John Joe McGinley
THE French sociologist, Gustave de Beaumont, visited Ireland in 1835 and wrote: “I have seen the Indian in his forests, and the Negro in his chains, and thought, as I contemplated their pitiable condition, that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did not then know the condition of unfortunate Ireland… In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland.”
It was into this landscape that Patrick O’Donnell (above) was born in the Donegal townland of Min An Chladaigh. Little is known of his early life, but he was still a child when An Gorta Mór, the great hunger, began in 1845.
Like so many of his fellow Irish men and women he was forced to flee Ireland as hunger and disease stalked the land.
He had family in America and he left to pursue a new life in the anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania.
His American cousins worked as miners and joined the Molly Maguires fighting for improved working conditions in the harsh environment of the Pennsylvanian mines. The Molly Maguires were an Irish secret society named after anti-landlord activities in their native land.
Patrick’s family were key members of the Maguires and involved in some of the highest profile acts of sabotage in the struggle.
The mine owners had a determination to break the Maguires and brutal tactics including murder had not been uncommon. It was decided that the ring leaders, including the O’Donnells, would be killed. An attack was made and many of the O’Donnells died, in what was to become known as the Wiggans Patch Massacre.
Some members of the family escaped, including Patrick, and they resolved to retaliate against those involved in the maiming and murder of their friends and relations.
In this highly charged situation it was clear that Patrick O’Donnell was now in grave danger.
Kevin Kenny—in his book Making sense of the Molly Maguires—suggests it was at this stage in 1882 that O’Donnell resolved to leave America and return to Ireland.
A violent Ireland
Ireland was also experiencing equally violent events in 1882.
On a warm evening on May 6, 1882, Thomas Henry Burke, the most senior civil servant in Ireland, decided to enjoy a walk through the Phoenix Park. He was unaware that assassins had decided he had to die, in the fightback against British rule in Ireland.
As he began his walk, he came upon the coach of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the newly appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland—who was also a nephew of the British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone.
Cavendish decided to join Burke on his walk, in what would turn out to be a fateful choice.
As both men walked through the park they were attacked and stabbed by a man who killed them both with a hospital scalpel. In what became to be known as the Phoenix Park Murders.
A Republican group called the ‘Irish National Invincibles’ claimed responsibility for the killings.
The group is usually referred to as the ‘Invincibles’ and grew as a splinter group of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret society dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland.
The Invincibles had been extremely active in Dublin between 1881 and 1883 with a plan to kill as many of the Dublin Castle establishment as possible.
As Lord Cavendish was Gladstone’s nephew the investigation to catch the killer was extremely high profile and led by the British states premier police man in Ireland, Superintendent John Mallon.
Shrewdly intelligent, Mallon was a Catholic from Armagh. Mallon’s ‘G’ division was a unit of plainclothes detectives who were often tasked with spying, recruitment of informers, prevention of political violence and apprehension of Irish Republicans in the 19th century.
Mallon arrested a number of suspects, and among them was James Carey, a town councilman in Dublin.
Carey was a high ranking member of the Invincibles and involved in the planning of the attack. He decided to turn Queens’s Evidence and agreed to testify against his fellow conspirators.
British retribution was swift, because of Carey’s testimony five men were found guilty and sentenced to die. Between May and June 1883, Joe Brady, Daniel Curley, Thomas Caffrey, Michael Fagan and Tim Kelly hanged at Kilmainham jail.
As for James Carey, he was granted a pardon and given a new identity and had his passage paid to South Africa.
Using his new identity of James Power, he left Ireland with his wife and seven children departing on the Steamer Kinfauns Castle. He later changed boats to ‘The Melrose’ for the final part of his long voyage.
Little did he know that fellow passengers on both boats were Patrick O’Donnell and his wife.
A fateful encounter
O’Donnell had left America to return to Donegal. He then travelled to London to begin his journey to South Africa.
On the long voyage James Carey or as he was now known ‘James Power,’ kept his true identity a nervous secret. However, while drinking in a Cape Town bar before the final part of the voyage, his mask slipped.
In a drunken argument watched by Patrick O’Donnell, Carey waved a revolver. The bar man became aware of Carey’s true identity and informed O’Donnell, who then began to form a friendship with Carey.
All was quiet, until the evening of July 29, 1883. The two men had been drinking in the Second Class compartment of The Melrose when shots rang out.
