‘A universal belief in the innocence of the prisoners prevails in this county’
On Tuesday 23 January 1883, the day of the execution of Sylvester Poff and James Barrett, the shops in Castleisland remained closed all day, as a mark of sympathy with the condemned men. The situation was the same in Tralee, the town in which Poff and Barrett would meet their end.1
A guard of the 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment was on duty in the prison. A detachment patrolled round the prison. At about 8am, Poff and Barrett were accompanied to the scaffold by Rev Humphrey O’Riordan, chaplain of the prison, and Rev E O’Callaghan CC, assistant chaplain.2
Few were party to their last moments, but we know that Poff and Barrett walked with a firm step and faced their dreadful doom without any apparent fear.3 Outside the prison, the hoisting of a black flag was the only sign given to the families and friends in the crowd outside that the two men were dead.
In Castleisland, a large funeral procession met the loved ones of the two deceased men on the arrival of the train from Tralee. A solemn spectacle; there were no bodies to lay to rest. Two young men had been taken from them without reason, and the sense of injustice was overwhelming.
Heartache, anger, vengeance, all quickly found expression in the songs and the ballads of the people. One of the earliest laments was written two days after their sentence was carried out. It was published in the Kerry Independent and painted a touching scene of Poff and Barrett’s final moments, their declarations of innocence, of the pain endured by their loved ones at the sight of the black flag.4
The Execution of Poff and Barrett They stood upon the scaffold high, The sentence of the law, And on their way they raised a cry Of innocence, ’twould thaw The icy hearts of those who gloat To see our brave men all Dispers’d and by a strong hand smote, To see them lifeless fall. “Upon the brink of death we stand,” Now speak the guiltless pair, “And not for love of fatherland,” Shall we a falsehood swear. We never did that frightful crime, We call to God on high – For which we suffer in our prime, For which we now must die. Nor hand, nor act, nor part had we In that most dread affair; Our conscience from that sin is free We solemnly declare; Nor do we know who did the deed For which we now must pay, For which our broken hearts must yield Their last faint drop away. O Lord! Before thy Throne we soon Shall tremblingly appear, Grant us this last and greatest boon ’Twill fill us with good cheer – Grant us the grace to pardon all Who brought us to this plight! We do! And now we heed your call, With hearts both pure and light. No more! In death their lips are seal’d Now silence holds full sway; But shall the wounds be ever heal’d Which bled that doleful day? Shall mother fond or faithful wife That hoisted flag forget, Which told them of the ended life Of those for whom they fret? Alas! Alas! Some wretched pen Obeys a brutal brain, And trys by artifice, again To add contempt to pain; This scribe, this vile and heartless man, (If man he be at all,) Now seeks by diabolic plan Man’s reason to enthral. He would, indeed, the public show The Roman Church’s law, Although he says he does not know The “ins and outs” – ha! ha! Yet still he holds that Church can well, By “mystifying” the mind, Advise her sons a lie to tell, And then salvation find.5 Enough for me, my task is done, Hard comments are in vain; As long as shines the beaming sun, Dark mem’ries will remain; The scene enacted in our sight, Would melt a heart of stone, in shame, and rage, and awful fright, I leave this theme alone.6
The author was not named, but it was almost certainly Henry Brassill, founder and proprietor of the newspaper, who wrote songs and stories.7 Indeed, Henry Brassill numbered among the deputation of Tralee Town Commissioners who had called on Patrick Hayes Esq, Chairman of the Tralee Town Commissioners, two weeks earlier, to adopt a memorial to the Lord Lieutenant for the reprieve of Poff and Barrett.8
Three petitions had been sent to the Lord Lieutenant on Thursday 11 January, one from the Tralee Board of Guardians, a second from the Tralee Town Commissioners, and a third from the public at large, organised by Mr M J Horgan, solicitor for the prisoners. It was understood that the Bishop of Kerry had also signed the document.
Fr O’Riordan addressed his concerns directly to Charles Robert Barry, the judge, who alluded to the chaplain’s concerns in a report to the Lord Lieutenant:
I have, with the permission of the writer, submitted of His Excellency a voluminous letter addressed to me by the chaplain of the Tralee prison, to my notes on which (also forwarded to His Excellency) I beg to refer – some of the statements in that letter being of matters entirely outside the evidence of the trial may possibly induce His Excellency to make some enquiries of the relevant officials of the district.8a
It was all in vain. In reply, John Poyntz Spencer, the Lord Lieutenant, held that ‘the law must take its course.’ 9
Poff’s mother and widow would remind the Lord Lieutenant of his decision the following year, when he entered the town of Castleisland on his way to visit Lord Listowel at Gurtenard, Listowel. They displayed a black flag from the door of their house, ‘Remember Poff and Barrett.’
