Downfall of a failed forger

The 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. Pigott’s 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 Dublin’s Phoenix Park which had generated so much publicity at that time.

Pigott’s intention was to destroy Parnell’s 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 didn’t 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 Gladstone’s government, though the Prime Minister’s unsuccessful introduction of a Home Rule Bill didn’t 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 Pigott’s 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 can’t 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 didn’t for Pigott.