Back in August 1882, a gang of men entered a tiny homestead in Maamtrasna, County Galway, and murdered five of the occupants. John Joyce, his wife Bridget, mother Margaret, son Michael and daughter Peggy, who died from either bullet wounds, head fractures or severe beatings. One of John’s son was absent at the time, the other, Patsy, though severely injured, ultimately survived.
The case caught the public imagination because of its brutality and scale. Speculation about a motive ran rife. Eight men stood trial. The case was conducted in English, and the three who were executed spoke only Irish. And it’s this injustice that particularly interests the historian, Margaret Kelleher. Indeed, her newly published book on the murders is subtitled, Language, Life and Death in Nineteenth-Century Ireland.”
“My aim with the book was, very much, to read these events through the larger story of language in Ireland,” she says, over the phone.
It all started, for Margaret, when she looked up her family on the 1911 Census.
“Now that the Censors from the national archive are on line, it’s possible for us to trace our families, and I was astounded to find that my father’s grandfather, Michael Kelleher, of Dromahane, Dromore, County Cork, was bilingual as late as 1911. I had no idea Irish has lasted that long.
“His wife, Margaret was bilingual, also, but his children were English speaking only. You can see the change starkly. It showed me that in my family, as in countless others, an older generation’s bilingual practice gave way to monolingual use of English.
“In contrast my grandmother, an Ahern from Kilshannig, was listed by her parents as bilingual because she was learning Irish at school. Clearly, they were proud of this – of a child having a language their parents did not have.”
Her interest piqued, she began to research this phenomenon – noting, with interest that it was also a feature in the writer, James Joyce’s family.
“John Stan Joyce did the same when he was filling out the census. James Joyce was 18 or 19 at the time, and he was listed as bilingual. Clearly, his father was proud of that.”
Her research soon led to the murders, and hence, to the book. Although clearly an academic study, Margaret’s clear writing style, and way with words make this accessible for the general reader. Heartrending at times, it gives a fascinating insight of Ireland at that time.
“My publishers decided on a good quality paperback to make it more accessible,” says Margaret. “And it paid off. The book is now going into its third printing.”
Where, though, did her interest in language come from?
“As chair of Anglo-Irish Literature at University College Dublin, I’ve worked on 19th Century literature and history, and the language change in the 19th Century is remarkable for it’s rapidity. What interested me, was that when areas change from predominantly one language to another, it was only bilingual for a short period of time. What, I wondered, were the reasons for learning English, and what are the reasons for ceasing to speak Irish?” She pauses. “I often wonder, what if? What if Ireland had remained bi-lingual? How different a society might we have now?”
It’s not clear why the Joyce family were massacred. But the attack occurred at a time of great brutality.
“The Phoenix Park murders happened that year – constables were living in fear. It was a time of great social tension with a lot of violence, and initially the RIC rushed to judgement, and the linguistic issues played a large part of that.”
There were rumours that one of the family was an informer, but Kelleher doubts this.
“My sense, as much as I can account for it, is that it was rivalry,” she says. “As the head of the household John Joyce was beginning to consolidate his holdings – as many tenants in that period were – and that would make him a stronger man in the community. It would seem he fell foul of another strong man, John Casey. There was a history of animosity and tension about sheep and grazing rights.”
It’s clear that the family faced some level of alienation.
“One of the most heart-breaking details is about Patsy, the eight-year-old boy who was wounded that night. The local women would not tend to his injuries.”
There’s a theory that the men had gone to frighten John Joyce and had accidentally killed him – and that when the men were leaving, they heard one of the women say that she recognised the men.
“And they went back and killed the women. The three women were bludgeoned to death – it was very brutal.”
Ten men were charged with the murder. Two of them, Anthony Philbin and Thomas Casey had worked in England and were proficient in the language. Able, therefore, to communicate with the constable, they ended up turning Queen’s evidence, but the others had no such advantage. The five who pleaded guilty were let off, but the other three were executed.
At the time, 90pc of the population spoke Irish – half of those spoke only Irish, yet the only Roman Catholic priest available to give the men the sacraments, didn’t speak Irish. Their request for an Irish speaking priest was refused. The trial was carried out entirely in English, and the accused men had a solicitor who had no words of Irish.
The young victim, Patsy would have influenced the case, had he been allowed to give evidence, but this was disallowed because he hadn’t learned his catechism, and would not know the consequences of a lie.
Myles Joyce, through a mis-interpretation was denied an interpreter. There was one attending the court, but he failed to translate for the prisoner. The guilty verdict came as a shock to him, since he had not understood anything being said during his trial.
His articulate claim, in Irish, that he was innocent caused unease in the court. And when he was executed, he turned to the hangman and asked why he should die. Ironically, the hangman, an English speaker, failed to understand those last words.
The surviving victim, Patsy, didn’t have an easy life.
“He’d lost all his family. After the murders he spent years in Artane. Then he went to America and disappeared without trace. It was a huge tragedy and he was only eight years old when it happened.”
In the intervening years, many, convinced of the men’s innocence, have campaigned for their pardon.
“The main campaigner in the years after the executions was Timothy Harrington. He was a good friend of James Joyce’s father, and the writer, who was a young reporter at the time, took a great interest in the case.”
There have been many attempts over the years, to achieve a pardon for Myles Joyce. But it wasn’t until last March, that, following a commissioned report by Dr Niamh Howlin which showed the conviction was unsafe, that President Higgins granted it. With the book almost completed, Margaret was delighted.
“I didn’t know that the pardon was coming up,” she says, “but I found that really inspiring. I’d met Johnny Joyce, the grandson of Martin, the brother who survived, because he was out the night of the murder, and he would have been adamant that the wrong men were charged. The pardon brought home the currency of the trial and how it resonates with people.”
But have we learned from the trial? Have we made good the mistakes of history? Margaret fears that we haven’t.
“There’s a growing concern for people in Ireland today who do not have the facility for English,” she says. “There’s continuity between the past and the present and that is symbolic – people are, maybe, not receiving first class representation in our courts because they are not receiving full interpretive services when they need them.”
The Maamtrasna Murders. Language, Life and Death in nineteenth century Ireland. University College Dublin Press: €20.
Published in The Irish Examiner, 9th February, 2019
© Sue Leonard. 2019