Poff and Barrett: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

The arrest of Sylvester Poff and James Barrett is not regarded by the public as being 
of any importance and it is looked upon as being in the ordinary course of matters[1]

Thomas Browne was murdered at Dromultan, Co Kerry on 3 October 1882.  As far as can be ascertained, the murder took place at about 5pm.[2]  On the day of the murder, Sylvester Poff and James Barrett had been drinking in the village of Scartaglen.  There was a large number of strangers in the village that day as the funeral of Dr Roche from Listowel passed through.


They drank first in Michael O’Leary’s public house and from there went to Hugh O’Connor’s, whose house was the post office, and they played cards.  Later, they had drinks in John Horan’s public house before they left with a dog in tow, intending to hunt rabbits.[3]


No time was given for Poff and Barrett’s departure from Horan’s public house.  James Barrett, in his witness statement, showed that they waited on a ditch for John Dunleavy and when he did not appear, they went on their way.[4]


The evidence of Maurice Healy, who was examined at the trial, helped to plot the route next taken by Poff and Barrett and an approximate time.  Healy stated that he lived about half way between the house in which Browne lived and the village of Scartaglin.  He had seen Poff, Barrett and Dunleavy going to Scartaglen that day at about midday.  Poff wanted to buy cabbages from him but he had none to sell.  They were not dressed in black, they were dressed in their working clothes.  Healy saw them pass by again about half past four or five o’clock; the reason he knew it was about that hour was because a postman (who generally passed by his door about four o’clock) had passed his house shortly before.


From Healy’s, Poff and Barrett and the black ‘shepherd’ dog went across the field, not towards Browne’s house, but in an opposite direction, through O’Connor’s land.


Civil Engineer Robert Denny (1843-1888) produced the map of the crime scene for the trial.  It focuses entirely on the evidence of Bridget Brosnan


A short time after this Poff and Barrett met three schoolboys, Redmond, Maurice and Bryan Connor returning home from Kilsarcon National School.  The boys lived about a mile from the house of James Barrett.[5]  The brothers were running late from school that day.[6]


It was soon after passing Poff and Barrett that the schoolboys witnessed the murder of Thomas Browne.  The field in which Browne was working at the time of the murder was about 150 yards from his own house. Two public roads ran at either side of the field at a distance of about 40 yards at each side.


Redmond Connor, a teenager, had been walking ahead of his two brothers.  He gave evidence at the inquest held at Dromultan the day after the murder:


I am between fourteen and fifteen years, and am a farmer’s son attending school; was returning home from school about five o’clock that evening; the reason I was so late was that the Inspector is coming next Monday, and I was kept late; I was in front of my two brothers; when I got near the turn of the road where Mr Brown was shot, I saw Mr Brown coming from the meadow into the field where I saw him shot.[7]


Redmond described events:


Mr Brown came through a gap; I saw two men facing him with their backs to the road, and Mr Brown was facing the road; the two men faced Mr Brown and appeared as if they were speaking a few words to him; I then saw the deceased taking off his hat, and going back a few steps, the two men following him; I then saw the men firing either two or three shots, and Mr Brown staggered and ran a little bit towards the road; the men ran after him and fired one or two shots more at his back, and Mr Brown fell.


Redmond went on to describe how he saw the two men running away:


The two men wore long blackish coats which went below their knees; I could not say what kind of head-dress they wore; when I saw them first the two men and deceased were standing quite close together, and the two men seemed to be the same size as the deceased; after shooting the deceased they crossed out on the road and walked a little bit on the road and then turned into the field and went into the bog going in the direction of Castleisland.


Redmond was questioned by the coroner, and added a little more detail:


When I saw them first the deceased was walking towards the two men as if he did not suspect anything; I did not suspect they were going to murder the man until they fired; the men did not fire until the deceased man crossed the gap and came up close to them, immediately he took off his hat to them, they fired two or three shots at him, and he staggered and tried to make his way to the road, when the men followed him, and when about two or three yards from him fired at his back and he fell; when he fell they did not fire again or pause, but walked away immediately.


In response to a question from a juror, Redmond, who at no time intimated that he knew the identity of the two men who shot Browne, added:


The men must have something on their faces or I would have seen them; I could not see what kind of hair they had … The men when going away went into Dromulton bog and faced towards Castleisland. I did not attempt to follow them as I was afraid.[8]


When the matter came to trial, Daniel O’Brien, national teacher at Kilsarcon, confirmed that Redmond Connor and his brothers were in school on the day of the murder and that he had kept his boys late at school that day preparing for the Result examinations.[9]   He stated it was four o’clock when the children went away that day.


