The Darker Side of Life in Old Ireland III

Burke and Hare

In 1828 a bizarre proposal appeared in a London Newspaper suggesting a means to alleviate the shortage of corpses for dissection:

Let the body of every Irish pauper, who comes to this country uninvited, and dies here, be given to the anatomical schools. The plan would relieve us in a great measure from the influx of Paddies, as they would much rather deposit their bodies at home, than give at all events, a few additional subjects to our anatomists.

burke_and_hare 2It shows the attitudes held by the English for the Irish, but it was only one of a number of solutions being put forward at this time to increase the number of human bodies that could be made available for dissection, including the first ‘Anatomy Bill’ (1829). In the meantime, however, for several years two Irishmen living in Edinburgh had begun working on their own solution to the problem in that city. The names of Burke and Hare are well known to history as resurrectionists who decided it was more profitable for them to cut out the ‘middleman’, including the undertaker, in their corpse supply chain to the medical professionals. At the height of their activities they were considered ‘resurrectionists’, but they had moved on to secretly providing freshly murdered corpses to their customers. These crimes were not detected until November 1828, after they had sold seventeen bodies to the anatomist Robert Knox, sixteen of which they had suffocated to death. Part of the trouble for Burke and Hare was the fact that in 1828 Knox’s anatomy school required the huge number of four hundred bodies for its students, and the Edinburgh authorities had, in the meantime, made great advances to prevent grave robbing, which had caused Knox to import more and more bodies from Ireland.

William Burke was a native of Urney, Co Tyrone, and his companion, William Hare, was said to have come from the parish of Newry in County Armagh and was some years younger than Burke. Any real information concerning Hare is scarce, especially when looking into his birth, his life in Ireland, or the circumstances which had brought him to Scotland. Even more mysterious is that any information we may have about what happened to him is unreliable and from unofficial sources. By the time they were caught Burke and Hare had already been in Scotland for about ten years and were initially employed on the construction of the Union Canal. It appears that the men had met in Edinburgh in the mid- 1820s and immediately formed a friendship.

burke_and_hare 4
William Burke’s Skeleton on Display

On Christmas Eve 1828 the trial of Burke and Hare began and, famously, the latter turned ‘King’s Evidence’ against Burke, who was found guilty the very next day. William Burke was publicly hanged on 28 January 1829, and duly dissected like many of those he had delivered up to the anatomy students. But such was the man’s fame that a procession of thousands, including seven women, filed past to view his corpse on display. In fact, Burke’s skeleton can still be viewed in the ‘Anatomy Museum of Edinburgh University’ and a book, allegedly made from William Burke’s skin’, is apparently held by the ‘Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’. William Hare’s wife, Margaret (née Laird), was released on 19 January and, taking their baby, went to Glasgow where she was mobbed, before she managed to board a steam ship going to Belfast. Subsequent court proceedings against Hare were unsuccessful and he was eventually released on 5 February 1829.

After being released from custody, a disguised William Hare was put on a coach for Dumfries, where, despite his disguise, he was soon recognized and forced to seek safety in a hotel by a large, shouting mob. He wanted to take the packet boat to Ireland that set sail from Portpatrick but was not permitted to board a coach to take him there. He was, however, given refuge in the town jail and, reluctantly leaving behind his cloak and bundle, was put on the road to England by the police who now washed their hands of him. Reports state that Hare was last seen about two miles beyond the border town of Carlisle’. The ‘Belfast Guardian’ reported that the mob had not beaten Hare while he was in Dumfries but suggested that wherever Hare went, he would carry the curses hatred of every human being.

‘The Northern Whig’at this time reported its belief that Hare would “take Belfast in the way of his return towards his native country” and would certainly to try to sail to Donaghadee. Stating – “A rumour having become prevalent in Donaghadee, … that Hare the murderer was on his was [sic] from Portpatrick to this town, the inhabitants flocked to the harbour to get a glimpse of the sanguinary ruffian. All were anxiety until the Steam Packet, in which Hare was said to have taken his passage, arrived. When she landed, the passengers were eyed attentively for a considerable time; at last, one was suspected, who is said to have the sullen mien of a murderer. He no sooner landed, than it was intimated to him that he was Hare; he replied that he was not Hare, but had been taken for him in Dumfries, where he had to fly from the fury of the populace. This was not satisfactory; and he had not proceeded many steps till he was in the centre of a circle, and the object of as much curiosity as the stranger with the long nose, in Strasbourg. At length, an acquaintance recognised, and asserted he was not Hare and the people quietly dispersed.”

On the 20 March 1829 the same newspaper that Hare had been arrested in Newcastle in England on suspicion of committing more murders. But there is no reliable information as to what happened to him, although there were rumours that he had returned to his family in Ireland. The truth of this rumour is said to have been demonstrated a few weeks later when Hare’s sister turned up in Dumfries to successfully recover his belongings.

Naturally the mystery surrounding Hare’s fate gave rise to many stories being told, including one that said he was blinded in a lime pit in Carlisle, or that he ended his days as a beggar on the Strand in London. There was one report from the ‘Northern Whig’ of 23 March 1829, less than seven weeks after Hare was released from jail, that told its readers:

burke_and_hare 5“On Friday evening last [20 March] , Hare the murderer called in a public-house in Scarva, accompanied by his wife and child, and having ordered a naggin of whiskey, he began to enquire for the welfare of every member of the family of the house, with well-affected solicitude.- However, as Hare is a native of this neighbourhood, he was very soon recognised, and ordered to leave the place immediately, with which he complied, after attempting to palliate his horrid crimes by describing them as having been the effects of intoxication. He took the road towards Loughbrickland, followed by a number of boys, yelling and threatening in such a manner as obliged him to take through the fields, with such speed that he soon disappeared, whilst his unfortunate wife remained on the road, imploring forgiveness, and denying, in the most solemn manner, any participation in the crimes of her wretched husband. They now reside at the house of an uncle of Hare’s, near Loughbrickland. Hare was born and bred about one half mile distant from Scarva, in the opposite County of Armagh; and shortly before his departure from this country, he lived in the service of Mr. Hall, the keeper of the eleventh lock, near Poyntzpass. He was chiefly engaged in driving the horses, which his master employed in hauling lighters on the Newry Canal. He was always remarkable for being of a ferocious and malignant disposition, an instance of which he gave in killing one of his master’s horses, which obliged him to fly to Scotland, where he perpetrated those unparalleled crimes that must always secure him a conspicuous place in the annals of murder.”

