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The quixotic parson

13 May 2013

It occurs to me that the theme of my recent blog, The heroism of No, overlaps considerably with the dangers of plain speaking – admirably summarised in the words of the duc de Saint-Simon, for whose language of course “plain” could never be described as le mot juste:

C’est même cet amour de la vérité qui a le plus nui à ma fortune.

Despite my admiration for the duc’s prose (in which I am joined by Proust), I refrain from quoting at greater length since you would be much better off reading him in full. Instead I offer a rather more homely example from my own family.

It concerns the foolish decision of the Rev. Samuel Jeffares (1798–1877), vicar of Kilpatrick, Wexford, to bring an action in the Wexford Assizes in 1834 (reported in The Times) against the Earl of Arran alleging appropriation of 1½ acres of glebe land. His counsel said that “he felt it his duty, as minister, to assert and support the rights of the church” and did not do so for his own individual interest. This “little patch of ground that hath no profit in it but the name” was adjacent to the demesne of Saunderscourt, in the parish of Kilpatrick, the seat of Richard Saunders which had by then descended to his great-grandson Arthur Saunders Gore, 3rd Earl of Arran. The church was for some years the domestic chapel of Saunderscourt. Although the living was in the patronage of the Bishop of Ferns, the rectory was “impropriate in” the Earl of Arran. Lord Arran’s father, the 2nd Earl, had been sheriff of Co. Wexford; his uncle was Master of the Horse to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland; and his wife had been governess to Princess Charlotte of Wales.

Jeffares’s counsel, Richard Moore KC (a barrister of considerable ability, who later became attorney-general for Ireland), produced documents from the Church registry dating back to 1774, one of which was even signed by the 2nd Earl, acknowledging the parish’s ownership of the glebe. The judge nevertheless told the jury to ignore the document, as the signature of the peer had not been proved (even thought the registrar of the diocese attested to its veracity). Under the circumstances the only surprise was that the jury retired took a full half hour before finding for the more influential party, with 6d. costs. The Rev. Samuel lost his position, and he spent the next 34 years as curate in a remote village in Co. Carlow. He would be kept busy during the Famine as secretary of the local relief fund.

Nearly 200 year later one wonders if my cousin would have fared much better (see my post on the trahison des clercs). This case was probably more Don Quixote than Fortinbras, let alone David and Goliath, but putting principle before personal interest has always had a price. It also left me wondering whether the propensity to do so runs in the genes.

Postscript

One thing in this story intrigues me: the costs. Even in 1834, 6d. was a tiny sum – lawyers like Moore were pretty well paid, to judge by the rather fine house he bought, now home to the Músaem na bPiarsach. Was the jury sending a message of support, registering their disapproval of the judge’s directions? Today justice of any kind is denied to vicars and most of the middle classes because of the crippling level of costs (even if one wins).

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