“The Brothers John and Henry Sheares”


The singer recalls the sentencing and execution. The informer watches. The verdict is guilty. "One day between the sentence and the scaffold." No sword is raised to save them. They are beheaded. The bodies in their coffins are "life-like to this day"


Moylan: The brothers were hanged [not beheaded]. As described in the ballad, the informer, Captain John Warneford Armstrong, had "enjoyed the hospitality of their family home." Further, the "bodies lie in the vaults of St Michan's Church in Church Street, Dublin, where they remain in a state of preservation due to some remarkable property of their surroundings." - BS

Robert Kee (in _The Most Distressful Country_, being volume I of _The Green Flag_, p. 46) writes of John Sheares, "His death was in fact to be particularly ignominius, for by some clumsiness on the part of the executioner he was hauled up on the rope for nearly a minute before being lowered again to the platform for his final drop." Kee also notes his lack of fame: "He has a small street named after him in Cork but otherwise his name... has little popular appear in modern republican Ireland." And, indeed, three of the first four histories I checked do not even mention the Sheares Brothers.

Yet the two were among the most important figures of 1798. When the British captured most of the leaders of the United Ireland movement in March of that year, "leadership of the metropolitan organization... devolved on Lord Edward [Fitzgerald, for whom see "Edward (III) (Edward Fitzgerald)"], John and Henry Sheares and, recently released from prison, Samuel Neilson. All, including a fatally wounded Lord Edward, were in custody by the eve of the rebellion" (from Jim Smyth, _The Men of No Property_, p. 176).

The informer Captain Armstrong did indeed betray them, but much of the fault belongs with the rebels. Thomas Pakenham, in _The Year of Liberty_, p. 78, tells of how Armstrong visited tbe bookstore of Patrick Byrne. He browsed "left-wing pamphlets," and apparently this was enough to cause Byrne to introduce him to the Sheares brothers, and enough to make them trust him! Pakenham, p. 81, reports that "Lawless and the Sheares brothers staked all on the loyalty of... Captain John Warneford Armstrong." To be sure, Pakenham notes that these leaders were now effectively cut off from the rest of the United Irish movement, including all the fighters they had so painfully raised. They needed help from the other side -- Armstrong. They didn't get it.

Pakenham, p. 90, reports that the brothers were lawyers with no understanding of military issues anyway. What leadership they did apply was largely negated by another government spy, Francis Mangan, who had actually been appointed to the Directory (Pakenham, p. 91).

The Sheares Brothers resigned from the Directory shortly before the rising began (Pakenham, p. 92).

On May 21, the brothers were arrested, and a proclamation of independence, in the handwriting of John Sheares, was found among their papers (Pakenham, p. 96).

Their trial came a month and a half later. Pakenham (pp. 285-287) describes it as all hanging on the testimony of Armstrong, a self-declared atheist and liberal. In a truly ironic twist, the lawyer for the Sheares Brothers, John Philpot Curran (for whom see "The Deserter's Lamentation" and "Emmet's Farewell to His Sweetheart") tried to use the fact that Armstrong was a follower of Thomas Paine (who of course inspired much of the Irish thinking) as reason not to trust his testimony. It didn't help. The jury (which apparently was carefully chosen) declared both brothers guilty in just 17 minutes. They were hanged the following day, and apparently their heads were severed after death.

Moylan's statement about the preservation of the body perhaps requires some caution. Pakenham's account (p. 287) describes a shorter term of preservation: "In the peculiar atmosphere of [St. Michan's], the coffins soon crumbled away. Twenty years later Curran's son visited the place and was shown the severed heads, trunks, and 'the hand that once traced those lines' not yet mouldered into dust."

Of course, that account was contemporary when "Speranza" was born. "Speranza," a frequent contributor to the nationalist publication _The Nation_ was in fact Jane Francesca Elgee (died 1896; birth date variously listed from "c. 1820" to 1826, but 1821 is the most common). She wrote much Irish nationalist poetry, most of it after the death of that paper's founder Thomas Davis in 1845, though only a few pieces can be found in present-day anthologies. (_Granger's Index to Poetry_, in fact, cites only one: "The Famine Year": "Weary men, what reap ye? -- 'Golden corn for the stranger.' What sow ye? -- 'Human corses that wait for the avenger.' Fainting forms, hunger-stricken, what see ye in the offing? 'Stately ships to bear our food away amid the stranger's scoffing....'" (For the full text, see Kathleen Hoagland, editor, _One Thousand Years of Irish Poetry_ (New York, 1947), pp. 494-496, or Charles Sullivan, editor, _Ireland in Poetry_, (Abrams, 1990), pp. 98-99.)

Terry Golway (_For the Cause of Liberty_, p. 111) describes her as "tall, dark, and attractive" (which, if the portrait he prints on page 110 is to believed, strikes me as an understatement), and a heavy reader. Still, she married rather late; it was not until 1851 that she wed Sir William Wilde. They had two sons; the younger of them was Oscar Wilde.

For a poem possibly by John Sheares himself, see "The Shamrock Cockade." - RBW

Historical references

  • July 14, 1798 - John and Henry Sheares, members of the National Directory of the United Irishmen, hanged. (source: Moylan)

Cross references


  1. Moylan 107, "The Brothers John and Henry Sheares" (1 text)
  2. ADDITIONAL: Edward Hayes, The Ballads of Ireland (Boston, 1859), Vol I, pp. 240-242, "The Brothers"
  3. BI, Moyl107


Author: "Speranza" (Jane Francesca Elgee, Lady Wilde) (source: Hayes)
Earliest date: 1855 (Edward Hayes, _The Ballads of Ireland_ (Boston, 1859), Vol I)