Profile of Edmund O'Flaherty M.P.

By Samuel J. Maguire

Introduction

Edmund O'Flaherty of Knockbane, near Moycullen, was a man of great warmth, cleverness and inexhaustible resource. He was a great friend of William Keogh and John Sadleir, and like them, a member of "The Pope's Brass Band". His dexterity and ability was recognised by the Duke of Newcastle, who was anxious to secure for the Pellite party the alliance of the Irish members of the House of Commons. The Duke invited O'Flaherty to dine with him, was greatly taken with him, constantly communicated with him, employed him as an emissary, and gave him a Commissionership of Income Tax in Ireland, with a promise of something better. His reputation was that of a man full of fun and spirits and singularly soft-hearted and kind. When taxed about his unbounded hospitality he invariably implied that he was engaged with the Birmingham Attwoods in iron speculations, which brought him in at times good sums of money, and that, en attendant, he had no scruple in running into debt. A most avowedly unscrupulous man, he was so open and candid about his laxity that it was treated as a joke. He obtained loans with ease for friends in and out of the House of Commons.

Forgeries

In the early summer of 1854 he disappeared from London and rumours were current throughout the city that warrants were out against him for extensive forgeries. He had forged the names of Lord Bolingbroke, Lord Dunkellin, Bernal Osborne, a Mr. Godley, and Sir William Gregory, besides those of other persons.

An action was tried against Sir William Gregory in Dublin on two of these bills. It lasted two days, and the jury almost immediately gave a verdict in Sir William's favour. The plaintiff sought to prove two things: that Gregory was so involved in money matters with O'Flaherty that he was as it were, empowered to sign Sir William's name, and secondly, that both the defendant and his witness might be mistaken as to Gregory's handwriting, and that the signatures were really his. A curious test was employed, which, had Sir William made the slightest error in dealing with it, might have lost him the case, but which gained him the suit at once by the correctness of his answer. Half a dozen closed envelopes were placed in the hands of the witnesses, a small piece of the corner of each of them was cut out, and in the open space there appeared Sir William's signature, but to what document it was affixed it was unknown. Some of his witnesses were very doubtful as to the signatures, and refused to swear whether they were his or not. Some they thought were decidedly not his. When the cross examination came on these envelopes were towards the close of it produced. He was asked questions about the signatures, and he declared, looking at them one after another, that they were all his. "Do you swear that?" said Fitzgibbon, the counsel. "I do swear it," replied Gregory. "Give me back the envelopes", demanded counsel. "No, my Lord, I claim to have these envelopes opened on the spot and handed to the jury", cried Sir William to the judge. The document in each envelope was a letter of Gregory's to O'Flaherty of which only the signature appeared.

Among the many forgeries was one on Bernal Osborne. O'Flaherty was dining one night in company with a naval officer, who expatiated on the readiness with which a Jew at Plymouth, named Marcus, lent money to officers, and he mentioned that Marcus had done business with some admiral's official, who was supposed to have given him a favourable contract in return.

O'Flaherty said that he was going shortly to Plymouth, and was doing up his house in Dublin, and would like to borrow a small sum, even at usurious interest, in a remote place, as he did not wish to apply to his bankers, as it would be all over the town if he, a Commissioner of Income Tax, went to the house of a London or Dublin lender. Receiving a letter of introduction from the officer in which he was described as a man of position and Income Tax Commissioner, O'Flaherty called on Mr. Marcus. He informed Marcus that he wished to speak confidentially to him; that Mr. Bernal Osbourne, the Secretary to the Admiralty, had been spoken to by the heads of the Government on account of his lack of hospitality; and that he was obliged to set up an establishment and give dinners; and that Osborne had, however, owing to bad times drawn but little rent from Ireland, and wished to borrow 1,500 for six months.

Marcus was hesitant, and on O'Flaherty stating that certain contracts would be shortly advertised, the moneylender asked if he had got the bills. O'Flaherty produced two bills for 1,500 signed by Bernal Osborne, but Marcus demanded that a second name should be on them. On being informed that Osborne would never allow it as he demanded positive secrecy, O'Flaherty was asked to put his name on it, but declared that he had never put his name to a bill in his life. He added, however, that he was afraid that he would have to do so shortly for 300 as he wanted to fit up his reception rooms to make them suitable to his position. Remarking that he had made no allusion to that navy contract and that he must find the money for Mr. Osborne elsewhere he was about the leave when Marcus stated that he would lend O'Flaherty the 300 if he put his name to Osborne's bills. He did so with reluctance and returned to London with 1,700 just a week before his final disappearance.

O'Flaherty's Fastidious Appetite

Sir J. Pope Hennessy used to tell a very characteristic story of O'Flaherty. He paid a visit to Dublin, and was invited to dinner at the Mansion House by the Lord Mayor, who was impressed by the great London financier and politican as O'Flaherty was then supposed to be. The dinner consisted of four soups and half a dozen kinds of fish, and entrees by the score. O'Flaherty passed dish after dish, until the unfortunate Lord Mayor at last asked what would tempt the lordly and fastidious appetite. "I would like a mutton chop", said O'Flaherty. It was "bien distinguee!" (this anecdote is given by T.P. O'Connor and quoted by Sir William Gregory).

O'Flaherty in America

O'Flaherty went to America where he took the name of Captain Stewart. He began by writing for the papers, made some money, and then rented a theatre called the Winter Garden. At first he was very successful and rapidly became one of the most popular men in New York, famous for his hospitality and select supper parties. It was well known that there was something against him, but it was presumed that he left England being unable to pay his debts. Englishmen of great position, on their return from America, told how they had been entertained by the pleasantest and wittiest of Irishmen, Captain Stewart. He spent the large income he was making, fell into poverty, and died in 1887.

An Account by Justin Huntly McCarthy, M.P.

Extract from Ireland since the Union by Justin Huntly McCarthy, M.P.

"... Then they broke up. John Sadleir had embezzled, swindled, forged; he ruined half Ireland with his fraudulent bank; he made use of his position under Government to embezzle public money; he committed suicide - that is to say, he was supposed to have committed suicide, for there were many persons who believed then, and there are many persons who believe still, that the body which was found on Hampstead Heath, and which was consigned to the grave under circumstances of mysterious haste and secrecy, was not the body of John Sadleir ... There were many persons who believed that John Sadleir, like another Siebenkaas, had died only in name, and was quietly enjoying the rewards of his deception in the security of self-chosen exile. The story is not very credible ... O'Flaherty hurried to Denmark, where there was no extradition treaty, and then to New York, where he lived ... under another name, a familiar figure in certain circles of New York society, famous as a diner-out, as a good story-teller and a humourist ... Keogh, the fourth of this famous quadrilateral, their ally, their intimate, their faithful friend, contrived to keep himself clear of the crash, he was immediately made a judge, and was conspicuous for the rest of his life for his unfailing and unfaltering hostility to any and every national party."