June 8, 2016

Howlin on Adultery in the Courts: Criminal Conversation in Ireland in the Nineteenth Century

Niamh Howlin @N_Howlin, Sutherland School of Law, University College Dublin, has published Adultery in the Courts: Criminal Conversation in Ireland as UCD Working Papers in Law, Criminology & Socio-Legal Papers Research Paper No. 0716. Here is the abstract.
In April 1806, Valentine Browne Lawless, the second baron Cloncurry, noticed his young wife Eliza walking arm-in-arm with his friend, Sir John Bennett Piers, a notorious womanizer, spendthrift and gambler. His suspicions aroused, Cloncurry confronted his wife, who confessed to having an affair with Piers, then staying as a guest on their estate at Lyons, Co. Kildare. A miniature portrait of Piers and a lock of his hair were found among Lady Cloncurry’s possessions. Piers, unsurprisingly, made a hasty departure, but wrote several times to Cloncurry denying the affair and making vague offers to duel. Cloncurry and Piers had been friends since their school days; furthermore, Piers owed Cloncurry a sum of money. While nothing, presumably, could entirely assuage the hurt feelings and wounded pride of the husband in such circumstances, the subsequent award of £20,000 damages by a King’s Bench jury may have helped. Represented by John Philpot Curran and Charles Kendal Bushe, he sued Piers for ‘criminal conversation’. Meanwhile, Lady Cloncurry, having been portrayed as ‘an artless and weak girl of nineteen’, left the country, her reputation in tatters, and later gave birth to a son presumed to be Piers’. Criminal conversation or ‘crim con’ was a ‘notorious’ civil action which allowed a cuckolded husband to recover damages from his wife’s lover. It evolved out of de facto blackmail agreements in the late seventeenth century and gained popularity among the English nobility in the eighteenth century until its abolition by the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, but because this Act did not extend to Ireland, Irish crim con actions endured until the twentieth century.

Download the article from SSRN at the link. 

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