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The Maamtrasna Murders

Language, Life and Death in Nineteenth-Century Ireland
Margaret Kelleher
UCD Press
Extract from the Preface Late in the night of 17 August 1882, in the rural townland of Maamtrasna, County Galway, a group of seven men, some carrying sticks and others revolvers, burst into the home of the Joyce family. The house was a two-room cabin, comprising a kitchen which was 22 feet long and 10 feet wide, part of which functioned as a cow house, and a second room which was 9.5 feet long and 6 feet wide. The men wore white flannel vests, or báiníns, and their faces were blackened and disguised with peat turf. At least one of the men carried a bogdeal light, made from a long sliver of pine timber taken from the local bog – ‘the poor man’s candle’ – which was lit on entering the house. The only family member to survive the attack declared that the men ‘did not speak a word to me or to any one in the house’. Later, three local men testified that, while the murders took place, they had watched from the potato field behind the Joyce house, some seven yards away, from where they heard ‘shouting, and crying, and screeching’. The Joyces’ home was part of a cluster of cabins along a narrow road: yet none of those who lived in the neighbouring houses reported to the authorities as having heard any sounds of violence. Early the next morning, a Friday, the bodies of the family were discovered by John Collins, a local neighbour. John Joyce, the head of the family, was lying naked on the kitchen floor; his wife Bridget (Breege) lay dead in their bed, located in a recess off the kitchen, and her dying stepson Michael lay nearby. In the room adjoining was one bed on which lay the bodies of John’s mother, Margaret, and his daughter, also called Margaret (Peggy); the young girl ‘lying with her head towards the old woman’s feet’. Also on the bed lay John’s youngest son, Patsy, who was severely injured but who would recover from his injuries. The other surviving member of the family of seven was Patsy’s brother Martin, who was absent from the house that night since he lived in service in Clonbur some ten miles distant. Collins quickly relayed the news of the murders to other neighbours: then he and ten other men from the village reported the deaths to the local Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) officers stationed in the nearby police hut in Finny. The next day, Saturday, 19 August, the three men who testified to having heard the sounds coming from the Joyce home – Anthony Joyce, his brother John, and John’s son Pat – identified ten local men as belonging to the murder party: Anthony Philbin of Cappaduff; Martin Joyce of Cappanacreha; his brothers Myles Joyce and Paudeen Joyce (also from Cappanacreha); Tom Joyce (son of Paudeen); Thomas Casey of Glensaul; Patrick Casey of Derry; his brother John Casey; their uncle Michael Casey (all of Derry), and Patrick Joyce of Shanvalleycahill.8 Myles Joyce and his brothers were first cousins of the Joyce informants and also first cousins of the murdered man, John Joyce – that such close family ties existed between Joyce victims, accused and witnesses would generate much public comment during the ensuing murder trials, but outsiders would also struggle to understand the full density of relationships between those implicated for the murders. For example, Martin Joyce was married to Judy Casey, who was the sister of John and Patrick Casey and the niece of Michael Casey; Thomas Casey of Glensaul was married to Mary Philbin, sister of Anthony Philbin. Only Patrick Joyce of Shanvalleycahill was unrelated to any of the other accused. Contemporary media reports drew particular attention to the violence of the attack on the Joyce household and the brutal nature of the injuries to the dead. These injuries included a number of bullet wounds on the bodies of John (aged about 50 years old) and Michael (about 17). Extensive head fractures were found on the bodies of the young Margaret (about 14), her stepmother Bridget (about 45), and her grandmother Margaret (about 80), who had been beaten to death. Speculation as to the motive for the murders was also immediately rampant, with the most prevalent theory being that a member of the Joyce family had recently acted as an informer in relation to the notorious murder of bailiff Joseph Huddy and his grandson John in nearby Clonbur earlier that year. In the days following the murders, the ten suspects identified by Anthony Joyce and his relatives were arrested and were brought before an inquiry in Galway city on 26 August; soon afterward they were transferred to Dublin, where they stood trial in November at the Special Commission Court in Green Street. Immediately prior to the trial, Anthony