From the Irish Ecclesiastical Record 1906

(pages 528 – 536)

The Trial and Execution of Father Quigley

by Richard J. Kelly B.L.

Among the records of so-called judicial proceedings which disgraced the period of British Government and its administration of the law at the period of the rebellion (1798) there are few to compare with the trial and execution of Father James Quigley. History, as written for us by Froude and others, represents this unfortunate priest as ‘a rabid rebel’, a man caught red-handed in the act of carrying treasonable documents from the Directory of the United Irishmen in this country to the French Directory. One has, however, only to read the base bald narrative of the proceedings of his unjust trial at Maidstone (Kent, England), even found in Howell’s State Trials – one has only yo read, even given these, the report of the trial to see clearly demonstrated the innocence of the unhappy man, and the failure of the prosecution to prove by legal evidence any of the charges alleged against him. It is now clear that Father Quigley had no connection with the United Irishman, and that he carried no document from them, and that he was not their emissary. No evidence of his complicity in any Association was given, and the judge in his charge omitted to point out tht fatal blot on the proofs. The circumstances attending the alleged discovery on his person of the incriminating paper indisputably show that no sane man would consciously carry about him so dangerous a document in so absolutely and palpably reckless manner, as if courting discovery. The Attorney-General laid down the principles of law unchallenged , that the possession of a treasonable document was evidence of guilt if the person knew its contents, but he assumed possession to imply that knowledge and approval – a most dangerous and unfounded extension of the law.

The document purported to be from the Secret Committee in England to the Executive Directory of France and it had no connection with the Irish organisation, yet in any account of the trial Father Quigley is represented as if he was an agent of the Irish body. No evidence was given at the trial of his connection with any organisation, English or Irish, and the attempt was made to discredit the Reform movement in England by associating it with the excesses of the Revolutionists in France, but it was unsuccessful. He steadily and strenuously denied knowledge of the incriminating document all through and with his last breath. To prove his privity with the French Government his passport was produced, not found on his person, but in a fellow-prisoner Binn’s trunk, and no proof of it being his was given. One of the Crown witnesses was so notorious a character that a record of his achievements is interesting. He was dismissed by one master for theft, had lodged a criminal charge against another, had given evidence at Downpatrick Assizes against a man who was hanged, and he had written to the Secretary of State offering to give evidence. It is clear he was a perjured ruffian, and that he was employed to do the job he volunteered for and did at the Quigley trial. He is the type of the Crown witness, and it was on the tainted testimony of such a man Father Quigley lost his life. This infamous character admitted that he laid informations against twenty unfortunate men in Ireland. The Crown lawyers expressed astonishment when and indignation when it was stated in court by the councel for the prisoner, that the witnesses for the prosecution ignominiously called spies, hirelings engaged to swear away life and liberty. The Crown lawyers preferred to call these infamous instruments "Gentlemen who have been instrumental in advancing the public justice of the country". Dutton, one of the spies used in the Quigley case, rose through his services in court from the position of footman to that of a quarter-master, and such tempting rewards produced their plentiful crop of witnesses to prove anything. Not a single witness at the trial was a man of reliability, or one upon whose testimony the proverbial cat would be hanged, yet through such Father Quigley lost his life – was judicially murdered. Father Quigley did not know, and had never seen previously, several of the witnesses brought against him, and yet they swore to facts of common knowledge.

At Maidstone, in Kent, on the 21st of May 1798, the trial of James O’Coigley (alias James Quigley, Alias James John Fivey) opened. With him were Arthur O’Connor and others. (Arthur O’Connor was a Protestant and a freemason, subsequent to the trial he went to the United States where he became a General in the American army. To his dying day O’Connor maintained that Father Quigley was in fact carrying the incriminating document to Paris when he was arrested. Posterity rightly or wrongly accused O’Connor of being the man who placed the incriminating document in the priest’s top-coat to save his own life) O’Connor was a man of high social position, and an array of witnesses testified to his character such as were never seen in a court of justice. We find Charles James Fox, Henry Grattan, Thomas Erskine Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the Earl of Sheffield, the Duke of Norfolk all bearing testimony for him. The prisoners were tried for high treason, and the chief proof was the document said to have been found on the person of the priest. The others were Joh Binns, one John Allen and one Jeremiah Leary. Practically the two principals were Father Quigley, and Arthur O’Connor. Now, this priest was a remarkable man, and was actually noted in his own country and county for his efforts to uphold the law and to bring offenders to justice. But, unfortunately for him, his zeal was necessarily directed against the lewd and lawless excesses of the Orangemen who were then, and often since, allowed by the Executive to wreck the houses, ravish the persons, and murder Catholics. Not a single one of these miscreants, for these well known crimes, was brought to justice and punished although Father Quigley himself prosecuted some notorious offenders, and did so at Armagh through Bernard McNally, whom he retained special, and took off from another circuit to go to Armagh. Father Quigley actually incurred out of his own slender means, the expenses of the prosecution. He did this in view of the failure and disinclination of the Castle to do its duty. Father Quigley did such a remarkable service in the cause of law and order, that Mr. Alexander Stewart, the High Sheriff of Armagh, and a respectable Protestant, to his credit, went to Maidstone to bear testimony to the priest’s character as a law-abiding and law-loving citizen.

