Murder Without Motive: the case of Sylvester Poff of Mountnicholas and James Barrett of Dromultan

Mountnicholas is a small Kerry townland near Gortatlea.1  In the 1850s, William Murphy Poff was in residence there with his wife Mary, daughter of James Barrett.2  Many of their children, including Johanna, James, Francis (Frank), Ann and Kate, emigrated to New Zealand between 1870 and 1880 under a scheme of free passage offered by the New Zealand government. Two other girls of the family went to America about the same time.3


Their son Sylvester was among the children who remained in Ireland.4


Mary, the mother of Sylvester Poff


Sylvester, born in about 1846, farmed at Mountnicholas.  He married Ann, daughter of Philip Sugrue of Caher, and four children were born at Mountnicholas.5 They might have lived a good if anonymous life, as had their ancestors before them.  However, the birth of their son James at Dromultan in 1882, during the time of the Land War, revealed a dramatic change in circumstances.6


In July 1881, Mr and Mrs Poff and their children aged 6, 8, 9 and 11 had been evicted.7 The event was reported in the press:


On Tuesday morning a large party of police under Sub-Inspector Holmes accompanied Mr Wm Harnett, sub-sheriff, to Mount-nicholas near Ballymacelligott on the property of Mr Arthur Blennerhassett, DL, to evict a tenant named Silvester Poff for non-payment of rent.  The expedition met with no resistance or obstruction and the bailiffs, headed by Arthur Leary, of local celebrity, accomplished their task in a few minutes.  Poff, having given up possession quietly and himself and his family having procured shelter from a neighbour, the sheriff and party of police returned to Tralee about 2 pm, leaving the bailiffs in charge of the evicted premises. 8


It was said that families affected were ‘living in huts in the vicinity of the farms from which they had been evicted’.   Poff was far from alone.  Mr M Brick, a member of the Tralee Board of Guardians, reckoned that ‘there was not a tenant in the townlands of Ashhill, Clashatlea, Gortatlea, Thurly and  Arabella who was not under notice of eviction’.9


Poff assured of help


Poff approached the Land League for help and was assured that there was a great case against his landlord, and that the league would give all the help it could. 10  It can only be imagined how Poff, with a wife and young family to support, reacted to this situation, made worse by the installation of a caretaker on his farm by land agent, S M Hussey. 11


Poff looked on helplessly when in August, Edward Collins, a farmer from Ballymacelligott, reaped the crops on his old farm for the land agent. 12  In November 1881, Poff was arrested under the Coercion Act, charged with ‘reasonably suspected of attacking dwelling houses at night’. 13


He was taken in the early morning hours and put on the 6 am train to Clonmel prison under armed escort. 14  Poff was in good company, for more than three hundred arrests were made that year including John Dillon, MP.15


But for a short parole in March 1882 when ‘the farmers and labourers of the district assembled on Poff’s farm and in the course of a few hours planted his potatoes and oats’, he remained in prison for about eight months, until about July of 1882.16


After his release


Poff’s first cousin, James Barrett, lived at Dromultan, some miles distant from Poff’s old holding at Mountnicholas, and a mile or so from the village of Scartaglen.  Barrett was a single man in his twenties, and a neighbour of father-of-five Thomas Browne, a man about 50 years of age, and with whom he was on good terms.17


On Tuesday 3 October 1882, Poff, Barrett, and a man named John Dunleavy met in Patrick Fitzgerald’s haggard at Dromultan at about midday.  Poff, who with Barrett intended hunting for rabbits, had a large black sheepdog with him which showed its affection by continually jumping up at him.  Patrick Fitzgerald and his cousin had gone to Castleisland. Poff, Barrett and Dunleavy went on to Scartaglen, where a letter awaited collection.18


As they left Fitzgerald’s haggard, Dunleavy, the son of a tenant on Captain Fagan’s Estate at Dromulton, informed them it was a bad place to be that day as he had heard the night before that Thomas Browne was to be shot.19  On the way to Scartaglen, the men met another neighbour of Barrett’s, Bridget Brosnan, one of the old women of the country who went about from house to house.20


There was a large number of strangers in the village of Scartaglen that day as the funeral of Dr Roche from Listowel passed through.  Poff, Barrett and Dunleavy met a man named Bartholomew O’Brien and went drinking in Mr M O’Leary’s public house.21


From there they went to Hugh O’Connor’s, whose house was the post office, and they played cards.  Later, they had drinks in Horan’s public house and then they separated.  Dunleavy remained in the pub; Poff and Barrett left with the dog in tow.  Poff and Barrett were seen by some schoolboys going in the direction of their houses about a mile away from Browne’s farm.


