Ireland's Minister for Justice Helen McEntee TD secured Government approval on Tuesday, April 16 to recommend to President Higgins to grant a posthumous presidential pardon to Sylvester Poff and James Barrett.

Poff and Barrett were convicted of the murder of Thomas Browne in October 1882 and were both executed in January 1883.

Ireland's Department of Justice said on Tuesday that given a number of factors in this case, and based upon the detailed Report received from Dr. Niamh Howlin, Minister McEntee and her government colleagues decided to recommend to the President that he exercise his right to pardon, contained in Article 13.6 of the Constitution on the grounds their convictions were unsafe.

The granting of a Presidential Pardon is a right which should be offered only in the most deserving of circumstances, the Department noted.

Minister McEntee said on Tuesday: “This is a very rare occurrence and a very high bar must be reached for the Government to recommend to the president that he exercise this right.

“Having considered the findings in Dr Howlin’s report, the trial, conviction, and execution of Mr. Poff and Mr. Barrett were unfair by the standards of the time.

“Both men were wrongfully convicted and suffered the harshest penalty under the law of the time in what can now be attributed to a miscarriage of justice.

“I would like to acknowledge the work done by the Castleisland District Heritage Inc. Michael O’Donohue Memorial Project in bringing this case to my Department.”

Johnnie Roche, Chairman of Castleisland District Heritage, shakes hands with Tomo Burke, great grandson of Sylvester...

Posted by Castleisland District Heritage on Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Details of the case, according to Ireland's Department of Justice

The 1880s in Ireland brought frequent agitation for land reform, which often developed into agrarian violence, with outrages pertaining to matters such as landlords, evictions, rent strikes, and boycotts, known as the Land War.

In May 1882, the murders of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the Chief Secretary, and his Under Secretary, T.H. Burke were carried out in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. Referred to as the Phoenix Park Murders, they were the catalyst for the legislative response to the growing agrarian unrest.

The Prevention of Crime (Ireland) Act 1882 (1882 Act) was a piece of coercive legislation passed in July 1882 in the aftermath of the Phoenix Park murders to clamp down on crimes such as “treason, murder, arson, attacks on dwelling-houses and crimes of aggravated violence.” Co Kerry and the area around Castleisland in particular, was experiencing a great deal of unrest and violence during this period.

On October 3, 1882, Thomas Browne was murdered while working in one of his fields in Dromulton, near Scartaglin in Co Kerry. Two men in dark coats, seen from behind, shot him several times.

Sylvester Poff and James Barrett, who did not match the descriptions of the assailants, were known to be in the vicinity at the time. The two men were arrested following a statement by a neighbour that they had seen them enter the field where Browne was shot.

The prosecution case largely rested on the evidence of a neighbour, whose story changed as the case progressed and who could not be regarded as a reliable witness. Poff and Barrett were tried twice before special juries in Cork for the murder of Browne after the jury in the first trial failed to reach agreement on a verdict.

Poff and Barrett were convicted of the murder of Browne in December 1882 and, despite petitions for mercy to the Lord Lieutenant, they were hanged in Tralee Gaol in January 1883.

Expert report

Dr. Niamh Howlin, an expert in 19th Century trial law and an Associate Professor in the Sutherland School of Law, UCD, was engaged by the Department of Justice to undertake an independent external review of the case and to advise upon the safety of the conviction or otherwise, with clear reference to the prevailing standards at the time.

Dr. Howlin's examination concluded that a number of factors, including in the investigation and procedures around the trial, led her to form the opinion that Poff's and Barrett's convictions were unsafe. These factors included: a ‘packed jury,' evidential deficiencies (including conflicting witness testimony), no motive, and that other lines of enquiry appear to have been neglected during the investigation and trial.

In addition, the report found that there was no direct evidence against Poff and Barrett, with the case resting on the circumstantial and contradictory evidence of one witness.

Dr Howlin concluded her report by stating: "A twenty-first century criminal court would not convict Poff and Barrett on the basis of the evidence which was presented by the Crown in 1882. The convictions were also inconsistent with the legal standards of the period.

“They were convicted on the basis of evidence which was both circumstantial and weak. The trials and conviction of Poff and Barrett included legal and procedural deficiencies which were ‘so inconsistent with the legal standards of the period and so objectively unsatisfactory and unfair, that they render the conviction unsafe.”

Posthumous Presidential Pardons in Ireland

This is the fourth occasion that a posthumous Presidential Pardon could be awarded. The first posthumous Presidential Pardon was awarded by President Higgins to Harry Gleeson in 2015.

The second posthumous Presidential Pardon, and the first to be granted for events which occurred prior to the formation of the State, was granted to Myles Joyce in April 2018, who was executed having been found guilty of involvement in the Maamtrasna murders in 1882.

The third posthumous pardon was awarded to John Twiss in 2021.

The threshold to recommend a Presidential Pardon is high and, since 1937, only seven Presidential Pardons have been awarded.