Henry and John Sheares

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Sheares, Henry and John, United Irishmen, brothers, were the sons of Henry Sheares, a Cork banker, member of Parliament for Clonakilty from 1761 to 1767, who died in 1776. They were both born in Cork — Henry in 1753, John in 1766 — and were educated at Trinity College. Henry entered the army; but renounced it for the law, and was called to the Bar in 1789. His wife died in 1791, after a union of but five years, and his children were taken charge of by Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, their grand-parents. John was called to the Bar in 1788. Both brothers were possessed of ample fortunes, besides the emoluments they derived from their profession. They sympathized deeply with the progress of the French Revolution, and in 1792 went to Paris, ostensibly to visit the Sweets, who were then residing there.

They attended many political meetings, became acquainted with Roland, Brissot, and other revolutionary leaders, and were present at the execution of Louis XVI. They crossed to England in the same vessel with Daniel O'Connell and his brother, returning from Douay — the Sheareses glorying in all they had seen; the O'Connells tearing the tricolor cockades from their hats the moment the vessel left port. Henry married a second time. The brothers became members of the Society of United Irishmen, John often taking the chair at public meetings.

They both attended the funeral of the Rev. William Jackson in 1795. After this they were so strongly suspected of complicity in a treasonable conspiracy against the Government, that warrants were drawn out for their arrest. On the seizure of most of the members of the Leinster Directory at Bond's, early in March 1798, and the enforced concealment of Lord Edward FitzGerald, John took his place as chief organizer of the proposed rising. To what extent Henry was implicated, it is difficult to ascertain. Early in May, one Captain Armstrong wormed himself into their confidence, was invited to their house, and betrayed their designs and plans to the Government. On Monday, 21st May, they were, both arrested — Henry, at their house in Baggot-street (now No. 128), John, at the house of his friend, Surgeon Lawless, in French-street.

The brothers were brought up for trial at Green-street, on 12th July. The principal witness against them was Captain Armstrong. There was little to criminate Henry but a wild "proclamation" written by John the night before their arrest, and left in Henry's desk without his knowledge. They were defended by Curran, Plunket, and McNally. It was past midnight when the examination of witnesses was concluded. The proceedings had already occupied fifteen hours; yet Toler, the Solicitor-General, opposed Curran's motion for adjournment. The trial went on, and at eight o'clock next morning, the jury, after a retirement of but seventeen minutes, brought in a verdict of guilty. As it was pronounced, the brothers stood up and embraced each other. Sentence was deferred until three o'clock in the afternoon. Henry was completely unmanned by his position. When they were brought up for sentence, John made an earnest appeal for his brother's life. They were both condemned to be executed on the following day.

In the few hours that remained to them, John acted with calmness and fortitude. He took up the pen Henry was unable to hold, to commend their sister to the care of their mother, his child to his sister, and Henry's children to the affection of their grand-parents. The brothers were executed in front of Newgate. on the morning of 14th July 1798. Henry was aged about 45; John 32. Their remains were laid in the vaults of St. Michan's Church, where the earth has the property of preserving bodies in a dried condition. Dr. Madden thus describes the Sheares: "They were inseparable as brothers, and were united by an almost unparalleled attachment... [Henry] was, indeed, ill-adapted for the strife of political life. The influence of a beloved brother, possessed of superior mental powers, whose political opinions were firmly established and boldly asserted, drew him away from the social and family-circle in which his enjoyments chiefly centred... In his person he was tall and finely proportioned, nearly six feet in height, more robust and muscular than his brother John, but not too large. His step was stately, not to say haughty, and his air more that of a military man than a lawyer. His features were not ill-formed, but his face was not at all pleasing. His eye was proud, and the lower part of his face disfigured by what are called claret-marks, which gave rather a fierce expression to his countenance... Henry talked about republicanism, but John was an enthusiast in his attachment to it: all his habits of thinking tended that way. It suited the simplicity of his character, and the total absence of vanity that distinguished him; but he often said it would not do for Ireland.

As to his personal appearance, he was tall, and rather slender than full; not what is termed muscular, but well-proportioned and active. In his person, he differed strikingly from his brother. His air was gentle and unassuming, but animated and interesting. He was pale, rather light-complexioned, with full blue eyes and open countenance, well-formed nose, large, eloquent mouth, and white teeth. His voice was fine, his articulation very clear, his language rich, but quite unaffected; he had much playful wit and humour, but was easily made serious. You ask, was he of a sanguinary disposition? He was quite the reverse. He had a most tender heart and benevolent disposition. While he was himself, he would not give pain of mind or of body to anything that lived. The brothers agreed, as I have said, in thinking Ireland ill- governed, and the administration corrupt."

Their aged mother died at Clifton in 1803. Henry left six children. His widow survived until 1850. She resided at Kingstown, and was accustomed to pass the anniversary of her husband's death in fasting and prayer. John was never married. He left a daughter, Louisa, about eight years of age, who was taken charge of by a friend in Cork. Captain Armstrong survived until 1858, and for sixty years enjoyed a pension of.£500 a year, the fruits of his intimacy of one fortnight with the Sheareses.


331. United Irishmen, their Lives and Times: Robert R. Madden, M.D. 4 vols. London, 1858-'60.

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