exposing the remains within, still unsubdued by death from their original form…. I had been told that they (the Sheares) were here, and the moment the light of the taper fell upon the spot they occupy, I quickly recognised them by one or two circumstances that forcibly recalled the close of their career–the headless trunks and the remains of their coarse, unadorned penal shells. Henry’s head was lying beside his brother; John’s had not been completely detached by the blow of the executioner–one of the ligaments of the neck still connects it with the body. I knew nothing of these victims of ill-timed enthusiasm except from historical report; but the companion of my visit to their grave had been their cotemporary and friend, and he paid their memories the tribute of some sighs, which, even at this distance of time, it would not be prudent to heave in a less privileged place.

The late Richard Dalton Webb, when a boy, also went to see these reliques. With a penknife he severed the ligament mentioned by Curran, and carried away the head to his own home, where it remained twenty years. He finally regretted having taken it, and offered it to Dr. Madden, at whose door the gruesome relic duly arrived.

The head was finely formed [he writes], but the expression of the face was that of the most frightful agony. The mark of very violent injuries, done during life to the right eye, nose, and mouth, were particularly apparent; the very indentation round the neck, from the pressure of the rope, was visible; and there was no injury to the cervical vertebræ occasioned by any instrument.

These horrible marks were doubtless caused by the brutal and bungling way in which the executioner had done his work. Madden, in good taste, restored to the shrunken trunk its long-lost head. When John Sheares, in his last letter, spoke of ‘an affectionate tear shed over his dust,’ he little foresaw the grim irony by which the words of the Burial Service–‘Dust to dust, ashes to ashes’–were to be thwarted. He never married. Roche, in his ‘Essays of an Octogenarian,’ says that, happening to occupy the rooms in Dublin where John Sheares had once lived, he discovered, in a recess, a package of his letters, which, on finding them addressed to a lady, he instantly burned. Rich material for romance was thus, happily, lost.

John Sheares’s last letter to his sister makes feeling reference to his natural daughter Louise, then aged seven years. Julia Sheares gave from her pinched resources what served to educate this girl. Louise married a Mr. Coghlan, but, owing to his loose habits, left him. John’s dramatic dash descended to his child. She became a popular actress, and was known on the London stage as ‘Miss White.’ Here the gentle histrion went through many struggles, and was pursued by much adulation. But panting–like Goldsmith’s hare–to the spot from whence at first she flew, Louise returned to Ireland, and died there in 1828.

Whilst the parchment features of the Sheareses grinned in agonised expression, and their orphans shivered in the storms of a cold, neglectful world,[708] John Warneford Armstrong battened on his blood-money, and posed as a prosperous and popular man. Lord Cork’s damaging account of his antecedents in the letter which remained near a century sealed will be remembered. The magisterial bench hailed his adhesion; he took a leading place on the grand jury of his county; Burke’s ‘Landed Gentry’ enrolled him in its ranks.

In 1843 the name of Captain Armstrong again came before the public, in connection with the prosecution of his servant, Egan, for stealing, among other effects, a gold medal in commemoration of his discoveries in 1798. The late F. Thorpe Porter, from whose lips I had the following anecdote, was on the bench with Sir Nicholas FitzSimon as police magistrate, when the latter, recognising through a glass door the well-known figure of Armstrong approaching, said: ‘Here is Sheares’ Armstrong; I don’t care to meet him,’ and retired into a private room. FitzSimon, as former member for the King’s County in which Armstrong lived, had been in pleasant touch with him, and often chuckled at his quaint conceits. Armstrong with his accustomed swagger took his seat, uninvited, on the bench. Mr. Porter said that he had not the honour of his acquaintance, and requested him to withdraw. ‘I always had this privilege from Major Sirr,’ replied Armstrong, unabashed; ‘and I am a magistrate for the King’s County.’ ‘This not being the King’s County,’ retorted Porter, ‘I must only repeat my request. If you continue to sit here people in court might suppose that you were–what I should much regret–a friend of mine.’

Sir Thomas Redington, the Under-Secretary, informed Mr. Porter that Armstrong had reported to the Government the words of which he complained, but that it was decided to take no action in the matter.

Soon after a case came on for hearing before the judicial Chairman of the King’s County, to whom the Clerk of the Peace, speaking in a half-whisper, said: ‘Sheares’ Armstrong’ (a nickname by which he was well known) ‘has some testimony to offer which it might be well for you to hear.’ This was done, and the chairman, in summing up, said: ‘I now come to the evidence of Mr. Sheares Armstrong’–and he then proceeded to observe upon it, innocently using–over and over again–the stigmatising nickname, to the amusement of the audience and the agony of Armstrong. All was not couleur de rose with this prosperous person. ‘The Attornies Guide,’ a local satire, published at Dublin in 1807, and written by the Rev. Richard Frizell, rector of Ilfracombe, notices as a judgment, a fact which can be regarded merely as a coincidence: ‘Shortly after he gave his ever-memorable evidence on the trial of these unfortunate gentlemen–the Sheareses–he was afflicted with a fistula in the face, which rendered him as remarkable an object as Cain is supposed to have been after the murder of his brother.’ Frizell finally exclaims (p. 42):–

Unhappy Sheares–an Armstrong thus caressed
Thy infant, hanging at its mother’s breast;
Friendship pretending, revelled at thy board,
While round your neck he tied the fatal cord!

