The Language of Love, 1901-1904

From the Yorkshire Evening Post, 17 July 1901:


In the Four Courts, Dublin, yesterday, a breach of promise action brought by Beatrice Kate Roberts against Dr Charles Burnett Scott came before Master Bruce and a jury of six for the assessment of damages.

Mr Molony, KC, in stating the case for the plaintiff, said she lived near Streatham, London, and the defendant, who now practised at Kingstown, County Dublin, was at the time he met the plaintiff practising at Brighton, where his father had purchased a practice for him.  The plaintiff’s father was the founder of the London firm of Ebenezer Roberts and Co., and when he died in 1895, he left a widow and eight children.  They were staying in Brighton in November 1897, when they got introduced to the defendant through Dr Fowler of that town.  The defendant’s attentions to the plaintiff were from the first unmistakable, and, in February 1898, he proposed to her and was accepted.

The engagement lasted till October of last year when it was broken off without the suggestion of a fault or a complaint.  In the course of the engagement the defendant wrote the plaintiff 348 letters, and as many more were written in return.  In his letters the defendant went through the whole vocabulary of affectionate expressions, and he did not even stop there, for, perhaps, struck with the poverty of the English language in conveying love ideas, he had quoted from Russian, Italian, French and German, and it was almost a wonder that, in the midst of a Celtic revival, his sentiments did not lead him to quote Irish. (Laughter).

The quotations reached from the Bible to the latest music-hall ditty, and it was curious to trace the different modes of appellation by which he addressed his lady love.  At one time – for a very short time – she was ‘dear Kate’.  Then nothing but three words would express the degree of his affection, and she was ‘my dearest Kate,’ ‘my sweetest Kate,’ ‘my darling Katie,’ ‘my ownest Kate,’ ‘my ownest love,’ and ‘my ownest sweet.’  But he did not stop there.  Three words were then inadequate for him, and he broke into four.  She became ‘my own sweet Kate’ and ‘my own darling Katie.’   And even four did not satisfy him, for in a subsequent letter he addressed her as ‘my ownest and dearest Kate.’

Counsel read some of the letters.  In one he said ‘I hope you are not trying to make love to the lips that are near you till mine are near you, when you can make love as much as you like.  Twiggez-vous, ma cherie?’

The plaintiff then met with an accident which counsel said, ‘happens to most of us.’  She fell downstairs.  The defendant wrote to her: ‘My darling Katie, what do you mean by falling downstairs and damaging yourself?  I would like to be near and kiss the place to make it well, if that would have the desired effect.’ (Laughter).  In another letter the defendant wrote ‘I am nearly melted with the heat, but there is still some of me left.  What there is left of me is yours, my dearest – yours, with love to command, Burnett.’ (Laughter).

After a vast number of other letters, each couched in terms of endearment, on October the 24th of last year, the defendant wrote saying: ‘In the last few weeks I have met a former friend of mine and feel I cannot give you the love which I have done and which you require.  It is very hard for me to write this, and I hope you will try and think well of me.  Anyway, I am not breaking this off to become engaged again, for that is impossible for me for many years on account of my family, and I would be refused if asked.’

Miss Roberts, a rather prepossessing young woman, in a quiet grey dress, was examined as to the facts.

Mr Jefferson, for the defendant, said it was better in the interests of the plaintiff that the engagement should be broken off.  The defendant had nothing but the tall hat and set of clothes he wore.”

The defendant then stated that his father had given him £300 to buy the Brighton practice and £150 for furniture.  Everything he made went to his mother and father’s account.  He was in debt when he sold the practice in Brighton.

To Mr Molony – ‘He thought he did the girl a favour by breaking off the engagement.  He was in love with the other girl when he broke it off, also when he wrote to plaintiff on the 1st of October, addressing her as ‘My darling Katie.’  He was not at present engaged to any girl.

Mrs Scott, mother of the defendant, stated that every farthing earned by him went to keep herself and her husband, who was an invalid.

Master Bruce, in charging the jury, said he had rarely known a more shocking case of heartlessness than that shown in the conduct of the defendant.

The jury awarded the plaintiff £1000 damages.”

With the Gaelic Revival in full swing, it was only a matter of time until there was a breach of promise case involving love letters in Irish, in which Thomas Molony KC (later Lord Chief Justice Molony) likewise appeared for the spurned lady.

Delaney v Burke, heard before Mr Justice Wright and a city common jury in the Four Courts of June 1904, involved a claim by Miss Margaret Delaney, a young lady residing with her father, a cabinetmaker, in County Kilkenny, against the defendant, Frank P Burke, a revenue officer, for breach of promise of marriage.  The impecunious Mr Burke represented himself, on occasion receiving guidance from Mr Justice Wright in this regard.

