Remember Poff and Barrett

Mountnicholas – the former homeland of Sylvester Poff – and its surrounding townlands suffered their share of eviction, violence and grief during the land struggles of the 1880s.  The rents on the farms made vacant were ‘in every case double the government valuation, in many instances nearly treble.’1


On 3 April 1881, Sylvester Poff’s neighbour, George Marshall, son of tenant farmer, Thomas Marshall of Mountnicholas, was arrested and conveyed to Kilmainham prison on suspicion of night time attacks on dwelling-houses.2


During Marshall’s six month incarceration, Poff and his family were evicted from their farm at Mountnicholas, and a series of caretakers were installed by the landlord.  Poff and his family looked on from temporary makeshift dwellings as the detested ‘caretaker’ was installed in their home by the landlord.


Tony Marshall looks out on the site of Poff’s former dwelling at Mountnicholas


In October 1881, Marshall was released from prison early due to impaired health.  The following month, Poff was arrested on suspicion of being involved in an attack on a caretaker.3


George Marshall was again arrested on 28 January 1882, charged with inciting persons to pay no rent.  On his release later that year, he left Ireland for the United States, determined to fight the cause from there, later advocating ‘a party that would suffer dictation from nobody, and that would compel that despot, England, to give Ireland relief from the oppression under which she is suffering.’4


George Marshall would later speak at the Irish Race Convention


The circumstances for Poff, however, were far removed from George Marshall, who was studying for the priesthood.  Poff had a family to support.But for a short parole in March 1882 when Poff’s neighbours helped him sow his crops, Poff remained in prison.


An incident occurred in April 1882 which further demonstrated local regard for the plight of Poff and his family.  It was brought to the attention of the landlord’s sub agent and his son that a small herd of cattle were grazing on Poff’s farm.  They drove the animals off the farm and on to the road to pound them.  On the way, they were met by the men, women and children of Mountnicholas who, despite the threat of the agent’s revolver, stopped the herd, dashing them back against the agent.  They dressed the horns of the animals with green branches and marched them back to their owners.


The agent’s son was rapidly dispatched for the police and the bailiff, on whose arrival a great number of girls assembled on the road holding green branches in their right hands and yellow in the left.  They held the green above the yellow and as the police advanced towards them, they dashed the yellow to the ground, trampled them, and lifted up the green while singing national songs.

Tony Marshall walks along the farmland once home of the Poff family



In June 1882, the caretaker on Poff’s farm was Patrick Cahill.  Caretakers had come and gone, usually under threat of their lives, but men like Cahill, described as honest and hard-working, refused to heed such warnings.  On the evening of 27 June 1882, Cahill was murdered by gunshot.6


Poff, at least, had a perfect alibi: he was in prison.  He was released in July 1882 and enjoyed but three months of freedom before he was again arrested on 12 October, along with James Barrett, for the murder of Thomas Browne of Dromultan on 3 October 1882.


Poff and Barrett were hanged in Tralee prison on 23 January 1883.


Castleisland Landmark: Tomo Burke, a descendant of Sylvester Poff, stands outside the historic building where Poff’s widow later resided and from where she displayed a black flag


The Mountnicholas district remained disturbed and under the scrutiny of the law.  Even a remark was sufficient to be hauled off by the authorities.  A Mountnicholas farmer, on meeting a bailiff and two policemen driving cows from an evicted farm, remarked on the ‘unmanly occupation of the police’, for which he was taken to Tralee and put before two resident magistrates.


