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The Maamtrasna Murders

Early on Friday August 18 1882, John Collins, a tenant farmer in the County Mayo countryside, having heard disturbances coming from the direction of his neighbours’ house during the night, went to check if all was well at the home of the Joyce family. Fearing the worst, he brought two neighbours with him, Mary and Margaret O’Brien, but nothing could have prepared them for the appalling scene that lay in wait for them.

What they discovered in the Joyce household would not only horrify them but also the entire country – five members of the family, of varying ages, had been brutally butchered and shot to death by unknown killers who had left a scene of utter carnage in their wake. No mercy had been shown to the unfortunate family, who had lived a simple life over many generations at the family homestead near Lough Mask in County Mayo.

Inside the door, which was broken off at its hinges, lay the naked corpse of John Joyce. He was shot twice in the torso. Nearby on the bed his wife Bridget lay dead, her skull crushed by a blow over her right eye. Her son Michael (17years), was lying beside her with two bullet wounds. He was choking and barely alive, and he would later die from his wounds.

In the inner room, further devastation had been wrought. Lying across a bed, was John Joyce’s mother-in-law, Margaret. She was stripped, and dead from a deep wound on her forehead. Beside her was Peggy, in her midteens, also bludgeoned to death. Lying beside her was 12-year-old boy Patsy, with two serious wounds to the head, but alive and very frightened.

There were bullet marks on the kitchen wall and peppered throughout the cramped home. The only other member of the family to survive the massacre was a son, Martin, who was absent from the home as he was in service in Clonbur at the time.

The murder of practically the entire Joyce family, in their small cabin in the heart of the Mayo mountains on the shores of Lough Mask, rocked a local community unaccustomed to such violent outrages.  About 250 families struggling to make a living from the rocky soil, or by rearing sheep under the shadow of Connemara’s majestic Maamtrasna mountain, lived nearby.

Later that day, they gathered on the hillside as the local RIC Constable Johnston (who spoke no Irish, with sub Constable Lenihan acting as interpreter), and the local magistrate Newton Brady held an inquest. The two surviving boys testified that the murders had been committed by a group of three or four men, all of whom “ had their faces blackened”. The shock waves from Maamtrasna, however, were felt as far away as London.

On August 20 The Times commented: ‘No ingenuity can exaggerate the brutal ferocity of a crime which spared neither the grey hairs of an aged woman nor the innocent child of 12 years who slept beside her. It is an outburst of unredeemed and inexplicable savagery before which one stands appalled, and oppressed with a painful sense of the failure of our vaunted civilisation.’

The Maamtrasna Murders took place at a time of deep social and economic unrest in Ireland. Three years previously, the most effective protest against the insidious landlord domination of the vast majority of the Irish people found expression in the Land League.

It was established on October 21 1879, in the Imperial Hotel, Castlebar, by former Fenian prisoner Michael Davitt. In a sweeping revolutionary statement, the League proclaimed the right of every tenant farmer to own the land he worked on.

Because of the abuses heaped on tenants by some landlords, it had an immediate impact. It also found
a powerful voice in its president Charles Stewart Parnell, a Protestant landowner in County Wicklow. Parnell was initially seen as an unlikely leader of a mass agrarian movement, but Davitt declared him ‘an Englishman of the strongest type moulded for an Irish purpose.’

Parnell’s policies were so effective that it vaulted him into the unchallenged leadership of the advanced wing of the Irish Parliamentary Party. In its time, through a series of Land Acts, it achieved extraordinary concessionsfor the Irish tenant, far in excess of what was ever achieved for their contemporaries working on the land in England, Scotland, or Wales.

Parnell advocated peaceful protest, such as non payment of rent, the effective use of boycott, and solidarity and support for those families who were evicted. However, passions frequently ran high and the subsequent violence often took a vicious turn.

Principle targets for murder were landlords or their agents, many of whom were soft targets. In January of the same year of the Maamtrasna murders, Joseph and John Huddy, who worked for Lord Ardilaun,( a member of the Guinness family, a generous philanthropist who lived mainly at Ashford Castle, Cong) were murdered and their bodies dumped in Lough Mask.