The account of the hearing, in the Weekly Irish Times of 25 June 1904, is as follows:

“Mr Molony, in opening the plaintiff’s case, said the defendant, a Gaelic enthusiast, had come from Glasgow to Kilkenny in 1900, and had devoted his spare moments to promoting the spread of the Irish language and supporting the Gaelic League.  The plaintiff had also tastes which led her to study the Irish tongue, and she became a member of the branch of which defendant was secretary, and first me the defendant there.  He undertook to be her instructor in the mysteries, as well as the beauties, of the Irish tongue. 

The plaintiff was possessed of a nice contralto voice, and entered as a competitor for the Oireachtas, held in Dublin in 1901.  She was accompanied to the festival by the defendant.  Until that time, beyond the instruction which the plaintiff had got from the nuns in the convent where she was educated, she had no special knowledge of music, and had received no lessons from any master.  On that occasion, therefore, in Dublin she only succeeded in getting highly commended by the examiners.  The defendant suggested to her when she returned home that, under careful tuition, she might become a great singer, and went so far in the matter as to interview Dr Malone, the organist of Carlow Cathedral.  As a result, he arranged with Dr Malone that she was to take music and singing lessons with him.  The defendant agreed to pay Dr Malone his tuition fees.

Up to this time there was no engagement of any formal kind between them, but it suggested itself to the young girl’s mind, as it would naturally suggest itself to the mind of any right-minded young girl, to find out the reason why he was taking such an interest in her.  It was a natural and proper question for her to ask him, and he replied, ‘it was only natural for a man to take what interest he could in a girl that he intended to make his wife.’  That was in June 1901. 

In January 1902, when she was some five or six months under Dr Malone’s tutelage, he procured her an engagement at a concert in Dublin.  It was what was called the Rooney Concert, organised for the purpose of raising funds to erect a suitable monument over a young Irishman named William Rooney, who for a number of years had been deeply interested in the Gaelic movement, and who died rather young.  The defendant came to Dublin with her, and they stayed at the same hotel in Rutland Square.  The concert was a great success, and the defendant was enthusiastic in his approval of the great success which she had attained.  As a tribute of his admiration for her he presented her with a volume of ‘Moore’s Irish Melodies’ set to music. 

He continued paying for her lessons, and watching her progress until the Oireachtas came round again in 1902.  Defendant again accompanied her to Dublin, and stayed at the same hotel as she did.  Miss Delaney secured first prize this time, and both of them were very pleased.  In one of the rooms of the hotel, when all the rest had gone to bed, and when plaintiff announced her intention of doing the same, he called her to him, and said, ‘I want to know will you marry me? I will give you your own time.  I know you are only a child, but I want the promise from you.’  She at first said – as young ladies generally did when they were coy and young – ‘I will tell you in the morning.’  ‘No,’ said he, ‘I want your answer now,’ and then the plaintiff replied as they might expect her, saying ‘Yes’ and the defendant kissed her.  He suggested that she should sing at a Gaelic League concert in Manchester in March 1903.   Her appearance was a great success in Manchester, and the defendant wanted to buy her a ring, but as the one plaintiff fancied would cost 18 guineas, none was bought (laughter).  

The defendant went away for a holiday and came back in August 1903.  He entered her parents’ residence in the guise of a lover, and what did he do?  He said to the plaintiff ‘Get me the letters that I wrote while I was away.’  She wanted to know what he wanted them for. ‘Oh’, said he, ‘I want to make a reference from them’ and the unsuspecting girl handed them to him.  He promised to bring them back on the next day, but he did not do so, and although repeatedly asked for them he never gave them back, and now said they were destroyed.  Two, however, which the plaintiff subsequently found she had not handed over, were discovered, and the jury could assume the character of the rest of the correspondence from these two specimens which would be produced. 

The first was dated the 27th of October 1902.  He did not commence his letter ‘Dear Maggie’ or anything of that kind, but began ‘Maghraid, asthore,’ which meant ‘Maggie, my treasure.’ (Laughter).

Mr Justice Wright – Does he relapse into English again? (Laughter)

Mr Molony said that was so, but his lordship would see that he broke out into Gaelic frequently again (Laughter).

Then the letter went on: ‘Last night I was disappointed and missing you – glad you did not venture out on such a night, and yet very much down in the mouth that you could not be out.  However, aroon (that, said counsel, meant ‘oh great love’) I hope to make up for this little fast someday very shortly.  I shall be up at St Pat’s this evening between twenty to eight to eight o’clock, and again after the confraternity.  Should you be out at either hour I’d like to see you, machree (which meant, said counsel, ‘my heart’) if even for only ten minutes.’  When he came to an end the Gaelic ardour broke out again.  He was not satisfied with ‘yours sincerely’ or ‘affectionately.’   How miserably the English tongue fitted the ardour of the Gaelic heart!  He wound up with words in Irish, which meant ‘with everlasting love from Francis.’ 

