An Open Letter to the Families of Poff and Barrett

‘Better one hundred guilty men go free than one innocent man hanged’


History’s tide has turned and has burst onto the shore with tidings of great news and joy of the recommendation of Posthumous Pardons for Sylvester Poff and James Barrett.  It is a clear record of a great injustice put right for the descendants of those families who can go forward with heads held high in the knowledge that they are on the right side of history.


In the 1950s I watched a Western film which opened with the words, ‘It is better that one hundred guilty men go free than one innocent man hanged.’  This epigraph still resonates with me, and was in my mind when Castleisland District Heritage decided to apply for Presidential Pardons for three local men convicted and hanged after farcical, tragic court cases in Cork City 130 to 140 years ago.


We were emboldened to make the application after a British TV company, Chalkboard Television, picked up the stories on our website ( and filmed a total of three documentaries for BBC1, which were warmly received and viewed by millions.


The format of the documentaries consisted of putting the evidence to a modern-day court, with a barrister for and against, presided over by a high court judge. First was the mis-trial of John Twiss, wrongfully hanged in Cork Gaol in 1895, and the similar farce, resulting in the executions of Sylvester Poff and James Barrett in Tralee Gaol in January 1883.


In both cases, it was unanimously agreed by the legal team that by modern standards neither case would even be put to a jury. Based on those conclusions our committee decided in the first instance to apply for a pardon for John Twiss, as it was a single application.  After a lengthy process, the Pardon was granted to John Twiss in 2021, a momentous occasion for the descendants of the Twiss family.


Following that, the committee of Castleisland District Heritage lodged an appeal for a Presidential Pardon for Sylvester Poff and James Barrett. Now, two and a half years later, to our immense relief, satisfaction, and a whole raft of emotions, the government is recommending to the President that he grant a Presidential Pardon to both men for the terrible injustice perpetrated on their families by a corrupt system 141 years ago.


At this juncture, we wish to express our sincere thanks to Kerry TD, Brendan Griffin, who has consistently and persistently monitored the progress of these applications for justice. The unfortunate COVID period caused much delay to the first application. Our thanks also go to the Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, who has delivered on both applications.


The main outcome of the anticipated Presidential Pardons is to bring a form of closure to the descendants of the Poff and Barrett families. The great-grandchildren at home and throughout the world, too numerous to mention, have expressed the same emotion of relief that justice has been done for their parents and grandparents who went to their eternal reward disheartened that the stigma of murder had not been removed in their lifetimes. Louise Brown, a relative of James Barrett, has put it like this:


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. I can only speak for myself and also I think for my dad (who passed away in 2018) who would be very pleased, proud and extremely grateful for how hard you all worked at the Castleisland Heritage society, to clear Sylvester and James from this miscarriage of justice. I remember visiting my Grand uncle Pat (‘the cuckoo,’ as he was known to us grandnieces and nephews), our Grand aunt May, a gentle and kind lady, and in latter years Grand aunt Bridie, and we were always treated so well. I know 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. There is little point in thinking of 'what might have been,’ how James could have married and had a family and Sylvester’s children missed out in having their dad to see them grow up and have families of their own. But how lucky we are as descendants to have Castleisland District Heritage to fight for and achieve the amazing outcome for their own two local sons. God bless you for never giving up. With eternal gratitude.


We also spare a thought for the descendants of Thomas Browne, the unfortunate man who was murdered in 1882 and whose murderers escaped scot-free. John Twiss, in his unique speech from the dock, stated that those two men, whom schoolboy Redmond O’Connor described in detail, are now over in “the free land of America”.


Castleisland Historian, TM Donovan put it well when he said there were three murders in Dromulton that day, “two ‘official’ murders by the British and one by hired assassins”.  He described Thomas Browne as a “most industrious, hard-working farmer – a farmer of the very best type; Frugal, sober, a good catholic, and a splendid husband and father”.   The Pardons have established, with bitter opprobrium, the dastardly conduct of the crooked Justice Barry and the corrupt ‘justice’ system he represented. Descendants of Barry who may wish to talk about his conduct may wish to remain silent, or talk among themselves.


We in Castleisland District Heritage wish to extend our best wishes and congratulations to all the families linked to Sylvester Poff and James Barrett here in Ireland, New Zealand and Great Britain, and wherever they may be in the world, and it is an honour to say to them: This moment is for you, these Presidential Pardons are for you and for your parents and grandparents who did not get to see this day. We are merely the vehicle, your joy is our joy, your pride is our pride. Your children and grandchildren won’t ever have to carry the weight that was on you and your forebears.


I repeat, ‘better one hundred guilty men go free than one innocent man hanged’ – or as in this case, two.

3 May 2024