Remember Poff and Barrett: A Journey towards Justice

Go máire ainmneacha James Barrett agus Sylvester Poff go deo
May the names of James Barrett and Sylvester Poff live forever

Castleisland District Heritage will celebrate its tenth anniversary this year.  Among the many projects undertaken during this period, two are of particular note, the Posthumous Pardon of John Twiss of Cordal, Castleisland in 2021, and now, in 2024, the Recommendation of Posthumous Pardons for Sylvester Poff of Mountnicholas and James Barrett of Dromultan.


The years may have pushed away the raw despair experienced by earlier generations of the families, but the memory of the injustices suffered by their ancestors remains enshrined in family histories.  It remains too in local history, as shown in John Roche’s Open Letter to the Families of Poff and Barrett.[1] In this letter, John quotes Louise Browne, great grand-niece of James Barrett, about the pain her forebears carried:


There was a lot of hush hush in regards to Poff and Barrett in my Grandmother’s family and I did not become aware of the whole tragedy until I was an adult … my Grand uncle Pat, our Grand aunt May and Grand aunt Bridie … it would have been difficult for them as a family who would have known relatives around at the time of the awful outcome in 1883.


Louise’s sister, Anne, informed us that the torment and judgement James and Sylvester’s families went through for so many years at home and abroad cannot even be imagined, and that the people in Castleisland have now brought warmth to their souls:


Learning about the case and its repercussions innately pulled at my heart strings – an inexplicable connection to what happened to these innocent men.  They were deprived from what should have been a chance of opportunities, happiness and normalcy.  I spent many happy times in Dromulton with Paddy, Mai and Bridie Daly. I have wonderful memories of freedom and laughter, running through the fields of the family farm and learning about nature in particular with my Grand Uncle Paddy Daly. He loved nature and its importance as well as the importance of our Irish culture and language (I am not fluent but I try to use what Gaeilge I do have). The latter of course was nourished by the injustices of the past. I remember so distinctly the smells in the outdoors and of course the food prepared by Mai and Bridie. Mai was an incredible baker. I feel so lucky to have had these experiences and memories in such a beautiful place but it is heartbreaking that these men and their families were deprived of so much and the lasting impact it had on their families at home and abroad who suffered no doubt the wrath of busy tongues. It is heartbreaking to read their stories but the commitment and perseverance for justice by the people in Castleisland have brought warmth to our souls and they deserve the highest accolades for helping to bring about some justice to the memories of our ancestors. Go máire ainmneacha James Barrett agus Sylvester Poff go deo.


Marion Kerr (née Petrie [Poff]), a descendant of the Poff family, travelled to Castleisland last year with her husband ‘on a mission to discover the rural location of the Sylvester Poff and James Barrett Celtic Cross memorial’:


Jackie Reidy, Jeremy Burke and others were most helpful and John Roche, Chairman of Castleisland District Heritage, advised us to “travel towards Scartaglin, but turn right at the football grounds.”  We did so, following the narrow road down through the bend until I glimpsed the memorial ahead on the right. Success. Thus on an early September Sunday morning I was able to acknowledge two men whom British justice had brutally betrayed.


Marion’s sister, Anne Christie, writes of the ‘black clouds’ over the families for more than a century:


Although the anguish and pain suffered by the people directly involved can never be undone or swept away, the Posthumous Pardons lift the black clouds hanging over the Poff and Barrett names.  As a member of the Poff family I send a huge thank you to all involved in bringing this sad episode to justice.


In New Zealand, Dorothy Dowgray first became aware of the tragic story of her ancestors, Sylvester Poff and his nephew James Barrett, in the 1980s.  She writes from Northcote:


My Grandfather Steve Petrie (baptised Sylvester Timothy Poff in October 1885 in Makikihi, South Canterbury), who may have had some information handed down, was dead, as were his parents, James Poff and Johannah Brosnahan. A cousin of my mother’s, Tony Simmons, loaned me a photocopy of an old newspaper series, I think from The Corkman, written by Patrick Lynch in 1955/56. Thus began my interest.