Two days afterwards, he addressed her with a different heading, but with the same intensity of feeling, ‘Maghraid Machree’ ‘Maggie of my heart’.  He had expected to see her that evening, but met her brother instead, and asked him what had become of Maggie.  ‘Oh,’ said he, ‘I left her at home eating a coconut.’ (Loud laughter).   Then the defendant in his letter built up a little romance around the coconut:

‘Is that coconut a good one? I hope you are enjoying it as much as I enjoyed my walk up and down the town.  While you were munch, munch, munch I was tramp, tramp tramp – (loud laughter) – and when I got a glimpse of you through the little slit in the shutter (I wanted to know if your old boy was within) and saw how you were enjoying yourself, I hadn’t the heart to disturb you, agrah, meaning love.  I am sorry you didn’t come, though, for I cannot turn up on Thursday evening.  By the way, that was a great run you made down the town about 1.15 today.  I saw you a good way ahead, and did my utmost to overtake you, but could not take an inch off the distance intervening.  It’s a shame for you, Maggie, the way you run from me whenever you get the chance.  I’ll chalk it up some day, though.’

Then he wound up with more Gaelic ardour, with another Irish expression meaning ‘With great love to my little dark treasure, from your lover, Francis.’(laughter)

Counsel said the rest of the story was sad.  They continued on good terms until October last.  Something then made plaintiff write to ask if defendant wanted to break off his engagement.  To that letter there was no reply.  She had heard of him walking with another girl, and when she met him afterwards and complained she denied there was any truth in the story.  Her mother and sister died within a fortnight of each other in November and December.  He never came to see her or offer his sympathy, and in the end, he married Miss Catherine Phelan in February last.

The plaintiff, a good-looking girl, who said she was under 21 years of age, was examined in support of counsel’s statement.  She was then cross-examined at length by the defendant with the object of showing that their acquaintance was solely due to the fact that he had to teach her and some other girls how to sing in Irish at the Feis competitions.

The defendant – Did I write to one of the adjudicators about you? 

The plaintiff – Yes.

The defendant – What did he say? 

The plaintiff – He said my voice was like a piece of Kilkenny black marble – capable of much polish.  (Laughter).

The defendant – You told nobody that we were going to get married?

The plaintiff – No, because you said you wanted to give the gossips a surprise.

The defendant – You are able to read Irish?

The plaintiff – Yes

The defendant – I have a little bit here that I want you to read.

The plaintiff – Thank you, but I have not been studying Irish all the time (laughter)

The defendant – But you swore you were able to read it?

The plaintiff – I said I was not able to speak or read it fluently, but I can read what you had in your letter.

The defendant – But you won’t read anything else?

The plaintiff – I won’t try


Mr Gibson (Junior Counsel for the Plaintiff) – What has this to do with the case?

The defendant – It shows that the plaintiff knows nothing about Irish.

The plaintiff – And that is your teaching, Mr Burke (laughter).

Mr Justice Wright – If the defendant wants to win his case it will be on his own evidence, and not by cross-examination.

William Delaney, brother of the plaintiff, in reply to Mr Gibson, said he knew the defendant since he had come to Kilkenny.  He was frequently a visitor to their house, and the defendant and his sister (the plaintiff) were almost constantly together.  He remembered when the defendant was ill and sent for him.  The first word he said was ‘How’s Peg?’ (Maggie).  He then said ‘The next time I get ill I’ll have a nurse to mind me.  I’ll get married.’  The defendant frequently spoke of wishing to be transferred, as he did not want to get married in Kilkenny, where there were so many gossips. 

Cross-examined by the defendant: I am not aware that you had any other object in coming to my father’s house than to see my sister. 

The defendant – Was it not about a lathe that I went there? 

Delaney – Oh yes, you were going to see the lathe, but it was not the lathe that you really wanted to see, but my sister (Laughter)

The defendant – Did you ever belong to a disreputable club in Kilkenny? 

Delaney – I would not say it was a disreputable club.

Mr Justice Wright – The jury may resent that sort of question and may visit their resentment on your head.

The witness in reply to Mr Gibson said the club had been broken up because of a dispute among the members.

The defendant was then sworn and stated his own case.  He said he had never directly or indirectly promised to marry the plaintiff.  He was appointed to Kilkenny in September 1900 and in December he became secretary to the local branch of the Gaelic League.  He organised entertainments for the members, and it was at one of the concerts that he first met the plaintiff.  He was struck with her singing, as she had a remarkably fine voice.  He recommended her to train for competition at the Oireachtas, and she said that she could not afford to take singing lessons.  When he went to Kilkenny he was engaged to be married to a lady in Dublin.

Mr Molony – That’s not evidence.

The defendant – I mention it to show that I had no designs upon the plaintiff.

