Remembering Robert Briscoe and the corrupt Limerick Corporation

Limerick historian Sharon Slater

Limerick in the 1790s was on the verge of greatness. Large wharves were being built in the hope that they would herald a new era of maritime merchants in the city. It seemed like things were really getting better and better. As the city’s development continues today, in one form or another, it’s sometimes nice to look back at how far we’ve come to get to where we are today.

The triumph that is Georgian Limerick as we know it began in the late 1700s. In 1760 Limerick was declared a free city and the majority of the old city walls were demolished. This paved the way for the new town of Pery and its iconic red brick buildings. It took several decades for this new town to become established, as plots were sold off to individual developers and wealthy residents slowly moved out of the cramped old town.

Despite the thirst to grow and build, tradition prevailed in the city and was often counterproductive to the innovation on its doorstep – nepotism was the order of the day within the Limerick Corporation of the time.

Eamon O’Flaherty described the city as “a corrupt and self-elected political oligarchy”. Although the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 allowed Catholics to become members of societies, this did not happen in Limerick for another fifty years when the new society was formed in 1841. Even the new development of Newtownpery came distanced himself from society by establishing the Commissioners of St Michael’s Parish in 1807 to oversee this estate.

In 1792, in the midst of the corrupt Corporation, Robert Briscoe Esq entered local politics when he became a freeman of the city of Limerick.

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Formally, a man could become a Limerick Freeman under one of three criteria. First, by birth, being the eldest son of a free man. Second, by being over twenty-one, marrying the daughter of a free man, and residing in the city. Finally, by doing a seven-year apprenticeship with a freeman in the city.

These rules were not followed by the corrupt company that controlled the admission register. The electorate at the time was made up of free men. As such, the Incumbent Society could (and often would) tilt the votes in its favor by allowing non-residents of the city to become freemen.

At the time of Briscoe’s addition to the register, non-resident freemen made up over half of Limerick’s electorate. Briscoe himself was then a resident of Edwardstown – a townland in Ballysimon, County Limerick, outside Limerick city limits.

He quickly took his place at Limerick Corporation. As with all serving members of the Corporation, nepotism has found its way into Briscoe. He was married to Mary Villiers of the Limerick Villiers family. Today, the most recognizable of this family was Mary’s great-aunt, Hannah Villiers, responsible for the foundation of the de Villiers school and the de Villiers charity house. Through his marriage, Briscoe was also related to the Cripps family, who also served on the Corporation.

In 1794, he was elected to the post of Sheriff of Limerick alongside Joseph Cripps, his cousin by marriage. Two years later, he will resume this role, but this time with Andrew Watson.

Members of the Corporation controlled nearly every aspect of Limerick life. Watson was a press man who dictated the local city media. He was the editor of Limerick Chronicle from 1781, after succeeding his father-in-law, newspaper founder John Ferrar.

The names of Briscoe, Cripps and Watson would regularly make positive appearances in the local press. When electing a mayor, this island group dictated who would take first place.

In the 1800s, the role and responsibilities of the Mayor of Limerick were very different from those of the modern Mayor. Although much more nuanced than can be described in a short article, Limerick before 1841 was, for the most part, self-governing, with the mayor acting at the highest level of authority. He dictated everything from street cleaning to executions. He sat on the bench during trials and even inspected bodies during inquests.

In October 1804, it was Robert Briscoe’s turn to be mayor of Limerick.

He held the position for a year and surprisingly only held it for one term. Watson referred to him in the press as “The Right Worshipful Robert Briscoe, Esq, Mayor”.

During his tenure, Briscoe took a very tough stance on crime in the city from his office at The Exchange. The Society met in the Stock Exchange building on Nicholas Street from 1673 to 1846. The Stock Exchange consisted of a covered market on the ground floor and the Society rooms on the first floor.

It should be noted that the only remains of this building today are the single wall of arches in the arcade which now form a boundary wall to the cemetery of St. Mary’s Cathedral.

In March 1805 Briscoe was informed of the illegal opening of five pubs on a Sunday. He imposed a fine of five pounds each on the publicans. These fines were split, half going to informers and the other half to the House of Industry (built in 1774 on the North Strand, now Clancy Strand, as a charity to care for the most poor in society).

At the time, Andrew Watson was treasurer of the House of Industry and therefore gratefully received the funds from his friend from the Corporation. Watson noted in his diary that although imposing fines on publicans made Mayor Briscoe less popular with those who fancied a drink on the Sabbath, it was a boon for the inmates of the House of Industry.

When fines were imposed on people who assaulted two clerks in the employ of brewer Garryowen John Connell, Briscoe donated much of the fine to the House of Industry. Interestingly, at the end of the same month, Connell would also give the institution a gift – over six pounds of table beer.

John Connell’s son of the same name takes his place in history in the lines of the song “Garryowen.”

The House of Industry was also where the fines for the “Englishtown Scavengers” went after they were found guilty of neglecting their servants.

Briscoe was also asked to fine those who let their pigs roam the streets of the city to cause a nuisance, although this was never followed through. One might conclude that this shows us that pigs and their products were an important part of Limerick society long before the bacon factories opened.

By July, Briscoe’s contributions to the House of Industry through fines reached nearly one hundred pounds. He was known to have “taken the most laudable and determined resolution to rid the streets of Limerick of the bands of beggars which have long infested it”. This was seen in one of his most barbaric decisions.

On Saturday May 2, 1805, Briscoe decided to make an example of two citizens of Limerick in an extremely humiliating way. He laid out the cruel and unusual punishment after two women – who Andrew Watson called “two notorious prostitutes and pickpockets” – came before him.

He declared that women should have their heads shaved and carted through the city. The aim was to show that crime would not be tolerated in Limerick. It was hoped the scene would inspire other sex workers and pickpockets to leave town or find another form of employment.

In March 1805 Briscoe oversaw a number of inquiries, including that of the murder of James Mealy by Thomas and John Shaughnessy.

In April of that year, the body of another murderer, John Freeze, was taken from the execution site in Gallows Green to the County Hospital to be dissected by local surgeons. While today this would be illegal and immoral, back then it was common for authorities to hand over the bodies of executed people to surgeons to practice their anatomy skills. It was also during the period of rampant grave robbing.

Nepotism and bribes came in many ways. It’s clear that Briscoe used Watson’s role in the House of Industry to bolster his own appearance in the local press. He also received many gifts during his tenure, including expensive white gloves, elaborately fringed in gold, from one of Limerick’s sheriffs.

Robert Brisco continued as a magistrate after his term as mayor ended. He appeared in a handful of high-profile cases before his death at his home in Ballycahane in late October 1811. He also had a home in Glentworth Street, where his wife died two years later. He had several children but they never followed him into local politics.

His obituary of Limerick Chronicle October 25, 1811 paints him unsurprisingly in a favorable light, noting that “in his official position he has earned the respect and esteem of his fellow citizens.”

He went on to say that “no one was more universally admired” than Briscoe in his private life. Although it is doubtful that those who receive his sentences would agree.

Further Reading on Robert Briscoe and the Corrupt Society:

Matthew Potter, First Citizens of Treaty City, Limerick, 2007.


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