Leonard MacNally— the most disreputable barrister to have ever practised at the Irish bar?

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2015), Volume 23

‘Informer! A horror to be understood fully only by the Irish mind . . . Good God! An informer is the great danger’.

(Liam O’Flaherty, The Informer)

Leonard MacNally, probably one of the most notorious informers in Irish history. (NLI)

Leonard MacNally, probably one of the most notorious informers in Irish history. (NLI)

Probably one of the most notorious informers in Irish history was Leonard MacNally, and he is unusual in that his role was not exposed during his life and he was neither murdered nor ended his days in exile. Instead, MacNally enjoyed a quiet death as a renowned patriot and died known as (if ever an epithet was more inaccurate) ‘MacNally the incorruptible’. MacNally is still a figure of hate and fascination nearly 200 years after his death:

‘. . . the very rhythm of his name a register of dear bought treacheries grown transparent now, and inestimable.’

(Seamus Heaney, ‘The Old Icons’)

When did MacNally become an informer?
MacNally probably became an informer in 1794. A French agent, Revd William Jackson, had arrived in Dublin accompanied by a London solicitor, John Cockayne, who unbeknownst to him was an informer for Prime Minister Pitt. Both Cockayne and Jackson called on MacNally, who provided dinner, and with MacNally’s help they were able to make contact with Archibald Hamilton Rowan and Wolfe Tone. When the government had sufficient evidence, Jackson was arrested and charged with high treason. When news of this emerged, Rowan escaped from gaol and fled the country; Tone agreed to go into exile with a view to avoiding prosecution. MacNally was neither forced to go into permanent exile nor fled the country and quite remarkably was retained and able to act as Jackson’s defence counsel. It was presumably at this point that MacNally was persuaded to become an informer in exchange for his life, when evidence of his own treasonous activities was presented to him.

Archibald Hamilton Rowan escaped from gaol and fled the country. MacNally had provided the introduction. (NLI)

Archibald Hamilton Rowan escaped from gaol and fled the country. MacNally had provided the introduction. (NLI)

Shortly before his death, Jackson made out a will leaving all his possessions to his wife and entrusting MacNally with the protection of her interests, writing at the bottom: ‘Signed and sealed in the presence of my dearest friend, whose heart and principles ought to recommend him as a worthy citizen—Leonard MacNally’. Those documents entrusted to MacNally found their way into the hands of the Irish government. Copies of the documents were then sent to London, together with a confidential letter stating that they had been received from Counsellor MacNally, whom there was ‘much evidence against’, and that MacNally was ‘completely in the power of the government’.

In 1800 Under-Secretary Cooke drew up a list for the attention of Castlereagh of those recommended for a ‘secret service pension’ because of assistance rendered during the 1798 Rebellion. ‘Mac’ is the first name on the list and beside it the figure of £300. On the second page of the memorandum ‘Leonard MacAnally’ [sic] is written out in full and the figure of £300 is written alongside it. In June 1801 MacNally was finally awarded the pension that in the end was the source of his undoing.

In modern parlance, John Pollock, crown solicitor, was the person who ‘handled’ or managed MacNally, and frequent references to Pollock can be found in the Book of Secret Service Money, which is held in the Royal Irish Academy. The book listed payments made from 21 August 1797 on ‘account of secret service money applied in detecting treasonable conspiracy pursuant to the provisions of the Civil List Act 1793’. The book records money issued to Pollock to be paid to either ‘LMcN’, ‘LM’ or ‘JW’, all of which referred to MacNally. His nom d’espion was ‘JW’ and this was how he was sometimes referred to in the accounts of payments to informers or in MacNally’s letters to the Castle.

With a view to ensuring that his activities were never discovered, MacNally convincingly portrayed himself as a true and honourable patriot. An outspoken critic of the Union, a writer of rebel songs and a close friend to a leading defender of United Irishmen, MacNally ensured that his patriotism was never seriously doubted while he was alive.

MacNally’s defence of the Sheares brothers

MacNally was counsel for Robert Emmet and received the sum of £200 for selling the defence strategy to the Crown. (The Shamrock, Christmas 1892)

MacNally was counsel for Robert Emmet and received the sum of £200 for selling the defence strategy to the Crown. (The Shamrock, Christmas 1892)

While it may have appeared that MacNally was a committed patriot, his involvement in the defence of the Sheares brothers gives an insight into his true character. John and Henry Sheares were charged with high treason, contrary to the Treason Act, 1351. Under Irish law at that time one witness was sufficient to convict, whereas in England the law required two witnesses. The prosecution case rested on the evidence of Captain John Warneford Armstrong, who had first met the brothers in Byrne’s bookshop on Grafton Street. As the principal witness for the prosecution, Armstrong’s credibility clearly had a great deal of bearing on the likelihood of conviction, and if the defence had been able to seriously damage his credibility the possibility of conviction might have receded.

