Sham squire

In Brief

In Aeolus Professor MacHugh mocks Myles Crawford, the editor of the Evening Telegraph: "And here comes the sham squire himself!" The reference is to a highly disreputable former owner of the Freeman's Journal, Francis Higgins (1745-1802), who steered that paper away from its nationalist mission toward accommodation of the British government. Higgins also acted as an informer for Dublin Castle at the time of the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion, and almost certainly for some years before that. Crawford responds to the salutation with gruff familiarity of his own: "Getonouthat, you bloody old pedagogue!"

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The nickname arose from Higgins' fraudulent rise in 18th century Irish society. Son of an attorney's clerk, he started out in that occupation himself.  But in 1766 he married the daughter of a wealthy Catholic merchant, after producing a forged document that showed him to be a landed country gentleman. In January 1767 he assaulted his mother-in-law, and the judge at the trial called him a "sham squire." After serving time in prison for that attack and for another assault on a grocer, Higgins practiced various kinds of business and gained more wealth. He owned pubs that housed gambling operations, was elected master of the hosiers' guild, became an attorney, was made deputy coroner of Dublin and later under-sheriff, and in 1783 bought the Freeman's Journal. He ensured that he made money from the Journal, as it was called in those days (see the "Infernal Journal" in the cartoon accompanying this note): in 1788 alone the British government paid him £1,600 for publishing official proclamations.

Having been devoted to the cause of Irish nationhood since its founding in 1763, the paper now became a vehicle for attacking nationalist patriots like Henry Grattan. Higgins also assisted the government cause in more direct and lucrative ways. Among other acts of domestic espionage, he claimed a reward of £1,000 for revealing the whereabouts of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, president of the military arm of the United Irishmen, in May 1798. In Wandering Rocks Tom Kernan recalls this action when he walks near the house where Fitzgerald hid: "That ruffian, that sham squire with his violet gloves gave him away. Course they were on the wrong side. They rose in dark and evil days." Even though he is a unionist, Kernan thinks of Higgins' action as a despicable betrayal.

In 1866 an Irish historian named William John Fitzpatrick published a book titled The Sham Squire and the Informers of 1798, detailing the extent of Higgins' perfidy. The first edition sold more than 16,000 copies, and photographic facsimiles are sold even today.

JH 2018
Early 19th century caricature of Francis Higgins titled "Belphegor or the Devil turned Esq.," a print held in the National Library of Ireland. Source: www.ecis.ie.
Frontispiece and title page of Fitzpatrick's The Sham Squire and the Informers of 1798. Source: www.bagbooks.com.