Henry and John Sheares (and the 1798 Rebellion)

By D. S. Sullivan from `Speeches from the Dock', 1886

AMONG the many distinguished Irishmen who acted prominent parts in the stormy events of 1798, and whose names come down to us hallowed by the sufferings and sacrifices inseparable in those dark days from the lot of an Irish patriot, there are few whose fate excited more sympathy, more loved in life, more Honored in death, than the brothers John and Henry Sheares. Even in the days of Emmet and Wolfe Tone, of Russell and Fitzgerald, when men of education, talent, and social standing were not few in the national ranks, the Sheareses were hailed as valuable accessions to the cause, and were recognized by the United Irishmen as heaven-destined leaders for the people. It is a touching story, the history of their patrotic exertions, their betrayal, trial, and execution; but it is by studying such scenes in our history that Irishmen can learn to estimate the sacrifices which were made in bygone days for Ireland, and attach a proper value to the memory of the patriots who made them.

Henry and John Sheares were sons of John Sheares, a banker in Cork, who sat in the Irish Parliament for the borough of Clonakilty. The father appears to have been a kindly-disposed, liberal-minded man, and numerous stories are told of his unostentatious charity and benevolence. Henry, the elder of the two sons, was born in 1753, and was educated in Trinity College, Dublin. After leaving college he purchased a commission in the 51st Regiment of foot, but the duties of a military officer were ill suited to his temperament and disposition, and the young soldier soon resigned his commission, to pursue the more congenial occupation of law student. He was called to the bar in 1790; his brother John, his junior by three years, who had adopted the same profession, obtained the rank of barrister-at-law two years previously. The brothers differed from each other widely in character and disposition. Henry was gentle in manners, modest and unassuming, but firmly attached to his principles, and unswerving in his fidelity to the cause which he adopted; John was bold, impetuous, and energetic, ready to plan and to dare, fertile of resources, quick of resolve, and prompt of execution. To John the elder brother looked for guidance and example, and his gentle nature was ever ruled by the more fiery and impulsive spirit of his younger brother. On the death of his father, Henry Sheares came in for property to the value of £1,200 per annum, which his rather improvident habits soon diminished by one-half. Both brothers, however, obtained large practice at their profession, and continued in affluent circumstances up to the day of their arrest.

In 1792 the two brothers visited Paris, and this excursion seems to have formed the turning point of their lives and fortunes. The French Revolution was in full swing, and in the society of Roland, Brissot, and other Republican leaders, the young Irishmen imbibed the love of freedom, and impatience of tyranny and oppression, which they clung to so faithfully, and which distinguished them so remarkably during the remainder of their lives. On returning to Ireland, in January, 1793, the brothers joined the ranks of the United Irishmen. John at once became a prominent member of the society, and his signature appears to several of the spirited and eloquent addresses by which the Dublin branches sought from time to time to arouse the ardor and stimulate the exertions of their compatriots. The society of United Irishmen looked for nothing more at this period than a thorough measure of parliamentary reform, household suffrage being the leading feature in their programme; but when the tyranny of the government drove the leaguers into more violent and dangerous courses, when republican government and separation from England were inscribed on the banners of the society instead of electoral reform, and when the selfish and wavering had shrunk aside, the Sheareses still remained true to the United Irishmen, and seemed to grow more zealous and energetic in the cause of their country according as the mists of perplexity and danger gathered around it.

To follow out the history of the Sheareses' connection with the United Irishmen, would be foreign to our intention and to the scope of this work. The limits of our space oblige us to pass over the ground at a rapid pace, and we shall dismiss the period of the Sheareses' lives comprised in the years between 1793 and 1798, by saying that during that period, while practising their profession with success, they devoted themselves with all the earnestness of their nature to the furtherance of the objects of the United Irishmen. In March, 1798, the affairs of the organization became critical; the arrest of the Directory, at Oliver Bond's, deprived the party of its best and most trusted leaders, besides placing in the hands of the government a mass of information relative to the plans and resources of the conspirators. To fill the gap thus caused, John Sheares was soon appointed a member of the Directory, and he threw himself into the work with all the ardor and energy of his nature. The fortunes of the society had assumed a desperate phase when John Sheares became its ruling spirit. Tone was in France, O'Connor was in England, Russell, Emmet, and Fitzgerald were in prison. But Sheares was not disheartened; he directed all his efforts towards bringing about the insurrection for which his countrymen had so long been preparing, and the 23d of May, 1798, was fixed on by him for the outbreak. He was after visiting Wexford and Kildare, and making arrangements in those counties for the rising, and was on the verge of starting for Cork, on a similar mission, when the hand of treachery cut short his career, and the gates of Kilmainham prison opened to receive him.

Amongst all the human monsters who filled the ranks of the government informers in that dark and troubled period, not one appears to merit a deeper measure of infamy than Captain Warnesford Armstrong, the entrapper and betrayer of the Sheareses. Having obtained an introduction to John, he represented himself as a zealous and hard-working member of the organization, and soon wormed himself completely into the confidence of his victims. He paid daily visits to the house of the Sheareses in Baggot Street, chatted with their families, and fondled the children of Henry Sheares upon his knee. We have it on his own testimony, that each interview with the men whose confidence he was sharing was followed by a visit to the Castle. We need not go through the sickening details of this vile story of treachery and fraud. On the 21st of May the Sheareses were arrested and lodged in prison, and on the 12th of the following month, Armstrong appeared against them in the witness-box. The trial was continued through the night--Toler, of infamous memory, who had been created Attorney-General expressly for the occasion, refusing Curran's request for an adjournment; and it was eight o'clock in the morning of the 13th when the jury, who had been but seventeen minutes absent, returned into court with a verdict of guilty against both prisoners.

