An outburst of unredeemed and inexplicable savagery

The old Joyce cottage near Maamtrasna, neglected and abandoned.

The old Joyce cottage near Maamtrasna, neglected and abandoned.

In early October 1884 a journalist from The New York Times, whom we only know by his initials HF, left Galway for Cong by steamer, in the company of Mr TP O'Connor, MP for Galway, and Mr Healy, MP for Monaghan.

It took five hours ‘twisting in and out of the corkscrew bends of the Corrib and puffing wheezily’ until it finally reached the ‘little wharf at the hamlet of Cong’. HF stayed the night at the Carlisle Arms where he learned that Harrington was due to return from Maamtrasna the following morning.

Tim Harrington MP, a brilliant man, was born in Kerry 1851, became a barrister and journalist, and an effective nationalist politician. He was loyal to Parnell, and a strong supporter of the Land League. He served as Lord Mayor of Dublin three times. When King Edward VII visited Dublin, he refused to meet him.

While in Galway gaol (Harrington spent a total of two years in gaol for his public protests ), he heard at first hand details of the murders at Maamtrasna, of Myles Joyce’s death, and the bizarre confession of two witnesses totally exonerating Myles.

On his release Harrington set out for Connemara to investigate at first hand what actually happened on August 17 1882, which resulted in three men hanged, and seven men sentenced to penal servitude for life.

Evidence was absurd

The New York journalist met Harrington in the foyer of the hotel.

NY Times: "Well Harrington, what did you find in Maamtrasna?"

Harrington: " I found enough to put Spencer, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in the dock for conspiracy to murder."

Harrington had tackled the evidence of the Cappanacreha Joyces head on. Three men from the nearby parish of Cappanacreha claimed to have identified the 10 accused from behind a bush on the night in question. Harrington visited the exact spot where the Cappanacrehas claimed to be. Neither could Harrington, nor one of his witnesses, identify anyone from that distance, other than the broad outline of body shapes. The Cappancreha's evidence was even more absurd as it was based on sightings made at night, and the faces of the murder gang were blackened. Yet their evidence sent three men to their deaths, and seven others to life imprisonment.*

The only survivor of the attack was 10-year-old Patrick Joyce who said he could not identify the attackers because it was dark, and they had their faces blackened. Yet no one, either on the prosecution team, or on the defence, bothered to check the boy’s evidence. There were many other inconsistencies which Harrington found, new witnesses which told him the truth, and probably, he met the mysterious man who knew exactly who murdered who, and for what reason.

During the five hour journey on the steamer back to Galway Harrington told his findings to the journalist from The New York Times. In the journalistic style of the day, the journalist sets the scene of the two men talking ' within sight of the estate which Lord Mountmorres owned, and on which he was shot down; within sight too of the gloomy grey mountain further north, at the base of which the Huddy's bailiffs were murdered, sewn in bags, and cast into Lough Mask; while on the bleak side of which the Joyce massacre was committed.’ It was a time of a series of savage murders in Ireland that would shock the public and the authorities, which in a macabre way sets the background for the murders at Maamtrasna.

Entire Joyce family

The New York Times published its story October 12 1884; where it was also widely republished, copied, and enlarged upon. Harrington published the details of his findings later that year. It became a runaway best seller. It appears there was an insatiable appetite for news of the Maamtrasna murders.

Yet despite the overwhelming evidence that the trial was a farce, conducted in English before Irish-speaking natives, Dublin Castle refused to revisit the Maamtrasna Murder case, or admit that an injustice was done.

Here is part of that shocking story:

Early on Friday August 18 1882, John Collins, a tenant farmer, having heard disturbances during the night coming from his neighbours' house, the Joyces, went to check if all was well. He must have feared the worst because he brought with him two neighbours, Mary and Margaret O'Brien. They discovered an appalling sight. Even today, when our senses have been hardened by so many atrocities, it was a scene of savage murder that cried to heaven. No mercy was shown to this unfortunate family.

Inside the door, which was broken off at its hinges, lay the naked corpse of John Joyce, a man of mature years. He was shot twice in the body. Nearby on the bed his wife Bridget lay dead, her skull crushed by a blow over her right eye. Her son Michael (17 years ), was lying beside her with two bullet wounds. He was choking and barely alive (he would later die from his wounds ). In the inner room, lying across a bed, was the elderly Margaret Joyce. She was stripped, and dead from a deep wound on her forehead. Beside her was Peggy, in her mid teens, also bludgeoned to death. Lying beside her was 12-years-old Patsy with two serious wounds on his head, but alive. He was very frightened. The two family dogs were upset and would not leave the house. There were bullet marks on the kitchen wall.

We can imagine the gasps, and screams of shock as the gruesome scene was revealed. 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, must have rocked the local community. About 250 families endeavouring 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 but sub Constable Lenihen acted 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 "wore bawneens, and had their faces blackened”.

The shock waves from Maamtrasna, however, were felt as far 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.'

Next week: The Phoenix Park murders cause hysteria and outrage.

NOTES: There are a number of Joyces, and Caseys from the parish of Cappanacreha who made the accusations, to avoid confusion I refer to them as the Cappanacrehas. Clearly there was deep enmity between the Joyces of Maamtrasna, and the Joyces of Cappanacreha. In fact Tom Joyce, also from Cappanacreha, was thrown to the wolves as well, and was placed at the murder scene in some kind of family vendetta over land.

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