Gurgles from the Grave as Judicial Rivalry Continues into the Afterlife, 1882-1979

Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin c. 1917, via Ebay.

From the Evening Press, 19 January 1979:

If you happen to be in Mount Jerome Cemetery and have the right kind of imaginative hearing, you can listen to those odd chortling and shushing sounds coming from a certain over-ground vault on the right hand side of the mortuary chapel. The chortling comes from the late James Whiteside, one time Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. The shushing is from his wife Rosetta, who is ordering him to behave himself (as wives so often have to do) and to remember where he is.

To find out what’s tickling Whiteside (for believe me, it isn’t Rosetta), you have to branch off to the left where, near the massive tombs of Arthur Guinness, Son & Company, there’s another over-ground vault from which comes an angry muttering. The angry one is Whiteside’s brother-in-law, Holy Joe, otherwise Sir Joseph Napier (pronounced Na-peer), former Lord Chancellor of Ireland, whose sister Rosetta had married Whiteside in 1833. What has him still growling after ninety-seven years entombment is the fact that his survivors were so careless and thoughtless about where they placed the inscription on his last resting place. He had been so careful himself about arranging that inscription, and then the damned fools had gone and placed it around on the side of the vault, where it can all too easily be overlooked.

In short, after taking so much trouble to remain prominent in death, Holy Joe lies in effect in what is an obscure grave, just as if he was a nobody. No wonder Whiteside, who detested him (and whom he detested) is laughing.

And what about Whiteside’s own epitaph, you may say, where is that?

Well, you won’t see it from the path beside his tomb. But there is a space between the side of his vault and the chapel wall and, human nature being what it is, you will want to go around and satisfy your entirely idle curiosity about what’s there. And when you go around you find some very distinct lettering telling you that here lies James Whiteside and his Rosetta. You can’t miss it.

A youthful James Whiteside, from the Illustrated London News, 27 March 1858, via British Newspaper Archive.

Just why Joseph Napier and his brother-in-law detested each other we don’t know. Apart from the fact that few brothers-in-law really like each other, in Whiteside and Napier’s case there was probably the added factor of professional jealousy. They were rival barristers on the same circuit and were engaged in a race to see who’d make the bench first.

Whiteside had inherited from his clergyman father a touch of ecclesiastical humbug in manner and way of speaking. This, added to a flair for melodrama, made him a great man for bamboozling juries.

Joseph Napier, unlike the tall, stately, handsome, golden-throated Whiteside, was a slight, dapper little Belfast man, with sharp features and a nose you could cut your meat with. He was cleverer than his rival, but his harsh Northern accent was against him, and being merely the son of a prosperous Belfast merchant, he found that harmonious humbug didn’t come so easily to him as it did to the preacher’s son. No matter how great the merits of his case he seldom could get far with a Dublin jury. Since the opposing counsel was usually his brother-in-law this only added further humiliation to defeat. What agony he must have gone through when the victorious humbug sidled over to him at the end of a case and with mock sympathy said ‘Ah my dear Joe, you really should have won that one…

Sir Joseph Napier Bt, as he appears on the frontspiece to his posthumously published ‘Lectures, Essays and Letters(1888).

But if Dublin juries were more impressed by Whiteside, Joseph Napier was more highly thought of by the leading English Tories. Both men had manoeuvred their way into the House of Commons in the Tory interest, where the reward for barristers toeing the party line was a seat on the Bench. Joe had one disadvantage, though. He was very hard of hearing –

Holy Joe Napier

With his hand to his ear”

was Dublin’s uncharitable gibe at his infirmity.

On the other hand, Holy Joe had practised as a pleader in London and had cultivated the London connection more industriously than Whiteside, who really wasn’t very comfortable in the society of English people and preferred life in Dublin, which Holy Joe did not. So when the Tories got in in 1852 they made Holy Joe Attorney-General of Ireland and fobbed his rival off with the Solicitor-Generalship. Next time around, which was in 1858, Holy Joe was lifted right to the top of the legal tree as Lord Chancellor, leaving Whiteside far below as Attorney-General.

Napier’s obituary picture in the Graphic, 20 January 1883, depicts him during his brief Lord Chancellorship – the high point of his career.

