A chance encounter with two Americans tracing their ancestry has prompted a book exploring a notorious ‘miscarriage of justice’ in 18th century Youghal.
Historian and retired school principal Kieran (A K) Groeger wrote The Trial and Execution of James Cotter after two young Americans spoke “somewhat proudly” of an ancestor being hanged “for being a Catholic” in 1720.
“They were shocked when I revealed he was actually hung for rape,” the writer recalls. However, Cotter’s execution was widely considered a political assassination. His death sparked riots and public outrage, fuelled sectarian bitterness and prompted attacks on Quaker communities. The book uses genealogy services and documentation records from the time to trace the story. It discovers the
Quakers initiated and sponsored Cotter’s trial following a rape allegation by Elizabeth Squibb, who was closely aligned with the movement and who may have been Cotter’s mistress.
The alleged rape occurred in woodlands near Fermoy during a journey to Cork. Cotter, a father-of-four from Castlemartyr in east Cork was a wealthy Catholic, Jacobite and supporter of the Pretender James III.
He was revered by impoverished Catholics for his political agitating. Through Church dispensation, Cotter married Margaret Mathew at 16, thus retaining the family estate on his father’s death and avoiding imposed Protestant conversion under Penal law.
His wife was a niece of Presentation Sisters founder Nano Nagle. Cotter’s father, Sir James Cotter, was a former governor of Cork who had helped to assassinate exiled regicide John Lisle on behalf of Charles II in revenge for Lisle’s role in executing Charles 1st Quakers by confiscating their property for use as a prison.
The family had powerful enemies loyal to Queen Anne and George I, including Lord Lieutenant Alan Broderick of nearby Midleton and Chief Justice William Whitshed. Rape trials were extremely rare but Broderick prosecuted Cotter in a trial in which Broderick’s son St John was judge. Broderick’s wife was also the granddaughter of John Lisle.
“Cotter was beyond hope,” notes the author. Cotter was executed despite clemency pleas from leading Protestants, the jury and even Alan Broderick and Squibb. A daring escape bid, disguised as a woman, failed and he was hanged from a makeshift gallows on May 7, 1720.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved