Wednesday, February 06, 2019


Margaret Kelleher
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Maamtrasna, in Co. Mayo, fits perfectly the Irish description "iargúlta". It is isolated in the wilderness in the back of beyond. Yet I know about it and this is all down to one huge and malicious miscarriage of justice in 1882.

One innocent man was hanged and three innocent men imprisoned for twenty years following a series of trials which were not only mismanaged but were manipulated to get convictions irrespective of the evidence. In fact much of the evidence which would have been very inconvenient or fatal to the prosecution was suppressed.

Margaret Kelleher has been studying all of this for the last ten years. She has just published a magnificent, and surely the definitive, book on the case. Her research is comprehensive and copiously footnoted for anyone who might want to challenge it or follow up aspects of it. Hopefully there will be many in the latter category.

It is also beautifully written, not always the case for a book with such high academic credentials . Complex material is presented in a well structured and clear fashion. The writing is well honed and concise. Words are not wasted and those that are used say exactly what they mean. While the style is dispassionate the text is charged with emotion and the book is, frankly, unputdownable. It is a blood boiler from beginning to end.

The book's subtitle gives a clue to the range and breadth of the work. While the murders and their aftermath carry the story line the book explores in depth the complex issue of language transition, particularly in the west of Ireland, in the late nineteenth century.

The simple view, which I had myself, was of a more or less smooth transition from Irish monoglot, through bilingualism to English monoglot, a process accelerated by the Great Hunger of '45 to '47. But it was not that straightforward. Individuals within communities were at different stages in this process, some reverting along the way. All were subject to the overlordship of the monoglot English administration.

So, as Margaret observes, language mattered. And this is illustrated to a devastating degree in the story. Language determined who you were and what you were, who you could deal with directly and who you needed an intermediary to deal with. In this latter case private communication was ruled out. Then, depending on the circumstances, there would be people you could not deal with at all, though, as we saw in this story, that didn't necessarily stop them dealing with you.

The first thing I do with a book like this is read the acknowledgements. I was reassured to see two friends mentioned, Felix Larkin and Cormac Ó Gráda. This both reassured me of the quality of the research and introduced Margaret as a friend and companion on a most rewarding journey.

Then I look at the bibliography to see what's reposing backstage as it were. The bibliography is over sixteen pages long and I see it includes Col. Eoghan Ó Néill's book Gleann an Óir. It also includes Garret FitzGerald's inspirational use of cohort data from censuses to trace the path of the Irish language over a longer period than might have seemed possible at first sight.

In passing I'd mention that there are seventy pages of endnotes.

So I was very comfortable starting into this book.

Before I get into the story I should remind potential readers that the book draws on material on language challenges both in Ireland and elsewhere and touches on the problems and deficiencies in the current system for dealing with our multi-ethnic communities.

Maolra Seoighe (Myles Joyce)

The main character, insofar as there is one, is Myles Joyce.

Although he had nothing to do with it, he is accused of being part of a gang of locals who brutally murdered a local family in the middle of the night. The male victims were shot and the women battered to death. Of two children, one died very shortly after the murders and one survived.

List compiled by Tim Harrington MP in 1884

You can get an idea of the complexity of the case from these lists compiled by Tim Harrington at the time. The murdered family were all Joyces (John, Michael, Bridget, Margaret & Peggy). Those arrested were mainly Joyces and Caseys.

Of the ten arrested, eight were found guilty. Three of these were executed, five were committed to penal servitude for life. The remaining two arrested turned Queen's evidence.

List compiled by Tim Harrington MP in 1884

Harrington also published a list of the (alleged) actual murderers. Combining the two lists suggests that only four of the ten arrested were actually guilty.

Of that four, two were executed, one died in penal servitude and one turned Queen's evidence.

The three remaining from the seven alleged guilty were still at large in 1884 when the lists were compiled.

This is the young Pat Joyce, who survived the murders, appearing as a witness in court.