Scartaglen village today


It was not long after this that two men dressed in long black coats ‘going below their knees’ were seen in altercation with Thomas Browne in his field at Dromultan during which he was shot dead.  Captain Thomas F Spring held an inquest at Browne’s residence that evening. 22


Mrs Brosnan gave evidence at the inquest that she saw three men in Browne’s field that day.  It was said she did not name them, but no notes were taken.  On examination on Thursday 12 October, Mrs Brosnan, after consultation with her curate, Rev Father Scollard, had changed her story.  She claimed that she had seen two men, not three, and that they were Poff and Barrett.  On this ‘evidence’, Poff and Barrett were arrested on the evening of the 12th, Poff at Gortatlea and Barrett at Dromultan.23


Artist’s impression of old Barrett home at Dromultan


A private investigation was held in Castleisland the following day, Friday 13 October, before Hon T Plunkett, special resident magistrate, and Heffernan Considine, resident magistrate.24 Mrs Brosnan was examined.  Almost exclusively based on her statement, Poff and Barrett were charged with being concerned in the murder of Thomas Browne and remanded to Castleisland Bridewell.


On Monday 16 October a magisterial inquiry was conducted at Castleisland Constabulary Barracks before Heffernan Considine, RM; Redmond Roche, JP, Maglass and Sub Inspector Davis were also in attendance.  Poff, Barrett and Dunleavy were brought from Tralee jail but only Poff and Barrett were brought up.  Bartholomew O’Brien was examined.  The inquiry was adjourned to Thursday 19 October in Tralee pending further investigations.


By the time of the adjourned hearing on Thursday, Dunleavy had been arrested on the charge of conspiracy to murder. The police had been searching for him for ten days.25


The evidence of Mrs Brosnan was read.  It was observed that one of the prisoners had ‘let a bucket of water down her chimney last winter and she would remember it for him’.26  Nonetheless, the evidence of Mrs Brosnan, who was described by some as a rogue, was sufficient to proceed with prosecution.


The Trials


On 14 December 1882 at the Munster winter assizes, Poff and Barrett were indicted for the wilful murder of Thomas Browne.  The following day, the charges against them were outlined, and the evidence of Mrs Brosnan was again stated before the jury.  Poff was allowed to speak briefly though he was rapidly and strongly advised to remain silent.  ‘It was I got Dunleavy arrested,’ he said, ‘I need not be in dread of him.  I know he must have information’.27


The jury could not agree.  Justice Barry enquired if there was any chance of the jury agreeing, but the foreman replied, ‘not the slightest’.28  The jury was discharged.


The following week, on Wednesday 20 December, Poff and Barrett were put forward again on the charge of wilful murder before a new ‘special jury’.  During the second trial, Considine produced statements made by Poff and Barrett which had been withheld from the first trial to the effect they had, at the outset, admitted to being in Fitzgerald’s haggard.  The case was adjourned to the following day when the defence highlighted the absence of motive:


What was there in the case to incriminate them?  There was nothing in their antecedents or relations in the district to suggest that they would be the men guilty of the crime.  The Crown could assign no motive except that Browne had become landlord of the two Fitzgeralds.  But the prisoners were not connected with those men and there was no motive whatever for committing the crime.29


On Friday 22 December, the jury was charged by Judge Barry.  They were directed that if they had any reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the accused they should discharge their duty and ‘not allow the assassins go back to the scene of their slaughter and crime’.


