The horrific Maamtrasna murders, the arrest of 10 men, the rush to ‘justice’, the evidence of the Cappanacrehas (known to be bitter enemies of the murdered Joyces ), the two informers Anthony Philbin and Thomas Casey (whose false evidence led to penal servitude for life for five innocent men, and the execution of one innocent man ), was followed in minute detail not only throughout Ireland, but in Britain and among the Irish communities in America. Yet nowhere did it impact more than on the mountainside community of Maamtrasna .
About 150 families eked out a living there, many of them inter-related. There was talk of an insufficient investigation, the vengeance of neighbours, the false evidence given in court, innocent men imprisoned, and the whole story of Myles Joyces's last hours filled many of the people with horror and indignation. These feelings were exacerbated by letters from the prisoners protesting their innocence, and their pleadings to have the case re-opened.
Into this deeply disturbed community Anthony Philbin and Tom Casey, the two informers, returned. It cannot have been easy for them. It appears that mainly women, the wives and family of the accused, began to exert pressure on them for the truth to emerge.
Then on August 8, 1884, two years after the murder, Casey cracked. In a bizarre scene, during a confirmation ceremony at Tourmakeedy, in front of the children, their families, the local priest Fr James Corbett, and the Archbishop of Tuam John MacEvilly, Casey stood by the altar clutching a candle. He declared that he was involved in the crime, but when he told George Bolton, the Crown's Solicitor, the truth about his role he was warned that the only way he could save his neck was by agreeing to substantiate Philbin's evidence, which he knew was false. Philbin swore that the false evidence given by the Cappanacrehas was true.
Bolton was not interested in the truth, only in the conviction of the accused. Casey was now conscience stricken to think that his evidence had sent an innocent man to his death, and others to a life of penal servitude.
Archbishop MacEvilly wrote directly to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Spencer,* outlining Casey's confession, his firm belief that Myles Joyce was innocent, and that others were in prison unjustly. He challenged Spencer to re-open the case.
The request was refused; but Spencer offered to look into the matter. Predictably, the Lord Lieutenant's secretary later wrote to the Archbishop briefly stating that the inquiry had taken place, and found that it changed nothing.
Ring of truth
But in fact change was in the air. Six weeks after Casey's public confession, a young firebrand Tim Harrington MP went to Maamtrasna in the company of the local Catholic curate, to conduct his own investigation. Harrington was typical of the younger members of the Irish Parliamentary Party: a tireless worker, articulate and adversarial, and not afraid to join in public protests even if it led to his arrest and time in prison.
Harrington was born in Kerry 1851, a barrister, and a journalist (he owned two newspapers, United Ireland, and The Kerry Sentinel ), and an effective nationalist politician, totally loyal to Parnell.
While Harrington languished in Galway gaol for a few months (Harrington spent a total of two years in gaol for his public protests ), he heard first hand the details of Myles Joyce's death, and even perhaps saw his ghost. He felt there was an undeniable ring of truth about the final statements from the other two condemned men, Patrick Joyce and Patrick Casey; statements that were volunteered on different days by the two men locked into separate cells. They could have had no knowledge of each other's intention.
On his release from Galway gaol, Harrington wasted little time. With two RIC constables and Fr James Corbett,the local curate, Harrington visited Maamtrasna, and rigorously re-examined the so called witnesses, and the evidence.
It became immediately evident that the trial was little less than a charade. Yes, among the 10 were some guilty ones, but the majority were innocent forced to declare their guilt to escape the rope.
Casey's confession and Harrington's investigation triggered renewed interest in the whole affair. 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.
He famously greeted Harrington, ‘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.’
He described how he tackled the evidence of the Cappanacrehas head on. They 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. Not one of Harrington's witnesses could 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 of sightings made at night, and the faces of the murder gang were blackened.
Harrington confronted the two 'informers', who had substantiated the Cappancrehas evidence, Anthony Philbin and Tom Casey. With Fr Corbett at his side, he asked Philbin what did he though of himself for sending Myles Joyce to the scaffold? Or for keeping innocent men in gaol?
'Philbin bent his head over the wall, his face in his hands, and wept. But refused to answer questions.'
Four were innocent
The other 'approver' or informer, Tom Casey, however, spoke at length. He admitted he was one of the murder gang, but, understandably, played down his role in the crime. He told Harrington in detail of how he tried to tell George Bolton, Crown Solicitor, the truth, but Bolton waved his confession aside; warning him that if he wanted to escape the rope he must substantiate Philbin's evidence, even if he knew that it was untrue.
Of the five men in Mountjoy, under life sentences, Casey assured Harrington that four were innocent. These were John Casey, Martin, Patrick, and Tom Joyce. Talking to witnesses and taking alibis for these men Harrington amassed ample proof to show that they knew no more of the crime than Myles Joyce did. All their wives showed letters from their husbands in prison telling their stories which matched that of Tom Casey. The remaining convict Michael Casey was guilty. His wife showed letters from him containing a full statement of the crime, declaring the other four men in prison and Myles Joyce were innocent. She, however, did not reveal the name of the organiser of the murder, even though he became known to Harrington.
Next week: Harrington meets the ‘Gombeen Man’ (money lender ), who probably knew the reasons for the murder, and may have organised it.
NOTES: * The 5th Earl Spencer, known as Viscount Althrop, was a forebear of the late Lady Diana, Princess of Wales.
Tim Harrington MP, who investigated the murders after hearing of the dramatic events in Galway jail, presented the following list of the men said to be involved in the crime, and gives their contribution and sentence:
Patrick Joyce, Shanvallycahill, ….executed, guilty.
Patrick Casey, ….executed, guilty.
Myles Joyce,…..executed, innocent.
Michael Casey, ….penal servitude, guilty.
Martin Joyce (brother to Myles ) ….penal servitude, innocent.
Patrick Joyce, Cappanacreha (another brother ) ….
penal servitude, innocent.
Tom Joyce (son of Patrick ), ….
penal servitude, innocent.
John Casey (Cappanacreha )….penal servitude, innocent.
Anthony Philbin, .…Informer.
The actual murderers:
John Casey ….Bun-na-cnic, supposed leader, at large.
John Casey (his son )….at large.
Pat Joyce, Shanvallycahill, ….executed.
Pat Leyden, .…in England.
Michael Casey.…penal servitude.
Thomas Casey ….Informer.
John Joyce (his brother )
Patrick Joyce, John’s son.
The Victims (Maamtrasna )
John Joyce, his wife Bridget, their son Michael, their daughter Peggy, Grandmother Margaret, and 12-year-old Patsy, seriously wounded but alive. (Patsy was the only witness to the murders, but was never called to give evidence ).