In 1882 the Ma’amtrasna murders, the brutal killing of several members of the Joyce family in rural Galway, caused outrage in Irish society and remains one of the most notorious homicides in Irish history. However a few years later Cork was rocked by an equally heinous case which has largely been forgotten, writes Fin Dwyer.
The deaths of four members of the Sheehan family outside Castletownroche in a dispute over land revealed what was at times a dangerous obsession with land in Irish society but also a community willing to turn a blind eye to extreme violence.
ON January 20th 1886, William Sheehan was taken from his cell in Cork Jail. He was brought the short distance to the prison chapel for a brief mass before dawn.
Then he began what was his final journey to the execution chamber in the prison where he was hanged at 8am.
William Sheehan suffered a lonely death. This was unsurprising; he was among the most reviled men in Ireland at the time.
One journalist commented that if there was an argument in favour of the death sentence it was in the case of [this] cold blooded triple murderer.
Sheehan’s downfall began when he was evicted from his farm during the Land War after which he had been forced to emigrate.
He had relocated to New Zealand where he and his wife Mary Anne started a new life.
However within a few months a gruesome discovery back in Ireland had changed everything.
Less than a year after Sheehan had emigrated his former neighbours were cleaning out an old disused well. Over seventy feet beneath the surface they discovered the decaying remains of William Sheehan’s mother Catherine, his sister Hanna and brother Thomas.
Arrests were made in the local area, however the RIC quickly identified William himself as the main suspect.
Somewhat remarkably he was tracked down in New Zealand and William Sheehan was brought back to stand trial for the murder of his mother, sister and brother in Cork.
While he protested his innocence throughout his trial, he admitted to the crime after he was found guilty. In his admission he claimed he had murdered his family members because his mother would not allow him marry a woman of his choosing.
The case was not simply an ill-fated romance that had gone terribly wrong; it revealed the dark unbelly of a society that was obsessed with land and property.
William Sheehan was born into a relatively well off farming family at Carrigdownane outside Castletownroche on the eve of the Great Famine.
Along with a farm of over twenty acres of fertile land at the edge of the Golden Vale, the Sheehans also owned a pub in the nearby village of Rockmills. This shielded the family from the worst deprivation of the Great Hunger.
Indeed while the famine devastated Irish society, the Sheehans were among those in a position to take advantage as the economy recovered in the following decades.
Despite the death of his father, the family farm tripled in size by the 1870s. When William’s mother decided to settle the matter of inheritance in 1877 this inevitably lead to growing tensions.
With several children, the arrangements were complex.
William, as the oldest son living at home, was set to inherit the farm. In what was a common custom his mother Catherine along with his siblings Thomas and Hanna, both in their twenties planned to leave the family home in order to allow William start his own family.
Therefore given Catherine, Thomas and Hanna faced an uncertain economic future, William had to compensate them.
To finalise this complex arrangement William himself would marry and his wife’s dowery would be used to pay off his family members.
Marriage in this situation was little more than an economic transaction between the respective families. Where love for the land ended and affections for a future wife began was impossible to determine. Attraction and love was very much a secondary issue – it was the size of his future wife’s dowery that mattered most.
William Sheehan began courting Mary Anne Browne, a woman he appeared to have genuine feelings for, but crucially her family were also wealthy local farmers.
Negotiations over the marriage began with William’s mother Catherine insisting on a dowery of £300. However Mary Anne’s father James was unwilling to pay more than £170 and with neither willing to compromise, the negotiations collapsed. The entire marriage was cancelled.
This not only jeopardised William’s relationship but cast his entire future in doubt. If his mother insisted on a dowery of £300 he might struggle to find anyone willing to marry him and he would be unable to inherit.
From his mother’s perspective she could not concede to her son’s demand that she lower her price. With two other children and her own future to consider, a small dowery would leave her impoverished.
It was in this increasingly tense situation William set his mind on his deadly course of action.
Before Midday on October 22nd 1877 he committed the cold blooded premeditated triple murder.
He attacked his brother Thomas in the farmyard, before going into the house where he killed his mother Catherine and sister Hanna. Later that night the bodies were dumped into the disused well and covered in lime where they would remain until they were rediscovered in 1884.
William claimed his family had moved away and less than a month later he married Mary Anne Browne.
His happiness did not last however.
In the following years Ireland was hit by a deep recession. The Sheehan’s fell into deep arrears and were evicted by their landlord in 1882.
In the following year he and his wife Mary Anne emigrated to New Zealand however within months of their departure their neighbours discovered the remains of his family members in the well.
This led to a sensational trial in December in Cork in 1885 where he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Sheehan was executed in Cork prison on January 20th 1886 however the entire case left many asking questions of the wider community of Carrigdownane. After the murders William Sheehan had been pressed about what had happened to his family. His answers were unconvincing and suspicious. Yet in the small tight knit community of Carrigdownane the friends and neighbours of Catherine, Thomas and Hanna Sheeh
an ignored the evidence that suggested something nefarious had taken place.
Furthermore John Sheehan, whose mother and siblings had vanished reacted in a very odd manner. When pushed on the matter, William claimed they had moved to Nenagh to open a pub there.
Remarkably John never travelled to the North Tipperary town to investigate this further. He had reasons to turn a blind eye. John Sheehan also benefitted from his brother’s crime. After the death of his mother he was able to transfer the family pub in Rockmills into his name while he also received a share of Mary Anne Brownes dowery.
The Castletownroche murders have been almost entirely forgotten; eclipsed by events like the Ma’amtrasna and Phoenix Murders. No less sensational, the events in Cork however struck a nerve deep in Irish society – reflecting similar tensions that existed in many families.
The complete stories of Cork's Castletownroche murders is available in a two part podcast series ‘A Land to Die For’.
Fin Dwyer is a historian and creator of the Irish History Podcast. The series has been running since 2010 has covered topics from the Norman Invasion to the Great Hunger.