Sheares, John (DNB00)

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SHEARES, JOHN (1766–1798), United Irishman, fourth son of Henry Sheares, esq. of Cork, and Jane Anne, daughter of Robert Bettesworth of Whiterock, sister of Sergeant Bettesworth and a relative of the Earl of Shannon, was born at Cork in 1766. His father was a partner in the banking concern of Rogers, Travers, & Sheares, latterly generally known as Sheares's bank; he was an occasional contributor to the ‘Modern Monitor,’ the chief literary journal of Cork at the time. From 1761 to 1767 he represented the borough of Clonakilty in parliament, and in 1765 assisted Dr. Charles Lucas (1713–1771) [q. v.] in passing a bill (Act 5, Geo. III) for the better regulation of trials in cases of treason, whereby a copy of the indictment was to be furnished to prisoners and counsel assigned them. For his services he received a pension of 200l., which he vacated on his appointment to the lucrative post of weighmaster of Cork. In 1774 he established a charitable institution in the city for the relief of persons confined for small debts. He died in the spring of 1776, bequeathing the bulk of his property to his eldest son, Henry (see below). Two other sons, Christopher and Richard, died in the king's service, the former as a soldier, of yellow fever, in the West Indies, the latter as lieutenant in the navy, while on board his majesty's ship Thunderer, lost on the West Indian station in the great hurricane of October 1779. A fifth son, Robert, was drowned in saving the life of John when as boys they were bathing together.

John, whose youth was passed at Glasheen, on the outskirts of Cork, inherited from his father a small fortune of 3,000l. Intended from the first for the legal profession, he received a liberal education at home and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated B.A. in 1787. He was called to the Irish bar in the following year, and in 1792 he accompanied his brother Henry on a visit to his family in France. Here he became imbued with the political principles of the Revolution, though at first not so deeply as to prevent him, it is said, when paying a visit to Versailles, from falling on his knees and vowing to plunge a dagger in the heart of every Frenchman he met if a hair of the head of Marie-Antoinette were touched. He was, however, present at the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793, and, returning to England in the same packet-boat as Daniel O'Connell, he disgusted him by exhibiting a handkerchief which he exultingly declared to have been steeped in the murdered monarch's blood. Having established himself in Dublin, and being of frugal habits, buying hardly anything except books, he not merely managed to retain his fortune intact, but was making a fair income at the bar when he was drawn within the vortex of Irish politics.

It is doubtful when precisely he became a United Irishman; but in a speech in the House of Lords in July 1793, Lord Clare alluded to him and his brother as ‘members of the French Jacobin Club … in the pay of that society to foment sedition in this country.’ The statement was wide of the truth, but Sheares occupied the chair at a meeting on 16 Aug. when an address was voted to the Hon. Simon Butler and Oliver Bond [q. v.] on their release from prison, and was with difficulty restrained from carrying a message from the former to the lord chancellor. He showed his sympathy with the revolutionists by attending the funeral of the Rev. William Jackson [q. v.] in May 1795, and when the ‘Press,’ a violent anti-government newspaper, was started by Arthur O'Connor [q. v.] in October 1797, Sheares became a frequent contributor to it. Owing to the editor's acceptance of an article by Sheares signed ‘Dion,’ and addressed to Lord Clare, as ‘the Author of Coercion,’ the paper was suppressed on 6 March 1798, the day on which the article was to have appeared. The article was subsequently published in a volume called ‘The Beauties of the Press,’ London, 1800, pp. 566–74, and is reprinted by Madden in ‘United Irishmen,’ 1st ser. ii. 92–103. In the society itself Sheares possessed little influence, and apparently took only a languid interest in its affairs, being, it is said, mainly responsible for the unorganised state of county Cork, which had been assigned to him and his brother. His practice at the bar, owing to the hostility of Lord Clare, did not prosper, and about Christmas 1797 he spoke of going to America. But his conduct was governed by his affection for a young lady of the name of Steele, to whom he had become greatly attached in 1794, but whose marriage with him was opposed by her mother on the ground of the laxity of his morals.

