Re­mem­ber­ing Maam­trasna

The Irish speaker wrongly con­victed and con­demned to death

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - WORDS BY MAR­GARET KELLE­HER

One hun­dred and thirty-six years ago this week, on Novem­ber 13th, 1882, the Maam­trasna tri­als be­gan in Dublin’s his­toric Green Street court­house. The now fa­mous de­fen­dant, Maolra Seoighe, Myles Joyce, was one of 10 men charged with the bru­tal killings of John Joyce (no re­la­tion), his wife Brid­get, mother Mar­garet, son Michael and daugh­ter Peggy in their home on the bor­der of coun­ties Gal­way and Mayo, three months be­fore.

In March of this year, in the pres­ence of Joyce fam­ily mem­bers, Pres­i­dent Michael D Hig­gins awarded a post­hu­mous par­don to Myles Joyce, fol­low­ing a com­mis­sioned re­port by Dr Ni­amh Howlin, UCD, which found that his con­vic­tion was un­safe.

What is now best known about Myles Joyce is that he was a monoglot Irish speaker who was not awarded the ser­vices of an in­ter­preter in the English-speak­ing court. Less well known is that a num­ber of his fel­low ac­cused could speak English well (two of them, An­thony Philbin and Thomas Casey, de­ployed their skill in English to turn Queen’s ev­i­dence against the other ac­cused) and that an in­ter­preter, a Gal­way RIC Con­sta­ble, was present in the Green Street court­house that day.

In 1881, the barony of Ross in which Myles Joyce lived had a pop­u­la­tion of 8,260, of which 7,350 peo­ple were Irish speak­ers and over half of th­ese (3,714 peo­ple) spoke Irish only. Who spoke what lan­guage mat­tered greatly in the Maam­trasna tri­als, as my book The Maam­trasna

Mur­ders: Lan­guage, Life and Death in

Nine­teenth-Cen­tury Ire­land shows, and lan­guage still mat­ters in re­la­tion to Myles Joyce’s legacy to­day.


Myles was the third man to be tried; his trial be­gan at noon on Fri­day, Novem­ber 17th, im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the de­liv­ery of a guilty ver­dict to the pre­ced­ing de­fen­dant Patrick Casey. The con­tem­po­rary tran­script of court pro­ceed­ings sur­vives in the files of the Na­tional Ar­chives Dublin as 243 pages of type­script. It shows clearly that new ju­ries were sworn in for each of the ac­cused but with­out any con­cern as to po­ten­tial bias among mem­bers who were al­ready in court and had au­dited the ear­lier pro­ceed­ings. Iron­i­cally, one of the ar­gu­ments jus­ti­fy­ing the use of the Spe­cial Com­mis­sion court in Dublin’s Green Street, rather than a Gal­way venue, was the fear of in­flu­ence on lo­cal ju­ries. Ac­cord­ing to the ac­count in Dublin’s

Evening Mail on Fri­day, Myles looked in­crim­i­nat­ingly com­posed: “On en­ter­ing the dock, he calmly looked round him and then took his seat with ap­par­ently the great­est com­po­sure and

dur­ing the day watched the pro­ceed­ings in the most list­less man­ner.” The Free­man’s Jour­nal re­porter recog­nised, more sym­pa­thet­i­cally, that un­like the oth­ers, Myles “did not ap­pear to have the slight­est knowl­edge of the lan­guage in which his trial is be­ing con­ducted”. That re­porter went on dili­gently to cap­ture one of the most fate­ful mo­ments in the trial (sig­nif­i­cantly, one not recorded by the court tran­script):

“At the sit­ting of the court, the at­tor­ney-gen­eral asked the learned coun­sel for the de­fence if the pris­oner un­der­stood English.

“Mr Con­can­non replied that he thought he did not, and that it might be bet­ter to have the ev­i­dence of the wit­nesses who speak English in­ter­preted to the pris­oner in Irish.

“The in­ter­preter asked the pris­oner in Irish if he un­der­stood the ev­i­dence that was be­ing given in English, and in­formed the court that the pris­oner replied in the af­fir­ma­tive.”

