The Trial of John Twiss: Notes on Jury Packing

Resolved – That the arbitrary exclusion from the jury box of any of Her Majesty’s subjects by the agents of the Crown on the grounds of creed not only destroys all confidence in the jury selected and deprives their verdict of all moral weight, but also inflicts an insult on the entire class to which the excluded individuals belong 

– Protest Meeting, Tralee, 1859[1]

‘There could not have been less than 10,000 persons present,’ observed a reporter of a great protest meeting held in Tralee in 1859, attended by the Bishop of Kerry, against the discrimination of Roman Catholics in jury selection.


It was a subject which had been long under discussion, most notably since the 1848 trials of John Mitchel and Charles Gavan Duffy.[2]


Matters had hardly improved by 1872:


The House of Commons was occupied on Wednesday with a bill brought in by Sir Colman O’Loghlen to abolish the power of peremptory challenge by the Crown in criminal trials, and to put an end to jury packing.  Mr Dowse, of course, defended the present system, and got the bill thrown out by a majority of 165 (nearly all of whom were English of Scotch) to 28.[3]


Sir Colman O’Loghlen petitioned the government for change in the law. Richard Dowse (1824-1890), pictured right, died while holding the Assizes in Tralee


On Friday 19 August 1881, in the House of Commons, concerns about jury packing were raised by Charles Stewart Parnell.  It was clearly a highly charged subject because T M Healy, MP, who also spoke, became ‘violent and excited’ and narrowly escaped suspension.[4]


The imprisonment in August 1882 of Edmund Dwyer Gray, MP for Carlow, and proprietor of the Freeman’s Journal, returned public scrutiny to the jury selection process.  Gray had published a letter from one William O’Brien in the Freeman’s Journal about the conduct of the jury in the murder trial of Francis Hynes, and other articles about the selection of juries:


So sensitive have the Crown officials become that they now resort to the device of only calling the number on the panel of the juror who is ordered to stand aside, and thus, it may be supposed, escape to a great extent inconvenient observation.[5]


The trial of Sylvester Poff and James Barrett of Co Kerry for the murder of Thomas Browne of Dromultan was but months away.  The situation would hardly be remedied by then, nor would it be thirteen years later, as observed by John Twiss in his speech from the dock:


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.  If I went to Wicklow or Tipperary, there is not a county in Ireland that a jury would convict me on the evidence that the present jury have convicted me on.[6]


In February 1899, four years after John Twiss was hanged, the same questions about jury packing were being raised in parliament.


William Redmond (1861-1917), MP, asked the Attorney-General, ‘Is the right honourable Gentleman aware that the ordering of a large number of jurors to stand aside causes a widespread belief amongst the people that justice is not done?’


And James Flynn (1852-1922), MP for Cork North, asked, ‘Are we to understand that this invidious practice of jury packing will be continued?’


He was given no reply.[7]


Jury Packing in Folk Memory


Accounts of the jury system in the John Twiss trial were passed on, generation to generation, and became ingrained in local lore.  Castleisland writer and poet, Maurice J Reidy (1917-1988) lived at Glanlarehan, near Cordal.  In the late 1970s, he published Borders of Hope, a collection of non-fiction stories in which he remarked on the jury in the John Twiss tragedy:


Some place close to Glennalara in Co Cork, a man was found dead …some time later there became rumour to arrest the man in Co Kerry known as Joe Twiss.  English law prevailing at the time were to let no stone unturned and one link from the chain of foreign enemies of the time, the English, were all out to find a victim at any cost thereby giving the person who was to appear before a Co Cork jury of English descent, the most remote chance of escape or getting off free.[8]


For further reference to the subject, see Jury Packing (1887) and Jurors and Verdicts (1887) by Irish Nationalist barrister, Edward Patrick Sarsfield Counsel (1858-1916).[9]


[1] Nation, 23 April 1859.

[2] In the case of the former, it was remarked that ‘That Mr Mitchel was guilty of the offence of which he has been declared guilty there cannot be a rational doubt … nevertheless, we cannot but regard the composition of the jury with dissatisfaction, not a single Catholic happened to be upon it’ (Kerry Examiner, 13 June 1848).  In the case of the latter, statistics of jury composition at the trial of Duffy were given in the Tuam Herald, 23 September 1848.  A memorial was subsequently presented to the Lord Lieutenant in an effort to reform the system.

[3] Nation, 15 June 1872.  Sir Colman Michael O’Loghlen (1819-1877), MP for Co Clare, eldest son of Irish judge Sir Michael O’Loghlen,

[4] Nation, 27 August 1881.

[5] ‘This new practice is of so shame-faced a character as almost to amount to an admission that what has been hitherto done would not bear scrutiny’ (Cork Examiner, 22 August 1882).

[6] Further reference,[7] Alleged Jury Packing in Ireland, House of Commons, 10 February 1899. Image of Flynn on this page:

[8] ‘Ballycushane’ p4.  See biographical notice of M J Reidy, whose works include Borders of Joy (1975) and Rays of Cheer (1978) in the O’Donohoe Collection Catalogue (IE MOD/A22/2), pp627-8.  The following obituary appeared in the Kerryman, 20 May 1988: The death has taken place of Maurice J Reidy, The Little Stud, Kilcusnin.  His remains were removed from Crowley’s Funeral Home to Castleisland Church on Monday evening.  Burial took place in Kilmurry following Requiem Mass on Tuesday.  Deceased was very interested in poetry and had several books of poems to his credit.  Sincere sympathy is extended to his wife, daughter, son, sisters and brother.

[9] Dr Counsel was also a member of the English bar and an advocate of Home Rule.  He was the second son of Lawrence (or Lawrance) Counsel Esq JP of Craggan House, Athlone, Co Westmeath.  Dr Counsel died at Beausoleil, France, on 2 May 1916.