An Irishman's Diary

 

A MALTESE MAN called David Darmanin has written seeking information about the strange case of a 19th-century Irish sailor whose grave on the Mediterranean island appears to be a shrine.

Darmanin is a chef, and recently opened a restaurant in the ancient city of Vittorioso, located just across the harbour from Malta’s capital, Valletta. Since then, he has become interested in the case of one Thomas McSweeney: a 23-year-old naval private executed in 1837 for his part in a fatal incident on board ship the year before.

McSweeney is commemorated by a gravestone in Vittorioso’s St Lawrence Cemetery, just a few hundred metres from the restaurant. And the mystery is that, although he died nearly two centuries ago and has no known relatives on the island, his presumed resting place is still regularly adorned with fresh flowers and lighted candles.

“Even more peculiar,” writes Darmanin, “is the fact that the cemetery in question re-opened in the 1960s after having been closed for about 100 years [and] McSweeney’s grave is the only one to bear the original tombstone.” Most of the publicly available information about McSweeney’s life and untimely end derives from his court-martial in February 1837, which took place on a ship named aptly the HMS Revenge.

This heard evidence that the previous July, while serving on the HMS Rodney in Barcelona, Private McSweeney had “knowingly and maliciously” pushed one Lance Sergeant James T Allen in such a way that the latter fell headlong into the “waist of the ship”, suffering head injuries from which, some days later, he died.

It also emerged that, prior to the incident, Allen had reported McSweeney for being found “slinging his hammock” on the main deck when he was supposed to be on duty elsewhere. And that in reporting him, Allen – who was English – had declared: “You bog-trotter, you’re in for it now.” This last detail hints that there may have been a bit of history between the two men, although the court-martial heard that the accused had an exemplary record before the fatal incident.

McSweeney pleaded that pushing Allen was an act of momentary rage, and that it had never occurred to him that it would result in serious injury. But it was no use. The charge of manslaughter was not an option then and the young Irishman was duly sentenced to death for his crime. Moreover, he was to be hanged in the naval manner, from the yardarm of his own ship.

The grand harbour at Valletta has witnessed some grim spectacles down the centuries, most notably during the Siege of Malta in 1565, when the Muslim Turks tried to wrestle the island from the Christian Knights Hospitaller.

Scenes from that battle included one in which the 80-year-old Ottoman leader Dragut crucified nine captured knights and sent their crosses floating over the harbour to the stronghold of the knights’ leader, the 71-year-old Jean de la Valette.

For his part, De La Valette (after whom the capital is now named) proved no less imaginative, beheading Turkish captives, stuffing their heads into canons, and firing them back across the water.

McSweeney’s execution was a minor drama by comparison. Even so, thousands watched it from the shore and others from boats, while a squadron of royal navy ships also gathered for the occasion, their crews mustered on deck.

Grim as it sounds, the navy’s method of execution at least offered a quick end, if – as appears to have happened in this case – the hanging party did its job correctly.

On the morning of June 8th, 1837, after the warrant was read and a signal fired, the group of chosen sailors sprinted along the deck of the Rodney with a rope that had been reeved through the yardarm overhead. At the rope’s other end was the neck of the unfortunate McSweeney. And thus was the condemned man launched 60 feet into the air, and eternity.

It was the practice then for executed criminals in Malta to be buried in unmarked graves at the cemetery of Blata-il-Bajda. Which only adds to the mystery of the grave at St Lawrence’s – if indeed is it a grave.

It has also been suggested that it might be just a memorial, erected separately from his place of burial. Whichever it is, its existence suggests that the Catholic Maltese saw McSweeney as a victim. And the fact that it alone survived intact during the 100 years when the cemetery was closed is even more impressive.

David Darmanin says that the people of his island are “deeply religious, although not as superstitious as the Sicilians [their neighbours to the north]”. In any case, McSweeney’s death appears to have inspired a local cult. It is even claimed that his ghost – a polite, fair-haired young man, apparently – has been seen by visitors to the cemetery.

A leading Maltese arts figure is rumoured to be planning an opera on the subject. And yet there remain large gaps in the narrative. “When last week an Irish customer asked me for more evidence related to McSweeney’s story, I got stuck,” admits Darmanin. Which is why he is now seeking help. Anyone with more information is asked to contact him by e-mail to chef@sugu.com.mt.