Maamtrasna - beginning the search for truth

Week III

I don’t think it was ever satisfactorily explained why the Joyce family, with the exception of the boy Patrick, was so brutally shot and bludgeoned to death. There are a number of theories including the belief that the old Mrs Joyce had given information to the RIC where to find the bodies of Joseph and John Huddy, agents of Lord Ardilaun of Ashford, who were murdered and dumped into Lough Mask. It was also said that the teenage daughter of John Joyce was flirting with a local RIC constable; and that John Joyce was a sheep-stealer, taking his neighbour’s sheep and selling them.

However, Dublin Castle believed that John Joyce was a member of a local secret society, one of the many informal Ribbon/Fenian enforcement groups that had grown out of the Land War which the British authorities were determined to stamp out. The rumour was that Joyce had pocketed funds, and that an example was made of him and his family.

There may be some credence to the secret society idea. Even though two days before they were hanged Patrick Joyce and Pat Casey denied that they belonged to any secret society, the only witness to the crime, young Patrick Joyce, stated that the men who burst into his home that August night all had their faces blackened, and all wore bawneens, an indication that some kind of uniform was worn.

But significantly, John Joyce had, for the time, a considerable sum of money on him the night he was murdered. Eamonn Geary, Athenry, told me that his grandfather, Constable Geary, was stationed at a sub RIC barracks in the townland of Killiteane, then in Co Galway. He was involved in the initial investigation into the Joyce murder. Going through the dead man’s clothes, Constable Geary found £3 in notes, and seven shillings, a considerable sum for a man living in very poor conditions on the hillside.*

A bizarre scene

I mentioned before how the crime and the trial was followed in minute detail not only throughout Ireland, but in Britain and among the Irish communities in America. Yet nowhere did it impact most than on the mountainside community of Maamtrasna. About 150 families eked out a living there, many of them inter related. But their world collapsed when they were visited by a series of calamitous events. First there was a particularly horrific murder, then the evidence of the Maolras Joyces, the arrests of 10 men, their trial, two of them turning ‘approvers’, three of them hanged, the rest imprisoned for life. There was talk of an insufficient investigation, the vengeance of neighbours, 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, their protests of innocence, and pleadings to have the case re-opened.

Into this deeply disturbed community Anthony Philbin and Tom Casey, the two ‘approvers’, returned. It cannot have been easy for them. It appears that mainly women, the wives and family of the accused, began to exert pressure 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. Bolton was not interested in the truth, only in the conviction of the accused. Casey was 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 him to re-open the case. The request was refused; but Spencer offered that an inquiry would take place. 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 journalists and RIC constables, 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***. It was while he languished in Galway gaol for a few months (Harrington spent a total of two years in gaol for his public protests ), that 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; 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.

Casey’s confession and Harrington’s investigation triggered renewed interest in the whole affair. A journalist from The New York Times, whom I only know by his initials HF, left Galway for Cong by steamer. It took five hours “ twisting in and out the corkscrew bends of the Corrib and puffing wheezily” until it finally reached the “little wharf of 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. The two men met 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.”

Next Week: What Harrington discovered; the revelation of the man who allegedly planned the murder, and, finally after 20 years, the release of the remaining prisoners.


*In Jarlath Waldron’s book, page 71, “Head constable Wynne saw a constable Geary finding money in the trouser pocket of John Joyce, the murdered man. I saw him take out £3. 7s.”

Also from T Harrington’s report, which I will mention next week, (Appendix from The Freeman’s Journal, page 14 ) ‘Constable Geary found a purse containing £3.7s. I saw him take it from a trousers.’

**The 5th Earl Spencer, known as Viscount Althrop, was a forebear of the late Lady Diana, Princess of Wales.

*** Timothy C Harrington (1851-1910 ), a Kerryman, a barrister, and a journalist (he owned two newspapers, United Ireland, and The Kerry Sentinel ), and an effective nationalist politician, was first elected to the House of Commons, for Westmeath, in 1883. He was a passionate and a loyal follower of Parnell, and a promoter of the Land League. In 1885 he was elected for the new constituency of Dublin Harbour which he represented until his death. He served as Lord Mayor of Dublin three times. When King Edward VII visited Dublin he refused to meet him.

Ten accused of murder

Following the brutal murder of practically the entire John Joyce family (only his 10-year -old son Patrick survived ) in their home at the foot of Maamtrasna, Connemara, on August 17 1882, ten men were tried for the crime. They were convicted on the dubious evidence of the ‘Maolras’ Joyces, a neighbouring family locked in a boundary feud with some of the accused. Their evidence was substantiated by two of the accused, Anthony Philbin and Tom Casey, who turned ‘Approver’ (or State’s evidence ) in a deal with the Crown solicitor, George Bolton, to save their necks.

The accused were severely punished. Myles Joyce, Pat Casey, and Patrick Joyce were hanged in Galway gaol on December 15 1882. The rest, Martin Joyce, Patrick Joyce, Tom Joyce, Michael Casey, and John Casey, all pleaded guilty to be spared the rope for a life of penal servitude in Mountjoy gaol, Dublin..

Two days before they were hanged, Pat Casey and Patrick Joyce gave a sworn statement refuting the evidence of the Maolras’ Joyces, implied that they were guilty as charged, but vehemently denied that Myles Joyce had any hand or part in the murder.


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