John Twiss of Castleisland, ‘Mythical Clergyman’s Son’

Castleisland District Heritage awaits the outcome of its petition to obtain the Presidential Pardon of John Twiss of Castleisland, for which application has been made to government on behalf of his descendants.


John Twiss of Castleisland, convicted in 1894 for the murder of James Donovan, was the subject of much discussion in the press in 1894 and 1895.  Various accounts of his background were circulated and published, including the following, which appeared in the Cork Constitution in the weeks leading up to his execution in 1895:


I often think about that poor man, John Twiss, now under sentence of death; how was he brought up?  I am making enquiry, and I hear that his father [Robert] was the son of a Protestant clergyman, who lost his property, took no care of his children, that John is wholly illiterate, was never sent to school, and his only means of education was in the streets.  There he met with bad companions, and we see the result.[1]


A Question of Religion

An irritated Mary Agnes Hickson, Kerry historian, was quick to repudiate this statement made by William D’Esterre Parker.  Miss Hickson accurately pointed out that only one member of the Twiss family, Arthur Ormsby Twiss, had been a clergyman:


Rev Twiss never resided in Kerry or held preferment there, or any property.  Mr Parker on his wholly erroneous statement further builds another erroneous one – that John Twiss was probably not educated or cared for, his father, this mythical clergyman’s son, having unwisely dissipated all his Kerry property.  But the property and the personages Mr Parker writes of are alike mythical and as all Kerry knows, exist only in his own and his informant’s imagination.


Miss Hickson went on to praise the Protestant teaching in the district, and the respectable behaviour of Protestant Kerry farmers, and added, ‘John Twiss is the first member of one of those Protestant farmer’s families who has ever been convicted of moonlighting or murder in connection with land agitation.’[2]


In January 1895, as John Twiss of Castleisland awaited the outcome of the incredible efforts for his reprieve, Mr Parker’s erroneous remarks about his complex family tree, notably the branch of Rev Arthur Ormsby Twiss, could only have served to drive another nail into the condemned man’s waiting coffin.


Robert Twiss and Dorcas Godfrey of Ballingamboon

John Twiss of Castleisland was descended from the sons of Martin Twiss of Killeentierna, namely John of Ballahantouragh, sixth and youngest son of Martin.  The father of John Twiss of Castleisland was named Robert Twiss, but Mr D’Esterre’s informant identified another of the many by that name in the Twiss family.


The eldest son of Martin Twiss of Killeentierna was Francis, who died unmarried in 1743.  His second son, Robert Twiss, married Dorcas Godfrey in about 1740.  This Robert Twiss Esq, who died on 29 January 1777, his wife having passed away in 1771, left three daughters and one son, George Twiss of Cordal House.


George Twiss of Cordal House, Co Kerry

George Twiss of Cordal married in 1773 to Honoria, daughter of William Meredith of Dicksgrove, Co Kerry.  They had three sons, Robert, Francis and William Meredith, and four daughters, Marion, Dorcas, Margaret and Lucinda.[3]  George Twiss of Cordal died on 2 April 1802.  His widow, Honoria, died in Tralee in May 1828 aged 79.


Eldest son Robert Twiss, JP, of Cordal and Ardnagragh, and of Anna, Co Kerry, and latterly of Parteen, Co Tipperary, married in 1804 to Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Atkins of Firville, Co Cork.  They had four sons and five daughters.  Two sons died in the year 1848 – second son, Robert Atkins Twiss of Parteen Cottage, a doctor who died from fever in the famine year of 1848[4] and fourth son, Rev Arthur Ormsby Twiss (1819-1848) of the Episcopal Free Church, and senior curate of Christ’s Church, Cork, who died at Cordal House on 10 June 1848, unmarried.


Robert Twiss Esq JP, of Cordal House, Co Kerry, died on 6 May 1851 at Castle Connell aged 75. His widow, Elizabeth, died in 1865.[5]


His eldest son was George Twiss who inherited Cordal House.  He also inherited Birdhill House, Co Tipperary from his aunt, Margaret Ormsby, widow of Arthur Ormsby of Birdhill.  George Twiss took up residence at Birdhill.