With The Melrose just off the coast of Table Bay, O’Donnell shot Carey in the neck using a pistol he had smuggled aboard. As Carey staggered from the table and tried to flee, O’Donnell rose and then shot Carey twice in the back. Carey fell dead. It was clear the Invincibles now had their revenge!
O’Donnell was arrested and sent back to London to stand trial.
Trial and execution
O’Donnell’s trial took place in London at the Old Bailey courts from November 30 to December 1, 1883. Again, the British Prime Minister Gladstone wished the case to have the highest profile and the judge was one of the establishment’s greatest supporters, Judge George Denham.
The prosecution was led by the Attorney General Sir Henry James.
As for the Defence, this was the responsibility of Sir Charles Russell MP who would later go on to become the Lord Chief Justice of England.
Such was the interest of Irish Americans in the trial, that money was raised to send a noted American lawyer, General Roger A Pryor, to help defend O’Donnell and assist Russell.
Pryor, who had been a general in the losing Confederate Army during the American Civil War, was present in only an advisory role. This was because as he was not a member of the bar in the UK, he could not legally act on O’Donnell’s behalf.
The prosecution had no proof that O’Donnell had been sent by the Invincibles to murder Carey, their case instead rested on the testimony of a key witness Robert Cubbitt.
Cubbitt testified that he had informed O’Donnell of Carey’s true identity when he recognised him from an article in the Dublin Weekly Freeman.
The court was shown a copy of this which had a portrait of Carey and a story on his involvement with the Invincibles.
Cubbitt told the court room he had shown O’Donnell this magazine and Patrick had then told him: “If it’s Carey, then I’ll shoot him.”
The fact a similar portrait of Carey was found among O’Donnell’s possessions seemed to seal the case for the prosecution.
This was further compounded when Carey’s wife took the stand and in her evidence she claimed that O’Donnell had told her after the event: “I was sent to do it.”
The defence put forward an argument of self-defence, however, it was claimed that witnesses could only recall seeing one pistol, that in O’Donnell’s possession.
O’Donnell’s defence counsel Charles Russell MP argued that given the nervous state of mind that Carey was in and that he was also continually fearful of exposure, he most certainly had a gun on his person at all times.
Russell’s arguments for the defence lasted four hours and concluded with the assertion that Carey did produce a pistol and that this very pistol had been found in his son’s procession when police arrived.
It was to no avail. After the jury deliberated for only two hours and at 9pm on December 1, Patrick O’Donnell was found guilty of the murder of James Carey and sentenced to death by hanging.
Given the high profile of the case several pleas were made for clemency including from the writer Victor Hugo.
Irish Americans lobbied the President Chester A Arthur who officially petitioned on behalf of O’Donnell, once it was determined he had acquired American citizenship.
The British government protested this plea for clemency and it was denied.
Patrick O’Donnell was executed on December 17, 1883. He was hanged at Newgate prison.
Though buried in London, a poignant ceremony later took place in his native Gweedore.
On January 22, 1884 a mass was held to repose the soul of Patrick O’Donnell. An empty coffin was then interned in the O’Donnell family plot and his coffin bore the inscription: “Sacred to the memory of Patrick O’Donnell, executed at London, December 17, 1883.”
In New York an Irish Republican ladies’ group arranged for a memorial to be erected in Glasnevin cemetery. It reads: “In Memory of Patrick O’Donnell. Who heroically gave up his life for Ireland in London, England, December 17, 1883. Not tears but prayers for the dead who died for Ireland.”
A plaque commemorating O’Donnell’s execution stands at his birthplace, Mín an Chladaigh.
A monument to Patrick O’Donnell was unveiled in 1956 by Cormac Breslin TD. A Celtic cross stands beside Pete’s bar its inscription reads as follows: “I ndíl chuimhe ar Phádraig Ó Domhnaill as paróiste Ghaoth Dobhair a cuireadh chun báis i bpríosún Newgate i Londain ar an 17 Nollaig 1883 de thairbhe a ard dhílseachta d’Éirinn,” which translates as: “In memory of Patrick O’Donnell from the parish of Gweedore who was put to death in Newgate Prison in London on December 17, 1883 because of his high loyalty to Ireland.
It may be 134 years since Patrick O’Donnell was executed, but his fascinating story and his memory are still remembered in his native Gweedore, and long may that continue.