HC Deb 05 June 1885 vol 298 cc1346-59

who had given the following Notice:— To call attention to the means by which convictions for a conspiracy to murder were obtained against certain persons from the neighbourhood of Barbavilla County, of Westmeath, and to move a Resolution, said, that as the Resolution, of which he had just given Notice, regarding the Barbavilla convictions was not in Order, he desired now to call attention to the Notice on the subject which stood on the Paper in his name. He desired to say at the outset, in reference to those cases, that he would not have troubled the House with this matter if he were not convinced that a great miscarriage of justice had occurred regarding these prisoners, and that a number of men guiltless of crime were now suffering, through that miscarriage of justice, all the terrrible horrors and pains of penal servitude. Before he undertook to call the attention of the House to those cases, he made it his business to go to the scene of the deplorable events, and to make personally, aided by the parish priest of the locality, an inquiry into them for the purpose of ascertaining, to the best of his ability, the actual facts of the case, and forming a judgment upon them. In the first place, he was inclined to believed that a great wrong had been done when he found the respected clergyman of the district taking the deep and active interest he did in these cases, and challenging the result of an inquiry into thorn. That clergyman, the Rev. Father Curry, Administrator, was a man of great judgment and well-known ability, and certainly would be the last man in the world to take any action that would shield criminals from justice. Father Curry's knowledge of the facts, however, convinced him that a great wrong had been done; and so impressed was the rev. gentleman with the gravity of the matter that he had spared neither time, trouble, nor expense in endeavouring to obtain a reconsideration of these cases, because he believed, if the facts were reconsidered by any impartial and competent man in the light of fresh evidence now forthcoming, a reversal of convictions would follow. That a horrible murder had been committed was certain, and clearly there must have been some conspiracy leading up to the murder of Mrs. Smythe; but what he contended was that the true story of that conspiracy was not got at, and that the story on which the convictions were obtained was a fiction. For the conspiracy 11 men had been sentenced to various terms of penal servitude, and he drew attention to the fact that, notwithstanding that the men were tried by Prevention of Crime Act juries in times of panic and excitement, the Crown found great difficulty in securing their conviction; and it was only after repeated endeavours on the part of the prosecutors—five trials and two disagreements of juries—that the Crown were at last able to procure the conviction of the men. That in itself, he thought, would show that the Crown case was a doubtful and shaky one; and he contended that the men were convicted at last, after so many trials, by the jury giving too ready credence to perjured witnesses like the informers M'Keon, whose story on the face of it was incredible and absurd, and who would never have been listened to in ordinary times by an ordinary jury. As for the other informer, Patrick Cole, he subsequently recanted his evidence, and declared it was perjury, and that he had concocted it. He was forced by temptation into giving the evidence, and now he wanted, as far as possible, to make amends for committing the perjury which had contributed very materially to the conviction of innocent men. Than the M'Keons, father and son, two worse characters were not to be found in a very wide district of Ireland. Their character was notoriously and admittedly bad. The younger M'Keon was, by his own admission, a perjurer. It was on the evidence of these men, and of Patrick Cole, that the convictions were obtained. The evidence of these perjurers was allowed to outweigh a mass of evidence to the contrary effect brought forward by witnesses of good repute. The jury classes at that time were panic-stricken; and it was only at such a time, when rumours of murders and assassination were rife, that it was possible for even such a jury as tried the men in this case to accept the evidence of bad characters and discard the reliable evidence of men whose characters were untainted. The Crown Officers very naturally used every trick and stratagem within their power to obtain convictions. They first tried one batch of men against whom they fancied they had the strongest evidence, and into that evidence they brought testimony not merely with regard to the alleged conspiracy, but also with regard to the murder itself, for the purpose of influencing the minds of the jury. A conviction, after one disagreement, of the jury having been obtained against these men, of course the weight of that conviction told very heavily against the second batch of prisoners, although the evidence against them was very much weaker than against