Father Quigley was born at Kilmore (a townland in the parish of Stonebridge near Portadown. In May 1798 the Quigley property was already seized by the Orangemen) in 1767, and was at the time of his untimely death only thirty-six years of age. He came from a respectable Northern farmer class. (the father of the priest was the owner of a corn and a flax mill as well as a farm. The ruins of both can still be still in Kilmore) He was educated at Dundalk and subsequently on the continent. He was clearly and as evidently the victim of the rampant revengeful Orangism, that with absolute impunity was making the life of a Catholic, in those days, a hell on earth. The evidence upon which the priest was convicted, and the others strangely acquitted, was all in its main points the same – with the one exception that it was said, but not at all satisfactorily proved, that an incriminating document was found with Father Quigley of a treasonable character. But its finding and the circumstances attending it, invest the whole affair with grave suspicion. It was proved to be found by a ‘Bow Street Runner’, admittedly a most unreliable class of fellow – a creature who was a cross between a low bailiff and a lower process server. He said that this treasonable document was taken by him, when no one was looking on, from out of a pocket of a top-coat which was thrown carelessly about in the tap room of the hotel at Maidstone. It was admitted that there were numerous strangers going in andout of the particular room, and that the prisoners were not in it at the time it was found, nor indeed was proved to have been in it at all at any time. The finding of the coat was long subsequent to the arrest and no steps were taken toprove the coat was the prisoner’s, or to mark the paper for the purpose of identification, and it went through several persons hands before it ultimately was impounded. It was admitted on cross-examination by the same witness that he (the witness) actually had warned the priest in London that he would be arrested at Gravesend, and we are asked to believe, that in the face of that warning, and of the peril the priest consequently was undoubtably in, that this intelligent man, holding such a fateful and important commission from a secret society to a foreign government, still carelessly kept the document in the pocket of a top-coat (never proved to be his), and threw that coat into a public tap-room where any man might have searched for or stolen it.

On its face the document itself did not refer to Father Quigley as its bearer, for it was intended to be taken to France from England by the person who had been the bearer of a former address from the secret committee of England. The only evidence in the case of father Quigley’s being previously in France was a passport with his name said to have been found in a trunk alleged to be but never proved to belong to his fellow-prisoner Binns. But the letters were proved only by the infamous Dutton to be in Quigley’s handwriting. And the document, which was in French, and which was never properly translated, stated also that the bearer was disguised as an American traveller, which the priest never was. The judge (Buller) in his charge omitted to state in Quigley’s case, which he did stste in O’Connor’s – that it was not proved that Father Quigley was amember of any political society in any country. It was sworn that one Perkins, a witness who had warned Quigley that they would be searched again when they went to Margate, had before they left London, searched him and found nothing. This fact was not commented on by the judge, nor was any reference made to the dubious finding by such a traitorous paper and the suspicious circumstances thereof.

It is now clear that the paper was planted on the unfortunate priest. The judge also refrained from stating that it was the Orange excesses towards the priest and his family; ‘their persecution and atrocities’ that, as deposed to by Mr. Stewart at his trial, were his real motives for leaving his own country where justice denied him her protection, and the law showed itself absolutely powerless to protect him and his co-religionists. A young woman in the room of the Maidstone hotel was called to give evidence as to what the prisoners said in the room of the Maidstone hotel, yet although she was so well tutored that she glibly knew all their names she could not identify a single one of the prisoners, and yet no reflection from the Bench was passed on her worthless and perjured testimony. The same partial judicial functionary cruelly referred to the fact that so many witnesses to character came to testify for O’Connor and only one for the priest, never adverting to the fact that one was a poor man and the other a rich man, and that it was only by mere accident that Mr. Stewart came, for he happened to be on his own private business in London, and like a man of honour, hastened of his own accord to testify to the high character and law-abiding dispositions of the priest whom he so well knew in Ireland. Tthere was actually prepared and in the hands of an officer of the court another warrant to arrest Quigley on another charge had he been acquitted of this charge – so doubtful was the crown before an English jury of his real guilt.

