Fresh flowers on the hanged sailor's grave
A mysterious local cult has sprung up around the tomb in Malta of an Irish marine -- 170 years after his death, writes Liam Collins
HE was hanged for killing a fellow Royal Marine in 1837 -- but in a remote graveyard on the Mediterranean island of Malta, locals still keep the memory of Private Thomas McSweeney alive with 'offerings' laid at his gravestone every day.
McSweeney, a private in the Royal Marines, was found guilty by a court martial and hanged for the killing of Corporal James T Allen after a dispute aboard the battleship HMS Rodney, on which both served, while it was docked in Barcelona, Spain.
McSweeney, an Irish Catholic who had enlisted in Kanturk, Co Cork, as a 19-year- old was tried and hanged on June 8, 1837, for the murder of Allen, an English Protestant. And it seems that the religious element to his trial and execution led to a "cult" growing up in Malta which almost 175 years later sees fresh flowers laid and candles lit daily on his grave in St Lawrence's Churchyard, near the village of Vittoriosa on Malta.
"Several myths emerged regarding McSweeney, they arose for several reasons: an inaccurate knowledge of the facts concerning the murder; and an attempt to distort the facts for religious or political reasons" says a British naval record. According to the official record, McSweeney was court martialled in February 1837 for "purposely and maliciously" pushing James T Allen, a Lance Serjeant from the gangway into the hold of the ship after a dispute between the two men.
When told he would be "hanged for that" he replied in some style: "Now I'm satisfied, they can do what they like to me."
During his court martial, McSweeney told the officers that the two men had earlier had a disagreement and that Allen threatened to report him for it, saying: "You're a bog-trotter."
After the hanging, his body was buried with the inscription on his tombstone: "Sacred to the memory of Thomas McSweeney, Executed on HMS Rodney on 8th of June, 1837 aged 23 years."
Alan Marland, of Wigan, England who has researched the short life and death of McSweeney says he was the son of one Bridget McSweeney and that after his execution his belongings were returned to her in Kanturk, Co Cork, via the local parish priest.
"His grave, to this day, is believed to have miraculous properties" he says. "Locals attest to this and include tales of a ghost sighting" and he says that ballads have been composed in Malta in his honour.
"His tomb has been, and still is, maintained by devotees who light a candle daily" says Marland.
"The entire graveyard, which had been left to lie idle for over a century, was recently levelled and re-laid -- and only McSweeney's plot was left as it had been."
David Darmanin who runs the nearby Taverna Sugu says that "although McSweeney has no descendants living in Malta the Irish marine's grave is still the subject of some mysterious local cult".
He says flowers are brought and candles lit by the 'old women' coming in from the old town.
Irish ex-pats living in Malta have also become curious after several talks at the local historical society and an article in a local journal and are planning to hold a party in honour of McSweeney at the Taverna Sugu. But they and the proprietor would like to find out more about McSweeney's origins in Kanturk, Co Cork, and his family circumstances, including how he came to join the Royal Navy.