HC Deb 18 July 1854 vol 135 cc413-7

said, he would now move for Copies of Correspondence that had taken place between the Irish Government and the magistrates of the county of Donegal, relative to the liberation on ticket of leave of Miles Sweeny, a man convicted of a Ribbon offence in 1851. He begged to assure the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for Ireland, that in making this Motion he did not intend the slightest hostility to the Government; but he thought it desirable at the outset of a new system that the public should know the exact principle upon which those tickets of leave were given. The circumstances to which he was about to allude happened in a remote district in Ireland, and occasioned a considerable degree of alarm amongst the magistrates and the well-disposed inhabitants of the particular county in which the event occurred. It appeared that a man of the name of Miles Sweeny had been convicted in 1851 of an agrarian offence. In about two and a half years afterwards this man was released, and sent back to the same district in which it was found he had pursued a most lawless course. Many years ago Sweeny's father was evicted from his farm. Sweeny then occupied a cottage in the neighbourhood, and a man of the name of Starrett succeeded him in the farm, and occupied the house which had previously belonged to Sweeny. Twelve months before the commission of the outrage referred to, Sweeny threatened to disturb Starrett's position in a most lawless way; and intimated to the latter, that unless he was compensated in respect to some claim which he had set up, he would revenge himself on Starrett. On the 5th of April, 1851, Sweeny, with a party of followers, broke into Starrett's house, declaring, upon their entrance, that they had come there for justice. They thereupon beat Starrett very severely, and from the effects of the injuries which he received he died shortly after the trial; and his mother was so severely treated on the same occasion that she was never likely to recover from the effects of her injuries. In addition to the commission of those dreadful outrages the party of Sweeny stole everything they found in the house; and they took away a horse, which they subsequently killed to prevent detection. There was great difficulty in obtaining evidence in consequence of the lawless state of the country; but Sweeny was ultimately brought to trial, was convicted at the summer assizes in 1851, and was sentenced to ten years' transportation. Since then that part of the country was greatly disturbed, there being no less than forty agrarian outrages between the spring and summer assizes of last year. Two baronies were proclaimed, and a third stipendiary magistrate was sent down there, together with a number of extra police, at the charge of 1,500l. a year upon those baronies. At the summer assizes in 1853, Chief Baron Pigott delivered a most impressive charge, and said that seldom in the course of his judicial experience did he know the country to have been in so lawless a state as part of the county Donegal was at that time. To show the state of the country at the last summer assizes, a most daring outrage was perpetrated under the eyes of the Judge himself. A man was about to be tried for a Ribbon offence, and while the Judge was sitting in the court, and the grand jury were going through their business, in the presence of the police, the grand jury, and the Judge, a party of Ribbonmen entered the town, and carried away the principal witness upon the trial. The Judge was so struck by this extraordinary proceeding that he adjourned the assizes, but returned in a fortnight afterwards to try the perpetrators of this outrage, who in the meantime had been captured by the magistrate. The complaint now made in respect to this man Sweeny was this—that notwithstanding the lawless state of the country and of this Ribbon system, this man Sweeny, who was notoriously a bad character, was in a short time after his conviction and sentence of transportation sent back, with a ticket of leave, to the place of his birth—where he was, no doubt, now pursuing the same course of lawlessness and crime. A strong remonstrance was drawn up by the magistrates, and sent to the Lord Lieutenant, together with resolutions, setting forth the great encouragement to outrage which the enlargement of this offender gave, and protesting against the ticket-of-leave system. The resolutions agreed to were these— We, the undersigned magistrates of the county of Donegal, with the most anxious desire to carry into effect the wishes and decisions of the Government, as well as the law of the land, crave leave to lay before your Excellency the very great increase of difficulty thrown in the way of our duty, by the plan at present adopted, of granting 'tickets of leave' to convicts, whereby they may return to the scenes of their former crimes. In this county two prisoners of the name of Sweeny (Miles and Shane), brothers, were tried at the summer assizes, 1851, for burglary, assault, and robbery, upon a man named William Starrett, from which assault, and its consequences, the man subsequently died. The cause of this outrage was agrarian, the enforcing from Starrett a compensation for land given to his fattier, from whence the Sweenys or their father had been evicted many years before. They were convicted, and sentenced to ten years' transportation. Miles Sweeny has now been at large in this very district since the winter of 1853. We, the undersigned, with the utmost respect, submit for the consideration of your Excellency the great encouragement this man's enlargement gives to the Ribbon confederacy—a system organised expressly to protect landholders against the laws, and so prevalent now in this country, as your Excellency is aware the greater part of it is proclaimed, and not only to afford encouragement to evil-doers, but to impart increased terror and dismay to the well-disposed, and to render it still more hopeless than it has hitherto been to obtain information or assistance to bring offenders to justice; and we very earnestly pray your Excellency that, in the solitary instances of conviction on offences arising out of 'Ribbonism' the prisoners may not be allowed 'tickets of leave' to return home, which are considered, and indeed cannot be distinguished by an ignorant people from, a pardon; and are, therefore, calculated to render the law still more impotent than it is in all such cases. He (Lord Naas) quite concurred with these opinions, and thought that it was most desirable to know whether it was proposed by the Government to grant these tickets of leave to persons convicted of agrarian outrages. They ought also to know whether they were to be given, in the exercise of the prerogative of the Crown, as a mitigation of punishment, or whether they were to be granted as rewards for good behaviour in prison. He certainly did not think that tickets of leave should be granted as a sort of quasi pardon or mitigation of punishment. It was certainly possible that the liberation of this man might have arisen from one of those mistakes which would inevitably arise sometimes; and in that case nothing more could be said about it. But he could not but think that the inhabitants of this district, so long the scene of agrarian outrage, ought to receive an assurance that these perpetrators should not receive tickets of leave, or at any rate that they should not be permitted to return to the scene of their former crimes.


said, there was no objection to give this correspondence, though he must observe that there was nothing in the papers which came before the Irish Government to show that the man in question was convicted of a Ribbon offence. He was sorry to say that the county of Donegal was not in a good state, that disturbances prevailed there, that a district had been proclaimed, and that it would be necessary to continue that proclamation. He apprehended that the ticket-of-leave system which had been recently introduced in place of transportation was now on its trial, and that such tickets would only be granted when he behaviour of the convicts in prison was such as to give a fair prospect that if let out they would not endanger the peace of society. Those remarks had, however, no reference to the present case. The man Sweeny having been convicted of a burglary and a violent assault, was sent to Spike Island, where he remained until two or three months ago. The Lord Lieutenant then received a petition from his wife, stating that he was in bad health, and praying for his release. This petition was referred to the medical officer of the Spike Island prison, who reported that the prisoner was in fact labouring under a dangerous disease, which would be greatly aggravated by continued confinement. That report was sent to the Judge who tried the case, and he having stated that he thought it was proper that under the circumstances the man should be released, the Lord Lieutenant ordered the liberation. Nor did he (Sir J. Young) believe that any Government would keep a man in prison at the risk of his life, when he had been sentenced to a punishment much less than death. He might again remark that there was nothing in the paper that came under the notice of the Government to show that Sweeny had committed a "Ribbon" offence.

Motion agreed to.

The House adjourned at half after Eleven o'clock.