the first. The evidence was to the effect that the murder was the result of a conspiracy entered into on the night of the 24th of March, 1882, at the house of the Widow Fagan, who lived about half-a-mile from the spot at which Mrs. Smythe was assassinated. The story of the M'Keons was that a large number of men were invited to this house on the pretence that a dance was going to be held, and that while the dance was going on inside the house these men formed themselves outside into an assassination society and proceeded to administer an oath. He (Mr. T. D. Sullivan) did not believe any party of Irishmen ever framed a society under such a name; but let that pass. The story was that the oath bound them to remove tyrants and hard landlords; but the M'Keons said they did not take the oath themselves—they saw what was going on, and then they took their departure. But the idea that persons engaged in the terrible work of forming a sworn conspiracy for the purpose of assassination would allow two men of bad repute to remain amongst them after they had refused to join the society was too absurd to be entertained. The younger M'Keon said he was perfectly willing to take the oath, but that his father checked him. And this was the drunkard, thief, and perjurer on whose evidence a large number of men were sent into penal servitude. The story told by the two M'Keons in the later stages had been found to correspond, and the allegation had been made on the part of the Crown that this could not have been so unless the story was substantially true, inasmuch as these two men had no means of concocting it; but this was one of the serious points of the case. The rev. gentleman whose pamphlet he held in his hand, and who took so deep an interest in this case from motives worthy of a clergyman, had evidence to prove that the story of these informers was a concoction from first to last; and he was prepared to come forward with proof positive that the two men had opportunities of making their evidence correspond when they were in Dublin in charge of the police. The first statement given by the younger M'Keon made no reference, however, to the alleged meeting at Widow Fagan's, on which the whole case turned. The father, on being told that such was the fact, said—"Let me have a chat with him, and we will soon settle the matter." The Judge who tried the case, unaware of some of the tricks of the Crown, stated in the course of the trials that if any such thing as that had happened the sources of justice would be polluted. He (Mr. T. D. Sullivan) stood there mainly for the purpose of bringing before the House the important fact that the two M'Keons got an opportunity from the Crown of concocting their story and making it agree in all its parts. If that fact could be proved, would the Attorney General not accede to the application that this case should be re-heard? He did not mean that the case should be re-heard before a jury, with great trouble and labour, but that an impartial and high-minded member of the Bar should be appointed to hear this new and important evidence, and give judgment upon the matter. This had been done before, and with excellent results. It was on the evidence of a police constable of good character and repute that the Rev. Father Curry would prove that these men had opportunities of concocting their evidence. This police constable had no interest in the matter except the interests of justice; and, indeed, his interference in the case would tell not for him, but against him, with the police authorities. He (Mr. T. D. Sullivan) had a long interview with the informer Cole. He asked him why he tendered his perjured evidence. Cole said he had been in gaol for about 10 or 11 months. He had been a farmer in comfortable circumstances; he had a wife and family to provide for; he was informed that he had been sworn against by the M'Keons as being present at a meeting at the Widow Pagan's, and that unless he gave evidence in the case he would have no chance of escape. There was, indeed, no chance of escape for any man accused under the Crimes Act. Cole's story was taken down by a police constable; but next day the police constable came and said—"This story is of no use whatever; we have all that already. Unless you swear to the meeting at the Widow Fagan's you will have to take your chance with the rest." That was the terrible temptation which overbore the virtue of this man. He made up his mind to swear what the Crown wanted. He swore that this meeting took place at Fagan's; that he was there, and so were Dan Curley and Michael Fagan, and that Dan Curley made a speech. Cole told him (Mr. T. D. Sullivan) that not only did he not hear any such speech, but that he was not at the alleged meeting, and there was corroborative evidence of the fact that he was miles away at the time. Cole also assured him that he never saw Dan Curley in his life, and that he did not believe any such meeting was ever held. It was upon such rotten evidence that the Crown Officers were satisfied to hold those men in penal servitude. He hoped they