Poff and Barrett: the campaign to clear their names
Ellen Poff, Sylvester’s daughter, was but two years old at the time of her father’s execution. In 1910, she inherited Poff family documents, which she kept in a box under her bed.10 Sadly, if not tragically, the documents were lost. 11
The Michael O’Donohoe Memorial Heritage Project is preparing a case for the presidential pardons of Sylvester Poff and James Barrett. In this respect, the O’Donohoe Project invites additional documentation regarding both men in support of its application. If you can help, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Derry Journal, 24 January 1883 and Sligo Champion, 27 January 1883. 2 They had also been visited by Dean Coffey and Rev Father O’Leary, parish priest of Ballymacelligott. The Very Rev Canon O’Riordan, parish priest of Cahirciveen, died suddenly in the sacristy of the O’Connell Memorial Church on Monday 23 June 1913 after celebrating morning mass. He was 68 years old. ‘The death of Canon Humphrey O’Riordan of Caherciveen removes from the diocese of Kerry one of its most distinguished priests. Canon O’Riordan was not only a great priest, but a sincere and thorough Irish Nationalist. Two features of his life’s work will for ever make his name revered in the annals of Kerry. When curate in Tralee it was his duty to have to attend, as chaplain, Poff and Barrett, who were executed in the County Jail, in the height of the land war. It is only one who lived in Tralee at that time, and who was acquainted with the circumstances, could recognise the almost feverish zeal with which Father O’Riordan, as he then was, attended the condemned men. The belief in the innocence of those men was held strongly and we believe rightly. As a churchman, Canon O’Riordan’s name will always stand out prominently as the completer of the O’Connell Memorial Church, Caherciveen. That gigantic work must have made sad inroads on his health. However, he faced the duty imposed on him with unflinching courage, a courage that was the admiration of all his brother priests. So long as a stone rests on a stone of this magnificent church, the name of Canon Humphrey O’Riordan will be handed from sire to son as a man who performed a noble and a successful work. As a preacher Canon O’Riordan had few equals. He had a wonderful fluency; but that fluency never tended towards the commonplace. His language was choice and classical; and the earnestness with which he delivered it made an impression on all who heard him. In private life he was almost an ascetic; and the priestly qualities for which he was distinguished will long be remembered by all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance. In political affairs, although he did not take any ostentatious part, he held very strong – indeed, advanced views; and in losing him under what may be called tragic circumstances, Ireland has lost an earnest and devoted son and the church has lost a priest of great piety, intellect and energy’ (Kerry People, 28 June 1913). ‘It is now close on 13 years since Canon O’Riordan was transferred from Lixnaw to Cahirciveen and it would be difficult to exaggerate all he has since accomplished towards the completion of the O’Connell Memorial Church … Canon O’Riordan, who was a native of Millstreet, Co Cork, was ordained on June 24th 1872 and was appointed to a professorship in Carlow College, from which he was transferred the following year, as professor, to St Brendan’s, Killarney. He subsequently laboured as curate in Castleisland, Tralee, and Dromod and as a parish priest in Ballylongford and Lixnaw, and was promoted from the latter parish to Cahirciveen. The obsequies will be celebrated on Thursday after which the interment will take place in the grounds of the O’Connell Memorial Church’ (Irish Independent, 24 June 1913). Photographs of the funeral of Canon O’Riordan were published in The Cork Examiner, 27 June 1913. The following lines by Alexander Cole were published in the Killarney Echo, 28 June 1913: Still are the wheels of life, strenuous labor past,/Thy lot well chosen, and die well cast,/The noble object thou hadst in view,/Accomplished, and for generations new,/While ages roll and seasons pass,/In this grand church thy memory ever lasts. 3 Derry Journal, 24 January 1883. 4 The Execution of Poff and Barrett was written on 25 January 1883 and published in the Kerry Independent on 29 January 1883. 