There are a number of issues raised in this report that have some truth in them e.g. Hare had been reunited with his wife and a ‘yellow-faced’ one-year-old child, of unknown gender, who is recorded as having suffered from whooping cough during the trial. The suggestion that Hare blames his crimes on the effects of alcohol, demonstrates the alcoholic’s talent for manipulating the truth. But the report states that Hare was born in Armagh, narrowing his place of birth down to two townlands in the parish of Ballymore. The Tithe Books of 1830 show that a John Hare did live in the townland of Monclone. At the same time, the report also states that a Mr Hall was the keeper of the eleventh lock on the Newry Canal and this is confirmed by the ‘Office of Public Works, Directors of Inland Navigation Records (1800-30)’. They establish that in 1801 a Walter Hall was keeper of the eleventh lock at the village of Poyntzpass, the residence only being demolished around 1980. Walter Hall died in January 1821 and was succeeded by Alexander Hall, probably a son, who was still held in the post when the canal was privatised in 1830.

There are reports that suggest that William Hare eventually died within the walls od the workhouse in Kilkeel, County Down. In the journal ‘The British Weekly’ of 14th July 1921 it was reported: “it is common knowledge in the little town of Kilkeel, Co. Down, that Hare died in the Union Workhouse there, and is buried in the grounds attached thereto. While there he made an unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide by cutting his throat and was then attended by the local doctor, who was a student at Edinburgh University at the time of the murders. This information was given to my father by the doctor himself. Some years ago there was, in the ‘Weekly Scotsman’ , a very graphic account of Hare’s adventures after his escape. There it was stated that Hare was a native of Carlingford, Co. Louth, which is only a short distance as the crow flies from Kilkeel, so it is easily understood that he would make for the district he knew on gaining his freedom. Kilkeel was for long an isolated town, so this may explain why these facts were not known long ago.”

The contents of this report have proved impossible to prove or disprove since the register of inmates for Kilkeel Union has not survived, and even if it had there is a case that Hare may well have used an alias. Moreover, if Hare had survived until 1864, his death may have been officially registered, but the question remains, ‘under what name?’ Besides, the extension of the ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’ to Ireland in 1838 brought with it a form of the English workhouse system, under which the workhouse managers could dispose of unclaimed bodies for dissection. Some would say that it would have been an ironic fate if William Hare did finish his days in the ‘Kilkeel Workhouse’ where, on his death, his body would have been given up for dissection.

There is an interesting footnote to the career of Burke and Hare that occurred in ‘The Belfast Guardian’ in March 1829. It was an observation made in a letter that chiefly concerned Burke, stating: “By his conduct the public mind has been excited, long gathering prejudices against anatomists have been increased and strengthened, and odium has been cast on the Medical profession inimical to the well-being of society. The excitation of public feeling thus occasioned, if rightly improved, however, instead of proving unfriendly or injurious to the Medical Profession should, and, we trust, ultimately tend to its advantage; yes, and to prevent, too, the recurrence of such tragic scenes of murder and exhumation as have lately so often disgraced the columns of the public prints, have ranked us lower than the very savage, and have caused the warm blood of humanity to flow back in the arteries and freeze in the heart, whilst it is thrilled with horror. For it should be the means of causing those whose province it is to devise and effect an anatomical reform, then Burke was a useful member of society.”

Although we have no clues as to the writer’s identity, the letter certainly came across as a statement of common sense at a time when most criticism was the result of hysterical, albeit totally justifiable, public outrage which had been aroused by the ‘Burke and Hare Scandal.’ The letter’s author strongly recommended the importance of the authorities having full control of the licensing of anatomy schools and their licensing to teach anatomy to the student doctors. However, any idea that the scandal had brought about the introduction of ‘The Anatomy Act 1832’ is wrong, although it may have contributed to it some small way.

burke_and_hare 3.jpgIn fact, six months prior to the crimes of Burke and Hare being made public, a select committee had been established to draft an ‘Anatomy Bill’, which was first introduced in 1828. It was, however, thrown out by the House of Lords in 1829 to make way for the ‘Reform Bill.’ But the growth in the copycat crime of ‘burking’ (called after William Burke and recalling his actions.) that caused the ‘Second Anatomy Bill’ to be introduced to Parliament in 1831. In January that year there was a case of ‘burking’, which took place in Ballylesson, Co.Down in Northern Ireland. Subsequently, Charles and Agnes Clarke of Drumbo were tried for the murder of an ‘unknown person’ and Daniel M’Connell, whom they had entrapped with ‘the pretence of hospitality.’ Agnes Clarke then tried to sell M’Connell’s body to a surgeon at Antrim Infirmary who raised the alarm. Quite how she proposed to market a body with multiple hatchet wounds to the head is unclear, but she claimed that the death was the result of ‘a stone quarry falling’. Partly on the testimony of their own daughter, the couple were found guilty of M’Connell’s murder and hanged on 5 August. Their bodies remained hanging for a long time because they could not convince to give or hire a car for the removal of their bodies. Eventually, a few men were got to carry them on their shoulders’ to Down Infirmary, where their bodies were dissected.

There is evidence to suggest that at this time a ‘Burker’ dispatched his victims by offering them snuff laced with arsenic, while another grisly incidents of ‘burking’ happened in London, committed by John Head (alias Thomas Williams), John Bishop and James May. It was stated that they murdered their victims by first drugging them and then suspending them head-first down a well. Their killing spree had begun in the summer of 1830, but it was the murder of a fourteen-year-old Italian boy, Carlo Ferrari, which led to their arrest in November 1831. Carlo used to carry a revolving squirrel cage containing two white mice and a tortoise, and his death was considered particularly nasty because the boy’s teeth were removed using hardened steel awl, known as a bradawl. Bishop and Williams confessed to three murders, and the ‘Second Anatomy Bill’ was introduced in December 1831, just ten days after they were hanged. Parliament passed the Act in 1832 and came into force for the entire United Kingdom on 1st August.

