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James Whiteside (1804-1876) – Lord Chief Justice of Ireland

Detail from statue of James Whiteside by Albert Bruce-Joy in St Patrick’s Cathedral

James Whiteside was born on 12 August 1804 at Delgany in the north Wicklow Mountains, south of Dublin, where his father William was a Church of Ireland curate at the time. His brother the Rev. John Whiteside was sometime Rector of Ripon.

James was educated at Trinity College Dublin where he wrote a series of magazine articles, collected and republished in 1870 as Early Sketches of Eminent Persons. He subsequently went on to the Inner Temple, London, being called to the bar in 1830.

In 1833 he married Rosetta Napier, daughter of William Napier, and sister of his eminent contemporary, Sir Joseph Napier (1804-1882), Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1874.

Whiteside made rapid progress in his career and took silk as a QC in 1842. He gained a reputation for forensic oratory surpassing his contemporaries and rivalling his famous predecessors of the 18th century. His speech in defence of Daniel O’Connell, the Catholic Liberator, at the state trials of 1844 placed him at the forefront of the bar. Shortly afterwards his health began to trouble him and he spent some time in Italy. His adventures in Italy were published in 1848 in a best-selling book entitled Italy in the Nineteenth Century.

1848 was a year of revolution all over Europe. In Ireland, William Smith O’Brien urged the formation of a National Guard, and an armed rising was planned to overthrow the British authorities. However, the Great Famine had left the country spiritless and they made no real preparations. At the end of July a small group under Smith O’Brien clashed with forty-six policemen at Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary. This skirmish at Widow McCormack’s cabbage garden brought the rising of 1848 to an inglorious end. Smith O’Brien was arrested and sent to Clonmel for trial.

In 1848 Whiteside returned to Ireland to defend  Smith O’Brien and others in what would be the most controversial state trial of the decade. Despite his skilful defence, the jury found Smith O’Brien guilty of high treason and sentenced him to be hanged. The capital sentence was later commuted to transportation for life. He spent five years in exile in Tasmania before returning to live in Brussels. In 1856 Smith O’Brien was fully pardoned and returned to Ireland but withdrew from the political scene. His statue stands in O’Connell Street in Dublin.

Meanwhile, Whiteside was elected Conservative MP for Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh in 1851, at which time he had an address at Killyhevlin outside Enniskillen. In 1859, he was elected MP for the University of Dublin, a seat he retained until he became a judge.

In 1852 he was appointed Solicitor-General for Ireland in the first administration of the new Prime Minister, Lord Derby. His acceptance of a post in the English government somewhat diminished his earlier popularity amongst Irish nationalists.

Theresa Longworth Yelverton in Yosemite, 1870, seated in manzanita armchair made by James Hutchings. Carte-de-Visite by James Reilly.

In 1858 he was appointed Attorney-General, which post he held until 1866. It was in this capacity that Whiteside became involved with the Yelverton Case, a scandal which preoccupied scandal-lusting Victorians throughout the spring of 1861. The case concerned a Crimean War nurse, Theresa Longworth, suing a Major Yelverton with whom she had become involved during the battle of Balaclava. She claimed to have later married the Major in a “Scotch marriage” ceremony (albeit a Roman Catholic one). Major Yelverton had since abandoned the woman, then pregnant, and married another; he asserted that no marriage with the claimant had taken place. Though the legal question of the case concerned events which occurred in Britain after the war, the trial nevertheless focused much attention on Yelverton’s alleged seduction of the nurse in the Crimea.

Mrs. Yelverton claimed that she and her husband did not “cohabit” until after the Roman Catholic ceremony, but Major Yelverton testified that after determining in a Crimean hospital to make Theresa Longworth his mistress, he “attempted her virtue” on a transport ship to Constantinople. She became, he said, “a slave of her passion for him“, engaging in “illicit intercourse” in the Crimea. Whiteside delivered a hugely popular speech on Mrs. Yelverton’s behalf and, eventually, the court found in her favour; she already received enormous public sympathy. Major Yelverton was court-martialled for conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. After his speech in the Yelverton case Whiteside was greeted with cheers on entering the House of Commons.

Regarded as one of the great orators of the century, Whiteside was appointed Lord Chief Justice of the Queen’s Bench, Ireland, 1866. At the time he was living at No. 2 Mountjoy Square. Two years earlier, an unknown writer in Temple Bar says of him:

The character of Whiteside’s face is entirely Milesian: it is pale, or rather the colour of that material upon which he has so often written as an able conveyancer – parchment; and his face is as free from a blush as it is from a beard. He strides or stalks across the hall with the bustling air of a man of business and the port of a self-reliant, able man. . . He has some peculiar tones that arrest attention-deep, guttural notes-harsh, grating, short, rough grunts or snarls-that have a singular effect in his mode of rendering some passages. His scorn is withering, his sarcasm bitter, blighting, blistering ; his love of the ridiculous irrepressible. He is, without doubt, the wittiest and most humorous man at present at the Bar in Ireland.”

He suffered much ill-health in his later years and died at Brighton aged 72 on 25 November 1876 shortly after John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough (and Winston Churchill’s grandfather) became Viceroy of Ireland.

He is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold’s Cross, Dublin. There is a remarkable account of his after-life squabbling in Mount Jerome Cemetery with his brother-in-law, ‘Holy Joe,’ otherwise Sir Joseph Napier, former Lord Chancellor of Ireland, published in the Evening Press on 19 January 1979. See here.

His statue by Thomas Woolner stands in the hallway of Dublin’s Four Courts, while there is another by Albert Bruce-Joy on display in St Patrick’s Cathedral.

The above report was compiled at me on 8 October 2003, while I was based with Eneclann Ltd.

 

Further Reading

 

  • R. O’Flanagan, The Irish Bar(London, 1879).
  • O’Connor, T P [Ed]: The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Vol 4 only: Selections from the Works of the Chief Poets, Orators and Prose Writers of Ireland. With Biographical Sketches and Literary Notices by Chrales Read. Blackie (1900).
  • Boylan, Henry (ed.), A Dictionary of Irish Biography, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1998.