Secret Service Under Pitt

CHAPTER III

FATHER O’COIGLY HANGED

Mr. Froude, after a perusal of the letters of Downshire’s friend, and other documents, states that a priest named O’Coigly or Quigley ‘had visited Paris in 1797, returned to Dublin, and had been with Lord Edward Fitzgerald at Leinster House; that he was now going back to Paris, and Arthur O’Connor determined to go in his company.[39] Their mission, though ostensibly for presenting an address from the London corresponding society of United Irishmen to the French Government, was really for the double purpose of urging upon it the prompt despatch of an invading fleet to Ireland, and of deposing the Irish envoy, Lewins, who, instead of Turner, had begun to be suspected. Mr. Lawless, afterwards Lord Cloncurry, invited O’Coigly to dinner in London; and it was on this occasion that O’Connor met the priest for the first time. O’Coigly, under the name of Captain Jones, with Allen[40] seemingly as his servant, and Leary, left London for Margate, on their mission of mystery. O’Connor travelled by another route to Margate, took the name of Colonel Morris, and was accompanied by Binns. On the following day, at the King’s Head Inn, Margate, all the party were arrested by two Bow Street officers. O’Coigly and O’Connor had dined at Lawless’s lodgings more than once; and here, though not necessarily with his knowledge, the travelling arrangements seem to have been made. Whether Turner was a guest does not appear; but he was certainly in London at this time, and as one of the Executive Committee is likely to have been invited. Presently it will be shown that from this quarter came all the information which enabled Pitt to seize O’Connor and O’Coigly at Margate en route to France, although, to elude observation, they had journeyed by different roads. The prisoners, meanwhile, were removed to London, examined before the Privy Council, and then transmitted to Maidstone Jail to await their trial. The source of the information which caused these historic arrests on February 27, 1798, has hitherto remained a mystery. Father O’Coigly, while in jail, wrote some letters, in which he failed to avow his share in the conspiracy, but admitted to have made a previous visit to Cuxhaven. This was part of the city of Hamburg. Turner, in addition to being the official agent of the United Irishmen at Hamburg, was an old Dundalk acquaintance of O’Coigly’s, and no doubt was promptly hailed by the country priest.

Turner and O’Coigly are mentioned in Hughes’s information. They belonged to the same district organisation. After describing Teeling, Turner and Lowry working in concert in 1797, Hughes adds that priest Quigly or O’Coigly introduced him at that time to Baily and Binns.[41] The paper revealed by Mr. Froude, now shown to be Turner’s, and other letters from the same hand in the ‘Castlereagh Papers,’ show that the writer always felt a strong dislike to work with the ‘Papists,’ especially priests. ‘Casey, the red-faced, designing Dublin priest,’ was one of the leading men he met in Dublin, and whose ‘prudence or cowardice’ disgusted him. Immediately after O’Coigly’s return to London we find the authorities on his track. The priest himself refers to an abortive attempt to arrest him by night at Piccadilly.[42] Mr. Froude, dealing with this case, does not seem to have suspected that the arrival in London of Downshire’s friend, at the time of the arrests at Margate, was other than accidental. Yet clearly it was business of no ordinary moment which brought him back to London at this time. It will be remembered that, panic-stricken and fearing death from the assassin’s knife, he had returned to Hamburg in October 1797, ere an answer came from Pitt to the proposition of betrayal conveyed by Lord Downshire.

It happened that at this particular time [writes Mr. Froude] that Downshire’s friend was in London, and Pelham (the Irish Secretary) knew it. If the ‘friend’ could be brought over, and could be induced to give evidence, a case could then be established against all the United Irish leaders. They could be prosecuted with certainty of conviction, and the secrets of the plot could be revealed so fully that the reality of it could no longer be doubted.

