One damp Wednesday morning the local district court was entertained by the prosecution of a man for possession of fifteen gallons of poteen. His excuse for this was that the poteen was kept as medicine, which he would give to his greyhounds whenever they were taken ill. Nonetheless, he faced a second charge of harbouring it.
The accused was a well-known local man called Patrick O’Brien. Justice Flaherty was in the chair and Police Superintendent Thorne was prosecuting the case. In his opening statement, Thorne told the court that Sergeant Keogh and a constable had visited O’Brien’s premises in the middle of September to begin a search. As the two officers looked around the premises, they noticed an outhouse inside of which a smaller outhouse, or store, had been built and the door to this smaller store was securely locked. This set-up made both men very suspicious of what was kept in the smaller store and asked O’Brien to open it for them to examine. Inside they found three casks, a crockery jar, an enamel measure, and a small drinking glass. One of the casks contained a liquid that smelt strongly of poteen to the two officers, and they decided to investigate further. The cask, they discovered, was fitted with a tap, and contained fifteen gallons of poteen. When they questioned the owner about what they had found it was reported that Mr. O’Brien replied, “Sure, what else can I say but admit that it was myself that made it.”
O’Brien’s solicitor, James Rowlette, pointed out toe the court that the police were actually visiting the premises in connection with reports that the defendant had an unlicensed gun with which he was poaching rabbits. He further explained that a short time prior to this visit Mr. O’Brien, who was a well-respected breeder of greyhounds, which he entered at some of the many track-meetings in the country, was approached by an acquaintance who was going to England. The acquaintance asked O’Brien if he would purchase a quantity of poteen he had, telling him that it was a great medicine for sick greyhounds. He also advised O’Brien that if he would administer a dose of poteen to a hound that was entered for a race, the animal would most certainly win. O’Brien was not a man to look a gift horse in the mouth and decided he would take the poteen of his friend’s hands. But there was too much in the cask and he decided to store what he did not need in the outbuilding and had no intention of selling it to the public.
Keogh described the shed in which they found the poteen, and he told the court that it was his belief that the defendant did not buy it but was certain that he had made it for his own use. Justice Flaherty then told the court that the two policemen had made an unusually big capture of good poteen, and it would be a pity to let it run down the drain when it could be mixed with industrial alcohol and be used car fuel. He also declared that based on the Sergeant’s description of the store in which the poteen was found, he was satisfied that Patrick O’Brien had distilled it himself. The only positive factor in the case against Patrick was the fact that there were no previous convictions against defendant.
The defence solicitor, Mr. Rowlette, pointed out to the court that severe fines were now being imposed for such offences, and that memorials sent to the Minister for Defence on behalf of some of those convicted now appeared not to secure. Moved by the appeal, Justice Flaherty imposed a minimal fine with a small amount for costs. This related to the first charge of being in possession of fifteen gallons of poteen, but the second charge was dropped
As one travels around the country you will undoubtedly discover that there are some district courts which are much busier than others, prosecuting a variety of cases including the production of Poitin. One such court was occupied by Judge Louis Walshe for several hours one day a few years ago, because there were so many cases of illicit distilling of Poitin brought before him for his judgment. The first of the defendants to be placed in the ‘dock’ was a certain Patrick Doherty, who had become a familiar face to this judge. He was a tall, heavily set man, who had an excellent reputation for the quality of his Poitin and his still never appeared to stop production, despite his claims of constant police harassment. Into the witness box strode a police constable and, taking a notebook from his pocket, he prepared to give his testimony to the court. “We received information from members of the public,” the policeman began, “informing us that Mr. Doherty employed in making substantial amounts of illicit spirits, which he would sell locally. As a result, we undertook a search for evidence that might show that this illegal activity was being undertaken by the defendant, and we discovered a barrel of ‘Wash’ in a hedgerow that separated his land from the nearby road, about 100 yards from the home of the defendant.” The continuing police testimony, however, also said that there was another house, just a few yards away on the opposite side of the road.
Patrick Doherty gave his evidence and claimed that he was totally innocent of all the charges against him and denied that he had any knowledge of the barrel of ‘Wash’ that the police said they had found, pointing out that the location of the find was open to anyone including the people in the house opposite. At the same time, he told the court that a contractor and his men had been working on mending the road and fixing the fences for several weeks past, and they had found nothing. Patrick also told the court that the police had been harassing him for several years and had dragged him in front of the court on many occasions, at none of which was he ever found guilty. This fact alone, he insisted, was proof that he had never made a ‘Run’ of Poitin in his life. While Judge Louis Walshe doubted Patrick’s innocence, he had to agree that the evidence brought forward did not allow him to convict the man and he immediately waived all charges against him and allowed him to leave the court a free man.
With Doherty’s case complete the next case was called, which involved Seam McGowan and Jimmy Dogherty, who lived to the west of the town. The police witness stood in the witness box and told the court that two police constables, who were on duty about one-hundred yards from the house, saw two persons leaving the premises and making their way to a spot in the field and, after a few moments, they returned to the house. The two constables were intrigued by this action, and they left their observation post and made their way to the spot in the field that the two people from the house had gone to. At that place they discovered a two-gallon jar of Poitin that had been covered over with a length of waterproof material like tarpaulin. Carrying this evidence the two policemen entered the house through the kitchen area, where they discovered three empty barrels that had a strong smell of Poitin about them.
