Lord Norbury and the Devil

In a short story by Brendan Behan, “A Turn for a Neighbour”, it’s Christmas time, and someone has died. A neighbour offers as a favour to collect and deliver a coffin. Between collection and delivery, he comes to a pub and decides to stop for refreshment. It being Christmas, “getting in was easier than getting out.” Several drinks later, he emerges to find his cart empty, the coffin “gone, like Lord Norbury with the divil.” This is the story and background behind that expression.

John Toler (1745-1831) as Lord Norbury the “Hanging Judge” was Lord Chief Justice from 1800 to 1827. He lived at Cabragh House in the inner suburb of Cabra, Dublin, on the corner of Faussagh Avenue and Rathoath Road at The Bogie’s Roundabout. “Bogie” – like “bogeyman” – is a generic term for a phantom, hellhound, demon, or other frightening entity. He also owned a townhouse at No 3 Great Denmark Street in Dublin city centre off Parnell Square, now part of the Castle Hotel complex.

The story goes that one day Norbury asked his coachman to take him from the townhouse to his home in Cabra. On arrival, the coachman stepped down and opened the door. The coach was empty. He said later that he felt the coach suddenly riding more lightly halfway through the journey, and that was when he reckoned the devil took Lord Norbury.

Local people of ripe age have told me that as children they were told that when Norbury died a black dog dragging a chain haunted his house until it was demolished in 1939, and it is still seen on the streets of Cabra and neighbouring Phibsborough, where I live.

Toler was appointed Solicitor-General in 1789 and promoted to Attorney-General in 1798 with responsibility for prosecuting rebels – or suspected rebels – in the 1798 Rebellion. He could be soft on torture.

Lieutenant Edward Lambert Hepenstal, “The Walking Gallows”, was a 7-foot tall, 20-year-old lieutenant in the Wicklow militia. He admitted during a trial in 1776 that a prisoner had “been pricked with a bayonet, to induce him to confess: a rope had been put around his neck, which was thrown over his (Hepenstal’s) shoulder, he then pulled the rope, and drew the prisoner up, and he was hung in this way for a short time, but continued sulky, and confessed nothing.” (Hanging a prisoner or witness until he loses consciousness, and repeatedly reviving and hanging him again to persuade him to confess or implicate others is called half-hanging. Waterboarding is the modern equivalent.)

The defence attorney put it to Hepenstal:

“Then you acted the executioner, and played the part of a gallows?”

“Yes, please your honour” was the reply of Lieutenant Hepenstal.

The Solicitor-General, Mr. Toler, who tried the case, in his charge to the jury regretted the treatment of the prisoner, “but it was an error such as a young and gallant officer might fall into, warmed by resentment.” … The prisoner was found guilty.

When Toler was elevated to the top judicial post in Ireland as Lord Norbury, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Clare, protested: “Make him a bishop, or even an archbishop, but not a chief justice.”

A Compendium of Irish Biography (1878) states: “Lord Norbury was a fitting instrument to carry out the severe policy of the Irish government at the period of the Union, and the assizes at which he was present were invariably followed by wholesale executions.”

(The 1801 Act of Union joined Ireland to Great Britain to form the United Kingdom.)

The author of a 20th-century book about his contemporary, John Philpot Curran, called Norbury “one of the most blackhearted and sadistic scoundrels who ever wore scarlet and ermine”. Another commented: “His knowledge of law was negligible and his style of administration was ludicrous.”

For Daniel O’Connell he was “an especial object of abhorrence”.

According to The Dictionary of National Biography, “his indifference to human suffering … disgusted even those who thought the occasion called for firmness on the part of government. … his scanty knowledge of the law, his gross partiality, his callousness, and his buffoonery, completely disqualified him for the position. His court was in constant uproar owing to his noisy merriment. He joked even when the life of a human being was hanging in the balance.”

But at least once the joke was on him. He fell asleep during a trial about horse-stealing. When he woke up, he could recall nothing of the proceedings but the alleged crime and the name of the defendant.

“You, Darby Casey, are convicted of horse-stealing, than which a more detestable crime does not exist, and I sentence you …”

“Ah, my lord,” Darby interrupted. “You may leave out the rest, if your lordship pleases. The jury – God bless ’em – acquitted me just before your lordship awoke.”

Norbury was the judge who ordered the hanging of failed revolutionary Robert Emmet in 1803. Dublin Corporation built the Canon Burke Senior Citizens Flats complex on the site of Norbury’s home in 2003 in commemoration – with a hint of revenge or at least irony.

The most effective curses are said to be those made by priests, poets and widows. When Norbury condemned an innocent man to death by hanging, the man’s widow on her deathbed cursed Norbury that he would never have a peaceful night’s sleep. He was known to be an insomniac, and perhaps the power of the curse is why his wakeful spirit continues to roam the neighbourhood in the form of a black dog. Some say his ghost rides his horse up and down Faussagh Avenue at midnight on the anniversary of his death, 27 July.

This rare positive anecdote suggests a Jekyll-Hyde character.

He was riding his horse on the way to a courthouse where he was scheduled to adjudicate on a case taken against a peasant by a landlord. He came upon a man walking in the same direction and greeted him cordially. Unbeknownst to Norbury, the man was that defendant heading to the courthouse. He did not recognise Norbury, and, with his mind on the forthcoming trial, poured his heart out to the friendly stranger.

He had been wronged and harshly treated by a little magnate in his neighbourhood, and, taking the law in his own hands in a fit of passion, he had been imprisoned, and now, being out on bail, he was proceeding to the court where Lord Norbury was to preside. He had no counsel employed and had no confidence in the leniency of the judge and was altogether in a depressed state of mind.

They parted company before arriving at the courthouse, and the judge, sending for a favourite counsellor, instructed him in the case, and handed him a fee for the defence.

The defendant was acquitted after the counsellor’s impassioned attack on the landlord’s conduct. The peasant soon figured out how the judge had come to his aid, and “he would be a bold man who would afterwards speak ill of Lord Norbury in his presence.”

A solicitor had died penniless, and Norbury was approached to contribute a shilling for the funeral. “A shilling to bury one solicitor?” he replied. “Here’s a guinea. Bury twenty-one of them.” Ironically, it was reported that Norbury died a pauper four years after he was dismissed from the judiciary for falling asleep during a murder trial, and a collection was taken up to provide candles for his funeral.

Norbury was interred in the graveyard next to the Church of Saint Mary at Mary Street and Jervis Street on Dublin’s north side. In 2005, the deconsecrated church was converted into a garish modern pub now called The Church after the bodies were removed.

Cabra frequently turns up in the news in connection with a shooting or stabbing or arms or drugs find. After a full day of storytelling in a boys’ school just off Faussagh Avenue, I was thirsting for a restorative cup of tea and popped in to the nearest hostelry, which happened to be The Cabra House pub on Faussagh Avenue, a stone’s throw from Norbury’s former residence, Cabragh House.

It would be awkward for a public house to refuse service to a member of the public, but my “reception” was distinctly unwelcoming, hostile, intimidating. I gulped down my tea and left quickly. In a survey a few years later, doughty Dublin taxi drivers voted The Cabra House as the most dangerous pub in the city.

© 2022

Richard Marsh