Most earnestly Camden[43] begged Portland[44] to impress on the ‘friend’ the necessity of compliance. ‘Patriotism might induce him to overcome his natural prejudice.’ If patriotism was insufficient, there was no reward which he ought not to receive.[45] Portland’s answer was not encouraging: ‘The friend,’ he said, ‘shall be detained. As to his coming over to you, I have reason to believe that there is not any consideration on earth which would tempt him to undertake it. He is convinced that he would go to utter destruction. Better he should stay here and open a correspondence with some of the principal conspirators, by which means you may be apprised of their intentions. If I could be satisfied, or if you would give it as your positive opinion that this person’s testimony or presence would crush the conspiracy, or bring any principal traitor to justice, I should not, and Lord Downshire would not, hesitate to use any influence to prevail on his friend to run any risk for such an object. But if he should fail and escape with his life, he could render no further service. Weigh well, therefore, the consequence of such a sacrifice.'[46]

After describing the arrest at Margate of Father O’Coigly, O’Connor, and Binns, Mr. Froude writes:–

O’Connor wrote a hurried note to Lord Edward, telling him not to be alarmed, nothing having been taken upon them which compromised any individual.[47] The messenger to whom the note was entrusted was unfortunate or treacherous, for it fell into the hands of the Government. Had O’Connor known the connection between the Government and Lord Downshire’s friend, he would have felt less confident. There was evidence, if it could only be produced, which would send both Lord Edward and himself to the scaffold.

It may be observed here–en parenthèse–that Downshire must have felt conflicting emotions when called upon to communicate information which might bring Lord Edward to the block. His father had married the sister of James, Duke of Leinster; Lord Edward was, therefore, the first cousin of Lord Downshire.

One of the most truthful chapters of the laudatory life of Reynolds, the informer,[48] is that aiming to show that he could not have been the spy who caused the arrests at Margate. But the biographer is unable to offer any suggestion as to who that agent was–so carefully veiled from Reynolds, one of their own confidential prompters, was the part played by Turner in that episode.

The information which led to the arrest of O’Connor, O’Coigly, and his companion cannot have come from Ireland, because in the ‘Book of Secret Service Monies expended in the Detection of Treasonable Conspiracies’ no entry appears connected with the above incident, unless ‘Dutton’s Expenses going to England to attend Quigly’s Trial,’ and where he had merely to swear to the priest’s handwriting. For his courage in doing this–having once seen him sign a lottery ticket at Dundalk–50l. is paid to ‘Dutton on June 12, 1798.’ The names of Newell and Murdoch certainly appear in the ‘Secret Service Money’ book about that time; but it is clear from Newell’s narrative–doubtless a genuine and frank confession–that neither he nor Murdoch had any hand in tracing the movements of O’Coigly and O’Connor.

Lord Castlereagh was now acting for Pelham as Chief Secretary for Ireland. On July 25, 1798, a secret letter–printed in the ‘Castlereagh Papers’–is addressed to him from the Home Office:–

I am directed by the Duke of Portland to inform your Lordship that I have received intelligence from a person very much in the confidence of [Reinhard] the French Minister at Hamburg,[49] that several French officers and soldiers have lately arrived at that place, where they have purchased sailor’s dresses, clothed themselves in them, and gone on to Denmark and Sweden, from whence it is intended that they should embark for the North of Ireland.[50] I know not what credit is to be given to this information, which must be received with caution, as it does not appear to have reached his Majesty’s Minister at Hamburg.

It comes, however, from a person[51] whose reports while he was in this country[52] were known to his Excellency as singularly accurate and faithful–the same who gave such an accurate account of the proceedings of O’Connor and Coigly whilst they were in this country, and on whose authority those persons were apprehended.[53]

Some of the letters of ‘Lord Downshire’s friend,’ not being forthcoming in the official archives, Mr. Froude assumed that they had been destroyed; but, however masked, they are recognisable in the ‘Castlereagh Correspondence.’ Several anonymous papers, furnishing information of the movements of the United Irishmen about Hamburg and elsewhere, crop up in that book, having been enclosed from Whitehall for the guidance of Dublin Castle. One of these letters makes special reference to information already sent to Lord Downshire.[54]

Another long letter of the same batch will be found the first placed in the second volume of Castlereagh, though an examination of it shows that it belongs to the middle of the previous volume. Detailed reference is made to Father O’Coigly’s mission and movements, both in France and in London. One is struck by the accuracy of its information regarding the Ulster United Irishmen, of whom Turner was one. Of MacMahon, who travelled to Paris with O’Coigly, we learn that, ‘tired of politics, especially those of France, he is to write to Citoyen Jean Thomas,[55] à la poste restante à Hamburg, whom he looks on as a good patriot.'[56] It will be remembered that a similar phrase occurs in the letter of Downshire’s friend, printed by Froude, i.e. Rowan had ‘professed himself sick of politics.’ Again, ‘I found Maitland and Stewart, of Acton, both heartily sick of politics.’