What oc­curs here is a cru­cial mo­ment of mis­trans­la­tion. The de­fence so­lic­i­tor Henry Con­can­non, quite re­mark­ably, was not sure as to his client’s knowl­edge of English and re­quested the ser­vices of an in­ter­preter. Myles Joyce’s an­swer­ing “in the af­fir­ma­tive” (namely, that he un­der­stood what the in­ter­preter said in Irish) was taken to mean that he un­der­stood ev­i­dence given in English. As a re­sult, the ser­vices of the in­ter­preter were not ex­tended to him in the course of the trial and were re­stored only at the de­liv­ery of a guilty ver­dict. Pat­syJoyce­ex­am­i­na­tion

The con­tem­po­rary il­lus­tra­tion from the

Lon­don Graphic cap­tures an ear­lier mo­ment from the trial pro­ceed­ings, dur­ing the brief ex­am­i­na­tion of young Patsy Joyce, the only mem­ber of his fam­ily to sur­vive the mur­der party’s grue­some at­tack. In the up­per-left­hand cor­ner is the 12-per­son jury, seated in the petty-jury box, with the wit­ness ta­ble sit­u­ated un­der­neath; cen­tral to the pic­ture, un­der the crown in­signia, sits the pre­sid­ing judge Charles Barry, and in front of him var­i­ous crown and de­fence coun­sel.

In the dock is the first ac­cused Patrick Joyce (with the pug­na­cious fea­tures com­mon to many late 19th-cen­tury il­lus­tra­tions). It is un­clear from the image where Con­sta­ble Evans, the RIC man charged with the work of in­ter­pret­ing, stood, but con­tem­po­rary ref­er­ences sug­gest that he was at a dis­tance from the ac­cused, nearer to the coun­sel.

Evans was not ap­pear­ing for the first time in Green Street as a court in­ter­preter. Three months ear­lier, in Au­gust, he had been put into ad hoc ser­vice dur­ing the Let­ter­frack mur­der tri­als. In some ear­lier ac­counts of the Maam­trasna case, it was sug­gested that he was a Done­gal man, who would not have been read­ily com­pre­hen­si­ble to Con­nemara Irish speak­ers. Lo­cal news­pa­pers, how­ever, show that Evans had worked in the Mayo re­gion for decades and had reg­u­larly tes­ti­fied at lo­cal petty ses­sions. Ac­cord­ing to RIC records, Con­sta­ble Thomas Evans was a na­tive of “Mayo/Gal­way”, a Protes­tant, who be­gan ser­vice at the age of 22 in 1854. In 1873 he mar­ried Mary Jane Colvin of Spid­dal and both are de­scribed as “con­gre­ga­tion­al­ist”; his mem­ber­ship of a Protes­tant Evan­gel­i­cal branch may have been the rea­son for his knowl­edge of Irish. Irish-lan­guage tes­ti­mony

Evans was re­peat­edly called upon dur­ing the Maam­trasna tri­als (in­clud­ing that of Myles) to trans­late into English the Irish-lan­guage tes­ti­mony of­fered by the key prose­cu­tion wit­nesses, An­thony and John Joyce, who were first cousins both of Myles Joyce and of the mur­dered John Joyce. But for the ma­jor­ity of Myles’s trial, dur­ing the English-lan­guage ev­i­dence given by the “ap­provers” Philbin and Casey, and by var­i­ous other prose­cu­tion wit­nesses – such as the civil en­gi­neer Ryan who pro­duced a metic­u­lous sketch of the mur­dered fam­ily’s home and lo­cal RIC mem­bers – Evans the in­ter­preter was silent.

The jury in the case of Myles Joyce re­tired at 3pm on Satur­day, Novem­ber 18th and re­turned to court six min­utes later to de­liver the ver­dict of guilty. The trial tran­script records that at this point Evans was re­called in order to ren­der Myles’s re­sponse to the guilty ver­dict.