Although he had been accepted as being capable of being a witness when he was deposed prior to the trial, his inconvenient evidence was not admitted on the basis that he didn't understand the oath. Comments from the other boy, Michael Joyce, as he lay dying were recorded but withheld from the trial.

The significance of these omissions is that they would have revealed that the murderers had their faces blackened and this would have put some of the evidence of witnesses claiming to have identified the murderers in doubt.

Another defect in the process was the lack of interpretation for Myles Joyce of what was going on in court. Whether this was due to a misunderstanding or to the court's reluctance to believe in genuine monoglot Irish speakers is an open question. There was a general feeling in the courts at that time that many accused who understood English were claiming monoglot Irish status as it gave them time to think up answers while the interpreter was speaking.

Finally, two of the guilty, on the eve of their execution, swore that Myles Joyce was innocent and Myles himself loudly proclaimed his innocence right up to the moment the gallows traps were opened. This, in fact, led to his botched execution where he died slowly of asphyxiation instead of immediately of a broken neck.

No weight was given to these protests of Myles's innocence from the three men on their way to meet their maker.

These are the three innocents who survived penal servitude, Thomas, Pat & Martin Joyce, the top photos are from 1882 as they started their prison sentence and the bottom ones are from 1902 when they were released.

Tim Harrington MP by Thomas Fitzpatrick

I had never heard of the Maamtrasna murders until recently, when TG4 screened a programme on them. This, however, is me. They were a cause celèbre at the time, feeding the international, and particularly the British, press's demonisation of the savage Irish.

Then, and thereafter, Tim Harrington, MP, kept the case alive for years. He is best remembered as an MP, member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and three times Lord Mayor of Dublin.

Just two years after the murders, in 1884, Harrington published a pamphlet, "Maamtrasna Massacres - Impeachment of the Trials" in which he dismantled the Crown Prosecution's case against six of the men accused of the murders. He provided evidence that Crown Prosecutor George Bolton had deliberately suppressed evidence that would have acquitted Myles Joyce, who was hanged, and four men who were sentenced to twenty years of penal servitude.

The case largely fell into obscurity during the twentieth century but in more recent times there was a campaign for Myles Joyce to be pardoned. To the fore in this was Seán Ó Cuirreáin, former Coimisinéir Teanga, who in 2016 published "Éagóir: Maolra Seoighe agus Dúnmharuithe Mhám Trasna" which drew on newly available sources and formed the basis for the TG4 programme.

President Michael D. Higgins signing a warrant on 4 April 2018,
granting a posthumous pardon to Mr. Maolra Seoighe (Myles Joyce)
Photo credit: Maxwell Photography

The campaign persuaded the Government of the day, under Enda Kenny, to commission Niamh Howlin, a legal historian, to review the case of Myles Joyce. She found that the conviction was unsafe according to the standards of the time. The Government accepted this finding and recommended a pardon to the President.

On the 4th of April 2018 the President signed the pardon (above) which stated
NOW I, Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland, do hereby, on the advice of the Government, pardon the said Myles Joyce in respect of the said conviction, and wholly remit the sentence imposed as if he had not been so charged or convicted.
Only five presidential pardons have been awarded since 1937, and this is the first to have been recommended for a case which occurred before the State’s foundation.

I don't think the British were at all pleased at this indictment of the "justice" system they foisted on us then and of the implicit criticism of their "dealings" with the Irish language.

Me, I was thrilled.

You can follow up on the pardon here, including with photographs and the President's speech.

Do read the President's speech carefully. While not his most elegant, it takes many a well deserved swipe at many a well deserving target, including at Lord Denning, he of the appalling vista, in more recent times.

You can hear Margaret talking about the book and her own interest in the subject in this interview (35 minutes)and also with Myles Dungan on The History Show.

Finally, thank you Margaret for a wonderful book. And thanks also to all those who have laboured in this particular vineyard and to whom you give full credit in the book.

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