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Adultery at Lyons, treason at Rathcoole – court cases that shocked Leinster
Crime and the courts have an enduring fascination. The minutiae of scandalous crimes or the detail of salacious trials remain in the folk memory over many generations. The circumstances of court cases whether criminal or civil and the public reaction say a lot about the values and standards of a given society. What was considered shocking years ago might be considered run of the mill now. It is useful then to have a look back to see how crime and law enforcement were regarded by past generations. A recent publication by a study group of NUI Maynooth postgraduates provides a compilation of legal cases and cause celebres ranging from adultery to extortion and from bigamy to embezzlement, over three centuries. The book Trouble with the Law –crimes and trials from Ireland’s past has a particular Leinster resonance with many of the episodes described taking place in the region.
Carbury historian Karina Holton writes about a story of adultery (or ‘criminal conversation’ as it was quaintly known in legal terms) played out against the sumptuous backgrounds of Lyons House near Celbridge with an Italian fresco painter getting more than he bargained for in terms of a view from his scaffolding of the carry-on. The cast of characters as described by Karina Holton centres on the marriage of Valentine Lawless or Lord Cloncurry, heir to the Lyons mansion and his wife Elizabeth Georgina. He was thirty and she sixteen when they married in Rome in 1803. After a lavish tour of European capitals they settled as recently marrieds in Lyons visiting other society families such as Mr. Browne at Castle Browne (now Clongowes) and Colonel Marlay and his wife Elizabeth at Marlay Abbey in Celbridge. Enter into this happy situation Sir John Piers, descendant of a titled family in Westmeath. The bold Sir John had a bit of ‘form’ having some years previously eloped with a dancer from an entertainment house in Bride Street, Dublin. He now turned up in Lyons House and when Lord Cloncurry was out walking the estate began to make advances to Lady Cloncurry. Although at first she rejected his approaches nature took its course and the pair conspired to meet both in Lyons and later in the Cloncurry’s Dublin residence. However passion overtook discretion and the pair was seen arm in arm in the gardens of Lyons while Lord Cloncurry was leading a walking tour of the estate. The enraged husband sent his errant wife back to her parents and challenged and later sued Sir John Piers for depriving him of the affections of his wife and was awarded £20,000 for his troubles after a civil case that transfixed Dublin society with its tales of amorous liaisons in the big house..
An equally dramatic case but of a different nature is documented in another contribution to the book by Maynooth historian Maeve Mulryan-Moloney. Her story concerns the plight of Fr. James Harold, parish priest of Rathcoole, Newcastle and Saggart who became embroiled in the hysteria of the summer of 1798 when violent rebellion was put down by brutal government action. A young man named Clinch from a leading farming family in Rathcoole was arrested on suspicion of treason and during his questioning mentioned Fr. Harold’s name. Although the priest had not come under suspicion prior to this the mere mention of an association with the rebels in those heady days was enough to earn him a sentence of transportation to Australia. Maeve Mulryan describes how the resourceful clergyman won popularity in the new prison colony of Sydney and indeed for a number of years he was the only Catholic priest in Australia. However he fell foul of the authorities again and was despatched to Norfolk Island in the Pacific where he spent some years before being transferred to Tasmania. Incredibly despite great hardships and repeated upheaval he remained healthy and persisted in a petition to return to Ireland. After many further adventures (all recorded in the essay) he returns to Ireland in 1813 where he was appointed parish priest of Kilcullen. What his crime had been is difficult to say but he seems to have been a victim of the harsh measures which governments often deploy in the face of alleged treason.
  • Trouble with the Law – Crimes and Trials from Ireland’s past, edited by Liam Clare and Maire Ni Chearbhaill, is published by the Woodfield Press.
Series No. 42

Tales of crime and passion from Liam Kenny in his regular feature, 'Nothing New Under the Sun,' in the Leinster Leader of 22 November 2007

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