A plan to kill a Tuam man in 1883 led directly to a total of nine deaths including six hangings, one of which is now believed to have been a miscarriage of justice, according to The Queen v Patrick O’Donnell, a new book by Connemara-based author, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, which is to be the basis of a forthcoming TG4 drama-documentary.
Thomas Burke, a member of the landed gentry from Knocknagur, near Tuam, was the most senior civil servant in Ireland when he was chosen for assassination by the Invincibles, a violent nationalist Fenian group. Burke was targeted because of his central role in enforcing British rule in Ireland.
He was walking in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, where he had a residence, accompanied by the newly appointed Chief-Secretary for Ireland, Lord Cavendish, on 6th May 1883 when they were both stabbed to death by assassins using surgical knives.
The sensational killings sent shockwaves around the world and British Prime Minister Gladstone, fighting back tears, adjourned the House of Commons as he described Mr Burke as ‘one of the ablest, the most upright, the most experienced, the most eminent members’ of the civil service.
In the immediate aftermath of the killings, Queen Victoria noted in her personal diary that she could ‘talk of nothing else but this awful event’.
The funeral of Thomas Henry Burke took place in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin on Tuesday, 9th May and was attended by hundreds of people, including the most influential of the Dublin Castle elite.
It took the police a year to identify those responsible for the Phoenix Park murders and convictions were secured when the Invincibles leader James Carey turned informer on his colleagues and gave evidence which saw five of them hanged.
Carey was subsequently shot and killed on a steamship off the coast of South Africa as he secretly attempted to flee into exile to hide from the wrath of Irish people who saw his decision to become an informer as treachery. He was shot by Donegal man Patrick O’Donnell who himself was hanged for that crime after being extradited to London to face trial in the Old Bailey.
Miscarriage of justice
New evidence found by Sean Ó Cuirreáin in a British Home Office archive file closed to public scrutiny for over 100 years suggest that O’Donnell’s hanging may well have been a miscarriage of justice.
The new evidence reveals that an Old Bailey judge, Mr Justice Denman who heard the case against Patrick O’Donnell withheld crucial information in court which indicated that the jury believed that the killing was ‘without malice aforethought’. A killing ‘without malice’ would equate to manslaughter and would have been punishable then by a short prison sentence rather the mandatory sentence of hanging which arose in cases of murder ‘with malice aforethought’.
In his newly published book The Queen v Patrick O’Donnell and the TG4 drama-documentary of the same name, Mr Ó Cuirreáin suggests that Mr Justice Denman misled the court, including the defence and prosecution teams as well as the press, when he amended and misrepresented the wording of a direct question from the jury which showed they were inclined to believe the killing was ‘without malice’.
Mr Justice Denman told the court that the jury, as they deliberated on their verdict having heard all the evidence, had submitted a question to him in writing in which they had sought a definition of ‘malice aforethought’. His reply was widely reported by the media who attended the high-profile case.
However, the actual question posed by the jury which was not read to the court is included in a file on the O’Donnell case in the British National Archive which was ordered to be ‘Closed until 1985’ and it suggests that the jury had no problem in understanding the concept of ‘malice aforethought’ but rather sought to ascertain if they reached a verdict of ‘murder without malice aforethought’ would the judge accept this verdict.
“It is highly significant that the judge misrepresented the jury’s question, withheld it in court and replaced it with an unasked question of his own” says Seán Ó Cuirreáin. “This was a critical deflection by him which left the defence team in the dark and paved the way to a guilty verdict. The suggestion that the jury sought the judge’s approval for a verdict that the killing was without malice and the distortion of their legitimate query was, in fact, a matter of life or death for O’Donnell,” he added.
Mr Ó Cuirreáin noted as ‘significant’ that no reference was made to the jury’s question in the official transcript of the trial. All of the newspaper reports on the trial refer only to the judge’s amended question as reporters were unaware of true nature of the jury’s query.
However, the handwritten note of the jury’s question in blue pencil was attached by Mr Justice Denman to 61 pages of meticulous notes made by him during the course of the two-day trial in a document which was sealed from public view.
Patrick O’Donnell, who was born in the Gweedore Gaeltacht but had spent much of his life in America where he had become accustomed to carrying a gun, admitted to shooting Carey in front of witnesses but he argued that the killing was in self-defence. He was travelling to South Africa in the hope of making his fortune in the diamond mines there when he unknowingly befriended Carey who was travelling under an assumed name.
O’Donnell was lauded as a hero for killing the informer whose death was celebrated throughout Ireland and in the Irish-American communities where he had spent half his life.
Seán Ó Cuirreáin’s last book on the Maamtrasna Murders and an accompanying drama documentary Murdair Mhám Trasnafor TG4 is credited with creating the circumstances which helped secure a posthumous Presidential pardon for Myles Joyce who was wrongly hanged for those killings.
The Queen v Patrick O’Donnell is published by Four Courts Press, price €17.95 (paperback ) and available online from www.fourcourtspress.ie or from all good local booksellers.
The Queen v Patrick O’Donnell is also the title of the feature-length drama-documentary commissioned from independent production house ROSG by TG4. The 90 minute-long feature contains dramatic reconstructions of the main events, including the Phoenix Park murders, the killing of the informer James Carey on board ship off the coast of South Africa, the trial of Patrick O’Donnell for murder in the Old Bailey and the hanging of O’Donnell at Newgate Prison, London. It also contains analysis from those with a detailed knowledge of the story from Ireland, Britain, the USA and South Africa including historians, journalists, academic and legal experts as well as a descendant of the O’Donnell family.
The drama-documentary has already secured international recognition with shortlisting at film festivals in Vancouver, Canada and Madrid, Spain and will have its first festival screening in Ireland at the Galway Film Fleadh (20th-25th July ).