The sex scandal the archbishop failed to censor


THIS IS a story that had it all. A suspicious Merrion Square dentist seeking to divorce his wife, alleging her adultery with a Merrion Square surgeon. A servant girl from Clare who spied on her mistress for her master. Late-night card games, race meetings, Boss Croker, a wildly-fascinated Dublin public and a deeply concerned Catholic archbishop.

 Throw in Tim Healy, counsel for the alleged adulteress. The same Tim Healy MP who, in 1890 during the Parnell divorce crisis, responded to Parnell’s demand, “Who is the master of the party?” with, “Aye, but who is the mistress of the party?” The same Tim Healy who was the Free State’s first governor general.

The story involved a divorce case taken by dentist John Bishop of 20 Merrion Square 100 years ago. He alleged adultery by his wife, Ethel, with surgeon Dr John McArdle of 72 Merrion Square. The case was too much for the then Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev William Walsh who sent a “personal” letter to Dublin newspaper editors on February 1st, 1909, expressing “the deep concern with which we (sic) regard the injury which we believe to be caused to morality by the publication in the newspapers of the details of the proceedings in trials of this sort. . .’’

He feared the effects on “the moral tone of the community and especially of its younger members will be distinctly prejudicial”. He appealed to the editors “to withhold from publication, as far as possible, the details of the proceedings at this trial. . .”

The archbishop’s letter was found last December by Chicago journalist Tom Boyle in a box of memorabilia he purchased at a flea market near Grayslake in the US state of Illinois. Boyle was unable to trace how the letter ended up in the box, or where it came from. He was so intrigued he he e-mailed a copy to this reporter, asking what it might be about.

We went to work. A look in The Irish Times digital archive, using the search words “bishop divorce”, revealed that the archbishop’s request for a ban on coverage of the divorce case was ignored by the newspaper, which from February 9th to 20th, gave the case copious coverage.

Headlines included “Dublin Sensation”, “Prominent People In Court” on “Extraordinary Charges”, and “Her Love For Surgeon McArdle”. Counsel JH Campbell, opening the case for the dentist, John Bishop, said it was not often jurors were troubled with the investigation of “as painful and as grave a case”.

Such cases were more common across the water, he noted. Tim Healy, counsel for the alleged “adulteress”, “cordially joined with Campbell in congratulating our country that cases like this were extremely rare”.

Campbell said Bishop’s wife was “an adulteress, and that her paramour and seducer was Dr McArdle”. Married 17 years with one eight-year-old daughter, the Bishops had been comparatively happy despite the fact that “she had quarrelled with every relation she had and was not on speaking terms with any of them. In more recent years, she had contracted the strongest passion for card playing and gambling in every shape, and played night after night, even until breakfast time in the houses of persons whose houses she used to frequent for the purpose”.

It was admitted that Mr Bishop took part in the above, too, but that he would leave at 11pm or midnight “being a very busy man”.

One of Mrs Bishop’s constant companions at the card games was Dr McArdle, for whom “she had conceived a regular infatuation”. She made her servant girl Margaret Cusack “her messenger for the purpose of carrying her love letters, sometimes delivering them by hand at the house of Dr McArdle”.

A letter of October 22nd, 1908, began, “Jack darling. . .” It was about arranging a meeting, and ended, “Adieu, my darling boy. With all my love, as usual, your loving girl, Ethel”.

Cusack dropped hints to Mr Bishop about what was going on. She began to spy on Mrs Bishop for him, from upstairs windows, using opera glasses.

Healy, for Mrs Bishop, said that when she was confronted by her husband about her alleged adultery, she said it was “an infamous lie”.

Bishop ordered her out of the house. Healy said Bishop was the man who introduced his wife to cards, late nights and Dr McArdle. Mrs Bishop admitted in court that she had loved Dr McArdle over the relevant weeks of October and November 1908, while Dr McArdle admitted in court that he was fond of her and had kissed her. Both insisted nothing more occurred.

Summing up, Mr Justice Andrews said where adultery was concerned, “it was scarcely possible to produce the testimony of eyewitness to the commission of such offences”.

His wisdom went further. “Race meetings and card parties might be approved of by some people and disapproved of by others. They were not necessarily connected with adultery.”

He also noted that “at an earlier period of her career” Cusack “had fallen away on one occasion from chastity”. Thoroughly confused, the jury could not arrive at a verdict. They were sent back twice and still failed to do so.

And that was the case that was.

See the original story as published in the 1909 edition of The Irish Times on our online archive: bishopcase13