of a failed forger
gun shots which rang out from a Madrid hotel room back in
1889 brought an end to the life of a Meath native who had
unsuccessfully attempted to destroy the political career
of the "Uncrowned King of Ireland".
By Paul Clarke.Richard Pigott was born in the Royal County
in 1828 and went on to gain fame and notoriety for all the
wrong reasons - as a pathetic and ultimately unsuccessful
forger. But he was also a journalist of some success and
worked in the Nation office as an errand boy
before rising up the rankings and attaining the post of
a clerk in Belfast with the Ulsterman, which
was a nationalist newspaper.
The Ulsterman was owned by Denis Holland who
took the decision to transfer the paper south to Dublin
and rename it The Irishman, presenting it to
Pigott in 1865. Pigott set up a weekly magazine called The
Shamrock the following year and another weekly magazine
titled The Flag of Ireland soon followed.
These publications openly supported the Fenian movement
and Pigott was imprisoned on several occasions for publishing
seditious matter. Pigotts damaging lifestyle of drinking
and gambling got him ever deeper into debt and in 1881 he
sold his interest in three papers to a publishing company
owned by the Land League and began to make a living by betraying
and blackmailing his erstwhile political allies.
In 1886 he sold fake information in the form of letters
to the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union, an anti-Home Rule
organisation, which implicated Charles Stewart Parnell and
his associates with involvement in two appalling murders
in Dublins Phoenix Park which had generated so much
publicity at that time.
Pigotts intention was to destroy Parnells political
career, but his efforts were to backfire to such an extraordinary
extent that he ended up taking his own life rather than
face the consequences of his actions.
Parnell, it is important to note, was the first president
of the Irish National Land League and fought for the rights
of poor Irish tenant farmers who were suffering so severely
at the hands of absentee English landlords who had no concerns
for their well being. In a serious effort to improve the
lot of these poor people, actions were taken against such
landlords, most famously a Captain Boycott who was a land
agent in County Mayo. Thus, a new verb, boycott,
found its way into the English language.
A Land Act was passed in 1881, but it didnt go far
enough to satisfy Parnell and his supporters, some of whom
expressed their opposition through violent means. Consequently,
the Land League was suppressed and Parnell and the other
leaders were thrown into Kilmainham Prison to ensure that
they could have no further impact on the situation.
However, British Prime Minister William Gladstone believed
the situation could be retrieved and negotiated the famous
Kilmainham Treaty with Parnell in which the agitation would
be discontinued in exchange for a new Land Bill.
Parnell was released from prison and Lord Frederick Cavendish
was dispatched to Ireland as Chief Secretary to begin the
fresh start that was planned to improve the lives of so
many impoverished people all over the country. However,
just six days later the situation took a turn for the worst
when Cavendish and his under-secretary, TH Burke, were stabbed
to death in the Phoenix Park by a gang of republican radicals
known as The Invincibles and thus set in motion
what was to become a very troubled spell in the life of
Parnell and the ultimate appalling downfall and death of
Pigott the forger.
Parnell, as would have been expected, publicly condemned
the murders and rode out the storm of public indignation
by pushing for a policy of Home Rule for Ireland. This would
establish a parliament in Dublin, quite similar to the one
that sits in Edinburgh, Scotland, today, though it was likely
that it was intended as a mere stepping-stone to full independence
for this country.
Parnell was obviously flying high in the popularity stakes
at that time and his party won a landslide victory in elections
in Ireland in 1885 which was so significant that it left
them holding the balance of power in Westminster. The following
year he supported Gladstones government, though the
Prime Ministers unsuccessful introduction of a Home
Rule Bill didnt work out as the leader would have
hoped and actually split the Liberal Party.
Life probably appeared to be moving along in a hectic but
orderly enough fashion for Parnell at that stage - but enter
one Meath man named Richard Pigott with his fake information
and all that was to change so dramatically and turn his
life into utter turmoil for a prolonged spell.
The Times newspaper in London bought the forged papers from
the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union and used them to put
together a series of damaging articles titled Parnellism
and Crime which, by their very title, clearly did
no favours to Parnell or his political ambitions.
Things got significantly worse on 18th April, 1887 when
The Times published a letter from the Pigott collection
which was alleged to have been signed by Parnell and in
which he condoned the Phoenix Park murders of Cavendish
and Burke - a stance that was obviously clearly at variance
with his earlier public condemnation of the double atrocity.
Parnell vehemently denied the charges and a special commission,
made up of three judges appointed by Parliament, was set
up by the government to inquire into the truth of the allegations
made by The Times. The investigation took the best part
of two years to complete, which must have been a harrowing
time for Parnell and his family, but there was a happy ending
to this awful saga for him at least, if not for Pigott.
Under the enormous pressure of numerous cross-examinations
in February of 1889, Pigott could eventually take no more
of the lies and deceit and broke down, admitting to forging
the letters that had threatened to finish Parnell as a politician
and destroy his reputation. He confessed his awful guilt
to the MP Henry Labouchere and his state of mind at that
particular time can only be imagined.
That must have been the lowest and most pathetic period
in Pigotts life and, obviously seeking to escape justice
and the undoubted vengeance of the nationalists that would
have followed the awful disclosure, he opted to head for
Madrid in Spain. But, as they say, you can run but
you cant hide, and the police in Madrid tracked
him down and upon entering his hotel room, ironically number
13, Pigott shot himself dead.
After the truth came out Parnell took The Times to court
in a libel action and, in a massive out of court settlement,
the newspaper paid him 5,000 pounds, which represented a
huge sum of money over a century ago.
When he next entered the House of Commons, Parnell received
a standing ovation from his fellow members of parliament
who clearly appreciated the torture he had endured over
a lengthy period as a result of the crazy and pathetic plan
which had been unsuccessfully hatched by Pigott.
At least that particular episode had a happy ending for
Parnell, but it certainly didnt for Pigott.