Much Guarding, Little Action, Scrambling Breakfasts: the Irish Lawyers’ Corps and the Rebellion of 1798

Shoulder Belt Plate worn by a member of the Irish Lawyers’ Corps, c. 1796

Despite many parades, and much drilling, the question of what that notable barrister militia company, the Lawyers’ Corps, actually did during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 went unanswered for many years. Indeed, it might never have been resolved at all had the Dublin Daily Express not belatedly managed to unearth the diary of an anonymous 24-year-old barrister member of the Corps and publish it in a centenary edition of 27th August 1898. Its contents make interesting reading!

1798: May 21st, Monday. – About 11 o’clock, just before I went to bed, one of the drummers of the Lawyers’ Corps called to summon me to attend in arms the next morning at 7 o’clock at the Four Courts.

May 22nd, Tuesday – I went to the Four Courts.  Here I got a scrambling breakfast of cold beef and porter, and, after remaining a great while under arms, we were at last marched to Thomas-Street, where we searched several houses for concealed arms.  We found some, and were dismissed about 2 o’clock.

May 23rd, Wednesday – As I was going to the Four Courts, expecting that the eight days’ sittings after term would begin, I met several lawyers who assured me that all the Courts had adjourned.  In the evening at eight o’clock I went to the Four Courts to mount guard with my company of the Lawyers’ Corps.  I found the drums beating to arms and all the yeomanry assembling; the remainder of our corps met in Smithfield.  A general rising was expected through the whole town.  The two Sheares brothers had been taken up that morning, and a vast deal of pikes and concealed arms had been discovered by flogging the several smiths and others who had been detected making or possessing them.  The night, however, passed without any disturbance, and we were not dismissed till a very late hour next morning – first day of the Rebellion.

May 24th, Thursday – There was great alarm in Dublin.  Accounts arrived that the United Irishmen had appeared in arms in many parts of the County of Kildare and in different places near Dublin. Martial law was proclaimed, and in the evening, about 8 o’clock, all the yeomanry assembled in arms in Sackville street, where we were joined by many volunteers.  From thence our corps and the Attorneys’ Corps marched to the Four Courts, and a detachment of ours, consisting of a lieutenant and two sergeants and twenty privates, was sent to take post on Sarah Bridge.

May 25th, Friday – I was sent on the party to relieve the detachments stationed at Sarah Bridge.  Luckily the weather was extremely fine.  Here we remained under arms till 5 o’clock.  Then we marched to the Four Courts, and about 6 o’clock were dismissed.  I went to bed and slept till 2 o’clock, when I was awakened, and told that a drummer had summoned me to attend at the Exchange to see the execution of some of the rebels.

May 26th, Saturday – This day very alarming accounts came to town of the forces of the rebels – of the murders and violence committed by them.  Dublin remains quiet.  In the evening we paraded as usual at the Four Courts, and I was of the detachment to Sarah Bridge which was not relieved at all.  This night we got an alarm and the men, though repeatedly challenged by our sentries, did not make any answer.  Le Hunte, one of the sentinels, and four or five privates and a sergeant fired at them.  We were very ill accommodated with a guard room and a bad supper at the other side of the bridge at a public house.

May 27th , Sunday  – Before 8 o’clock paraded at the Four Courts and was marched as guard to Newgate.  Our guardroom this night was the Sessions house in Green Street; several of us drank tea in the keeper’s room.  All was perfectly quiet.

May 28th, Monday – We had a good breakfast about 6 o’clock.  Went to parade at the Parliament House, as usual, in the evening.  This night, our guardroom was changed to the Parliament House, where the main guard was stationed.  We had an excellent supper given to us by the Clerk of the Parliament whom we lately admitted a member of the Corps.”

Sarah Bridge, now Island Bridge, where members of the Lawyers’ Corps stood guard during the 1798 Rebellion.

Over the next two weeks, the diarist continues night guard at the Parliament House and also at Hertford Bridge in the Grand Canal, occasionally adjourning to the Sackville Street Club to read ‘horrid accounts’ of events in Wexford, centre of the Rebellion. On June 4th, while again guarding Sarah Bridge, he is informed that the rebel leader Lord Edward Fitzgerald, arrested the previous week, has died in Newgate. Subsequently, the diarist returns to the Sessions house in Green Street to attend the trial of two of his rebel colleagues, John and Henry Sheares, remarking that

[i]t was a melancholy sight to see two men whom I had remembered at the Temple, and whose faces I had constantly seen at the Four Courts as barristers, standing indicted for high treason.”

He does not think much of the defence put forward on the Sheares’ behalf by the great advocate John Philpot Curran, but, as he says, ‘[i]ndeed he had not materials.’

On 13th July the diarist marches again with the Corps and a six pounder cannon through the Phoenix Park to Luttrelstown. By the 26th July, it is all over, and he goes again to the Four Courts, where the Court of Exchequer is now once again sitting, saying that

[i]t was curious to see all the lawyers in their different dresses, some in uniform, some in black, and some in coloured clothes, but in gown and wig not one. Hardly any appearance of business.”

Although a few shots were clearly discharged from time to time, there are no references in the diary to any deaths or injuries among the Corps in Dublin. Some Corps members based outside Dublin did, however, see action at the battles of Vinegar Hill and Arklow – one barrister, James Dunn, being so profoundly shaken by the latter battle, in which he was marked for life by the powder of a rebel’s pistol fired in his face at close quarters, that he felt called to take holy orders and change his profession to that of evangelist.

The Rev James Dunn, his face showing the marks of his injury at the Battle of Arklow

But who was our mysterious diarist and what happened to him after 1798? Did he go on to fame and fortune at the Bar? Or did he end up leaving the profession like the Reverend Dunn? The Express notes that he was the son of a bishop, which might be of assistance in tracking him down. What we do know is that he liked his food! Over two centuries have passed since 1798, but some things don’t change -barristers, like militia, still march on their stomachs. You can still get a very good breakfast in the Four Courts today, though cold beef and porter is no longer on the menu!

Image Credits: (top) (middle) (bottom)

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