From this point onward it was at the discretion of the ‘Secretary for Ireland’ to grant the licenses necessary to practice anatomy. The Act also made provision for an inspectorate to be established and the first ‘Inspector of Anatomy’ for Dublin was Sir James Murray, who had strong Belfast connections. Murray was to hold this important post for almost forty years and is known as the inventor milk of magnesia. He was also employed as the resident physician to the marquis of Angelsey, who sponsored him for a knighthood because of his services. The ‘resurrectionist’ trade was ended through this ‘Anatomy Act’ although the legislation itself was never perfect. Nevertheless, it was to remain in place until the inception of the ‘National Health Service in 1948’ and the introduction of the 1984 Anatomy Act. In Northern Ireland it was finally replaced by the ‘Anatomy (NI) Order of 1992’.

Finally, the rise of the anatomy schools and their ghastly relationship with the resurrectionists was a squalid affair and did nothing to improve the public perception of the ethics of the medical profession of the day and reflects the modern day’s growing international trade in organs for transplantation.

Dublin, the Irish capital, became an important centre for the export of bodies to other parts of the United Kingdom because of its thriving resurrection trade. Market forces and better transportation drove the traffic to new levels, which were detrimental to the supply of bodies to the local anatomy schools. Belfast and its hinterland, on the other hand, lacked a resurrection trade because there was no local, large scale anatomy school to create one. Dublin’s trade in bodies was carried out on an industrial scale while in Belfast it appeared the trade never amounted to much more than a cottage industry, but the true prevalence of resurrectionist activity in Ulster will never be known. From the frequency of contemporary newspaper reports, and even though the practice often went undetected, it is unlikely that the average annual total amounted to more than a few dozen. Indeed, even at its height in the late 1820s, it is probable that the total did not stray much into triple figures. This trade from Ulster seems to have been sustained by just a few individuals, sporadic visits by gangs of resurrectionists from Scotland and some opportunistic freelancers. The coming of regular steamships travelling the Belfast to Glasgow route from 1818 and the burgeoning demand in the Scottish medical schools did vastly improve the trade until the 1832 Anatomy Act finally put an end to it. It was, in fact, the act’s stifling of a free market, by legalizing the supply of bodies but not increasing it, which contributed to the decline in the trade, which coincided with an upsurge in the popularity and influence of the medical schools of Paris and Dublin.

The Lough Swilly Tragedy

A few years ago, I happened to be spending a long weekend in Donegal when I heard the story of ‘HMS Saldanha’. She was a 36-gun ‘Apollo-class’ frigate of the British Royal Navy, which was launched in 1809 and was commissioned in April 1810 and placed under the command of Captain John Stuart, who remained in command until his death on 19th March 1811. Captain Reuben Mangin took temporary command of the ship during the Spring of 1811. Finally, the ship was assigned to Captain William Pakenham’s and its short career came to an end when it was wrecked on the rocky west coast of Ireland in 1811.
Earlier, on 11th October 1811, ‘HMS Saldanha’ and ‘HMS Fortune’ combined to take the French privateer ‘Vice-Amiral Martin’. The French ship carried 18 guns and a crew of 140 men, and it was on its fourth day out of Bayonne and was yet to encounter a British merchantman. It was reported that the French privateer had superior sailing abilities to most ships of her size, which had in the past helped her to escape pursuing British cruisers. In a subsequent report it was stated that though each of the British ships was doing at least 11 knots (20 km/h; 13 mph), the enemy privateer would have escaped only for the fact that there were two British vessels involved.

Along the North-western coast of Ireland lies Lough Swilly, a glacial fjord that cuts into the Donegal coastline between the western side of the Inishowen Peninsula and the Fanad Peninsula. It is considered a safe harbour for ships and is famed far and wide for the beauty of its scenery. However, although once inside the lough itself, the anchorage is safe, the entrance to the Lough is considered by many to be a very difficult and dangerous passage. The coast being here is known as being “iron-bound”, with several treacherous reefs of rocks lying near the shore, or partially covered by the sea. The present-day entrance to Lough Swilly has two lighthouses to protect it, with one on Fanad Point, and the other on Dunree Head. The various reefs and shoals in the entrance are well-marked by buoys, which today make the entrance to the Lough a much safer passage than it had been during the days when ‘HMS Saldanha’ was moored there.

Lough Swiily bwIn the latter part of 1811, ‘HMS Saldanha’ under the command of Captain Packenham, was stationed in Lough Swilly as a naval guardship, alongside the sloop-of-war, ‘HMS Talbot’. Their usual anchorage was off the little village of Buncrana, and occasionally the ships would weigh anchor to undertake a short cruise around the coast of the County Donegal for a few days. Their crews had been stationed in the Lough for such a long time that several officers had brought their wives to reside in the village of Buncrana. There were, of course, one or two of the officers and several of the men who had married local ladies, and all of them had gained the friendship and regard of the local gentry and may of the inhabitants of the surrounding area.

Early on the morning of the 30th of November the ‘Saldanha’ and the ‘Talbot’ left their moorings off Buncrana for a three days’ cruise around the coast. However, although the morning was fine and bright, just afternoon the weather became dark and threatening. Before that short November day closed, a great storm had rolled in from the Atlantic Ocean spilling its anger over both sea and land. Local folklore still recalls that terrible storm as the ‘Saldanha Storm,’ and there are many sad stories recounted of hearts that raced with anxiety and strained eyes that tried to peer through blinding spray and rain for the lights of the returning ships.

It was nearer to the mouth of Lough Swilly, on the shore opposite Buncrana, close to Ballymastocker Bay that those lights were seen at last. Along that shoreline the Fanad people gathered in great numbers, knowing that the bay hid a very dangerous reef of rocks, and upon them, the ‘Saldanha’ was Shipwrecked on the night of 4th December 1811. There are no reports any effort was made to save the doomed vessel and, officially there were no survivors out of the estimated 253 crew aboard the ship, with approximately 200 bodies being subsequently washed up on the shoreline at Ballymastocker Bay.

There are stories saying that one of the crew did make it to the shore alive, but the stories also tell of the ‘wild people’ (local wreckers) placing him across a horse, after giving him a draught of whiskey. The stories are unclear as to whether this was done in ignorance or in order to ensure he would die. Many bodies came continued to come ashore from time to time and were buried with great reverence in the old churchyard of Rathmullan, where the grave and a monument can still be seen.