Stings like these must have severely tried his patience. His temper was of as hair-trigger a character as the pistols which he carried for protection. Robert Maunsell, a leading solicitor, of whom Armstrong was a client, informed me that the captain, on one occasion, when entertained by Mrs. Maunsell in Merrion Square, smashed, by an awkward swinging gesture, the leg of the chair on which he sat, whereupon his exclamation was not a gallant apology, but–‘D—- n your chairs, madam!’ This, Maunsell said, was intoned with a nasal twang–the penalty paid for the lupus–which ate into his beauty fifty years before.

To earn 500l. a year Armstrong must have done something more than merely to ensnare the Sheareses, although hitherto he has been credited with that exploit alone. William Lawless was Professor of Physiology at the College of Surgeons, Dublin, a man of mark, and very highly connected. Immediately after his interview with Armstrong at Sheares’s house we find a warrant issued for his arrest, and it was not Armstrong’s fault if he failed to meet the fate of the brothers. A timely hint from Surgeon-general Stewart put Lawless on the alert. By hair-breadth escapes he eluded his pursuers, and at last reached France, where he became a distinguished general under Napoleon.

Armstrong, when stealing on the Sheareses, sought to kill another bird with the same stone. He was clearly making notes for the ruin of Lawless as well, and mentioned on Sheares’s trial, among other remarks alleged to have been made by Lawless, that the trees near the Royal camp would come handy in suspending prisoners captured by the rebel force. Lawless had luckily escaped at this time, but at once wrote indignantly denying that he had ever made so horrible a suggestion. Previous to his flight he had resided in French Street, Dublin, whither Major Sirr proceeded with a warrant both for his arrest and that of John Sheares, who had been in daily conference with him. While Sirr was engaged in searching Lawless’s house a knock came to the door, Sheares entered, and Sirr at once said, ‘You are my prisoner.’

Lawless had seen Lord Edward constantly during the period of his concealment; but Armstrong knew nothing of the chieftain’s movements, and, of course, had no hand in his betrayal, though some infer to the contrary from a passing remark made by Mr. Froude.[709] But he qualified for his pension by a general vigilance and activity in support of that red system and policy which John Sheares’s proclamation brands. Armstrong having been questioned by Curran as to three peasants which he had taken prisoners in ’98, he replied: ‘We were going up Blackmore Hill, under Sir James Duff; there was a party of rebels there. We met three men with green cockades. One we shot, another we hanged, and the third we flogged and made a guide of.'[710]

The murder of a little child by a yeoman named Woolagan excited, even in those days, a feeling of abhorrence, and Plowden, in his ‘History of Ireland,’ notices Woolagan’s acquittal by the court-martial which tried him, but does not cite the evidence. This we find in the ‘Dublin Magazine’ for October 1798. There it will be seen that the murderer threw the onus on the general orders issued by Captain Armstrong. Phillips and Curran, who have written of that man, do not appear to have read this trial. The crime was proved and not denied, yet Woolagan was acquitted. But the Viceroy, Lord Cornwallis, condemned the verdict, and disqualified the president of the court-martial, Lord Enniskillen, from again presiding in that capacity.

Captain Armstrong, though hot-tempered, was capable of generous acts, and his redeeming points must not be ignored. He was a bad hater, a good laugher. Affable to all, he frequently went out of his way to be civil; and with him sweet words had more than their proverbial value. In days when landlordism reigned with iron sceptre, he showed indulgence to his tenantry; but when giving leases, or using his influence with higher lords of the soil for that end, he cunningly got his own life inserted as a beneficial interest to the tenants. Thus in the hot-bed of Ribbonism he gloried to the end in a sort of charmed life. He survived until April 20, 1858, when he died at Clara, in the King’s County, after having drawn from Dublin Castle 500l. a year, or about 29,464l. Castlereagh, who had urged him to his work, recommended him for a pension, and predeceased him by nearly forty years, might have deemed this sum excessive had he lived to see it paid.

Seeking to disarm prejudice and cultivate rural friendship, Armstrong maintained cordial relations with the peasantry. He would enter their cabins, sit with rude hosts, and converse with their wives on various domestic points solely of interest to themselves. We must suppose that, consistently with his later utterance, their children attracted from him no moving manifestation of regard. His long life had one decided advantage. It is stated that he lived down every political enemy and contemporary, becoming in the end downright popular. His face, familiar from childhood even to old men, became at last endeared to early memories, and his neighbour, Captain Fuller, who attended his funeral, testifies to the almost incredible fact that he saw some well-known Ribbonmen, who were present, weep, and horny hands upraised which, in the hot blood of youth, had dispensed ‘the wild justice of revenge.'[711]


[692] The fact that Mr. Lecky, when noticing the Sheares, tells his readers to ‘see a curious anecdote about them’ in a former book of mine, affords in itself an excuse for now offering something new. Vide England in the Eighteenth Century, viii. 191.

