Faction fighting and duelling in County Mayo

Faction fighting and duelling were common in Mayo well into the 19th century. Duelling with swords or pistols was the preserve of gentleman and military men. On the other hand, faction fights were fought with sticks, clubs, stones, and other instruments of bludgeon by large numbers of people who gathered after Mass or at fairs, patterns, or other events.

Deaths and severe injuries were common. Police or military intervention often resulted in further casualties. While inquests followed, the police or military shooters and their commanders were usually exonerated and commended. Those involved in faction fighting faced the full severity of the law. Prosecutions for duelling were relatively rare.

In early February 1814, news that magistrate George Clendenning and a significant number of the military quartered at Westport had departed the town travelled quickly. It was agreed that Thursday, February 10, would be the day an old score between two rival factions would be settled. On one side, there were the people of Westport and Aughagower; on the other, the people of Kilmeena.

The Kilmeena faction descended on the town in large numbers, armed with sticks and clubs. Such was the number of combatants on the streets that magistrate Charles Higgins and the small military force that remained became very concerned. It was decided that a show of force was the most prudent course of action.

A detachment of the Roscommon Militia under Captain Roper's command was sent to parade in the town. Their presence on the streets did not have the desired impact. They were pursued by rioters 'huzzaing' and taunting them. Repeated assaults were made on the militia, and some had their bayonets taken. A man named Joyce was bayonetted by one of the soldiers. Simultaneously, the two factions continued to do battle with each other while small groups broke off and attacked the militia.

Charles Higgins and his son Luke were on horseback. The latter was taken from his horse and seriously hurt. Charles Higgins then read the Riot Act and called on the military to open fire. Roper ordered the troops to fire their muskets high to avoid fatalities. A second volley of musket fire quickly followed. Edmund Gibbons of Aughagower was standing some distance off. He was not involved in the rioting but was struck by a musket ball and dropped. He died the following Saturday, leaving a large family.

At the inquest that followed, it was contended that he was killed by a shot from a musket that failed to fire until it was lowered and then discharged itself. This convenient explanation explained why he was hit by a ball discharged from a musket that was not aimed above the heads of civilians. Another man died shortly after, and it was reported that the chances of Joyce recovering were poor. One of the ringleaders, a man named Gibbons, was locked in the barracks guard room. A blacksmith had been employed exclusively for an entire week to put ferrules on the clubs of one of the factions. Charles Higgins received the usual commendation.

Today, a grey plaque with the inscription ‘C.H. 1780’ adorns the façade of a building on James Street, Westport (photo www.buildingsofireland.ie ). The townhouse was built in 1780 by Charles Higgins (1715-1791 ) on what some say was then Higgins Street. The Browne family, it would seem, reclaimed the name.

In 1815, Charles Higgins fought a bloodless duel at Breaghwy with H. P. Browne of St Audries. In 1842, Lord James Browne fought a duel with George Ousley Higgins at Coguala near Carnacon.

It was reported that a misunderstanding arose ‘when the lie was given, and several blows of the whip received.’ Browne fired first but missed. Higgins then fired his pistol in the air. Browne expressed himself satisfied, which suggests he had called Higgins out. Browne’s second was George H. Moore of Moorehall, while Higgins had Frederick Cavendish.

In 1786, Luke Higgins, a tanner of Castlebar, and Charles Higgins of Westport were tried and, somewhat surprisingly, acquitted of the attempted murder of George Robert Fitzgerald while Fitzgerald was imprisoned at Castlebar. Fitzgerald was one of the most notorious duellists of the 18th century.


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