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General William Halpin

The Cruise Of The Jacknell

5. General William Halpin

At the same Commission, before the same judges who had tried the cases of Colonel Warren and Augustine E. Costello, General William Halpin was put on his trial for treason-felony. It was alleged that he was one of military officers of the Fenian organization, and had been appointed to take command, in the Dublin district, in the rising which had taken place on the 5th of March; and this it was sought to prove by the evidence of the informers, Massey, Corydon, Devany and others.

General Halpin employed no counsel and undertook the conduct of his case himself. The considerations that had induced him to take this course he thus explained to the jury: -

Two reasons operated on my mind, and induced me to forego the advantage I would derive from having some of the able and learned counsel that plead at this bar. The first reason is, that if you, gentlemen, are a jury selected by the Crown, as juries are known to be selected heretofore in political cases - if you are, in fact, a jury selected with the express purpose of finding a verdict for the Crown - then, gentlemen, all the talent and ability that I could employ would avail me nothing. If, on the other hand, by any chance the Attorney-General permitted honest men to find their way into the box, then, gentlemen, lawyers were equally unnecessary for me. Not an inaccurate view of the case, perhaps; the experience of the Fenian trials, from first to last, certainly goes to support it.

The general set about his work of defending himself with infinite coolness and self-possession. He was supplied with a chair, a small table, and writing materials in the dock. When he had any notes to make, he sat down, cleaned and adjusted his spectacles, and wrote out what he wanted. When he wished to cross-examine a witness, he removed his glasses, came to the front of the dock, and put his questions steadily and quietly, without a trace of excitement in his manner, but always with a close application to the subject in hand. One could almost refuse to believe, while listening to him, that he had not been educated and trained for the bar; and undoubtedly many of those who wear wigs and gowns in her Majesty's courts, are far from exhibiting the same degree of aptitude for the profession. But it was in his address to the jury that the remarkable talents of the man were most brilliantly revealed. It was an extraordinary piece of argument and eloquence, seasoned occasionally with much quiet humour, and enriched with many passages that showed a high and courageous spirit. His scathing denunciations of the system of brutality practised towards the political prisoners in Kilmainham gaol and his picture of Mr. Governor Price as 'the old gorilla,' will long be remembered. One portion of his remarks ran as follows: -

The whole conduct of the Crown, since my arrest, has been such as to warrant me in asserting that I have been treated more like a beast of prey than a human being. If I had been permitted to examine witnesses, I would have shown how the case had been got up by the Crown. I would have shown them how the Crown Solicitor, the gaolers, the head gaoler and the deputy gaolers of Kilmainham, and the Protestant chaplain of that institution, had gone in, day and night, to all the witnesses - to the cells of the prisoners - with a bribe in one hand and a halter In the other. I would have shown how political cases were got up by the Crown in Ireland. I would have shown how there existed, under the authority of the Castle, a triumvirate of the basest wretches that ever conspired to take away the lives and liberties of men. One of these represented the law, another the gibbet in front of the gaol, and another was supposed to represent the Church militant.

Here the Chief Baron interposed; but the prisoner soon after reverted to the subject, and said that every opportunity was taken in that gaol to wrong and torture the men incarcerated there on political charges. Every petty breach of discipline was availed of to punish them, by sending them down to work the crank, and reducing their scanty rations. For the crime of not saluting Mr. Governor Price, they were placed upon a dietary of seven ounces of what was called brown bread and a pint of Anna Liffey, in the twenty-four hours. Brown, indeed, the article was, but whether it deserved the name of bread, was quite another question. The turf-mould taken from the Bog of Allen was the nearest resemblance to it that he could think of. For his own part, he did not mean to complain of his rations - he could take either rough or smooth as well as most men; but what he would complain of was, the system of petty insults and indignities offered by Mr. Price and his warders to men of finer feelings than their own, and whom they knew to be their superiors. He concluded his address in the following terms: -

