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
One such account, written by Margaret Urwin, gives a chilling
account of events in south Kilkenny on an August day in
Landlord Thomas Boyd and his two sons, Evans and Charles
and nephew, Gladwell, were travelling on their carraige,
towards Boyds 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 Boyds
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, Thomass 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, womens
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 fathers 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 Boyds brothers, doctors
John and James, were called for but were unable to save
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 familys 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 solicitors 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
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
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 Walters 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 Boyds 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 Walters 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
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
Hanging Crimes - When Ireland used the Gallows
Edited by Frank Sweeney
Published by Mercier Press, 2005
Courtesy of the Kilkenny People
May 20th 2005