John Henry Blake, an agent of the despised Lord Clanricard, was shot dead in broad daylight in Loughrea in June 1882. A Claremorris landlord Walter Burke; and Ballinrobe landlord Lord Mountmorres (who was considered an enlightened man who never evicted his tenants), were both shot dead.

The British government was determined to stamp out these outrages by whatever means. Parnell and other leaders such as John Dillon and Conor O’Kelly were arrested on the basis of allegedly seditious speeches. They were held, without trial, in Kilmainham Gaol.

But what brought the country to a standstill, and near hysteria, were the stabbings in Phoenix Park, on May 6 1882, of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the newly appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland, and Thomas Henry Burke, the permanent under-secretary, the most senior Irish civil servant.

The murder of Cavendish went right to the top of the British administration. Not only because of his senior position, but he was married to Lucy Cavendish, the niece of British prime minister William Gladstone; and had worked as Gladstone’s personal secretary. He had only arrived in Ireland the day he was murdered. The assassination was claimed by members of the ‘Irish National Invincibles’.

Draconian measures were immediately introduced giving the police increased powers of search and arrest. New three-judge courts were set up to avoid intimidation of witnesses; and compensation for murder, injury, or damage to property was to be levied on the jurisdiction in which the crimes were committed.

Then, on August 17, the so-called Maamtrasna murders were committed. It was a crime that the local police dreaded not only because of its horrific nature, but because of the unlikelihood that the perpetrators would ever be found. Usually, in a close-knit community such as at Maamtrasna, the murderers would almost never be identified, at least never to the police. But surprisingly, the day following the murders, Anthony Joyce (a cousin of the murdered man), with his brother Johnny and his nephew Paddy, all from the nearby parish of Cappanacreha, three miles from the murder scene, went to the police with an astonishing tale.

These Joyces, known as ‘the Maolras’ Joyces (to distinguishthem from the many other Joyce families in the area), gave a sworn statement that they had followed a crowd of men that fateful night, that they saw them joined by a group of other men, and saw them approach John Joyce’s house at Maamtrasna.

Hidden behind a bush, they heard the noise at the door, and saw some of the men enter the house, while others stayed outside. Anthony heard shouting and screeching and stated that he could not distinguish the screams of the women from those of the men.

He named the ten men whom he alleged approached the house that night as follows: Anthony Philbin, Tom Casey, Martin Joyce, Myles Joyce, Patrick Joyce, and Tom Joyce of Cappanacreha. Pat Joyce (Shanvalleycahill), Patrick Casey, John Casey, and Michael Casey. They were duly rounded up and brought before the magistrates at Cong, and charged. Although most of the men spoke only Irish, they were tried in Dublin before a judge and jury without a word of Irish. Two of the men, allegedly from fear of execution or in expectation of reward, became informers and gave
evidence against their neighbours and friends.

The first three who were tried, Pat Joyce, Pat (“Padriag Sheamuis”) Casey and Myles Joyce were found guilty and sentenced to death. The other five decided, on the advice of their priest, Father Michael Mac Aoidh from Clonbur, that they would plead guilty in order to avoid the hangman. They were sentenced to death but the queen’s deputy in Ireland, the Earl Spenser, commuted those sentences to penal servitude for life. It was reported that Queen Victoria herself wished all eight to be executed.

The three who were to be hanged were brought back to Galway jail to the prison that then stood on the present day site of Galway Cathedral. Shortly before they were hanged two of them admitted separately that they themselves were in fact guilty but that Myles Joyce was innocent. This appeared to be insufficient grounds for Earl Spenser to postpone or revoke the execution and he confirmed in a telegram to the prison’s governor on the eve of the hanging that “The law must take its course”.

The three men were hanged on the morning of the 15th December 1882 and their bodies were buried in the grounds of the prison, in what is now the Cathedral car park. On his way to the scaffold that morning it is reported that Myles Joyce said, “Feicfidh me Iosa Criost ar ball beag – crocadh eisean san eagoir chomh maith…Ara, ta me ag imeacht…Go bhfoire Dia ar mo bhena agus a cuigear dilleachtai.” ( “I will see Jesus Christ in a short while – he too was unjustly hanged…I am going…God help my wife and her five orphans”.)

