HC Deb 09 April 1867 vol 186 cc1373-6

said, he rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the Law as related to Mixed Marriages in Ireland. The House was aware that in Ireland marriages celebrated by a Roman Catholic priest between Roman Catholic and a Protestant were by the 19 Geo. II.—the last remnant of the penal laws—declared to be null and void. He did not, however, at the present time, propose to repeal that Act, and for this reason, that the whole question of the marriage law was under investigation of a Royal Commission, and he was willing to wait for their Report. His sole object in the present Bill was to prevent what in all quarters in Ireland and in every country was pronounced to be a crying evil and an abuse. According to the statute to which he referred there would be no doubt that if a man resorted to a Roman Catholic priest, and professed to be a Roman Catholic, and if the priest, believing his statement, solemnized his marriage with a Roman Catholic woman, he could subsequently repudiate such marriage if he could show that he had professed the Protestant religion at any period within twelve months before the ceremony was performed. The marriage so contracted was legally null and void, and the issue of it would be bastards in the eye of the law, while the woman would be left destitute of support. That such a state of thing called loudly for alteration no one could doubt. But his object was simply this—that where a man already married abandoned his wife, and, professing to be a Roman Catholic, subsequently married a Roman Catholic woman, and was afterwards indicted for bigamy, he should not be permitted to take advantage of his own wrong and shelter himself under the provisions of this Act of Parliament from the responsibilities of his crime. Unfortunately, this was not a mere imaginary or sentimental grievance. From the time of the enactment of the law down to the present, repeated instances had occurred of men taking advantage of this state of the law. It would be in the recollection of hon. Gentlemen that not many years ago a gentleman, from whose rank and position better things might have been expected, relied on this Act to screen himself from the consequences of his own wrong and to ruin the woman whom in the eye of God he had made his wife, though by the law of man he was enabled to repudiate her. There was another case which occurred in Ireland in 1865, and which he believed was the last case that had occurred. A man who was a Protestant married in 1858 a Protestant woman. He deserted her, and during her life-time he made the acquaintance of a Roman Catholic girl, to whom he represented himself as a single man, and a Roman Catholic. He made the same representations to a priest, and, all the necessary forms having been observed, the marriage was solemnized in the Westland Row Catholic Church, Dublin. The matter became public, and the man was indicted for bigamy. There was no denial of the facts, but the defence of the prisoner was—and his father and brother were brought forward to prove it—that he had been born and bred a Protestant, and that within twelve months of his marriage he had taken part in the services of a Protestant place of worship. The learned Judge (Judge Keogh), who tried the case, was of opinion that notwithstanding this defence, the prisoner was not protected by the Act of Geo. II., and the jury having convicted him, he was sentenced to five years' penal servitude. An appeal was however taken, and the Judges who heard the case, with great reluctance, and expressing a strong disapprobation of the existing state of the law, arrived at the conclusion that the ceremony in Westland Row Church was a nullity, and that the conviction must be reversed. The scoundrel was accordingly discharged from prison. The feelings of the Judges who reluctantly arrived at this conclusion might be gathered from the expressions used by them in pronouncing their judgment. Mr. Justice O'Hagan characterized this as the worst and most aggravated of all deceptions practised under the colour of religion. Mr. Justice Fitzgerald described the state of the criminal and the marriage law which would permit conduct like this to take place with impunity to be highly discreditable to the country. Mr. Justice O'Brien concurred in the expressions of regret as to the state of the law which relieved from punishment persons who had been guilty of such scandalous conduct. And Mr. Justice Christian, whose recent elevation to the Court of Appeal was approved of by every member of the Irish bar, said he should deeply regret the decision he was about to give, if he did not feel convinced that the Act of Parliament, which he was compelled to put in force, would not long survive that decision, inasmuch as it was high time that a statute under which such iniquitous profligacy escaped punishment, and which was a remnant of a barbarous and, happily, nearly obsolete code, should be modified or repealed. If any apology were required for his trespassing on the attention of the House, that apology would be found in these facts. The sole principle and object of his Bill was to strike a blow at this iniquity, and to show malefactors that if they resorted to this law to gratify their villany they would no longer be able to do so with impunity.


said, it appeared to him that this question was environed with greater difficulties than the hon. Member appeared to be aware of. The question of mixed marriages had excited a great controversy in Germany, and he should be glad if the ability of the hon. and learned Gentleman could succeed in devising a remedy for the wrongs which he (Mr. Newdegate), equally with the hon. Member, reprobated. The case which the hon. Member brought forward was clearly a case of fraud; but he doubted whether the hon. Member would be able to find a remedy, as he must remind him that frauds of this kind were not confined to mixed marriages.

Motion agreed to.

Bill to amend the Law relating to Marriages between Protestants and Roman Catholics in Ireland, ordered to be brought in by Mr. Serjeant ARMSTRONG and Mr. GOGAN.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 120.]