I ask you if I have not thoroughly and sufficiently explained away the terror, if I may use the term, of these papers, which were taken from walls and other places, to be brought against me here. I ask you, gentlemen, as reasonable men, if there be a shadow of a case against me? I ask you if I have been connected by an untainted witness with any act, in America or Ireland, that would warrant you in deciding that I was guilty of the charge with which I stand accused? Is there one single overt act proved against me; or have I violated any law for the violation of which l can be made amenable in this court? I ask you if, in these letters which have been brought up against me - one found in Thomas - Street, another in the pocket of a fellow-prisoner - there is anything that can affect me? Recollect, gentlemen of the jury that I speak to you now as men imbued with a spirit of justice. I speak to you, gentlemen, believing that you are honest, recognising your intelligence, and confident that you will give in a verdict in accordance with the dictates of your conscience. If you are the jury that the Attorney General hopes you are, gentlemen of the jury, I am wasting time in speaking to you. If you are, gentlemen, that jury which the Attorney General hopes to make the stepping-stone to the bench - for, gentlemen, I do not accuse the Attorney-General of wishing to prosecute me for the purpose of having me punished; I believe he is above any paltry consideration of that sort - but, gentlemen, all men are influenced by one motive or another and the Attorney-General, though he is the first law officer of the Crown in Ireland, is human like ourselves; he is not above all human frailty but like other men, doubtless, likes office, and likes the emolument which office brings. But, gentlemen of the jury, it will be your fault if you make your shoulders the stepping-stone for the Attorney-General to spring upon the bench. I say these words to you in sober, solemn earnestness. You are now trying a man who has lived all his life-time in a country where freedom Is venerated and adored, You may believe, gentlemen, that you have the speech of freedom here; but I claim, gentlemen, that the real spirit of freedom has fled these shores many a century ago - has sped across the Atlantic, and perched upon American soil; and, gentlemen, it ought to be - your wish and desire - as I am sure it is, for I am unwilling to believe that you are the men the Attorney-General deems you to be - to do me justice, and to prove that Dublin juries do not on all occasions bring in a verdict at the dictation of the Crown. Gentlemen, the principle of freedom is at stake. Every man that is born into this world has a right to freedom, unless he forfeits that right by his own misdemeanour. Perhaps you have read the Declaration Of American Independence. In that declaration, drawn up by one Thomas Jefferson, it is stated that every man born into this world is born free and equal; that he has the right - the inalienable right - to live in liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These are the cardinal principles of liberty. I claim these rights; unless I have forfeited them by my own misconduct. I claim there is not one particle, one scintilla, of evidence to warrant you In finding a verdict for the Crown.

I have not conspired with General Roberts or any of these other generals. There is no evidence to show you anything about any such conspiracy, as far as I am concerned. With these facts before you, I ask you, as reasonable men, is there one particle of evidence to show that I am guilty of the charges preferred against? I shall simply conclude by repeating the words with which I commenced - that I leave it between your conscience and your God to find a verdict according to the evidence and the truth. I leave it to you in the name of that sacred justice which we all profess to venerate, and I ask you not to allow your passion or your prejudices to cloud your judgments - not to allow the country to say that the Dublin jury are in the breeches-pocket of the Attorney-General. Never let it be said that a prisoner, forced into your country, carried off from the steamer which was bearing him away from yours to his own, has been found guilty on the evidence of perjured witnesses. Never let the world say that a Dublin jury are not as honest as any other. Do not allow those acrimonious feelings which unfortunately in this country difference of sect engenders to have anything to [do] with your verdict. As far as I am concerned, I ask no favour from you I ask no favour from any man that lives in the world. I have always, gentlemen, adhered to my own principles, and will do so while I am able. If you consent to send me for my life to a penitentiary you will not make the slightest impression on me. I am pleading for life and liberty - I am pleading in the cause of justice, and I leave it in your hands. I demand that you should exercise your best judgment to render a verdict before the Omnipotent Creator of the universe, who is looking into your hearts as well as mine - to render a verdict for which you will be sorry - to render a verdict that your countrymen will cheer - to render a verdict that will make you venerated and admired in the land of your birth while you live on this earth.

The jury, however, found not for the prisoner, but for the Crown.

