John Twiss of Castleisland: A ‘Pure Brave Soul’

John Twiss of Cordal, Castleisland, was arrested in April 1894 for the murder of James Donovan at Glenlara, Co Cork, and the police subsequently sought evidence against him.  This circumstance was remarked on by Jeremy Dein and Sasha Wass, the barristers who recently investigated the case for the documentary, Murder Mystery and My Family.


John Twiss alluded to it in his speech from the dock: ‘The police have scoured the country from Newmarket to Castleisland, and all the time they have kept me in, but they could not find any evidence against me except Boyle, and they knew he was an enemy of mine … For nine or ten months they could find no evidence until they found one who was in for every thieving and stealing in Killarney.’


John Twiss


The wrongful conviction of John Twiss was recorded in many songs and ballads of the people who were witness to the authorities who went to ‘search the lanes and byways for the needy poor and low, whom they tempted and corrupted with their promises of gold.’


The following composition perfectly encapsulates the circumstances of the case in the voice of the people of the time.


The Execution of Twiss

Late in the 19th century when Irish hope was high
And when the goal of liberty apparently was nigh,
When we thought that England’s hate at length had altered been,
Another pool of martyr’s blood has dyed our island green.
My tragic tale must carry you back to April ’94
When a deed had been committed which we must all deplore.
The perpetrators of that deed had not been seen or known,
But on that same night John Twiss was lying on his humble bed alone.

The wily officers of the law were early on the scene,
But by the real culprits quite baffled they had been.
They very soon bethought themselves how their revenge might be 
On poor John Twiss of Kerry who loved his country.
And when they did secure him, they then straightaway did go
To search the lanes and byways for the needy poor and low,
Whom they tempted and corrupted with their promises of gold.
’Twas thus alas, Joe Twiss’s life was foully bought and sold.

The summer assizes came and went, they not arraigned him then,
The Crown so hungered for his blood they wanted their own men.
The city panel should do the work when they should chosen be
And for five minutes they considered and then did all agree
That poor Joe Twiss was guilty of that atrocious crime
They came to this conclusion, in that short space of time.
When they heard this brave man speak, when asked what he ought to say,
They shuddered in their broad cloth and wished they were away.

Chief Baron Pallis put on his cap, and then he did proceed,
To reanimate the jurors, but he could not succeed.
Their conscience smote hard within, the demon had his feast,
They knew they had slain innocence, they know it now, at least.
Although he tried to cheer them up, and said ‘Ye have done well,’
’Twas plain himself felt ill at ease, while sentencing did tell.
And for his duty he did exceed upon that awful day
When he said ‘No mercy shall proceed for him with whom it lay.’

When the awful news flashed forth next day like fire through the land,
When everyone said to himself, this sentence cannot stand;
We’ll petition Lord Houghton, because we do believe,
That poor Joe Twiss is innocent and him we will reprieve.
Forty thousand Irishmen for him they did reprieve,
They put their plea for mercy as best they could conceive;
Praying for commendations, with prudence and with force
But there came the iron answer, the law must take its course.

Oh cowardly base executives, eternal be your shame,
Lord Houghton and Lord Morley, we will hold you to blame
More than those deluded wretches who swore his life away,
Because your system cherishes and nourishes foul play.
When Twiss received those tidings, for his death sentence did stand,
He bore it with such fortitude few men could command.
From the dock and from the scaffold, he loudly did declare,
His total innocence of that charge for which he had stood there.

But if he’d sully his soul and name, he’d get his liberty,
But he’d rather die ten thousand deaths than stain his country.
Now for to end those plaintive lines, I’ll not ask you to pray
Because I believe his pure brave soul is a shining star today.
Assisted by a pious priest, and the holy sisters too,
In a peaceful state he met his fate with a brighter world in view.
May God bless that holy priest who did him well attend,
The pious nuns and everyone who acted as a friend.
Not forgetting the Mayor of Cork – may he live long to see, 
His country rid of tyranny, and judicial butchery.[1]
[1] By the O’Connor poets of Kilsarcon, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0445, pp 405-410.  Twiss left his greyhound to P H Meade, Mayor of Cork; see