I contacted the National Archives of Ireland to see what records they held about the murder of Thomas Browne, the trials and subsequent executions. A large envelope of material duly arrived. Some years later I was bemused to receive a request for copies of my copies, as the original file had been mislaid or misfiled in Dublin (I do hope they were found).


With the advent of on-line records and information services, my interest in the story continued. Here in New Zealand I was surprised at the amount of old newspaper stories from the 1880s which were available, including letters written by my Great-Grandfather James Poff to the local Catholic journal, “The Tablet”.  He even supplied “The Tablet” a photo of his late mother Mary Poff (née Barrett) following her death in 1911.


Piecing together this family history has been a personal journey for me. I don’t know the extent of the impact on my Great-Grandfather and his siblings but I can only imagine that the loss of their mother’s home following the eviction of herself, her son Sylvester, daughter-in-law Ann (née Sugrue), and their three young children from their Mount Nicholas Townland farm in 1878/9 would have been of tremendous concern to the family living in New Zealand. This and the subsequent arrest of Sylvester for involvement in the Land League and the eventual arrest for the murder of Thomas Browne leading to his execution along with his young nephew, would have been horrendous.


On a personal level I am so pleased that Sylvester Poff, my grandfather’s uncle, and James Barrett, my grandfather’s cousin, have been pardoned. I also think of the loss to his family of Thomas Browne, murdered so cold bloodedly in his own fields and the stress that both his murder and wrongful arrests had on all the families concerned must have impacted on everyone down through the subsequent years.


I see from the Irish Censuses of 1901 and 1911 that my 2x Great Grandmother Mary Poff (née Barrett) spoke both Irish and English, and she could read and write. For her sake I am very pleased the pardons have been made. Newspaper obituaries after her death in 1911 recall the tragedy of 1882/83 and describe her as “a fine type of farmer’s wife”. She is buried in the old Kilsarkon Cemetery but the index record of her burial gives her name as Mary Duff.  Perhaps this could be rectified in the near future as a mark of respect to the mother and aunt of Sylvester Poff and James Barrett.[2]


Descendants of Poff and Barrett (l-r): Louise Browne-O’Sullivan, Anne Browne, Marion Kerr (pictured at the Poff and Barrett Memorial), Anne Christie and Dorothy Dowgray


Brianne Sheehan Duff, great granddaughter of Mary Barrett Daly, gave her youngest son, T Barrett Duff, the Barrett surname to honour the family lineage.  She writes from America:



The Journey towards Justice


Castleisland District Heritage finds its roots in the research of the late school principal, Michael O’Donohoe, whose papers were digitized and catalogued in 2014 thanks to the efforts of a dedicated committee of four men: John Roche, Tomo Burke, Colm Kirwan (RIP) and John Reidy.


The tragedies of John Twiss, hanged in Cork Prison in 1895, and Sylvester Poff and James Barrett, hanged in Tralee Prison in 1883, formed part of Michael’s labour-intensive research, conducted in days before the internet and digital access.


In 2015, Minister Deenihan launched the O’Donohoe project website and in 2016 the process of presenting Michael’s research to a wide audience began.  This included the tragic story of John Twiss – most timely because Chalkboard, a production company working on a new BBC1 documentary series about historic criminal convictions, read the article online and got in touch with us.[3]


In 2018, the John Twiss trial of 1894 was re-examined by two practising UK barristers in a modern setting, their findings brought before a retired judge who found the Twiss conviction unsafe.  The documentary, Murder, Mystery and My Family, the first in a series of five, was screened in 2018 with a follow-up in 2019.  This, with additional research, supported our application for the Posthumous Pardon of John Twiss, granted by President Michael D Higgins on 16 December 2021.