would think better of it. It was true Lord Spencer had refused an inquiry into this matter; but his refusal was based, of course, upon the allegations of the policemen, and magistrates, and others concerned in the getting up of the case. He hoped that the Crown would not persevere in their opposition to the proposed inquiry. He held in his hand a letter of one of the jurors, who, writing to Father Curry, said that he had no hesitation in stating that he would have acquitted the prisoners if it had been proved on their behalf that the M'Keons had an opportunity of communicating with one another while in charge of the police. That was the very thing that he was prepared to establish on evidence that could not be refuted. He omitted referring to a number of minor points. He relied upon the larger issues to show that these men had been punished upon evidence altogether tainted, unreliable, and unworthy of belief. When the evidence of these three men, on whom the whole case rested, was taken away, what remained? The chief witness, young M'Keon, was a journeyman blacksmith, like one of the prisoners, and had been proved to be a person of bad character. He had threatened to take the life of the prisoner referred to, with whom he was upon bad terms. He did not do so, however, but stabbed him in another way by means of a perjured oath, which consigned him to seven years' penal servitude. If he might say so, he would ask the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Walker) for the honour of the Crimes Act, whether he would not endeavour to show that under that Act no evil was done or wrong committed in this particular case? He challenged the justice of the verdict in any event; but this he would say—that some of the men who had been convicted of this alleged conspiracy were as guiltless as the hon. and learned Gentleman himself. Owing to an accident he was not able to move his Motion; but he hoped they would have a statement from the hon. and learned Gentleman on the subject. So impressed were the Irish Members with the necessity for a re-investigation of this case that if they did not get a satisfactory answer to their request for an inquiry the application would be renewed upon a future date.


said, that the hon. Member for Westmeath had related the circumstances which took place in regard to the murder which was committed in the county he represented. The case had been stated and the evidence reviewed in a pamphlet which had been put into the hands of most of the Members of that House. The pamphlet set forth with the skill of an advocate the evidence which was given on the trial, and also some evidence which was not given at all. For this reason, the House could not form a fair judgment or ascertain the real merits of the case from reading the pamphlet. The occurrence to which the hon. Member had referred was the murder of Mrs. Smythe on Sunday, the 2nd of April, 1882, while she was returning home from church in a closed carriage with her brother-in-law. Just as they had reached the entrance door of their residence shots were fired, one of which took effect on this unfortunate lady, and she was killed. The shot was undoubtedly intended for her brother-in-law. The hon. Member had admitted that that murder must have been the result of a conspiracy. Obviously, many were engaged in that conspiracy. It was in 1882 when such conspiracies were rife. What the hon. Member had said was that the Crown had not been fortunate enough to get the right men, and that the real originals were still at large—in other words, he alleged that 14 innocent men were arrested, and 11 of them were punished improperly. This was a serious charge, and one which would require to be well supported. Now, he wished to keep separate the evidence of Cole from that of the other witnesses. The prisoners were tried in two batches—five at first, the remainder at another time. Cole was not a witness when the first batch was tried, and their conviction was obtained without his testimony. He was one who was, perhaps, more deeply implicated than the others in the conspiracy to the existence of which he swore. There were three trials of the first batch. The first trial proved abortive, because when the Judge proceeded to charge one of the jurors was suddenly taken ill. On the second trial there was a disagreement of the jurors; but on the third the men were found guilty of conspiracy to murder. The charge was one of conspiracy to murder, because no human eye had seen the crime committed. He did not intend to go into the whole of the details of the case, as they had not yet a Court of Criminal Appeal, and that House was not one. He would, however, give a brief outline of the evidence upon which a con- viction was obtained. The prisoners were arrested on the information given by the two men named M'Keon, who subsequently at the trial deposed that they had been present at a meeting held in a widow's house in the locality; that it was attended by a number of men, among whom were all the prisoners, and also three persons who were afterwards of notorious