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‘NOT SO WICKED AS TO COMMIT SACRILEGE:’ A THEFT AT CHRISTMAS 1721 FROM THE CHAPEL OF ST. NICHOLAS WITHOUT, FRANCIS STREET, DUBLIN SEÁN DONNELLY By 1720, in spite of the Penal Laws then in force, the Catholic chapel in St Francis Street, Dublin, serving St Nicholas Without, the mensal parish of the Catholic archbishops of Dublin from 1615 to 1733 and again from 1756 to 1797, was a purpose-built and substantial building. 1 For example, a Dublin newspaper reported in March 1729 that a controversial regular priest had been recently denounced in ‘all the Romish chapels ... especially that great one in Saint Francis Street ...’.2 Previously, at Christmas 1721, St Nicholas’s had been the target of a robbery which led to the hanging of a local man, twenty-one year-old Henry Watts, in St Stephen’s Green, on 2 November 1723. Watts admitted in his last speech that he was no innocent, but denied the robbery, insisting that, whatever about theft, he would never have consciously committed sacrilege: I was born in Mass-Lane in St. Francis-Street, of poor but honest Parents, who tenderly brought me up in the love and fear of God, and gave me as good Education as ever a poor Lad in the Parish could have. But on 28th December 1721 I took one Elizabeth Williams Daughters up for an Assault, and at the same time the Chapple of St. Francis was Robb’d of a Plate Box and Cup, and the said Williams having Received the said Robbery, said she had that in her pocket wou’d Hang me; and went and made Oath against me that I was the Person that gave her the above named Goods; upon which I was Apprehended, and soon after I was Try’d and found Guilty for the same; but the Court finding what sort of Persons they were, granted me Transportation, accordingly I was set on Board, but the Captain finding me Sickly set me on shore again; then I went to Limrick where I followed my trade, which is Weaveing, and by it I got honest Bread; but Mr. Hawkins hearing I was there, sent an Order and Committal on me; and there I was try'd for escape, and was acquitted. Then I came to Dublin in order to take Shipping and go to England, but Seeing one Conely I call’d to him, brought him in to an Alehouse and spent thirteen pence on him, and then to requite my kindness, he took me Prisoner, and in the scuffel I cut his Cheek, being then Committed was lately Try’d and found Guilty, and now must die in a shameful manner tho’ undeserved, for you may be sure (tho’ Wicked 2
enough) I would not be so Wicked as to commit Sacrelidge, for as I am a dyeing Man I am Innocent of the Fact for which I Dye, and also of the Escape, for ’twas the Captain that set me a shore. 3 Custom required that condemned criminals die a ‘good’ death through admitting their guilt, and most did so, hoping for forgiveness this side of the grave and divine mercy the other. To clear their consciences, some among the condemned owned up to crimes for which others had suffered. Others admitted that they deserved to die for crimes they had got away with, but insisted that they were, ironically, innocent of the one for which they were to die. 4 Watts ostensibly ‘died hard’, but his anxiety that he should not be thought guilty of sacrilege sounds genuine. Thirteen years later, it emerged that he had not robbed St Nicholas’s Without, indeed, and could have saved himself had not blood been thicker than water. The culprit had been his older brother, ‘Denis Watch alias Watson’, who admitted to the crime when he was hanged in Stephen’s Green on 31 July 1736 at the age of thirty-six: I drew my first Breath in Mass-Lane in St. Francis Street, my Father (so I heard) was a very honest Man, but to my sorrow, I cannot say that of my Mother, for she was counted a great Receiver, by which means my Brother (who suffer’d the like as I do now some Years ago thro’ my means, as I shall relate hereafter) and I, seeing her giving Money plenty to Thieves, encourag’d us to follow the same pernicious practice, I being free about the Chappel afforsaid, watched my oppertunity till at last I stole the Chalice, and all the Plate belonging to the Altar; nay, I threw the Consecrated Bread into the Privy, and then brought said Plate to Elizabeth Williams, alias Queen of the Sluts. My Brother hearing the Chapple was Robb’d went in quest of me and found me at the said Williams’s drinking merrily, upon the same he beat me and said Williams, she thro’ spite return’d said Plate, and swore my Brother brought it her, for which Fact he was Transported, and returning contrary to Law, he was soon after Executed for the same. I continued in my former Vices, till a length I was Transported also, and the present occasion of my Death is for returning from the same (but I must confes I have Robb’d Esq, Waters House since my returne) which I was induced to do, through a temptation of getting a Legacy in Money which I heard (whilst I was abroad) was left me by my Mother, and deposited for me in the Hands of a Clergyman in this City. Landing in Ireland I went to Kilkenny I committed a Robbery there and was 3
