The Trial of James Byrne

NOTE: The following large article was published in The Morning Chronicle for Saturday, 3 August 1822, as a result of the scandal involving the The Bishop of Clogher. It begins with an account of the trial of James Byrne in 1811.

          JAMES BYRNE stood indicted on two separate charges:– For having himself devised a published a libel, accusing the Bishop of Ferns of an attempt to commit an unnatural crime; and having jonied in a conspiracy, the object of which was to vilify the Bishop by calumnies of that nature.
          Counsel for the prisoner offered an affidavit showing reasons why the case should be delayed, that certain writings necessary for evidence had been withheld byi the Lored Mayor on the prisoner's examination before him; that, although prisoner had offered bail on his commitment being first proposed by the Lord Mayor, his Lordship did not think proper to accept of it, which circumstance had not allowed the prisoner's attorney to make the necessary preparations; and that Patrick Leonard, a man whose evidence was material in the casem, was at such a distance from Dublin as to make it impossible for him to be produced.
          It was stated, however, by the Lord Maor, that there had been no papers of the prisoner's detained by him, and it was stated by the Solicitor'General, Counsel for the prosedcution, that Leonard, so far from being at an inconvenient distance, was at the moment in the Court; that there could therefore be found no proper cause why the trial should be delayed.
          The Jury was therefoer sworn.
          The SOLICITOR-GENERAL rose, and proceeded to the following effect:–
          Gentlemen of the Jury, from my knowledge of the circumstances of the evidendce, I do not doubt but I shall be able to connect the whole for your examination in such a manner as will enable me to support the indictment, and leave no doubt upon your minds of the commission of one of the most profligate and detestable crimes that ever disgraced human nature. We have frequently heard of the unnatural guilt of which mentino is made in the indictment, but it is one which we have hardlky or never had occasion to have one's feelings shocked with; and though from the proximity of a neighbouring Isle to the Continent of europe, and the great facility with which the corrupted manners of the Continent are introduced, the instances there aqre not a few, the contagion never yet has reached us, and there is no instance of its existence in the memory of any professional man. Much less have we been even called upon to witness a crime if possible still more horrid, and still more humiliating to human nature, the shocking criminality of falsely imputing to an innocent person the guilt of that disgusting and unnatural offence. It England this is a practice which has been frequently adopted, and, I lament to saw, with too frequent success, in order to extort money from those who the wretches supposed would rather pay any sum which might be demanded of them than have their names even come into contact in a public Court with such a crime; and it is well known that this practice has grown into such frequent use, that wretches have been known to gain a subsistence by the means of it, and it was found necessary to enact a law in that country inflicting the severest punishment upon those who so far degraded themselves. It never will be considered by us a matter of misfortune that such a law had not bgeen enacted in this country. We may congratulate ourselves that necessity has never yet called for it, and that our island has been hitherto free from such humiliating crimnality. – But the instance is aggravated. The accusation is made upon an exalted and venerable chracter, who, though raised to one of the highest dignities of the 'Church, is still less exalted by his rank than he is by the uniform piety of his life, and who ennobles by his virtues that high station which, without them, would only place him as a fitter mark for the shafts of obloquy. He is of a family of high rank, distinguished in every rank for the generous, noble, and beneficent conduct, which ought to characterize those who are placed in a situation which makes them have an extensive influence by their example and services upon society, and whose feelings could in no way be more severely branded than by an imputation of the slightest wavering from the paths of rectitude in any of its members.
          The Learned Gentleman, having at great length stated the manner in which the prisoner had made the charge, continued. – "I do not think I would do jujstice to the respected and revered character of my client, by saying I have evidence to disprove what this miscreant has uttered – when I think of a man whose rank shed a lustre upon him, adored bgy all those who know him for those virtues – on the Reverend bench which he adorns never sat a man of more exalted honour. I woul call the attention of the Jury to every act of his life, and they would find them marked by the display of virtue, piety, and benevolence. When I consider the noble family to which he belongs, so nmerous, and so beloved – when I look upon the head ofr the family, so great and estimable in character – when I consider how his life has been employed; a life repeatedly and voluntarily risked in defence of his country; when I consider the other noble branches of this stock, and reflect upon the unsullied purity of their sires; I should apologise for saying that there is the most undeniable evidence to prove, that every tittle which this most atrocious wretch has alleged is utterly false. I am sure I may safely claim for the bishop the thanks of the community, because he was to have been the first victim of the accursed conspiracy. In England some of the first characters have yielded to it; it has become a frequent offence, and but few have had the firmness to oppose it; to this Noble family, therefore, the public are greatly indebted; and if the Bishop had compounded his own honour, I know not the man who could resist. Now from all the facts which have been proved, I anticipate your ready verdict."
          The Honourable John Jocelyn was examined, and proved all the facts in which he was concerned, as stated by the Solicitor-General; and he identified all the letters he had received from the prisoner. On his cross-examination by Mr. RIDGWAY, said the letters were all sealed when they came to his hand, and they were received in the county of Louth.
          The Lord Mayor gave evidence to the examination which took place before his Loredship, and handed in a written statement of what the prisoner had said in his presence, which was made by his Lordship's clerk, and read to the prisoner, who acknowleded it was correcct. His Lordship observed, that there was a savage ferocity about him that never was surpassed.
          His Lordship was cross-examinede by Mr. WALLACE, relative to his authority and jurisdiction for interefering in cases between master and servant.
