Occupational hazard — Ray Burke on a sensational court case, a lucky escape for Daniel O’Connell and an ungrateful client

Barrister was confronted by his client brandishing a horsewhip

Daniel O’Connell, the Kerry barrister who became known as “The Liberator” following Catholic emancipation, was fortunate that a head cold prevented him from appearing as a senior defence counsel at the Spring Assizes in Galway in March 1817.

Nearly 20 years into his law career, O’Connell was one of the country’s leading barristers, earning an estimated £6,000 a year, when he was briefed to defend a wealthy Galway widow for breach of a promise of marriage.

The defendant, Mary Wilkins (née Brown), aged 65, from Brownville, Bearna, west of the city, was being sued for £5,000 by a prematurely-retired Royal Navy lieutenant Blake, who was not yet 30 years of age. The enormous damages being sought and the age discrepancy between plaintiff and defendant ensured that case attracted much public attention locally and nationally.

“Lodging-house keepers are making now a rich harvest”, wrote the special correspondent of the Freeman’s Journal from Galway. “Beds a pound a night but then it is not so expensive when you get others to join you. Three of us slept in one bed last night in a double-bedded room, and four in the other bed. It was like the black hole of Calcutta”, he added.


O’Connell was hoarse when proceedings began in Galway’s newly-opened courthouse.

He told the judge that he was “so inconvenienced with a cold in the head” that he was entrusting the responsibility of addressing the jury to his “learned friend” Mr Charles Phillips. O’Connell’s mild indisposition may have saved him from further injury that day.

Phillips addressed the jury on behalf of the defendant after the plaintiff’s side rested their case, having called only one witness.

“My Lord, Gentlemen of the Jury”, he began, “it has been left to me to defend my unfortunate old client from the double battery of law and love, which at the age of sixty-five has been unexpectedly opened upon her. Gentlemen, how vainglorious is the boast of beauty! How misapprehended have been the charms of youth, if years and wrinkles can thus despoil their conquests and depopulate the Navy of it progress and beguile the bar of its eloquence”.

Mrs Wilkins, outraged, rose from her seat and fled from the crowded courthouse as laughter was suppressed in the public gallery and jurors could not hide their smiles. She was absent when Phillips described her as “the irresistible widow Wilkins” and when, pointing to Lieut Blake, he continued: “For the gratification of his avarice he was content to embrace age, disease, infirmity, and widowhood, to bend his youthful passions to the carcase for which the grave was opening - to feed, by anticipation, on the uncold corpse, and cheat the worm of its reversionary corruption. . . He offered to barter every joy for money! Born in a country ardent to a fault, he advertised his happiness to the highest bidder and he now solicits an honourable jury to become the panderers to his heartless cupidity!”

Phillips acknowledged that his client had entered into a marriage contract, but he said that she had been harassed by Blake’s mother and sister and that the contract had been “conceived in meanness, extorted by fraud and sought to be enforced by the most profligate conspiracy”.

Lieut Blake, he added, first attacked her fortune through the church, and now through the courts of law.

Mrs Wilkins was still absent when Phillips asked the jury to find in her favour “to uphold the national character” and to assure the rising generation that “marriage can never be attended with honour or blessed with happiness if it has not its origin in mutual happiness”.

Blake conferred with his counsel and withdrew the case. The judge told the jury that their services were no longer required and he entered judgment and all costs for the defendant, Mrs Wilkins.

Phillips was making his way through the crowd when he was confronted by Mrs Wilkins brandishing a horsewhip that she had taken from her carriage.

“Old, is it? And decrepit, is it? Take that and that,” she cried as she lashed him with the whip.

“The blows she rained about him, his head and shoulders, promptly convinced her insulting champion that if age had dimmed the beauty of her face it had spared the vigour of her arm,” said a contemporary account of the case published by a London bookseller. “Taken utterly by surprise, while the applause was converted to laughter, he fled to the sanctuary of the bar room, pursued to the door by his indignant client.”