character. They were members of the "Invincible Society," as it was called—namely, Curley, M'Caffrey, and Michael Fagan, who were executed for the terrible murders in the Park in May, 1882. Under the direction of these three men, who had been sent down to the district for the purpose, a local society was formed with the object of removing obnoxious persons and others, landlords and other tyrants, and that among those whom it was determined to murder was Mr. Smythe, who had made himself obnoxious by a certain eviction. A circle was formed outside the house, a prayer-book was passed round, and an oath administered. There was nothing incredible in the story, for such meetings and such formalities were known to have occurred in different parts of Ireland about the time of this murder. Some of those present did not like to join, and the two M'Keons excused themselves from taking the oath, as they said they would attend at a subsequent meeting, and two others named Mulvaney and Cosgrove excused themselves also. The M'Keons gave at the trial a very precise account of what occurred at this meeting, and they mentioned the names of 14 men, who, they said, were present. If they were inventing a story it was not likely they would have been so foolish as to name so many men, for it would have been much safer, if their story was untrue, to have given the names of only very few as present. There were many circumstances which corroborated the statement of the M'Keons. One of the M'Keons stated that on the day of the murder he saw Elliott, one of the prisoners, going with a cut down gun or revolver under his coat towards the place where the murder took place, that he heard shots fired, and that shortly afterwards Elliott came back with the gun again under his coat, and said he was very dry, as he had left the whisky bottle behind him. In the place where the murderers must have lain when waiting to commit the murder a whisky bottle was subsequently found by the police. Then, again, the M'Keons stated that the gun which Elliott carried was broken up in a forge, that the wood was burnt, and the lock and other metal belonging to it were hidden in the wall. On examination of the wall behind the forge this lock was discovered. All these circumstances were before the jury, and the M'Keons were severely cross-examined by one of the ablest counsel at the Bar, his learned friend Dr. Boyd, and the jury believed them and convicted the prisoners. The learned Judge, the Lord Chief Baron, had expressed his concurrence in the verdict of the jury, and this was a Judge whom he had rightly heard hon. Members opposite describe as one of the most enlightened and impartial judges in Ireland. There was a misstatement in the pamphlet, where it attributed to a learned Judge that in his charge he had expressed his belief of the prisoner's guilt. The word "not" was omitted from the quotation. He stated the contrary of what was attributed to him, and that he had always endeavoured in criminal cases to postpone until passing sentence the expression of any opinion on the case itself. With regard to the second batch of prisoners, after the first trial the man Cole, through his wife, volunteered to give evidence for the Crown; but now the statement of Cole was that the evidence which he voluntarily gave at that trial was nothing but the wicked invention and creation of his own brain. He, however, believed that the evidence of that man, twice given on oath, was far more to be credited than his unsworn and unsigned statement afterwards.


But he is prepared to swear to it.


said, that might be; but he attached greater weight to what was sworn to on two previous occasions. Cole's motive in volunteering his evidence was obvious; it was to save his life and property. It appeared he could not sell his farm when he went back to his native place; he was very odious there, and his presence there was the subject of questions in the House. Being in that position, with the odium of an in- former's name attaching to him, he then came forward to make an unsigned and unsworn statement which the hon. Member for Westmeath, no doubt with perfect bon â fides, said he implicitly believed. Then, could anyone find fault with the way in which the learned Judge left the question to the jury? His conduct of the case was most fair, and he expressed himself perfectly satisfied that no other verdict could have been found. Under the circumstances, though he disclaimed the wisdom of re-trying cases in the House over which a jury had presided not once only, but two and three times, he had thought it right, having regard to the observations of the hon. Member for Westmeath, to give the House an outline of the case. The hon. Gentleman asked what harm could be done by granting an inquiry. Much harm would be done if by pursuing such a course public confidence in the administration of justice in Ireland would be shaken. Nothing could be more disastrous than to grant on insufficient grounds an inquiry which would only create a suspicion that justice was not being rightly administered.


