8 June 1739: John Scott, Earl of Clonmell aka ‘Copper Faced Jack’ was born on this day. Scott was one of the most ambitious and successful men of 18th Century Ireland - and one of the most notorious. His family were of middle income but in early life he befriended one Hugh Carleton and his father helped to finance Scott’s studies at Trinity College Dublin in 1756 and subsequently in Law at the Middle Temple. Admitted to King's Inn in 1765, he was entitled to practice as a Barrister.
In 1769 he was himself elected M.P. for the borough of Mullingar. His ability and determination to rise attracted the attention of the lord chancellor, Lord Lifford, and, at his suggestion, Lord Townshend threw out to him the bait of office. The bait was swallowed with the cynical remark, ‘My lord, you have spoiled a good patriot.’
In December 1774 he became solicitor-general, and in November 1777 he was appointed attorney-general and a privy councillor. But his personal feelings did not influence his political opinions, and to his colleague in London he wrote:
‘Send us two men, or one man of ability and spirit; send him with the promise of extension of commerce in his mouth as he enters the harbour, unconnected with this contemptible tail of English opposition, meaning well to the king, to his servants, and to the country, and he will rule us with ease; but if you procrastinate and send us a timid and popular trickster, this kingdom will cost you more than America; it will cost you your existence and ours’
He refused to be badgered into any premature expression of opinion as to the right of England to bind Ireland by acts of parliament, but astounded the house on 4 May 1782 by announcing ‘in the most unqualified, unlimited, and explicit manner … as a lawyer, a faithful servant to the crown, a well-wisher to both countries, and an honest Irishman,’ that Great Britain possessed no such right, and that if the parliament of that kingdom was determined to be the lords of Ireland, ‘he for his part was determined not to be their villain in contributing to it’
Scott, John (1739-1798)
by Robert Dunlop
Scott, John (1739-1798)
by Robert Dunlop
He was dismissed but on the fall of Portland’s government he was soon restored and was more careful to not offend those above him in a Country and an Age when Patronage was everything to advancement. Being very much a careerist his noted stance on a principal was something ‘out of character’ for a man noted to crave the finer things in Life like power, money and social status.
He was promoted on 10 May 1784 to be Chief Justice of the King's Bench and at the same time raised to the peerage by the title of Baron Earlsfort of Lisson Earl. The King's Bench was the principal court of criminal jurisdiction and civil jurisdiction, and its Chief Justice was the most senior judge in Ireland after the Lord Chancellor of Ireland.
Probably his most notorious act though was his hounding the editor of the Dublin Evening Post, one John Magee who was being sued by an associate of Scott’s called Francis Higgins aka The Sham Squire. The chief justice, influenced by personal and political motives, caused a capias ad respondendum marked £4,000 to issue against Magee. It was a tyrannical act, but in the state of the law perfectly legal, and would, as Scott intended it should, have utterly ruined Magee had not the matter been brought before parliament by George Ponsonby. The discussion greatly damaged his judicial character.
In 1789, he was created 1st Viscount Clonmell, of Clonmel, Co. Tipperary and in 1793 he was created 1st Earl of Clonmell. By the 1790s he had an annual income of £20,000 - a Fortune in those days in Ireland.
John Scott was a very able man but one who made a lot of enemies due to his arrogant and somewhat dictatorial manner. He was a man who took little care of his personal appearance and drank and ate to excess. Though he does not appear to have been a womaniser. In his diary he made frequent resolutions to mend the manner of his ways but does not seem to have followed them through to any effect. He did not suffer fools gladly however and even thought little of his childhood friend Hugh Carleton. His nickname ‘Copper Face Jack’ came from his very ruddy appearance, especially when he had Drink taken - which was often.
While he had reached the pinnacle of success in chosen career of Law it does not seem have brought him much happiness. In 1797, in the last conversation he would have with his wife's cousin, Valentine Lawless, 2nd Baron Cloncurry, he exclaimed:
'My dear Val, I have been a fortunate man in life. I am a Chief Justice and an Earl; but, believe me, I would rather be beginning the world as a young (chimney) sweep.'
Although his tendency was to make his position subservient to government and his own advancement, he ‘never indulged in attacks on his country,’ and never sought ‘to raise himself by depressing her.’ His reluctance to support the arbitrary measures that marked the course of Earl Camden's administration caused him to lose favour at the castle, and as time went on his opinion was less consulted and considered. He wrote, in his diary on 13 Feb. 1798, ‘‘I think my best game is to play the invalid and be silent; the government hate me, and are driving things to extremities; the country is disaffected and savage, the parliament corrupt and despised.’
He died on the day the Rising broke out 23 May 1798. His subsequent reputation suffered even more damage when his personal diary was published some years later. While not written for public consumption it nevertheless put a further blot on his name as within its pages he vilified even those whom he was considered close to both personally and in Law.
The Legal historian Elrington Ball wrote:
"an extraordinarily able man and an equally ambitious one. As he has revealed to us in his diary he had from the first no misgiving as to the object of his life being personal success, and although he wore out his mind and body in reaching his goal he made it against desperate odds."
Ball, The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 London 1926
He was married twice and left a son and a daughter by his second marriage. He lived at Clonmel House 17 Harcourt Street Dublin. Today that street houses one of Dublin’s most popular and notorious [?] nightclubs ‘Copper Faced Jacks’.!!!
Portrait above: John Scott, 1st Earl of Clonmell by Gilbert Stuart