Poff’s dying declaration


If an example was needed for the increasing agrarian crime in the district, the jury returned the desired result: guilty.  Barrett protested that he had never handled a gun or revolver in his life and that they were under sentence of death ‘for no reason in the world … I never injured a hair on a man’s head’.   Poff said he was ‘no more guilty than our Saviour’, maintaining that he had nothing to do with the murder.  ‘We are as innocent as you are,’ he informed the judge,


Poff and Barrett were sentenced to be hanged in Tralee on 23 January 1883.  Archdeacon O’Leary of Castleisland, then parish priest of Ballymacelligott, visited Poff in his cell a few days before his execution and on the following Sunday, addressing his congregation, likened Poff’s cell to that of ‘a dying nun’.30  A petition for their reprieve was numerously and influentially signed without effect.


Barrett’s dying declaration


Their conduct while awaiting execution in Tralee jail was described as ‘exemplary’.  The journey of Poff and Barrett’s loved ones to say goodbye was still fresh in the public mind thirty years after their executions:


I can recall the scene at the railway station on that memorable Saturday evening with Mrs Poff snr and Mrs Poff jnr leaning on my arms supported by the late Michael Lyons and others on their way through the streets to the station to say farewell to Poff and Barrett.  The scene has left impressions on my mind that time and changes cannot remove.  Strong men and women wept.31


After the executions


Six years after the executions, Edward Harrington MP of the Kerry Sentinel spoke at the Parnell Commission.  He said:


I do not think there was a particle of evidence against Poff.  He was hanged, judicially murdered I say, and I do not think there is a man in Kerry who believes he was guilty.  I am on my oath, and I say solemnly I believe he was as innocent as any man in this court.


Harrington was asked if he thought it proper to proclaim the innocence of a convicted man and he replied, ‘Yes, if a man has sufficient facts to justify the opinion he states.  I know the written declaration he left after him, and I know what he said on the scaffold’.32


In 1884, an artillery-man named Boden stationed at the Curragh camp confessed to murdering Browne while stationed in Castleisland but it seems not to have been taken seriously.33


Mrs Ann Poff was left to raise her family.  Her daughter Johanna (Hanna) Poff died on 20 March 1899 and 18 year old James died on 3 October 1900.34 Mrs Poff died at Castleisland on Good Friday, March 1910.  She was laid to rest in Ballymacelligott.35


Earlier this year (2018), a BBC documentary, Murder, Mystery and My Family featured the nineteenth century murder case of John Twiss of Castleisland.  In the programme, Twiss was tried by modern methods and found innocent of the crime for which he was hanged.36


It seems probable that the trials of Sylvester Poff and James Barrett, if put to the same process, would find the same verdicts.


A Poff and Barrett Ballad


The gas lights flickered and inn-signs flapped along the murky quay,

As I left the crowded courthouse in the fading winter day;

But the damp and the chill of the river mist, and the rain in the gusty wind,

Were naught to me as I struggled to lose that picture on my mind.

Yet, try as I might, it held its place on the silver screen of the brain,

And as I moved through the gathering dusk I lived it all again.

I saw once more the watching crowd, and the peelers grim and tall,

And the scarlet coats of the soldiery, and, there, brooding over all,

The black-capped judge who spoke the words that I heard with stifled breath,

And I shed a tear, though they showed no fear when he sentenced them to death.


In the guarded dock they stood straight and square, and never a muscle moved

When he said that they, one October day, had done what had there been proved;

That they would hang on a hempen rope until they both were dead,

And solemn and slow, and cold and low were the dreadful words he said.

In the pregnant silence of the court I quivered awhile with fear,

Then brushed from my cheek the salty tang of that unmanly tear,

For the men of Dromoulton were not afraid and Poff spoke loud and strong

When he swore by the God Who made him that he had done no wrong.

And proud the look and stern the stare with which he nobly met

The gaze of Barry who sat up there and who sentenced him to death.


The younger Barrett was no less brave than his cousin of Palatine blood,

With his shoulders back and his head erect in the dock he firmly stood,

No film of fright in his clear young eyes, no frown on his youthful brow,

As he said he never fired a shot and never, he swore, knew how.

