Hardiman's History of Galway

Chapter 4: From 1484 to the commencement of the Irish Rebellion in 1641

Remarkable instance of inflexible justice

Chapter 4

From 1484 to the commencement of the Irish Rebellion in 1641

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Old map of Galway

These municipal and ecclesiastical grants being obtained, gave general satisfaction to the people, and principally laid the foundation of the future greatness and prosperity of the town, which were also much advanced by the public faith and integrity of its merchants, and by the unsullied honor of the inhabitants, whose strict adherence to truth and love of impartial justice became universally proverbial. But as a single fact, in illustration of this statement, may prove more satisfactory, and have a greater effect than any general description; the reader will find it forcibly displayed in an appalling instance of inflexible virtue which occurred about this period in Galway, and which stands paralleled by very few examples in the history of mankind.

James Lynch FitzStephene, an opulent merchant, and one of the principal inhabitants of Galway, was elected mayor in 1493; at which time a regular and friendly intercourse subsisted between the town and several parts of Spain. This mayor, who from his youth had been distinguished for public spirit, had, from commercial motives, on all occasions encouraged an intercourse that proved so lucrative as well as to his townsmen as to the Spaniards; and in order the more firmly to establish the connexion between them, he himself went on a voyage to Spain, and was received, when at Cadiz, at the house of a rich and respectable merchant, of the name of Gomez, with the utmost hospitality, and with every mark of esteem suitable to his high reputation and to the liberality of his entertainer. Upon his departure for his own country, out of a wish to make some grateful return for the numerous civilities he had received from the Spaniard, he requested of him, as a particular favor, to allow his son, a youth of nineteen, to accompany him to Ireland, promising to take parental care of him during his stay, and to provide for his being safely restored to his friends whenever he desired to return. Young Gomez, who was the pride of his parents and relations, was rejoiced at this agreeable opportunity of seeing the world; and the merchant's request was gratefully complied with by his father. They embarked accordingly, and, after an easy passage, arrived in the bay of Galway. Lynch introduced the young stranger to his family, by whom he was received with that openness of heart and hospitality which has ever characterised the Irish, under any circumstances: and he also recommended to him, in a particular manner, as a companion to his only son, who was but a year or two older than Gomez, and who was considered one of the finest youths of his time: the beauty of his person, and the winning softness of his manners, rendered him a favorite with the fair sex; he was the idol of the people for his affability and spirit, and respected by all ranks for his abilities. With superior height and dignity of mien, he possessed great muscular strength and intrepid spirit, and uncommon vigour of body and mind. Thus highly gifted by nature, and endowed with every great and good quality of heart, he soon felt the delightful influence of his own attractions, by the general admiration and esteem which they excited in others. But his endowments were not unattended by what is too often seen united with superior qualities, a tendency to the pleasures of libertinism, which greatly afflicted his father, who was himself exemplary for the purity of his life. He, however, now conceived the fullest hope of his reformation, from discovering that he paid honorable addresses to a beautiful and accomplished girl, the daughter of one of his richest and most respectable neighbours; and he found additional satisfaction in procuring for his son the company of one so serious and well brought up as the youthful Gomez, who, he hoped, would assist to draw him entirely from his licentious courses. The year of his return from Spain, this worthy magistrate was more than usually solicitous that nothing should happen to cast a stain upon his house or native town, of which he then was mayor - a rank, in those times, of the greatest importance, and one, on the management of which, more than on that of any other civil employment, the general security depended. The young men lived together in perfect harmony, and frequent entertainments were given at the mayor's house, as well in honour of the stranger, as for the sake of advancing suit of his son Walter to the beautiful Agnes. At one of those festivals, which, as usual, she adorned with her presence, it happened that her lover either saw, or which, with lovers is the same, imagined that he saw, the eyes of the lovely maiden beam with rapture on the young Spaniard. Wild with astonishment, the fairy spell was broken; his ardent and unruly passions rook fire at the thought, and he seized an opportunity, not of asking his mistress