Trials of the Threshers – Castlebar Courthouse 1806

Picture this – imagine if this week, our attorney general and chief justice, together with our most senior and respected legal counsel, solicitors, prosecutors, and supporting officials and clerks, abandoned government buildings and the Four Courts and made their way west to Castlebar.

They travel by horse and carriage under the protection of a troop of armed dragoons. The occupants of the carriages are armed with short swords, knives, and pistols; the coach guards have blunderbusses slung across their shoulders. Everyone of consequence in Mayo has arrived in Castlebar to witness or participate in the upcoming spectacle.

To complete the image, the Imperial Hotel on the Green is open, though trading under a different name and doubling as a coach station. The days are short, the nights long and dark. There are no lights on or around the Green after dark, save for candlelight in windows and the faint glow of turf fires. There is a significant military presence in the town. The public houses are full of raucous patrons, intrigue, and government spies. All of this may seem fanciful, but it is precisely what happened in December 1806.

On December 8, 1806, a special commission opened at the courthouse on the Green in Castlebar as part of a government-led initiative to suppress a secret society known as the Threshers. Lord Chief Justice William Downes and Charles Kendal Bushe, Solicitor General (pictured ), were in attendance. Drawn from the impoverished Catholic farming and labouring classes, the Threshers was an outlawed group that had its origins in opposition to tithes and priests’ dues but expanded its activities toward broader social and economic protests. Their principal weapon was intimidation and, when that failed, violence. The new courthouse in Castlebar opened that summer.

The travelling entourage visited several counties, but the number hanged at Castlebar was higher than elsewhere, due to the influence of Denis Browne. Browne was still in 1798 suppression mode. Forty Threshers were held at the Gaol on the Green, including a group charged with the murder of thresher and informer Thady Lavin. Lavin gave the authorities some twenty-nine names; the majority were from the Tooreen – Moygowna areas. Lavin was scheduled to appear as a witness in the trial of several threshers. After a gaol-break was foiled on November 10, relatives of those in prison conspired to kill Lavin.

The court began its business on Monday, December 8. A Protestant jury was sworn in, in advance of each trial. Denis Browne was outraged when the jury returned a not-guilty verdict in the first trial, that of James McPhadeen of Manulla. Many of those tried later in the week were not so fortunate. Coll Flynn, Laurence Flynn, Charles Flynn, Thomas Horan (O’Hara ), Daniel Regan, and Daniel Callaghan were found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder of Lavin.

All but Callaghan were hanged on Saturday December 13. Two others were hanged for other offences connected to the Threshers some days later. A further five had death sentences commuted and were transported to New South Wales. A man named Ginty was hanged in connection with the Lavin murder in 1813 – he fought the hangman for one hour before he was forcibly hanged. Edmund Durneen, the man who brutally murdered Lavin with a hatchet, was hanged on the Green in 1830. He was convicted principally on the evidence of Daniel Callaghan and Thady Lavin’s wife, Margaret, who had survived the 1806 attack. Daniel Callaghan avoided the gallows in 1806 when he agreed to become an informer.

The court concluded its business on December 13. As the entourage departed, spectators gathered on the Green to witness five hangings. It was reported that the remaining two hangings were delayed until the Christmas period to ensure maximum impact. The Trials of the Threshers is an important episode in the history of Castlebar and Mayo. The Threshers did not go away and were followed in time by Ribbonmen and other secret societies.

The response of Denis Browne and Dublin Castle officials evidences their deep concern of a return to the disturbances of 1798 – examples had to be made of those who did not fear to speak of ninety-eight.

 

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