Full, like the song of the gurgling Flesk, was his accent when he spoke;

Full, and free, and fearless, and never once it broke,

But rang, like Poff’s, through the crowded room, with a ring that was clear and true,

For they were to die, they swore by God, for a deed they did not do.

And deep in the press of the listening throng more eyes than mine were wet

When Barry donned the sombre cap and sentenced them to death.


And who can say what thoughts were theirs or whether their minds went back,

Across the hills and vales of Cork to a well-remembered track.

O’er a mountain slope where, in days gone by, they watched the sun go down,

And throw long shadows through the vale, where Castleisland town

Held fast to Fenianism and nursed the Land League seed;

Where, as years went by, there did not die the dauntless Moonlight breed;

Where they could understand a man who did not strain or fret

When, in a stranger’s city, he stood face to face with death.37



1 It lies in the parish of Ballymacelligott, and borders the larger townland of Flemby, and nearby Cahermore, where the Poff family were recorded in tithe and Griffiths Valuation records.

2 At the time of their marriage on 28 February 1843 in the RC church of Currow (parish of Killeentierna) William’s Poff’s address was Dromoulton.  Poff was a Protestant and Mary a Catholic.  Both remained devout to their respective faiths but their children were raised Catholics. 

3 Katie O’Sullivan (née Poff), Sylvester’s sister, died in Cambridge, USA, in March 1940.

4 William Murphy Poff, born in 1818, died in 1864.  Mary Poff lived to the grand old age of 96.  She died at her residence in Castleisland in 1911.  An image of her accompanied an obituary in the Sunday Independent, 4 June 1911.

5 Sylvester Poff married Ann in Ballymacelligott RC church in February 1875.  The children born at Mountnicholas were Mary (16 November 1875), Johanna (22 March 1877), William (4 December 1878), and Helen (29 April 1880). 

6 James F Poff was born on 30 July 1882.  Their relations the Barretts lived at Dromultan, a townland in the parish of Killeentierna.

7 The family was evicted from the Ballyseedy Estate of Arthur Blennerhassett in July 1881. ‘A very bitter feeling is said to prevail between the tenantry and Mr S M Hussey, the agent and the officials under him on the estate’ (Freeman’s Journal, 29 June 1882).

8 Kerry Independent, 14 July 1881.

9 It was reckoned that 192 families were evicted in Kerry in 1881.

10 Irish Examiner, 18 July 1881.  Poff approached the league in Tralee.

11 It was a dangerous undertaking to act as caretaker for they were seen as aiding evicting landlords.  Caretakers risked being warned, shot at, boycotted and murdered.  In June 1882, 60-year-old father of three, Patrick Cahill of Lisardboula, a caretaker of evicted farms including Poff’s, was shot dead.  He was at the time under police protection.  He had worked on the Ballyseedy Estate for thirty years though not regularly.  He had accepted the job of caretaker on a wage of nine shillings per week when the Tralee Board of Guardians refused him outdoor relief.  A man named John Brosnan of Flemby was arrested on suspicion of complicity in the murder though ‘there seems to be no grounds for the accusation against him’.

12 Edward Collins summonsed Poff and claimed that on his way home from the farm from which Poff had been evicted, while under police guard and in the company of a bailiff named Stack, Poff had threatened him with a crop of a whip.  The case was dismissed.  See Irish Examiner, 6 September 1881.

13 ‘Following Poff’s eviction, the caretaker was shot at and Poff was sent to prison as a ‘suspect’ and while imprisoned, another caretaker was installed, Michael Brosnan, who was also fired at and his ribs kicked in’ (The Sporting Times, 8 December 1888).

14 Poff was apprehended at the same time as Cornelius O’Sullivan and Patrick Driscoll of Ashhill (on whose evicted farm a caretaker named Clifford had been shot in the legs).  Some reports stated Poff was imprisoned in Clonmel, others that he was held in Limerick.  The Tralee Board of Guardians awarded outdoor relief to the families of O’Sullivan, Driscoll and Poff in November 1881. 