This allowed about one hour from the children leaving school to their arrival in Dromultan in time to witness the murder of Thomas Browne.


Under examination, Redmond Connor stated that he lived near Browne’s place.  On the day of the murder he left school in the evening, and went home through the fields, and after crossing the river he met Poff and Barrett.  He knew James Barrett but did not know Sylvester Poff.  They were dressed as they were in court and were going towards Cornelius ‘Cud’ Brosnan’s, in a different direction to Browne’s farm.


Redmond Connor got out on the road at the Cross, and saw there Mrs Browne and Bridget Brosnan; and going on, soon after witnessed the murder.[10]


His brother, Maurice Connor, stated that he was with his brother after school that day until they got to the river; Maurice had boots on and his brothers had none so the brother crossed the stream, settled stepping stones for them, and then ran away.  It was at this place Barrett and Poff passed them.   Maurice had remained talking to them a little and then went on; Poff and Barrett went in a southern direction.


Maurice Connor was asked why he had not informed the authorities that he had seen Poff and Barrett that day and why he had not suggested the police should speak to them in case they might know something about the murder and he replied, ‘I never thought of those men at the time, as I know they could not have done it.’


Maurice Connor confirmed that he had not mentioned meeting Poff and Barrett until they were arrested.  He was able to give an estimate of six minutes between meeting Poff and Barrett and the shots being fired at Browne.


On this preciseness of detail, Maurice Connor was called to account.   He informed the court he had walked the route with a watch and timed it and explained that there was a number of police out firing shots and measuring this place and for this reason he had acquired a watch to do the same.[11]


The Connors brothers found themselves in a compromising position for they were both witnesses to the murder and also provided alibi for Poff and Barrett.  The Crown, not doubting that the boys – described as intelligent – had witnessed the murder, did not believe their account of meeting Poff and Barrett.  In fact the police appear to have set about proving how Poff and Barrett, even if seen at the place described by the boys, could still have been guilty.


In a letter written after the trial, Justice Barry conceded that this theory was ‘too speculative’:


As regards the evidence of the Connors boys, two theories were presented by the Crown, one in the opening statement and maintained throughout in cross-examination, namely that the Connors were telling falsehood as to their having met Poff and Barrett at the time and place stated for them, and the other theory that after they had met the prisoners, they (the prisoners) had doubled round and … arrived at the scene of the murder … I confess I thought this latter theory, though perhaps not impossible, too speculative and … too difficult for a jury to accept.[12]


Kilsarcon National School founded 1898; the older school does not survive


Perhaps the most important witness in Poff and Barrett’s defence was Hugh Brosnan who gave evidence that he met and was in company with Poff and Barrett at about five o’clock on the day of the murder.  He was precise about the time.  He deposed that Poff had cattle grazing on his father, Cornelius’s, land.  Poff and Barrett had come to the land for the purpose of looking after the cattle; they had a dog with them and went hunting rabbits. Browne’s farm was about a half a mile from where they were hunting rabbits.  Poff and Barrett were dressed as they were in the dock and did not have black clothes on them.[13]  They went off in a south-westerly direction.


Indeed, Hugh Brosnan’s evidence at the trials was exactly as he had given in his Witness Statement on 20 October 1882 and explains how he was so precise about the time:


I, Hugh Brosnan, of Dromultin, aged about 17 years, say: That I remember the Tuesday on which Thomas Browne was murdered.  I was returning from Knockanane bog to my father’s house at Dromultin, on the evening of that day.  It was about five o’clock as far as I can form an opinion.  I noticed two men coming down the cliff above the river on our land.  When we approached each other I saw that the two men were Sylvester Poff and James Barrett.  Poff looked at two heifers and a calf of his which were grazing on our lands.  After that both Poff and Barrett walked about the cliff along with me.  We were looking for rabbits.  They remained on our land about half an hour from the time that I first met until I heard the noise.  It must have been the train, which I believe leaves Tralee after five o’clock.  We can hear the noise of the train when it is about Currens, and also when it is close to Farranfore.  They remained in our land for a good while after I heard the train.  They remained while we were crossing three fields, hunting for the rabbits after the train passed.[14]


The time element was corroborated by Denis O’Leary, Station Master at Farranfore:


I am the station master at Farranfore.  I keep a record at the station of the arrival and departure of all trains.  I am most particular in keeping this record in an accurate manner.  I find by this record that on the afternoon of Tuesday the 3rd of October the train leaving Tralee at 5.15 and due to arrive here at 5.39 arrived here at the proper time 5.39, and left at 5.41.[15]


The resident magistrate, H F Considine, was recalled and questioned about the evidence given by Brosnan.  Considine stated it would take about 21 minutes to go from where Brosnan described Poff and Barrett as being to the scene of the murder by going through the place where a whiskey bottle was found.


