The story of Pauline Roche – an East Cork Victorian melodrama

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The story of Pauline Roche – an East Cork Victorian melodrama

The Bronte sisters were brilliant novelists during the early Victorian age. Their melodramatic stories are still popular with readers and film producers to this day. Their father was an Irish Anglican clergyman called Patrick Prunty, who changed his name to Bronte in admiration of Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was made Prince of Bronte in Sicily by a grateful King of Naples. We know that Charlotte Bronte married her father’s curate and later embarked on a honeymoon/holiday in Ireland, touring the country that her father came from. One of the interesting aspects of the Bronte novels is the characterisation of strong women in a very restrictive society where women were, frankly, meant to be seen as the property of their menfolk. They were meant to be seen, and to serve, but not to have any opinions or independence for themselves. Naturally, there were exceptions….and one story from East Cork could come straight from a Bronte novel…but it doesn’t. It’s a true story and a remarkable testimony to the resilience of a young woman in Victorian Ireland and Britain.

Pauline Roche was born in Rome in 1835 to William Roche and Jane Roche O’Bryen of Whitepoint (Cobh). William was the grandson of John Roche, a merchant who made a fortune in trade and built the now vanished Aghada Hall, which once stood above Lower Aghada. Sadly, Pauline’s father died just three months after her birth – a genuine hazard in Rome at the time for mosquitoes were rife there. Her mother, Jane, died the following year, when Pauline was just eleven months old.

As a result of this tragedy, Pauline was put in the care of her uncle, Dr John Roche O’Bryen of Bristol, a physician. It is unknown why John Roche O’Bryen was appointed Pauline’s guardian, but perhaps his large income and his young family were thought to make him a suitable guardian the little girl. Indeed, John Roche O’Bryen’s son Henry was of an age with Pauline. (He later became a priest better known as Monsignor Henry O’Bryen.) Pauline was to have a maintenance allowance of £130 per annum from her father’s estate. (That’s probably about £180,000 per annum in today’s money!) Pauline was to inherit the rest of the money when she came of age. However, it seems that all was not well in the O’Bryen household, and, in a moment of high drama, Pauline slipped out of her uncle’s house in 1854 and fled across the sea to another uncle, Robert O’Bryen, in Cork. Once in Cork, Pauline sought to get a change of guardian…so she applied to the courts of law! This was a particularly daring move by a nineteen year old girl.

The newspapers of the day loved it, of course! But the details that emerged in the lawsuit make it clear that Pauline had legitimate case against her uncle.

In court, Pauline’s case was that she had been mistreated by her uncle Dr John. She claimed that she was of delicate constitution and required proper care and attention. Instead she was ‘provided with bad food, bad clothes, and was deprived of such necessities as sugar and butter.’ Considering that John Roche O’Bryen had an income that was equivalent to £500,000 per annum, and that Pauline had a very nice allowance, you would have thought that she would have been properly provided for. Pauline was also deprived of horse exercise which was indispensible to her health…’

This was compounded by the fact that she was given a pony in the bequest of a dying patient of her uncle’s but she was deprived of this, a carriage horse was procured, which kicked her off his back, and she refused ever again to mount him. She also complained that upon two occasions he (guardian) beat her severely – that he made her a housekeeper and governess to the younger children, that he led her to believe she was dependent upon his benevolence; and further, that she was not permitted to dine with him and his wife, but sent down to the kitchen with the children and the servants.”

Pauline’s uncle didn’t give her up without a fight. In court he claimed that he had treated her well, and made certain that she had an education suitable to a lady of her class. Oh, and he also ‘contended that she would have better consulted her own respectability and displayed better taste, if she had abstained from taking such proceedings against her uncle and guardian with whom she had been for so many years.” An interesting bit of character assassination from her ‘caring’ uncle! There is a lot more on this line, including Uncle John using his horsewhip on Pauline when she showed independence. Basically, Uncle John tried to show Pauline as a spoiled and wilful little bit of trouble and all he had done was to teach her manners.

Pauline also said that some letters she had written claiming that she was well cared for were actually written under duress and supervision. This was confirmed when good Uncle Robert produced a letter she had sent on the same day as her previous ‘good news’ letter, showing that she had indeed been obliged to write the previous letter under duress. And that second letter also contained evidence of Uncle John beating her.

The presiding judge, Sir Thomas Berry Cusack-Smith, the Master of the Rolls summed up the case savagely. He found the plaintiff’s case to be entirely trustworthy and granted Pauline her change of guardian. Two years later (1857) Pauline Roche married William Henry Barry of Ballyadam near Lisgoold. They went on to have seven children, one of whom, Mary, married into the Smith-Barry family of Ballyedmund House. Incredibly the judge who had granted Pauline’s suit in the court also married into the Smith-Barry family at a later stage! So Pauline ended up being distantly related to the judge who freed her from an uncaring guardian! Pauline died about 1894. Sadly, both Aghada Hall and Ballyedmund House have vanished from the East Cork landscape.

The tale of nineteen year old Pauline Roche taking her ‘wicked uncle’ to court and winning shows that a determined young woman could win justice in the Victorian age…mind you she was well advised by her solicitor, Mr Orpin.

I wonder if there is a film in this tale?