[693] Ridgeway’s Report of the Trial of the Sheares, p. 129.

[694] The will of Sheares senior lends no support to this often repeated statement; but he commits his children to the care of Lord Shannon, a relative of their mother. This peer had been created, in 1786, Baron Carleton in the peerage of England, and hence the confusion.

[695] Rise and Fall of the Irish Nation, p. 365. (Paris, 1833.)

[696] She did not long survive the great shock, but a prolonged purgatory was reserved for Henry’s widow. She never raised her head, loved to occupy a darkened room, and always spent in fasting and prayer the anniversary of his death. Like her husband she was a Protestant.

[697] Brutal and bungling as all this was, it would appear that, from the first, it was designed that a cruel butchery should desecrate their death. The original warrant for their execution orders that:–

‘They, and each of them, be hanged by the neck–but not until they be dead–for whilst they are yet alive, they are to be taken down–their entrails are to be taken out of their bodies, and, whilst they are yet alive, to be burned before their faces; their heads are then to be respectively cut off; their bodies to be divided into four quarters, and their heads and bodies to be at His Majesty’s disposal.’

The above death warrant, with written directions from Mr. Cooke, as to the troops to attend at the scaffold, is addressed to Alderman Archer, High Sheriff for Dublin in 1798, and is now preserved by his grandnephew, Rev. Thomas Gray, M.A., F.T.C.D.

[698] The Society of United Irishmen.

[699] Most writers on the period, in noticing the anomaly that in England two witnesses were necessary in cases of treason, but in Ireland only one, assume that this law continues in force. The law as regards two witnesses dates from the reign of Edward III. It received strengthening touches by the 7 & 8 Will. III. cap. 3. But in 1822 it was extended to Ireland (1 & 2 Geo. IV. cap. 24); and editors of Haydn might note this fact.

[700] General Edward Boyle, eighth Earl of Cork, survived until June 29, 1856, and was the last surviving peer who had sat in the Irish and in the English House of Lords.

[701] See notice of the duel, p. 177, ante.

[702] ‘Anonymous letters are flying. My friend got two this week threatening death and destruction if he exerted himself on the approaching trials.’ ‘My friend’ is the ‘cipher’ by which McNally always means himself.–J. W. to Cooke, July 10, 1798. (MSS. Dublin Castle.)

[703] The late Lord Ross, a friend of Armstrong’s, to Rev. Thomas Gray, M.A., F.T.C.D., who has communicated it to W. J. F.

[704] The late Dr. Ireland, a nonagenarian, who had filled official posts in Dublin Castle, knew Flemyng, to whom Dr. Dobbin’s letter is addressed. Flemyng had been in the East India Company’s service, but joined the United Irishmen during leave of absence from Bengal, in which place he had known Lord Cornwallis, its then Governor-General, but later Viceroy of Ireland. ‘Flemyng,’ says Dr. Ireland, ‘attained popularity for having, with his own arm, killed the largest boar seen in India, an animal which had often ripped open horses and oxen. One night, at Dublin, the Viceroy sent for Flemyng and surprised him by saying that all that had passed between him and the Sheares was known to the Privy Council. The Lord Lieutenant, then placing his arm on Flemyng’s shoulder, said: “Let not another day elapse, or not all my influence can save you from the gallows. Start for India at once; those fellows at Ghazapore must be put down; you are just the man to do it. You will be gazetted to your company ere you reach Bombay.” Flemyng went to India, did the work, rose, and died rich. In 1805 he again met Lord Cornwallis, on his arrival in India charged with the re-assumption of its reins of government; with gratitude he acknowledged the timely service he had rendered him in 1798. Death was written in the face of Lord Cornwallis as he landed at Calcutta: India, the grave of Europeans, folded him to its embrace, and a few weeks later the soldier-statesman was no more.’–Richard Stanley Ireland, M.D., to W. J. F. This aged physician died on March 13, 1875.

[705] The word ‘possible’ was written here, but afterwards crossed out.

[706] The above letter of John Sheares, enclosed in Dr. Dobbin’s communication, has, I find, been printed by Dr. Madden; but, on comparing the original document with the printed copy, no fewer than thirteen discrepancies are detected.

[707] The soil and walls of the crypt being a compound of argillaceous earth and carbonate of lime, a singularly antiseptic character is thus imparted to these vaults.

[708] In 1860, a daughter of Henry Sheares, then seventy-two years of age, was an occupant of an almshouse in Cork.

[709] Froude, iii. 341.

[710] The Trial of the Sheareses, reported by Ridgeway, p. 129.

[711] The late Sir Robert Peel.

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