But the Tories were only in for a year, then Holy Joe was out. So was Whiteside, of course, but Joe’s deafness was seen to be such a drawback that it was plain he would never be put in the Chancellor’s seat again. It was some consolation that he drew the enormous Chancellor’s pension for life, but money isn’t everything to a man who lusts after power and prestige. The next Tory Government made Whiteside Lord Chief Justice of Ireland and though they made Holy Joe Sir Joseph he was only a has-been. Nevertheless with the Belfast obstinancy he dogged his brother-in-law’s footsteps.

But while the Bench gave Whiteside another victory over Holy Joe it had one drawback. He couldn’t exercise the golden voice as much as he had been able to when a barrister. So in the evenings he went down to the Metropolitan Hall and gave lectures to the Church of Ireland Society. They were packed out. This was a double aggravation to Holy Joe who for years had been preaching to small congregations drawn from the Young Christian Men’s Association.

Stung to fury, Holy Joe launched a series of talks in Dawson Street on Bishop Butler’s Analogy. Alas, the listeners were few. Worse those Young Christians who were contemplating a legal career deserted to the enemy.

Whiteside as Lord Chief Justice, from the Graphic, 31 May 1873, via British Newspaper Archive.
Whiteside presiding over the famous O’Keeffe case, again from the Graphic, 31 May 1873, via British Newspaper Archive.

The years ground on. Rosetta, bent on peacemaking, organised joint holidays for her husband and brother in English watering places, but compulsory geniality in each other’s company only brought them back to Dublin hating each other even more.

Then Whiteside suddenly fell ill with Bright’s disease. The brothers-in-law were the same age, but it was Holy Joe who remained in perfect order. Whiteside died in a hotel in Brighton at the age of seventy-two and was brought back to Dublin for a gigantic funeral, attended by all the lawyers and by Young Christians in droves. Nobody paid any attention at all in the cemetery to poor Holy Joe, who was obliged to give an unearthly cry and drop down in a faint before anyone would give him a second look.

Whiteside’s obituary portrait in the Graphic, 16 December 1876, via British Newspaper Archive.

Holy Joe survived for another six years. Dogging Whiteside’s footsteps to the last, he too died in an English hotel, the Royal Victoria Hotel in St Leonard’s-on-Sea. He was seventy-eight.

But his last years had been embittered by seeing two public statues going up to the detested brother-in-law (St Patrick’s Cathedral and the Four Courts), and no prospect of anything for him. So he arranged a compensatory inscription for his tomb. ‘An earnest and humble Christian,’ it boastfully began, ‘he consecrated to the Master the rare abilities he possessed and after a life spent in advancing the interests of Justice, Learning and Religion, he was summoned to the nearer and holier service of the Church above.’

But what’s the use of a lovely inscription like that when the dammed fools stick it on the side of the vault where nobody ever sees it?

Traversers Exiting a Land League Trial in the Court of Queen’s Bench, Four Courts, 1881, via Getty Images. The Four Courts statue of Whiteside, now destroyed, can be seen on the left of the image.

Perhaps due to divine intervention at the behest of Holy Joe, the Whiteside statue in the Four Courts seemed to be cursed from the start. Its initial unveiling ceremony was hijacked by the Lord Chief Justice’s former housekeeper, who arrived with her colleagues for an advance preview and took away the shroud covering it before the dignitaries arrived. Later, in 1893, two barristers, Pierce de Lacey O’Mahony and Matthew Kenny, got into a fight in front of it in the Round Hall. The statue was ultimately destroyed in the 1922 bombardment of the Four Courts, and the only surviving representation of it intact may be seen in the image above. Whiteside’s other statue survives in the vaults of St Patrick’s Cathedral to this day.

An illustration of the famous Round Hall fight between Pierce O’Mahony MP and Matthew Kenny MP, from the Illustrated Police News, 4 Feb 1893, via British Newspaper Archives. Whiteside’s statue is just out of picture to the left.

Now, with his old rival largely forgotten, it is Napier who enjoys the more long-lasting glory as the original ‘Holy Joe‘ – this nickname, allegedly coined for him by none other than Daniel O’Connell, remains a noun used in English-speaking countries to refer to a sanctimonious or pious person to this day.

Just one of many colourful expressions added to the English language by the Irish Bar!

Too busy for a trip to Mount Jerome to check out the Whiteside and Napier tombs? Never mind – you can see photos of them here and here.

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