Mr Justice Wright – Is that the lady you are married to? 

The defendant – No.  (Laughter).  The engagement was broken off, but not by me.

The defendant went on to say that he lent the plaintiff the money with which to take singing lessons, the condition being that she would repay him when she won a prize or received payment for singing.  He suggested that he should give her lessons at her father’s house, but as her people objected to his coming to the house, she came to his, along with two other girls, in order to prevent the people from talking.  His mother objected to the plaintiff at length and turned her out. 

 While the lessons were going on, the plaintiff frequently absented herself, and he used to write to her to inquire the cause.  She came up to sing at the Oireachtas, and she won first prize.  He accompanied her to Dublin from Kilkenny on that occasion and was elated at the prospect of getting his money back.  On another occasion he accompanied her to Manchester, where she sang, and he got the fee which she earned there from the secretary of the concert.  If he had not spoken to him about it, he supposed he would have got nothing.

The singing lessons were resumed, but after his mother turned her out of the house he determined to break with her altogether.  A little later, however, they met, and had a walk together, and the plaintiff asked him for a ring.  When he saw what her object was, he determined to speak to her no more, and he did everything he could to show her that he had no desire for any further acquaintance with her.

Mr Justice Wright – When she asked you for the ring you must have been surprised.  What did you say?  The defendant – Well, I was taken aback.  (Laughter).

Mr Justice Wright – What did you say?

The defendant – I let her have the weight of my tongue.

Cross-examined by Mr Molony KC – Did you love Maggie Delaney? 

The defendant – Most decidedly not.

Mr Molony – You did not love her at any time? 

The defendant – Never.

Mr Moloney – Did you write the letter (produced)? 

The defendant – It is remarkably like my writing (Laughter).  I won’t swear that it is, and I won’t swear that it is not.

A Juror – Is the composition of it like what you would write? 

The defendant – Most decidedly not (Loud laughter).

Mr Justice Wright – Do you suggest that the plaintiff, who is a very clever girl, forged these letters?

The defendant – I don’t suggest anything.

Mr Molony – Did you make her presents of music?

The defendant – Yes.

Mr Molony – Is the writing in the music books (produced) yours?

The defendant – It is like it; I won’t say it is or it is not.

Mr Molony – Did you give her a fur boa and gloves? 

The defendant – I never gave her any presents but the music.

Mr Molony – Will you produce the 24 letters you got from the plaintiff?

The defendant – There never were any such letters.

Mr Molony – You got letters from this girl? 

The defendant – Yes, but I destroyed them immediately.  They were about the music classes.

Mr Molony – Have you ever kissed this girl? 

The defendant – I don’t remember ever having done it.  I have kissed many girls (Loud laughter).

Mr Molony – Do Excise officers kiss so many girls that they cannot remember them all?

The defendant – I don’t understand the question.

Mr Gibson (for the plaintiff) – My friend suggests that ‘tasting’ is part of an Excise officer’s duty (Laughter).

Mr Molony – You never kissed a girl by accident?

The defendant – No.

Mr Molony – You kissed girls because you intended to so so?

The defendant – Well, I don’t suppose I intended to give them a bear’s hug.  (Loud laughter).

This closed the case for the defence.

The plaintiff, recalled, said there was no vestige of truth in the statement that the money paid for music lessons was a loan.

The defendant said he had got no money with the lady he married, and he would have had counsel engaged to conduct his case but for the fact that he was too poor.  He had a salary of 115 pounds per year and out of that he had only 91 pounds to live on and keep a wife and an invalid father.

Mr Gibson asked not for exemplary damages, but damages which they would be likely to recover, and which would show that the jury believed the plaintiff.

The jury retired at 4.25 p.m., and after twenty minutes absence returned into court.

The foreman said they had agreed on the first question as to the promise but could not agree on the damages.

Mr Justice Wright – Think it over again, gentlemen.

A juror – Can you give us any assistance?

Mr Justice Wright – Generally speaking, you are bound to take into account the means of the defendant and the position the plaintiff has lost.  I think your damages, having regard to what you have found, should be real, but not ruinous – what you think is a real amount, but not too small, because that would be a suggestion that there was some reason why this many should not marry the girl.  So far as she is concerned, I am sure it is the view of all of us that she will leave court without the slightest imputation or slur or suggestion upon her character.

A juror – I look upon him as a perjurer.

Mr Justice Wright – I am not disposed to say that I dissent, but at the same time, gentlemen, do not ruin this man and his wife, but give substantial but not ruinous damages.

In reply to a juror, Mr Justice Wright said it would become a matter afterwards as to whether the damages would be paid in instalments.

The jury again retired.

At ten minutes past 5 the jury again returned into Court finding for the plaintiff with £200 damages. 

Judgment was given accordingly.”

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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