On 24 July 1884, a Proclamation was issued under the Crimes Act for an extra force of constabulary at Mountnicholas and surrounding townlands, ‘by reason of the existence of crime and outrage’.7


On Fair Day, 8 September 1884, the Lord Lieutenant passed through an unsettlingly quiet Castleisland.  As he entered the town, he proceeded past the house of Poff’s mother, Mary, and Poff’s widow, Anne.  A black flag was suspended on a pole from the door.  On one side was written the word ‘MURDER’ and the other, ‘REMEMBER POFF AND BARRETT’.8


John Poyntz Spencer (1835-1910) 5th Earl Spencer and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland met a cool reception in Castleisland in 1884


By the end of 1885, Poff’s farm at Mountnicholas was described as dilapidated and derelict.  A man named Brosnan from the neighbouring district of Clashatlea removed some stone from the house to erect an outhouse on his property.  This act resulted in a visit by a party of armed men who levelled the outhouse and ordered him to return the stone.9


Anne Poff died in Castleisland on Good Friday, March 1910, aged 59.   She was buried in Ballymacelligott.  Mary Poff died in Castleisland in 1911.10


Historic House: No 3 Main Street, Castleisland. Former premises of Lawlor’s Butchers, and last home of the Poffs


The Poff farm later came into the possession of the Marshall family, in whose hands it remains.11


George Marshall, by then Rev George Marshall, did not forget his old neighbours at Mountnicholas.  On the foundation of the Free State, in a letter home, he suggested that the relatives of Poff and Barrett should seek to have the remains of ‘those two victims of Irish landlordism and British hate’ disinterred from the old jail burial ground at Ballymullen for re-interment in their respective burial places.12


George Marshall of Mountnicholas who left Ireland in 1882


However, a commentator observed that ‘no breast plates were attached to the rough deal coffins in which the remains of those two innocent men were encased’ and ‘it would be impossible to collect their ashes after nearly 40 years.’13


Now, almost 140 years on, their ashes are no longer covered by prison ground but by commercial property.  Poff and Barrett, however, are not forgotten.  Their descendants continue to fight to clear their names, to gain justice.14


Remember Poff and Barrett.


1 Freeman’s Journal, 29 June 1882.

2 Six months earlier, in November 1880, Timothy Harrington of the Kerry Sentinel had addressed a Land League meeting in the neighbourhood of Mountnicholas, one of a series of demonstrations then taking place in the county. 

3 In November 1881, a caretaker named Clifford on the farm of evicted tenant Patrick Driscoll was shot at, for which Poff, along with Patrick Driscoll and Cornelius O’Sullivan, was arrested under the Coercion Act on suspicion of involvement.

4 Extract from a transcription of Rev Marshall’s speech delivered at the Irish Race Convention in Dublin in 1896 (published in Proceedings of the Irish Race Convention, Dublin, 1896, pp60-61).

5 Sylvester Poff was the son of William Murphy Poff, a Protestant, of Mount Nicholas, Ballymacelligott and his wife Mary Barrett, a Roman Catholic.  They married in the RC church of Currow in the parish of Killeentierna on 28 February 1843.  Their children were Johanna, James, Francis (Frank), Ann and Kate who emigrated to New Zealand between 1870 and 1880.  Two other girls of the family went to America about the same time.  Sylvester was among those who remained in Ireland, and died at the gallows in 1883.  Sylvester, born in about 1846, married Anne, daughter of Philip Sugrue of Caher, in 1875 and four children were born at Mountnicholas, Mary (16 November 1875), Johanna (22 March 1877, died 20 March 1899), William (4 December 1878, seems to have died in infancy) and Helen (29 April 1880 – married Thomas Lawlor and had family of 12).  Youngest son James was born at Dromultan in 1882 (died aged 18 on 3 October 1900).  

6 Father of three Patrick Cahill of Lisardboula, who was murdered on his way home, had received numerous warnings to cease work on evicted farms and had also been fired at.  He had worked on the Ballyseedy Estate for about thirty years and was under police protection.  An inquest held before Captain Spring, District Coroner, returned a verdict of wilful murder by person or persons unknown.  Report of this murder in Freeman’s Journal, 29 June 1882.