          Here the statement made by the prisoner was given to be read, but its tendency was such that it was not made public.
          Mr. Johnson, attorney, proved the payment of wages to the prisoner, &c.
          The Hon. the Lord Bishop of Ferns examined:–
          Witness remembers to have met the prisoner in Sackville-street. Prisoner passed witness, and took off his hat; he asked him if he had left his master – he said he had; desired him, as witness had but one servant in town, to come next moning to wash the carriage. On Thursday morning witness went to the stable, and saw prisoner on the top of the carriage, cleaning it; the carriage, at this time, was half in the lane; witness did not remain there at the utmost more than three minutes and a half; did not see him again that day; called next morning, which was Friday, and gave him a letter to take to the Rev. Mr. Harpur, Monkstown; did not see him then more than four or five minutes, when he desired him to bring post horses to leave town the course of Friday, found that a letter he had written to Mr. Merge to the country, did not reach him until the day after he expected it would, and therefore he could not leave town on Saturday, as he intended. On Saturday morning, when the post-horses came, he desired them to be sent away, and directed that the prisoner should be sent in, to be paid for what he had done that morning, when the witness gave him some silver. Prisoner did not remain in the room more than five minutes, and never was in the room after. Witness left town after church the next morning.
          Question by the SOLICITOR-GENERAL – Did your Lordship take or use any indecent familiarity with his person? – No.
          Did your Lordship use any obscene or indecent conversationwith him? – I did not. I am not in the habit of doing so.
          Are the contents of that paper, which contains his charges against your Lordship, true or false? – His Lordship rose, and in the most impressive and dignified manner placed his hand upon his breast, and said "false."
          Here the Counsel for the prisoner declined to cross-examine his Lordship, and intimated to the Court that they had given up the case.
          Mr. Justice Fox thenproceeded to pass sentence to the following effect –
          James Byrne, you have been found guilty of a libel against the Bishop of Ferns, imputing to his Lordship an attempt to commit what is emphatically called an Unnatural Crime. You have also been found guilty, that, not confining to your own breast the horrid malignity of your mind, you did conspire, with others unknown, to impute to the said Right Rev. Prelate the horrid charge. I really am obliged to pause for words to express in any adequate terms the feelings of my mind – feelings which are painted in the countenances of every person in the Court, at the extreme audacity of hardened guilty,that could induce you to impute a crime of this nature to such a man. I speak not to you for the purpose of exciting contrition, for it is impossible but that a heart which could imagine – a mind which could mark for destruction – a character of such sanctified purity, must be utterly impenetrable to shame. You have caused an exposure in this Court of a crime which can scarcely be thought of without horror and amazement – you have sought to asperse a Clergyman of the Established Religion, raised by his Sovereign to the highest station in our Church – elevated stillhigher by those virtues which are not made known by the casual ebullition of a day or of years, but by the whole period of a life devoted to the uniform exercise of every duty which becomes a man and a Christian, elevated by religion and education, and by those principles, which, if he departed from them, would have made hjis guilt greater than that of ordinary men. What motive could mark out to your mind an individual so exalted, to whom you were scarcely known, and with whom no probability of such an intercourse could exist? You have acted with aq degree of guilty phrenzy, with horrid and unprincipled villany, and, soaring above all idea of probability of being believed, you have given vent to so wicked a calumny that no idea is too horrible to be formed of you. That you, not the servant of the Bishop of Ferns, should be so infatuated as to expect that you shoudl for a moment make it be accredited that guilt of such a nature could make its way into such a mind, is astonishing, and I believe your effrontery is unprecedented. Idt may be, that you have been advised to do so, and how could the wicked folly of advice induce you to attack an individual so unassailable, whjose character would be sufficient to repel such a charge? Your crime is aggravated, if possible, by your attempt to involve the malignity of your calumny into the private feelings of a Noble Family, so justly and so universally beloved. Under such feelings they act4ed consistent with the whole tenor of their lives. They have come forward to give evidence at the expence of those feelings which they must be more than men if they did not possess – they did njot enter into a compromise with your villany – But they boldly stepped forward to meet your charge in a Court of Justice. The sacred person who was the object of your malignity has unnecessarioly produced himself in this Court, to give the sanction of his name and his virtues to an investigation of a charge which aimed against him the most deadly injury. It has already been mentioned that terror has frequently influenced the minds of men under charges of this kind to yield to the demands of miscreants. I mention this to contrast the dignity of mind, the purity of sentiment of those who disdained any compromise with guilt. That Noble Family possess an honmourable ascendancy in this country, and never did they earn their high reputation better than when, instead of yielding to the threats, they dragged them into light, to deter other miscreanrts. It remains for me to pronounce the sentence of the law which your crime is to be visited with; I regret that I cannot make it more adequate to your guilt, but it is necessary that you should feel, for the purpose of deterring others from following so bad an example.
Your sentence is, that you, James Byrne, be imprisoned in the gaol of Ilmainham, for two years, from this date; that you are to be whipped three times at such periods aS I shall appoint; and at the expiration of the two years you enter into security for your future conduct,m yourself in 500l. and two sureties in 200l. each.
          Counsel for the Crown. – The Solicitor-General and Messrs. M'Cartney, Parsons, Joy, M'Nally, and Green. – Agent, Mr. Guest.
          Counsel for the Prisoner. – Messrs. Ridgeway and Wallace. – Agent, Mr. Walker.
          Byrne, the person who preferred the unwarrantable charge, of which our readers are already aware, against the bishop of Ferns, received A SEVERE FLOGGING on Saturday, as PART of a punishment he had been sentenced to endure for the flagrant act.