Confin’d for the same, but I broke the Gaol and came to Dublin. I found when I came here that there was some colour for the Report of the Legacy, for an application to him, I obtain’d since small supplys from him at several times, but cou’d never be satisfied of the certainty of the Sum left for me, which I impute to the improbability the Gentleman had of ever seeing me, tho’ I am well satisfied of his Usage to me since my condemnation, that I here acknowledge his goodness to me, and hope for his Prayers. 5 Though giving conflicting accounts of their mother, the Watts/Watson brothers agreed on blaming their fate, wholly or partly, on Elizabeth Williams, a neighbour in Francis Street. Convicted men often blamed their downfall on women – the ‘Adam Defence’, after the first man – literally – to use it: ‘The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat ...’ (Gen. iii, 12). The ‘Adam defence’ usually concluded a list of the stages through which the condemned man passed on his way to the gallows.6 Thirty-year-old Valentine Kelly from Co. Kildare, for example, hanged on 13 March 1725, ruefully acknowledged hearing as a spectator at previous hangings the type of warning he now delivered: but I being void of Grace, not having the Consideration in me to remember what many Persons said, that I myself saw Die at this Fatal Tree; flung myself into the Company of loose Idle Women, in whose Company I took so much delight, that whatever I cou'd get I spent on them. 7 Particularly vehement was ‘John Mac-Gurran, alias Cockels’, also thirty, hanged for burglary on 27 September 1727: but this Caution I give to all young Men, for their one sakes, let them shun all bad Company, if they have any regard to the Words of a dyeing Man, let them shun all bad Company, especially the Company of Harlots, for they are the thing the Devil beats his Hooks with, to draw poor unthinking Man to Destruction, all which I find to be true when it is too late.8 James Hamilton from Kilmore, Co. Down, a pedlar executed for murder at Downpatrick on 17 April 1714, was more resigned. He had been sober and industrious since setting up in business three years previously, ‘till being puff'd up with the little stock I had, I begun to be very saucy, and proud, and was so vain as to go to dancing and pushing Schools ...’. 9 (A ‘pushing school’ was a brothel.) 4
An occasional criminal claimed that a particular woman had inveigled him into crime, or forced him into it through her excessive demands. Sometimes a man turned to crime, having lost his ‘place’ and ‘character’ through a woman’s false accusations. 10 Even the majority of the seven women whose last speeches have survived and been published also claimed that other women had contributed to their fate. Most admitted they were thieves and, if not prostitutes, at least promiscuous. They fell into this way of life through marrying or becoming involved with unscrupulous men. Later, bawds and fences – usually women and sometimes the same person – encouraged or pressured them into prostitution and thievery. Others claimed that women, often fellow servants, encouraged them to steal and then betrayed them, sometimes to the extent of giving perjured evidence in court. 11 Apparently Elizabeth Williams was at least ‘a running broker’ – a fence, or receiver of stolen property – but she could also have been a bawd or prostitute. The two trades often went together: prostitution was an integral part of urban crime, with clients stealing goods to trade for sex. Georgian Dublin’s most successful bawd, Mrs McClean, brought a dowry of £5,100 to her marriage in 1798. She had grown rich on the stolen goods of the apprentices, shop assistants and clerks who frequented her ‘houses’ in Eustace Street and Barrack Street, and the ‘house’ she opened in Sandymount during the summer.12 Combining the trades of prostitute and fence would have multiplied the ways in which an unscrupulous woman could control and manipulate clients; and the Watts/ Watson brothers portray Elizabeth Williams as utterly unscrupulous. Her malign influence is attested to further in the last speech of twenty-one-year-old William Cuneen from Co. Donegal who, with a ‘Francis Mc.Cabe’ from Co. Cavan, aged twenty-three, was hanged on 14 May 1726: I Was born in the North in the County of Dunegal, my father Dy'd when I was Young, and my Mother being left poor was oblig’d to come here to Dublin at 14 Years of Age, I came after and got an acquaintance with those who have proved my ruin; in Seven Years I have committed 80 Roberies, of which Mr. Delamain's is the last; and for this I am condemn'd to Dye, I confess I deserve Death, and desire all who hear me, to avoid and shun all concerns with B...Y W... ms the Q––n of the S––ts in St. Francis-Street, the Ruin and Destruction of thousands. I beg you would Testify Repentance to the World, and grant me your Prayers for my Soul. 13 5