History records that the hangman William Marwood’s efforts didn’t go according to plan, and that Myles Joyce died from strangulation rather than hanging – a torturously slow and painful way to die. Two years later, one of the informers who had given sworn evidence against Myles Joyce presented himself before Archbishop MacEvilly of Tuam diocese and the congregation during a confirmation ceremony in a Tourmakeady church and confessed that the evidence he had given under oath had been false and that there was no basis to his contention to to the court that Myles Joyce was involved with the murders.

The British authorities refused the full inquiry into the case sought by the Archbishop of Tuam, and by journalists and politicians, including Charles Stewart Parnell. Further information about the case came to light in subsequent years. It appeared that evidence which could have helped prove the innocence of some of the men had been concealed from the court and from the defence lawyers.

Allegations were made that the authorities tried as much as possible to restrict the number of native Catholics on the jury. It also appeared that evidence in Irish was ignored and that very little of it was translated into English in court. A policeman had been assigned the duty of interpreting the accused men’s words to English. A full inquiry was refused although evidence accumulated that there had been a miscarriage of justice.

It was widely accepted that one of those in prison was guilty of taking part in the murders (along with two of those that were hanged) but it was also believed that the other four prisoners were as innocent as Myles Joyce. It is also thought that three others who did take part in the murders, including the person who planned and directed them, were never charged.

The Maamtrasna case was debated throughout the length and breadth of Ireland and discussed in the media in all of the English speaking world. There were long debates in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster – one of the debates lasted four days and some of the leading politicians of the era contributed. A refusal to hold a public inquiry was among the reasons that the Liberal Government of William Gladstone fell in 1885 when the Irish MP’s under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell defected and supported the opposition Tories under the leadership of Randolph Churchill. That coalition was dubbed “The Maamtrasna Alliance”.

Two of the five men convicted of the crime died in prison and the other three, two brothers and a nephew of Myles Joyce, spent 20 years in custody for a crime they did not commit. Their wives appealed for their release to the queen’s deputy, Lord Dudley and his wife when the couple visited Connemara in 1902.

When the men were at last released on 24 September 1902 they were put on a train from Dublin to Ballinrobe and they walked the final eighteen miles home to Ceapach an Creiche under the shadow of Maamtrasna, in the darkness and the rain.

A well-attended commemorative event, dedicated to the memory of Myles Joyce, was held in Galway in December 2012. The Galway event was prompted by a campaign in the British Houses of Parliament led by Lord Alton and Lord Avebury to persuade the authorities to review the case of Myles Joyce, to declare him the victim of a miscarriage of justice, and to concede that he was falsely convicted and executed.

The commemoration on Saturday 15th December, the 130th anniversary of the hanging of Myles Joyce, included a mass in Irish in his memory in Galway Cathedral followed by the laying of wreaths on the spot where the gallows on which he was hanged stood and where his body lies buried under the tarmac in the cathedral car park.

A symposium in Galway City Museum heard contributions from historian Professor Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh and Lord Alton from the British House of Lords – whose mother was a native Irish speaker from the Tuar Mhic Éadaigh Gaeltacht bordering Maamtrasna. There was also a significant contribution from Johnny Joyce from Dublin, a descendant of the Joyce family whose murder in Maamtrasna led to the conviction of Myles Joyce.

An Coimisinéir Teanga, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, said that Myles Joyce’s case was one of the most significant and distressing cases ever concerning the denial of language rights. “At a time when the public’s language rights are confirmed in law, we shouldn’t forget cases such as that of Myles Joyce which remind us of the difficulty of getting justice under the law in the past if you didn’t have English.”

The course of events leading up to the murders and their dramatic aftermath – including the justly-criticised legal proceedings and the uproar the case caused throughout Ireland and Britain – are superbly retold in Jarlath Waldron’s book “Maamtrasna- The Murders and the Mystery”.

As well as drawing on his intimate knowledge of the country and the people concerned in the events and steering a clear course through the intricate relationships involved, Jarlath Waldron poses various questions which the reader must decide to their own satisfaction – did Anthony Joyce leave his bed on that fateful night? – why did Anthony Philbin agree that he was one of the murder party? – is it justice to bring men almost two hundred miles to be tried in a language of which they had no knowledge, with the sporadic intervention of an interpreter who just happened to be a Policeman and who spoke an unfamiliar dialect ? These questions and more are explored in Waldron’s exemplary account of one of the darker episodes in Irish history.



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