The Sheares brothers were the sons of Henry Sheares, a liberal banker from Cork who also sat in the Irish Parliament for the Borough of Clonakilty. Henry attended Trinity College Dublin, bought an officer's commission and then studied as a lawyer, being called to the bar as a barrister in 1790. John had qualified as a barrister in 1788. Their father had died in 1776, leaving a large income of £1,200 p.a.
Politicisation in Paris
In 1792 the brothers went to Paris and were swept away by the popular enthusiasms of the French revolution. They met leaders such as Brissot and Roland, both of whom were to be executed in 1793. In particular they witnessed the introduction of the guillotine, on which 1,400 were to die in 1792. On the boat from France to England they met Daniel O'Connell (then a student) who was disgusted by the increasingly bloodthirsty nature of the revolution. O'Connell remained an advocate of non-violence thereafter.
They joined the United Irish movement on their return to Dublin in January 1793, when it was still legal. However, France declared war on Britain (and by extension, on Ireland) in February 1793. The Society's initial aims of securing 1) Catholic Emancipation and 2) universal suffrage were unsuccessful, amounting to the administration's 1793 Relief Act. Its stance became more radical, and in turn the Irish administration feared a group inspired by France, banning it in 1794. The Sheares brothers principally organised the movement in Cork, while continuing with their legal careers. A Mr. Conway, one of their keenest members in Cork, informed the administration of their activities. During 1793 the brothers also joined the Dublin Society of the United Irishmen, where another spy, Thomas Collins, passed on their names. Their two other less famous brothers had enlisted in the British army and were killed in action. On the arrest of most of the United Irish "Directory" members in March 1798, John was chosen as a replacement on the approach to the outbreak of rebellion. His main act at this point was to decide on the date - 23 May.
The Directory fatally stayed in Dublin, where the United Irish had less support. Already quietly betrayed by Conway and Collins, John also befriended Captain Warnesford Armstrong from County Down, who claimed to be a busy member of the party there. John never checked this, and Armstrong informed the authorities of the brothers' whereabouts, also appearing as a witness in the ensuing trial. They were arrested on 21 May and indicted on 26 June.
Inevitably the brothers were tried on 12 July, as the rebellion was at its height, and were hanged, drawn and quartered on 14th. Their lawyer was John Philpot Curran who, with Sir Jonah Barrington, obtained a stay of execution in the hope that Henry would recant, but the brothers were already dead. They were buried at St Michan's nearby. Visitors are brought to their coffins on a tour of St. Michan's vaults.
John's speech from the dock was later much quoted, including his justification:
- "The accusation of which I speak, while I linger here yet a minute, is that of holding out to the people of Ireland a direction to give no quarter to the troops fighting for its defence. My lords, let me say thus, that if there be any acquaintances in this crowded court--I do not say my intimate friends, but acquaintances--who do not know what I say is truth, I shall be reputed the wretch which I am not; I say, if any acquaintance of mine can believe that I could utter a recommendation of giving no quarter to a yielding and unoffending foe, it is not the death which I am about to suffer that I deserve--no punishment could be adequate to such a crime. My lords, I can not only acquit my soul of such an intention, but I declare, in the presence of that God before whom I must shortly appear, that the favorite doctrine of my heart was that no human being should suffer death, but when absolute necessity required it."
All four Sheares brothers died in the 1790s, but Henry's daughter Mary went on to marry the Revd. Piers Butler in 1823.
- Libraryireland article accessed 2009
- Independent, Feb 2007
- Notes on Conway; accessed Oct 2009 Archived October 26, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
- McDowell, RB Proceedings of the Dublin Society of the United Irishmen Irish Manuscripts Commission, Dublin 1998; passim. ISBN 1-874280-16-9