The two constables went on searching the rest of the rooms in the house and in one of the rooms the found a child lying in bed. One of the constables asked Mrs. McGowan, Sean’s wife, to lift the child out of the bed so they could thoroughly search the room. But as Mrs. Magowan reached down to the bed and, as she lifted the child, a bottle fell out from where it had been concealed in the child’s clothing. Under cross-examination by the defence’s lawyer, however, neither of the two police constables could clearly identify any one of the two people they had seen leaving the house and going into the field. One of the constables also stated that Mr. McGowan was standing in the kitchen at the time he requested the child be retrieved from the bed. Furthermore, one of the accused men, Jimmy Dogherty, was bedridden and could not have been one of the two people that had been seen in the field. The defence lawyer’s questioning had shown the court that the testimony given by the police constables was unreliable in this case, and it was suggested that maybe the only person who knew something about the Poitin was Mrs. McGowan, who had been charged with nothing.
Once again Judge Walshe had to agree with the suggestions put by the defence, and he dismissed the charges against Jimmy Dogherty. But in the opinion of the judge Sean McGowan was engaged in the illicit distillation of spirits, and from previous experience he knew that they would never get McGowan to admit his guilt. McGowan was given a custodial sentence of one month and one day, but he would allow him to appeal the decision if he so wished. Sean was happy to get away so lightly and, knowing that an appeal if lost could increase his jail term and impose a fine, he decided not to accept the judge’s offer
Following this case there were two other local men, Daniel, and Neil Dougan, brought before the court, and a Customs and Excise Officer made his way over to the witness box to give his evidence in this case. The ‘Revenue Man’ (Gauger) began to describe how he and his colleague were investigating based on information received, which told them that an illegal still was operating somewhere in the area. So, the previous Sunday morning they had gone out early to begin their investigation and, within the hour, their attention was attracted by a fire on the high hill above them and using all the cover available to them the two ‘gaugers’ made their way uphill until they were only fifty yards from the spot where a still had been set up.
As they moved stealthily toward their quarry there was a loud crack as a twig broke underfoot and the Poitin makers realised that they were under observation. One of the men suddenly grabbed the still and carrying it on his head, and he ran off into the cover of some trees. Meanwhile, his partner in crime tried to salvage as much of the remaining equipment as he could carry before he too could make his escape. The ‘gaugers’ were ready for just such a move by their targets and quickly gave chase, and free of any equipment they quickly caught up with both men before they had managed to get any distance away.
In the subsequent search after securing the men, the two gaugers discovered two gallons of ‘wash’ and with this evidence the revenue men arrested and charged both men. Though happy with their case, under cross-examination by the defence the revenue officers were accused of using underhand methods and of abusing the two defendants after their arrest. One of the ‘gaugers’ answered by telling the court that it was he who had chased after Dan Dougan, who had gathered the equipment and ran off like a hare at a ‘Coursing Meet.” He testified that Dan had just finished a Poitin ‘Run’ when they were discovered and as he ran away, he dropped the equipment that he was carrying away from the scene. As a means of stopping his escape the revenue man said that he reached out a stick in the hope that he could hook him around the neck, but he only caused the prisoner to trip and fall. The witness insisted, however, that neither of the prisoners had been abused by being hit on the head with clubs. The defence team, while not denying that their clients were producing Poitin, they denied that they were not important enough to be imprisoned. The judge responded,” These are the people that the Revenue are after for they are the real evil-doers and need to be put away if we are to stop this terrible trade in illicit spirits.” With these words he sentenced both men to two months in prison with hard labour. At the same time, the judge praised the two revenue officers for their vigilance and professionalism.
One evening Sergeant Brennan was manning the front desk of the police station when an obviously irate and breathless Jimmy Lennon burst through the main door. “In the name of Jesus!” exclaimed the Sergeant.
“Hold on, Sergeant, ‘til I catch my breath,” panted Jimmy.
“By God, man dear, I thought you were going to take that door off its hinges,” scolded Brennan.
It took Jimmy a moment or two to gather himself before he was ready to explain the purpose of his visit. “My family’s destroyed!” Jimmy wailed. “That blackguard Micky McMahon from ‘The Hill’ has stolen my sister away, and the beast even assaulted my own wife!”
Brennan was shocked by this revelation and he asked Jimmy when had all of this happened. “This morning, when he knew I would not be around. That gobshite didn’t want to meet me face-to-face, for I would have fixed him for sure. But he left my wife in an awful state and our four wee children are completely destroyed by the experience. I want something done about this, Sergeant!”
“First we will get a statement from you about the facts, and then my constable and I will go and see what this McMahon fellow has to say for himself. Now, in your own words, clearly and slowly tell me what happened and I will write it all down,” said Sergeant Brennan.
It took an hour for Jimmy Lennon’s statement to be finalised and signed by him. From what he had heard, the Sergeant believed that there would be some very serious charges to be brought against Micky McMahon and that he would need his Constable to help him bring in the violent blackguard. “Get your coat, Constable,” Brennan instructed the young policeman who was now manning the front desk.