15 A complete alphabetical list of names of those imprisoned appeared in the press at this time and numbered 334.  See Irish Times, 6 December 1881 or Kildare Observer, 10 December 1881.  Another tenant of Mountnicholas, George E Marshall (some reports stated Simpson) was released at the end of 1881 after 30 weeks in Kilmainham because of impaired health.  He was re-arrested in January 1882 for inciting people not to pay rent and imprisoned in Clonmel.

16 Kerry Independent, 23 March 1882.  The Tralee Board of Guardians awarded outdoor relief to the families of Poff and Patrick Driscoll in March 1882.

17 Browne had two sons and three daughters, the eldest 18 and the youngest aged eight.  It was noted at the trial that Browne was a kind man who frequently helped his neighbours with farm work.  Browne and two men named Fitzgerald had been tenants of Colonel Rowan, who was resident in Australia. Browne had purchased his farm from Rowan for £1,500 and the Fitzgeralds had become tenants under him.  It was feared that Browne was going to turn them out.  ‘It was well known that an unfriendly feeling existed between Browne and the Fitzgeralds’ (Cork Examiner, 21 December 1882).

18 Reports differ as to who was the collect the letter.

19 In 1885, tenants on the Fagan Estate numbered between forty and fifty.

20 Some reports spelt her name Brosnahan.   In one she was named as Margaret Brosnan.  She was aged about 70 and lived alone.

21 At the trial, it was stated that Thomas Browne came into the public house for change of half a sovereign and a newspaper.  The publican noticed nothing unusual exchanged between the parties.

22 The jury was Messrs James Roche, foreman; J A Bonguelimi; E Browne, M Prendiville, M Moynihan,  G Fleming, D Connor, Hugh  Connor, A Barrett, M Sheehy, James Riordan, D J Reidy, David Connor, John Kerin, J Scannell, M Scannell, Michael Keane.  See Freeman’s Journal, 5 October 1882.

23 Some reports mentioned that Poff had acquired the grazing on a farm at Dromultan and that he was arrested there.  At the special commission heard in 1888, Mrs Johanna Browne stated that James Barrett was a nearby neighbour but that she did not know where Poff lived. 

24 The Considine Papers held at the National Library of Ireland (Collection List No 125) contains ‘a report on the execution of Poff and Barrett for the murder of Timothy Brown (sic)’ (MS 43,080 /2).

25 Dunleavy was further remanded but released after six weeks.  If he knew the identity of the murderers, he never said and left the country before the trial. Griffith’s Valuation records Jeremiah Dunleavy in the townland of Dromultan in the 1850s.  On the day of the murder, Dunleavy was in Scartaglen when news of it reached the village and he asked a soldier on protection duty there, in whose company he was, to take out his book and make a note Dunleavy was with him at that hour.

26 ‘Great interest was manifested in the case.  The investigation was held in the Grand Jury Room, County Courthouse, and was strictly private, the representatives of the press being denied all facilities for obtaining information with regard to it’ (Kerry Independent, 23 October 1882).

27 Irish Examiner, 16 December 1882.  ‘From the beginning, Poff was denouncing Dunleavy who, he said, could tell all about the murder and who committed it’ – statement by Considine under cross examination (Cork Examiner, 21 December 1882).

28 ‘The case should stand or fall on the evidence of Bridget Brosnan’ (Irish Examiner, 16 December 1882).

29 Freeman’s Journal, 22 December 1882.  Mrs Browne herself said that Poff and Barrett were the last men she would suspect of shooting her husband.  ‘No motive was assigned for the murder except that Browne excited the envy of some people who were formerly co-tenants with him … why the condemned men should have committed the crime is not at all apparent.  Poff was an ‘ex-suspect’ and an evicted tenant from another district while Barrett was a cousin of his; these circumstances in themselves do not go to form any motive for the dreadful crime.  The men admitted that they were near the place at the time of the murder, that they had heard another man named Dunleavy say that morning ‘that there would be bad work that day’ but they denied any knowledge of the murder or who committed it’ (Belfast Newsletter, 1 June 1889). 

30 IE MOD/86.  See page ‘Browne, Poff and Barrett’ for an account of the trial and execution.  See also IE MOD/C18 which contains an account of the trial by Michael Culloty.

