'A notorious miscarriage of justice': Ireland pardons man executed 136 years ago

In 1882, a Gaelic-speaking man named Myles Joyce was executed for a violent murder that he didn't commit, after a trial in English that he didn't understand. Now, 136 years later, the President of Ireland has finally pardoned him.

Niamh Howlin wrote a report on the case that help persuade the government to pardon Myles Joyce

An artist's rendering of the trial of three men accused of murder in Maamtrasna, Ireland, in 1882. Myles Joyce, one of the accused who was executed, was pardoned on April 4. (The Graphic/Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The president of Ireland describes the case as a "miscarriage of justice." 

Of course, he has the benefit of hindsight: that miscarriage took place 136 years ago.

In 1882, a man named Myles Joyce was hanged for a murder that he didn't commit. His trial was held entirely in English, but Joyce only spoke Irish. Although he couldn't even understand his defence lawyer, Joyce maintained his innocence until the very end. President Michael D. Higgins officially pardoned Joyce on April 4.

Niamh Howlin is a lecturer at University College Dublin's Sutherland School of Law. She spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about Joyce and a report she was commissioned to write on his case by the Irish government.

Here is part of their conversation.

Ms. Howlin, what was your reaction when you learned that Myles Joyce was going to be pardoned after 136 years?

I was delighted to hear about it. These things do take time, and there has been some growing support for a pardon in recent years. There are still some family members, some descendants, of Mr. Joyce still living in the country and our president, Michael D. Higgins, also had an interest in the case.

A photo of Myles Joyce, or Maolra Seoighe, taken from prison in 1882. (National Library of Ireland)

We're referring to him as Myles Joyce, but his Gaelic name was Maolra Seoighe, is that right?

Maolra Seoighe, yeah. He was an Irish speaker, so a Gaelic speaker, and he didn't speak any English. That was fairly common in the part of Ireland where he was from. What happened was there was a very brutal murder of five members of the same family in August 1882. So a husband, his wife, his son, his daughter and his mother were all killed in the dead of night. A number of people were accused of the murder and ultimately three men were hanged for it. But the trial itself didn't take place in the locality — didn't take place in Galway. It took place right across the country in Dublin. There were several problems with the way the trial was conducted.

But the biggest problem was that the trial was conducted in the English language, is that right?

I think that's probably one of the biggest problems. If they had kept the trial in Galway, in the original location, there would have been an interpreter in the court because it was a bilingual area and some of the people on the jury probably would have spoken Irish as well.

But because they moved it to Dublin, there was no interpreter and the court, on sort of short notice, said, "Oh, well we will just appoint a police officer to act as an interpreter." And the only role that that police interpreter had was to translate the Gaelic-speaking or the Irish-speaking testimony for the benefit of the judge and the jury. So this police constable didn't translate any of the English proceeding for the benefit of Myles and the other defendants. So it was only a one-way translation.

So did Maolra, or Myles, know what was going on? Could he follow anything in this trial?

It would seem that he didn't really follow it very much at all. His solicitor, so his defence lawyer, didn't speak any Irish, so they couldn't communicate directly. 

Niamh Howlin wrote a report on the Joyce's case that helped persuade the government to pardon him. (Submitted by Niamh Howlin)

Tell us the context of this, because this is what you've been trying to find out, the political climate at the time. This is well before the existence of the Republic of Ireland. There are tremendous tensions between the Irish and the English, and the language is key to that. What was the context for this trial? There was intense media interest, wasn't there?

There was. When the murders took place in August of 1882, the country was in a state of tension. There had been a few very violent incidents. Over the past few months, there had been special legislation passed and everything was really simmering. Everyone was on edge. So when these murders took place the authorities jumped to the conclusion, I think, that the murders were part of a wider Agrarian or political unrest in the countryside. This would probably would go to some way to explaining why they acted so harshly and so swiftly, I think, in dealing with the murders.

Myles Joyce, or Maolra Seoighe, went right to the moment of being hanged protesting his innocence saying, "This is wrong." It's a horrible scene. Can you tell us about that?

It would seem that when the three men were brought out to be hanged in Galway, in December 1882, Myles kept protesting his innocence, right up until the very end. And obviously, he was doing this all through Gaelic, through the Irish language. He was so agitated that when the hangman's noose went around his neck it seemed to have slipped. The result was that he didn't die instantly, as he should have, and it was a prolonged and painful execution, unfortunately.

What does this mean for Ireland that this pardon should come for this man?

I think it's very significant for the families and the descendants of everyone who was involved in the murders. So the families of the victims and families of the accused. I suppose 130 odd years later, it's a little too late for Myles. But I think it's never too late to do the right thing.

This Q&A was edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Niamh Howlin.