“What’s happening, Sergeant?” asked the Constable.
“We have to go up the ‘Hill’ and arrest Mickey McMahon for kidnap and assault.”
“Kidnap and assault? Micky McMahon?”
“I know its hard to believe, but accusations have been made,” replied Brennan.
“And Jimmy Lennon made the accusation?”
“Sure Jimmy Lennon wouldn’t know what the truth was, even if it bit him on the arse” commented Constable Wright.
“Don’t I know the sort of Jimmy Lennon?” the Sergeant grimaced. “But we still need to investigate the accusations. So, Come on. The quicker we get there the quicker we’ll be done.”
On the way to ‘The Hill’ Brennan explained that they should take things very easy when talking to Micky if they wanted to ensure things did not get out of control, and cause somebody to get hurt. In the small, outdated police car Brennan brought Wright with him to the McMahon home. It was a single-storey home that needed a bit of ‘tender loving care’ done to its exterior, but was generally well maintained. Sergeant Brennan marched right up to the front door of the house and knocked on it heavily with his hand calling out loud, “Police!” But despite his efforts he did not get a reply although there was something about the place that made him certain that someone was inside. He marched around to the rear of the house and, seeing a bedroom window open, he clambered in and began his search in such a way that anyone who was in the house would know he was there.
It was not a large house and he quickly made his way through to the kitchen, the door to which was closed against him. Grabbing the door handle, Brennan tried to push the door open but it did not budge and, when he forced it with his weight, he found the door obstructed by a heavy chair. Standing with a look of fear and amazement on her face was Molly Maguire. Sergeant Brennan was totally astonished by her presence in the house of Micky McMahon because she was the sister of Jimmy Lennon who had allegedly been kidnapped by McMahon. As he came to his senses again, the Sergeant began to notice the familiar, strong bouquet of Poitin assaulting his senses. In front of him, on the kitchen table, Brennan saw three open bottles, all of which contained remnants of Poitin and were, undoubtedly, the source of the strong odour.
Molly looked at the tall, burly policeman with pleading eyes and she began to tearfully tell him, “They are not mine, Sergeant. Mick McMahon and another man have been up all night making Poitin, and now he has gone to sell it.” But Brennan showed little interest in her obviously false story. Molly now went further by saying, “That damned blackguard even locked me up here in the cottage as a prisoner until whatever time he returned. I just thank God that you save me, Sergeant.”
“Aye! You are safe enough now, girl,” Brennan told her coldly, as his eyes scoured the room for some evidence of what had happened.
“I can show you some other things that will prove what he has been up to, Sergeant,” urged Molly.
Brennan summoned Constable Wright into the house after first opening the front door. “Bring in some of those evidence bags and we can gather a few things. You finish off looking in the house for more evidence, while Molly takes me to see irrefutable proof of McMahon’s crimes.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” replied Wright.
The Constable watched as Brennan went out of the back door with Molly at his side, and she was chatting to him, giving him directions with her hands. “It’s just over there, beside that hawthorn bush,” Molly told him and began to lead the way. When they arrived at the thick bush and hedgerow, Sergeant Brennan began to search among the close-knit branches. It didn’t take him long to find a metal milk churn and, with Molly’s eager help, he dragged it into a clear space. “Didn’t I tell you, Sergeant?” Molly said triumphantly.
“Well, let’s have a look at it first, shall we,” replied Brennan cautiously. Then, using both hands he succeeded in forcing off the lid of the churn and he became engulfed in a sweet, strong smell and when he looked inside the churn he found it was full of ‘Wash’ in a state of fermentation. This was evidence that this Micky McMahon was preparing the mix for a second run of Poitin for his customers. That same evening, when he arrived home, McMahon was arrested for illicit distillation of spirits and several additional charges.
In due course, in the District Court, Micky McMahon was defended by Joe Geary, a much respected and successful local solicitor. In his opening statement to the court Mr. Geary reminded them that his client had been arrested and prosecuted three years previously for making Poitin. He told them that on that occasion Micky was convicted of the offence, but was arrested a year later on similar charges, which were dismissed when it was discovered that Micky had been ‘set-up’ by persons unknown. Mr. Geary made it clear that it was his case that the charges against his client were also a result of someone ‘framing’ Mr. McMahon. He alleged that Micky had been having an extra-marital affair with Molly Maguire for several years, until two years ago, they fell out. Micky admitted that, four years previously, had left her husband and began living with Micky in his house. Micky declared that she had been a difficult woman to live with and they had separated several times, with the last and worst argument occurring about eighteen months previously. On that occasion, Micky testified he had become tired of Molly’s argumentative ways and began to become closer to his own wife. “When Molly found out,” said Micky, “She swore that she would get me back for treating her so badly. She could have gotten into my house quite easily and ‘planted’ all this so-called evidence.”
