|Daniel O'Connell (Wikpedia.org)|
On Christmas Day of 1841, an event took place a short distance each of John's home in Loughorne that would take him a step closer to a life in politics. This was one of the few days of rest for Irish farmers and they made the most of the holiday. One group of men had gathered for a horse race in the townland of Ballyroney. Not far away, a group of young Protestants had gathered together to shoot off their guns. This was an opportunity to show off their firepower to the local Catholics who were not allowed to have guns.
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When these separate activities were over, each group hurried to their favorite pubs. The racing fans gathered at a pub owned by John Copes. The shooters were about a mile away at a pub owned by a man named Green. The drinkers at Copes Pub were a mix of Catholic and Protestant. And about 4 PM, as the lanterns were lit, a fight broke out between a Catholic named McKeown, and a Protestant named McRoberts. With the help of a powerful Catholic farmer, Hugh McArdle, Mr. Copes was able to stop the fight quickly and restore order. Lawrence McKeown was ejected and peace restored.
Unfortunately, Thomas Scott witnessed the start of the fight, and raced away to Green's Pub for reinforcements without witnessing the quick end to the ruckus. A few minutes later, Mr. Copes was standing at the door of his pub, when he saw the Protestant boys running in his direction. He hurried inside in an effort to bar the door, but the angry mob, led by Thomas Scott and his friends William Andrews and William Stewart were not to be deterred.
The mob battered the door open, and rushed in, demanding that McKeown be turned over to them. When Copes told them that all was well, and that McKeown had been sent home, they should have left peaceably. But instead they began fighting with everyone in the pub, and seemed to have a special interest in attacking Hugh McArdle.
Realizing what was happening, Hugh fled from the pub, and took shelter in the home of friends. There were 4 witnesses to what happened next, the owner Peter Ward, his wife and daughter, and Hugh's son Arthur. The only weapon they had to defend themselves against the armed mob who followed him there was a dung fork, known as a grape.
The terrified occupants had no time to prepare before the door burst open and the mob rushed inside. They grabbed the grape from Arthur, and used it to knock Hugh senseless. They dragged Hugh outside, and a second later, someone fired a gun.
As the sounds of the mob faded, the survivors cautiously opened the door and peered out. Hugh lay dead on the ground just outside the door. He had been shot once in the chest at such a close range that his shirt was on fire.
There was no secret as to the identity of the perpetrators. They were all local residents well known to all the witnesses. The men who had rioted at Copes Pub and then trailed and murdered Hugh were arrested and held at Downpatrick Jail for trial to be held in February 1842.
This murder brought to mind the murder of Samuel Duncan on Rathfriland Road. Then it was a Protestant murdered by Catholics. Though identification was suspect, five Catholics were hung for the crime, and 2 more transported for life. This time, the victim was a Catholic, the murders Protestant. John Martin was far from the only neighbor who wondered whether or not with the situation now reversed if justice would be done.
The doubt as to whether a Protestant jury would convict McArdle's killers was expressed by the editor of a Belfast newspaper, Charles Gavin Duffy, who would later become one of John's good friends. "It is a fact, which would fill Englishmen with amazement and horror, that a vast proportion of the people of Down, while they have no reason to doubt the guilt of the prisoners, for the murder of McArdle, are perfectly confident that they will escape all punishment. This belief is shared by Protestants and Catholics alike, and depends upon the assumption that an Orange Jury will acquit them, though their guilt be as certain as a mathematical demonstration. The state of public feeling, where the people are exposed to the fury of the assassination on one side, and the perjury of the partisan Juror on the other, may be conceived."
The trial began on February 28th, with William Mathews, William Andrews, William Stewart and Thomas Scott all charged with murder. Jury selection was all important, and immediately a legal trick prevented any challenges of the jury. At the last minute, a different trial was scheduled and jury panel seated. Then the defendant was released, but the jury was carried over to the McArdle trial. As it was already empaneled, no challenges were allowed.
When the evidence had been presented, Judge Crampton recounted the testimony and the strength of it. "in my opinion I can't understand the crime as amounting to anything short of murder...If you believe the evidence for the Crown, especially that of Peter Ward, no doubt that the four, or three at least, of the prisoners are guilty of the crime laid in the indictment."
Such a strong statement from the judge brought some hope to the Catholic community that there would be justice for Hugh McArdle and for them. The jury deliberated for less than an hour and returned a verdict of "Not Guilty."
Though the verdict was expected, it was still a shock to those in the Courthouse. Judge Cramption ordered the Court to be immediately cleared. The crowd of angry Catholics and triumphant Protestants rushed outside to continue their battles on the Courthouse steps and down the hill. Sadly, Catholics learned once again that there would be no justice for them under English law. Protestants learned that they could look to English law and the English government as their protectors no matter what they chose to do.
Even members of Parliament were surprised and concerned about the issue of justice in Ireland. A major debate on the general subject of justice in Ireland. R. L. Sheil, an Irish member, stated the case. "I am well aware that English gentlemen feel some surprise at the constant complaints which are made by Roman Catholics that in the north of Ireland juries are almost exclusively composed of Protestants, and that we should attach importance to the religion of those who are to arbitrate upon our lives."
In the government response, Lord Robert Peel, who was the Conservative Prime Minister, avoided the issue of the McArdle murder, instead focusing on the fairness of the Englishmen who were in charge of Ireland and its legal system. No action was taken to make the jury system of Ireland a fair one. By the time John Martin first faced an Irish jury a few years later, nothing had been done to improve Irish juries.
Sources: The Newry Commercial Telegraph, January 1, 1842 to April 7, 1842; Debates in Parliament, Hansard, July 18, 1842.