John Twiss: A Modern-day Hero

by Janet Murphy, Archivist, Castleisland District Heritage


Recently, while driving my car, I had the strange sense that John Twiss was seated beside me.  I could even sense the colour and texture of his clothing, and I said aloud, ‘I hope it is good news for you soon, Mr Twiss.’


Strange talk perhaps, but the fact is, John Twiss has been part of my life since I first read about his plight about seven years ago while cataloguing the research papers of the late Michael O’Donohoe.  I was immediately struck by the obvious innocence of John Twiss in Michael’s comprehensive notes, and when I looked at his case a little more closely, the clearer the absence of guilt became.


And so began a journey that led to the Áras an Uachtaráin.  Yesterday, Thursday 16 December 2021, the notion of the innocence of John Twiss was transmuted to fact when the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, signed into statute the following:


Now I, Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland, do hereby, on the advice of the Government, pardon the said John Twiss in respect of the said conviction, and wholly remit the sentence imposed as if he had not been so charged or convicted.


It seemed oddly appropriate that the poignant ceremony took place at the Áras, the former Vice-Regal lodge, one-time summer residence of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland whose Chief Secretary refused John Twiss clemency.  The salubrious building and grounds put one in mind of the murderous times in which John Twiss lived, for it was there in Phoenix Park that Lord Cavendish and Thomas Burke were killed, the same year in which Sylvester Poff and James Barrett were arrested and later wrongfully hanged for the murder of Thomas Browne.


If I tried one hundred times over I could not adequately describe the moment in which John Twiss was purged of guilt by President Michael D Higgins.  Helen O’Connor and her family (Helen’s brother, Denis Sayers, was unable to attend), Brendan Griffin TD, and two representatives from Castleisland District Heritage (Chairman John Roche was unable to attend) were warmly received at the Áras and led down a hallway lined with bronze busts and portraits of the prominent in Ireland’s past, to a magnificent room prepared for a presidential address.


President Higgins entered the room and at length delivered – in Irish and English – a stately, and most sincere speech, in which he exonerated John Twiss of Castleisland, and thereby freed the Twiss family of the shackles placed on them by history.


How that moment manifested in the hearts of the family of John Twiss can only be imagined.  I silently thanked President Higgins for his stirring, flawless address, but even more for his innate understanding of the case, displayed in his powerful accentuation.  It moved me to tears, but tears of a different kind to those I shed many years ago.



Joy at the Áras (l-r): President Michael D Higgins photographed at Áras an Uachtaráin with Noel Nash, Castleisland District Heritage, on being presented with a copy of the journal, John Twiss Judicial Murder in Castleisland.  Helen O’Connor (centre), punches the air in delight at the exoneration of John Twiss. With her outside the Áras are Brendan Griffin TD, Noel Nash, CDH and Janet Murphy, CDH

Journey to the Áras


There is an illustration in one of the newspapers of the time that depicts the scene outside Cork County Jail when John Twiss was hanged on 9 February 1895.  I came across it one cold December evening in Martin’s Bar, Castleisland, then the temporary offices of the Michael O’Donohoe Memorial Heritage Project.  I was about to tidy up the office and head home for Christmas, but this image stopped me in my tracks.  It showed the black flag hoisted outside the prison, and the thousands gathered outside in the snow, many on their knees, heads bent in prayer and in sorrow.  Good, honest, ordinary people, betrayed by a system that was supposed to protect them, united in grief, united in faith.  The tears I shed then as I looked upon that scene have stayed with me, but tears cannot bring back a life that should never have been taken.


John Twiss was sent to the gallows in 1895 by the British justice system.  Educated men who thought they knew better than a spirited man from Cordal, known for poaching, and for putting the fruits of his labours on many a poor widow’s table.


News that Justice Minister Helen McEntee had recommended the Posthumous Pardon of John Twiss was welcome, and long awaited, by the people of Castleisland and beyond.  That is has now been enacted will bring an extraordinary measure of peace to Helen O’Connor and Denis Sayers and their families, a blight removed from their family history.


A Pardon however, cannot remove the wrongs inflicted on John Twiss.  As Kerry’s Eye journalist Gordon Revington remarked to me, ‘It’s wonderful news, even if it is of no real benefit to poor old Twiss.’  No, it is of no benefit to John Twiss.  He cannot be returned to Cordal to live his life in the way that we all take for granted.


In 1895, 40,000 people from all walks of society signed memorials to try to save this victim of British ‘justice.’  It was an incredible gesture to government from the Irish people to sit up and listen, but across the Irish Sea in the House of Commons, the business of the day was hurried through, and John Morley, Chief Secretary for Ireland, dismissed those 40,000 and announced that Twiss would hang.


It might therefore be asked what, beyond a welcome measure of peace to the family of Twiss, can be taken from a Posthumous Pardon, for it can hardly be justice, when justice was not served.


On the surface, the Pardon is formal acknowledgement that the justice system that prevailed in the 1890s failed John Twiss, and this acknowledgement, in 2021, means that something has been learned, and that today’s society benefits from a more enlightened government.


But there is more to the case of John Twiss than legislative blunders.  The name of John Twiss has prevailed in the Castleisland district for 126 years, passed on from one generation to the next with sufficient conviction to keep alive the wrongs he endured.  An innocent man who paid the ultimate price for the actions of another, prepared to give his own life rather than see an innocent man executed.  As he declared from the dock: ‘Hang me before you’ll hang a man.’


John Twiss, in his refusal to be bribed by the police to save himself, in his willingness to accept a rope around his innocent neck, in maintaining his integrity throughout an horrendous ordeal, was a hero.  How many among us would not accept a bribe to save ourselves from the gallows?  How many among us would pay with our lives for what we believe to be right?


John Twiss had the opportunity to save himself but chose a righteous path – for his education came from the teachings of Christianity.  He sacrificed his life in the cause of truth.  In his behaviour, Twiss demonstrated what it is to be noble, honest, dignified, for the truth echoes through every word of his speech from the dock.


It is because of these virtues and values, as well as the injustice served upon him, that the name of John Twiss comes down to us, and we must take all of these things, and more, from the symbolism revealed in a Posthumous Pardon.