7 The Proclamation was revoked in May 1885.

8 The police attempted to tear down the flag from the house at Castleview, 4 Killarney Road, but it was withdrawn and the door of the house was closed.  As the dignitaries were leaving Castleisland, an attempt at an ‘unfriendly demonstration at Pound Lane’ was defeated (St James’s Gazette, 9 September 1884). 

9 The Ballyseedy Estate was in the Court of the Irish Land Commission in 1889. Anne Poff appears to have retained the lease on the holding at Mountnicholas for the following case was heard in the Tralee Land Sessions of November 1891 in relation to it: 27a, 2r, 20p; valuation £7 15s; present rent £9 10s. Anne Poff, tenant, Arthur Blennerhassett, landlord (Mr Broderick for the tenant, Mr Downing for the landlord).  Mr Richard Mahony for the tenant valued the holding at £6 10s.  Mr Bateman for the landlord said a fair rent would be £9 10s.  His Honour fixed the future rent at £9 10s. 

10 In 1901, Anne Poff, shopkeeper, aged 50, was living at 3 Main Street, Castleisland with her daughter Elsie, age 20, and widowed mother-in-law, Mary, age 80, and, also a 5 year old niece, Hanna O’Sullivan.  The Census of Ireland 1911 reveals that by then, Elsie Poff had married Thomas Lawlor, a butcher, conducting the business at 3 Main Street.  Also resident her three children and two relatives, Madge and Hannah O’Sullivan, and her grandmother, Mary Poff, age 95. 

11 Nothing remains of the old Poff residence. It, and other outbuildings, was levelled about 50 years ago.  My thanks to Tony Marshall, Mountnicholas, who identified the place where the house formerly stood and in which ruin he played as a boy.  Thanks also to Mike Egan, Killeens, Bridie and Mary Landers, Mountnicholas, and Hannah Landers, Mountnicholas, who also assisted in this respect. The property may also have been earlier associated with the Quirke family.  Michael Quirke, Mountnicholas, died 17 May 1904, age 95.  He was father of Thomas Quirke of the Kerry People and Kerry Star.  His youngest son Daniel, age 25, died at Mountnicholas on 6 April 1900.  Another son, John Quirke, of Mountnicholas, died 20 March 1925.

12 Kerry News, 18 March 1931.  Rev George F Marshall (1859-1931) was born at Mountnicholas and educated at the Dominican College of Holy Cross, Tralee.  He was prominently identified with the Land League movement.  He went to the States c1882 from where in 1883 he continued his studies at Mount St Mary’s College, Emmittsburg, Maryland.  He subsequently attended Manhattan College from where he graduated in 1885.  He took his theological course in the Grand Seminary of Montreal and was ordained on 22 December 1888.  In the subsequent two years he was assistant at St Anne’s, Manchester from where he was sent to the missions of Coos County.  There he found a small church at North Stratford with missions at Colebrook and Percy.  Such was the poverty that Fr Marshall appealed for funds and was subsequently enabled to build St Brendan’s Church, Colebrook and establish a mission at West Stewartstown where he erected the Church of the Precious Blood (the land was donated by George Van Dyke).  By the establishment of this church, provision was made for people from three dioceses of Manchester, Burlington and Sherbrooke, Canada.  He built a parochial residence at North Stratford and established a mission at West Milan.  He preached from time to time in the Methodist church in Pittsburg in 1892.  In 1895, he went to St Patrick’s Church, Milford.  In September 1896 he spoke at the Irish Race Convention in Dublin (Reference: Supplement to The Sacred Heart Review, Boston, October 15 1898, pp6-7, which also contains an image of Rev Marshall).  Rev Marshall was later pastor of North Walpole, New Hampshire.  He died on 16 March 1931 and was buried in St Joseph Cemetery, Manchester, New Hampshire.  His father, Thomas Marshall, died at Mountnicholas on 20 November 1905 aged 88.

13 Kerry News, 18 March 1931. 

14 The Michael O’Donohoe Memorial Heritage Project is currently preparing an application for the Presidential Pardons of Sylvester Poff and James Barrett.