Maamtrasna murders: a shameful episode finally laid to rest

It took 130 years to secure justice for Maolra Seoighe

It is never too late to correct a grave injustice. The posthumous pardon granted by President Michael D Higgins to Maolra Seoighe, who was found guilty of the Maamtrasna murders and hanged in 1882 on the basis of perjured evidence, was an appropriate recognition of his innocence. It took campaigners – and there were many of them over a period of 130 years – to secure justice for the man formally charged and condemned as "Myles Joyce" for crimes he had not committed. He spoke no English but was tried and convicted in that language by a Dublin court in heightened political circumstances.

Coming within months of the murder of the Chief Secretary of Ireland in the Phoenix Park, the Maamtrasna killings of three women and two men convulsed the colonial and judicial systems. The London Times demanded a response to this "unredeemed savagery" and large rewards were offered for information. Names were provided to the police and while some of those accused were guilty, others were innocent. All were condemned.

Awarding the fourth such pardon in the history of the State, President Higgins observed that the conviction and hanging of Maolra Seoighe arose from "systematic contempt for the Irish-speaking accused and zeal to secure a conviction, regardless of the evidence." He acknowledged the contribution made by Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan in securing Cabinet approval for the pardon, along with the campaigning efforts of others.

It is a long list, going back to demands for a review by Irish MP Tim Harrington in 1885. The case became notorious when witnesses admitted perjury. Books were written but nothing happened. Former taoiseach Enda Kenny commissioned a report from the UCD school of law that recommended a pardon, while a British justice minister acknowledged the man was "probably innocent". Publication in Irish of Éagóir by Seán Ó Cuirreáin and a television documentary by TG4 revived public interest and created the circumstances in which a shameful episode could be laid to rest.