When Richard Pigott was born in Ratoath in 1828 little did people realise that he was to have a significant role to play in a political controversy sixty years later.
There is no record of the birth or baptism of Richard or of his family in Ratoath. The youngest son of George Pigott, Richard, began a career in publishing and journalism with The Nation. By 1858 Pigott was the manger of The Irishman, a nationalist paper published in Dublin. In 1865 Pigott purchased The Irishman for £700. A noted supporter of the nationalist cause Pigott started two magazines, The Shamrock and the Flag of Ireland.
In 1868 Pigott was found guilty of support for the Manchester martyrs, the Fenians who were executed following the death of a policeman in 1867. Pigott was imprisoned for a period. His lifestyle of drinking and gambling led him deep in debt. Pigott seems to have secured monies though various means and was accused of misappropriating funds raised for nationalistic causes.
In 1881 the Land League purchased Pigott’s publications for the Irish Parliamentary Party, with most of the money going to pay off Pigott’s debts. Charles Stewart Parnell closed them down and founded United Ireland. Pigott changed his political allegiance and began to write articles condemning the Land League and linked the Irish Party with agrarian violence.
In 1885 Pigott was paid by the Times of London to research links between Parnell and violent crime in an effort to discredit Parnell as leader of the Irish Party.
Pigott began forging letters associating Parnell with crime, which were sold to The Times in 1886. These letters linked Parnell to the Phoenix Park murders. In 1882 newly appointed Chief Secretary Lord Frederick Cavendish and Permantent Under secretary Thomas Burke were assassinated in the Phoenix Park by the members of the Irish National Invincibles. Charles Stewart Parnell had made a speech condemning the murders in 1882. A copy of a letter were published in The Times in March 1887. This letter expressed the view that while the killing of Cavendish had been a regrettable accident Burke had got his just deserts.
Parnell’s response to the letters was relaxed. He knew they were forgeries but could it be proven? In July 1888 Parnell asked the government for a special committee of the house to inquire into the matter. The investigation took nearly two years.
On 25 February 1889 Pigott appeared in the witness box where he was cross-examined by counsel for Parnell. Russell asked Pigott to write words at his dictation; these included the word ‘hesitancy’, which Pigott spelt with an ‘e’, as in one of the Times letters. The letters have gone down in history as the Pigott Forgeries. The next day, Pigott failed to appear in court, and the court was informed of Pigott’s confession of forgery. Parnell always thought that Captain O’Shea had a hand in the forgeries. Parnell then sued The Times for libel, and the newspaper paid him £5000 in an out-of-court settlement. Parnell was at the peak of his political career and received a standing ovation when he re-entered the House of Commons.
Pigott left for Paris on 26 February, and travelled to Madrid the following day. Three days later he committed suicide rather than give himself up to the Spanish police. Pigott’s papers seem to have been in the possession of Michael Davitt, later elected as MP for Meath North.