February 19

Published in On this Day listing

  • Above: Joseph Gillis Biggar, Home Rule MP for Cavan since 1874.

    1890 Joseph Gillis Biggar, Home Rule MP for Cavan since 1874, died. The Presbyterian pork butcher from Henry Street, Belfast, who taught C.S. Parnell the technique of parliamentary obstruction, is popularly remembered for his appearance (he was a diminutive hunchback) and for his ability to talk interminably on any subject in a rasping Belfast accent. Demonised by the British press as a cold-hearted rebel, his reputation, for some at least, was considerably enhanced late in his life by the celebrated Hyland v. Biggar breach-of-promise action of 1883. In late autumn 1881, with a warrant out for his arrest, Biggar escaped to Paris. An out-and-out philistine with no interest in the arts or culture, the City of Light did little for his spirits until one afternoon he attended a party at the home of Irishwoman Madame Rouyer. Amongst the other guests was Fanny Hyland, daughter of a former mayor of Kilkenny, and ‘wee Joe’ was bowled over. Within minutes he was in deep conversation with her, and a week later was offering her his hand and a share of his personal fortune of £20,000. Soon afterwards, however, realising that the government did not intend to execute the warrant against him, he returned to Ireland to rejoin the political fray. The next time he saw Fanny was in a London court. Despite little third-party corroboration for her story, and everything poised for an acquittal, Biggar insisted on going into the witness box himself and thereby lost the case. Though damages of £400 were awarded against him, the judge afterwards declared that he had never met a more frank and truthful witness.

  • 1890 Joseph Biggar, Belfast-born pork merchant and Home Rule MP for Cavan since 1874, died. A year after his election Biggar initiated the policy of obstruction in the House of Commons, which was taken up and pursued successfully by Charles Stewart Parnell.
  • 1717 David Garrick, influential English actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer, born.
  • 1472 Nicholas Copernicus, the father of modern astronomy, was born into a family of wealthy merchants in Torun, Poland.

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