In his summing up the judge, Gerard McElroy, commented that it was very strange that Mrs. Maguire had not answered Sergeant Brennan’s calls when he entered the house. This would have been easily done even if the accused had locked her in the house. Judge McElroy also suggested if the Poitin had been ‘planted’ then such behaviour was consistent with Mrs. Maguire’s previously alleged conduct. He did point out, however, that Mr. McMahon had failed to give any definitive proof that she had been guilty of such deception. In the end, Micky McMahon, was fined what could be considered a nominal amount for the offence with costs. Although she wasn’t found guilty by the court, Molly Maguire was ‘Sent to Coventry’ by the local community.
A warm welcome back to all my readers now that my summer sabbatical is over. To begin a new line of stories I have chosen to outline those men and women who were, and are still involved in Ireland’s Poitin making business. Each one of the stories involved in this chronicle is based on true facts, though names have been changed to protect the characters. There will be stories of Poitin men, Poitin Women, the Informers, the Gaugers (Revenue and Excise men), the Police, the Courts, and all who are involved in the illicit industry that continues to prevail. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as you have apparently enjoyed my previous tales. So let us begin with …
Anyone who has read about Ireland, its customs and traditions has heard the word Poitin (Poteen), which is the name given to the illicit, but very popular, spirit that is distilled in many areas of the country. There are many stories and customs surrounding the manufacture and distribution of this favoured beverage, but little is known about the men, or families, who distill the spirit. The stories included in this short book are taken from recorded facts, with some necessary changes made to protect the innocent.
As well as being known as the ‘Isle of Saints and Scholars’, Ireland is famed for its rugged coastlines, remote misty mountains, wide and treacherous boglands and for the great expanses of forests and woodlands. It is in the remote areas like these that the manufacture of Poitin has gravitated in modern years. Sadly, there are many places within the country where you can purchase Poitin legally, and cleverly presented in designer bottles to give the impression of age. But these legal Poitin brands are generally expensive and, from my own personal experience, they taste nothing like the ‘real stuff’. Like everything that is yellow is not necessarily gold, everything that resembles Poitin is not necessarily Poitin.
Thankfully, the illicit spirit is still being produced by master craftsmen in large quantities from many old stills that have been long hidden in almost every county in Ireland from Armagh to Wicklow. The craft itself has often been handed down from father to son over the centuries and demand is still strong despite the illegality and the attraction of designer bottles and advertising. Nevertheless, the law enforcement agencies on the island of Ireland continue to strive hard to wipe out the cottage industry, with the assistance of the customs and excise authorities. This, however, is the way it has been for several hundred years, but the trade still survives and the main areas of production remain in the isolated and remote rural areas of Ireland. In mountain areas, woodlands, and boglands the stills have been hidden and using more modern methods of production they have become harder to detect. But touts (informers) remain the scourge of any secret enterprise and are an ever present threat to the liberty of the ‘Poitin Men’.
Our first story could be subtitled “The Sergeant’s Embarrassment,” and concerns a man who lived in County Donegal and was well respected by all his neighbours in the small village where he lived. He was recognised as a fine, good humoured man, who did everything in moderation and who went to Mass and the Sacraments on a regular basis. The man man was also a committed ‘Pioneer’, which is a member of the Catholic faith who vows to refrain from drinking or using alcohol in his life and proudly sports a sacred heart badge on his left jacket lapel to publicize this fact. As you can imagine such men as this are a rarity in Irish society and the sixty-seven-years-old Hugh Trevor was considered to be rather saintly.
It must be said that any sane person would never have even considered Hugh to be a candidate for the post of Poitin manufacturer, or distributor, especially because he had sworn himself off alcohol of any kind. But the new sergeant who had recently taken over the local police station was suspicious of everyone. He knew that there was a still in the district producing a good type of the spirit and he was determined that he would destroy that still, bringing the ‘Poitin Men’ to justice. The only assistance he needed in his crusade, the sergeant had decided was a reliable tout to feed him information.
Police sergeant Grimason was a man who was determined to reach the pinnacle within the police force, and he saw the elimination of local Poitin makers to be his best route to such a position. However, in the few weeks that he had been stationed in the district he had succeeded only in securing petty convictions for possession of small bottles of Poitin, which caused no anger among his superiors. Neither had his efforts to recruit any informants borne fruit and he was beginning to become somewhat disconsolate about his hopes for advancement. But Grimason was not a man to give up easily and he decided he would double his efforts to recruit some reliable touts to assist him.
Samhain arrived and everyone in the district, including Sergeant Grimason, knew that as well as it being the season for fairies and demons, it was also the signal for increased Poitin production in the run-up to Christmas. One night, as he was standing outside ‘Rooney’s Public House’, when he noticed a small, thin man staggering from side to side toward the front door of the pub. As he made to pass by Grimason, the Sergeant took a tight hold of the man by the shoulder of his coat and pulled him to the wall. “Murphy, isn’t it?” Grimason asked.
“Ah, Sergeant, you know me well,” Murphy answered.
“Aye, that’s true,” said Grimason. “But I also know that you can’t afford to buy the amount of drink you must have imbibed this night. I also know that is not whiskey that I am smelling off your breath.”
“Whiskey?” exclaimed Murphy. “Not at all, Sergeant. It’s the smell of half a dozen glasses of the ‘’Cratur’ that’s keeping me warm this night.”
“Is that right?” asked Grimason. “Then it’s a night in the cells for you, wee man.”