When General Halpin took his place in the dock with his fellow 'convicts', Colonel Warren and Augustine E. Costello, to receive his sentence, he appeared calm and unimpassioned as ever. His reply to the question why sentence should not be passed on him, was as follows: -

The Prisoner said that before he spoke to the question put him by the Clerk of the Crown, he wished to say a few words on another topic. The day before yesterday he was handed by the governor of Kilmainham a letter which had come from America, and enclosed a draft. The draft the governor refused to give up, and also refused to state what disposition he intended to make of it. The deputy governor had other moneys of his, and he requested that those, as well as the draft, should be restored to him. The Attorney-General, in an undertone, having addressed dome observations to the bench. The Lord Chief Baron said that the prisoner, having been convicted of felony, his property was at the disposal of the authorities and that any representation he had to make on the subject should be made to the government. Halpin said he wished that the money might be transferred to the governor of whatever gaol he was to be imprisoned in, so that he might have the use of it to purchase necessaries should he require them.

Lord Chief Baron - If you desire to make any representation It must be through the government.
The Prisoner - I don't wish to make any representation to the government on the subject. I will permit the government to add robbery to perjury.

The Prisoner, in reply to a question asked by the Clerk, of the Crown, said that justice had not been dealt out to him as he thought it might have been. He had been prevented by the Crown from getting witnesses for his defence, and from seeing his witnesses, while the Crown had taken four months to get their witnesses properly trained, and to ransack all the Orange lodges of Dublin for jurors. He complained of the rules of the gaol, and of the law that permitted them to be in force, and said: - I deny the jurisdiction of this court in common with Colonel Warren. I owe no allegiance to this country, and were I a free man tomorrow I would sooner swear allegiance to the King of Abyssinia then spend half-an-hour's allegiance to the government of this country - a government that has blasted the hopes of half the world and disgusted it all. I am not, I suppose, permitted to speak of the verdict given against me by the jury. It was entirely unnecessary for the Crown to produce one single witness against me. The jury had their lesson before they came to the box.