Saldanha 3Initial reports on the events in Lough Swilly that stormy night suggested that ‘HMS Talbot’ had also been wrecked, but it transpired that these reports were mistaken. The winter storms that swept through the Lough caused parts of the sunken wreck of the ‘Saldanha’ to come to the surface and be forced on to the yellow sands of Ballymastocker Bay. In the August of the following year, it was said that a servant in a big house some twenty miles from the wreck site shot a bird, which turned out to be a parrot with a collar, on which was engraved “Captain Packenham of His Majesty’s Ship Saldanha.” Then, as the years passed by, further storms would leave fragments of the ship’s planks and various personal items belonging to the crew strewn across the shoreline. On the night of the 6th-7th January 1839, there was another fierce and destructive storm, similar to that which the locals had called ‘The Saldanha Storm.’ On the morning of the 7th January, when the coastguards conducted their patrols of the bay’s shoreline, they recorded that the entire bay was strewn from end to end broken beams, timbers, and chests; All that remained of that doomed ship.

One interesting story from that time tells us that one of the coastguards searching the shore found a small worked case that ladies called a ‘thread-paper’, and he brought it to the wife of his commanding officer. The little case was beautifully made and still contained some loosely coiled and knotted lengths of silken yarn and a few rusty needles. On the back of the ‘thread-paper’ were embroidered three initials, lovingly created by the hand of the woman who had presented it to a member of the ‘Saldanha’ crew.

Over twenty years after the case had been found the lady to whom it had been given, now a widow returned to live in Scotland. While taking a few days holiday in the country-house of some friends in the south of the country, the lady began to converse with a young man who was also a guest at the same house. The lady and young man began to talk about Ireland, Donegal, and the wonderful scenery to be found there. At one stage of the conversation Lough Swilly was mentioned and this sparked the young man’s interest. He asked some questions about the area and then disclosed that his mother had lost a brother in the Lough many years before, having gone down with the wreck of the ‘Saldanha.’ The widow told all that she knew concerning the ‘Saldanha’ incident and revealed to the young man that she had a relic of the ship in her workbox. She took out the ‘thread-paper’ and, asking the name of the young man’s uncle, found that the name agreed with the three initials embroidered on the little case.

When the young gentleman told her that his uncle had been a midshipman on board the ill-fated ‘Saldanha’, and that he was his mother’s favourite brother, the widow woman put the small thread case into his hand. As she did this, the lady explained how she had come into possession of the case and told him, “Take that home to your mother, show it to her, and ask her if she had ever seen it before. If she should recognise it, she is very welcome to keep it. But if it did not belong to her brother you can return it to me.” The young man left the house the next morning and went home. A few days later, however, he wrote to the widowed lady and told her that his mother had immediately recognised the case as being her own work, which she had given to her beloved brother when he had last left home. It was a relic of a person loved and lost and he thanked the lady for restoring it to his mother after fifty long years. Although small and of no intrinsic value, this little case had been kept and returned to its original owner as though it had been some precious family jewel.

Saldanha 2

The Death of Detective Sergeant John Barton

“the very scum that kept us in British bondage.”

If he had died today, and in the line of duty, Detective Sergeant John Barton of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) would probably be declared a national hero. At the time, ‘The Irish Times’ editorial for 1 December 1919 did proclaim him to be “one of the bravest, most vigilant, and most intelligent defenders of the city’s peace”. ‘The Irish Independent’, likewise stated that “Sergeant Barton seemed possessed of an instinct for tracking down criminals and his name alone was sufficient to inspire terror in the hearts of evil doers”.

CollinsBarton’s name, however, was not enough to stop the IRA’s Director of Intelligence, Michael Collins, from having him killed, and he assigned three separate groups of Volunteers to carry out the task. On 29 November 1919, all three of these groups converged on the Detective Sergeant when he was only yards from reaching the safety of the new Central Police Station on Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street). He was shot at such close range, in fact, that there were scorch-marks on his clothes. The fatal shot, it appears, was fired from the gun of Seán Treacy, who had led the Soloheadbeg ambush upon a ‘Royal Irish Constabulary’ patrol, in which Constables James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell were killed. This incident was the spark that set off Ireland’s ‘War of Independence’ the previous January. During the incident, however, Barton managed to draw his revolver and fire one round before he exclaimed, “Oh God, what did I do to deserve this?” and having spoken these last words he collapsed on the ground. As a Dublin Fire Brigade ambulance crew took him to Mercer’s Hospital, Barton weakly said, “They have done for me. God forgive me. What did I do?”

In order to answer his question, we should look at his life and career up to that point. John Barton was born into a Kerry farming family. When he reached the required age limit, John joined the ‘Dublin Metropolitan Police’ in February 1903 and standing at six feet four and a quarter inches he exceeded the minimum criteria of the force. He was a man with an impressive physique, although his posture was somewhat spoiled by a slight stoop. Not unsurprisingly, Barton became one of the best-known members of ‘B Division’, which was based in the south-east quarter of Dublin’s inner city. He didn’t transfer to the detective department (G Division) of the DMP until 10 October 1919, which was less than seven weeks before he was killed. At the time of his death, he was the fourth DMP member, and third ‘G’ Division detective, to be killed in the War of Independence.

John Barton was a man to be feared by those in the ranks of the Irish movement, as well as those revolutionaries within Republican circles. One member of the Irish Citizen Army, who knew Barton well, accused him of being willing to do more than his duty. During the ‘1913 Lockout’ Barton personally arrested over forty people, and after the Christmas Day confrontation on the City Quay, which saw DMP Sergeant James Kiernan thrown into the River Liffey,  he assisted in the arrest of a dozen workers who were allegedly involved in the incident. Patrick Higgins, a member of the ‘Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union’ (ITGWU) was personally tracked down by Barton and was subsequently sentenced to ten years imprisonment for his role in the ‘City Quay Affair’. Naturally, such actions did not make him popular among the ordinary people of Dublin, and his infamy spread after he had arrested a group of children for stealing chocolate. One twelve-year-old boy was sentenced to five years detention, while an eleven-year-old boy was sentenced to a month. A boy aged thirteen, and one aged eleven, were each given £5 bail and eighteen months’ probation.

