The Big Read: John Twiss: Hanged for a crime he didn't commit

A BBC series in 2017 on murder mysteries that looked at the case of John Twiss came to the conclusion he was wrongly convicted and hanged for murder. It was time for his family to act, reports Mick Clifford
The Big Read: John Twiss: Hanged for a crime he didn't commit

Denis and Helen Sayers at  John Twiss's monument at Cordal, Castleisland, County Kerry. John Twiss is expected  to receive a posthumouis pardon from President Higgins. Picture: Don MacMonagle

IN THE early hours of April 21, 1894, somebody entered a house occupied by James Donovan intent on murder. The house was in the townland of Glenlara, about 6km from Newmarket, Co Cork.

Donovan would not have been a popular figure. He acted as an agent for landlords, occupying houses from which tenants were evicted until a more permanent solution could be found for the properties.

Ironically, he had been evicted from his own home a few years previously, but the experience apparently did not alienate him from the landlord class. The role he performed was known as an “emergency man”.

On the night in question, he was occupying a section of the house from which the tenant, James Kenneally, had been evicted. Kenneally and his family then moved into another “portion” of the house, which was occupied by his brother John and his family.

In total, there were four adults and 10 children living in a couple of rooms in that part of the house. Donovan, by contrast, had the rest of the house to himself. He was staying there with his seven-year-old son.

Somebody at some point in the early hours attacked Donovan and beat him savagely. The Kenneallys heard the racket being made by the attack but they didn’t come out of their rooms.

They would later say they assumed it was moonlighters. The moonlighters were a nationalist group which took part in land agitation against landlords on behalf of tenants and in some instances resorted to violence.

The attack is believed to have started in the house and continued outside in a yard. Donovan was also shot in the arm.

John Kenneally would later say that he found Donovan in the yard at 8am and attempted to revive him. Donovan, Kenneally would claim, was alive when he first found him. This would be disputed by medical evidence.


Two men were later arrested for the murder. Eugene Keeffe was a local man, living not a stone’s throw from the house occupied by Donovan. He was also a relative of the Kenneallys. Keeffe would escape the rap and walk free.

A second man was also arrested within days of the murder and held on remand until his trial the following January.

John Twiss.
John Twiss.

Thirty-four-year-old John Twiss lived outside Castleisland, about 16 miles away and across the county border with Kerry.

Twiss and his sister Jane shared the family home. The evidence against him was flimsy, if not entirely corrupt.

He was found guilty and sentenced to death. On February 9, 1895, Twiss was put to death by hanging in Cork gaol.

His case attracted a huge public outcry, which included a petition of 40,000 signatures calling for him to be spared. He was even the subject of appeals in the House of Commons. Despite that, Twiss died in what many at the time considered to be a miscarriage of justice of huge magnitude.

His speech from the dock went down in folklore despite his status as an uneducated man as would have been typical of majority of people of his generation.

I am satisfied to die, for I am innocent, and the man who was brought up for murder the jury discharged him, and now goes and brings me in for murder miles upon miles from the outrage, where it was committed, sleeping in my bed.

“And I should think that both, my Lord, should look into it, and the jury should look into their consciences, and not bring in an unfortunate man like me out of my bed in the county Kerry, which the other jury, brother gentlemen of them, did, and not bring in an innocent man guilty.”

Last week, Justice Minister Helen McEntee brought a report to Cabinet recommending a presidential pardon for John Twiss. His case was examined by an expert in 19th-century trial law, Niamh Horan, as associate professor in the Sutherland School of Law at UCD. She was engaged by the department to compile the report following a representation from a Castleisland historical society and relatives of John Twiss.

According to her report: “Twiss was convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence that can best be described as flimsy, following a questionable investigation… the problematic aspects of the case are like ‘strands in rope’ which together lead to the conclusion that the nature and extent of the evidence against Twiss could not safely support a guilty verdict.”

The Government will now convey its decision to President Michael D Higgins to advance the matter towards the issuing of a pardon.

 Denis and Helen Sayers at John Twiss's monument at Cordal, Castleisland, County Kerry. Picture: Don MacMonagle
Denis and Helen Sayers at John Twiss's monument at Cordal, Castleisland, County Kerry. Picture: Don MacMonagle

Five years after Twiss was executed, his sister Jane died in childbirth. The baby survived and went on to have his own family. His granddaughter, Helen Sayers O’Connor, and her brother Denis Sayers are the principal descendants of John Twiss who were behind the campaign to clear his name.

“It was always there, since we were very young,” Helen says.

“We always knew that he was innocent and then when we got the opportunity to have the case investigated we had to sit down and say do we want to go through with this. We had always been told that his voice had fallen on deaf ears so now we felt it was time that his voice got heard.”