Above: Grave at Oak Park Cemetery of Kerry historian, Mary Agnes Hickson, who was quick to set the record straight about the paternity of John Twiss.   Second left: J F Fleming’s depiction of Birdhill Castle (© NLI) which stood on the site of Birdhill.  Its history was given by Henry Fitzpatrick Berry, who assumed the name of Twiss.[6] On the right, site of Cordal House, of which nothing remains, and the former archway which led to the property.  Photo courtesy Michael and Sheila Kearney, Cordal Post Office

George Twiss of Cordal and Birdhill died on 26 November 1878.  He was unmarried.  His brother, Dr Hastings Twiss (1817-1897) JP, third son of Robert of Cordal, succeeded as landlord.  Dr Hastings Twiss died on 16 September 1897.[7]


He was succeeded by his only surviving son, Robert George Edward Twiss (1856-1917) who married in 1881 to Alice Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Major Edward Henry Drake of Falfield, Co Gloucester.  Robert G E Twiss died on 27 May 1917 leaving no issue.  His remains were interred in an old fort in the grounds of Birdhill.[8]


His widow, Alice Elizabeth Twiss, died on 16 July 1943.[9]


In August 1922, it was reported that ‘a beautiful mansion known as the Twiss House, Birdhill’ was destroyed, it was supposed, by the Irregulars.  Later that year (December) Sarah Twiss lodged a claim with North Tipperary Co Council for £40,000 for the destruction of Birdhill House, together with rare and costly furniture, some of it from the Stuart period.[10]


Birdhill House was not rebuilt, and is now an ivy-clad ruin.[11]


Cordal House

Cordal House was situated in the townland of Cordal West.  It was demolished by the time of the later Ordnance Survey mapping of the nineteenth century.  The stable block survived, and was evidently converted for use as accommodation after the introduction of taxes left the main building untenable.  The converted building had a thatched roof, and was described as a comfortable residence with an elaborate fireplace.  An archway led to the entrance of the house:


The old fashioned archway in the very old but well kept bohereen leading into Peter Kearney’s house is the only evidence left of Cordal Great House which was inhabited about 100 years ago.  The Twishes (sic) a protestant family lived there.  They were land agents over Cordal and Brehig.  They served Lord Ventry.[12]


The dilapidated stable block was demolished about forty years ago.  The archway was dismantled some time after 1963 when it was damaged and became unstable.  The stone was used locally on the road near Cordal Post Office.


Kearney Family of Cordal

The Kearney family has an interesting association with the Twiss case.  Mother Dympna Kearney, daughter of Peter Kearney, former principal teacher of Kilmurry school, Castleisland, and his wife, Catherine Kearney, sub-postmistress, Cordal, knew John Twiss, and was convinced of his innocence.


John Twiss lived close to the post office, and was a daily visitor to the Kearney home.  ‘He was a great favourite with the Kearney children for whom he played the jews-harp which was kept for him in a cupboard in the kitchen.’[13]


Mother Dympna, then a novice, corresponded with John Twiss regularly while he was in prison and sent him rosary beads, a pocket folder of The Way of the Cross and other articles of devotion.  She prayed constantly and fervently for him.


After the execution of John Twiss, the prison governor returned the rosary beads to Mother Dympna with a gracious letter thanking her for her interest in the welfare of the prisoner.


Margaret Dympna Kearney was born at Cordal, Castleisland in 1871 and entered Milltown Presentation Convent in 1895.  She was professed in 1896.  Mother Dympna died in April 1959 and was laid to rest in the convent cemetery, Milltown.


[1] Cork Constitution, 29 January 1895.  The subject of his letter was the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  The statement was made by William D’Esterre Parker, writing from Passage West, Cork on 28 January 1895. 

[2] Cork Constitution, 5 February 1895.  D’Esterre submitted another letter about Twiss’s background in the issue of 7 February 1895.

[3] Francis married Margaret Ruth, daughter of Edward Collis of Lismore, Co Kerry; William Meredith married his cousin, Letitia, daughter of Col James Crosbie of Ballyheigue.  His four daughters married, Marion to William Hunt Forster, Dorcas to Arthur Blennerhassett of Ballyseedy, Margaret to James Hilliard of Ballyhogan, Lucinda to Basil Bromfield of Irvy, Queen’s Co. 

[4] Robert Atkins Twiss (1810-1848) died from fever on 18 February 1848.  He was medical attendant at Birdhill Dispensary.  He married in 1840 to Frances Caroline, daughter of Richard Phillips of Mount Rivers, Co Tipperary and had an only daughter, Frances Margaret, who died at Montpelier-terrace, Monkstown, on 30 July 1864 aged 21.  Frances Caroline, relict of Robert Atkins Twiss Esq MD of Parteen, Birdhill, died on 2 March 1890. 