Barton 2In 1916, during the ‘Easter Rising’ in Dublin and the subsequent actions against the rebels, Barton became notorious and his infamy spread throughout the city. When the  Rising began Barton ignored all orders to remain in barracks and, undeterred by the fatal shootings of three policemen and the wounding of several others, he took to the streets of the city arresting rebels and looters wherever he found them. After the rebels surrendered, Barton went to Richmond Barracks and helped ‘G Division’ detectives to identify the leaders of the Rising. It was almost a voluntary post that Barton appeared to carry out alongside his day to day police duties. Perhaps, the most infamous report that we have of him during this time comes from IRB member Seán Murphy. At a later date, he testified that it was Barton who picked out Seán MacDermott from among the prisoners. Murphy stated that when he picked out MacDermott he said, “Sorry, Seán, but you can’t get away that easy. There will be six for you in the morning, I think”. This was, of course, a reference to the six soldiers who would make up the firing squad that would execute him.

There were other detectives who took part in the identification process that day, but it was Daniel Hoey and John Barton who left the most lasting impression on witnesses. They were remembered specifically for their cynical way that they walked down the line of prisoners with a sneer on their faces’. When identifying an important figure Barton would use his walking stick to point them out to the military authorities, while Hoey used an umbrella. His cruelty toward the republican prisoners and their families appeared to have no bounds. Barton is remembered particularly for the way he spoke to Joseph Connolly and told him that his brother Sean had been killed in the ‘Rising’. When Joseph expressed his pride in his brother’s sacrifice by saying, “He died for his country”; Barton answered that Sean was a disgrace to his country. It is also reported that he would badger particularly vulnerable prisoners to such an extent that they would attempt or commit suicide.

His work with the detective division after the rising did not, however, distract Constable Barton, (Constable 37B in the DMP) from his everyday police duties. During the ‘Rising’ most of the looting occurred north of the River Liffey, while most of those arrested for the crime resided south of the river. It is amazing to note that of the 425 people convicted of looting during Easter week, 296 of these were arrested by Barton. It is important at this time to point out that Barton had arrested the majority of the women who were subsequently sentenced by the police magistrates’ courts for looting offences.

On 18 June, the first public demonstration in support of the rebels took place in Dublin. It began when a group of 400 ‘girls’ carrying a ‘republican flag’ gathered outside Christ Church Cathedral following requiem Masses for the executed Tom Clarke and Eamonn Ceannt. The demonstration by the girls rapidly gathered a crowd of 2,000 people as they marched down Dame Street towards O’Connell Street. On the way, they booed the British sentries outside Dublin Castle and the Bank of Ireland in College Green, and then they came up against the DMP lined up outside the Ballast Office. The police had been ordered to prevent the demonstration from crossing the river and conflict erupted when the police tried to seize the ‘republican flag’. To combat the police batons the crowd used anything that came to hand, including tram destination boards, and the two policemen who were most badly injured in the fighting were Constables Barton and Henry Kells.  Constable Kells would soon be acting as another voluntary detective in the hope that he would be promoted to ‘G Division’ but, unlike Barton, he did not achieve his ambition. Unfortunately for him, he was also shot dead by Republicans on 24 April 1920, while working in plain clothes. Unlike Barton, his last words were not recorded.

Seven young men and three women were arrested after the confrontation and charged with offences against ‘Defence of the Realm Act2”. The chief police magistrate, however, decided to deal with the cases under the ‘Public Order Acts’ rather than employ the more drastic penalties contained in the ‘Defence of the Realm Act’. Nevertheless, none of those charged was prepared to apologise for their behaviour,  and at least two of the defendants, sixteen-year-old Denis Fitzpatrick and 22-year-old Christina Caffrey, had taken part in the Rising but had evaded arrest. But, the fact that Fitzpatrick and Caffrey were apparently ‘unknown to the police’ demonstrates the totally inadequate state of the police intelligence department and suggests that the ‘G Division’ was not as knowledgeable as it was supposed to be. The truth is that there were only a few members of the division involved in the detection of political crime as opposed to the number assigned to ordinary crime.

Barton’s work and devotion to duty during 1916 were recognised on 2 February 1917 when he was awarded the King’s Police Medal (KPM). This was the highest award a police officer could be given, and the newspapers of the day recognised it by describing Barton as being- “… instrumental in the detection and apprehension of a very large number of criminals. During the first night of the rebellion he arrested at great personal risk twenty-seven persons who were looting in the vicinity of O’Connell Bridge, which was dominated by rebel fire, and on the same night, with the assistance of another officer, he arrested two armed men who were carrying a large quantity of ammunition.”

On the same day he was awarded the KPM Barton was also promoted to sergeant, and on 10 October 1919 he was transferred to ‘G Division’. He was consistently dedicated to carrying out his duty to the full at a time when many policemen in Dublin were doing everything they could to avoid working on the city’s increasingly hostile streets. It was a time when some ‘G Division’ detectives, such as Eamon Broy and David Neligan, became double agents for Michael Collins’ organisation, and they were joined by members of the uniform branch such as Joe Kavanagh and Maurice Aherne. It is true that much of the information that led to the assassination of ‘G Division members’ came from their fellow officers. Barton, however, was a loyal member of the force and received a bar to his KPM in 1918, in recognition of his continuing excellent work, including the dramatic arrest of an armed Boer officer for desertion in 1917.

Being the only member of the DMP to receive two KPMs, Barton’s enemies quickly grew in number. Even defence lawyers had no time for Barton, who was always parading around like a peacock. One person who knew him particularly well was Charlie Dalton, a recruit to Michael Collins’ intelligence operation, where he had a somewhat chequered career of his own. Of Barton, Dalton said, “…  he was held in the highest esteem by the publicans, pawnbrokers and other commercial men, due to the fact that he had established a unique method in the tracing of petty larceny and illegal pawning of stolen goods. In carrying out his routine police duties, he had many news vendors and minor thieves of the pick-pocket variety in his power, and he utilised this type of informer for checking on the movements of prominent wanted volunteers.”

Frank Henderson, who was a 1916 veteran and commandant of the 2nd Battalion in Dublin, described Barton as “an efficient criminal detective … who had only undertaken ‘political work’ after the Republican Government had begun to exact the death penalty on enemy intelligence personnel? Barton was warned when he commenced his spying but did not heed the notices sent to him.” Why would Barton choose to ignore Republican warnings when so many assassinations were being carried out, and blindly pursue a method of policing that would mean almost certain death? Perhaps, it was simply that he was a single man without obligations, and had no obvious interests outside the job. Whatever the reason, we know that he was single-minded in his pursuit of the enemy, and completely oblivious to the rapidly changing political climate in Ireland.