The clerk of the crown: “What have you to say why judg­ment of death and ex­e­cu­tion should not be awarded against you ac­cord­ing to law?”

The pris­oner spoke in Irish to the in­ter­preter.

The in­ter­preter: “He says that by the God and Blessed Vir­gin above him that he had no deal­ings with it any more than the per­son who was never born; that against any­one for the past 20 years he never did any harm, and if he did, that he may never go to heaven; that he is as clear of it as the child not yet born; that on the night of the mur­der he slept in his bed with his wife that night, and that he has no knowl­edge about it what­ever. He also says that he is quite con­tent with what­ever the gentle­men may do with him, and that whether he be hanged or cru­ci­fied, he is as free and as clear of the crime as can be!”

This protest by Myles Joyce, that he was “as clear of it as the child not yet born”, de­ployed a long-es­tab­lished rhetor­i­cal trope, used in ear­lier le­gal tri­als and scaf­fold speeches. Yet de­spite such stock phrases and the for­mal­i­ties of the court record­ing process, the ca­dences and syn­tax of his words in Irish emerge pow­er­fully in the si­mul­ta­ne­ous trans­la­tion by Evans. Elo­quence in na­tive tongue

The fol­low­ing Mon­day, both the na­tion­al­ist

Free­man’s Jour­nal and con­ser­va­tive Daily Ex­press gave ex­ten­sive cov­er­age to Myles’s dec­la­ra­tion of in­no­cence and its im­pact on the court. The Ex­press’s ed­i­to­rial com­ment is es­pe­cially strik­ing in its recog­ni­tion of Myles’s elo­quence as a speaker in his na­tive lan­guage: “The fa­cil­ity with which he spoke, the easy, rapidly chang­ing, and not un­grace­ful mo­tion of his hands as he ac­cen­tu­ated his dec­la­ra­tion, com­bined with the strange, un­usual, but sonorous sounds of the moun­tain Gaelic in which he apos­trophised, as it were, heaven to bear tes­ti­mony to his free­dom from guilt, made a re­mark­able im­pres­sion on the court.”

And an even more evoca­tive as­pect of its re­port was the Christ-like ap­pear­ance at­trib­uted to Myles, who was de­scribed as stand­ing with “head turned up­wards” and “out­stretched arms”.

Pub­lished just two days af­ter the ver­dict, in a news­pa­per far re­moved from the ac­cused in po­lit­i­cal sym­pa­thies, the ac­count sug­gests a strong un­ease among those present in the court that day as to the fair­ness of the ver­dict. Nev­er­the­less, news­pa­per edi­tors were loud in their ac­cla­ma­tion of all eight con­vic­tions: “the sham­bles of Maam­trasna are avenged,” de­clared the Free­man’s Jour­nal leader on Novem­ber 22nd.

In later ac­counts of the trial, most fa­mously the 1907 es­say Ire­land at the Bar by the young jour­nal­ist James Joyce, em­pha­sis is placed on the si­lence of Myles Joyce – thus James Joyce de­scribes him as “a be­wil­dered old man . . . a deaf-mute be­fore his judge”. The con­tem­po­rary re­ports pow­er­fully re­mind us that Maolra Seoighe was elo­quent in protest­ing his in­no­cence, but in a lan­guage which few in the Dublin court seemed able to un­der­stand. Modern­in­ter­preter­roles

In Europe to­day, with mi­gra­tion and mo­bil­ity oc­cur­ring at an un­prece­dented scale, the role of pub­lic ser­vice in­ter­preters has gath­ered in ur­gency, yet re­cent in­ter­na­tional stud­ies high­light the paucity and poor qual­ity of many of th­ese ser­vices. Few coun­tries pro­vide for a na­tional reg­u­la­tion of the in­dus­try that would mon­i­tor the stan­dard of qual­i­fi­ca­tions and ex­per­tise of those em­ployed to trans­late. This, de­spite the fact that the Eu­ro­pean Con­ven­tion of Hu­man Rights, re­in­forced by later di­rec­tives, clearly states the right of an ac­cused to have the free as­sis­tance of an in­ter­preter if he or she does not have suf­fi­cient un­der­stand­ing of the lan­guage of their le­gal pro­ceed­ings.

