The case of the Craughwell Prisoners

In the 1880s the Land War was at its height. It was a prolonged period of bitter civic unrest which pitted an unprotected peasantry against some ruthless landlords, who had the law and power of eviction at their disposal. Following the Great Famine a weakened tenant peasantry was easily removed from the land. It began a pitiful trail to the workhouse, and the emigrant ships. But as the century progressed the situation changed. The highly organised Irish National Land League supported evicted farmers; while members of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Westminster fought for legislation which would eventually see a redistribution of land to tenants.

Legislative development, however, would take years. There were other weapons which supported the tenant in the meantime. Secret societies, such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the‘ White Boys’ and many others, exerted huge pressure on the people to resist rent increases, and to remain silent as to its membership. An effective weapon was boycott. A landlord who was boycotted meant that he could not buy food locally, and his domestic and estate staff would leave him. Animals were sometimes maimed, or released to wander the roads. Walls were knocked, hay barns set alight. He could apply for police protection, and with difficulty, have food brought to him from outside his area. John W Lambert of Aggard House, the owner of an estate of 3,440 acres, had a grave dug in front of his house as a warning. He was boycotted

for three years.

‘Emergency men were sent over from Liverpool to work for him.’

Similar treatment was meted out to anyone who replaced an evicted tenant. These so called ‘land grabbers’ were shunned by their community. It caused scenes of hardship and cruelty. The Land League and the secret societies wielded considerable power. Meetings were attended by large crowds. A strong Fenian movement emerged within the League. Men marched in military order with sticks, swords, and sometimes guns.

Murder triangle

More seriously however, some landlords or their employees were murdered. South Galway was described as a dangerously disturbed area in which a large number of agrarian outrages occurred. Between May 1881 and June 1882, eight people were murdered in a triangle bounded by Loughrea, Athenry, and Ardrahan, Co Galway.

James Connors, Killariff, Kiltulla, was shot dead on May 13. He took a job previously held by James Keogh, a ranger on Lord Dunsandle’s estate. The local Land League told Keogh to resign his job. When he refused he was a dead man.

A farm at Riverville, which had been vacated by Murty Hynes was vacant. It had been taken by Peter Dempsey and his family. They were boycotted, but on Sunday May 29, on his way to Mass with his two children, he was shot dead.

Constable Linton, a native of Co Down, who had been stationed at Loughrea for 20 years, was shot dead on Sunday July 24 in Church Street.

Peter Doherty was living on a disputed farm at Carrigan, near Craughwell, with his wife Margaret, his son and two daughters. There was a dispute over the ownership of the farm. He was boycotted, and on November 2, he went out to investigate a noise in the yard. He too was shot dead.

On June 8 1882 the unpopular landlord Walter Bourke of Rahasane House, and his bodyguard Corporal Robert Wallace, were both ambushed and shot dead at Castletaylor. Burke had inherited substantial landholdings near Claremorris, Co Mayo, and in 1870 he had purchased 2,000 acres at Rahasane. Relationships with his tenants on both estates were difficult. He was widely regarded as a harsh landlord, with a history of frequent evictions. He feared assassination. On one occasion he brought his rifle into church, and refused to leave when requested by the priest.

Only one conviction

The two final killings took place on June 29 on the outskirts of Loughrea. Lord Clanrickarde’s agent John Henry Blake, a native of Furbo, and his servant Thady Ruane were shot dead. Blake’s wife, Henrietta Frances, who was with them in the pony and trap, was wounded. The bolting horse was stopped some distance down the road.

Understandably, all these murders created fear and consternation within the community. The Government became alarmed. Loughrea was described as a ‘den of infamy’. The police reacted by calling in reinforcements. There were a large number of house searches and ransacking, dozens of men were arrested, and interned. There was fear and deep concern.

And yet although many arrests were made only 12 individuals were charged with the killings. Two men were acquitted, and pleas of nolle prosequi were entered in eight cases. The only convictions achieved by the crown were in the case of Peter Doherty of Carrigan, in which two innocent men, Constable Michael Muldowney and Patrick Finnegan were convicted and sentenced to death in 1884.

These two men were the victims of a grave miscarriage of justice, but so desperate were the authorities to secure a conviction, every trick in the trade, including bribery, ‘packed juries’ and false information, was used to do so. The two men became known as The Craughwell Prisoners, and a remarkable book has been written by Pat Finnegan, the grandson of one of the Craughwell Prisoners, Patrick Finnegan. The author is a retired consultant physician from University College Galway. The plight of his grandfather was always a live issue in his family. On his first day on the wards of the Galway hospital, he asked a patient his age.

“ I was born on the day your grandfather was released from prison,” said the man. “ July 9 1902”.

I will tell some of that extraordinary story during the next few weeks.

NOTES: The Case of the Craughwell Prisoners - during the Land War in Co Galway 1879-’85, by Pat Finnegan, published by Four Courts Press, now on sale, hardback €35, paperback €15.

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