“Not tonight, Sergeant,” he replied. “It’s Rooney’s pub for me, so come on in and I’ll buy you a glass.”
“No! There will be no pub for you, Murphy,” said Grimason. “It’s down to the station with you.”
“Why? What have I done?”
“Drunk and disorderly!” Grimason told him.
“Drunk maybe,” agreed Murphy. “But I’m never disorderly. Anyway, sure, why would you want to arrest me when I haven’t done anything wrong?”
“You’ve been drinking Poitin, an illegal drink!” the sergeant told him. “Now, if you were to tell me where you got it I might be persuaded to forget everything.”
“You’re a big man sergeant! Brave enough to arrest me but do nothing to the likes of Hugh Trevor, and him with gallons of the stuff. But you are as bad as the rest, for you think butter wouldn’t melt in Hugh’s mouth,” slurred Murphy angrily.
“But Hugh Trevor is a ‘Pioneer’,” laughed Grimason.
This attitude angered Murphy even more than before and he snapped, “Aye, he is! And he is at Mass every Sunday eating the altar rails, but that doesn’t make him a saint. I know that he gets through a fair bit of the ‘Cratur’.”
“Do you know if he is selling the stuff?”
Murphy now had the sergeant’s full attention and he told him, “Christ, with the amount he gets the same man could supply all of the county!”
This was just the type of evidence that Sergeant Grimason had been seeking, and he sent Murphy home, determined that he would raid the Trevor house the next day. So, early the next morning the Sergeant applied for and gained a search warrant to search Hugh Trevor’s home. He gathered one of the constables and together they made their way to Hugh Trevor’s home, where they knocked loudly on the front door. Hugh, of course, was a little bemused to see two policemen at his front door when he went to answer their knocks, and he was even more mystified when they presented him with the search warrant. “What is going on?” asked Hugh.
“I can’t discuss that, at this moment. There’s the search warrant and now if you would just let us do our work, Mr. Trevor,” Grimason told him in his usual gruff manner.
For the next hour and a half Hugh and his wife watched in silence as the police officers searched every room in the house, every cupboard, wardrobe and drawer thoroughly. It was with great relief to him that Grimason search produced nothing incriminating and he was pleased to see the Sergeant speaking to the constable about returning to the Station. In the hallway, just as he prepared to leave the house the Constable stood on two loose floorboards and Grimason insisted they pull them up to search under the floor. Naturally, it was the Constable who carried out all the work connected with lifting the floorboards and, as soon as this was achieved, a huge smile broke across the Sergeant’s face. There, in the vacant gap below his feet, lay two ‘Jerry Cans’ lying on their sides. Turning to Hugh, Grimason asked, “What is in those?”
Without hesitation, Hugh told him, “About nine litres of Poitin.”
In a clear officious voice, with a notebook in his hands Grimason announced, “Hugh Trevor, you are under arrest for having illegal spirits in your possession and in such quantities to suggest you may be distributing the same illegal spirit to persons unknown. Constable, place the prisoner in custody and we shall return to the Station.”
“Sure, don’t be a ‘Bollix’ all your life, Grimason,” said Hugh in a very calm manner. “This is all for personal use!”
“Ha, ha,” laughed Grimason, mockingly. “But you don’t drink alcohol! Now let’s go!” Then,as he escorted the prisoner out of the house he turned to the Constable and told him to bring the evidence with him, making sure that they were moved in line with correct evidence gathering procedures.
It was only a few days after his arrest that Hugh Trevor was brought before the District Court, where Judge Thomas Campbell sat at the bench. In the dock the prisoner stood patiently listening to the charges being made to the court. When he was asked how he pleaded to the charges Hugh replied confidently, “Not Guilty!”
Sergeant Grimason was now called by the prosecution and placed in the witness stand. From the notes he made in his notebook he related his testimony to the court and under questioning from the prosecution barrister he confirmed that that Mr. Trevor had full knowledge that the containers held nine litres of Poitin.
There were no questions from the defence barrister, who decided to put Hugh into the witness box to answer the charges made against him. He immediately confirmed all that the Sergeant had said and again admitted that he was in Possession of nine litres of Poitin, but he informed the court that it was all for his own requirements. “My solicitor has already presented to the court medical evidence detailing my many years of suffering from painful arthritis, which has worsened as the years have passed. But I discovered that just by rubbing Poitin into the inflamed joints gives me effective relief from the pain. Such is my pain, however, that I have progressed from rubbing small amounts into the joints to bathing in the spirit, and that is the reason that I purchase so much. It is the only treatment that works for me in my present condition. I have never drank a drop of the spirit and I have never had the inclination to sell it to others.”
After Judge Campbell had deliberated on the case he came to the decision that the balance of truth was on Hugh Trevor’s side. He dropped all the charges against him and ordered that the nine litres of Poitin in his possession be destroyed under police supervision. At the same time, the Judge advised Hugh to seek a new and legal treatment for his arthritis, because the next time he was caught with such an amount might result in a different verdict.
Some 250 years ago, Dublin was divided by a case that was being conducted in the criminal courts. From the highest to the lowest strata of society in that city appeared to be divided into two warring factions on this case. It was almost impossible to speak in the home, or on the street, about this case without causing a quarrel because it was viewed as an elaborate means of illustrating the justice of the English administration in a troublesome country.
