The Marital Misadventures of a Master of the Rotunda, 1890

On Saturday in the Exchequer Division, the application for an attachment sought by a Mr Lynch (plaintiff in an action for criminal conversation, in which Dr Macan, of Merrion Square, and late of the Rotunda Hospital, is defendant) against the editors of the Medical Press and the Evening Mail, came on for hearing.

Mr O’Shaughnessy, QC, on behalf of Mr Lynch, read out the following article complained of:

Dr Macan, late Master of the Rotunda Hospital and President of the British Gynaecological Society, had the great misfortune to lose his wife three years ago, and the further misery to meet after some time with a person in the course of his practice whose attractive manners and executive ability made an impression on him. She represented herself as the wife of Owen Lynch, formerly of Dublin, afterwards of the United States, from whom she had been divorced for reasons unknown. It is enough to say that after some time Dr Macan married her and introduced her into Dublin society, where, of course, the wife of the Master of the Rotunda would be entitled to be received into the best ‘set.’ A terrible denouement followed, for it appeared, if report says true, that the lady was, and is in fact, the wife of Owen Lynch.  Such a misfortune might come upon any man without any act of either guilt or folly on his part; and until it is proved in court that Dr Macan acted with knowledge of the true state of affairs we should refuse to believe that the legal proceedings against him have any moral justification.’

Counsel characterised the article as a gross contempt of court, calculated to injure Lynch in having his case fairly tried by the jurors of the city of Dublin. 

Mr McLaughlin QC said that the Mail submitted itself to the judgment of the court and did not intend to influence the trial of the matter by any comments. It was the first time that an action for criminal conversation was brought against a man for relating with a lady whom he had married.

Chief Baron Palles said the court was clearly of the opinion that the article was an contempt of court, and that its tendency was to influence the minds of jurors on the most vital matter in the case, that relating to the alleged divorce… He thought that an attachment should be granted against each of the editors, but the attachments would not issue until a further order from the court. If further comments were made on this case the attachments would then issue.”

Dr and Mrs Macan’s house at 53 Merrion Square South, now The Wilde.

‘Conversation’ is an old euphemism for sexual intercourse and criminal conversation (commonly referred to as ‘crim. con.’ for short) was a civil action which a plaintiff husband was entitled to bring against any other man who had engaged in sexual intercourse with his wife during the period of their marriage.

According to Richard Adams QC, opening the case for Mr Lynch later that same year in the criminal conversation proceedings the subject of the contempt application, there had been very few crim. con. cases in the Four Courts of recent years since, as everybody knew, there was no country in the world in which domestic life was as pure as Ireland (Mr Adams must presumably have overlooked the many previous matrimonial mishaps of eminent members of the Law Library and their spouses).

Mr Lynch’s case, as presented by his legal team, was that Dr Macan had first met the plaintiff’s wife Mary Kate Lynch over a decade previously in the course of her treatment for ‘a painful and terrible’ disease; that Dr Macan had not only cohabited with Mary Kate prior to their purported marriage, but had entered into this marriage for money, believing her to be a rich woman possessed of ‘jewellery of unspeakable brilliance and a stud of six horses fit to astonish all Dublin.’ Furthermore, it was asserted that, having discovered that his new bride was not merely penniless, but had a husband alive from whom she had not been validly divorced, Dr Macan had sought to cover up scandal by bribing her to remain outside Ireland for ten years.  

Dr Macan, on the other hand, gave evidence that, far from having known Mary Kate Lynch for years, he had met her for the first time shortly before their marriage, at a dinner in Dromartin Castle where she was introduced as an American heiress and a friend of his host, Mr John Lalor. His first impression of Mary Kate was that she was ‘a rather fascinating little woman.  I got very intimate with her and paid her attention.’  When subsequently called in after she became ill, he carried out an operation on her privately and at no charge. Romance then progressed to the extent that he gave her a dog, and when she told him tearfully that she had cancelled an intended trip to England, because she did not want to leave the dog which he had given to her, he was so moved that he proposed on the spot.

Evidence given by other witnesses disclosed that Mary Kate, the daughter of a servant to the O’Conor Don, had married Mr Lynch, a porter, in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, at the age of 19.  Later, when economic circumstances required her husband to seek work in America, she and her three children found shelter at Lakelands Convent, Sandymount, where she was already known to the nuns through her mother.  

After a subsequent unsuccessful visit to her husband in Louisville, Kentucky, Mary Kate took up the post of companion to an ailing lady, becoming sufficiently intimate with Mr Lalor, the husband of her employer, to be invited, following that lady’s demise, to stay on to comfort him in his bereavement. 

There was also a Ned Connors, of Kentucky, whom Mary Kate had met during her visit to Louisville, and whose love letters, read out in court, referred so often to the need for his beloved to clean and file her teeth as to suggest that he might have shared with Dr Macan some orificial expertise, albeit in the field of dentistry rather than gynaecology.

After hearing the above evidence, the jury limited damages against Dr Macan to the sum of one farthing, further vindicating his character by finding as a matter of fact that he had not become aware of Mrs Lynch’s married status until he was some months married to her, and had refrained from any intimacy with her following this discovery.

Unsurprisingly, Dr Macan had no difficulty in having his purported marriage declared a nullity, though the Freeman’s Journal did see fit to sympathise with him on the loss of Mary Kate, ’the woman who at a bound could, by the most splendid mendacity and fraud, walk from the poverty stricken hearth of an invalid labouring man to the drawing rooms of the ‘best set’ in Dublin society and who, under a bigamous marriage, could shine in Dublin as the wife of an eminent professional gentleman while her real husband, over in Kentucky, was earning the precarious penny of a street car conductor.’

There is no record of what subsequently happened to Mary Kate Lynch, though one suspects she was well paid not to share her story in the popular press.  The easy fluency of her below letter to Dr Macan suggests that it would have been an interesting read!

“My Darling Arthur – You don’t know how much I love you or you would try to care for me.  I quite know the trouble I have caused you, and I am sorry from my heart for it.  I cannot now undo what I have done, but I can do all in my power to make up to you for all that is past.  Arthur, I feel it awful when you don’t talk to me, or look as if you didn’t care to see me.  I am trying to be straight with you, and will do my best not to wrong you.  I don’t think anyone could love a man more than I love you.  That is why I notice every turn of your face.  Do care a little for me.  All I want or care for in this world is your love.  Your own MARY.”

Dr Macan remains a celebrated Dublin physician, noted for first introducing stirrup examination to the Rotunda. Omitted from subsequent accounts of his illustrious career, Mr Lynch’s case against him surely merits some record – not only as an example of that rarest of things, a successful Irish action for crim. con. – but also as an illustration of how even the most eminent of professional gentlemen can be led astray by vanity, flattery, and the wiles of a charming and persuasive woman!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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