After a few hours' adjournment the court re-assembled to pass sentence. It was then that John Sheares, speaking in a firm tone, addressed the court as follows:--

"My Lords,--I wish to offer a few words before sentence is pronounced, because there is a weight pressing on my heart much greater than that of the sentence which is to come from the court. There has been, my lords, a weight pressing on my mind from the first moment I heard the indictment read upon which I was tried; but that weight has been more peculiarly pressing upon my heart when I found the accusation in the indictment enforced and supported upon the trial. That weight would be left insupportable if it were not for this opportunity of discharging it; I shall feel it to be insupportable since a verdict of my country has stamped that evidence as well founded. Do not think, my lords, that I am about to make a declaration against the verdict of the jury, or the persons concerned with the trial; I am only about to call to your recollection a part of the charge at which my soul shudders, and if I had an opportunity of renouncing it before your lordships and this auditory, no courage would be sufficient to support me. The accusation of which I speak, while I linger here yet a minute, is that of holding out to the people of Ireland a direction to give no quarter to the troops fighting for its defence. My lords, let me say thus, that if there be any acquaintances in this crowded court--I do not say my intimate friends, but acquaintances--who do not know what I say is truth, I shall be reputed the wretch which I am not; I say, if any acquaintance of mine can believe that I could utter a recommendation of giving no quarter to a yielding and unoffending foe, it is not the death which I am about to suffer that I deserve--no punishment could be adequate to such a crime. My lords, I can not only acquit my soul of such an intention, but I declare, in the presence of that God before whom I must shortly appear, that the favorite doctrine of rny heart was that no human being should suffer death, but when absolute necessity required it. My lords, I feel a consolation in making this declaration, which nothing else could afford me, because it is not only a justification of myself, but where I am sealing my life with that breath which cannot be suspected of falsehood, what I say may make some impression upon the minds of men not holding the same doctrine. I declare to God, I know of no crime but assassination which can eclipse or equal that of which I am accused. I discern no shade of guilt between that and taking away the life of a foe, by putting a bayonet to his heart when he is yielding and surrendering. I do request the bench to believe that of me--I do request my country to believe that of me--I am sure God will think that of me. Now, my lords, I have no favor to ask of the court; my country has decided I am guilty, and the law says I shall suffer--it sees that I am ready to suffer. But, my lords, I have a favor to request of the court that does not relate to myself. My lords, I have a brother whom I have even loved dearer than myself, but it is not from any affection for him alone that I am induced to make the request. He is a man, and therefore I would hope prepared to die, if he stood as I do--though I do not stand unconnected; but he stands more dearly connected. In short, my lords, to spare your feelings, and I my own, I do not pray that I should not die, but that the husband, the father, the son--all comprised in one person---holding those relations dearer in life to him than any other man I know--for such a man I do not pray a pardon, for that is not in the power of the court, but I pray a respite for such time as the court in its humanity and discretion shall think proper. You have heard, my lords, that his private affairs require arrangement. When I address myself to your lordships, it is with the knowledge you will have of all the sons of our aged mother being gone. Two have perished in the service of the king--one very recently. I only require that, disposing of me with what swiftness either the public minds or justice requires, a respite may be given to my brother, that the family may acquire strength to bear it all. That is all I wish; I shall remember it to my last breath, and I shall offer up my prayers for you to that Being who has endued us all with the sensibility to feel. That is all I ask. I have nothing more to say."

It was four o'clock, p.m, when the judge proceeded to pass sentence, and the following morning was appointed for the double execution. At midday on Saturday, July 14th, the hapless men were removed to the room adjoining the place of execution, where they exchanged a last embrace. They were then pinioned, the black caps put over their brows, and holding each other by the hand, they tottered out on the platform. The elder brother was somewhat moved by the terrors of his situation, but the younger bore his fate with unflinching firmness. They were launched together into eternity--the same moment saw them dangling lifeless corpses before the prison walls. They had lived in affectionate unity, inspired by the same motives, laboring for the same cause, and death did not dissolve the tie. "They died hand in hand, like true brothers."

When the hangman's hideous office was completed, the bodies were taken down, and the executioner, in accordance with the barbarous custom of the time, proceeded to sever the heads from the bodies. It is said, however, that only on the body of Henry Sheares was that horrible act performed. While the arrangements for the execution were in progress, Sir Jonah Barrington had been making intercession with Lord Clare on their behalf, and beseeching at least a respite. His lordship declared that the life of John Sheares could not be spared, but said that Henry might possibly have something to say which would induce the government to commute his sentence: he furnished Sir Jonah with an order to delay the execution one hour, and told him to communicate with Henry Sheares on the subject. "I hastened," writes Sir Jonah, "to Newgate, and arrived at the very moment that the executioner was holding up the head of my old college friend, and saying, 'Here is the head of a traitor.'" The fact of this order having been issued by the government, may have so far interrupted the bloody work on the scaffold as to save the remains of the younger Sheares from mutilation. The bodies of the patriots were interred on the night of the execution in the vaults of St. Michan's church, where, enclosed in oaken coffins, marked in the usual manner with the names and ages of the deceased, they still repose. Many a pious visit has since been paid to those dim chambers--many a heart, filled with love and pity, has throbbed above those coffin lids--many a tear has dropped upon them. But it is not a feeling of grief alone that is inspired by the memory of those martyrs to freedom; hope, courage, constancy, are the lessons taught by their lives, and the patriotic spirit that ruled their career is still awake and active in Ireland.