Saturday 16 December 2017

The brutal killings that Connemara can't forget

In 1882, five members of the Joyce family were murdered in Maum Trasna. A new play revisits the horror

Colm Joe Mac Donncha, Colm Ó Fatharta, Séan Ó Tarpaigh and Áine n Droighneáin in a scene from Maum
Colm Joe Mac Donncha, Colm Ó Fatharta, Séan Ó Tarpaigh and Áine n Droighneáin in a scene from Maum
Ed Power

Ed Power

On August 17, 1882 the serene silence of Connemara's Maum Trasna valley was shattered by the screams of the dying. Five members of the same family were butchered at their cottage close to the shores of Lough Mask. To this day the motives for the killings and the identity of the murderers are swathed in mystery and, to an outsider, it can seem as if there is an unofficial conspiracy to keep things that way.

Many in these parts are still reluctant to speak of the bloodshed - and of its terrible aftermath, which saw an innocent man hanged for a crime he didn't commit.

Even now, the sweeping valley has a melancholy air, its beauty containing more than a hint of wildness.

Here, John Joyce, his wife Bridget, daughter Peigí and mother Margaret were killed, John's son Michael dying of his injuries the next day.

The atrocity and the botched investigation that followed created a scandal. Ireland was already on a knife-edge, with political murders rife and the countryside awash with secret societies. Maum Trasna was a match flung on a powder keg.

The terrible events of 1882 are revisited in a new play by Sighle Ní Chonaill, which presents the "massacre" and the ensuing murder inquiry as a clash of cultures between the ancient Gaelic world of the west and British-influenced ascendency Dublin.

The focus of Maum is the trial of 10 men arrested and charged with killing the Joyces and specifically the hanging of Myles Joyce, plainly innocent and convicted only on false testimony.

Through the prism of the case, Maum drills deep into the misunderstandings and mutual distrust that characterised relations between Irish-speaking Connemara and Dublin, essentially a British outpost in a country regarded by the English as untamed and degenerate.

"The Chief Justice and the Attorney General of the time needed hangings," explains producer Anne McCabe of the Galway-based An Taibhdhearc theatre company.

"They had to show the populace that order would be restored".

With justice seen to be done, the rest of the world quickly forget about Maum Trasna. In Connemara a poisonous legacy endured, trickling into the marrow of the community.

Decades later, people on their death beds would claim they knew the truth of what happened and that Myles Joyce had been wrongly sent to the gallows, sold out by greedy neighbours eager to claim his farm.

"I was in a pub in Claddaghduff last night and mentioned it to the [barman] and he said, 'oh, that was about land, wasn't it?,'" says David Heap, the English-born actor who plays the prosecuting lawyer in the case.

"And I suppose it was - one family informed on the other because there was a half acre of land in dispute. If you bring it up, 50pc of people know it immediately. With the others, you get a blank stare.

"For anybody in rural Ireland a story like this - a dispute over land - will have resonances. I'm sure it is settled a lot more amicably now.

"Still, it is in the collective memory for sure".

The tragedy was compounded by cultural misunderstandings between the Irish-speaking Gaels and anglicised Dubliners. The testimony of a young witness to the killings was discounted because neither judge nor jury could understand him.

Meanwhile, Myles Joyce was not in a position to defend himself as his legal team spoke no Irish and he no English.

"There were two civilisations," says David Heap. "My character is not interested in the truth. He is interested in the evidence. Lord Cavendish had been killed months before this. What the establishment in Dublin wanted was to quell the native uprising - to get convictions and hangings and keep the peasants down."

In a way the play really isn't about the murders. It's about how poverty and oppression can cause a community to turn against itself. Myles Joyce was convicted on the false testimony of locals who, it is inferred, were eager to claim his land.

"Nobody knew who was on whose side," says Anne McCabe. "There were a lot of secret societies and people weren't going to go out and tell the police the truth of it.

So who did kill the Joyce family on that sleepy August morning? From the moment the bodies were discovered, conspiracy theories abounded.

There were whisperings that John Joyce had been involved in a Fenian secret society and that he was executed after making off with monies belonging to the organisation. It was speculated that his death was punishment for the habitual plunder of sheep from neighbouring farms. One rumour had it that his daughter Peigí was romantically involved with an RIC officer and that the family were slaughtered as collaborators.

"People in the valley still do not like speaking about it - it is shrouded in secrets and shame," says Anne McCabe. "Because of what happened [locals] ended up doing things… which sullied their name forever. That is the tragedy."

'Maum' runs at An Taibhdhearc Theatre, Galway until July 18. The play is in Irish and English, with subtitles.

Irish Independent

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