Considine was questioned in reference to the place where the two Connors said they had met Poff and Barrett and he stated it would take 13 minutes to go from that place to Brosnan’s, where they were seen at 5pm.  If they had gone to the scene of the murder after meeting the Connors it would have taken six minutes.[16]


When Hugh Brosnan was examined again during the second trial of Poff and Barrett, he repeated what he had before stated.[17]  On this occasion, Sylvester Poff interposed and said that there was not a word the witnesses had sworn that he had not told in his statement to Sub-Inspector Davis who had taken it down before ever he saw one of the witnesses.


Despite the evidence of Hugh Brosnan, who steadfastly maintained that Poff and Barrett were with him about a half or a mile away from Browne’s farm at the time of the murder, and the evidence of the schoolboys, who had met Poff and Barrett going in a different direction to Browne’s farm, the flawed evidence of Bridget Brosnan, who claimed to have seen three men going into the field though ‘not in the field where the deceased man was found,’ was pursued by the Crown with vigour.


Indeed, the Crown map of the crime scene is evidence of the weight given to the words of Bridget Brosnan and it might be argued that the case against Poff and Barrett was then, before the trial, a foregone conclusion.


The methods used by officials in the investigation of crime at this time was condemned by Harrington’s Kerry Sentinel in the wake of a private investigation into the murder of Thomas Browne held in Castleisland about two weeks after the occurrence.[18]


The writer described those methods as ‘a visible danger’ on the path of justice:


The authorities to whom the law entrusts the investigation of crimes like this seem to be either from innate prejudice or stupidity or both, incapable of conducting their enquiries with that decorous justice which would be a means of inducing truthful god fearing witnesses to endeavour to throw what light they could on the matter.[19]


Their usual style, he wrote, was to treat every respectable farmer, mechanic, shopkeeper, and in fact everyone outside the informer class as if they were all accomplices.


One witness a Mr O’Leary, a publican in Scartaglin, when under examination was browbeaten and scowled at as he could not swear that these men Poff and Barrett brought whiskey in a bottle out of his house on the day of the murder.  It seems they were in Scartaglen on that day and had some porter in O’Learys but he says they took no drink away with them.  It would well suit the evidence for the crown if he could be got to swear that they brought a bottle of whiskey away if it be true that a bottle was found in the field where the man was shot.


And the writer described as ‘positively disgraceful’ stories of the guilt of the accused which had been circulated in Tralee by parties supposed to have information officially and by some having close connection with official authority:


These men are on trial for their lives for a hideous murder and if it be clearly established in the light of day that they had any connection with it few will commiserate their lot.  But it is terrible to think of men innocent of a crime being gradually enwoven in a net of circumstantial evidence spun mostly from the imagination of stupid prejudiced officials.[20]


[1] Kerry Sentinel, 17 October 1882. ‘The arrest of Dunleavy and the statement and remarks which he made are looked upon in a different light and are believed to be most important.’ 

[2] Early reports of the murder did not give a precise time; most stated ‘evening.’  A delay in  early reporting may have been because ‘the telegraph wire is not yet in working order since Sunday’s storm’ (Kerry Evening Post, 4 October 1882).  

At the inquest held on 4 October, Mrs. Browne, widow, indicated the time: ‘In my opinion he returned about one o’clock and took his dinner; before dinner he went out to the meadow and remained about half an hour; after dinner he went out to the meadow again and it was then two o’clock; he took a hay rake with him to the meadow; about five o’clock I was standing at the gate talking with Mrs Brosnan; Mrs Brosnan asked me who were the men that were in the field with her husband, and I said I do not know unless they were men returning from the funeral; while we were talking I heard a shot’ (Kerry Evening Post, 7 October 1882).

The statements of Corporal William Livingstone and Private John Hind, who were drinking in Horan’s pub, Scartaglen, show that news of the murder of Browne arrived at the pub just a little after 5pm. 

[3] There are still three public houses in Scartaglen village.  Michael O’Leary’s public house, later Brosnan’s public house, is today Lyon’s public house.  Information courtesy Tom Brosnan.

