Lan­guage, life and death in Con­nemara

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - BOOKS -

THIS month sees the 136th an­niver­sary of the sen­tenc­ing of Myles Joyce who was con­victed in 1882 for the in­fa­mous Maam­trasna mur­ders and awarded a post­hu­mous par­don ear­lier this year. In Au­gust 1882, five mem­bers of the Joyce fam­ily were bru­tally mur­dered in their home near Lough Mask; the en­su­ing tri­als and ex­e­cu­tions con­tinue in no­to­ri­ety due to the mis­car­riage of jus­tice in­volved.

My book The Maam­trasna Mur­ders: Lan­guage, Life and Death in Nine­teenth-cen­tury Ire­land, just pub­lished by Univer­sity Col­lege Dublin Press, ex- amines the role that lan­guage played in the un­fold­ing and re­port­ing of the case and in the events that fol­lowed.

My in­ter­est in this sub­ject be­gan some years ago when the trea­sure-trove of 1901 and 1911 cen­sus data be­came avail­able on­line from the Na­tional Ar­chives.

Like count­less oth­ers, I dis­cov­ered fam­ily in­for­ma­tion I hadn’t known. In 1911 my great-grand­par­ents Michael and Mary Kelle­her, liv­ing in Drom­a­hane, Co Cork were, to my sur­prise, bilin­gual speak­ers of Ir­ish and English, but their son Michael, my pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, spoke only English.

Five miles away, Mar­garet Ah­ern (fu­ture wife of Michael and my grand­mother) was listed as “scholar” and as speak­ing “Ir­ish and English”; this was clearly a mat­ter of great pride to her par­ents, listed as speak­ing English only.

Too of­ten, the story of lan­guage change in Ire­land is told as an in­evitable shift from Ir­ish to English, but cul­tural changes are never ex­pe­ri­enced as in­evitable by those who live through them.

In many fam­i­lies like mine, bilin­gual­ism — in­her­ited or ac­quired — con­tin­ued into the early 20th Cen­tury.

In many re­gions, mono­lin­gual speak­ing of Ir­ish was preva­lent still in the clos­ing decades of the 19th Cen­tury.

Myles Joyce spoke only Ir­ish in 1882, as was the case at that time for just un­der half of the pop­u­la­tion of Ross barony (on the bor­der of coun­ties Gal­way and Mayo) where he lived.

As I re­searched the case of Maam­trasna, I dis­cov­ered a star­tling range of lan­guage com­pe­tence among the ac­cused, with fate­ful re­sults.

Pa­trick Joyce, the first man con­victed and later ex­e­cuted, spoke English well, as did Pa­trick Casey, the se­cond man tried.

How­ever Pa­trick Casey’s brother, John, and his un­cle Michael spoke Ir­ish only, as was the case for Myles Joyce and his two broth­ers, Martin and Paudeen.

Most sig­nif­i­cantly for the out­come of the trial, two of the 10 ar­rested, An­thony Philbin and Thomas Casey, were flu­ent speak­ers of English, hav­ing spent time work­ing in Eng­land.

They turned “Queen’s ev­i­dence” and be­came State in­form­ers against their neigh­bours.

At the end of the trial, three men were sen­tenced to death and five to life in prison.

Most fa­mously, or in­fa­mously, Myles Joyce was de­nied the ser­vices of an in­ter­preter dur­ing his trial. When sen­tenced, the elo­quence of his protests in Ir­ish, trans­lated into English for the court by a RIC con­sta­ble, made a re­mark­able im­pres­sion on those present.

On the eve of their ex­e­cu­tion, Pa­trick Joyce and Pa­trick Casey con­fessed to hav­ing been part of the mur­der party, but em­pha­sised that Myles Joyce and four of the men sen­tenced to life were in­no­cent of any part in the crimes.

This was not con­sid­ered enough to stop the hang­ing and Myles Joyce was ex­e­cuted in Gal­way jail on De­cem­ber 15, 1882.

But what of the other five men? In my re­search into the con­di­tions they ex­pe­ri­enced in prison, I dis­cov­ered that here, too, lan­guage played a large part in their gross iso­la­tion.

In Mary­bor­ough jail (now Port­laoise) where the men spent a large part of their prison lives, far from their western homes, only one Ir­ish-speak­ing warder was on the staff.

In 1891 the Ro­man Catholic chap­lain (who spoke English only) wrote to the Dublin prison board ask­ing for the as­sis­tance of an Ir­ish-speak­ing priest to at­tend to the men’s spir­i­tual needs; his re­quests, made re­peat­edly, were re­fused.

The Maam­trasna case, both in the events that made head­lines and in the hid­den sto­ries, is a salu­tary re­minder of what can tran­spire when a ju­di­cial sys­tem fails to rec­og­nize lin­guis­tic di­ver­sity or to en­sure that its pro­ceed­ings can be un­der­stood by all.

Lan­guage played a vi­tal role in the tragic Maam­trasna mur­ders case, writes Pro­fes­sor Mar­garet Kelle­her

An artist’s im­pres­sion of the trial of Myles Joyce for mur­der in 1882 (right) the book

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