Finnerty, Peter (DNB00)

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FINNERTY, PETER (1766?–1822), journalist, born in or about 1766, was the son of a trader at Loughrea in Galway. He was brought up as a printer in Dublin, and became the publisher of 'The Press,' a nationalist newspaper started by Arthur O'Connor in September 1797. The violence of that journal caused it to be prosecuted by the government. On 22 Dec. 1797 Finnerty was tried before the Hon. William Downes, one of the justices of the court of king's bench in Ireland, upon an indictment for a seditious libel. The prosecution was instituted in consequence of the publication of a letter signed 'Marcus,' on the subject of the conviction and execution of William Orr, a presbyterian farmer, on a charge of administering the United Irish oath to a private in the Fifeshire Fencibles. Finnerty refused to divulge the writer's name, and, although John Philpot Curran made a most eloquent speech in his defence, he was found guilty. The sentence was that he should stand in and upon the pillory for the space of one hour ; that he should be imprisoned for two years from 31 Oct. 1797 (the day he was arrested) ; that he should pay a fine of 20l. to the king ; and that he should give security for his future good behaviour for seven years from the end of his imprisonment, himself in 500l., and two sureties in 250l. each. The whole of this sentence was eventually carried into effect. Finnerty, on 30 Dec., stood for one hour in the pillory opposite the sessions house in Green Street, in the presence of an immense concourse of sympathising spectators. He was accompanied by some of the leading men in the country. On being released from the pillory he said to the people : 'My friends, you see how cheerfully I can suffer I can suffer anything, provided it promotes the liberty of my country.' The crowd cheered this brief address enthusiastically, but they were quickly dispersed by the military (Howell, State Trials, xxvi. 902-1018; Curran, Speeches, 2nd edit, by Davis, p. 276).

On regaining his liberty Finnerty came to London and obtained an engagement as a parliamentary reporter on the staff of the 'Morning Chronicle.' In 1809 he accompanied the Walcheren expedition as special correspondent, in order to supply the 'Chronicle' with intelligence, but his bulletins soon induced the government to ship him home in a man-of-war. This he attributed to Lord Castlereagh, whom he libelled accordingly. On 7 Feb. 1811 he was sentenced by the court of queen's bench to eighteen months' imprisonment in Lincoln gaol for a libel charging his lordship with cruelty in Ireland. The talent and courage which he displayed at the trial obtained for him a public subscription of 2,000l. He memorialised the House of Commons on 21 June against the treatment he had experienced in prison, accusing the gaolers of cruelty in placing him with felons, and refusing him air and exercise. The memorial gave rise to several discussions, in which he was highly spoken of by Whitbread, Burdett, Romilly, and Brougham (Hansard, Parl. Debates, 1811, xx. 723-43). He died in Westminster on 11 May 1822, aged 56.

Finnerty was an eccentric Irishman, extremely quick, ready, and hot-headed. Much of his time was spent with Paul Hiffernan [q. v.], Mark Supple, and other boon companions at the Cider Cellars, 20 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. He published : 1. 'Report of the Speeches of Sir Francis Burdett at the late Election,' 1804, 8vo. 2. 'Case of Peter Finnerty, including a Full Report of all the Proceedings which took place in the Court of King's Bench upon the subject . . . with Notes, and a Preface comprehending an Essay upon the Law of Libel,' 4th edit. London, 1811, 8vo.

[Phillips's Curran and his Contemporaries, p. 184; Gent. Mag. vol. xcii. pt. i. p. 644; Biog. Dict. of Living Authors, p. 116; Andrews's British Journalism, ii. 31, 66; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. ix. 306; Grant's Newspaper Press, ii. 224; Hunt's Fourth Estate, ii. 275.]

T. C.