In 1882, three Irish speakers in Connemara were wrongfully condemned to death for the murder of a family in Maamtrasna.
When the family — John Joyce; his wife Brighid; his mother, Mairéad; his daughter Peigí; and son Micheál — were killed in Maamtrasna valley it was believed at the time that the motive was connected with stealing sheep. Two of the family survived the attack: a nine-year-old boy, Patsy, who was injured, and his older brother Mairtín, who had been working as a farmhand in a nearby parish and was away from home that night.
On the basis of what was later found to be perjured evidence, eight men were convicted for the crime. Three of the eight were executed and five imprisoned.
The Irish Times reported on the execution from the Galway scaffold, and publishing the account on December 16, 1882.
“At a quarter-past eight o’clock the prison doors were thrown open.”
“With startled looks they marked the wild, hollow eyes, sunken cheeks, and shrunken forms of each other, but not a word passed between them. Myles Joyce came first, between two warders, bareheaded, repeating in Irish the responses to the prayers which were being read by the Rev Mr Grevan.
“Then came Pat Casey, pinioned, silent, and with a look of great agony on his features. Last appeared Pat Joyce, taller than the others, wearing his hat, silent, too, and walking with firm and steady step . . . ”
Executioner William Marwood placed the tallest man in the center and began tying the knees. The Irish Times correspondent reported that Myles Joyce continued to speak in an “excited way.”
“It was impossible to gather the meaning of much that fell from him, even by Irish-speaking persons who were present; but the following sentences have been interpreted for me by one who understands and speaks the language thoroughly, and who was close enough to hear the greater part of what he said.
“These sentences were: ‘I am going before my God. I was not there at all. I had no hand or part in it. I am as innocent as a child in the cradle. It is a poor thing to take this life away on a stage; but I have my priest with me.’ ”
After the hanging, the report stated: “Two of the ropes remained perfectly motionless, but the third, that by which Myles Joyce was hanged, could be seen by those who watched it closely to vibrate, and swing slightly backwards and forwards.”
“It soon became evident, from Marwood’s behaviour, that there had been a hitch of some kind or other, and he muttered, ‘bother the fellow’, sat down on the scaffold, laid hold of the rope, and moved it backwards and forwards . . . ”
Two years later, in August 1884, one of the witnesses to the case, Tom Casey, walked up to the altar of the church in Tourmakeady during a Mass by the archbishop of Tuam, Dr John McEvilly, and declared he had caused the death of an innocent man, Myles Joyce and the wrongful imprisonment of four others.
The Irish Times reports that although there followed lengthy debates in the British parliament over the matter, with Charles Stewart Parnell and other demanding an inquiry, there has never been an official apology.
Journalist Seán Ó Cuirreáin, whose new book ‘Éagóir’ covers the case, calls the saga a mix of “murder mystery, courtroom drama and political intrigue.”
Ó Cuirreáin discovered through the British archives that the witness were paid— by lord-lieutenant the Earl Spencer. He compensate three men who claimed to be eye witnesses, and paid them well over the going rate: a sum totaling £1,250, today equal to about €157,000.
The accused men’s defense lawyer was a 24-year-old Trinity College graduate who didn’t understand Irish, and the men themselves had no understanding of what was going on in court.
According to Ó Cuirreáin, the court records one of the men asking “Cén lá a chrocfar mé?” (“What day will I be hanged?”).
The five men who were sent to prison languished there despite the fact that the man who had planned and directed the murders was named publicly in print and in parliament.
Journalist and MP, Tim Harrington, was the first person to champion their case. Harrington had met some of the men when he was convicted for participating in anti-eviction protests.
“Harrington did all the good things an investigative journalist would do, visiting the area with two priests in 1885,” Ó Cuirreáin says. “He even named the instigator, who was never charged, because even back then the British government couldn’t contemplate the ‘appalling vista’ of having to admit to convicting innocent people.”
One of the reasons Ó Cuirreáin was attracted to the case was the “language issue.” Men who only spoke and understood Irish were tried and convicted in an English-speaking court. Although there have been other accounts of the case, ‘Éagóir’ is the first book published in Irish, and Ó Cuirreáin says he wrote the book “as a mark of respect to the men and their families.”
The Irish Times reports that two members of the House of Lords, David Alton, who has close family ties with the Maamtrasna area, and the late Eric Lubbock, sought to have the case reviewed five years ago.
Although Britain’s justice minister, Crispin Blunt, agreed that Myles Joyce was “probably an innocent man,” he said he would not seek a posthumous pardon unless there were “compelling new reasons or sufficient public interest.”
Lord Alton says the case opened prime minister William Gladstone’s eyes to the “injustices in Ireland and paved the way for his support for land reform, for Irish home rule and for his ‘mission to pacify Ireland.’”
Lord Alton, who noted the parallels of the Maamtrasna case with the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, said that “the true healing of British-Irish relations requires that, wherever possible, ghosts should be laid peacefully to rest and wrongs righted. If we forget the lessons of history, or try to erase those experiences from our identity, we will be condemned to make the same errors all over again.”