Philbin and Thomas Casey ‘turned Queen’s evidence’ and became approvers. Less than four months after the Joyce killings, on 15 December, three men were executed in Galway Jail: Patrick Joyce of Shanvalleycahill, Patrick Casey, and Myles Joyce, each of whom had pled innocent. The five others tried were sentenced to life imprisonment after changing their plea to guilty under the advice of their local clergyman. Of these five, Michael Casey died in Maryborough (now Portlaoise) Prison in August 1895; John Casey died in Mountjoy Jail in Dublin in February 1900; and Tom Joyce, Martin Joyce, and Paudeen Joyce were released from prison in October 1902. Immediately prior to the executions in December 1882, Patrick Joyce and Patrick Casey made statements attesting to their involvement in the murder party and declaring the innocence of the condemned man Myles Joyce as well as the innocence of Martin Joyce, Paudeen Joyce, Tom Joyce, and John Casey. Despite a number of appeals to the Lord Lieutenant’s office, Myles Joyce was executed; witnesses to the hanging reported that his impassioned protests of innocence led to the rope’s slipping and to his death by strangulation. Over their 20 years of imprisonment, frequent memo- rials and petitions for early release by the five prisoners and by their public supporters were unsuccessful. In 2015, the Irish government commissioned an expert review of the case of Myles Joyce from Dr Niamh Howlin of the Sutherland School of Law, UCD. Her examination concluded that his conviction was unsafe and on 4 April 2018 President Michael D. Higgins signed a posthumous pardon for Myles Joyce. The Maamtrasna murders were one of many notorious murders of the era; how and why these events acquired and maintained their distinctive notoriety is one of the subjects of this study. At the time of the murders, their gruesome details were seen as offering evidence of rural lawlessness, or ‘barbarity’, in the midst of debates as to the efficacy of coercive or conciliatory political policies and, more fundamentally, as to the capacity of the Irish for self-government. These were long-standing subjects for the British administration in Ireland but were especially heightened by widespread rural protest, agitation for land reform in Ireland and an incipient movement for Home Rule in the early 1880s. The particular ferocity of the Joyce murders and the rapid attention that they garnered nationally led to intense pressure on local police and judiciary to identify the guilty parties quickly, while later the trials were monitored closely by a Castle administration heavily impacted by the Phoenix Park murders of British Chief Secretary of Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and Under-Secretary Thomas Henry Burke in May of that year. The outcome of the trials and subsequent executions, and, more specifically, eyewitness accounts of the ‘botched’ execution of Myles Joyce, led to the Maamtrasna case quickly becoming a cause célèbre for Irish nationalists and a recurring subject for parliamentary comment in the later 1880s. Personal reflections on the political consequences of the Maamtrasna murders are to be found in key analyses of late nineteenth-century Irish political history, ranging from T. P. O’Connor’s The Parnell Movement (1886) to Tim Healy’s Letters and Leaders of My Day (1929) and to John Lawrence Hammond’s 1938 biography Gladstone and the Irish Nation. Strikingly, the case of Maamtrasna returns as a ‘troubling’ force in recent, diverse accounts of British treatment of nineteenth-century Ireland, such as Patrick Joyce’s social history The State of Freedom (2013) and James Murphy’s Ireland ’s Czar (2014), a biography of Lord Lieutenant Earl Spencer. In 1992, Jarlath Waldron, a parish priest in the area, published Maamtrasna: The Murders and the Mystery, and this extensive local history has done much to keep interest in the case alive. Waldron’s history served as a key inspiration for Sean Ó Cuirreáin’s 2016 Irish-language study Éagóir (meaning ‘injustice’), which drew from additional newspaper sources and newly available official documents including photos of the accused. Ó Cuirreáin places his narrative emphasis more squarely on the Maamtrasna case as a miscarriage of justice and has been a key campaigner for the granting of an official pardon to Myles Joyce; his work also underlay the 2018 Irish-language docudrama Murdair Mhám Trasna. My interest in this topic grew from my earlier research on nineteenth-century Ireland and on the large cultural and linguistic shift that occurredduring that century. I came gradually to recognise that language changein that period is a much more complex (and what socio-linguists might term a ‘messier’) phenomenon than had previously been recognised, with far