This case centred on a dispute between an old gipsy woman and a young servant girl. The question at issue was whether the gipsy had robbed and forcibly imprisoned Bessie Kane, or had Bessie Kane falsely accused the gipsy of being guilty for these things. It was, however, the force of incidental circumstances that caused the case to become so important to the populace, the jurists and the administration. In fact, the case became a question on the efficiency of Britain’s judicial institutions in Ireland, and how able they were to protect and provide justice to the innocent. Unsurprisingly, there were to be many inquiries and trials associated with the case, but I have space only to outline the most prominent highlights of these.
Bessie Kane was an unexceptional young woman who was almost nineteen years of age, and she had been employed in the house of a wealthy man, Edward Laing, living in Cohannon. On New Year’s Day she had been given permission to visit the home of her uncle in Lismore, but she failed to return to the Laing household at the time specified. Concerned about her whereabouts, Mr Laing’s family asked Bessie’s mother if she had seen her daughter, but she had not made called on her or any of her other relations after visiting her uncle.
The days passed into weeks as inquiries continued to prove unfruitful and Bessie’s mother suffered torment every hour that her daughter was missing. The newspapers were made aware of the mystery surrounding Bessie’s disappearance and the affair was soon the talk of every town. Much to everyone’s surprise, at the end of January, Bessie entered her mother’s house in terrible condition, being both emaciated and exhausted, and she had hardly a stitch of clothing on her back, leaving her almost naked. She was, of course, asked so many questions that they put her head in a spin and she found it difficult to give a coherent report of what had happened to her. But, Bessie gathered her senses sufficiently to give her listeners the story behind her disappearance.
Bessie told her audience that she had set out on her visit to her uncle at eleven o’clock in the morning, and that she had stayed with him until nine o’clock in the evening. She said that her uncle and aunt accompanied her as far as the edge of Lismore. From there she set off alone along the narrow country roads and passed by the rear of the Hospital, at which point she was seized by two very strong, well-built men.
“They didn’t speak a word to me, at first,” Bessie told them, “but stole half a guinea from a little purse in my pocket, and three shillings in loose change. Then they stripped me of my dress, apron, and hat, folding them up, and putting them into a greatcoat pocket. When I screamed out, the man who took my dress put a handkerchief or something into my mouth.”
Bessie then described how the men tied her hands behind her, swore at her lewdly, and dragged her along with them. She said that she fainted, but when she recovered she found herself to be still their captive. They shouted at her, swearing terrible things, and demanded that she move on quickly. But, because she was still in shock, Bessie was carried or dragged for a considerable distance. She could not which, however. It was daylight the next morning, she told them all, when she was finally at her journey’s end.
Of the place she finally ended up, Bessie could only recall that it was a disreputable-looking house, where she was met by a woman, who told her that if she would accompany her, she would be given fresh clothes. When Bessie refused, she said the woman grabbed a knife from a dresser, which she used to cut open her stays, and removed them. She then went on to describe how the woman and the other people in the house hustled her upstairs into a wretched-looking attic and locked the door. In that space she found only a miserable straw-bed, a large black pitcher nearly full of water, and a loaf of bread that had been cut into twenty-four pieces. Bessie continued to describe how she remained in that attic space for four weeks, eating so much of the bread and drinking a little water every day, until both were exhausted. She then told them how she made her escape, by removing a board which was nailed across a window. “First,” she said, “I managed to get my head out, and kept a tight hold of the wall, and got my body out. Then, I was able to turn myself around, and jump into a small, narrow alley-way that led to a field not far away. Having no other clothing than an old bedgown and a handkerchief, that I found in that attic in an old, grimy fire-grate, I managed to travel twelve miles along roads I did not know until I reached my mother’s house. And, as I travelled, I did not dare to call into any place along the way, in case I would fall again into the hands of those horrible people.”
If Bessie’s disappearance had created excitement, her sudden reappearance in the condition she was in, and with such a story to tell, caused uproar. Although not an exceptional woman, Bessie was an attractive-looking girl. When she saw the sympathy that was being showed to her she became excited, and quickly agreed to a theory that had been formed by some of her friends. They suggested that the people who had taken her had wanted to use her in the most awful way, and they would weaken her resolve by forcing her to stay in such poor conditions, but Bessie had courageously and patiently resisted them. This was now the story that was told far and wide, and it was spoken of in every tavern and at every dinner-table, rousing the anger of many of the good citizens. Being the parents, and having daughters of their own, they feared who might become the next victim of this diabolical crew from which this poor girl had fortunately escaped. As the story spread more and more people rallied around Bessie, ready to avenge the wrongs done to her and punish the perpetrators.
Bessie soon found that she had become one of the most important people in Dublin. She was given many, and considerable funds were raised to assist her to bring the kidnappers to justice. She, of course, was required to help in the investigation by remembering every little incident in her dreadful experience that might just lead investigators to the place where she was held. She believed that it must have been on Henry Street, because she had been able to look out the window and managed to catch of sight of a coach, which she recognised as being one that a former mistress had been accustomed to travelling in. This clue, along with the distance she had travelled, gave investigators an idea that they should concentrate their search in that area of town. During their search they found a dilapidated old lodging-house that was kept by a family named Wallis, who appeared to match persons that Bessie had described to them. Moreover, this house had an attic space in which lay an old straw-bed, and there was a black pitcher found in the house.