After the trial, in one of his notes to the Castle dated 14 July 1798, MacNally attached two letters from Lord Cork. In one of these letters Lord Cork confirmed that Armstrong had left Cork’s regiment in ‘a most disgraceful manner’, and his lordship stated that he ‘would not pay much attention to what he had to say, nor give much credit to his oath’. In his report MacNally states that he had kept both letters private. On that same day, 14 July 1798, the Sheares brothers were hanged in Dublin at 11.45am. It is clear that MacNally held back the letters and only notified the Castle of their existence on the day the brothers were executed. If MacNally had chosen to make use of the letters or to call Lord Cork to the stand, a witness of his stature asserting that he would not believe or pay attention to the principal prosecution witness would surely have created a doubt in the minds of the jury.

If MacNally had not been familiar or friendly with the Sheares brothers, his actions as their barrister alone would rightly be considered reprehensible. But for MacNally to act as counsel to men whom he had asked to accompany him on his duel against Barrington, men who believed that he was their true friend, and subsequently to betray them to Dublin Castle must be considered particularly base.

When the French agent Revd William Jackson was arrested in April 1794

When the French agent Revd William Jackson was arrested in April 1794, Archibald Hamilton Rowan

By a cruel coincidence, the Sheares brothers’ father, Henry Sheares senior, an MP in the Irish parliament, had introduced an act that aimed to bring Irish law on treason into line with that of England. The Treason (Ireland) Act 1765 required that the accused be provided with a copy of the indictment and provided for the assignation of counsel for the defence but critically failed to include a provision requiring two witnesses for a conviction—something which might have led to the brothers’ acquittal.

As Adrian Hardiman has already recounted in his excellent article on Robert Emmet’s trial (HI 13.4, July/ August 2005), MacNally was Emmet’s counsel and received the sum of £200 for selling the defence strategy to the Crown. If it were possible to make the situation of a man facing the death penalty any worse, MacNally was the last ‘friend’ permitted to see Emmet, and Emmet handed MacNally letters to give to his family. The letters, like those of Jackson, ended up in the Castle.

What made MacNally any worse than other informers?
As a practising barrister, MacNally owed a duty to the client he was defending to act independently, to act in the best interests of his client and to act in the interests of justice. This meant that MacNally was obliged to keep secret the communications between the client and himself. MacNally was fully aware of his obligations as a barrister. Indeed, he wrote a law textbook in which he stated that the privilege was

‘[A] privilege of the client and not of the counsel or attorney; and it is founded on the policy of the law, which will not permit any person to betray a secret with which the law hath entrusted him.’

For MacNally as a barrister to disclose the legally privileged communications made between himself and his client to a third party, and especially when his client faced the death penalty if found guilty, was odious in the extreme. For Dublin Castle to receive such information and continue with the prosecutions in such circumstances demonstrated a complete and utter disregard for legal norms and made a mockery of justice. One might wonder whether this clear, unconstitutional interference by government in the criminal process had longer-lasting effects on respect for the rule of law and confidence in the administration of justice.

MacNally’s actions portray the Irish bar and government of that period in a very bad light. His treachery must have been known to some of those law officers who held high government office at the time. For those who were subsequently raised to the bench and heard cases in which MacNally was involved, there must have been a serious question over the manner in which MacNally was ‘defending’ those he represented. An excellent actor until the end, MacNally succeeded in deceiving his closest friends until his death. A fel-low barrister, Ned Lysaght, composed ‘An Alphabet of the Bar’ and the lines referring to MacNally state: ‘M was MacNally, who lived by the rope’. If there had been any justice, MacNally would have died by the rope.

Eoin O’Connor is a practising barrister who is completing a Ph.D on ‘Informers and Irish Law’ at Trinity College, Dublin.

Read More: Early life
Why did MacNally become an informer?

Further reading

T. Bartlett, ‘The life and opinions of Leonard MacNally, playwright, barrister, United Irishman, and informer’, in H. Morgan (ed.), Information, media and power through the ages (Dublin, 2001).
W.J. Fitzpatrick, Secret service under Pitt (London, 1892).


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