stated that the real reasons why the Irish Executive refused to grant an inquiry into this lamentable case had not yet appeared, nor had they even been suggested in the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Those reasons were two, the first being the obstinate determination of Lord Spencer to allow no revision of the trial in a case of this kind resulting in a verdict and sentence, no matter what might be the cogency of the fresh evidence adduced, and no matter to what extent public justice and the public conscience might require it. The deplorable obstinacy of the Lord Lieutenant troubled more eminent persons than the hon. and learned Gentleman. It affected the politics and policy that prevailed beyond the shores of Ireland, and assumed a significant prominence even among the Imperial questions. The second reason was that the police agents who managed the case, and who worked up a putrid mass of perjury, had been rewarded with promotion and gifts; their names had been mentioned in the roll of honour, and they had been held up as examples to the remainder of the force. It would, therefore, not be convenient now to admit that they had gained their fame, their emolument, and their honour by practices which, if they did not amount directly to subornation of perjury, at least amounted to holding out gross temptations to the dishonest and abandoned. What man outside the Castle was safe either in his property or in his life if an informer chose to take the sacred Book into his hands and put it to his lips to accuse his fellows of a crime for which life might be forfeited? It was said by the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite that justice would be imperilled in Ireland if cases like the present were re-opened. But how could it be imperilled? The 11 men who had been convicted were now in penal servitude, and they would remain in the same position if the inquiry into the case should not show that they had been improperly found guilty. The fact was, the interests of justice were more fatally injured in that which ought to be the very citadel of justice—the heart of the people—when one verdict against which the public conscience cried out was upheld than they could be even by the escape from punishment of 100 guilty men. What a horrible contrast might be drawn between the system in Ireland and that pursued in the English Home Office. In England the Home Secretary was willing to peruse the papers sent to him with reference to any case in which justice was alleged to have miscarried. He consulted the Law Officers of the Crown, and a competent agent was sent to the scene of the crime to investigate the circumstances on the spot. Unlike Lord Spencer, the Home Secretary refused to look upon the verdict of a jury as immutable and final. He weighed carefully all the evidence, whether old or fresh, bearing upon a case, and, after this revision of the trial, decided whether the prisoner should be set free or not. Had such a course been followed in the Barbavilla case, and had an accredited agent of the Government been sent to examine the hut of the widow, where the conspiracy was alleged to have been entered into, he would have found that the cabin was so small that a cat could hardly turn in it, and that to dance in it would have been impossible. This would have proved the absurdity of the evidence given at the trial, to the effect that a dance was held in the cabin by the supposed conspirators. He feared that it was useless to hope for a revision of the case. He knew of a case in which, after the conviction of an innocent man, the real offender, who had absconded after the perpetration of the offence, returned to Ireland with the object of being arrested, his conscience having smitten him. From the day of his return home to the present time, however, he had not been interfered with by the police, who knew the purpose with which he had returned. Why was this? Because if the man were arrested and tried, the impropriety of the verdict against the innocent prisoner would be proved, and Lord Spencer's system would be discredited. That system amounted to this—"Have a prisoner found guilty by fair means if you can; but, at any rate, have him found guilty." He complained that it was a fixed practice for Catholics to be struck off the juries. The reason of this was that it was thought, owing to their creed, they might have a general sympathy with the accused, and that a Protestant would not inquire too closely or curiously into the case as stated by the Crown. Of course, the result of such a system was that frequently unjust verdicts were given, and that innocent men were sent to prison for offences they never committed. What human force could induce the Castle Authorities to give up their system of suppression and silence when the Archbishop of Tuam's appeal was unheeded, and the case of Myles Joyce remained unremedied? When such things happened from time to time in Ireland, what hope could there be for a Motion in the House of Commons? Even the ordinary means of establishing truth were tampered