How to hang O’Coigly was now the difficulty. The Government knew–from somebody who had worked with him–that he was deep in the treason; but nothing could persuade the informer to prosecute him openly.

On April 11, 1798, Wickham writes from Whitehall:–

It is most exceedingly to be lamented that no person can be sent over from Ireland to prove Coigly’s handwriting. Proof of that kind would be so extremely material, that I have no doubt that the law officers would think it right to put off the trial if they could have any hope of any person being found, in a short time, who could speak distinctly to his handwriting.[57]

The secret adviser who, as Portland said, ‘should be detained,’ worked his brain until at length a man, hailing from a place suspiciously familiar to Turner, is sent for to swear to the point. Samuel Turner, formerly of Newry, had intimate knowledge of every man in the place. One Frederick Dutton, described as ‘of Newry,’ was now subpœnaed by the Crown to swear to O’Coigly’s handwriting in a letter addressed to Lord Edward Fitzgerald. ‘He claimed to have seen Coigly write his name for the purpose of getting a watch raffled which belonged to a poor man under sentence of death.’ Dutton had been a dismissed servant and had kept a public-house at Newry without a licence.[58]

Turner–it seems absurd to doubt the identity–got back to London on Tuesday, May 15, 1798. What secret help he gave to the law officers can only be inferred, for they pledged themselves that he should never be asked to come forward publicly. Though O’Connor, O’Coigly, and Binns[59] were arrested on March 1, their trials did not take place till late in May 1798. The Duke of Norfolk, Lords Moira, Suffolk, Oxford, John Russell, and Thanet, Fox, Sheridan, Whitbread, Erskine, Grattan, all testified to O’Connor’s character. All the prisoners were acquitted, except the priest, notwithstanding that Lord Cloncurry paid a counsel to defend him. He was hanged on Penenden Heath, June 7, 1798. Judge Buller had leant heavily on O’Coigly in his charge.

O’Coigly [writes Lord Holland] was condemned on false and contradictory evidence. I do not mean to aver, as Lord Chancellor Thurlow assured me he did to Judge Buller, who tried him, that ‘if ever a poor man was murdered it was O’Coigly,’ but simply to allude to a circumstance which, in the case of a common felon, would probably have saved his life. The Bow Street officer who swore to finding the fatal paper in his pocket-book, and remarked in court the folding of the paper as fitting that pocket-book, had sworn before the Privy Council that the same paper was found loose in O’Coigly’s great-coat, and, I think, had added that he himself had put it into the pocket-book. An attorney of the name of Foulkes[60] gave me this information, and I went with it to Mr. Wickham, who assured me that the circumstance should be carefully and anxiously investigated before the execution. But the order had gone down, and while we were conversing the sentence was probably executed.[61]

Lord Holland adds that when the Judge was descanting on the mildness and clemency of the Administration, O’Coigly quietly took a pinch of snuff and said ‘Ahem!’

When no evidence was produced in court which could legally ensure a verdict against O’Coigly, it seems reasonable to assume from the tone of the law officers and the Judge that they possessed some secret knowledge of his guilt, for in point of fact, though O’Coigly declared his innocence, he was deeply pledged to the conspiracy.

‘O’Connor was leaving the court in triumph,’ writes Mr. Froude, ‘but the Government knew their man too well to let him go so easily. He was at once re-arrested on another charge, and was restored to his old quarters in Dublin Castle.'[62] From whom the fatal whisper came does not appear, but the sequel seems to leave no doubt that to Turner it was due. MacMahon and other prominent rebels were Presbyterian clergymen of Ulster. It was an object now with those who desired the collapse of the conspiracy to detach the Presbyterian party from the ‘Papists.’ Binns was a staunch Presbyterian rebel, a colleague of O’Coigly. In a letter dated Philadelphia, 1843, Binns, addressing Dr. Madden, states that great efforts were used to try and persuade O’Coigly to implicate him, ‘offering Mr. Coigly his life if he would criminate me agreeable to the instructions of the Government, which proposal he indignantly refused to accede to. Though heavily ironed, he pushed the gentlemen out of his cell, when he there lay under sentence of death.’

