Bloodshed on a boreen: The mysterious murder of a Galway farmer
In 1883, police considered John Moylan’s murder an agrarian crime, until the rumours surfaced
A small crowd arrived to the scene of the shooting and carried John Moylan to a nearby house. Illustration: iStock/George Cruikshank
John Moylan wasn’t long back in Ireland when he was shot dead. By the end of 1883, the Galway farmer was just settling back into life at his farm at Clonboo, Annaghdown, where he lived with his wife, Mary, and their five children.
In March of 1881, struggling to feed his family, John had emigrated to America. He worked on the east coast for nearly three years, from where he regularly sent money - more than £100 in total - back to Mary, who was left to tend to the farm.
Visits to Mary’s father, who lived a few minutes’ walk away in Cregduff, became part of the couple’s new routine. After what would be his last visit on December 19th, 1883, John left with Mary at about 9pm to undertake the short trip back to their own house. The night was misty and the ground muddy - the pair veered into a field to avoid the sludge on the boreen.
Stepping up onto a stile, John reached his hand back to help Mary. A voice came from the darkness: “Is that you, Tom Browne?”
The shape of a man materialised to the couple’s side, just against the hedge. John, startled, turned to face it, but made no reply.
The voice demanded again: “Is that you, Tom Browne?” Mary saw two barrels, exposed in the moonlight, pointed at John. The first shot came and John collapsed backwards into Mary’s arms, and the two fell into the shrubs. Mary grabbed at John’s torso and noticed the blood pooling in her hands.
By Mary’s account, she “threw herself over the prostrate body” of John in an attempt to save him, but a strong hand clasped the back of her dress and the attacker made easy work of dragging Mary aside. She turned back in time to see the gun’s barrel point at John’s face, and a second shot rang out.
Mary tried to grab the man and caught a quick glance, but her eyes were clouded with tears and dirt. The shooter dropped a note onto John’s body and fled, while the widow ran back to her father’s house and raised the alarm.
She had the presence of mind to remember the note when a crowd came to return John’s body to the house.
Written in “fair” script in pencil on one side of a piece of paper, it read: “Notice to you, Thomas Brown - I heard about your work at Cregduff, so don’t put me to any trouble any more. I don’t like to disgrace your friends. Don’t put me to any more trouble for you ought to give up before I give you the double-barrel gun.”
A dispatch sent from Galway the next day only reached The Irish Times in time for the Friday morning paper: “The citizens of Galway were startled this morning when the news came that a farmer was shot within five miles of the borough late last night.
"At first, the meagre tidings came that a man was shot at Clonboo, and it was not till the wife of the unfortunate man ran into Galway in a state of frenzy that the few simple facts connected with the crime were learned.”
The early evidence inspired some theories. The note and the shout of “Tom Browne” indicated a case of mistaken identity and have police an early lead; Tom Browne was another farmer in Cregduff, and had himself been in a row with others in the area.
A potential agrarian motive was also reported in papers. False rumours had spread that Moylan had occupied a vacant farm on his return from the US. It seemed a good fit; in the years surrounding the land war, violence over land disputes was not uncommon.
Mary gave evidence at the inquest. She told the story as it was first reported, and described a man with a long coat and a red face as the gun man. Asked if he had a moustache, she said she couldn’t say - but also said he definitely had a long, black beard.
Her testimony raised some questions. She insisted her husband had been shot twice; the official conclusion was that one shot and slug had entered his face and lodged in his lower jaw. The bones of his nose, which seemed to take the brunt of the shot, were missing.
Mary’s timeline was also off. According to her brother, who was at the house when she returned with the news of John’s demise, about 10 or 12 minutes passed between the couple leaving and Mary banging on the door. The round trip from the front door to the crime scene should have taken about two minutes.
The coroner had asked Mary outright if she had any quarrel with her husband, to which she replied she hadn’t. Police would later discover that was not completely true.
