For Ireland, the legacy of the seventeenth-century wars was a volatile, fragmented society, as illustrated by this case.
Nicholas Sheehy was born in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, in 1728. He was educated in Spain, and ordained a priest in 1750. He became parish priest of small parishes in the Fethard/Clogheen area of South Tipperary (whence my own ancestors, on the male line, sprang, and which later saw this incident).
At the time, the poor Catholics of Ireland were very much oppressed by the ‘penal laws’ and a form of ‘government against the people’. An agrarian movement known as the Whiteboys was active in Counties Tipperary, Waterford, Limerick, Cork and Kilkenny – ‘part of an underground that had learned not only to separate the formal law from popular notions of legitimacy, but also how to impose an alternative discipline through intimidation’, as R.F. Foster puts it.
Many of Sheehy’s congregation were Whiteboys, and he sympathized with their agitation against tithes … a tax levied on everyone, to fund the Church of Ireland. A contemporary, Dr Curry, described him as ‘a giddy and officious, but not ill-meaning man, with a somewhat quixotic cast of mind towards relieving all those within his district whom he fancied to be injured or oppressed’. He became a bête noire to the local Protestant landlords, who had him arrested on a number of occasions.
Sheehy was indicted on a charge of inciting to riot and rebellion, and surrendered himself on condition that his trial would be in Dublin (there was no chance of a fair trial in Clonmel). He was duly tried and acquitted, but then rearrested and charged with the murder of a man named John Bridge – a Whiteboy who had turned king’s evidence and was never seen again (he may have left the country). Under flogging, Bridge had previously implicated Sheehy and others in a Whiteboy conspiracy.
This time Sheehy was tried in Clonmel. The chief manager of the trial was an Anglican clergyman, who was subsequently proved to have wrongly discredited Sheehy’s witnesses. The witnesses for the prosecution were those that had not been believed in the Dublin trial. Also, Sheehy had an alibi.
None the less, he and a man named Ned Meehan were convicted of murder by the all-Protestant jury, and were hanged, drawn and quartered (a barbaric practice that involved removing the intestines while the victim was still alive) at Clonmel on 15 March 1766, in what the Oxford Companion to Irish History describes as a judicial assassination. Their heads were mounted on spikes in the town, and remained there for some years.
As a footnote, in a multi-volume history book that I copy-edited some years ago, the author described Sheehy as having a ‘Robin Hood complex’. I wrote to her:
the information on Sheehy given here doesn’t justify ascribing a ‘Robin Hood complex’ to him. The quote has said that he quixotically wished to help the poor, but Robin Hood also robbed the rich, and there’s apparently no evidence that Sheehy did the same. The term ‘complex’ suggests a psychological imbalance, and seems an immoderate way to characterise a priest’s wish to assist his flock. All in all, I think there’s a danger that the phrase could be interpreted as a sneer or a gratuitous insult. Also, it would be better to mention that a second man, Edmund Meehan, was tried and executed with Sheehy.
The author’s one-word response was ‘stet’.
I advised the editorial board that I think it’s very likely that some readers will see the phrase ‘Sheehy’s Robin Hood complex’ as evidence of political/religious bias on the author’s part, but she got her way. Well, at least I tried.