Nicholas Walsh (judge)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Nicholas Walsh (Irish judge))
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Arms of Walsh: Azure, six mullets or

Sir Nicholas Walsh (1542–1615) was an Irish judge, politician and landowner of the late Tudor and early Stuart era. He was Speaker of the Irish House of Commons in the Parliament of 1585–86 and a close ally of the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir John Perrot. Perrot's downfall did some short term damage to Walsh's career, but he soon regained his influence, as he was noted for his loyalty to the English Crown.

He was appointed Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas in 1597. He also sat on the Privy Council of Ireland, on which he held an office which has been compared to that of a Minister without portfolio.[1] His loyalty to the Crown led to his narrowly escaping death during a serious riot in 1603.

He acquired a great fortune and was called "the richest commoner in Munster".[2] The well known Irish poem, Labhrann ar Iongaibh Éireann, by Tuileagna Ó Maoil Chonaire, was addressed to him.

Early life[edit]

He was born at Waterford, son of James Walsh, Mayor of Waterford in 1539 and 1547, and grandson of Patrick Walsh, who was also Mayor of the town.[3] His father died while still a young man, and Nicholas and his sister were entrusted to the care of Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond, who sent him to live in the household of Nicholas White, later Master of the Rolls in Ireland.[4] The Walsh family was wealthy, and this no doubt was the foundation of Nicholas's great fortune. He was studying law at Lincoln's Inn in 1561.

His sister Johanna married another protégé of the Earl of Ormond, Gerald Comerford, who like Nicholas went on to become a trusted Crown official and a High Court judge, but died, still a relatively young man, in 1604.[5]

Early career[edit]

His first official post was Recorder of Waterford. After the settlement of Munster, Walsh became second justice of the Provincial Court of Munster in 1570 and Chief Justice of Munster in 1576. He was on good terms with Lord Deputy FitzWilliam and was a regular correspondent of Lord Burghley, the elder statesman of Queen Elizabeth I's court.[6] During his time in Munster he became friendly with Sir John Perrot. He was promoted to the position of second justice of the Court of King's Bench, and when Perrot called the last of the three Elizabethan Irish Parliaments in 1585, Walsh sat in the House of Commons as member for Waterford and was elected Speaker. It was a sign of Perrot's regard for him that Walsh was appointed to the Privy Council, though he had no specific functions on it. Crawford describes the appointment as unique.[7]

Judicial career[edit]

His closeness to Perrot earned Walsh the enmity of Adam Loftus, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland. When Perrot fell from power Loftus moved to destroy Walsh as well, and he was threatened with prosecution for having wrongfully convicted Perrot's former secretary, Henry Bird, of forgery.[8] Due to the friendship of Fitzwilliam and Burghley, he soon regained his influence.

Having been previously promised "any office of advancement" that might be vacant, he was considered for the office of Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer but passed over, probably because of his Irish birth. There was an informal understanding that the Court of Common Pleas (Ireland) was the appropriate Court for Irish-born judges and Walsh duly became its Chief Justice in 1597, with a knighthood.[9] He appears to have been a most conscientious judge: at a time when a perennial complaint against the Irish judges was their refusal to go on circuit, Walsh was extremely diligent about holding assizes, even when he was in his late 60s.[10]

The Waterford riots[edit]

During the Nine Years War Walsh was cut off from Dublin, and was said to be in some danger of his life in the period 1599–1600. He incurred further danger on the accession of James I of England in 1603, when a short-lived rebellion against the English Crown broke out in some of the southern towns. The principal aim of the rebellion was to secure greater religious liberty. While the rebels could not hope to actually prevent James's accession, they evidently hoped to apply pressure to the Crown to relax the Penal Laws: James, the son of a Catholic mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was widely believed to have given a verbal promise to this effect before his succession to the Crown of England.[11] Walsh tried to persuade Waterford Corporation to proclaim James as King, but a riot broke out in which Walsh might have been killed had not his relatives on the Corporation intervened to quell the violence.[12]

Cork- the case of William Meade[edit]

A similar and more serious rising in Cork caused the Crown to make an example of the Mayor of Cork, Thomas Sarsfield, the Recorder of Cork, William Meade, and Lieutenant Christopher Morrogh. Morrogh was hanged after a summary trial: Sarsfield was pardoned after making a full submission, but Meade remained defiant and the Crown, unwisely as it turned out, set up a special Court to try him for treason. The Lord President of Munster presided with Walsh and two other judges assisting him.[13] The result was a fiasco since the jury, despite being composed largely of Protestants of undoubted loyalty to the Crown, insisted, despite all efforts to coerce them, in bringing in a verdict of not guilty. Fynes Moryson, then secretary to the Lord Deputy of Ireland, with the wisdom of hindsight said that no one who knew anything about Ireland should have expected an Irish jury to convict him. Meade proved the Crown's suspicions about his loyalty true by fleeing to Italy.[14] By the ethical standards which are now expected of an Irish judge, Walsh acted improperly by sitting as a judge at Meade's trial; given his own experience in Waterford, where he had almost been killed, he could hardly be viewed as an impartial judge at a trial concerning what was essentially the same rebellion.[15]

Last years[edit]

