The Maamtrasna Murders: Language, Life and Death in Nineteenth-Century Ireland review
Margaret Kelleher studies a man’s hanging in context of a legal world oblivious of Irish
Maolra Seoighe (“Myles Joyce”): the Irish-speaker wrongly executed for the 1882 Maamtrasna murders after a trial conducted entirely in English.
“To steal his language from a man in the very name of language,” wrote Roland Barthes, “every legal murder begins here.” The story of Maolra Seoighe (“Myles Joyce”), the Irish-speaker wrongly executed for the 1882 Maamtrasna murders after a trial conducted entirely in English, is one of the most notorious injustices in our legal history, the subject of an unprecedented pardon from President Michael D Higgins this year. Seoighe had protested his innocence to the last, desperately asking why he should be killed – “Cia’n fá mé chur ann báis?” – even as the hangman put the noose around his neck. “I couldn’t understand a word of his lingo,” recalled the executioner. It was a scene, wrote TP O’Connor, “that will live in Irish memory until the end of time”.
In her powerful and meticulous new history of the murders and their aftermaths, Margaret Kelleher illuminates not just a series of tragedies, but also the bilingual Ireland often forgotten in our narrative of language change, a messy world of two tongues where the foreign gradually became familiar in Irish mouths and minds.