John Twiss

Foinse: The Maid of Ballingarry (John O’Connell)

Farewell my dearest sister Jane, your fond and last adieu,
At the early age of thirty five I now must part from you.
For the murder of James Donovan I am now condemned to die,
On the ninth of February ninety five, upon the scaffold high.

John Twiss from Castleisland ’tis true it is thy name.
I never did commit a crime why I should deny the same.
I own I was a sportsman with spirit light and gay,
But paid spies and informers my life they swore away.

On the twenty fifth of April; in eighteen ninety four
That was the night dear sister Jane long years you will deplore.
When I was taken prisoner the police to me did say
For the murder of James Donovan we arrest you on this day.

It was at the Cork Assizes my enemies all swore,
That I shot James Donovan and laid him in the gore.
The jury found me guilty the judge to me did say:
On the ninth of February ninety five will be your dying day.

But when I heard my sentence passed to the judge these words I said:
The jury found me guilty without the least delay,
I swear that James Donovan I never yet did know
May the Lord forgive my enemies, who proved my overthrow.

My blessings on the mayor of Cork and the people there also,
In thousands they petitioned me to release me they did go
But my enemies were determined I should my life lay down,
For paid spies and informers, all traitors to the crown.

My last hour it is approaching, I hear the deathbell toll,
The hangman he has pinioned me, I must now give up my soul.
You know that I am innocent, it is all I have to say,
May the Lord forgive my enemies all on their judgement day.

The story of that murder trial is recounted in “The Ballad of John Twiss”, although not with total accuracy, for Donovan had not been shot but died from injuries received in a brutal beating. James Donovan, himself an evicted tenant from Ballineen in West Cork, had been driven by the economic circumstances of the time to assume the role of poacher turned gamekeeper. In Christmas 1893 he had come to live in the remote townland of Glenlara, three miles northwest of Newmarket, as a bailiff for the landlord organisation known as the Property Defence Association. He took up residence as caretaker on the holding of John T. Keneally, a tenant who had been evicted two months previously by the Earl of Cork. Donovan was killed on the night of April 21st, 1894 and two men were charged with murder. Their separate trials were held during the Munster Winter Assizes at Cork City’s Temporary Courthouse in Anglesea Street. The first trial was of Keneally’s cousin Eugene O’Keeffe. It commenced on December 6th, 1894 and he was acquitted the following day. The second trial which commenced on January 7th, 1895 was, however, to have quite a different outcome.

“John Twiss from Castleisland, it’s true it is my name
I never did commit a crime why I should deny that same
I own I was a sportsman with spirit light and gay
But paid spies and informers my life they swore away”.

The second man charged with what became known as “the Glenlara murder” had received his first jail sentence for agrarian militancy in the Land War of 1879 when he himself was but 19 years of age. As an unrepentant Moonlighter, John Twiss was accordingly a marked man. He was found guilty and sentenced to death on January 9th. The late Pat Lynch, journalist with “The Corkman” wrote his 1982 book “They Hanged John Twiss” as much as a polemic proclaiming Twiss’s innocence as a narrative of the events themselves. It was only in the 1990s, however, in Pat Feeley’s RTE radio programme “The Song and the Story”, that Lynch suggested that it had been an unnamed Boherbue pumpsinker of his acquaintance who had actually done the killing. John Twiss, of course, protested his own innocence to the bitter end and in his speech from the dock on January 9th he charged that he had been promised not only his freedom by the police but a bribe of £50 if only he would bear false witness against six members of the Keneally family and their cousin O’Keeffe.

