Bookshelf – False witness and perjury condemned these men
THE CRAUGHWELL PRISONERS
By Pat Finnegan
FOUR COURTS PRESS
ONE OF THE great polemics against the death penalty was written by the French writer Albert Camus. In he described how his father had attended the execution by guillotine of a notorious murderer, had returned to the family home and had there been violently sick.
As a method of execution, hanging is not quite as barbaric to the bystander as beheading, but to the person facing the noose it is a horrendous prospect.
So the idea of the condemned man and his executioner coming face to face in a railway carriage on the way to the jail seems grotesque beyond belief.
Yet this is exactly what happened to Patrick Finnegan, wrongly condemned to death for the murder of Peter Doherty in 1884.
At Mullingar Station, en route from Sligo where he had been tried to Galway where he was to be executed, he and his RIC guard stepped into a compartment in which were seated two men with broad Yorkshire accents. They were the executioner, James Berry, and his assistant.
Not only that: when Finnegan was in the cell in Galway, Berry was in the room above, and his whistling and singing disturbed the condemned man.
What possessed the authorities to allow such psychological torture is not commented on in this book, the full and cumbersome title of which is The case of the Craughwell Prisoners during the Land War in Co Galway, 1879-85. It is no coincidence that the author is also Pat Finnegan. He is the grandson of the man whose sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and has up to now been known principally as a distinguished physician.
In his retirement Dr Finnegan researched the circumstances of the case, and has produced a history that makes one glad to live under our present judicial system, flawed and all as it may be.
The death penalty was taken utterly for granted in the 19th century, and along with the guilty, many an innocent went to the scaffold. One such was Myles Joyce, convicted unjustly of the Maamtrasna Murders, and the same fate could have befallen Pat Finnegan and his co-accused, Michael Muldowney, an RIC constable.
The murder that was at the origin of the story was that of Peter Doherty, son of a family that had taken over a 12-acre farm on an estate near Craughwell at the time of the land agitation in East Galway.
Feelings were running particularly high at this time, when rapacious landlords were evicting people at will, and no fewer than eight people were shot in a triangle bounded by Athenry, Loughrea and Ardrahan between 1881 and 1882.
The Dohertys got an abandoned farm that had been sought by another local family, the Morrisseys, and had been threatened by local agitators. It could be read into the story that the latter had more influence locally than the latter: it does look as though the murder was from a personal rather than a political motive.
Not that that mattered to Pat Finnegan — he and Muldowney were convicted on flimsy and contradictory evidence, mainly from two informers, in a manner that would be inconceivable today.
The story of the crime, the trials, the commutation of the sentences, the imprisonment for almost 20 years and the subsequent lives of the two innocent men is a rivetting one, and a valuable insight into a world that is gone forever, and good riddance to it.
A COLONY OF STRANGERS
By Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill
CONNEMARA GIRL PUBLNS
THERE is nothing quite as dramatic in the latest publication by Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill, but her latest work, subtitled “The founding and early history of Clifden” is an insight into another aspect of our history — that of the improving landlord.
The man in question was John D’Arcy, who had a strong connection with East Galway through his marriage to Frances Blake of Castlegrove House near Tuam. The D’Arcys also owned New Forest, near Clonberne.
John’s dream was to establish a new market town which would benefit and make prosperous the tenants of his large estates in Connemara, where he owned over 17,000 acres.
He was only 19 when he came into his inheritance in 1804, but immediately began to improve the existing roads and lay out plans for a town, even including a racecourse.
While there was some agitation in the area, mainly by a group called the Connemara Threshers, D’Arcy does not appear ever to have been in danger, and in 1811 he even ordered the release from Galway Gaol of three men who had been sentenced to three public whippings under the Whiteboy Act.
In 1812, when not a lot of progress had been made on the new town, Alexander Nimmo, Galway’s most famous Scot, came to town. He designed new roads, and a pier, and new houses began to be built. The grandest of them was Clifden Castle, built by D’Arcy and unfortunately now disappeared.
From then on Clifden’s progress reflected the national experience: churches were built, religious orders arrived, and John MacHale’s influence was evident in the delay in providing a national school. The town had its share of distinguished visitors, one of whom, Maria Edgeworth, poked fun at Samuel Jones, a carpenter’s son from her estate who nevertheless won the hand of a rich young lady and built Ardbear House, which later became a school.
D’Arcy’s dream did come true, and his achievement is evidence that not all landlord influence on this country was baleful.