5 This and the preceding verse was aimed at the author who reported on the executions in the Kerry Evening Post, 24 January 1883, and wrote: ‘We do not know all the ins and outs of the confessional of the Roman Catholic Church and the sins for which absolution can be given but we have it on good authority that a man about to die on the scaffold, though guilty of the crime for which he is convicted, can by some mystifying process connected with the confessional imagine himself innocent.’ 6 The first four verses of this lament were reproduced in the Kerryman, 10 December 1955. 7 The paper was founded in 1880 and folded in 1884. Henry Brassill, latterly editor of the East Ham Recorder, died in London in 1922. ‘Mr Brassil had been for many years working in his profession in another land but there must be many still in Tralee who remember him when he was connected with the old Tralee Chronicle and when he was afterwards editor and proprietor of the Kerry Independent. He lived in the stirring times of the Land League and like many other good Irishmen of that period he saw the inside of a British jail. With Tim Harrington, Michael Power, Michael L Lyons, Thomas O’Rourke, John Kelly and John Talbot, he was arrested for holding an illegal court in the Land League Rooms, The Mall, Tralee but after considerable delay and an experience of all the tricks of which the Crown prosecutors of the day were capable, the charge fizzled out. At the time the triumph of the traversers was celebrated in verse by a local ballad singer, and the following was the refrain of his song: ‘Then here’s to Lyons and Harrington brave,/O’Rourke and Talbot ne’er afraid,/Kelly, Power and Brassil too,/The heroes of our Nation.’ In the foreign capital Mr Brassil held for a considerable time the responsible position of London Editor of the Catholic Times. His work brought him into contact with the chief dignitaries of the Catholic Church in England, by whom he was highly respected. He never forgot his native county and when he met the writer, or in fact anyone from the Kingdom in a visit to London, he made the most minute inquiries regarding old friends and discoursed on old times with an evident zest. He was a fine large-hearted Kerryman, and the sincerest sympathy will be felt for his wife and family in their great bereavement. His wife, we should state, is a member of a well-known North Kerry family’ (Kerry People, 15 July 1922). Mr Brassill was described as a West Kerryman. 8 Other TC names included Michael L Lyons, Daniel Hickey, Michael B Stokes, Wm McCarthy, John R Hayes, MD; James Casey, Thomas Lyons, Laurence Hickey, Patrick Divane, Thomas O’Regan, Thomas O’Rourke, Robert McCowan, John Kelly, John Power, PLG. Other names James Foley, Cornelius O’Sullivan, John Collins, Florence O’Sullivan, David Tuomey, Thomas Tuomey, B O’Connor Horgan, solicitor; Thomas Galvin, Michael Walsh, Denis Barrett, Peter Murray, VS; Thomas Morris, Patrick Reidy, John Talbot, Rice E[?] Poyntz, Cornelius Corcoran, William Brick, Edward Murphy, Daniel Sullivan, jnr; R G Bolster, David Allman, Robert Buckley, Daniel McKenna, D P O’Sullivan, Jeremiah Brosnan, Patrick Slattery, Timothy O’Riordan, jnr; Edward Harrington, Kerry Sentinel; Jeremiah Riordan, Thomas Barrett, Edmond Slattery, Maurice Landers, Michael Jones, Charles Falvey, John C O’Callaghan, Patrick O’Sullivan. Ref: Kerry Evening Post, 10 January 1883. 8a IE MOD/C69. Justice Barry to Lord Lieutenant John Poyntz Earl Spencer in his report of the trials of Poff and Barrett dated 16 January 1883. 9 The Town Clerk in Tralee received a reply from the Lord Lieutenant shortly before the sentence was carried out that ‘having inquired into the circumstances of the case, he was sorry that he could not interfere, and that the law should take its course’. It caused ‘profound regret … A universal belief in the innocence of the prisoners prevails in the county and probably it is this circumstances that has given rise to the painful disappointment which has been caused here by the refusal of the sub-sheriff to permit the representatives of the press to be present at the executions’ (Freeman’s Journal, 23 January 1883). 10 Elsie married Thomas Lawlor, and had a large family of twelve children including Annie, known as Bonnie (1908-1992) who married Tomo Burke, senior, father of Tomo Burke, Treasurer of the O’Donohoe Project. Elsie Lawlor died on 10 November 1951; Thomas Lawlor died in May 1958. 11 The documents were loaned to a local publication about 70 years ago but never returned to the family.