‘Three Cheers for Castleisland’ – The Innocence of John Twiss

A newspaper illustration from the time of the ill-fated John Twiss trial in Cork at a time when only the inevitability of the gallows awaited him.

When Cordal’s, John Twiss was arrested on April 25th. 1894, within days of the brutal murder, at Glenlara, of farm caretaker James Donovan, he explained to officers that he and his sister Jane were financially dependent on the tolls of a local Kerry fair.

The fair, he informed them, was imminent, and he asked if he could be released temporarily, and re-arrested after the event.

The Castleisland based Michael O’Donohoe Memorial Heritage Project Manager Janet Murphy brings even more evidence to light here to add to the overwhelming case for the exoneration of and pardon for John Twiss.

Not the Response of a Guilty Man

This was hardly the response of a man accused of bludgeoning a caretaker to death with the butt end of a firearm in the presence of a child.

Indeed, Twiss’s response to his apprehension was that of an innocent man, who attached little importance to it because he had played no part in the attack.

Twiss was denied the freedom to attend the fair, and the precarity of his situation, the prospect of being used as a scapegoat, fell upon him.

From Arrest to Scaffold

He protested to Major Anthony Richard Hutchinson, resident magistrate, that he was ‘made suffer for some other downright blackguard’s doings.’

This indignation, from arrest to scaffold, over a period of more than eight months, never ceased.  His was the voice of an innocent man.

James Donovan of Ballineen

James Donovan was assaulted in his bed at Glenlara, in the house of evicted tenant, James T Keneally, on the night or early morning of Friday 20/Saturday 21 April 1894.

Donovan, native of Ballineen, Cork, where two of his brothers still lived, had been installed at Glenlara as caretaker, or ‘emergency-man.’

Cork Defence Union

Donovan was himself an evicted tenant but had been in the employment of the Cork Defence Union for about five years, most of which time he had spent as caretaker of an evicted farm in the neighbourhood of Coachford.

James Keneally and his wife Abina, and their eight children, had moved in with his bachelor brother, John Keneally, who occupied rooms in the same property.  It was an uncomfortable arrangement for all concerned.

The Keneallys heard the late night attack on Donovan within the house and as it continued in the yard outside.

A Moonlighters’ Raid

The Keneallys suspected a Moonlighters’ raid, and did not get involved.

John Keneally discovered the dying Donovan at about 5am when he rose to tend to cattle.

Donovan had somehow managed to make his way from the yard, to where he had been dragged and beaten, back to his bed where the bleeding, dying man lost his life at about 8am.

Nobody arrived in time to hear uttered any dying words.

Remained in Bed – Listening

One of the earliest accounts described the full horror:

Information given by John Keneally at the inquest suggested that James Donovan had cried out to him for what can only have been for help:

I was disturbed out of my sleep on Friday night by noise.  I was called, and I heard the noise.

I considered it was Donovan who called me, but my brother told me it was himself called me.  I remained in bed listening to the noise until I understood it was moonlighters, and I got up and opened the door to save the man.

Dangerous to Go Out

I saw one man, but my brother told me it might be dangerous to go out, and told me to stop inside, so I went back to bed again.

After that I remained listening, and the moonlighters came back again.  I heard them as if they were slapping Donovan’s door.

One of them said, ‘That will do now; that will do now.’  I considered then that I heard three revolver shots fired in the air, and I thought they were frightening the man.

I heard several voices then up in the room with him.  I was afraid to go out for fear he would blame me for not giving him assistance, or that I would be prosecuted in connection with it.

Screeching Heard from Donovan’s

This was corroborated by Mrs Abina Keneally, wife of the evicted James T Keneally, during a later examination.  She deposed that she was awakened on the 21st April by a noise, and she heard screeching in Donovan’s room.

There appeared to be quite a large number in the yard.  After a time she heard the voice of Donovan at the door crying, several times, ‘John Kenneally’ after which the door was struck.

She afterwards heard three strokes as if an empty box had been struck, and a voice saying, ‘Come on number one, that will do.’

Twiss Arrested Within Days

John Twiss was arrested within days of the savage attack while evidence was sought against him.The ‘evidence’ subsequently gathered would include that of informer, John Brosnan, said to be the grandson of Bridget Brosnan, the woman whose ‘evidence’ helped to hang Sylvester Poff and James Barrett in 1883.

It was generally believed that the police apprehended Twiss in an attempt to procure information from him about the perpetrators.

Police Under Pressure to Make Arrest

Police were under pressure to arrest and convict. Political capital was being made out of the case in parliament.

However, notwithstanding the politics of the day, there can be no doubt that the brutal slaying of James Donovan was fuelled by local events in which John Twiss of Castleisland played no part.

It can only be hoped that, 125 years on, the protestations of John Twiss may at last be heard in the form of a Presidential Pardon, and that the double tragedy of Glenlara may be, to some degree, reduced.