31 Recollection from a ‘Castleisland Correspondent’ who wrote to the local press in 1911.  

32 Belfast Newsletter, 1 June 1889.  Harrington calculated the number of evictions in Kerry as follows: 1879: 70 families; 1880: 191; 1881: 192; 1882: 293; 1883: 403; 1884: 410; 1885: 358; 1886: 538.  Allowing six to a family, which was conservative, he reckoned a total of 16,854 persons evicted.  He further stated this was only cases reported to the police and did not include notices given to the Board of Guardians.  He was questioned about Thomas Browne, who was said to have been boycotted by the Castleisland branch of the Land League for taking a farm from which a woman had been evicted.  Harrington stated that Browne failed to attend a meeting of the Land League about the matter and so an indignation meeting was held at Browne’s door to demonstrate the public feeling against his actions.  Harrington was asked if Poff was in the pay of the League and he replied, ‘never’ (Belfast Newsletter, 1 June 1889).

33 In response it was stated that there was no such man on the police books in Castleisland.  It was believed locally that the real killers were Jack ‘Cathy’ Connor and George Twiss, a captain of the Cordal Moonlighters and something of a hired gun.  The two were said to have been offered £10 by a tenant named Fitzgerald who feared that Browne was going to evict him (ref: IE MOD/55/55.1/55.1.223(2)). 

34 Both were buried in Ballymacelligott.  It is thought that William Poff died in infancy. Michael O’Donohoe’s records show that Mary (10) Hanna (5) and Ellie (3) attended the Castleisland Convent School to 1891, 1894, and 1896 respectively.  Two boys, John and James Poff, whose mother was a widow, attended the Convent Boys 1883-87 and 1886-91.  His record also shows Mary Poff, 4 Killarney Road Castleview, in the rates records of 1897 (IE MOD/55/55.1/55.1.222). 

35 Poff descendants remain in the Castleisland district; O’Donohoe Project treasurer Tomo Burke numbers among them.  Mrs Poff’s daughter, Helen (otherwise Ellen or Elsie) Poff married Thomas Lawlor, a butcher in Castleisland, and had a family of twelve.  Their offspring is listed in collection document in IE MOD/C18.  Helen Lawlor died at her home in Castleisland on 10 November 1951. Thomas Lawlor died in May 1958 and was buried in New Kilbannivane, Castleisland. 

A valuable genealogical document, Poff Family Tree from James and Johanna Poff to the present (1994) by Sister Marie Poff, which includes a brief history of the family name and the Palatinate, is contained in the O’Donohoe Collection (IE MOD/C18).  The book focuses on the extensive family tree of James Poff of New Zealand with images.  James married Johanna Brosnahan on 6 December 1875 in Timaru.  Johanna was born in Castleisland on 14 December 1854, the eldest child of Michael Brosnahan and Margaret Collins (seven of her siblings later emigrated but the youngest two died during the voyage.  Her sister Margaret married Kerryman John Spring and they had sixteen children, an image of the family taken in 1904 appears in the book). 

James and Johanna settled at Pinedale and had a family of sixteen children, ten sons and six daughters, eleven of whom reached adulthood (an image of the surviving six sons and five daughters –  Kate, Eily, Mary (Nain), Joan, Margaret (Peg), Mick, Frank, Bill, Sylvester, Leo and Jim –  taken in 1926 appears in the book).  They retired to Methven c1920 to a house they called Kilfilem House.  James died in 1926, Johanna in 1943.

Held also in IE MOD/C18 is Poff Genealogy from James and Johanna Poff to the present (2001) by Rob Haughey which contains the comprehensive family tree of the sixteen children of James and Johanna with an index.

36 The documentary makers contacted the Michael O’Donohoe Memorial Heritage Project in this regard, after learning of the case on the O’Donohoe website.

37 One of two Poff and Barrett ballads held in IE MOD/C18.  The second, Poff and Barrett Ballad (16 stanzas) was published in 1955.   It begins: ‘Come on you lovers one and all,/And listen unto me,/A mournful execution that happened in Tralee.  O’Donohoe record IE MOD/55/55.1.223 attributes the song to national school teacher, Daniel O’Brien, a witness at the trial.