Hero or villain? The gruesome tale of the 'real' Playboy of the Western World
Agnes MacDonnell was disfigured so badly after an attack by of one of her tenants, she would wear a veil for the rest of her life. Jenna Byers tells the story of James Lynchehaun, MacDonnell's attacker and the inspiration behind JM Synge's savage hero
Published 06/05/2012 | 06:00
The brutality of the attack on English landowner Agnes MacDonnell at her home on Achill Island in October 1894 shocked the whole country.
She suffered such terrible injuries that she was forced to wear a veil for the rest of her life, but it was the perpetrator who would live on in the public's imagination.
Tenant James Lynchehaun -- "a fine, strong, dark, animal-looking man" -- not only made a spectacular escape from prison, but he would later provide the inspiration for the savage hero of JM Synge's 'Playboy of the Western World', Christy Mahon.
The stage was set for conflict from the very beginning. When Agnes MacDonnell, the wife of a London barrister, bought Valley House -- a 2,000-acre estate on Achill Island -- she quickly earned a reputation as a fierce and determined landlady.
She wasn't slow to use the courts to bring her tenants into line and tensions were already running high when James Lynchehaun was hired as a steward of Valley House. The relationship between landlady and tenant quickly soured.
Agnes tried to throw him off her land, but he refused, point blank, to go.
On the night of October 6, 1894, six years after Agnes had taken up residence on Achill Island, her house was set alight and "scorched to an ash-strewn shell".
"Screams of horror, shouts of rage and the cackle of flames range out from the Valley House," Patricia Byrne writes in 'The Veiled Woman of Achill', a new book that recounts the true story that influenced Synge's infamous play.
Agnes was later found nearby, beaten so severely that she would wear a veil in public for the rest of her life.
She had been attacked with a large stone; her right eye "had been crushed in the attack" and her nose had been completely destroyed so that the nasal bone was exposed. Dr Croly, Agnes's physician and close personal friend, said he was "of the opinion that it had been bitten off".
This was an attack of unparalleled ferocity and horror. When Agnes finally came to, she pointed the finger at James Lynchehaun.
He was quickly rounded up and arrested, though he denied the crime. He said he had been at the scene, but swore that he had only gone there to help, not to harm anyone.
However, both Agnes and a local woman, Mary Gallagher, testified against him and he was brought to Dugort barracks to await trial.
James wasn't the kind of man to sit quietly by and let his fate be decided for him. Two weeks after the savage attack, he managed to escape while being transported to Castlebar Jail.
A colossal man-hunt followed -- hundreds of police officers were called in from surrounding areas to assist in the search.
James had taken the first step towards creating his enduring legend.
But he didn't plan to lie low. Instead, he wrote a letter to District Inspector Rainsford, promising to attend his trial "in March next or at any time that you name".
The letter was dated December 1, 1894, and it wasn't until January 1895 that James was recaptured. He had managed to survive three months out in the wild, bitter winter.
The trial eventually began on July 15, 1895. It lasted three days, including the tense showdown between James and Agnes herself, who had not set eyes on one another since that fateful night in October 1894.
The jury debated for just 45 minutes before they returned, announcing James guilty of "feloniously and unlawfully wounding Mrs Agnes MacDonnell with intent to kill and murder".
He was sentenced to a lifetime of penal servitude.
Once the trial was over, Agnes rebuilt Valley House and continued to take a harsh approach to the locals. In September 1902, she took local man Aneas Gallagher to court as, she claimed, he had taken bent grass from her lands for thatch on his home.
The case was dismissed at Castlebar Assizes. Further bad news awaited her on her return home: James had escaped once again.
This time, he broke out of Maryborough Prison in Mayo while building work was being completed and led the authorities on a merry dance around the county as they tried to recapture him.
The inquiry following the scandal led to the suspension of four prison officers, one of whom was dismissed from the prison service entirely.
And the hunt for James was on once more. Sightings of him were many and varied. He cropped up in places as far apart as Clare, Dublin city -- even London.
James managed to evade all efforts at capture and fled first to Europe and then on to the United States.
He lived in America for almost a year before he was apprehended once more. He had written to his wife, asking her to come and join him in America, which she had done in April 1903.
What the Lynchehauns didn't realise was that she was being followed by two RIC officers, who eventually managed to trace the family to Indianapolis, where they were living under the name of Walsh.
James found himself on trial once more in September 1903, only this trial would have much greater consequences than the last.
He was on trial not to establish his guilt or innocence, but to establish the motive for his attack on Agnes.
If his defence could prove that he had attacked his landlord for political reasons -- not personal feelings -- then the United States would be unable to extradite him back to Ireland.
You could say that James Lynchehaun was lucky. His attack had come at a high point of conflict between landlords and tenants in Ireland.
Agnes had done herself no favours by scrupulously making recourse to the law whenever her tenants stepped out of line.
James had been a member of the Land League and the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood for 13 years, agitating for tenants' rights.
The trial began in September, but the judge would not reach a verdict until the last day of October. It was a momentous decision. Commissioner Moores ruled that James could not be extradited because of the political nature of the crime.
To all intents and purposes, he was a free man. Still, his influence reached all the way back to Ireland.
JM Synge wrote 'The Playboy of the Western World' in 1906, drawing on his visits to the West.
James Lynchehaun, the savage hero, was a major inspiration for his lead character, Christy Mahon, a character who spawned such disgust and scandal in Dublin that when the play opened in January 1907, the constabulary had to be called in to bring the crowds under control.
But even the police could not silence the din and the lines could not be heard.
WB Yeats, director of the Abbey Theatre, where the play was being staged, promised that "any member of the audience who wrote to complain that they had been unable to hear the play would be sent a free ticket, and the play would continue for as long as there was one person who wanted to hear it and was prevented from doing so".
James was a hero to some, a scoundrel to many and a haunting memory to one woman in particular.
In the years after the trial in Indianapolis, it was rumoured that he made several trips back to Achill Island to visit his parents, eventually returning to reside in Mayo.
He died in a Glasgow hospital in September 1937, having left his wife and child in America.
Agnes, who went on to live "for a few and miserable years", died in 1923 in Valley House with a glass of wine at her feet.
She had managed to hold on to her land when all around her landlords were being forced to sell to their tenants.
She had remained indomitable to the end.
'The Veiled Woman of Achill' by Patricia Byrne is published by The Collins Press at €12.99