Remember Poff and Barrett – The Michael O’Donohoe Collection

National Graves Association representative, John Houlihan (left) with the O’Reilly brothers: James (back) and John Joe and the memorial stone they cut for the NGA to the memory of Sylvester Poff and James Barrett which was unveiled at Dromulton in March 1998. Photograph: John Reidy 6-3-1998
Records show that John Poyntz Spencer (1835-1910) fifth Earl Spencer and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland met a cool reception in Castleisland in 1884.

With the necessary documentation for the pardon of John Twiss (1860 – 1895) having been lodged in the department of justice and with Minister Charlie Flanagan, TD, the campaign sponsors, the Michael O’Donohoe Memorial Heritage Project Committee wishes to draw the attentions of all concerned to the infamous and still lingering injustice handed down to two friends with the now inseparable surnames: Poff and Barrett. 

Here, the O’Donohoe project manager outlines the case for a pardon for the two men who went to the gallows in Ballymullen in Tralee on January 23rd. 1883.

Remember Poff and Barrett 

Mountnicholas, Ballymacelligott,  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.

By: Janet Murphy

The rents on the farms made vacant were ‘in every case double the government valuation, in many instances nearly treble.

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

Farm Eviction

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.

Poff Arrested

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.

George Marshall was again arrested on 28 January 1882, charged with inciting persons to pay no rent.

Suffering Oppression

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.’

A Family to Support

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.

The Plight of Poff

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.

Back to Their Owners

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.

Lifted Up the Green

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.

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.

Poff’s Solid Alibi

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, Dromulton for the murder of Barrett’s neighbour Thomas Browne of Dromulton on October 3rd.1882.

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

The Scrutiny of The Law

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 local 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.

Force of Constabulary

On July 24th 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.’

On the Fair Day of September 8th. 1884, the Lord Lieutenant passed through an unsettlingly quiet Castleisland.

Remember Poff And Barrett

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’

Cool Reception in Castleisland

John Poyntz Spencer (1835-1910) fifth 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.

In a Letter Home

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

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.

No Breast Plates

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.’

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 and to gain justice.

Remember Poff and Barrett.