reaching implications. The events that constitute the Maamtrasna case – the motivations, murders, trial, executions, and aftermath – make possible an especially illuminating case study of this language shift in action and its consequences. For the accused and witnesses, whether one spoke Irish only or had knowledge of English would prove to be of critical importance in interactions with police and with the legal and judicial systems, and for a number of men this would prove an issue of life or death. That Myles Joyce was a monoglot Irish speaker who failed to receive the services of an interpreter and translator is one notorious feature of the legal case with reverberations that extend to the present day. In subsequent coverage of the Maamtrasna trials, and in particular following the journalistic writings of James Joyce on the topic, it became commonplace to describe all of the ten accused men as monoglot speakers of Irish. This is incorrect, and instead a closer examination of their life stories reveals a startling diversity of linguistic abilities. Patrick Joyce, the first man executed, spoke English well, as did Patrick Casey, the second man executed. His brother John and uncle Michael were Irish monoglots, as were Myles Joyce and his two brothers; Myles’ nephew Tom, the youngest of the accused, may have had some competence in English. Most significantly for the outcome of the trial, the two men with the most advanced ability in English were Anthony Philbin and Thomas Casey, both men having returned to the area only recently after spending a considerable amount of time working in England. These were the two men who, days before the trial in early November 1882, would ‘turn Queen’s evidence’ and become state informers against the ten other accused. The three main witnesses for the prosecution – Anthony, John, and Pat Joyce – were Irish monoglots whose evidence was tendered to the court through the use of an interpreter throughout the trial; the reliability of their testimony, and the credibility of their claimed status as monoglots, would prove especially contentious in the course of the judicial proceedings and subsequently. That ten men of more or less the same social class, from the same community, and extending over just two generations in age, could range from Irish monoglots to speakers of Irish who possessed limited competence in English to well-functioning bilinguals illustrates in vivid detail the language shift that was still taking place in the Joyce Country in the early 1880s. Who spoke what language mattered greatly in the aftermath of the Maamtrasna murders. The diverse linguistic competencies of those involved, and the crossings between Irish and English that occurred in their interactions with each other, extended from the ten accused and their families to the witnesses against them, the constabulary who arrested them, the judicial system that tried them and executed three men, the prison system charged with incarcerating five other men, and the broader society – local, regional, and national – of late nineteenth-century Ireland in which these events took place. Within these domains, the social reality of individuals’ monolingual (Irish) or bilingual practices came into collision with the monolingual (English) ideology of the state, with fateful consequences. Strangers who crossed through the mountain-pass of Maamtrasna in 1882 (mám meaning ‘col’ or ‘neck’; trasna the preposition ‘across’) entered a valley where Irish was the main language of local communication; local people who left the valley encountered a world in which commercial and legal transactions were to the advantage of those who knew English. These language crossings – in political, judicial, social and even familial spheres – provide a compelling insight into the dynamics of a larger cultural change from Irish-speaking to English-speaking, a process whose traces extend into the closing decades of nineteenth-century Ireland. Yet this shift in language use is more often treated as self-evident or inevitable by historians and cultural critics of the period, if acknowledged at all. A central objective of this work is to demonstrate that the significance of the Maamtrasna narrative is at once historical and contemporary and to provide a vivid snapshot of a place and time in which the complex social dynamics within processes of cultural change are starkly visible – and occasionally audible. To write this historical study in the early twenty-first century, in the context of large-scale migration and newly-enforced state barriers to movement and citizenship, is also to be cognisant of the extent to which these dynamics continue to influence the destinies of monolinguals and bilinguals today, and the fate of languages that they seek to retain.