The Maamtrasna Murders, August 17 1882

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. 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 mother-in-law, Margaret. 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 “ 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.’

Passions were high

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 for 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 vicious turn.

Near hysteria

Principle targets for murder were landlords or their agents, many of whom were soft targets. In January of same year of 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. 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. 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.

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. Draconian measures were immediately introduced giving the police increased powers of search and arrest. New three-judge courts were set up to avoid intimidation of witnesses; and compensation for murder, injury, or damage to property was to be levied on the jurisdiction in which the crimes were committed.

Then on August 17 the so called Maamtrasna murders were committed. It was a crime that the local police dreaded not only because of its horrific nature, but because of the unlikelihood that the perpetrators would ever be found. Usually in a closeknit community, such as at Maamtrasna, the murderers would never be revealed, at least never to the police. But surprisingly, the day following the murders, Anthony Joyce (a cousin of the murdered man ), with his brother Johnny and his nephew Paddy, all from the nearby parish of Cappanacreha, three miles from the murder scene, went to the police with an astonishing tale. These Joyces, known as ‘the Maolras’ Joyces (to distinguish them from the many Joyce families in the area ), gave a sworn statement that they had followed a crowd of men that fateful night, they saw them joined by other men, and saw them approach John Joyce’s house at Maamtrasna. Hidden behind a bush, they heard the noise at the door, and saw some of the men enter the house, while others stayed outside. Anthony heard shouting and screeching. ‘He could not distinguish the screams of the women from those of the men.’

He named 10 men whom he alleged were out that night as follows: Anthony Philbin, Tom Casey, Martin Joyce, Myles Joyce, Patrick Joyce, and Tom Joyce of Cappanacreha. Pat Joyce (Shanvalleycahill ), Patrick Casey, John Casey, and Michael Casey.

They were duly rounded up and brought before the magistrates at Cong, and charged.

Next week: The blood feud among the Joyce family has tragic consequences.


* I am taking this from a new book by Myles Dungan, Conspiracy - Irish Political Trials published by the Royal Irish Academy 2009, €13.

** 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. The assassination was claimed by members of the ‘Irish National Invincibles’.


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