Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Death on Rathfriland Road

John Martin learned early to read signs. Clouds and shifts of wind provided crucial clues about impending changes in the weather. Missing them could mean the ruin of a year's work. 

Other signs, more subtle, but equally visible, warned that religious tensions were on the rise. Followers of each of the 3 main Irish religions lived in close proximity in the area around Loughorne. About three fourths of the total population were Catholics. The remaining quarter were members in about equal proportions of the Presbyterian and Protestant churches. "Protestant" was the term used to refer to members of the Church of Ireland, which was the Irish version of the Established Church in England. Members of this small denomination held total control of Ireland, their power extending beyond the church walls into every structure of government.

Small wonder then that tensions between John's Catholic and Protestant neighbors were there for a precocious child like John to notice. Frowning faces and clenched fists when Catholics and Protestants came near each other were clues too simple to miss. But John could feel the wariness that existed as well, particularly around the time when each religion celebrated their special days. For the Catholics it was St. Patrick's Day. For Protestants, it was July 12 when the Orangemen marched out of their lodges to celebrate the defeat of the Catholics at the Battle of the Boyne. The history that had led to this religious distrust was beyond John's understanding. But just after he turned seven, he experienced an event much like many others that had occurred before he was born that provided an explanation.

 On the morning of November 2, 1819, Loughorne was engrossed with event that had happened just a few miles east of Loughorne the previous evening. It was discussed by farm laborers as they drank their tea in the fields. It was retold by women as they arranged their laundry on the hedges to dry. So John heard the story often enough for him to understand what happened. A day of horse-racing had been held in the fields next to the Newry Canal. As was the custom, beer consumption was a feature of the day. As dark fell around 4 PM, groups of drunken men began to stumble toward their homes. One such man was Samuel Duncan, a shoemaker from the town of Rathfriland. He was traveling home on the Rathfriland Road with two men, John Hollingsworth and William Beatty. View Larger Map Traditionally, drunken Protestants were prone to shout derogatory epithets when they traveled through Catholic areas. They had almost reached the townland of Barnmeen shortly before 7 PM, when they passed Doyle's Public House. There they began shouting such phrases as "To hell with the Pope," as they passed by. These shouts were heard inside the pub and across the fields and inside the cottages that lined the road. Soon, Duncan and his companions were being followed by several men. In his drunken condition, it is unlikely that Duncan was aware of the danger behind him until he was suddenly struck heavy blows by the sticks the men carried. He fell to the ground as the blows battered him. John Hollingsworth and William Beatty dove for the cover of the ditches along the edge of the road and were uunharmed. View Larger Map The perpetrators faded into the darkness, leaving the dying man on the road. With the danger past, John and William climbed out of their hiding places, and along with other passers by, carried the dying man to the nearby home of Collin McConville. He was given what aid the McConvilles could provide, and then transported home to Rathfriland where he soon died from his injuries. 

Such events were all too common, and in most cases were quickly forgotten except by the grieving families. However, this time what happened next intensified religious divisions for many decades. And it provided for John Martin, a new understanding of the causes of the religious hostilities he had so frequently observed. Only Catholics were accused when Protestants were murdered. 

Though neither of the men could have seen the attackers, and Beatty returned to Doyle's Pub and reported to those present that he didn't know the attackers, neither man had difficulty in producing the required names when asked for them by the local Magistrate, William Paxton. Though the witnesses were of low repute, Mr. Paxton rounded up 12in all. Catholics and sent them to Downpatrick Gaol, and locked them into the dark cells there until trial in the spring. Most of the accused men had excellent alibis for the time of the murder, so Mr. Paxton moved the time of the murder. This act simplified the prosecution even though it was common knowledge that Catholic testimony carried little weight, even under oath. Six weeks after the crime, Mr. Paxton was still rounding up suspects. One night he led an army raid on the house of a prominent Catholic businessman, named Fegan. The troops stormed into the house, rousted out all the inhabitants at rifle point, tore into every corner of the house, and probed furniture and walls with their bayonets. They found no suspects, and marched away leaving the occupants terrorized and the house badly damaged. Mr. Paxton was later obliged to apologize for the raid, but it emphasized a strong tool of Protestant intimidation that no Catholic was safe even in his own cottage.

Anger in the area was intense. The trial took place in Downpatrick Court House on March 24, 1820. The Judge was Charles Kendal Bushe. Judge Bushe had strongly opposed the Act of Union, proclaiming in a speech before the Act of Union passed, that England "never conceded a point to you which she could avoid, or granted a favour which was not reluctantly distilled. They have all been wrung from her like drops of her Heart's blood." Judge Bushe represented the best hope of the accused, for the jury, as always in Catholic/Protestant cases when lives were at stake, was carefully selected and entirely Protestant. Judge and jury listened to testimony that should have produced quick vindication for all the accused, so weak was the evidence against the prisoners and so strong in favor of their innocence.

The judge gave a passionate two hour address to the jury, but it did little good. When the jury returned their verdict, death for 7 of the accused, the people in the courtroom erupted in disbelief. Word of the injustice swept through the Downpatrick, and across the countryside to Loughorne. Angry conversations took place in fields and around fireplaces that at night. Jane and Samuel certainly discussed what happened where John could hear them. Perhaps they explained to him how unfair the trail had been. At any rate, the pursuit of justice became one of the guiding principles of his political career.

The interval between sentencing and execution was very small. On Monday, March 27, five men, John Hanratty, Hugh Johnston, Felix McConville, Hugh Toman, and Francis Doyle were hanged outside the Downpatrick Gaol for maximum terrifying effect. Two more men, Daniel McConville and John McAlinden, had their death sentences changed to exile in Van Diemen's Land. They were quickly taken in chains to Warrenpoint and shipped into exile. As the men climbed to the scaffold, they asked their priest, "Father, do we die martyrs?' Father McAleenan replied, "You do my children."

The funeral procession from Downpatrick to the Drumgath Cemetery was at times 2 miles long as people joined to express their outrage that so many innocent men had been murdered by British law. The 5 men were buried side by side on the slopes of the Mourne Mountains. But if the Protestants believed that local Catholics would be cowed by the deaths of so many innocent men, they were very wrong. The memory of the Barnmeen Martyrs provided a link in the chain of events that would lead to Irish independence, and foreshadowed events that lay ahead for John.
Drumgath Cemetery
Source: "The Rathfriland Conspiracy of 1820, a Vindication of the Condemned" by Joseph Connellan. 

After Thought. 
I began to wonder what had happened to the two men who were sentenced to transportation. Time spent in prison and on the long voyage to Australia was all too often a more protracted death sentence than a hangman's noose, but one no less certain. So I did some research to see if I could find out what happened to John McAlinden and Daniel McConville. I could find no trace whatever of John McAlinden. But I did find some information about Daniel. While the 2 men were hustled quickly away from home, they didn't leave Ireland immediately. The ship that carried them down Carlingford Lough and into the Irish Sea, took them to the large prison in Cobh City, Spike Island instead of Australia. Daniel remained in the prison there for over 2 years. On June 21, 1822, he was put on board the Mangles, destination Sydney Australia. There are good convict records to search through, so it is clear that John McConville didn't reach Australia, but Daniel survived. When Daniel arrived on November 8, 1822, he was sent to Parramatta, near Sydney to serve out his 7 year sentence. On March 15, 1827, Daniel was set free. There was no way for him to raise the money to return to Ireland. So his fate was permanent transportation. A year after he was freed, Daniel married another convict, Elizabeth Johnson. Hopefully, the young couple had children whose descendants have prospered there.

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