with in Ireland, and police officials resorted to the administration of intoxicating drinks to witnesses undergoing private examination, in order, no doubt, to deaden their consciences. In the case of the 11 men who had been convicted of taking part in the murder of Mrs. Smythe, it was beyond dispute that Patrick Cole, the informer, had been protected by a guard of honour of four constables as long as he had persisted in his perjury, which had secured the conviction of those persons—the life of an informer was a precious thing to the Government in Ireland—but the moment that he declared that he had given false evidence with regard to them, the guard of honour was withdrawn, and anybody was welcome to kill him as far as the Government were concerned. [Mr. GLADSTONE dissented.] The Prime Minister shook his head. Well, the right hon. Gentleman might dissent from his (Mr. Sexton's) inference; but the fact was undeniable. The statement of Cole himself, that he had taken part in securing the wrongful conviction of 11 innocent men, had been corroborated to the fullest extent by the solemn confession of his wife. One night the distinguished priest who was the author of the pamphlet he held in his hand received a message that the wife of Patrick Cole wished to see him. Knowing her relation to Cole the informer, the rev. gentleman refused to see her except in the presence of a witness. He summoned to his aid an aged and experienced priest, and they received the woman in the sacristy of the church. She threw herself upon her knees and made a statement, acknowledging that she encouraged her husband to offer evidence, and that she did so knowing the evidence that her husband was to give—and did give—was concocted by him to satisfy the Crown, and for the sake of herself and her children. Patrick Cole did not offer to give evidence against the prisoners until he had been in gaol for upwards of six months, and until he had been visited by his wife, who had implored him to do anything to obtain his release. What were the inducements to Cole to swear falsely? The wife of a fellow-prisoner who had visited Cole in gaol, in company with Cole's wife, swore on the table in Court that when she went into the gaol she said to Cole—"These M'Keons are swearing terrible false;" and Cole replied—"I would swear anything myself to get out of this." This was the case of a man who had seen the first batch of prisoners convicted upon the same evidence which he knew would be brought against himself; and therefore he was perfectly aware that he had only the option before him of penal servitude, or of committing perjury. In all matters that were essential to a conviction, the evidence of the M'Keowns was identical. In all other matters which they would not have the ingenuity to agree about, because they could not anticipate the questions, they disagreed entirely. There was no doubt that the police gave the M'Keons an opportunity of meeting. He had seen, in the public papers a letter from four of the jurymen, stating that if it were proved that the M'Keons had any opportunity of communicating together they would not have convicted the prisoners. There was abundance of evidence that such communication did take place. If ever there was a case in which there was the gravest doubt, it was the Barbavilla case. After an honest and impartial study of it, without the shadow of a desire to impede the administration of justice when it was directed against the really guilty, he was compelled to accept the view that although the Government might refuse to do justice to these unfortunate men, they could not entirely defeat the ends of justice; and the time would come next year or the year after when the sentence passed on these men would be reversed, and when the brace of wretches, the drunken sot and the youthful perjurer, the two M'Keons, would suffer the punishment due to their cowardly and abominable crime.


said, he regretted to find the House so thin when a question of this kind was under discussion, as this case was one of especial importance at the present time. In a short time the House would be called on to renew certain provisions of an Act under which these men were convicted; and although a pamphlet containing all the facts had been circulated amongst the English, Scotch, and Welsh Members, he ventured to say that not three English, or Scotch, or Welsh Members had taken the trouble to read it, and not a dozen Members cared to stay in the House to hear the statements of the Irish Members. That showed how hopeless it was for Ireland to obtain redress of its grievances through that House. If they could not reach English Members through their conscience, they would at least reach them through a matter of vital importance to them—the convenient despatch of Public Business. So much care was taken in the packing of the jury as to bring discredit on trial by jury, and to suggest that it would be better to abolish it altogether.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members not being present,

House adjourned at Eight o'clock till Monday next.