Walsh continued to hold assizes diligently, although by 1611 he was described as being "old and weak". He asked unsuccessfully to be made a Serjeant-at-law (Ireland) to give him equal rank with the other Chief Justices. He was Treasurer of the King's Inn in 1609.[16] In 1612 he was allowed to resign on health grounds and died three years later. There is an unsubstantiated story, originating with David Rothe, Bishop of Ossory, that he converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed. Rothe told a similar story about Walsh's brother-in-law and judicial colleague, Gerald Comerford. Later generations of the Walsh family were mostly Protestant (and were thus able to hold on to their lands), although Nicholas's eldest son was a Catholic.[17]


His main residence was at Clonmore, County Kilkenny, but, since he was described as "the wealthiest commoner in Munster", this was presumably only one of his estates. He married firstly Catherine Comerford, and secondly Jacquetta Colclough, daughter of the Anthony Colclough who bought Tintern Abbey in 1575.[18] Sir Nicholas Walsh the elder founded the dynasty of Walsh of Piltown, Co. Kilkenny. Through his successful and influential roles in the Ormonde administration, he acquired extensive property in Munster in the aftermath of the Desmond Rebellion after 1579.

He had at least one son, his namesake Sir Nicholas Walsh the younger of Piltown (1590–1643), who is often confused with his father, sometimes being wrongly described as Judge Walsh. On the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Sir Nicholas Walsh the younger (of Piltown and Ballykeroge) became one of the leaders of Confederate Ireland and died fighting to protect his property from the threatened English plantation. He married Mary Colclough of Tintern Abbey, a niece of his stepmother Jacquetta. His eldest son Thomas (1624–1670), remained at Clonmore until the 1640s: he married Eleanor, daughter of John de la Poer or Power, 5th Baron Power of Curraghmore and his wife Ruth Pyphoe, and sister of Richard Power, 1st Earl of Tyrone.[19]

Through their high level connections the Piltown Walshes, in the person of Thomas, avoided transplantation to Connacht, which was the fate of most of their neighbours, and by converting to the Protestant faith and petitioning through the courts, Thomas succeeded in retrieving much of his father's lost property, which passed on his death to his eldest son John. The family used the suffix 'of Piltown' into the 18th century when the senior line of descent became extinct with the death of Col. Robert Walsh at Bath in 1788. However, recent research shows that at least one lesser cadet branch, the Walshes (or Welshes) of Canty and Woodstock, Co. Waterford, continued in occupation of Piltown lands into the late 19th century.

Tintern Abbey, Wexford, home of Nicholas Walsh's second wife Jacquetta Colclough.

Patron of the Irish language[edit]

Tuileagna Ó Maoil Chonaire addressed to Sir Nicholas Walsh his poem Labhrann ar iongaibh Éireann. This related the true story of a judgment given in the eighth century by Niall Frossach, King of Aileach concerning a mother and her fatherless child. The choice of Walsh as addressee of the poem suggests that he not only spoke Irish[20] but had some interest in Gaelic culture, perhaps fulfilling the traditional role of "patron".

Personality and reputation[edit]

Crawford describes Walsh as a highly successful politician and jurist, who through his diligence and loyalty to the Crown overcame what was then the serious handicap of Irish birth in attaining high office.[21] Ball, rather cynically, suggests that his great wealth was probably the main reason for his success.[22]


  1. ^ Crawford, Jon G. A Star Chamber Court in Ireland- the Court of Castle Chamber 1571–1641 Four Courts Press Dublin 2005 p.107
  2. ^ Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 John Murray London 1926 Vol.1 p.221
  3. ^ Ball, p.221
  4. ^ Ball p.221
  5. ^ Ball p.312
  6. ^ Ball p.221
  7. ^ Crawford p.107
  8. ^ Crawford p.108
  9. ^ Ball p.221
  10. ^ Crawford pp.107–8
  11. ^ Antonia Fraser The Gunpowder Plot- Terror and Faith in 1605 Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1997 pp.38-42 The author concludes that a promise was in fact made, despite James' later denials, and that his perceived breach of faith was the principal cause of the Gunpowder Plot.
  12. ^ Ball p.221
  13. ^ Gibson, C.B. History of Cork London 1861 Vol. II p.17
  14. ^ Pawlisch, Hans ed. Sir John Davies and the Conquest of Ireland Cambridge University Press 1985 p.104
  15. ^ cf. Constitution of Ireland 1937 Article 34, by which judges must swear an oath to act with absolute impartiality.
  16. ^ Kenny, Colum King's Inn and the Kingdom of Ireland Irish Academic Press Dublin 1992 p.83
  17. ^ Ball p.221
  18. ^ Montgomery-Massingberd, Hugh Burke's Irish Family Records London 1976 p. 254
  19. ^ Burke's Irish Family Records
  20. ^ A knowledge of the Irish language was not in itself unusual among the Anglo-Irish gentry in the sixteenth century- even staunch Royalists like Walsh himself often found a knowledge of Irish useful in dealing with neighbours who might not speak English.
  21. ^ Crawford p.108
  22. ^ Ball p.153
Political offices
Preceded by
Sir James Stanihurst
Speaker of the Irish House of Commons
Succeeded by
Sir John Davies