if his suspicions were founded in fancy or reality, but of upraiding her for her infidelity in terms of haughty anger; she, in her turn, astonished and irritated by such unexpected injustice, and that too from the chosen of her heart, affected disdain to conceal her fondness, and refused to deny the charge. "Love," says some philosopher, who assuredly had felt the passion, "for the most part resembles hatred rather than affection;" and what now passed between these young persons was a confirmation of the truth of that remark. Though mutually enamoured, one obeyed the dictates of jealousy, the other of pride: they parted in violence; and, while the forlorn Agnes may be supposed retiring to weep over her wrongs, her admirer, racked by the fiends and furies that possessed his bosom, withdrew to revolve the direful project of revenge. Accident contributed at once to strengthen his determination and facilitate his purpose. The following night as he passed slowly and alone by the residence of the fair one, he perceived a man come from the house, and knew him to be Gomez, who had indeed passed the evening there, being invited by the father of Agnes, who spoke the language of Spain with fluency, and courted the society of all who could converse with him. Urged by his rage, the lover pursued his imagined rival, who, being alarmed by a voice which he did not recognize, fled before him. From ignorance of the streets, he directed his steps towards a solitary quarter of the town, close to the shore; but, before he had quite reached the water's edge, his mad and cruel pursuer overtook him, darted a poinard into his heart, and plunged him, bleeding into the sea. In the night the tide threw the body of this innocent victim of insanity back upon the beach, where it was found, and soon recognized. The rash and wretched murderer (from himself the particulars were obtained) had scarcely committed the sanguinary deed than he repented it; but fear, or rather that feeling which teaches us to preserve life, even when we no longer love it, caused him to hasten from the scene of his crime, and endeavour to hide himself in the recesses of a wood, at some distance: here he could hide, but alas! not from himself; the shades of the night and the darkness of the forest were unto him as the noon of day. In agonies of despair, he cried aloud, and rolled himself upon the earth; and, when the first streaks of light appeared in the sky, he rose with a settled resolution of expiating his guilt, as far as he could, by surrendering himself to the law, and with that intention was returning to town, when he perceived a crowd of persons approaching, amongst whom, with shame and terror, he beheld his father on horseback, attended by several officers of justice and a military guard. On finding the body of the Spaniard, it was evident that he was killed by a dagger which was found near him, his own being unsheated by his side, and suspision had also arisen that the assassin must have retreated towards the wood, as a white hat, ornamented with feathers, had been found, by some fishermen, floating near the shore, as if blown from the road leading in that direction; while the velvet bonnet, which the person slain had worn, lay beside the body. Had the unhappy criminal wished to conceal the fact, his disturbed appearance alone would have betrayed him; but with perfect consistency, though in broken accents, he proclaimed himself the murderer, declared his contrition and remorse for the enormity to which frenzy had impelled him, and, imploring pardon of Heaven, desired to be conducted to prison. His disconsolate parent, oppressed by a weight of amazement and affliction, could scarcely preserve his equanimity, though a man of almost unexampled firmness: he foresaw the dreadful consequences of complying with his frantic son's demand, and that, should he shrink from his duty, public disgrace awaited himself. As mayor, he had the power of life and death, and he remembered that already in the case of another, he had used the authority given him with rigid severity. But. though he perceived that calamity must now overwhelm him and his race, he sacrificed all personal considerations to his love of justice, and ordered the guard to secure their prisoner. The command was reluctantly obeyed; and the mournful procession moved back to the town, penetrating, with difficulty, the immense crowds of people, who, by this time, curiosity had brought out. A more extraordinary scene has seldom been witnessed: surprise, compassion and horror were discernible in the countenances of all. While some expressed admiration and pity for their upright magistrate, many of the lower classes, feeling commiseration for the fate of their favorite youth, filled the air with lamentations and sighs. The uproar alone would have told the sad intelligence to the merchant's family: but they were doomed to a still greater shock than what general rumour could give; for the strong prison of the town lay immediately next to their own house, and the mother and sister of the wretched Walter were spectators of his