The words elided can only be ‘Betty Williams the Queen of the Sluts’, and Denis Watts/Watson also called Williams the ‘Queen of the Sluts’, which suggests that she commonly went under that title, and that the term was not just a one-off insult. Nowadays, ‘slut’ is normally understood in a moral sense, and the term ‘Queen of Sluts’ usually means mean a rampantly promiscuous woman, or one who creates such an impression. The pop star Britney Spears, for instance, is frequently called the ‘Queen of Sluts’ because of her raunchy performances, and in literature an occasional woman uses the term of herself. 14 Meaning a ‘woman of loose morals’, ‘slut’ is attested from c.1400. William Wycherly used it thus in his poem, Hero and Leander in Burlesque (London, 1669), p. 33: In the next place the Queen of Sluts alone is, With dainty fine Hober-de-Hoy Adonis. The term also seems to have symbolised sexual licence in the song, ‘An Invitation to Lubberland; Sung to the tune of Billy and Molly or The Journey-man Shoemaker by Daniel Cooper’ (London, 1685). This song is an ancestor of one Burl Ives made famous, ‘The Big Rock Candy Mountain’. In ‘Lubberland’, the buildings are made of food, rivers run with wine and brandy, custards grow on bushes, and wild and domestic animals beg to be killed and eaten: all appetites are catered to, including gambling and sex: The king of Knaves, and Queen of Sluts Reign there in peace and quiet; You need not fear to starve your guts, There is such store of dyet. 15 The term could also be used playfully, and in letters from London in the early 1700s, Jonathan Swift teased Stella and Vanessa, as ‘sluts’, and the synonymous ‘queans’.16 But ‘slut’ was also used of ‘a dirty, slovenly, or untidy woman’, which is the meaning in ‘sluts’ corner’, an unswept spot, ‘sluts’ wool’, fluff under bed, and ‘sluts’ hole’, a cupboard or drawer where everything is dumped. ‘Joan, queen of Sluts’ symbolises a generic female servant in a satirical poem on the Restoration astrologer Jack Adams. 17 The word also had the rare meaning ‘a kitchen maid’, ‘a drudge’, as Samuel Pepys also used it in his diary for 21 February 1664: ‘Our little girl Su is a most admirable slut, and pleases us mightily ...’. 18 Olivia Elder from 6
Co. Derry also used the term of herself in a poem dated 20 October 1769, in which she regretted that housework kept her from writing: But to return from these digressions, Were I to tell of my professions, Of Cook, Slut ..., Butter, Laundry Maid, Of ricks and huswifery my trade You’d hear I was the perfect ape Of Proteus, god of changing shape. 19 The most quoted reference in which ‘slut’ in the sense of ‘slattern’ is juxtaposed with ‘queen’ comes from The Merry Wives of Windsor, where Shakespeare has Falstaff say of Mab, Queen of the Fairies (v. 5. 52): ‘Our radiant queen hates sluts and sluttery’. In The Riddle of the Sands (London, 1904) Erskine Childers, clearly echoing Shakespeare, describes a yacht, anchored among working boats in the Flemish port of Memelsdorf, as being as ‘radiant as a queen among sluts ...’. 20 The term could also be used in an affectionate way of an easy-going woman whose domestic habits fell below the expected standards of the day. Writing from Paris on 25 July 1784 Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, then American minister to France and later second president of the United States, applied the term ‘the Queen of Sluts’ to the wax-modeller Patience Wright, a Quaker of untidy dress and direct manners.21 An American essayist of 1836 also described an easy-going, untidy childhood neighbour very affectionately as ‘this queen of sluts’.22 ‘Slattern’ is also the meaning of ‘Queen of Sluts’ in a number of songs, mainly Scottish, in which a man castigates his wife’s lack of domestic skills. 23 ‘Queen of Sluts’ is also a dance tune, a reel, played in Northumberland, south of the border, on the bellows-blown small-pipes, the only English bagpipe with an uninterrupted playing tradition. The tune was published in the 1950s, and though common in traditional music throughout Ireland, Scotland and England, this particular title is peculiar to Northumberland. 24 More than likely, this version of the tune and its title originated in a manuscript of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. Tunes in such collections sometimes had titles that were bawdy, obscene or double-meaning, and editors/publishers normally discarded or changed these where they recognised their meanings, which occasionally they did not. Since this cannot have been the case with the reel ‘Queen of Sluts’, the decision to publish the tune with an unaltered title was unusually broadminded for the 1950s in England. 7