In con­tem­po­rary Ire­land, the ar­rival of new im­mi­grants from a more di­verse range of back­grounds than hereto­fore ne­ces­si­tates a sig­nif­i­cant ex­pan­sion of trans­la­tion and in­ter­pre­ta­tion ser­vices in the ju­di­cial sys­tem; yet th­ese needs are poorly ad­dressed, where recog­nised, at ser­vice or pol­icy level. Re­cent re­search by Kate Water­house on the oper­a­tion of in­ter­preters in Ire­land’s dis­trict courts has un­cov­ered the prob­lems that have arisen from a sys­tem in which out­source in­ter­preters are hired to aid im­mi­grant de­fen­dants with lim­ited com­pe­tence in English: in the cases which she re­viewed, some did not speak at all dur­ing court pro­ceed­ings, oth­ers in­ter­preted only a por­tion, and a “star­tling” num­ber of in­ter­preters had ev­i­dent dif­fi­cul­ties in English.

Thus, in a 2010 study of in­ter­na­tional court re­port­ing by Ruth Mor­ris, draw­ing on the re­search of Irish aca­demic Mary Phelan, the case of Ire­land func­tions as a “cau­tion­ary” tale be­cause of its in­ad­e­quate and poorly man­aged sys­tem of out­sourc­ing – one con­se­quence of which has been that many ex­pe­ri­enced in­ter­preters have now left the pro­fes­sion.

Our con­tem­po­rary mo­ment is one in which large-scale mo­bil­ity (forced or vol­un­tary) is oc­cur­ring within a seem­ingly glob­alised so­ci­ety but in­di­vid­ual mi­grants can find poor ac­com­mo­da­tion from ju­di­cial sys­tems and le­gal pro­cesses. Given the im­mense num­bers of those ex­pe­ri­enc­ing mi­gra­tion and dis­place­ment, one can only be­gin to imag­ine the fate­ful en­coun­ters that are now tak­ing place be­tween the largely mono­lin­gual, or re­luc­tantly bilin­gual, prac­tices of our ju­di­cial and le­gal sys­tems and the tremen­dously com­plex bi­ogra­phies, and di­verse lan­guages, among those seek­ing refuge, cit­i­zen­ship and jus­tice.

For those peo­ple to­day whom we might see as the sym­bolic descen­dants of Myles Joyce – seek­ing le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion in a court whose lan­guage is not theirs – stand­ing at the bar of ju­di­cial process and of pub­lic opin­ion can re­main a per­ilous place.

■ Prof Mar­garet Kelle­her is the au­thor of The Maam­trasnaMur­ders:Lan­guage,Life­andDeath

in­Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ryIre­land, just pub­lished by UCD Press. A dis­cus­sion of her book takes place as part of Dublin Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val at Green St Court­house,Dublin,onSatur­day,Novem­ber17th, at 2.30pm. To book, see dublin­book­fes­ti­

‘The fa­cil­ity with which he spoke . . . com­bined with the strange, un­usual, but sonorous sounds of the moun­tain Gaelic in which he apos­trophised, as it were, heaven to bear tes­ti­mony to his free­dom from guilt, made a re­mark­able im­pres­sion on the court’


The con­tem­po­rary il­lus­tra­tion from the Lon­don Graphic of the trial, dur­ing the brief ex­am­i­na­tion of young Patsy Joyce, the only mem­ber of his fam­ily to sur­vive.


Il­lus­tra­tion from the Lon­don Graphic cap­tur­ing the main play­ers in the trial. Ac­cord­ing to theorig­i­nal cap­tion: 1. Eye Wit­nesses; 2, 3, 4. Mur­der­ers Con­demned; 5. Mur­derer Turned Ap­prover; 6, 7. Fe­male Wit­nesses; 8. The Boy Joyce . Left: court pho­to­graph of Myles Joyce.

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