In a talk on the Famine at the Duhallow Heritage Centre in Newmarket in April 1996 and reprinted by the Aubane Historical Society of Millstreet in a book entitled “Spotlights on Irish History”, Brendan Clifford of Gneeves, Boherbue recalled a previous talk where he had made a reference to Twiss, assuming his innocence:
“Ned Buckley gives the example of some people that did do well out of the Famine and became substantial property owners. The family that is mentioned in Boherbue is still quite a substantial property-owning family there. But on the basis of my experience the first time I came here, when I mentioned John Twiss and almost caused a disturbance, I don’t think I’ll mention any local names tonight!”.
So, even a century later the Twiss case could stir such passions!
“My blessings on the Mayor of Cork and the people there also
In thousands they petitioned, to release me they did go”.
In fact the Mayor of Cork, P.J. Meade, set up a Twiss Reprieve Committee whose largest public meeting brought six thousand on to the streets of Cork on January 22nd. But to no avail. “The Ballad of John Twiss” concludes its narrative on February 9th:

“My last hour is approaching, I heard the death bell toll
The hangman he has pinnioned me, I must now give up my soul”.

But “the Glenlara murder” for which he sentenced Twiss to death was but one of a series of moonlighting trials covering several counties and held before Lord Chief Baron Palles over a number of weeks during those same Munster Winter Assizes. On January 16th he sentenced Philip Barry to twenty years’ penal servitude for the manslaughter of John Murphy near Newmarket on October 10th, 1894, stating that “the crime only differed from murder by a hair’s breadth” and that “the evidence was quite sufficient to have had the prisoner convicted of murder if the Crown had so framed the incident”. What had particularly incensed the Lord Chief Baron was that a “Moonlight Ballad” had been found on the person of one of Barry’s co-defendants, two of whose seven verses ran:

“So now, my boys, don’t you make noise, but silently look on,
Keep your guns free and clear, and ready for the man,
Who is selling you for English gold, as Massey did before;
We’ll have the year of ’98 today in ‘94”

“May the heaven’s sun deny its light, and the earth he treads its fruit,
May the light of day be always night, to that foul, cruel brute,
For the God of heaven will vengeance take, in a dark and lonesome glen,
And he will fall as Carey fell by our national moonlight men”.

This, then, was the atmosphere when what were described as “seven men of the farming class” from Ballingeary appeared before that same judge in what “The Cork Examiner” headlined as “The Macroom Moonlighting Case”. There were in fact two trials. The omens at the outset were quite good. On December 7th, 1894 the jury found Eugene O’Keeffe not guilty of what “The Cork Examiner” had headlined as “The Newmarket Murder Case”. The trial that immediately followed was that of the Ballingeary men on December 8th. But on December 11th that trial collapsed when the jury announced that that there was no possibility of agreement. Whereupon the court rose for the Christmas recess.
The New Year of 1895 told a different story. The first trial scheduled for hearing was that of Twiss in “The Newmarket Murder Case” to be followed immediately by the Ballingeary trial to be followed a few days later by “The Newmarket Manslaughter Case”. The Ballingeary men must have felt like the meat in the sandwich. True, theirs was neither a murder nor a manslaughter case, but the prosecution did argue that there was the threat of death involved in the discharge of a firearm and this could have led to the maximum sentence of penal servitude for life. Moreover, the Lord Chief Baron himself in his address to the jury at that first trial had gone way beyond what even the Crown itself had charged when he referred to the Ballingeary incident as “that midnight attempt at murder”.
Twiss convicted
What must the Ballingeary men have felt as they entered the dock in the immediate aftermath of it being vacated by Twiss, who had been sentenced to death, not once but twice? In the ritual of donning the black cap and pronouncing the many-worded sentence of death, the Lord Chief Baron had declared the place of execution to be “Her Majesty’s prison in the County of the City of Cork”. After Twiss had been removed from the dock the Attorney General reminded the Lord Chief Baron that the prison was in the County, whereupon the latter ordered: “Bring back the prisoner”. Once more in the dock he was told; “Twiss, the gaol it appears is in the county of Cork, and not the city, and, therefore, I am obliged to sentence you over again”. And so, the grim ritual was repeated until the Lord Chief Baron declared the year of execution to be 1894, the year just passed. Twiss might have had to endure being recalled for a third sentencing were it not for the fact that on this occasion the Attorney-General interrupted the Lord Chief Baron in mid-sentence to ensure correction there and then. The sentence finally completed, Twiss at last left the dock, remarking “They can’t kill any other man”.




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