          We are certain we very much gratify the curiosity of our readers, and aid in giving effect to any thing of admonition that is comprised in the receive exposure of Right. Rev. hypocrisy and guilt, but republishing the trial of unfortunate Byrne, of whose sufferings we spoke in our last. The case of this poor man was certainly the most grievous and pitiable that ever was head of in the world. A sort of destiny hurried him on to torture and ruin, without leraving him even the common chances of a hearing. Every one called him miscreant and wretch – and the impression of his guilt was so strong, that no one seemed to have patience to listen to what he had to say in his defence. Even his Counsel threw up his case in despair after the direct examination of the chief witness, the mosnter himself. The Judge, in charging the Jury, said "it was not his practice to anticipate what the conduct of Juries under the obligation of a solemn oath would be; but as the Counsel for the prisoner themselves had felt it to be their duty to abandon the case, it surely could not be deemed irregular for the Judge to express his opinion; and really the walls of a Court of Justice were never assaulted or insuolted by such profligacy before." – Our readers are aware of the facility with which the monster got out of the gripe of the law. He gave his own surety for 500l. and the sujreties, it seems, of two tradesmen for 500l. more. Poor Byrne, when he was arrested, offered sureties for his appearance, but it will be seen by the following affidavit of his attorney that no sureties would be taken:–

