A letter from the sheriff

On the night of August 18, 1882, five members of one family, John Joyce, his wife Brighid, his mother Mairéad, his daughter Peigí, and his son Micheál, were murdered in Maamtrasna on the Galway/Mayo border. The motive for this multiple murder is unclear, but John was suspected of sheep stealing, his mother of being an informer, and his daughter of cavorting with the RIC who would have been the natural enemy of the locals. Two members of the family survived the horrific attack; a nine-year-old boy, Patsy, who was badly injured, and his older brother Máirtín who was working for a family in a neighbouring farm on the night.

Three local men came forward claiming they were eye witnesses to the slaughter. Their implausible evidence (some of which was contradicted by nine-year-old Patsy ) was treated as hard and fast evidence by the court. These three were closely related not only to the victims, but also to many of the 10 local men they identified as murderers. The key witnesses had, however, been in constant personal conflict for many years with those they were now accusing.

The 10 accused were removed to Galway Gaol where a formal inquiry was held. It was decided to move the trial to Dublin in case Maamtrasna people would exercise undue influence on the jury in Galway. The trial has been described by historian Robert Kee as “One of the most blatant miscarriages of justice in British legal history”. The accused were all native speakers, most of whom had little or no English. The trials were conducted in English with a judge and jury who understood no Irish. The accused mens’ solicitor was a non-Irish speaker and was unable to communicate in any meaningful way with his clients. The court translator was an RIC man. The ‘witnesses’ perjured themselves in court, and two of the accused, in mortal fear of being hanged, turned State’s evidence and had their charges dropped.

The remaining eight accused were all convicted of murder (often in a matter of minutes by the jury ) and sentenced to be hanged at Galway Gaol. Our illustration (which is courtesy of Lincolnshire Archives ) today is of a letter written by Galway sub-sheriff John Redington to the hangman William Marwood in Horncastle, Lincolnshire. Marwood was the official public executioner for Britain and Ireland and received an annual retainer of £20 with an additional fee of “£10 per person hanged”. As Redington pointed out, “The Law does not allow the sheriff anything for these executions and that he has to pay the entire costs out of his pocket.” So the Sheriff was looking for a cut-price deal, a group rate if you like, from the executioner. He did not mention the actual number of executions (potentially eight ) that were to take place. His letter is cold and reads like a business letter, there is no humanity there at all.

As it happened, five of the convicts were reprieved at the last minute and had their sentences commuted to penal servitude for life. The remaining three were hanged by Marwood in the grounds of Galway Gaol. They are buried in unmarked graves under the tarmac of the Cathedral car park. One of the three, Myles Joyce, was completely innocent. His last words were, “Feicfidh mé Íosa Críost ar ball — crocadh eisean san éagóir chomh maith”. ( I will see Jesus Christ in a little while — he too was unjustly hanged/crucified ).

This illustration which is courtesy of the Lincolnshire Archive, is one of the fascinating new insights into the Maamtrasna affair which are published in a new Irish language book entitled Éagóir, Maolra Seoighe agus Dúnmhairithe Mhám Trasna by Seán O Cuirreáin and published by Cois Life. Many of the participants were near neighbours and inter-related but the author manages to unravel these complications and explain them in simple language. The entire book is very well written and profusely illustrated, the best publication on the subject of Maamtrasna so far. In good bookshops at €15, highly recommended.

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