The Dublin Gazette, established in 1750 and published semi-weekly in the capital city, was the successor to an earlier newspaper, the ‘Dublin Intelligence’. The latter paper was sponsored by the Williamite Government, although it was owned and published by Robert Thornton who had started an earlier newssheet called ‘The Newsletter’ in 1685.
Quite recently Bill Gibson has done extensive research of County Kildare references in the Dublin Gazette and has made the fruits of that research available on the Kildare Local History website. Going through the website last night I was fascinated to find that most of the Athy references in the Dublin Gazette in the period 1767 to 1769 concerned murders or other criminal activity. The one exception related to the receipt of £20.00 from the estate of the late John Harrington for the purchase of a clock for the church of Athy, with the remainder to be distributed amongst the poor of the parish. The church referred to was of course the building which housed and served the established Church of England and which was located at the rear of Market Square between the Market House and the buildings fronting onto what in those days was known as ‘Rotten Row’. Nowadays its location would be described as between the rear of the Town Hall and the buildings on the south side of Emily Square, running from the corner of Emily Row down towards the front gardens of the Abbey. I’m not sure if that clock was ever provided, for if it was, it disappeared after the Market Square Church was demolished following the opening of the new Church at the top of Offaly Street in the 1830s.
The first murder reference was in the ‘Dublin Gazette’ of 14th-17th February 1767 when it recorded ‘Murder in Athy’ – the victim being Patrick Knowles, mariner ‘of His Majesty’s ship Antelope but last of the Rainbow where he acquired an extraordinary good character.’ George Scott was reported as having been captured while ‘heading towards Munster on the road to Carlow and is now in gaol’. Luke Smith, his accomplice, was believed to have reached Dublin and a reward was offered for his capture.
The next reference to Athy in the Dublin Gazette was in the edition for 1st to 5th September 1767 when it was reported: ‘Luke Smith, Richard Scott, George Brown and Edward Brown were tried at Athy for the murder of Patrick Knowles – they were found guilty of manslaughter at large – ordered to be burned on the hands and imprisoned for six months.’
The punishment of ‘burning on the hands’ was a development over years of a punishment meted out in Tudor times to persons who committed manslaughter. This was an offence which like many other even less serious offences attracted the death penalty. Prior to hanging however, the convicted prisoners right hand was cut off, an action which over time also became the accepted form of punishment for convicted thieves. This rather harsh punishment eventually gave way to ‘burning of the hand’, a reference to which can be found in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. So Messrs Smith, Scott and the two Browns suffered burning of the hands, how and to what extent we don’t know, before they were marched off to the town gaol then located in White’s Castle.
The following year, 1768, just a short time before Christmas, the 13th-15th December edition of the Dublin Gazette reported another murder in Athy. This time it was Nicholas Robinson, described as ‘a poor labourer who was most inhumanely murdered on Tuesday in Athy.’ Two members of the 3rd Regiment of Horse, William Belfield and James Flood, were believed to have been the murderers and a reward of £10 was offered ‘to apprehend them’. The troopers might have been part of a troop of cavalry stationed in the Cavalry Barracks at Barrack Lane, Athy. Athy had been a base for the Princess Charlottes of Wales Dragoon Guards since 1717 and they were stationed there on and off over the years until 1878. The Princess Charlottes of Wales Dragoon Guards were nicknamed ‘the Old Farmers’ and were generally recruited from the Bristol and Chester areas. The reference in the Dublin Gazette to the 3rd Regiment of Horse may not be correct as the 3rd Regiment of Horse established in 1685 was by 1746 known as the ‘2nd Queen Dragoon Guards’. I can find no record of the 2nd Queen Dragoon Guards having been based in the Athy Cavalry Barracks. There is no follow-up report in the Dublin Gazette to show if those believed to be responsible for Nicholas Robinson’s murder were ever apprehended or brought to justice.
One man however who may have suffered the consequence of his brutal action was William Nicholson, a labourer who was committed to Athy Gaol in 1769 for raping ‘Catherine Fitzgerald, a poor servant girl who was sent with Nicholson’s dinner to the field where he was working.’ The Gazette ended its short report of the crime by noting ‘it is not many months since a man was executed at Athy for the same type of crime’.
The executions at that time were believed to have been carried out on rising ground alongside the main approach road to the town at Gallowshill. Every medieval town of any substance had its Gallowshill and we have retained the name in the townland which a decade or so ago revealed its grizzly past when skeleton remains were found there. Nowadays not a week goes by without a report of a murder in some part or other of ‘Ireland of the Welcomes’. I can still remember the excitement (if this is not a strange term to describe the feeling) felt as a young lad when reading of the tragic murders which infrequently took place in Ireland in the 1950s.
A few years ago I got a phone call from a person I had never met asking me if I knew anything about the murder of Fanny Harris, a young girl who was murdered at Ballyroe, Churchtown sometime at the turn of the previous century. The person who contacted me had a family link to the young girl but yet could not tell me the year of the foul murder. ‘You should write about it’ prompted my caller. I did some newspaper research following that and could find nothing and a second phone call from the same person many months later prompted me to talk to some people in the locality. I visited Churchtown Graveyard and found a grave marker with the young girls name, but without any dates which would set me on the trail of relevant newspaper reports. Finally I interviewed the late John Fennin and amongst folk memory material which he kindly shared with me was some background information on the murder of Frances Harris. Still the year of her murder could not be identified, memories having slipped and others to whom I talked only heard of what happened and when by virtue of second or third hand accounts. The story eventually came together when I chanced upon a newspaper reference and discovered that 13 year old Frances Harris was murdered on a summer evening in 1898 while walking from her aunt’s house to her parents home approximately ½ a mile away.
I never got around to writing up the story surrounding the murder of Frances Harris and the subsequent trial of her alleged murderer. Reading the entries from the Dublin Gazette compiled by Bill Gibson prompts me to revisit the story of Frances Harris for a future Eye on the Past.