To some who remembered him in later years, Barton was simply, “the very scum that kept us in British bondage.” Although in some circles, he was seen as a hero, the decision to kill Barton was inevitable. The countdown began when he led a raid on the home of a young volunteer called Vinnie Byrne. Later, when asked by the head of Collins’ newly organised murder group, ‘The Squad’, if he would shoot a man, the young volunteer replied, “It’s according to who it is.” When he was told that the target would be John Barton, Byrne immediately replied that he would have no objection. Later that day, after finishing work, Byrne joined with others and cornered Barton on College Street at 6pm. During the ambush, however, Barton fired off one round from his own gun before he exclaimed, “Oh God, what did I do to deserve this?” and collapsed to the ground, where he was left for dead by his attackers.

Acknowlegement for this article should be given to Padraig Yeates, the author of A city in civil war: Dublin 1921–4 (Gill & Macmillan, 2015). First published in History Ireland 5th September 2016.

1918 -Duplicity of British Press

On 10th October 1918 the ‘M.V. Leinster’ was sunk by a torpedo fired from a German U-boat, causing a horrendous loss of life, a great proportion of whom were Irish men, women and children. The scale of this disaster became clearer over the days following the sinking. The identities of the victims were made available and much emphasis was placed on the fact that a large percentage of the casualties were civilians, and that many of the bodies had gone down with the ship and were never to be recovered. It became clear to the Irish people, through the British-controlled press, that the allies were struggling in their fight to the death with an enemy who would stop at nothing, not even the mass slaughter of innocent civilians, to ensure their victory.

Leinster_pictureThe wartime British leadership consistently preached that the only means of overcoming German barbarity was total military victory over the Kaiser’s army and the complete cleansing of the German nation. British politicians made it clear that the only kind of language that the German nation understood was the language of brute force, and that only brute force could bring an end to such a murderous regime.

Using the large numbers of Irish lives that were lost aboard the ‘M.V. Leinster’ the British press suggested that it was up to the men of Ireland to brutally avenge those lost lives. The men of Ireland were told bluntly that it would only be by killing considerable numbers of Germans that the enemy would come to realise that terrible punishment would always be the price to be paid for the inhuman crimes they committed. At the same time, however, explicit attacks were launched against the republican cause in Ireland. They reminded the Irish people that the supporters of the republican cause had allied itself to Germany through those sentiments expressed in the 1916 Proclamation.

Irish Conscription 1918The British-controlled press had viewed the growing republican support in Ireland since the ‘Easter Rising of 1916’ with a mixture of alarm, contempt and disdain. In its reporting of the ‘M.V. Leinster’ tragedy the focus of the press was directed against the domestic enemy as much as the foreign enemy. The concern for the British administration at this time was that the end of the war was fast approaching, and they had promised Ireland would have its ‘Home Rule’ election agreed just prior to the outbreak of the war in 1914. In the background lay the growth of republican influence within Ireland since the ‘Easter Rising’ of 1916 and they had to devise some method to combat this influence. The key to success, they believed, was to devise a positive programme for Ireland that the Irish Home Rule Party could champion to regain the support they had lost to ‘Sinn Fein’. By delivering ‘Home Rule’ they believed they could encourage the large number of first time Irish voters to ignore the programme of the republican movement in the country.

Within Catholic circles, however, there was a growing level of doubt about the fulfilment of British promises. Among the Irish there was an inherent lack of trust concerning any initiative the British government might suggest, created through previous experience. Moreover, the rise in republican popularity had been strengthened following the success of the ‘Russian Revolution’ in the previous year. As far as the majority of the Irish people were concerned, by 1918 no British promises or guarantees could be trusted and, therefore, the ‘Irish War of Independence’ was inevitable if true freedom was to be gained.

Bodenstown

The Grave of Theobald Wolfe Tone

Bodenstown is located near Sallins in County Kildare and it is in the local cemetery there that Theobald Wolfe Tone was buried in 1798, after he had cut his own throat because he was told that he would not be granted the honourable execution normally given to soldiers. But, since that time, this site in Bodenstown has become the spiritual home of Irish Republicanism.

Wolfe Tone 2

The Grave itself was discovered in 1843 by the ‘Young Irelander’, Thomas Davis, who spread the name and deeds of this icon of republicanism far and wide throughout Ireland. In this small way began a tradition among nationalists and republicans to enhance the life and exploits of Wolfe Tone, thereby creating an Irish legend. Not surprisingly, Tone’s grave site became a shrine to Irish freedom, to which all shades of republicanism from various eras made a heartfelt annual pilgrimage. During those years many republican voices have given orations by this honoured grave, including among them James Connolly, Tom Clarke, Patrick Pearse, Sean O’Casey, Eamon de Valera, etc.

Prior to the establishment of the ‘Irish Free State’ in 1922 most of these pilgrimages were organized by the ‘Irish Republican Brotherhood’ (IRB), the National Graves Commission, or Sinn Fein under its many titles and guises. Since its creation in 1926 the ‘Fianna Fail’ Party have organized an annual pilgrimage to Bodenstown in memory of Wolfe Tone, as part of their effort to strengthen their claim to be as republican-minded as ‘Sinn Fein’ in the eyes of Ireland’s people. As expected the organisations attending, the numbers of people travelling, and their combined mood reflected the militancy of the ‘Irish Republican Army’ (IRA), and the factions within that movement. But, it has only been since the beginnings of the ‘Troubles’ in ‘Northern Ireland’ that the ‘Ulster Question’ has had an impact on the Bodenstown gatherings.

Unfortunately, in October 1969, the troubles came to the pilgrimage when the ‘Ulster Volunteer Force’ (UVF) planted a bomb in the graveyard, which destroyed the memorials to Wolfe Tone. Then, in June 1975, the same loyalist terror group planted a bomb near Sallins with the sole intention of derailing a train filled with pilgrims on their way to Bodenstown for the annual gathering. Sadly, during this operation, an innocent and uninvolved passer-by was killed by the loyalist action.