In his remarkable speech from the dock, John Twiss – who declared, ‘It is a frightful thing to put the rope around a man’s neck’ – repeatedly referred to Sylvester Poff and James Barrett, men he clearly held to be as innocent as he was:


By God Almighty, such a case never came into court.  There were two innocent men hanged here before – Poff and Barrett were hanged wrongfully by a jury in Cork.  They were hanged wrongfully, and now they are hanging me, wrongfully, the third man up from Kerry … After the hanging of Poff and Barrett, it should be an eye-opener to all the juries of Ireland to take a murder case into longer consideration than five minutes … like Poff and Barrett, when I am dead and gone – I am no loss at all … This is the same turn up that was in Poff and Barrett.  This is the same turn up as God is my judge.  The two men that killed Poff and Barrett are over in the free land of America and whatever way they are over they cannot expect to be good or lucky for they were not gone three months when the name was mentioned.  Poff and Barrett were found guilty of murder and hanged in Tralee.  I am found guilty of the Newmarket murder and will be hanged in Cork but it don’t give me that much trouble (snapping his fingers) for I am not guilty of it.[4]


The tragic case of Poff and Barrett, described in an article on the website of Castleisland District Heritage, aided further contact with Chalkboard and in another timely twist of fate, the story featured in the fifth and final series of Murder, Mystery and My Family.


It is not complex to work out what happened to Sylvester Poff and James Barrett on 3 October 1882.  Poff, who had been evicted from his farm at Mountnicholas, near Tralee, was visiting or perhaps staying at Dromultan, home of his cousin, James Barrett.  Poff had a letter to collect from the Post Office in the village of Scartaglen, a letter that almost certainly contained details of emigration, for most of his siblings had already left the Irish shores in search of a better life.


Poff and Barrett fell in with a neighbour, John Dunleavy, who warned them during their walk to the village that it was ‘a bad place to be’ that day.  It was rumoured that a neighbour, Thomas Browne, was to be shot.


After reaching the village and spending time there, the three men parted company. Dunleavy stayed on in the public house, in close proximity to some officials socialising there: he wanted his whereabouts known that day, and noted.


Poff and Barrett, with Poff’s sheepdog in tow, waited outside for Dunleavy but when he did not appear, they went on alone. Poff wanted to check his cattle grazing on the land of Hugh Brosnan, their path cutting dangerously close to the farm of Thomas Browne.


On their way to Brosnan’s, they met three schoolboys, brothers, returning home from Kilsarkan School.  They stopped to chat to Redmond O’Connor, the eldest of them.  Redmond later informed the authorities, when asked why he had not mentioned seeing Poff and Barrett in his statement, that it never occurred to him because he knew it could not be them for he came upon the murder scene further on, after passing them.  He saw the two killers, he witnessed the shooting of Thomas Browne, he described all that happened, how Browne turned as if to run and fell, and provided a good description of the appearance of the attackers.


The police argued that Poff and Barrett had time, after seeing the schoolboys, to turn and double back towards Dromultan and arrive ahead of them to carry out the shooting. It mattered not that the real killers were different men in different attire.


Indeed, Poff and Barrett could prove – with testimony from the railway station master – the precise time they were away from the scene with Brosnan at the time of the murder but it all amounted to little; the Crown would have it their way even if it took two trials – which it did.  Petitions for mercy – in the case of John Twiss 40,000 signatures – were futile.  ‘The law must take its course.’


It is difficult not to conclude that the lives of Irish people did not carry much weight as far as the nineteenth century government of Ireland was concerned.


The irony of a professional team of barristers and a Cambridge-educated Senior Circuit Judge in the UK finding the convictions of the three Kerrymen unsafe is not lost. It might be asked if the British government, the institution that hanged them, should acknowledge the findings of its own legal representatives, and follow the lead of President Michael D Higgins.


It would be a day of reckoning.




[3] The series ran from 2018 to 2021.,_Mystery_and_My_Family