Bessie was taken to this house in a coach alongside her mother, with her friends accompanying her on horseback. It was like a triumphal procession through the streets, with many of the crowd rushing into the squalid lodging-house, and the natural astonishment and confusion of those people living in the house was taken to be a sign of their guilt. At first, Bessie seemed to be a little confused and undecided, but this was taken to be a sign of the excitement she was feeling as she recalled the horrors that she had endured. She was told not to worry any more since she was now among her friends, all of whom would support her. Finally, she told them that she was in the house where she had been imprisoned and treated so wretchedly.
There was a gipsy woman in the house and one of the witnesses recognised her as being like ‘Mother Carson’ the sorceress, whose portrait they had seen. She sat, totally calm, bending over the open fire smoking a clay-pipe, and ignoring the hustle and bustle around her. Bessie immediately pointed to her and said that she was the woman who had cut her stays and helped to put her in her prison-room. But, even this direct accusation did not disturb the total indifference that the old woman was showing to what people were saying. However, when the old woman’s daughter stepped up and said to her, “Mother, this young woman says you robbed her,’ she jumped to her feet, turned on the group.
With an ugly and angry face, the old woman said, ‘What do you mean I robbed you? You had better take care what you are saying. If you have once seen my face, you could never mistake it, for God knows he never made another like.’ Then we she spoke about the day Bessie was robbed, she gave a wild laugh, and told them all that she was more than a hundred miles away in Cork. She did not call herself ‘Carson’, but ‘Sullivan’ and her son, George Sullivan, was with her. Although Bessie did not seem to recognise him at first, she finally declared him to be one of ruffians who had attacked her at the rear of the hospital. At last, the people around Bessie were satisfied and imprisoned all the people they found in the house.
The strange, wild facial features of the old gipsy woman appeared to have added some sense of terror to the whole affair and, in the afternoon, when two of Bessie’s friends were discussing the whole matter over a meal in a local Inn the conversation turned to the gipsy. One of the men said, “By God, Mr. Laing, I hope the Almighty has already destroyed the model that he made that face from, for I wouldn’t want him to make another like it.”
It was discovered that Mrs. Wallis, who kept the lodging-house in which Bessie had been held, belonged to a well-known disreputable family, and she admitted to investigators that her husband had been hanged. This admission caused events to speed ahead and Bessie, if she had told lies in her effort to hide the real causes of being absent, suddenly found that the entire incident had taken a much more serious turn than she had intended. Before things went too far and innocent people were hurt Bessie had to make up her mind whether to recant everything or go through with it. Now that she was something of a celebrity and enjoying all the attention she decided on the latter course, certain in her own mind that all Dublin would support her. Alone, Bessie could not have pursued the charges, but the popularity of her cause had given her courage. Then, a young woman named Purity Hill, who lived in Mrs Wallis’s lodging-house, took it into her head that it could be very profitable if she was to partner Bessie Kane and she came forward to give testimony which corroborated the whole story.
On the 21st of February, Mary Sullivan and Susan Wallis were brought to trial for a capital offence, the evidence against them being contained story told by Bessie. When Mrs Sullivan was called on to testify in her own defence, she gave a short and clear account of how she had, from day to day, gone from one distant place to another during the entire time of Bessie’s alleged confinement. Two or three witnesses came forward and, somewhat timidly, corroborated her statement. There were, however, others who would have appeared on her behalf to provide convincing testimony of Mary’s innocence, but were afraid to expose themselves in the intimidating atmosphere that filled the city, where contradiction of their idol’s story was not well received. Indeed, three men who did come forward to dispute Bessie’s story were treated unpleasantly, and money was collected to prosecute them for perjury. Dreading the strength of the popular opinion against them, these men had to incur great expense to prepare their defence. But, before the day of trial some of Kane’s supporters began to feel certain misgivings, and no prosecutor appeared. The counsel for the accused complained that this was totally unfair, especially when they had incurred great expense to defend the charges. The accused men felt that it was vital that the stain of perjury should be removed from their character, and they said that they had witnesses who would give clear, ample, and convincing testimony which would fully prove their innocence of all charges and the falseness of Bessie Kane’s story. They believed that without a trial they would not have the triumphant acquittal they wanted but might be suspected of having agreed to some dubious compromise.
Mrs Sullivan was finally convicted of all charges and sentenced to death. But the Lord Mayor of Dublin, who was nominally at the head of the commission for trying Sullivan, believed that she was the victim of lies and public prejudice. He now decided to carry out an in depth and searching investigation, to avoid, if possible, the scandal that might befall British institutions in Ireland carrying out what could be perceived as a judicial murder, although the victim was from the lowest strata of society. Initially, an inquiry was established by the law-officers of the crown, and this resulted in the woman Sullivan receiving a royal pardon. The Lord Mayor, however, having satisfied himself that this poor woman had narrowly escaped death from lies told about her by Bessie Kane, supported by an outbreak of popular zeal, was not happy. The gipsy woman had escaped, but the Lord Mayor thought that an example should be made of the one who falsely charged her. Accordingly, although he was met with much opposition to his efforts, both verbal and written, with controversial pamphlets being published against him as an enemy of Bessie Kane, he was determined to bring this popular idol to justice.
