December 16th, 1882: Harrowing Maamtrasna executions


Newspaper reports of official executions in the 19th century sometimes contained gruesome details as hangings were not always carried out as clinically as they were supposed to be. The hanging of three men in Galway jail for the infamous Maamtrasna murders, including one who was innocent, was relatively straightforward, but its description in the next day’s newspaper was still harrowing.

WHEN THE light of coming day was yet dim Marwood [the executioner] entered the cells of the condemned. All three had spent a restless night . . . At half-past six o’clock they were desired to prepare themselves for the visit of their priest. Food was offered to them, but was in each case refused and at seven o’clock Mass was said by the Rev Mr Newell, whose presence tended to calm them . . . About eight o’clock Father Grevan administered the last sacraments of their church, and when Marwood made his appearance everything was in a state of preparedness . . .

At a quarter-past 8 o’clock the prison doors were thrown open . . . With startled looks they marked the wild, hollow eyes, sunken cheeks, and shrunken forms of each other, but not a word passed between them. Myles Joyce came first, between two warders, bareheaded, repeating in Irish the responses to the prayers which were being read by the Rev Mr Grevan. Then came Pat Casey, pinioned, silent, and with a look of great agony on his features. Last appeared Pat Joyce, taller than the others, wearing his hat, silent, too, and walking with firm and steady step . . . In the order in which the culprits had left the cells they mounted the scaffold, Pat Joyce going up two steps at a time, and without receiving the least assistance whatever. Myles Joyce was placed to the right, Pat Casey at the left, Pat Joyce, the taller, being in the centre.

Marwood then commenced the work of pinioning the knees, beginning with Myles Joyce . . . While upon the drop, Myles Joyce continued to speak volubly and in an excited way. It was impossible to gather the meaning of much that fell from him, even by Irish-speaking persons who were present; but the following sentences have been interpreted for me by one who understands and speaks the language thoroughly, and who was close enough to hear the greater part of what he said.

These sentences were: “I am going before my God. I was not there at all. I had no hand or part in it. I am as innocent as a child in the cradle. It is a poor thing to take this life away on a stage; but I have my priest with me.”

The other culprits were silent and passive, and made no statement of any kind from the scaffold. Myles Joyce, on the contrary, continued speaking rapidly, even after Marwood had drawn the white cap over his face and fixed the noose around his neck, and was, in fact, at the moment the bolt was drawn speaking . . . The instant Marwood touched the levers the three bodies instantly disappeared.

Two of the ropes remained perfectly motionless, but the third, that by which Myles Joyce was hanged, could be seen by those who watched it closely to vibrate, and swing slightly backwards and forwards. It soon became evident, from Marwood’s behaviour, that there had been a hitch of some kind or other, and he muttered, “bother the fellow”, sat down on the scaffold, laid hold of the rope, and moved it backwards and forwards.

As will be seen from what happened afterwards at the inquest, this incident did not pass unobserved, and it would certainly appear that Joyce was not killed as rapidly as the others, and that the man struggled for some time before succumbing.