Book Review by Frank O’Shea
Margaret Kelleher: THE MAAMTRASNA MURDERS. Language, Life and Death in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. University College Dublin Press 2018. 328 pp.
In August 1882, a family of six was attacked in their home in an isolated area on the Galway-Mayo border. Father, mother, grandmother, daughter and son were killed; an eight-year old boy named Patsy was left for dead but survived. The family was named Joyce; the killers were named Joyce and Casey; three members of another Joyce family claimed to have seen it happen and testified in later murder trials. Almost all of those involved were cousins or in-laws.
The case came to public attention in Ireland in 2018 when Myles Joyce, one of the men who was found guilty of murder and hanged, was exonerated and pardoned by President Michael D Higgins. The pardon followed an ‘authoritative review’ which concluded that the ‘conviction was unsafe according to the standards of the time.’ This book makes it clear that by today’s standards, Myles would not even have been charged.
Professor Margaret Kelleher of the school of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama at University College Dublin has written a detailed account of the background to the murders and the subsequent trials. She places particular importance on the fact that although most of those accused spoke only Irish, the trial was conducted in English. Myles Joyce, in particular, was disadvantaged by this. An interpreter was provided for some, though not all, of the trials, but that person was a policeman, leaving open the possibility that translations could be manipulated.
Eight-year old Patsy Joyce was still alive after the attack on his family, as was his older brother who died later. Both told the people who found them, including the police, that they did not know the attackers because their faces were blackened with soot or polish. This fact was in the police reports, but was never raised in court; instead the word of three Joyce members of another family was accepted when they said they recognised the killers from some distance away. To make matters worse, the trial judge would not allow young Patsy to give his account because he had not been told about God and would not understand the importance for his immortal soul of telling the truth under oath.
There were other irregularities in the trials. Two of those involved turned Queen’s evidence and were spared the death penalty, but it appears that four of those given life sentences were innocent. More significantly, Myles Joyce, aged 40 at the time, was at home when the events took place; he always claimed his innocence and two of those hanged for the crime, while admitting their parts in it, said that he had nothing to do with it. The three hangings took place at the same time with Myles futilely claiming in Irish that he was innocent; there were enough people present to hear him and record what he said.
Possibly because the author is a learned professor, this book contains a number of chapters that academics might regard as important; indeed the book reads in places like a number of formal academic papers rather than a modern narrative, an impression that is reinforced by more than 100 pages of notes and references. There is a long chapter discussing the spread of English in rural parts of Ireland in the 1800s; another chapter deals with James Joyce’s writing on the murders while he was living in Trieste and later how the events appear to crop up in Finnegans Wake.
Perhaps the following sentence, taken from the final chapter titled Conclusion may give a hint of the density of the writing,
My hope is that the study of Maamtrasna will also help to develop more dynamic models of linguistic change in Irish cultural studies that can attend to how individuals use language as a mobile resource, and often in creative bilingual manoeuvres that subvert an outdated monoglot ideology.
To which a weary reader can only respond, ‘Yes indeed, Professor.’
However, when the author is describing the trial and its aftermath, she seems to forget the academic patois to give us a story that is by turn frightening and sad, emotional and gripping.
Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tinteán collective.