[5] Only one of Robert’s five daughters married:  Margaret Georgina Ormsby Twiss (died 1909), the youngest, to Richard Robert, eldest son of Col James Forrest Fulton, KH.  The other daughters were Maria Hastings Twiss (1805-1869), Louisa Diana Sackville Twiss (died infant 1815), Dorcas Georgina Twiss (1822-1899) Letitia Crosbie Twiss (born 1824).  Letitia died on 14 November 1896 at Oxmantown Hall, Parsonstown (Birr) Co Offaly. 

[6]  Nothing remains of Birdhill Castle, otherwise Knockannaneen Castle, which stood on a site at the back of Birdhill House.  An account of it given by Mr Berry in ‘The Antiquities of the Parish of Kilcomenty, near Birdhill, County Tipperary’ by Henry F Berry, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol 34, No 2 [Fifth Series, Vol. 14] (Jun 30 1904), pp 99-110. 

Mallow born Henry Fitzpatrick Twiss, son of Dr Parsons Berry, died on 27 October 1932.  Obituary in Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society (1932), ‘Necrology.  Henry Fitzpatrick Twiss (formerly Berry) MRIA FRSAI D.Litt ISO (Imperial Service Order), 2 High Cliffe, Beacon Road, Bournemouth’ by Philip G Lee, pp106-107.  Dr Berry lived in exile in the UK after the destruction of Bird Hill House in 1922.  In his will he remembered his brother, Rev Parsons E F Berry, his sister, Elizabeth Jermyn, and his nephews, Parsons Henry Jermyn of Dublin and William Jermyn.

[7] Dr Hastings Twiss married in 1855 to Sarah, daughter and co-heir of Capt Stirton HEICS of Earlswood House, Surrey.  Mrs Sarah Twiss, widow of Dr Hastings Twiss, died at Birdhill House on 8 March 1906.

Dr Twiss had six children, four sons and two daughters.  Three sons died young, Hastings Stirton, Arthur Ormsby and William. 

Eldest daughter Sarah Elizabeth Letitia Twiss married in July 1895 at St John’s Church Newport to Henry Fitzpatrick Berry, barrister, Keeper of the Records TCD, who assumed the name of Twiss in 1918. She died at Bournemouth on 27 June 1937.

Second daughter Emily Alice Moore Twiss married in 1891 to Rev Alexander Thomas, Rector of Nenagh, Co Tipperary, but died the following year, 10 February 1892, soon after the birth of a son, Robert Alexander Hastings Thomas (1892-1976).  Lt R A H Thomas ASC married Emily Audrey Radcliff, elder daughter of Richard Willington, Ruby Lodge, Blackrock, Dublin on 13 January 1917. 

Dr Hastings Twiss was boycotted in 1881.  An account of the affair in Nenagh Guardian, 30 November 1985.

[8] ‘His remains and, according to local lore, those of his dog, lie in a marked grave on the side of the hill behind the RC church at Birdhill and fairly near the ruins of his former home’ (Nenagh Guardian, 30 November 1985). 

[9] See memorial to Robert G E Twiss on mural tablet at Stradbally, Castleconnell, Limerick, erected by his widow, at historic graves[10] A number of reports named the applicant ‘Mrs S C G Twiss.’  In 1923, the RIC barrack and land at Birdhill were auctioned as part of the Twiss Estate.  In early 1927, the lands at Birdhill House and buildings thereon of the Twiss Estate were incorporated in land sales at Limerick.

[11] ‘Birdhill House, burnt during the Civil War, was not rebuilt.  In fact the compensation monies received were expended on building the terrace of houses at the Summerhill end of Church Road, Nenagh, in 1927’ (Nenagh Guardian, 30 November 1985).  ‘The Legend of Birdhill’ by Rev J F Lynch, Rector of Caherconlish, Limerick, relates an ancient tale of Erin told by John Sadleir, a native of Newport. See Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society Vol II (1896) pp186-188.  A short biography of Rev James Fetherston Lynch in The Church of Ireland in Co Limerick a record of church and clergy in the nineteenth century (2013) p104.

[12] The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0449, Page 080.

[13] Kerryman, 5 May 1956, ‘Six Sisters and Brother are Together for First Time in 63 Years.’ Sincere thanks to Sheila and Michael Kearney, Cordal Post Office, for reference to this article. Further reference to Cordal Post Office, see The Journal, 9 September 2006, ‘Last Post in Cordal for The Kearneys.’