Thursday 29 September 2016

The murderer, me and my family tree

Dylan Haskins tries to trace his links to a killer

Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30

Detective: Dylan Haskins has been on the road to solve the cold case in his family's history
Detective: Dylan Haskins has been on the road to solve the cold case in his family's history
Model of James Haskins: the last man to be hanged at Wicklow Gaol

​​In the summer of 1998 I had just turned 11 and was sitting in the passenger seat of my dad's car when something happened that would set him off on a course of investigation for several years. An ­intimidating, authoritarian voice boomed from the radio: "James Haskins, you are sentenced to death by hanging." My dad nearly crashed the car.

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There aren't many Haskins in Ireland. Not only that, but my dad's name was also James Haskins. So was my grandfather's, and his father's before that. It was an ad for Wicklow's historic gaol, which had just opened as a tourist attraction.

My great-great-grandfather had come to Dún Laoghaire from Wicklow in the 19th century but our antecedents prior to that were a mystery.

That year was the bicentenary of the 1798 Rebellion and my dad wondered if James Haskins had been some kind of revolutionary hero. He eventually paid a visit to Wicklow Gaol to corroborate this theory, but what he discovered sent him back to the drawing board.

James Haskins had been chosen for the radio ad because he was the last man to be hanged at Wicklow Gaol, on March 18, 1843. He was not a hero. The crime that cost him his life was the murder of a farmer and small time moneylender named John Pugh from Rosnastraw, near Tinahely.

Dad persevered with his refocused quest to find out if we could be related to the last man hanged in Wicklow Gaol, buoyed by the strange kind of cachet that comes with having a historic murderer in the family.

In those days before digitised records, he combed through church archives - baptisms, marriages, deaths - and gradually began to form a fragmented picture of our family tree.

On weekends, we would drive to obscure church graveyards, scraping the moss from old headstones to read the names chiselled into them long ago.

We called to the homesteads of old-timers with long memories, trying to piece together the story of James Haskins, and how it might connect with our own story, but the records just didn't exist to conclusively prove whether or not this man was our ancestor.

These are my fondest memories of that period of my childhood. When I remember my dad, I think of those days as his co-detective, how he respected my opinions and theories as equal and took me on that journey with him. My dad died in 2006. One of the things you realise when a parent or a grandparent dies is how much knowledge dies with them.

Last year it troubled me that for all dad's work tracing our family history, I could only remember vague scattered bits of it, but nothing about how it all joined up.

I got nostalgic for that summer 17 years ago and wondered if those old people we'd spoken to about the murder were still alive. And if they weren't, had the story died with them?

I also think there's something in all of us that makes us want to go further than our parents. So I decided to try and finish what my dad had started and solve this cold case in our family history. I began by retracing the places I had visited in my childhood, discovering long lost relatives who welcomed me into their homes, and farmers who remembered meeting my dad all those years ago.

There were many dead ends along the way too, but each little breakthrough spurred me on; like finding Willie Stedman, an 89-year-old farmer from Tinahely. A tall, proud man, Willie still drives machinery at harvest time and has a voracious appetite for stories and local history.

When Willie was "only a chap", he conversed with the old men and heard their stories, which he can still recall with remarkable clarity.

Willie unravelled the story of the 1843 Pugh murder for me, complete with the names of locals who had witnessed it: "There was another house quite near Pugh's house, Dan Loughlin and his wife. They were very old people. She heard some noise in the night and she says to the husband 'Something's going on at Pugh's, someone could be getting murdered'. 'Go out, so', says he, 'And they might murder you too!' And they never looked out, but sure enough it was the case."

My own journey took me from the cells of Wicklow Gaol, back and forth across the county, and finally to the House of Lords in London where I met self-described "milkman from Co Wicklow", Lord Christopher Haskins.

Chris agreed to have his DNA analysed and compared with mine. A loss of knowledge to passing generations motivated me at the outset. I hadn't considered that knowledge can also be gained with time, and the information that ultimately answered the question of whether I am related to the last man hanged in Wicklow Gaol was provided by scientific technology unavailable even ten years ago.

On hearing the results, instinctively the first person I wanted to call and share the news with was my dad.

Documentary on One: The Murderer, Me and My Family Tree broadcasts on RTÉ Radio 1, today, at 1pm and is available online at rte.ie/doconone

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