approach, bare-headed, pale, bound, and surrounded with spears. Their outcries and faintings added to this most terrific trial of the father's fortitude: but such moments are really the test of virtue; the ordinary adversities of life are insufficient to shew it in its genuine lustre, or prove how potent, how beautiful it is, or, indeed, to convince us, that there exists no force by which true virtue can be subdued. If words are inadequate to describe the great and sudden wretchedness which overspread this, till now happy and honorable, family, they are still less so to picture the despair of the tender and unfortunate Agnes. To return, however: Within the short compass of a few days, a small town in the west of Ireland, with a population, at the time, of little more than three thousand persons, beheld a sight of which but one or two similar examples occur in the entire history of mankind-a father sitting in judgment, like another Lucius Junius Brutus. on his only son, and, like him, too, condemning that son to die, as a sacrifice to public justice. The legal inquiry which followed was short; and on his own confession, strengthened by corresponding circumstances, the young man was fully convicted of the murder, and, in public, received sentence of death from the mouth of his afflicted father, by whom he was remanded back to prison. If the Almighty looks down with pleasure on the virtues of mankind, here was an action worthy of approbation-a father consigning his son to an ignominious death, and tearing away all the bonds of paternal affection, when the laws of nature were violated, and justice demanded the blow. No sooner was his sentence known to the populace, than they surrounded the place of the criminal's confinement: at first they were content with expressing their dissatisfaction by murmurs of regret and expostulations with the guards; but, by degrees, they became tumultuous, and were prevented only by the military force from attacking the prison, and pulling down the magistrate's house; and their disorders were increased by understanding that the prisoner was now desirous of being rescued; which in some measure was true, for, as his madness subsided, his love returned. The thought of for ever parting from the object of his affections was intolerable, and he began to see of what value the gift of existence was, of which his remorseless hand had deprived an unoffending stranger. By strenuous exertions the people were, for the present, dispersed, and hints were often conveyed to them, that mercy would be extended to the prisoner. On his conviction, the mayor was waited upon by persons of the first rank and influence in town, and solicited to consent to a reprieve: his relations and friends joined in earnest entreaty, beseeching that his blood might not be shed; but the inflexibility of the judge resisted the supplication, and was inexorable. Whatever the inward struggles of the father and the man might have been, the firmness of the patriot was unshaken. He was not to be wrought upon, either by the dread of popular clamour, the odium that it would attach to his name, the prayers and tears of his kneeling family, the undescribable despair of the hapless young lady, or, harder, to withstand than all those, the yearnings of a paternal breast: but, with a magnanimity that would have done credit to the sternest hero of Greece or Rome, he himself descended, at night, to the dungeon where his son lay, for the double and direful purpose of announcing to him, that his sentence was to be executed on the following morning, and of watching with him, to prevent the possibility of his escape. One can hardly fancy any thing more appalling than such a vigil as this. He entered, holding a lamp, and accompanied by a priest, (from whom the account was received.) and, locking the gate, kept fast the keys in his hands, and seated himself in a recess of the wall. His son drew near, and, with a faltering tongue, asked if he had any thing to hope; he answered, "No, my son; your life is forfeited to the laws, and at sun-rise you must die. I have prayed for your prosperity, but that is at an end-with the world you have done for ever-were any other but your wretched father your judge, I might have dropped a tear over my child's misfortune, and solicited for his life, even though stained with murder-but you must die-these are the last drops which shall quench the sparks of nature-and, if you dare hope, implore that Heaven may not shut the gates of mercy on the destroyer of his fellow creature. I am now come to join with this good man in petitioning GOD to give you such composure as will enable you to meet your punishment w ith becoming resignation." Then, as if fearful of relapsing into his natural softness, and of forgetting the great duty he had imposed upon himself, he requested the priest to proceed: they knelt down, and administered the rites of the church to the unhappy criminal, to fortify him for the approaching catastrophe. The young man's native spirit seemed gradually to be restored; he joined fervently in prayer; sighed heavily from time to time; but spoke