As a title for a woman, ‘Queen of (the) Sluts’ seems to have been of a type with the much better-attested male one, ‘King of the Beggars’. A beggar king to be found in most societies from Classical times onward, and he could be described as a constitutional monarch in that he normally owed his crown to election or acclamation. He was usually a man whose fellow beggars looked up to: he could adjudicate disputes and enforce his authority; he was clever and more than usually successful in his calling; and was seen as a worthy representative of his community with official authorities. Most major cities would have their King of the Beggars down to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For example, when the lord deputy of Ireland, Thomas Wentworth, visited Kilkenny in 1637, the city corporation’s expenses included a shilling paid on 18 September ‘to the Captaine of the beggars’. 25 A late example of the title comes from nineteenth-century Cork, when the artist, Stephen O’Driscoll, painted the King of the Beggars then reigning in the city. 26 But the most famous Dublin King of the Beggars, at least of those we know of, would have been Patrick Corrigan, ‘alias Hackball’, who reigned from the 1720s to the 1770s. In The Cries of Dublin (1760), Hugh Douglas Hamilton depicted ‘His Lowness Prince Hackball’ in a four-wheel chariot with solid wheels, carrying the small trumpet he blew to announce his presence. Normally, one or two young boys towed or pushed his chariot, but occasionally a small pony or two large dogs provided the locomotive power. Contemporary newspapers reported Hackball’s doings, particularly his efforts to avoid incarceration in the ‘house of correction’. Several political pamphlets were attributed to ‘His Majesty King Hackball’, and though he was not the author, they exacerbated the animus of the city authorities towards him. 27 Incidentally, a hint at his social standing outside his own circle occurs in the record of his marriage to ‘Allice Lynch’ in Mary’s Lane Chapel on 17 August 1731, when the witnesses included Dr John Fitzpatrick, a leading Dublin physician of his day.28 The marriage of a previous King of the Beggars, this time to a ‘Queen of (the) Sluts’, almost certainly in Dublin, is mentioned in ‘A brief Chronology of Other Things’, a table recording various odd and facetious events and the number of years since they occurred, printed in Poor Robin 1694: An almanack of the old and new fashion, or an ephemeris jestingly solid and jocosiously serious ... The two and thirtieth impression (London, 1694). The entry, on sig. A.4, reads: ‘Since the King of Beggars was married to the Queen of Sluts at Lowzy-Hill near Beggars-Bush, being most splendidly attended by a ragged Regiment of Mumpers ––– 4.’29 ‘Mumper’ was one of the terms for ‘beggar’ in ‘the canting tongue’, the language 8
of beggars and thieves, which is remarkably well-attested for a supposedly secret language. Where this wedding took place is not said; like Dublin, several cities and towns had a place called Beggars Bush just outside their municipal boundary, and an occasional tree so designated survived in England into the twentieth century. But ‘Lowzy-Hill near Beggars-Bush’ implies Dublin, since the former name, with Lazy Hill, is a well-attested corruption of Lazars Hill, the old name of Townsend Street, which is a mile or two west of Beggars Bush in more or less a direct line. 30 Compare forms such as ‘Louseyhill’, ‘Louzy Hill’, and ‘Lowsyhill’, on seventeenth-century maps. 31 The original name derived from the lazaretto or leper hospital that once stood in the area,32 and though Townsend Street is attested from 1674, Lazy/ Lousy Hill remained in use well into the eighteenth century. Though Hackball cannot have been the groom in 1690, just possibly Elizabeth Williams was the bride. A hint in this direction is that Henry Watts claimed his troubles began when, at about eighteen years of age, ‘on 28th December 1721 I took one Elizabeth Williams Daughters up for an Assault ...’. The assault was serious enough for him to report, which would suggest that the assailants were roughly his own age or older, and had been born in the early 1700s. If Elizabeth Willliams was then of childbearing age, she could have been the Queen of Sluts married in 1690. Be that as it may, however Williams achieved her sovereignty, she seems to have been the only ‘Queen of (the) Sluts’ so far discovered whose name has been recorded. Apparently content in her sovereignty, if not revelling in it, she is unlikely to have had many pretenders to her throne.
Conchubhar Ó Fearghail, ‘The evolution of Catholic parishes in Dublin from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries’, in F.H.A. Aallen and Kevin Whelan (eds.), Dublin City and County: from Prehistory to the Present. Studies in honour of J.H. Andrews (Dublin, 1992), pp 230–1.
Patrick Fagan, Dublin’s Turbulent Priest: Cornelius Nary, 1658–1738 (Dublin, 1991), p. 109.
