They Hanged John Twiss – the Michael O’Donohoe Memorial Collection

John Twiss c1894 – image courtesy Dr. Paul Dillon.
John Twiss c1894 – image courtesy Dr. Paul Dillon.

The Michael O’Donohoe Memorial Heritage Project contains many items of important, historical significance in its huge collection.

Among these items are research notes on John Twiss of Ardmona, who was hanged in Cork County Jail on February 9th 1895 for the murder, on 21 April 1894, of James Donovan, a caretaker of an evicted farm at Glenlara near Newmarket in County Cork.

Twiss, who resided with his sister Jane in a cottage in Cordal, was widely believed to have been innocent of the murder. A song, John Twiss of Castleisland, written by a neighbour, Eugene O’Meara of Ardmona, Cordal recorded the event.

Farewell my dearest sister Jane, your fond and last adieu,

At the early age of thirty-five I now must part from you,

For the murder of James Donovan I am now condemned to die

On the ninth of February ninety-five upon the scaffold high.

John Twiss from Castleisland, it’s true it is my name

I never did commit a crime, why I should deny that same

I own I was a sportsman, with spirit light and gay,

But paid spies and informers, my life they swore away.

Still Sung Today

The song is still sung today and you’ll hear it regularly at the Saturday afternoon singing sessions at Fagin’s Bar during the Patrick O’Keeffe Traditional Music Festival.

As with all of the O’Donohoe papers in the collection, these have been collated and digitised by the project manager, Janet Murphy.

Dr. Paul Dillon of UCD, a great friend and supporter of the project, supplied the rare photograph of John Twiss.

Trial and Conviction

Following the trial and conviction, which took place in Cork in January 1895, a reprieve campaign was organised and more than forty thousand signatures collected in Ireland and Britain.  Lord Lieutenant, Lord Houghton and Chief Secretary John Morley, however, refused to intervene.

His speech from the dock, published in the Kerry Sentinel and Kerry Weekly Reporter (12 January 1895) was composed mainly of questions and illustrated his absolute bewilderment in the face of the proceedings against him.

Twiss wondered how the police, without a ‘four-penny bit under their foot unknownst to them’ could have brought such a case, ‘you will never see a man as innocent as I am of the charge’.

Poff and Barrett

Twiss compared his circumstance to that of Poff and Barrett:

Two innocent men hanged here before – Poff and Barrett – and now they have me here hanging me wrongfully, the third man up from Kerry … After the murder and the hanging of Poff and Barrett, it should be an eye-opener to all the juries of Ireland, to take a murder case into larger consideration than five minutes.

Twiss also alluded to police corruption: ‘It is a frightful thing if I took bribery money and hanged innocent people. Death before dishonour. Hang me before you’ll hang a man.

Clasped her Hand

After the trial Twiss’s sister Jane travelled to Cork where she met her brother in the prison in early February 1895. They spoke through the bars and their parting was described as ‘most trying’ to witness. ‘He clasped her hand for the last time … the girl was borne away by the nuns in an almost insensible condition’.

The nuns were the Sisters of Mercy of the Convent of St Marie’s of the Isle who had supported Twiss during his incarceration.  Jane also received friendship and support from a stranger:

She had never been much away from home and was quite lost and apparently without a friend.  A Mrs M’Namara, wife of a saddler, in Dominick Street and herself a Kerrywoman, hearing of the miserable and solitary condition of the young woman, found out her lodging and insisted that she would accompany her home and stay with her as a guest. Here she has since resided in comparative comfort and amongst friends.

Lined by Suffering

Jane was described as ‘aged nearly 30, has thin features, refined in expression and now much lined by suffering. She is tall and slender but apparently strong.  Her dress was that of Kerry peasant girls, including the characteristic brown shawl with shoulder circle patterns woven into it.  Her headdress was her light brown hair’

Jane was not among the hundreds who gathered outside Cork prison on the morning of 9 February 1895. At eight o’clock the tolling of a bell and the hoisting of a black flag told that all was over.

At a signal from the Mayor all that vast throng surging outside the prison walls dropped to its knees on the snow and prayers, fervent and long, were offered up for the peace of the troubled soul that had gone.

Appointed Caretaker of Kilmurry and Kilmanihan

In June 1895 Jane was appointed caretaker for Kilmurry and Kilmanihan graveyards, a position which had been held by her brother. She had a son, Denis Cronin (1901-1985) who in a memorial notice revealed his mother did not long survive her brother:

In remembrance of my dear uncle, John Joe Twiss, Ardmona, Cordal, Castleisland, Co Kerry, who was executed in Cork Prison on 9th February 1895 for Moonlighting; also my mother, Jane Twiss, died 18th November 1902, also my father, Michael Cronin, died 20th May 1936.  Inserted by Denis Cronin, wife and family.

Death-Bed Confession

A few years after the death of Jane, it was claimed that a man who was shot in Canada during a robbery made a dying confession to the ‘Kilbane murder’ in Limerick (September 1900) and also to participation in the Glenlara murder for which Twiss had been innocently hanged (Kerry Sentinel, 8 March 1905).

A memorial to John Twiss was unveiled by his nephew Denis Cronin at Cordal on 5 August 1984, a year before Denis passed away.

You’ll find the full story on the hanging of John Twiss in the just launched Michael O’Donohoe Memorial Heritage Project website with a click on the link here:

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