Off the Shelf Book Review: The Maamtrasna Murders

Off the Shelf: The Maamtraasna Murders By Margaret Kelleher
Book Review by Terry Kenneally

University College Dublin Press ISBN 978-1-910820-42-1 2018 328 pp.

The Maamtrasna Murders chronicles the dramatic story of a horrific set of murders in County Galway in 1882 (at the time of the events Maamtrasna was located in Galway but was later transferred to County Mayo under official adjustment to county boundaries). The murders and subsequent trials are notorious for their failure to provide interpretation and translated services for monoglot Irish speakers.

The impact on victims, witnesses, defendants, and prosecutors alike lead to the wrong conviction of Myles Joyce, only recently pardoned by President Michael D. Higgins in 2018. The murders occurred on Friday, 17 August 1882 at the home of John Joyce in  Maamtrasna. The victims were John Joyce, Margaret Joyce (senior), Margaret Joyce (junior), Bridget Joyce and Michael Joyce.

The potent symbolism of defendant Myles Joyce, the Irish speaker who was unable to understand court proceedings in English and was thus sentenced to death by hanging in Kilmainham Gaol, for murder, became a lasting image that fascinated a nation.

What is now best known about Myles Joyce is that he was a monoglot Irish speaker who was asleep at home with his wife at the time of the murders and who was not awarded the services of an interpreter in the English-speaking court. Less well known is that a number of his fellow accused could speak English while two of them deployed their skill in English to turn Queen’s evidence against the other accused.

A Donegal man, Constable Thomas Evans, a Protestant, was brought in as a court interpreter, but for the majority of Myles trial, during the English-language evidence given by the “approvers”, Evans, the interpreter was silent.  The jury in the case retired at 3 pm on Saturday, November eighteenth and returned to court six minutes later to deliver the verdict of guilty. Evans was recalled in order to render Myles’s response to the guilty verdict.

The clerk of the Crown: “What have you to say why judgement of death and execution should not be awarded against you according to the law?” Joyce spoke in Irish to the interpreter. The interpreter: “Whether he be hanged or crucified, he is as free and clear of the crime as can be.”

Myles’s last words of protest from the scaffold were,” I am as innocent as the child in the cradle.” Those words reverberated strongly on 4 April 2018, when President Michael D. Higgins delivered his presidential pardon in the company of the direct descendants of the Joyce victims and relatives, too, of Myles Joyce. The Maamtrasna murders is an extraordinary story and the book of the same name is a TOP SHELF read.  

*Terrence J. Kenneally is an attorney and owner of Terrence J. Kenneally & Associates in Rocky River, Ohio. He defends insureds and insurance companies in defense litigation throughout the state of Ohio. Mr. Kenneally received his Masters from John Carroll University in Irish Studies and teaches Irish history and literature at Holy Name High School where he is also the President.

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