The Chief Baron - It is impossible for me to allow you to proceed with this line of observation.
Halpin - I wish to simply say that the jury exhibited an extreme anxiety to find a verdict against me before I had even said a word to them. I saw their anxiety. I knew from the moment they were put into the box that a verdict of guilty would be returned against me. I knew it from looking at the conduct of the jury in the box - I knew it from the way the jury were empanelled, and I knew the Attorney-General relied upon the jury for a verdict when he set three citizens aside. I therefore conclude, and rightly, that all the eloquent talent that ever pleaded at this bar would be entirely useless to me whilst such a jury was in the box. The Crown, in order to give some colour to the proceedings, thought proper to produce several witnesses against me. Eleven witnesses were examined, and out of these no less than nine committed absolute, diabolical, and egregious perjury.
The Chief Baron - You are transcending the limit within which the law confines you.
Halpin - I do not blame you for enforcing the law as it stands. By no means, I have to thank your lordship for your kindness during the progress of my trial. I do not blame you, because the law stands as it does, but what I say is - that the law is absurd in taking me and trying me as a British subject whilst I am a citizen of the United States, without a particle of evidence to show that I was born under the jurisdiction of the British Crown. I must say that I look to another place, another government, and another people to see that justice shall be done me.
The Chief Baron - Here again you are transcending the limits which the law allows. We could not deal with any consideration connected with what any government will do.
Halpin - I am aware that it is not within your province to deal with the acts of another government, but I may be permitted to say this - that the outrages offered me and those gentlemen who claim, like me, to be citizens of the United States will be gladly submitted to if they only have the effect of making the sword of Brother Jonathan spring from its scabbard.
The Chief Baron - I cannot suffer yon to proceed with this line of observation. I cannot suffer to make this a place of appeal to persons in this country or in America.
Halpin - I am not making any appeal to any man. Although I was found guilty by a jury of this court I deem my conduct above reproach. I know how I have been convicted, and will still assert that the first gun fired in anger between this country and America will be a knell of comfort to my ears.
The Chief Baron - I will be compelled to remove you from where you are now if you proceed with this line of observation.
Halpin - Well, then, if I am not permitted to say that –
The Chief Baron - You are not permitted to make any observation upon what any government of any country may do.
Halpin - I think the reference has not anything to do with any government or any country. It refers to a fact that will come to pass, and when I shall hear the death-knell of this infamous government.
The Chief Baron - I will not allow you to proceed.
Halpin - Well, I cannot be prevented thinking it. Now, I will refer to a subject which I may be allowed to speak upon. You will recollect that I had addressed a letter to Mr. Price, asking him to furnish me, at my own expense, with two of the morning' papers - the Irish Times and Freeman's Journal.  I believe they are both loyal papers; at least they claim to be loyal, and I have no doubt they are of the admitted character of loyalty registered in the principles of Dublin Castle. The reason why I wanted these papers was, that I believed that the best reports of the trials since the opening of the Commission, would be found in them. I said to Mr. Price that it was important that I should see all the evidence given by the informers who were to be produced against me, to enable me to make up my defence. I was denied, even at my own expense, to be furnished with these papers, and that I complain of as a wanton outrage. Perhaps Mr. Price was governed by some rule of Kilmainham, for it appears that the rules of Kilmainham are often as far outside the law of the country as I have been said to be by the Attorney-General. In fact, Mr. Price stated when giving his testimony, that he was not governed by any law or rule, but that he was governed solely and entirely by his own imperial will.
The Chief Baron - That I cannot allow to be said without at once setting it right. Mr. Price said no such thing. He said that with respect to one particular matter - namely, the reading of prisoners correspondence, he was bound to exercise his own discretion as to what he would send out of the gaol, and what he would hold. This is the only matter in which Mr. Price said he would exercise his own discretion.
Prisoner - I think, my lord, you will allow your memory to go back to the cross-examination of Mr. Price, and you will find that when I asked him by what authority he gave the letters he suppressed into the hands of the Crown to be produced here, he stated he had no other authority than his own will for so doing.
The Chief Baron - You are quite right with respect to the correspondence.
Prisoner - I say he violated the law of the land in so doing, and I claim that he had no right to use those letters written by me in my private capacity to friends in America, asking for advice and assistance, and the very first letter that he read was a letter written to a man named Byrne. That, you may recollect, was put into the hands of the Attorney-General - kept by him for four months. That was the first intimation I had of its suppression or of its production here by the Crown. Now, the letter was addressed to a friend in New York, asking him to look after my trunk, which had been taken away without my consent by the captain of the vessel in which I was arrested. Mr. Price never told me he suppressed that letter, and I was three months waiting for a reply, which, of course, I did not receive, as the letter never went. Mr. Price suppressed another letter yesterday. It was written to a friend of mine in Washington, in relation to my trial and conviction, and asking him to present my case to the President of the United States, detailing the case as it proceeded in this court. Mr. Price thought proper to suppress that letter, and I ask that he be compelled to produce it, so that, If your lordships think fit, it may be read in court.
The Chief Baron - I cannot do that. I cannot have a letter of that character read in open court.
Halpin - Am I entitled to get the letter to have it destroyed, or is Price to have it to do with it as he pleases?
The Chief Baron - I can make no order in the matter.
Halpin - Then Price is something like Robinson Crusoe - monarch of all he surveys, monarch of Kilmainham and when I ask if he is to be controlled find there is no law to govern him.
The Chief Baron - you have now no property in these letters, being a convict.
The Prisoner - I will very soon be told I have no property in myself. I claim to have been arrested on the high seas and there was then no case against me, and the Crown had to wait four months to pick up papers and get men from Stepaside, and arrange plans between Mr. Price and his warders to fill up any gap that might be wanted. I was arrested out of the habeas corpus jurisdiction, without authority, and detained four months in gaol until the Crown could trump up a case against me. Have I not a right to complain that I should be consigned to a dungeon for life in consequence of a trumped-up case? I am satisfied that your lordships have stated the case as it stands, but I am not satisfied that I have been convicted under any law. I have been four months in durance vile, and vile durance it has been. The preachers tell us that hell is a very bad place, and the devil a very bad boy, but he could not hold a candle to old Price (laughter).
The Chief Baron - You are trespassing very much upon a very large indulgence. I must adopt a more decisive course if you persevere.
Halpin - (laughing) – Well, my lord, I will say no more about the old gorilla. The Crown officers have laid much stress upon the fact that I have travelled under different names, and therefore I was guilty of a great crime. I have precedent for it when I read in the papers that some continental monarchs travel under an assumed name, and I hear that the Prince of Wales does so also when he thinks proper to go the London brothels.

At this point the Court cut short his address, and Chief Baron Pigot proceeded to pass sentence.

Author: A. M. Sullivan

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