The Shanbogh Killing

Katharine Blake retells the tale of a murder in South Kilkenny in the 1800s
The death penalty, is an emotive and controversial issue and one which we, here in Ireland, may think, directly affects others, but not ourselves. It is surprising therefore, to discover that it is not so long ago that prisoners were being hanged in Mountjoy Prison, with the last person going to the gallows in 1944.

The threat of the death penalty remained until 1964 when it was abolished for murder, with the exception of murder of gardai, TDs and a few other restricted categories. The death penalty was enforced only a few times over the years that followed before being removed from the statute books in 1990 and then removed from the constitution following a referendum in 2002.

Memories of capital punishment in Ireland have been stirred recently with the publication of Hanging Crimes - When Ireland used the Gallows, a book containing 11 true stories of murder and its consequences for perpetrators, their families and communities.

One such account, written by Margaret Urwin, gives a chilling account of events in south Kilkenny on an August day in 1880.
Landlord Thomas Boyd and his two sons, Evans and Charles and nephew, Gladwell, were travelling on their carraige, towards Boyd’s out-farm in the townland of Shanbogh about a half a mile from their home at Chilcomb Lodge, and less than two miles from New Ross. It was Thomas Boyd’s habit to travel with some of his family to his out-farm every Sunday, unless it was raining. Charles, who was about to turn 21, was home for the holidays from Trinity College, where he was studying law. Gladwell, Thomas’s nephew, was visiting from Kilkenny. The party of four were travelling along what was then the Waterford Road when they reached the spot where the townlands of Shanbogh and Annaghs meet.

At this spot a disguised and masked man leapt out of a hedge at the corner of the field on the left-hand side of the road. At first, Thomas Boyd took the dancing man for a mummer, as there was a tradition in this area of mummers entertaining around harvest time. Ideas of entertainment soon disappeared though, when the man was followed by two others who were dressed from head to toe in white smocks and leggings, their faces covered by red masks and on their heads, women’s white linen caps. They were carrying rifles with fixed bayonets, later identified as breech-loading Enfield rifles, which were no longer used by the military and were therefore widely available to anyone with the money to buy. The first men covered the right hand side of the car where Thomas and Gladwell were seated, while the others two men confronted Evans and Charles. One of the men struck the bayoneted rifle in Evans’ face and when Evans pushed it away, the trigger was pulled and a bullet grazed his leg and burned his trousers. On hearing the shot, the other two men discharged their rifles. Galdwell deflected the rifle aimed at Thomas by hitting it with his whip resulting in Thomas receiving a minor wound to his shoulder. Charles, did not fare so well. A bullet entered his left side just under his heart, passed through his lung and exited to the right of his spine. This bullet then penetrated his father’s back but the injury was not serious. All of this happened in just a few seconds, after which, Thomas Boyd grabbed the whip and drove away at top speed shouting “murderers”.

The attackers were not fast enough to keep upon with the carraige and gave up the chase after a short distance. Gladwell, who had jumped from the carraige, ran through the fields to Chilcomb Lodge, where Thomas Boyd’s brothers, doctors John and James, were called for but were unable to save Charles.

That evening, gentry from all around came to Chilcomb Lodge to offer their sympathy to the family and on August 12, people from all classes turned out for Charles’ funeral. The family’s standing was such that the murder was mentioned in the House of Commons.

So why would anyone want to risk their own lives for the murder of Thomas Boyd and his sons? As with any story of wrongdoing, there were eye-witness accounts, supposition, rumour and couterremour.

Thomas Boyd had bought the townland of Shanbogh in the parish of Rosbercon in 1872, having previously been a tenant on the land himself. Boyd had a thriving solicitor’s practice in New Ross where many of his clients were landlords whose tenants Boyd pursued for outstanding rents. Boyd was also the crown prosecutor for Tipperary and sessional crown solicitor for Kilkenny.

Having bought Shanbogh from the Warburton family, who had been financially ruined by the Famine, Boyd found himself with 30 tenants. He had the land revalued and raised the rents but five of the tenants refused to pay. One of these was Margaret Forristal, from whom Bishop Laurence Forristal is descended. Boyd removed Margaret Forristal and her family, paying her compensation under the Land Act. Two brothers Richard and Michael Phelan, their sister Anastasia Holden and John Shea also refused to pay. Anastasia Holden, a widow lived close to Shanbogh crossroads with her two sons, John and James and her daughter, Anastasia. Michael Phelan died in 1878 and his son, James took over the 88-acre farm where he lived with his wife, Johanna and his two brothers, John and Walter.
Immediately after the murder, Evans Boyd identified John and Walter Phelan as two of the men involved in the attack. John and James were arrested, along with ten others and the consequent magisterial inquiry was held over three days in the last weeks of August in the grand jury room in Kilkenny.

Tensions were running high in the countryside and the Shanbogh Defence Fund, set up in support of the men, received £40 from the Irish National Land League. A number of witnesses and people who had been in the vicinity of the crime, were removed to Dublin and held for their own protection following attacks on them in Kilkenny and New Ross.

The case was set to be heard in Kilkenny in March 1881 but was moved to Dublin and postponed until June.

During the trail of Walter Phelan, the jury heard witness account for Walter’s whereabouts at the time of the murder and they also heard tales of three strangers who had been seen in the locality the day before the murder. In the end, the only evidence against Walter Phelan and Evans Boyd’s identification of him and he was acquitted. It was then decided that the case against John Phelan would not go ahead and both men were released on July 1, 1881. Their physical health upon release was good, thanks to the food brought by friends and family during their time in prison but Walter’s mental health and suffered greatly. He was eventually admitted to Kilkenny District Mental Asylum in 1883 where he lived until his death in 1944 at the age of 87.

John Phelan lived with his brother, James for the rests of his life. Chilcomb Lodge was demolished at the end of the last century and the descendants of the Boyds, the Phelans and the Holdens have all disappeared from the area with the exception of the descendants of Johanna Phelan, daughter of James and Johanna, who still farm at Shanbogh Crossroads today.

Hanging Crimes - When Ireland used the Gallows
Edited by Frank Sweeney
Published by Mercier Press, 2005
Courtesy of the Kilkenny People
May 20th 2005