Posthumous presidential pardon for two men executed in 1883 moves step forward

Sylvester Poff and James Barrett were convicted of the murder of Thomas Browne in October 1882 and were executed in January 1883

The Cabinet has agreed to recommend a posthumous presidential pardon for two men who were executed in 1883 after being accused of killing a Kerry farmer.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee secured Government approval to recommend to President Michael D Higgins that a posthumous presidential pardon be granted to Mr Sylvester Poff and Mr James Barrett.

The two men were convicted of the murder of Thomas Browne in October 1882 and were executed in January 1883.

This would be the fourth time that a posthumous presidential pardon has been awarded. The first posthumous pardon was awarded by President Higgins to Harry Gleeson in 2015. The threshold to recommend a pardon is considered to be high.


Minister McEntee said that it is a “very rare occurrence” and a “very high bar must be reached for the Government to recommend to the president that he exercise this right”.

She said she considered the findings of a report from Dr Niamh Howlin, an expert in 19th-century trial law and an associate professor in the Sutherland School of Law, UCD.

“Having considered the findings in Dr Howlin’s report, the trial, conviction and execution of Mr Poff and Mr Barrett were unfair by the standards of the time. Both men were wrongfully convicted and suffered the harshest penalty under the law of the time in what can now be attributed to a miscarriage of justice,” Ms McEntee said.

During the period in question, Co Kerry and the area around Castleisland was experiencing a high level of unrest and violence at a time when land disputes around the country were common.

On October 3rd, 1882, Thomas Browne was murdered while working in one of his fields in Kerry. Two men in dark coats shot him several times.

Despite the fact they did not match the description of the assailants, Sylvester Poff and James Barrett were arrested following a statement by a neighbour who said that they had seen them enter the field where Browne was shot.

The neighbour’s story changed as the case progressed, however.

Mr Poff and Mr Barrett were convicted of the murder of Thomas Browne in December 1882 and were hanged in Tralee Gaol in January 1883.

In her report, Dr Howlin said that a number of factors, including in the investigation and procedures around the trial, led her to form the opinion that the convictions were unsafe.

These factors included a “packed jury”, conflicting witness testimony, no motive and other lines of inquiry appearing to have been neglected during the investigation and trial.

Separately, Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman brought a memo to Government which will see the Citywest transit hub for refugees used for another year. Last year, the State paid more than €53 million to the owner of the Citywest hotel to accommodate asylum seekers and Ukrainian refugees.

Meanwhile, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin received Government approval for Ireland’s part in a Ukraine Assistance Fund under the European Peace Facility, which was agreed by the EU Foreign Affairs Council in March.

The EU agreement will see an extra €5 billion funding for the fund, and Ireland’s contribution works out at just over €128 million.

This fund will provide support to Ukraine as it comes under severe pressure from Russian offensives on the ground.

Ireland’s commitments to the European Peace Facility remain exclusively for non-lethal military sup­port.

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times