While in Maidstone gaol awaiting execution – which was deliberately protracted- Father Quigley was scandalously worried and harassed by emissaries of the English Government inducing him to make a confession and to cover the illegality of the proceedings and promising him a reprieve. He was asked if he could or would swear against O’Connor’s guilt, and he was denied the administrations of a priest at first. He was promised his liberty, and tempting rewards proffered, and he was told even that his aged parents (his father was then 87 and his mother 86) would be equally handsomely treated and compensated (the priest’s parents were then dispossessed of their property in Kilmore. On the occasion of the eviction by an Orange mob, the priest’s father was ordered ‘to renounce the errors of Rome’ and when he refused to comply with the demand was put up against the wall of his house to be shot. The guns of the Orangemen were actually being aimed at the old man when a Protestant neighbour on horseback galloped up and unfortunately saved the priest’s father from death and martyrdom. During the uproar outside the priest’s mother stood on a stool in the kitchen with a view to learning what was taking place. When she saw that her husband was about to be shot she fell from the stool and broke her leg in her thigh. She never recovered from the fall and was dead when Father Quigley was executed. At the time of the execution in Maidstone, the Quigley family had already begun to live in Knockbridge at the spot which is now called ‘Quigley’s Cross’. The old people were supported by Hugh Quigley the father of James Quigley of Castleroche. This testimony is given in Father Quigley’s own memoirs.) and that his brother – an officer in the British Army (this man was not Hugh Quigley) – would be promoted, if he would say what he knew, or thought he knew, about the United Irishmen conspiracy. If not, he was told that he would suffer the extreme penalty of the law, that his family would be persecuted, and that indelible disgrace would come to his religion which he was appealed to save from the disgrace of having one of it’s priests hanged. All this torture and this persecution of the poor innocent man occurred on the eve of his execution, and all this was resorted to to worry out of him anything that would justify their proceedings. The conduct of Father Quigley at the time of his execution is thus described by an eye-witness.

About half-past eleven o’clock he arrived at that place in a hurdle; he had no hat on; he was without a neck cloth and his shirt collar was open. The day was extremely sultry; he had been half an hour in coming from the prison, and the trampling of the horses to draw the hurdle, and the soldiers and multitude that surrounded it had left him covered with clouds of dust and he appeared faint from these causes……..He held a prayer book in his hand, and he rose and prepared to read part f the Roman service, but the clergyman who attended him stood at his side, speaking earnestly to him in a low voice, and for some minutes interfered with his devotions. He listened with patience, but with the evident disapprobation of the subject of the discourse. When he began his devotions he read aloud several prayers in the Latin tongue. In a few minutes he took an orange from his pocket and afterwards a knife, but his arms being bound could not cut the orange, and beckoning to his friends he said, ‘open this orange with my penknife, it has been said that they would not trust me with a penknife lest I cut my throat, but they little know that I would not deprive myself of the glory of dying in this way’ (It is a pity that he was not more explicit in this statement. Did he regard himself as dying for his country or his faith?)

Even on the scaffold the clergyman who was in the prison trying to get a confession persisted in his persecution of the unhappy victim, so he was heard to say to him several times, ‘No,no’. Finally he shook hands with the clergyman, and stepped out of the hurdle and spoke words of thanks to the governor, saying to him twice, ‘God bless you’. We return to the report of his execution for the account of his last moments:-

He shook hands with Mr. Watson (governor) and then ascended the ladder with unshaken courage. As the executioner prepared the rope the man said something that was probably an apology, for Mr. Coigley answered, ‘Say nothing, you know you must do your duty’. When the rope was around his neck and fastened to the tree and his arms bound behind he spoke in the following manner:-