After the arrests at Bond's house on 12 March 1798, when Sheares and his brother were elected to vacant places in the directory, his whole nature seemed to undergo a change. He was indefatigable in his exertions to repair the loss the society had suffered. The rising was fixed for 23 May. On the 10th of that month he made the acquaintance of John Warneford Armstrong, a captain in the King's County militia, who afterwards informed against him. Sheares revealed to him his plan for corrupting the army. Armstrong's professions of sympathy completely deceived Sheares. The brothers were arrested on 21 May, and confined in Kilmainham gaol. On 4 July they were arraigned on a charge of high treason before Chief-justice Carleton, but the trial was postponed till the 12th. On the eve of his trial Sheares wrote to his sister Julia that, while he had no doubt about his own fate, he believed that Henry would escape. They were defended by Curran, Plunket, and McNally, but there is little doubt that the prosecution were beforehand fully acquainted with the line of defence adopted by them (through McNally). The only witness against them was Armstrong, but additional evidence was furnished in the shape of an inflammatory proclamation, intended to be published when the revolt was announced, written avowedly by John, but found in Henry's possession. In the existing state of the law of treason in Ireland (1 & 2 Philip & Mary, cap. 10, unmodified by 7 & 8 Will. III, cap. 3), one accuser was held to be sufficient.

The trial had proceeded for fifteen hours when Curran, sinking with exhaustion, moved for an adjournment. The motion was opposed by the attorney-general, John Toler (subsequently fourth Earl of Norbury) [q. v.], and at eight o'clock on the following morning a verdict of ‘guilty’ against both the prisoners was returned. A painful scene followed (cf. Lady Wilde's poem, The Brothers). Desperate efforts were made to save the life of Henry, whom the fear of death and the fate awaiting his family completely unmanned. John's only thought was for his brother, for whose fate he felt he was responsible (cf. Barrington, Rise and Fall of the Irish Nation, p. 365). After the trial the brothers were removed to Newgate. None of their friends or relatives were admitted to see them, and on the following day (14 July) they were publicly executed before the prison. Their heads were cut off and, with their bodies, laid in the crypt of St. Michan's.

Henry Sheares (1753–1798), John's senior by thirteen years, born at Cork in 1753, was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. He entered the army, but three years afterwards resigned his commission in the 51st regiment of foot, and, adopting the legal profession, was called to the bar in Michaelmas term 1789. He married, in April 1782, Alicia Swete, a lady who for his sake had rejected the hand of John Fitzgibbon (subsequently Earl of Clare) [q. v.] She was reputed an heiress, but, owing to her father's failure, brought no dowry to her husband. She was the mother of four children, and died on 11 Dec. 1791, being buried in the churchyard of St. Peter's, Aungier Street. The children were taken charge of by her parents, who were living in France, and it was while visiting them there that Henry imbibed his notions of republicanism. He had inherited the bulk of his father's property, amounting to about 1,200l. a year, but his extravagance compelled him more than once to draw on the slender resources of his brother. He married, secondly, in 1795, Sarah Neville, of Mary Mount, co. Kilkenny, by whom he had two children. As a barrister he was not very successful. In his political action he was wholly governed by the stronger will of his brother.

[Madden's United Irishmen, 1st ser. vol. ii.; Dublin Mag. 1798; Doran's Lough of Cork in Journal of the Cork Hist. Archæol. Soc. 1st ser. ii. 237–42; Tenison's Private Bankers of Cork, ib. 1st ser. i. 245, and Cork M.P.s, ib. 2nd ser. ii. 276; Castlereagh Corresp. i. 148, 150, 227, 258; Fitzpatrick's Secret Service under Pitt, 2nd edit.; Howell's State Trials, xxvii. 255–398; O'Keeffe's Life and Times of O'Connell, i. 37; Lecky's England in the Eighteenth Century, viii. 33, 48, 189–91; Froude's English in Ireland, ed. 1887, iii. 319, 390, 396, 397, 403, 511, 528.]

R. D.