Interesting Inquiry at Sligo

Extract from O'Rourke's History of Sligo


In 1820 a Public Inquiry was held in Sligo, which deserves some notice, as it created great excitement in the town at the time, and is not devoid of interest in other respects as well. It arose from a quarrel between the merchants of Sligo and the collector of the Port, Mr. Robert Holmes, who had a low opinion of each other, the collector charging the merchants with smuggling, and the merchants retorting on the Collector with the four following charges:

Procuring his situation by purchase contrary to the express provisions of an Act of Parliament.

Tampering with a superior officer to induce him to dispense with the oath required by the law to secure against the corrupt procurement of office.

The abuse of power in office, both as it regards the subject and the Crown.

Unprovoked attacks on the character of the merchants.

The public authorities acceded to the application of the merchants for an investigation of these charges, and deputed Paul Dawson, Esq, Surveyor-General of Customs, to preside at the inquiry, which, after an arrangement of preliminaries, was opened at the Custom House, on the 21st of April, and lasted to the 26th of June. The merchants appointed five of their number - William Hume, Alexander Cochrane, William Kelly, Martin Madden, and John Black - a committee of management to prosecute the case, and Mr. Holmes conducted his own defence. Most of the merchants sided with the prosecution; some stood by Holmes; and a few held aloof from both sides - notably Mr. Abraham Martin and Mr. Ignatius Everard, the two most respected traders of the town.

The managers acquitted themselves of their part with great distinction, and the defence was maintained with conspicuous spirit and ability by Mr. Holmes, who was powerfully aided in his contentions by the evidence of one of his witnesses, Mr. William Middleton, merchant and ship-broker, the only one of all the merchants of that day that is now represented in the mercantile community of Sligo by descendants.

A report of the proceedings at the inquiry was printed under the title: A Report of the Proceedings at the Public Investigation before a Surveyor-General of Customs, into certain charges preferred by the merchants of Sligo against Richard Holmes, Esq., then collector of that port, as taken from the notes of a shorthand writer, with Extracts of the Original correspondence on the subject of those charges. Printed for the Committee by Edward Duffy, Enniskillen, 1821.

Those who read this report attentively can hardly fail to come to the conclusion that there were faults on both sides - that Holmes, in his proceedings, had often his own interests more in view than those either of the public or the Crown, and that the merchants, on their side, were far from being as immaculate as they would have others believe.

The Lords of the Treasury must have taken the charges against the Collector to be proved, as on the reception of Mr. Dawson's report, they issued an order for his suspension, and called on him to show cause why he should not be dismissed; at the same time they dismissed his son, who was pro-collector and a Mr. Caithness, who was his clerk; and after a short delay they appoint Mr. Owen Wynne Collector of the Port in his stead.

It was well for the merchants that they were not on their trial, for, judging by facts which came casually to light during the investigation, some of them would have come ill through the ordeal. It was clear there was extensive smuggling; for it transpired that trading vessels, on entering the bay, sometimes dispatched boats, on mysterious errands, to the shores of Tireragh or Carbury; that tobacco was landed at Raghly and the Rosses; that several bales of the commodity were discovered at a place called Lugadoon in Tireragh; and that large quantities of it were found made up in rosin casks, on board the Juno.

While three or four of the merchants were suspected of having a hand in those contraband proceedings, Mr. John Black got credit for being engaged in the business on an exceptionally large scale. His neighbours of the Rosses believed that the limestone caves on the brink of the sea at Bomore served as a depot for the ill-gotten goods; and some imaginative persons convinced themselves that a tunnel ran, under the hills, all the way from the caves to Elsinore Lodge, through which Black usually moved his dangerous wares.