[4] IE MOD C/69.  Statement of James Barrett, 26 October 1882.  The statement in full reads: ‘On the morning of Thomas Browne’s murder, Dunleavy came to my house and asked me to go as far as Paddy Fitzgerald’s with him.  He wanted a ladder.  We went into Fitzgerald’s.  Fitzgerald was not at home.  They told us he was gone to Tralee.  We came out and went into Fitzgerald’s haggard.  There was a man inside there – one Michael Moynihan – putting on crosses in a rick of hay.  He would not give the ladder to John Dunleavy.  We turned out to go home, and saw Poff in a donkey’s car with my mother.  We went out to Poff, and he asked us where Maurice Healy lived, as he heard he had cabbage for sale, and wanted to buy some.  We went about twenty spades down the road to Mrs Brosnahan’s.  Met her on the road.  We followed on the road to Scartaglin, and then Dunleavy told Poff and me this was a bad place to be today – that he heard last night that Browne was to be shot today.  We went on to Scartaglin and met Maurice Healy, and he had the cabbage sold.  Poff wanted to go to Scartaglin for a letter, and at the Cross of Scartaglin we met Pat Brien.  We went on to the village, and Dunleavy and Brien came up after.  We went into O’Leary’s and had two pints of porter each.  We went to post-office to play cards.  After the cards we went to Horan’s, and had some more drink.  Poff and I came out and sat upon a ditch, waiting for Dunleavy.  Poff then said we had better go away.  After leaving the village we met Mary Browne and a man I heard was one Harrold.  We went down through the fields and saw William Browne and his boy gathering hay, and went on, and met the boys returning from Kilsarkin school and stopped for some time talking to Maurice Connor and his brother; and went on back through the fields to Cornelius Brosnahan’s house, and met his son, and hunted rabbits; and then went on to my mother’s house, and she told us Thomas Browne was murdered.  When we were going down the road to Scartaglin Dunleavy said that what brought him to Fitzgerald’s was that he heard he was going to town, and he wanted to go too.’

We also learn from Judge Barry’s report of the trials to the Lord Lieutenant dated 16 January 1883 that Barrett ‘had a scarf on that day.’

[5] ‘The murder near Castleisland was witnessed by three boys’ (Cork, Wednesday Night, Northern Whig, 5 October 1882).

[6] There was a discrepancy in the reason why they were late; Redmond Connor stated they were kept at school beyond the usual hour because they were preparing for a visit from the Inspector the following week.  The national school teacher stated they were preparing for examinations.  However, the fact that they were late from school was not in dispute.  Bryan Connor was the youngest of the boys.

[7] Kerry Evening Post, 7 October 1882.  Inquest held at 2pm, Capt Thomas F Spring, district coroner, in attendance with Heffernan F Considine, RM, Tralee; Major Hamilton RM, Millstreet, County Inspector Cruise, Sub-Inspector Davis, and the resident magistrate in temporary charge of the county of Kerry in place of Captain Plunkett who was away on leave. 

[8] It is worth noting that Ahamore Bog near Castleisland is known locally as Wild Goose Bog.

[9] The Poff and Barrett Ballad (16 stanzas), published in 1955, begins: ‘Come on you lovers one and all,/And listen unto me,/A mournful execution that happened in Tralee’ (O’Donohoe Collection Ref IE MOD/55/55.1.223) . The song is ascribed to national school teacher, Daniel O’Brien, witness at the trial.  Nothing remains of the national school in the townland of Kilsarkan West; a new school was established in the parish in 1898.

[10] It was only after Poff and Barrett were arrested that Connor realized he had met the two men on that day not at the scene of the murder but away from it.  Under cross-examination by Mr O’Brien QC, Redmond Connor stated that after the prisoners were arrested he told Mr Davis he had met Poff and Barrett that day.

[11] There was a great fuss made at the trial as to the owner of the watch (Jerry Nolan, a baker in Castleisland), the relationship of the owner with the accused, and who had procured the watch for the purpose of timing the events of the day of the murder.  It would appear that this was done to call into question their characters, for the Crown was working on the assumption they were telling falsehoods.  However, it presents as quite the reverse; an effort by the Connors to demonstrate that Poff and Barrett could not have committed the crime.