Reports surfaced of a less-than-happy marriage. John had apparently been angry on his return to find the money he sent back squandered. Worse were the rumours concerning Michael Downey, a young labourer who lived next door and helped with the farm.
He had apparently spent the night in the house during John’s absence on at least two occasions, and terms like “paramour”, “improper relations” and “criminal intimacy” begin to appear in reports.
Downey, aged about 25 when he was arrested by police, denied any involvement. Shortly after that, on December 23rd, police arrested Mary. She denied any wrongdoing, but police suspected she knew more than she admitted.
On Christmas Eve, constables discovered a revolver belonging to Downey, concealed in a hedge. Other evidence collected included a pair of “American boots”, apparently a gift to Downey from John, and a pair of his trousers, which police found soaking in a bucket of water.
Tests would reveal that the gun had been shot and stains on its barrel were mammalian blood. The same was found for the boots and water drained from the trousers.
By this point, Tom Browne had been questioned and released; his only crime was being named in the threatening note. Tom and John looked nothing alike and the theory that the note was a fabrication to throw police off the trail grew legs.
At a hearing before Resident Magistrate Lyster on Friday, December 28th, Mary changed her tune, and turned witness for the crown. Michael, she said, was the killer.
“In her identification of him she asserted that she could not possibly be mistaken in any way,” reads a report in The Irish Times, “as she clearly saw his features, heard his voice, and actually remonstrated with him when he pushed her aside and was about to fire the fatal shot: but she made no other struggle to save her husband from being murdered, because the assassin Downey threatened to shoot herself.”
In response Downey said he had not pulled the trigger, but Mary had tried to hire him to assassinate John.
Correspondence between investigators and Dublin castle show there was little doubt that Mary had been involved in the killing somehow, though they were willing to settle for Downey’s conviction based on the evidence.
Over court dates spanning one year and three trials, details about the relationship between Mary Moylan and Michael Downey were heard.
Sergeant Robinson, for the prosecution, said: “The prisoner kept his gun in the chimney of the room in which Mary Moylan slept and on two occasions, at all events, though his own house was convenient, he slept in Moylan’s house.”
They couldn’t prove “criminality” between them, but “no doubt would remain on their minds that at all events such relations existed between the parties as should not have existed between a respectable married woman and a man who was not her husband.”
The proposed motive was to remove John from the picture, so Mary could marry Downey and inherit the farm.
The threatening note had been difficult for investigators to explain away. Though they were certain Michael pulled the trigger and Mary had some role, neither could write.
With the aid of a handwriting analyst in Dublin, it was concluded that a local unwitting man named John Browne had been coaxed to write the letter by Downey under the impression it would be used to scare Tom Browne.
Mary’s testimony was criticised by the defence, mainly due to her previous lies at the inquest. Downey - described by The Irish Times as “in fact, incapable of displaying emotion” - made statements incriminating other men and alleged the influence of Fenian operations.
The story didn’t stick. On December 16th, 1884, Michael Downey was sentenced to hang after his third trial, the first two juries having disagreed.
In his address, the judge said the “evidence that left no doubt on the mind of anyone who attended, that you joined in a conspiracy with this woman to commit that crime, the murder of her husband, and that yours was the hand and yours was the gun that took away the life of that man”.
Downey’s life, the judge told him, had “been justly forfeited to the law”. And so it was, at the hands of a particularly Galway-shy executioner named James Berry, at Galway Gaol the following January 16th. Before his execution, Downey signed a statement of confession with an "X".
Mary Moylan, despite avoiding punishment for any presumed involvement in her husband’s murder, found her neighbours in Annaghdown unwilling to trade with or help her with her newly-inherited farm when she returned.
In June 1885, she walked through the night with her infant child to the Galway workhouse and presented as “destitute”.
This story is the subject of a book, ‘When the Hangman Came to Galway’, by Dean Ruxton, published by Gill Books (€16.99) available now