We have seen that when severely tried he resorted to snuff. He had other small consolations. Even in his irons he talked irony. One of several letters of protest addressed by the priest to Portland, shortly before his death, tells him that he is ‘one of his Grace’s envoys to the other world, charged with tidings of his mild and merciful administration.’

As O’Coigly’s memory has been all but beatified as a martyr’s, it is due to the interests of historic truth to add–especially after the remarks of Lord Holland–the following from a letter written by Arthur O’Connor in 1842:–

Though there was not legal evidence to prove that the paper found in Coigly’s coat-pocket was Coigly’s, yet, the fact is, it was his, and was found in his riding-coat; for when the five prisoners were brought to Bow Street, a report was spread that the papers taken on the prisoners were lost; for the first time Coigly said it was fortunate the papers were lost, for that there was one in his pocket that would hang them all. He never made a secret to his fellow-prisoners that he got that paper from a London society. In my memoirs I will clear up this point.

O’Connor’s promised work, however, never appeared.

As regards Dutton, the witness who swore to O’Coigly’s handwriting, his subsequent career was cast on a spot also frequented by Turner.[63] He is found at Cuxhaven, not very far from Hamburg, and, until 1840, holding office in its postal and diplomatic departments, and the husband of a lady well connected.[64] Cuxhaven, as gazetteers record, was from 1795 a place of the utmost importance for the maintenance of intercourse between England and the Continent.

FOOTNOTES:

[39] The English in Ireland, iii. 312.

[40] Allen, a draper’s assistant in Dublin, afterwards a colonel in the
service of France.

[41] Report of the Secret Committee, p. 31. (Dublin, 1798.)

[42] Life of the Reverend James Coigly, p. 28. (London, 1798.)
Halliday Collection, R.I.A., vol. 743.

[43] The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

[44] The Home Secretary.

[45] Camden to Portland, March 1, 1798. English in Ireland, iii. 310.

[46] Portland to Camden, March 7, 1798.

[47] In O’Connor’s valise were found 900l., a military uniform, and
some papers relating to Lord Edward Fitzgerald.–W. J. F.

[48] Life of Thomas Reynolds, by his Son. (London, 1839.)

[49] For proofs of the intimacy between Reinhard and Turner at Hamburg,
see Castlereagh Papers, i. 277 et seq.; and my chapter on McNevin,
infra.

[50] In August, 1798, Humbert and 900 Frenchmen arrived in Killala Bay.

[51] ‘The person’ is the name by which Downshire’s friend, the
betrayer, is usually styled in the letters from the Home Office to
Dublin Castle. The words, ‘while he was in this country,’ show that he
had left England, as Downshire’s friend admittedly did, in panic.

[52] ‘I.e. in October 1797, when he called upon Downshire; and again
in March 1798, when Portland offered him large sums if he would openly
prosecute.’

[53] Mr. Lecky describes this arrest, and rather suggests that it
may have been due to Higgins in Dublin (vide viii. 55). The above
evidence points surely to the Hamburg spy.

[54] See Castlereagh Papers, i. 231-6.

[55] Of course one of Turner’s many aliases. See p. 97, infra.

[56] Castlereagh Correspondence, ii. 1-7.

[57] Ibid. i. 178.

[58] Dutton, on his examination, said that he had sworn in Ireland
against one ‘Lowry.’ This is the man whom Turner, in his letters,
constantly points to. Dutton admitted that he had previously sworn
secrecy to the Society of United Irishmen, but the oath had been sworn
only on a spelling-book.

[59] Trial of Arthur O’Connor and James Quigley at Maidstone. Howell’s
State Trials, vols. xxvi. and xxvii.

[60] Foulkes was the attorney whom Lawless engaged to defend O’Coigly.
Lord Cloncurry, in his Memoirs, writes very inaccurately of the
facts. He says that the arrests took place at Whitstable, instead of
Margate, and that O’Coigly was hanged on May 7, whereas he should have
written June. See p. 67.

[61] Memoirs of the Whig Party. By Lord Holland, afterwards a Cabinet
Minister.

[62] Froude’s English in Ireland, iii. 321.

[63] See p. 31, infra.

[64] In the Pelham MSS. is a letter signed Frederick Dutton, regarding
his Vice-Consulate, and dated Dec. 19, 1825.

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