Early in twentieth century the Catholic Church in Ireland associated Wolfe Tone with the physical-force faction of Irish Republicanism and the hierarchy of the church opposed priest attendance at these gatherings. Many priests, however, who were unafraid to demonstrate their support for Irish freedom and republicanism, and they continued to attend the gatherings. The Catholic population of the country had always supplied the support for republicanism in Ireland. Wolfe Tone, however, was from the Protestant tradition and some who gathered at Bodenstown saw the recitation of Catholic prayers over Tone’s grave as being inappropriate. Then, in 1971, the new memorial at Wolfe Tone’s grave-site was formally blessed with Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy participating jointly.

wolfe-toneSadly, it appears there has arisen a less desirable trend in the speeches of earlier years when compared to those speeches of recent decades. There is always a formal nod to the exploits of Wolfe Tone but, both ‘Fianna Fail’ and ‘Sinn Fein’ have begun to use the occasion to set out and promote their own political manifesto, and to lambast the programs of other parties. From such debates opposing factions have arisen within Irish Republicanism, all seeking a united Ireland but divided as to how to achieve this goal. It is the same old story of Irish politics that even Wolfe Tone faced, namely the weakness of our cause because our political divisions.

William Smith O’Brien PtII

William Smith O’Brien’s half-cocked rebellion of July 1848 ended in dismal failure, and the leaders were quickly rounded up. He was found guilty of sedition, convicted and sentenced to death despite the absolute fiasco into which that rising in Tipperary fell. Nevertheless, he had committed high treason and was rather fortunate that his death sentence was later commuted to one of transportation to the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). The Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, had decided that the best policy in regard to the “Young Irelanders” was not to make them martyrs for the cause of Irish freedom. It was much better, he felt, to send the prisoners into gentlemanly oblivion. While the Governor of Van-Diemen’s Land, Sir William Denison, preferred that the prisoners should be treated as normal convicts, he was obliged to offer O’Brien a ‘ticket-of-leave’. William, however, initially refused the offer because it had a condition attached to it, which would prevent him making any attempt to escape. Thus, while his fellow-revolutionaries, Patrick O’Donohoe, Thomas Meagher and Terence MacManus, set free immediately, William was moved to Maria Island, which represented the penal settlement’s remotest outpost. So, one year after the failure of his rebellion, William Smith O’Brien was sitting in a small cottage, isolated from the other convicts. He now found himself with enough leisure time to write a long-postponed autobiography. There were not many leaders of armed rebellions in Ireland, during the centuries of English domination, that had the opportunity to look back on their actions in the years that followed. But, an attempt by O’Brien to escape his confinement was badly bungled and, in August 1850, he was transferred to Port Arthur.

O'Brien Cottage

William now found himself housed in a cottage in Port Arthur, which has been preserved by the city authorities as a historic site. The cottage itself remains a pleasant enough building painted in a bright pumpkin-colour. The front rooms are set back from a pillared porch and the house has a garden at the rear. From its position on a ridge the cottage occupies a commanding site above the main penitentiary buildings and parade ground. Just off shore in Carnarvon Bay, O’Brien could see the ‘Isle of the Dead’, which was a burial ground for the convicts, as well as the penal colony’s officials, soldiers and their wives.

O’Brien was fortunate to be spared the worst horrors of convict life in Van Diemen’s Land, and the greatest hardship he had to endure at Port Arthur was his isolation. But he had books to occupy himself and he tended to the garden, as well as starting a journal for Lucy. William also took advantage of the time he had to correspond with his family and friends. These letters and O’Brien’s journal show the man to have had integrity, sensitivity and an unswerving patriotism for his country. His sense of patriotism combined a ‘gentleman’s’ sense of honour with an unshakeable conviction that his country’s cause was sacred. He wrote to his wife at this time, saying “No holier cause than that in which I was engaged ever led a patriot into the field or conducted him to the scaffold.” She, however, was less enthusiastic than her husband about the cause of Ireland’s freedom.

After spending three months in Port Arthur, William was urged by his sympathisers in Hobart to apply for a ‘ticket-of-leave’, which he did, successfully. ‘The Young Irelanders’ in general began, at this time, to benefit from the local distaste for England’s policy of transportation and they themselves had formed movements that sought representation for the people. In popular newspapers like the ‘Hobart Town Courier’ and the ‘Launceston Examiner’, the ‘Young Irelanders were described as patriotic heroes, who may have lacked good judgement in their actions. Nevertheless, this was a marked contrast to the vitriolic outpourings against ‘The Young Irelanders’ published in the ‘The Times of London’. Such was O’Brien’s standing in Hobart that he received a popular ovation when he arrived there, but nervous authorities would not allow him to settle in Hobart and moved him on to New Norfolk. William took lodgings in ‘Elwin’s Hotel’, (now the ‘Glen Derwent’) a pleasant rural inn on the river Derwent, and remained there for two and a half years, until he moved to Richmond. It was a matter of government policy that the ‘Young Ireland’ prisoners were required to live in separate districts, and Thomas Francis Meagher resided in Campbell Town and Ross, while John Mitchel lived at Nant Cottage, Bothwell.

On a regular basis, funds were sent to Smith O’Brien from his Cahirmoyle estate in Ireland. As it was with most of the other ‘Young Irelanders’ who had been transported, private means greatly alleviated the hardships brought on by their exile. Fortuitously, during the Crown’s proceedings against him, O’Brien had placed his estate in trust to forestall any possible confiscation of his assets. But, William’s correspondence from New Norfolk demonstrates that he punctiliously attended to his day-to-day business.

The ‘Young Irelanders’ had been heartened and inspired by the French Revolution in 1848, because the revolutionaries were able to rid the land of King Louis Philippe, and to keep existing property intact. The Irish leaders wanted the same result through their middle-class revolution, which would act as a strong barrier against a possible peasant uprising. But, this was a subtlety which the British government, unfortunately failed to grasp at the time. They did not quite accept that Smith O’Brien was not another leader simply speaking republican doctrine. On 20th August 1850, Smith wrote to an English supporter of Young Ireland, T. Chisholm Anstey, saying – “As for personal loyalty to the sovereign, I am not aware that I have ever during the course of my life uttered a word disrespectful to the queen and though in the event of a national war between Great Britain and Ireland I should have acquiesced in the establishment of a republic as the only form of government which circumstances have permitted. Yet my political principles have never been republican and I should have much preferred to any novel experiment a restoration of the ancient constitution of Ireland: the Queen, Lords and Commons of Ireland.”

