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A Gallows Confession in Early Stuart Ireland

This blog post was written by Dr Coleman A. Dennehy, of the Humanities Institute, University College Dublin.

Twitter – @ColemanDennehy

Mary Babington lady dowager to Christofer late Lo: Baron of Dunsany, was murthered at Clonny by honora ny Caffery (nurse to one of her children) the xixth of March 1609. Shee lefte issue Patricke now Lo: Baron of Dunsany aged aboute fifteen yeeres & a daughter. A knave not longe after executed for an other crime, cleared this wretched woman (who had suffered beinge burnte) & tooke the murther uppon himselfe.[i]

Above is the funeral entry for the Lady Dowager Dunsany, who was killed in Spring 1609 at Clonee, just west of Blanchardstown on the Meath/Dublin border. What is noticeable is that a text that was usually reserved to detail the funerals of the great and good of Irish society, the demise of Honora Ní Caffery takes up as much, if not more of the entry, and it certainly leaves an impression on the reader. But to those intimately familiar with seventeenth-century Ireland, it may not be that outrageous.

Early modern society was particularly violent, and the behavior of prolific men such as the earl of Castlehaven (ordering his servant to rape his wife)[ii], the lord Dunboyne (killing a relative)[iii], or the Lord Howth (extremely brutal assaults of his butler, wife, and daughter, committing probable manslaughter against the latter)[iv] provide example of just how violent the domestic sphere could be. So too, it wasn’t uncommon to find women who murdered in the domestic environment, such as Jane Comerford killing her husband in Tipperary in 1675, surviving for at least a time by ‘benefit of her belly’ (claiming pregnancy)[v], or two women in Galway in 1652, executed for killing children.[vi]

This alleged matronacide was somewhat different. A servant killing her mistress represented an inversion of the ‘natural order’ of society and was genuinely shocking to contemporaries. Under common law, this represented a petty-treason. Reform of the law of murder in Ireland in 1495 had upgraded all murders to high treason, and so all murders now carried a sentence of hanging, drawing, and quartering for males and burning for females, hence the sentence for Ní Caffery above.[vii] It would appear that the authorities in 1495 felt would-be criminals didn’t fear a traditional hanging and hence the need to ‘get tough on crime’. It is difficult to say whether Ní Caffery was alive when she was burned. Conventional thought on the punishment in England is that at least sometimes the individual might, as a humane favour, have been strangled in advance of ignition, although in cases where society demanded suffering of the convicted person, this was not always the case.

Why then the gallows confession by the unidentified ‘knave’ after he had been convicted and was awaiting sentence to be carried out for another crime, which was most likely a murder? All felonies could carry a death sentence, but it was not altogether often seen for crimes other than murders and regular political treasons. Although we can’t be sure, there was unlikely to have been any practical benefit to his late-founded honesty. If anything, it would surely have turned public and judicial opinion more firmly against him. If he had been convicted of something other than murder or treason, his hanging would now have been upgraded to hanging, drawing, and quartering whilst still alive, followed by the dismemberment and public display of his body parts. Perhaps there was a remorse that he felt the need to publicly acknowledge his initial wrong-doing and the subsequent horror that the maid-servant experienced, or perhaps it was in an effort to preserve or promote the salvation of his soul in advance of his impending doom. Maybe he felt empowered by illustrating the unfairness of the system and the inability of the criminal justice system to provide justice for the lady dowager and also for her most unfortunate servant. Ultimately, it is impossible to say.

Reminded some years back by Sir Anthony Hart (now sadly departed), a case like this makes me think of a statement by the duke of Ormond (1610-88), lord lieutenant of Ireland for three terms and the dominant political force in seventeenth-century Ireland. Usually eager to be lenient, Ormond opined that whereas a reprieved man might be hanged, a hanged man could never be reprieved.[i]

Dr Coleman A. Dennehy

Humanities Institute

University College Dublin

Twitter – @ColemanDennehy

[i] National Library of Ireland, Geneological Office MS 66: Funeral Entries, vol. 3, 1604-1622, f. 21v.

[ii] C.B. Herrup, A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehave (Oxford, 1999).

[iii] C.A. Dennehy, ‘Nisi per legale judicium parium suorum: Trial by peer in the criminal trial in early modern Ireland’ in P. Crooks & T. Mohr, Law and the idea of liberty in Ireland from Magna Carta to the present (Dublin, Forthcoming).

[iv] British Library, London, Add. MS, 47,172, ff39-42.

[v] National Library of Ireland, MS 4,908, [n.p.], Autumn assize, 1675.

[vi] R. Dunlop, ed., Ireland under the Commonwealth, being a selection of documents relating to the government of Ireland from 1651 to 1659 (Manchester, 19113), p. 271. On this occasion, ‘the two women, condemned to be burnt for murdering two children, be hanged instead, according to English law’.

[vii] 10 Hen. VII, c. 21 (Ir.).

[i] Bodleian Library, Oxford, Carte MS, vol. 219, f. 520.

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