‘Mr. Sheriff’ (the sheriff approached with his hat off) ‘Put on your hat, Sir’ (Mr. Coigley said) ‘put on your hat’. (The sheriff stood with his hat off till Mr. Coigley concluded his address) ‘It is customary you know, Sir, in cases of this sort for a person standing in my unfortunate situation, always to say something more or less, but I do not think it requisite to say so much as I otherwise should upon the present occasion, because I have taken all pains already under my own hand to draw a regular declaration – a convincing thing it will be to the world at large – and a sketch also of my unfortunate and afflicted life…..I never was the bearer of any letter, paper, writing or address or message, either written, printed or verbal to the Directory of France, or to any person on their behalf, of which I am accused, nor has any person for me been such a bearer. I further declare that I never was a member of the Corresponding Society, nor of any other political society, in Great Britain, nor did I attend any of their meetings, public or private, so help me God. Surely if a man is to be believed at any time it is when he is going into eternity before the bar of the Heavenly Father, and Almighty God. Before Him I now solemnly declare the truth of what I am now saying. I declare it under this impression; I hope history and posterity will do me justice, but if not I go instantly before a tribunal where it is known that I speak the truth. My life is falsely and maliciously taken away by corrupt and base perjury and subornation of perjury. I have long been persecuted by the government of Ireland. The first cause was my having endeavoured to teach the people this lesson, that no man could serve his God by persecuting his neighbour for any opinion and particularly for any religious opinion. I have always said that if men wish to serve God on earth they should give up their persecuting spirit. This was the first cause of my persecution. The second cause of my persecution was a contested election in Ireland in which I used my endeavours to prevail on my father and brother (Hugh Quigley), who were freeholders, to poll for the opposition candidates. The third and final cause of my persecution was (and it is supported by charges which have been since retracted) because I was active in procuring a long and spirited address to his Majesty to put an end to this most calamitous war, and to dismiss those who were falsely called his servants. I forgive them from my heart with pure Christian charity, every man who had a hand in my murder, for I declare it a most wicked murder……God forgive those who perjured themselves, I forgive them from my heart. I have no doubt that when the clouds of prejudice and alarm shall pass away, justice will be done me, and I hope my suffering will be a warning to jurors to be cautious how they embrue their hands in innocent blood…..I recommend to you, men of Kent, in time to come, to beware how you permit any person to take advantage of you, and to guard against the snares of crown lawyers. It has been the fate of your country to shed the blood of a poor helpless innocent stranger. May God Almighty forgive all mine enemies, and I desire of you all to pray to God to grant me grace to support me in this moment, and to enable me to die in a manner worthy of my integrity. I have many sins to answer for, but they are the sins of my private life, and I am innocent of the charge for which I die. O Lord, have mercy on me and receive my soul."

The crowd was greatly affected. ‘When he declared his innocence a buzz of applause ran through the multitude, and there was even clapping of hands towards the close of his address, many of the spectators wept, and some of the soldiers were unable to repress their tears.’

So died as clearly innocent a victim of misrule and illegality as even Irish history can furnish a parallel for. He was not fairly tried, and even on the evidence before the court, perjured and prepared as it was, there was not enough to convict him of the offence, for, as shown, it failed to substantiate clearly his complicity in the acts charged. Prejudice against his religion brought him to the dock and ultimately to the scaffold. If Father Quigley was guilty so were his companions. If he were clearly guilty, why was he worried in prison to make any sort of confession and promised his liberty if he did so? Why was his execution delayed for days when the custom was to carry it out the next morning of the day on which the sentence was pronounced. One can find no other explanation than that the delay was intended to force the unhappy man into a confession; to free himself by implicating others, which he nobly refused to be a party to. His death and the circumstances of his trial show conclusively that justice was not shown him, that he was the victim of a vile conspiracy to punish men supposed to be engaged in treasonable conspiracies in Ireland, and by any means secure their conviction. Father Quigley’s trial (as told in Howell’s State Trials, Vol. XXVIII) was a veritable travesty of justice. His guilt was assumed, but never legally proved, and an innocent man suffered on the occasion.

Richard J Kelly.

Towards the end of page (his address from the scaffold) it can be seen that Father Quigley denies that he was a member of any political society in Great Britain. Because he makes no reference to any political society in Ireland it has often been inferred that he was a United Irishman. This deduction has no deduction in fact; for Wolfe Tone who should have known who was and who was not a true United Irishman says this in his autobiography: ‘I don’t trust Quigley.’ After Father Quigley’s death Wolfe Tone in the same autobiography was more generous towards the priest’s name and memory when he says: ‘I misjudged Quigley. When Ireland is free I shall have a monument erected to his memory in Dublin.’

Furthermore if Father Quigley was a United Irishman traces of United Irishmen’s sentiments would be found in his brother’s descendants both in Knockbridge and Castleroche. Such is not the case.

The account of Father Quigley’s trial and memoirs etc can be found in the Law Library near Dominic’s Street Dublin.

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