James Kelly (ed.), Gallows speeches from eighteenth-century Ireland (Dublin, 2001)., pp 156, 158. Spacing of words, erratic in the original, has been regularised, and an occasional minor slip in transcription has been corrected through comparison with the reproduction of the original on p. 157.
ibid., pp 90, 92, 94, 191, 216. ibid., pp 265–6. ibid., pp 50, 88, 90, 91, 92, 93, 126, 153, 154, 173. ibid., p. 161. ibid., p. 219. ibid., p. 111. ibid., pp 109, 190, 192, 203, 206. ibid., pp 37, 149, 150, 151, 197.
Dr Diarmuid Ó Gráda, ‘Pursuing the frail abbess: the location of brothels in Georgian Dublin’, Dublin Historical Record lx, 1 (Spring 2007), 54, 55, 58.
Kelly, Gallows speeches, p. 201. Paul Forster, Final Charge to Endzone of Chaos (New York, 2002), p. 442. John Ashton (ed.), Humour, wit and satire of the seventeenth century (London, 1883), p. 35.
W.E.H. Lecky et al. (ed.), The prose works of Jonathan Swift D.D.: with a biographical introduction ... (12 vols., London, 1897–1908), II. pp 36, 74, 133.
James Caulfield, Characters of remarkable persons from the reign of Edward the Third to the Revolution ...new edition, (2 vols., London, 1794–5), II, p 170.
R.C. Latham and W. Mathews (eds), The diary of Samuel Pepys (11 vols., London 1970–83), V, p. 55. Andrew Carpenter (ed.), Verse in English from eighteenth-century Ireland (Cork, 1998), p. 345. Penguin pbk. ed. (London, 1957), p. 218.
Charles Francis Adams (ed.), Letters of Mrs Adams, wife of John Adams, with an introductory memoir ... (2nd ed., 2 vols., Boston, 1840) II, p. 33.
John Oldbug [pseud.], The Puritan: a series of essays, critical, moral, miscellaneous I (Boston and Philadelphia, 1836), p. 136.
‘The Queen of Sluts’ is the title of a song in Robert Chambers (ed.), The Scottish songs (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1829) II, p. 454, and in George Lyman Kittredge (ed.), The English and Scottish popular ballads (Boston, 1884), p. 301. For the occurrence of the term in various other songs, see Thomas Hudson, Comic songs (London, 1818), p. 28, and John Rayson, Miscellaneous poems and ballads, chiefly in the dialects of Cumberland and the English and Scottish Borders (London, 1858), p. 52.
W.J. Stafford and A. Hall (eds.), Charlton Memorial Tune Book (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1956; rep. 1974), p. 15. The tune was recorded by the Scottish accordion player Brian McNeill on his 1997 LP ‘Monksgate’, reissued some years ago as a CD (Greentrax CDTRAX062). Irish musicians call this tune the ‘Clock in the Steeple’ (Francis O’Neill, The dance music of Ireland (Chicago, 1907), p. 55), while ‘Jumping Geordie’, ‘Kilwinning's Steeple’, ‘The Pope’s Toe’, ‘The Prince of Wales’s Fancy’ and ‘The Templeglantine Reel’, are further Irish and Scottish titles for it.
Alan J. Fletcher, Drama and the performing arts in pre-Cromwellian Ireland: a repertory of sources and documents from the earliest times to c.1642 (Woodbridge, 2001), p. 372.
W.G. Strickland, A dictionary of Irish artists (2 vols., Dublin 1913; rep. Shannon, 1969) II, p. 188.
T.C. Barnard, Anne Crookshank, Desmond Fitzgerald, William Laffan, et al. (eds. ), The Cries of Dublin: drawn from the life by Hugh Douglas Hamilton (Dublin, 2003), pp 98, 150–9. See also Carpenter, Verse from eighteenthcentury Ireland, p. 373 (n. 29).
Fagan, Dublin’s Turbulent Priest, p. 198. Early English Books Online @http://eebo.chadywick.com.
The area is ‘Lazy Hill’ on Bernard de Gomme’s map (1673), ‘Lazers Hill’ on Charles Brookings’ map (1728), and ‘Lazer Hill’ on John Roque’s map (1756).
Y.M. Goblet (ed.), A topographical index of the parishes and townlands of Ireland in Sir William Petty’s Mss barony maps (c.1655–9) ... and HIBERNIAE DELINEATIO (c.1672) (Dublin, 1632), p.302.
Maria Kelly, The Great Dying: the Black Death in Dublin (Stroud, 2003), p. 112.
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