Smith O’Brien had been badly disillusioned by the sheer inadequacy of the British Government’s policies towards Ireland during the Famine years, and that to prevent further disasters he wanted Ireland to be self-governed under the Crown. He had many harsh things to say about the government’s policies during the Famine and suggested that if the British Government had not caused it, they at least encouraged its effects on the Irish people. He claimed that Ireland’s people were now undergoing greater loss of life from British mismanagement of the famine than might result from the outbreak of revolution. But, Smith O’Brien’s had his critics, and they accused him of having a total disregard for the people by expecting them to take part in an uprising after suffering years of starvation. It appears that he had forgotten that history has taught us that successful revolutions take place, not when things are at their worst for the oppressed but, when they are getting better. It would, however, be a long time after 1848 that things really began to improve for the Irish people.

Naturally, on reaching ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, O’Brien’s first impressions of the Tasmanian countryside were not favourable, especially when suffering from serious homesickness. This new land may have had its beauty spots, mountains and flowing streams, but none as beautiful as the valleys, loughs, hills and forests of Ireland, many of which had been immortalised in song. Anyone who has read his correspondence from exile can see how much he was influenced by romance of his homeland, rather than attempt a totally objective observation of the magnificence of the semi-wilderness that was the Tasmanian bush. At the same time, he preferred to remain oblivious to the spiritual significance with which the aboriginal people of that land had invested their environment. But, because he was a landowner himself, William was extremely interested in farming conditions of his new home and local animal husbandry. At one point, he even considered following John Mitchel’s example by investing in a farm and bringing out his family to live there. Ultimately, he decided against taking his wife and several children out to this far-off land. He wrote bitterly, “Nothing has yet shaken my determination to abstain in whatever sacrifice to myself from placing my wife and children under the control of the brutes who govern the prisoner population of this colony.”

There is little doubt that O’Brien did suffer because of his separation from his family and friends in Ireland, but he was not short of good company and a lively social life in Tasmania. The journal that he kept and the many letters he wrote record the routine life that a country gentleman expects to live. He spent his time studying classical authors and wrote of his impressions. William also rode and walked about the countryside, and went to St Matthew’s Anglican church, where he struck up a good friendship with the Revd. Seaman. For a short time, he moved to the Avoca region in Tasmania and became tutor to the young sons of Dr. Brock, an Irish naval surgeon.

Although, at first, William felt cold-shouldered by the local gentry, by November 1852 he was able to write to his wife of “visits to the settlers in whose houses I feel that I am not only welcome but a cherished guest!” The home of the Fenton family, especially, became almost a second home for O’Brien. Captain Fenton had served in the Indian army but, like O’Brien himself, he was Irish and Protestant. His wife, Elizabeth, and their daughters found that they had much in common with William, including a shared taste for literature and music. ‘The Young Ireland’ movement had stimulated Irish balladeers to produce a prolific crop of patriotic verses and song, to which Smith O’Brien no doubt introduced his hostess and her daughters. In September 1852 wrote to his own wife, Lucy, and asked her to send “a copy of Bunting’s Irish melodies and the quarto edition of the Songs of the Nation which I have promised to Mrs. Fenton.”

Captain Fenton, however, had a more substantial reason for cultivating the company of William O’Brien. He was a member of the Tasmanian Legislative Council and he was a leading advocate for Tasmanian self-government. Knowing that O’Brien had represented his native Limerick in the House of Commons in London for seventeen years, Fenton realised he would have invaluable expertise to give him. In later years Fenton would become Speaker of the Tasmanian Legislature and was a member of the committee that drafted a constitution for Tasmania. O’Brien for his part drafted a model constitution and worked on his ‘Reflections in Exile’, published after his release as ‘Principles of Government’.

Supporters and well-wishers in Ireland, England and America, campaigned ceaselessly for O’Brien to be pardoned. He was a celebrated figure in many countries and, eventually, the British Government granted him a conditional pardon in the summer of 1854. He wrote to his wife at this time, rejoicing in the fact that he had been pardoned and that he had not been asked to retract or apologise for his past actions. “I had firmly resolved”, he wrote, “not to say or write or do anything which could be interpreted as a confession on my part that I consider myself a “criminal” in regard to the transactions of 1848.”

Before Smith O’Brien left Tasmania after spending five-years there, he was honorary guest at a series of functions and he was presented with congratulatory speeches in both Hobart and Launceston. In Melbourne ‘Long John’ O’Shaunessy, who would later be Sir John and Premier of the State of Victoria, organised a testimonial dinner for O’Brien and his friends. At the same time there were various local communities who honoured him, including those people who lived in the Bendigo goldfields.

In 1856, William’s final pardon came through, expedited because so many of those serving with distinction in the Crimean campaign were Irish. He was now free to return to Ireland, after having spent the intervening years in Brussels. When he came home at last, he found himself once again honoured and feted, receiving a hero’s welcome from Irish Americans when he went to the United States, where he met President James Buchanan. But, sadly, O’Brien’s final years were less happy. His health failed him and in 1861 his beloved wife died. Three years after this tragedy, in 1864, he himself died at the age of sixty. He was subsequently buried in Rathronan churchyard in County Limerick.

O'Brien StatueSix years after his death, a statue which stands in O’Connell Street, Dublin, just north of the O’Connell monument, was unveiled. John Martin, MP for Meath, another veteran ‘Young Irelander’ and former Tasmanian exile, performed the ceremony. Neither O’Brien’s son and heir, Edward, nor Lord Inchiquin, who was head of the family, was present for the ceremony. While in exile, Smith O’Brien had insisted that his children should be educated in such a manner that they would take pride in their Irish heritage and serve their country, and yet, he had written to Lucy, “I have never endeavoured to force patriotic feeling upon the minds of our children”. Although his son, Edward, appears to have disagreed with his father’s politics, William’s spirit of service was nobly carried on by his daughter, Charlotte Grace. She devoted her life to improving conditions of travel and settlement for thousands of young Irish women emigrating to the United States, at a time when social services were either minimal or completely non-existent.

Further reading:

  1. R. Davis, The Young Ireland Movement (Dublin 1987).
  2. B. Touhill, William Smith O’Brien and his Irish Revolutionary Companions in Penal Exile (Missouri 1981).