At the end of April, Bessie was brought to trial for committing wilful and corrupt perjury. Over the three weeks of trial the case against Bessie proved to be complete and crushing. With perfect clarity the whole truth about the movements of people involved in the trial was laid open. The absurdity of Bessie Kane’s story was shown to be inconsistent in every little detail with her initial testimony and the facts that had since been discovered. When Bessie had first described the room, in which, she said, she was shut up, it was subsequently was compared with her story and important and serious discrepancies were discovered. She said that she had been unable to see anything that went on in the house from where she was confined. But, in the room in question there was a large hole through the floor for a jack-rope, which gave a full view of the kitchen, where the house inhabitants usually congregated. Bessie also gave a description of every article in the room in which she was held prisoner, had made no mention about a very remarkable chest of drawers that were found in the room she identified as being the same. Any possibility that this piece of furniture had been recently placed there was shown to be impossible because of the damp dust gluing it to the wall, and the host of spiders which ran from their webs when it was removed. Bessie had also said that she escaped her prison by stepping on a penthouse, but there was none against the attic of Mrs Wallis’s house. Furthermore, the windows were high, and she could certainly not have leaped to the ground without causing herself severe injury. She stated in her testimony that not one person had entered the room during the four weeks of her imprisonment there. It was shown, however, that during the same period a lodger had held an animated conversation from one of the windows of the same attic with someone chopping wood outside.
These differences were, however, far from being the most surprising part of the evidence. Not content with showing that Bessie Kane had told lies, the prosecutor took up the laborious task of discovering just where the gipsy woman had been at that time, along with her co-accused son and daughter. Because of the wandering habits of gipsies, evidence into the most minute details had to be collected over a large area of country. But, the precision with which the statements of this group of people, from different ranks of society and quite unknown to each other, as well as to the person they spoke about of fitted each other, is very interesting. The most trifling and unimportant facts told with great precision the true story. The keeper of the lodging-house remembered the woman Sullivan being in her house on a certain day, making certain of it by an entry in an account-book. She also remembered that she had consulted the almanac at the time to ensure that she got the right day. The day of the same woman’s presence in another place was identical with the presence of an Excise surveyor, and the statements of the witnesses were tested by the Excise entry-books. The position of the wanderers was in another instance connected with the posting of a letter, and the post-office clerks bore testimony to the fact, that from the marks on the letter it must have been posted on that day. Bessie Kane had stated that she had been seized on New Year’s Day. The journey of the gipsy family, however, was traced throughout the distant parts of Ireland, covering every day from December until the day they arrived in the lodging-house, which was 24th of January. With their case strengthened with incontestable facts the counsel for the prosecution felt himself in a position to make Bessie’s whole story look ridiculous and show how absurd it was to those in Dublin who had so resolutely believed her.
The prosecutor stated, “Was it not strange that Miss Kane should subsist so long on so small a quantity of bread and water, almost four weeks in all? It is peculiar that she should ration her meagre store so well as to have some of her bread left, according to her first account, until the Wednesday. According to her last statement she said until the Friday before she made her escape, and unbelievably she saved some of her miraculous pitcher of water until the last day. Was the twenty-fourth part of a small loaf a day enough food to satisfy her hunger? If not, why would she not continue eating to satisfy her appetite, so she could ration herself for what appeared to her to be a precarious, uncertain future? Shall we suppose it was some revelation from above that came to her? Perhaps it was an angel from heaven that appeared to this model of virtue, and told her, that if she ate more than one piece of bread a day, her small ration would not last her until the time she was able to make her escape. Her mother, we know, is very enthusiastic when it comes to consulting conjurors and those who interpret dreams. Maybe her daughter dreamed what was to happen, and so she would not eat when she was hungry, nor drink when she was thirsty. This conduct by the prisoner, however, I suggest exceeds all bounds of human probability.”
Despite of her criminality being exposed, Bessie Kane, was not entirely deserted by her supporters. Two of the jury members had difficulty in reconciling themselves to the verdict of guilty and suggested that her story might be substantially correct, though she had, undoubtedly, made a mistake about the persons by whom, she said, had injured her. There were some imperfections in the verdict, and her supporters tried to take advantage of them. But, their objections were overruled, and a verdict of guilty was recorded against Bessie, who immediately pleaded for mercy, saying that she had sinned much less than she had been sinned against. She declared that survival had been her only objective, and that she had no wish to undertake the life of a gipsy.
The court had to seriously consider what punishment they would inflict on her. There were many of the ordinary people who were still convinced that she was not a wicked person, and there were fears that some supporters would make efforts to break into the jail in which she was imprisoned to free her. But, because there was no established transportation system in those days, it was not unusual for some criminals to be sent to plantations in North America or the West Indies, with their consent. In the case of Bessie Kane, therefore, the court acceded to the wish of her relations, that she should be forever banished to North America.