Murdair Mhám Trasna 5* review - 'Heartbreaking account of a shocking injustice'
Not for the first time — nor, I’m certain, will it be the last — we find ourselves giving thanks and praise for TG4.
Like me, you might feel Irish shouldn’t be compulsory in schools; the best of the Irish-language channel’s output, however, is frequently compulsive viewing.
While RTE seems content to pad out this week’s schedules with repeats of Reeling in the Years, mulch like Stetsons and Stilettos, vapid property shows, anodyne cookery programmes featuring the same tedious few faces, and yet more crap about weddings, TG4 continues to put the national broadcaster to shame with terrific documentaries.
Colm Bairéad’s riveting docudrama Murdair Mhám Trasna (The Mám Trasna Murders) justified every second of its hefty two-hour running time.
This was a tremendously vivid and emotionally-affecting account of one of the most brutal multiple murder cases in the country’s history, which in turn, led to an appalling miscarriage of justice that, 136 years on, still has the power to shock and sadden.
In the remote west of Ireland village of Mám Trasna in 1882, five members of a family, including young children and an old woman, were savagely murdered in their home.
Fewer tears were shed than you’d expect. The head of the family, John Joyce, was a bully and a known sheep thief, disliked by his neighbours and targeted by the police.
There were rumours that his elderly mother was a police informant, while many took a dim view of his daughter Peigí, who was regarded as a beauty, for allowing herself to be wooed by members of the local constabulary.
Even against this backdrop, though, the manner of the killings was extraordinarily savage. Some of the victims were shot, others bludgeoned with hammers until their brains literally spilled out.
In less sure hands, this could have been murky and confusing — not least because many of the key people in the story were related and called either Joyce or Casey.
But Bairéad’s film, which featured excellent dramatised sequences, as well as contributions from historians and direct descendants of the victims and perpetrators, did a fine job of unpicking a dark, tangled tale of deceit, perjury, bribery and manipulation, and clarifying the complex political and historical forces that coloured the legal process.
There’s no doubt that the man who organised and took part in the killings was a farmer called Big John Casey, who regarded John Joyce as his mortal enemy.
He was wealthy enough to pay a trio of so-called “witnesses” to lie and name 10 men — all but three of whom were entirely innocent — as the murderers.
Not only were they paid by Big John, they also shared compensation of £1,600 (equivalent to €160,000 today) awarded by the Earl Spencer, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
The trial itself — which took place in Dublin before a jury who, as one historian put it here “knew as much about Mám Trasna as about India” and regarded the rural Irish as little more than savages — was both a farce and a tragedy.
Only two of the accused, Anthony Philbin (innocent) and Tom Casey (guilty as sin), both of whom turned informer and avoided jail or the gallows, spoke English. The others barely understood what was going on in the courtroom.
The defence solicitor, young and inexperienced, wasn’t permitted to interview his clients. John Joyce’s young son, the only survivor of the carnage, whose testimony would have proved crucial, wasn’t questioned properly.
Of the eight men still on trial, five were innocent. Four of these ended up serving 20 years’ hard labour, having been persuaded to change their plea to guilty. Perhaps the most tragic figure of all of was Myles Joyce, a young family man whose wife was pregnant.
Myles was one of the three sentenced to death, and the only innocent man among them. Despite the pleas of the other two, who admitted their guilt and begged the prosecution to commute Myles’s sentence, he was hanged anyway.
His arm became entangled in the rope as he dropped and it took him two agonising minutes to die. This was a superb documentary. Easily the best programme of the week.
AVAILABLE ON THE TG4 PLAYER