of life and its concerns no more: and thus, with intervals of silence, the woeful night passed over. It was scarcely day, when the expected summons to prepare was given to the guards without. The father rose, and assisted the executioner to remove the irons which still bound his unfortunate son; then, unlocking the door, he ordered him to stand between the priest and himself, and lean upon an arm of each. In this manner they ascended a flight of steps, lined with soldiers, and were passing on to gain the street, where a strong escort had been appointed to receive and go along with them to the usual place of punishment, at the eastern extremity of the town. The concluding scene of the father's struggles and the son's misery was, it might be supposed, now very nigh; but a trial more severe yet awaited them, and the unparalleled firmness of the former was to undergo a still further proof. The relations of the unhappy culprit surrounded the father: they conjured him again, by all the solicitude of nature and compassion, to spare his son. His wretched and disconsolate mother, whose name was Blake, flew in distraction to the heads of her own family, and at length prevailed on them, for the honor of their house, to rescue him, and prevent the ignominy his death must bring on their name. They armed to deliver him from prison. Prodigious crowds had gathered, and were loud in their outcries for mercy, threatening instant destruction to the magistrate, if not complied with. In vain did he exhort them to preserve tranquility, and suffer the law to take its course. The soldiers themselves were melted by the circumstances of this most pitiable case, and, no longer able or willing to do their duty, permitted the populace to approach the house, and to continue their well-meant, but unlawful, opposition. To attempt now to pass through them was hopeless: but having withstood their tears and prayers, and the still stronger appeal of his own affections, this virtuous, unhappy, and resolute father determined not to yield from a motive of personal fear, but, by one desperate and incredible effort, to perform the horrid sacrifice which he had vowed to pay on the altar of justice; and, if he fell, to fall as became a man, and not be compelled to prefer the advantage of an individual to the injured rights of his country, and of human nature. It is probable he was prepared for this extremity; for, turning back, and still keeping hold of his son, he mounted by a winding stairs within the building, which led to ar, arched window that overlooked the street in which the populace was assembled: he there presented himself and his victim, about whose neck he had previously fastened the rope with which he had been bound, and, securing the other end in an iron projecting from the wall, "You have little time to live, my son," said he; "let the care of your soul employ these few moments-take the last embrace of your unhappy father :"-he embraced his unfortunate son, and launched him into eternity! A few moments put an end to his existence. Expecting instant death from the fury of the rabble, this extraordinary man retained his station, satisfied with the silent approval of a good conscience, perfectly regardless of the applause or censure of the multitude, conscious of having fulfilled his duty to GOD, to man, and his country: but this act of greatness awed them; they stood motionless with amazement; a sentiment of admiration and sorrow united alone prevailed; and, when all was over, they slowly and peaceably retired -so wondrous is the influence of an exalted and daring mind, when actuated by the principles of virtue.-The innocent cause of this lamentable tragedy is said to have died of grief, and the father of her lover to have secluded himself from society for the remainder of his days, never having been seen again, except by his mourning family. His house still exists in Lombard-street, which is yet known by the name of "Dead-man's-lane;" and the execution is said to have taken place at a window in the rear of the house; though the vulgar error is, that he was suspended over the front window, which is distinguished by a handsome representation, carved in black marble, of a human skull, with two bones crossed beneath. It is dated 1624; and is supposed to have been put up by some of his family, as a public memorial of a transaction which succeeding times looked upon with astonishment, and which the production of the arts in this country should perpetuate with statutes. Opinions may, no doubt, be divided as to the cruelty or inhumanity of the father; but few will question the integrity of the judge, or the equity of the sentence; nor can it be any longer surprising, that, after so brilliant an example of justice, united to the general character of the inhabitants, the town attained, as before observed, that degree of universal credit, which it will be found to have done within little more than a century after this period.

Next: Passage from Corrib to Lough Atalia; Fortifications built; Great fire in 1500

Chapter 4

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