The Sheares brothers are the sons of Henry Sheares, a liberal banker from County Cork who also sits in the Irish Parliament for the Borough of Clonakilty. Henry attends Trinity College, Dublin, buys an officer’s commission and then studies as a lawyer, being called to the bar as a barrister in 1790. John qualifies as a barrister in 1788.
In 1792 the brothers go to Paris and are swept away by the popular enthusiasms of the French Revolution. They meet leaders such as Jacques Pierre Brissot and Jean-Marie Roland, both of whom are to be executed in 1793. In particular they witness the introduction of the guillotine, on which 1,400 are to die in 1792. On the boat from France to England they meet Daniel O’Connell, then a student, who is disgusted by the increasingly bloodthirsty nature of the revolution. O’Connell remains an advocate of non-violence thereafter.
The brothers join the United Irish movement upon their return to Dublin in January 1793, when it is still legal, and John begins to write articles for the Press, a nationalist paper. However, France declares war on Britain, and by extension on Ireland, in February 1793. The Society’s initial aims of securing Catholic emancipation and universal suffrage are unsuccessful, amounting to the administration’s 1793 Relief Act. Its stance becomes more radical, and in turn the Irish administration fears a group inspired by France, banning it in 1794.
The Sheares brothers principally organise the movement in Cork, while continuing with their legal careers. A Mr. Conway, one of their keenest members in Cork, informs the administration of their activities. During 1793 the brothers also join the Dublin Society of the United Irishmen, where another spy, Thomas Collins, passes on their names. Their other two less famous brothers enlist in the British army and are killed in action. On the arrest of most of the United Irish “Directory” members in March 1798, John is chosen as a replacement on the approach to the outbreak of rebellion. His main act at this point is to decide on the date – May 23.
The Directory fatally stays in Dublin, where the United Irish have less support. Already quietly betrayed by Conway and Collins, John also befriends Captain Warnesford Armstrong from County Down, who claims to be a busy member of the party there. John never verifies this, and Armstrong informs the authorities of the brothers’ whereabouts, also appearing as a witness in the ensuing trial. They are arrested on May 21 and indicted on June 26.
Inevitably the brothers are tried on July 12, as the rebellion is at its height, and are hanged, drawn and quartered two days later outside Newgate Prison. Their lawyer is John Philpot Curran who, with Sir Jonah Barrington, obtain a stay of execution in the hope that Henry will recant, but the brothers are already dead. They are buried at Dublin’s St. Michan’s Church. Visitors are brought to their coffins on a tour of St. Michan’s vaults.
(Pictured: The coffins of the Sheares brothers in the crypt of St. Michan’s Church)