In April 1980, I interviewed Mrs Sarah Lynskey from Bridge Street, on her 100th birthday, for this column. In the course of our conversation, she told me her earliest memory was of “kneeling on the Salmon Weir Bridge with my mother and a lot of Claddagh women praying. I know they were Claddagh women because I can still see the triangles of shawl as they knelt on the bridge. We were praying for a fellow, they were going to hang him the next day. Joyce was his name”. She was talking about Myles Joyce, an innocent man who was to be hanged along with two others for the Maamtrasna murders.
On the night of August 17, 1882, a party of men entered the house of John Joyce in Maamtrasna and murdered him, his wife, his mother, and his daughter. Both of his sons were injured, one of whom subsequently died. It seemed to be a motiveless crime. Some days later three men came forward and claimed to have seen the perpetrators and, as a result, 10 men were arrested and brought to trial. Two of these became approvers, they were pressed into informing and perjuring themselves. The trial was moved to Dublin and was conducted in English even though many of the prisoners were illiterate and only spoke Irish. Vital evidence was withheld from the defence counsel, and the jury was a ‘packed’ one. The trial was described by historian Robert Kee as “one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice in British legal history”.
The first three prisoners were tried individually and, largely on the same evidence, were sentenced to death, Patrick Joyce, Pat Casey, and Myles Joyce. It took the jury six minutes to find Myles Joyce guilty. It was obvious he had no idea what the judge was saying when he was being sentenced, until it was translated into Irish for him. The remaining prisoners were pressed into pleading guilty and were tried together. They were also sentenced to death but this was later commuted to life imprisonment. The two approvers were set free.
December 15 was the date set for the hanging in Galway Gaol. Patrick Joyce and Pat Casey admitted their guilt but swore that Myles Joyce was innocent. Many appeals were made to Earl Spencer, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, for clemency for Myles. As you can see from the extract, Myles’ wife Bridget wrote to the editor of the Freeman’s Journal in which she said, “I publicly confess before high Heaven that he never committed that crime nor left his house that night. The five prisoners that pleaded guilty will declare he is innocent, they will swear now and at their dying moment that he never was implicated in that fearful murder... I earnestly beg and implore his Excellency, the Lord Lieutenant to examine and consider this hard case of an innocent man who leaves a widow and five orphans to be, before long, adhrift on the world. I crave for mercy.”
At 2am on the morning of the hanging, the telegram from the Lord Lieutenant finally arrived. As you can see, it contained 16 words. All hope was gone. A few hours later, the prison governor handed the prisoners over to the hard featured hangman, Marwood, and with fearful witness, they were each pinioned, capped, and placed on the drop. The two undoubted murderers uttered no protest, but suddenly as the white cap was being pulled over his face, Myles broke silence and in short vehement sentences in Irish, poured out protestations of his innocence of the crime.
“I am going. Why should I die? I am not guilty. I had neither hand nor foot in the murder. I know nothing about it; but God forgive them that swore my life away. It is a poor thing to die on a stage for what I never did. God help my wife and her five orphans. I had no hand, act nor part in it; but I have my priest with me. I am as innocent as the child in the cradle.”
Then followed the most dreadful incident of all. The hangman suddenly put his foot down the gaping hole into which Joyce had disappeared and gave something of a vicious kick. It appeared that the bight of the rope, as the body fell, instead of stretching out to the full, caught the elbow of one of Joyce’s pinioned arms and broke his fall. What Marwood did was to kick the rope free, but it meant that Joyce died in agony of strangulation, and not of a broken neck.
In the recent past, Lord Alton and Lord Avebury have launched a campaign in the Houses of Parliament to declare that Myles Joyce was a victim of a miscarriage of justice and to have him pardoned, and this prompted the Office of An Coimisinéir Teanga to organise a special event on this Saturday, the 130th anniversary of the hanging. It will begin with a Mass in the Cathedral at 1pm, followed by a wreath laying ceremony on the grave where the prisoners were buried. This was originally in the old gaol, and is now marked by a cross on the ground of the Cathedral car park. At 2.30pm, a symposium entitled “Reflections on Myles Joyce and the Maamtrasna Murders” will begin in the Galway City Museum featuring Lord Alton, Professor Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, and Johnny Joyce, a descendant of John Joyce. Afterwards, Conradh na Gaeilge will host a reception in its building in Dominick Street.
The above information comes from Maamtrasna, the Murders and the Mystery by Father Jarlath Waldron, a compelling book that is by far the most comprehensive account of that appalling crime and its aftermath. All of the images are courtesy of the National Archives.