The Maamtrasna Murders happened at a time of deep unrest in Ireland. Three years previously, the most effective protest against the insidious landlord domination of the vast majority of the Irish people found expression in the Land League. It was established on October 21 1879, in the Imperial Hotel, Castlebar, by a former Fenian prisoner Michael Davitt. In a sweeping revolutionary statement, the League proclaimed the right of every tenant farmer to own the land he worked on. Because of the abuses heaped on tenants by some landlords, it had an immediate impact.
It also found a powerful voice in its president Charles Stewart Parnell, a Protestant landowner in County Wicklow. Parnell was initially seen as an unlikely leader of a mass agrarian movement, but Davitt declared him 'an Englishman of the strongest type moulded for an Irish purpose.'
Parnell's policies were so effective that it vaulted him into the unchallenged leadership of the advanced wing of the Irish Parliamentary Party. In its time, through a series of Land Acts, it achieved extraordinary concessions for the Irish tenant, far in excess of what was ever achieved by their contemporaries working on the land in England, Scotland, or Wales.
Parnell advocated peaceful protest, such as non payment of rent, the effective use of 'boycott', and solidarity and support for those who were evicted. But passions were high. Violence frequently took a more vicious turn.
Principle targets for murder were landlords or their agents, many of whom were soft targets. In January of the same year as the Maamtrasna Murders, Joseph and John Huddy, who worked for Lord Ardilaun, (a member of the Guinness family, a generous philanthropist who lived mainly at Ashford Castle, Cong ) were murdered and their bodies dumped in Lough Mask.
But what brought the country to a standstill, and near hysteria, were the stabbings in Phoenix Park, on May 6 1882, of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the newly appointed Chief Secretery for Ireland,** and Thomas Henry Burke, the permanent under-secretary, the most senior Irish civil servant.
The murder of Cavendish went right to the top of the British administration. Not only because of his senior position, but he was married to Lucy Cavendish, the niece of British prime minister William Gladstone; and had worked as Gladstone's personal secretary. He had only arrived in Ireland the day he was murdered. He and Burke were stabbed to death as they walked near the Viceregal Lodge. The then Lord Lieutenant, Lord Spencer, heard the screams of the dying men, just before a man ran towards him shouting " Lord Cavendish and Burke are killed."
The assassination was claimed by members of the 'Irish National Invincibles'.
The hunt for the perpetrators was led by Superintendent John Mallon, a Catholic from Armagh. Mallon had a pretty shrewd idea of who was involved. He suspected a number of former Fenian activists. A large number of suspects were arrested, and kept in prison by claiming they were connected with other crimes. By playing off one suspect against another, Mallon got several of them to reveal what they knew.
The 'Invincibles' leader, James Carey, and members Michael Kavanagh and Joe Hanlon agreed to testify against the others. As a result five men, Joe Brady, Michael Fagan, Thomas Caffrey, Dan Curley, and Tim Kelly were convicted of murder and hanged.
Meanwhile back in County Mayo murders continued… .
John Henry Blake, an agent of the despised Lord Clanricard, was shot dead in broad daylight in Loughrea in June 1882. A Claremorris landlord Walter Burke; and Ballinrobe landlord Lord Mountmorres (who was considered an enlightened man who never evicted his tenants ), were both shot dead.
The British government was determined to stamp out these outrages by whatever means. Stricter laws were introduced. There were changes in court practices, and a further recruitment drive for RIC constables. New stations were opened; and Parnell and other leaders such as John Dillon and Conor O'Kelly were arrested on the basis of allegedly seditious speeches. They were held, without trial, in Kilmainham Gaol for a period. They were released to a rapturous reception from large crowds.
Next week: August 18 1882, the Maamtrasna murders are committed.