          Saith, about 16th October inst. deponent, on part of Traverser, offered two Housekeepers of the City of Dublin, each worth upwards of 100l. as deponent was informed, and believes, as bail for the Traverser, but which bail the Right Honourable the Lord Mayor (who committed the Traverser to Kilmainham Gaol) refused to take, wherefore dep;onent was deprived of the assistance, in preparing for his defence, that he could obtain from the Traverser if he had his liberty, as deponent very believes.
          Saith, that about the 22d of October inst. deponent caused the Traverser's case to be laid before Counsel, whose opinion he was not able to get until the 26th instant, and said Counsel having advised that it would be necessary to summon witnesses, one of whom, named Patrick Leonard, and whose testimony would be very material for the Traverser, as deponent believes, lives or resides 50 miles from Dublin, as deponent is informed and believes; deponent could not have had witness served in due time so as to procure his testimony in this Honourable Court, or to have briefs prepared for Counsel, from the shortness of the time between getting Counsel's opinion and the day appointed for the trial of the Traverser, more especially as deponent has been informed and believes, that the indictment found against the Traverser contains upwards of 500 office sheets.
          Saith he has been informed, and believes, that some papers which would be material for the Traverser on his trial, were taken or kept from him by the Lord Mayor at the time of his committal, and which deponent was not able to procure, although he, by the advbice of his Consel, wrote to his Lordship, and caused applciation to be made to him for them. And said deponent will use his best endevours to procure the attendance of the said Patrick Leonard at the next Commission, and saith this application is not made for the purpose of delay merely, but to have an opportunity of procuring the attendance of said witness.
          The poor creature, seeing with what ease the monster carried every point of importance to his exculpation – seeing, that through the matchless dissimulation of the Right Reverend villain, he had lost the confidence even of his own Counsel, to secure fees for whom he was obligede to sell every article of furniture he possessed – seeing, that even on the part of the Judges, there was so rthorough a conviction of his guilt, that the one who charged could not help anticipating the veredict of the Jury, and that the one who sentenced after a speech of the most unexampled acrimonym, could not avoid expressing the most poignant regret, that the law did not warrant more rigour than two years' incarceration, and three whippings, and sureties such as made it a miracle that the hapless sufferer ever got out of gaol – seeing all this, it is not wondeerful, that he became almsot frantic with chagrin and vexation – and there was not a look or exclamation that indicated his consciousness of innocence, or conveyed his sense of the cruel wrong which was doing to him, that was not taken as a proof of mere obduracy – and that had not the double effect of sealing his doom.
          We have stated, that this unfortunate man consented to sign an acknowledgment of his guit after the first flogging. We have learned, since our last, that he did not hield until after repeated menaces of utter destruction, and until his wife and four children were brought to his dungeon, and had thrown themselves on their knees, and actually wept him into acquiescence. "This," said the poor creture, pointing to the miserable group that surrounded him, "I cannot stand; gtive me the paper, Mr. Sheriff (Harty or James, we know not which), but mind, I am about to put my name to a falsehood!!!"
          We find we stated less than the truth, when we said he had completed the full term of two years' imprisonment. After incarceration for that time, and the flogging, and the forced acknowledgment of guilt, which it would appear grieved this intrepid and inflexible poor man more than all that happeneed, his persecution did not end. Then arose the question of securities. He tendered many names – and it is only wonderful that an unfortunate person in his condition could find one being upon earth having courage to be pledged for him, even to the 1-20th of the acquired amount – at length two sureties were accepted; but this did not happen until the wretched man passed eight-seven solitariy and miserable dayis in his dungeon, in addition to the two years!!!
          We talked of a subscription on Friday, and we have great pleasure in ehwing, by the following, that there has at least been a beginning made:–
          Sir Charles Morgan                     1 0 0
          Edward Hogan, Esq.                    1 0 0
          A. B.                    1 0 0
          A Barrister                    1 0 0
          C. D.                    1 0 0
          Editor of The Register and Herald                    1 0 0
          Byrne is at present in Stephen's Hospital, labouring under a complciation of disorders. His family is large and in the greatest possible wretchedness. He was last, adn has been for some years, in the employment of Mr. Collins, coach-owner, of Denzill-street, by whom, we believe, he has been alwayis treated with great indulgence and kindness. His present complaints have been brought on by fatigue and wet suffered during the King's visit, but they are not, we are glad to state, of an unmanageable or incurable kind. We have no personal knowledge of him, but we learn from friends who have seen him within these three or four days,that he is in intellect and deportment greatly above his station in life. He head of the denouement in London with great emotion, exclaiming, "God is just – I knew I would live to see this day!" We have heard that this poor creature is remarkable for a very ardent and unaffected love of country. The base dog, by whose perjuries he had been delivered up to destruction, and almost death, instructed his Counsel to throw it before the Court, and into the Jury box, that he was a rebel in 1803.

          The following particulars are taken from a pamphlet, entitled, "The Thing," published by Mr. Mullen, 21, Duke-street:–
          "About elevent years ago he lived as coachman in the service of the Honourable John Jocelyn, of Dundalk, and after quitting his service, was met in Dublin by his Honourable and Right Rev. Brother, who was then Bishop of Ferns, when the horrid circumstance which he disclosed came to his knowledge; but to prevent his proceeding in the necessary prosecution, he was thrown into prison, and although he offered respectable bail, it was rejected. He had two letters in his possession, written to him by a confidential servant of the bishop's, named Leonard, and at the Bishop's desire, requesting him to conceal the facct from his brother; these letters were taken from him b a stratagem, and he being thus deprived of the only documents, by which he could support his charge against the Bishop, was brought to trial for deprived of his support, are now languishing in misery at South Cumberland-street."

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "The Trial of James Byrne", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 11 April 2012 <>.

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