[12] IE MOD/C69.  Report of Justice Barry to the Lord Lieutenant, 16 January 1883.Statement of William Davis, Sub-Inspector, RIC, stationed at Castleisland:  ‘After the arrest of the prisoners, they [Connor brothers] stated they had met the prisoners on the afternoon of the murder before arriving at Browne’s, and at a distance of several fields from the house.  Some days after making this statement they pointed out to Mr Denny, CE, Mr Considine, RM, and to me, the places where they state they met them.  Mr Considine, RM, and I, have carefully studied and examined the whole locality associated with the commission of this crime.  Mrs Brosnan also pointed out to us, the place where she stood when she states she first saw the prisoners, the course they pursued, and the place in or about where they crossed the fence of the road into the field where Browne was murdered.  I have no hesitation in saying that if I knew the persons I should have no difficulty in identifying them, when following that course.  We have selected three different courses which the prisoners could have taken, consistently with avoiding unfavourable observation, from the place where the boys state they met them, to where Mrs Brosnan states she saw them; and from that spot in our observations, we followed the course indicated by Mrs Brosnan and the boy, Redmond Connor, and made the men proceed at a walking pace, on several different days.  Mr Considine RM and I made various members of the Constabulary traverse these courses at a fairly rapid pace, by no means as rapidly as possible, but at such a pace as left them in a proper condition physically for the commission of such a deed, as the murder.  In each case we ran three men and struck an average.  Mr Considine started the men separately, at time arranged between us, our watches being previously set together, and I took the times of arrival.  The men were nearly the entire time within view of one or other of us.  We found that by the longest route, the time taken was seven minutes twenty-eight and one-third seconds; by the next longest six minutes twenty-two and one-third seconds, and by the shortest five minutes and forty-eight and one-third seconds.  We also made two men walk at what we considered a school boy’s pace, by the route which the boys Maurice and Redmond Connor pointed out to us as followed by them, from Kilsarkin school, to where Redmond Connor says he was standing when the murder was committed, and the time taken was about thirty-one minutes.  We also made two men walk, following the course taken by the boys, from where Maurice Connor states he met the prisoners, to where Redmond Connor states he met them, and the time taken was one minutes and fifty-three seconds.  It took nine minutes and forty-nine seconds to walk from this latter place to the spot whence Redmond Connor witnessed the murder, so deducting one minutes and fifty three seconds to allow for the distance walked by Redmond Connor on his homeward way, prior to his brother Maurice meeting the prisoners, it would give seven minutes and fifty-six seconds as the time taken to traverse the distance, from where Redmond Connor would have been, when Maurice states he met the prisoners, to the spot whence Redmond saw the murder.  We in addition made three men proceed at a fairly rapid pace from the spot where Thomas Browne was shot, (following the course indicated to us as pursued by the murderers, as far as where the soda water bottle was found, and thence by the route that appeared to the men the most suitable), to the cliff above Cornelius Brosnan’s house (where the prisoners are stated to have been seen by Hugh Brosnan), and this distance was accomplished in twenty-one minutes.’

[13] The following note about Hugh Brosnan is courtesy Tom Brosnan, by email dated 11 November 2019: ‘There were Brosnans in Cahill’s farm in Dromulton, Scartaglen.  This would tie in with the description of half a mile away.  They were evicted sometime in the mid to late 1880s and had connections through marriage to a Prendiville in Kilcushnan … I think it is possible that Con Brosnan married a Catherine O'Connor and may have been the father of Hugh.  Jim Connor, who wrote a history of Scart GAA, told me a few years back that he saw a letter from the last Brosnan tenant in the farm explaining his plight but I can't find it online or anywhere.  It is probably somewhere in Kerry Library.’

[14] IE MOD/C69.

[15] IE MOD/C69.

[16] IE MOD C/69.

[17] There was however a discrepancy with the distance from where Poff and Barrett were hunting rabbits to Browne’s place, the distance given as a mile.  ‘Hugh Brosnan deposed that the prisoners came into a field in which he was working.  They had a big black dog with them and were hunting for rabbits.  They came a little before that for heifers.  That was on the evening of the day of the murder.  To Mr Murphy – The dog was too small to get into the holes after the rabbits – he meant that the holes were too small for the dog to get into them (laughter).  He (witness) had a greyhound.  They did not catch much rabbits (laughter).  He had never seen Poff before but Barrett might have been hunting rabbits.  That was a mile from Browne’s place.’

[18] The investigation was held on Monday 16 October 1882 before H F Considine, RM, R Roche, JP, Maglass, and Sub Inspector Davis, Castleisland.

[19] Kerry Sentinel, 17 October 1882.

[20] Kerry Sentinel, 17 October 1882.