The spark that lit their determination to seek a pardon was interest from a BBC series on murder mysteries that looked at the case of John Twiss in 2017.

“They made the programme and had a judge and two barristers who argued the case,” she says.

“We were over and back to London with it and it all worked out well. They came to the conclusion he was wrongly convicted and after that we decided to do something. We got in touch with our local TD Brendan Griffin, who was a great help and he brought the case to the then minister for justice, Charlie Flanagan.”

Peasant class

John Twiss was, like the vast majority of his countrymen and women, from the peasant class as it was known in the late 19th century. He lived in a cottage in Cordal, a townland a few miles outside Castleisland with his sister.

They scraped a living in local fairs or from the very small holding that surrounded their cottage. He was involved in land agitation with other moonlighters.

Following the murder of James Donovan a number of different individuals were arrested and detained. The brutal nature of the killing and Donovan’s occupation as an effective agent for landlords meant there was political pressure to find the culprits.

Two men, described as “tramps”, were detained in Mallow on the Monday night after the Saturday killing. They were released on the following Friday, “as there was no evidence against them in connection with the terrible affair,” according to the Cork Examiner.

“The accused left the town immediately after their discharge.”

On the same day, the police came for Twiss in his home in Cordal. He was “conveyed to Newmarket by rail, in custody on a charge of being one of the party who murdered the caretaker, James Donovan, at Glenlara on Saturday morning last. (Irish Independent).

“He was brought up at the Newmarket police barrack before Colonel RW Aldworth, when it appeared he was arrested in Castleisland on suspicion of being concerned in the murder.”

Eugene Keeffe was also arrested around this time. There appears to have been little evidence on Keeffe either, apart from the fact that he was related to the Kenneallys, who had been evicted from the portion of their former home occupied by Donovan. Keeffe’s own family had suffered the same fate the previous year.

The “prisoners”, as they were described, were brought to the scene of the murder but little came of that. Both were remanded in custody, initially for a week, but in reality Twiss never saw freedom again.

It appears that at the time of his arrest and charge there was next to no real evidence that he was involved in the murder.

Murder theory

The theory posited at the subsequent trial was that he was paid to kill Donovan, that he travelled through the night the 16 miles from his home to Glenlara, was involved with others in the assault and killing, and then returned back home by morning. While Twiss remained in ustody a case was built against him. Donovan’s eight-year-old son James identified him as one of the individuals who attacked his father.

This identification was provided at the second attempt, after the child said he didn’t know the man the first time around.

Then, when Twiss was put standing between two police officers, young James pointed him out. The boy also identified Keeffe, whom he knew, but he had never previously set eyes on Twiss.

Evidence would be heard in the Keeffe trial that the boy initially told the police that he didn’t see the faces of either of the men who attacked his father.

Another strand of evidence against Twiss would come from a Castleisland man, John Brosnan, who went to the police on July 4, over two months after the murder.

He told of seeing Twiss at a fair in the town in the days before the murder, asking another man for a loan of a gun, which, Brosnan claimed, Twiss said he wanted to use going “hunting, over in County Cork”.

A third strand was the testimony of a woman, Mary Lyons, who claimed to have seen Twiss on horseback on the road between Castleisland and Glenlara on the night of the murder. None of those witnesses had given statements or identified Twiss prior to his arrest and detention.


The defence in the subsequent trial would claim that the defendant was chosen as a leading suspect and a case built around his supposed guilt thereafter. There would also be credible claims that initially Twiss was arrested in an attempt to extricate information from him about the perpetrators but that led nowhere, so he was charged with the murder.

Crucially, he and Keeffe were tried separately. Keeffe’s trial proceeded first in December 1894 and he was lucky in that the counsel defending him was a celebrated advocate, Arthur Hackett.

The lawyer told the jury that he was directly charging the police with manufacturing evidence “so that they could send Keeffe to the scaffold”.

John Kenneally took the stand in the trial and stated that a Constable Harris had been the first policeman on the scene of the murder. This constable, Kenneally said, had asked Donovan’s son if he knew the man or men responsible and the boy replied that he did not.

Initially, the prosecution claimed there was no such Constable Harris. Only on further examination did it emerge that there had been such a policeman — he had been the first on the scene and had since been transferred to Galway. He did not attend the trial.

The absence of such a crucial witness, one might have thought, would have scuppered the whole trial and indeed the case against Twiss also. Instead, it progressed to a jury and Keeffe was found not guilty.

That result in the Ireland of the time put further onus on the jury to convict the next man. Twiss’s trial took placed over three days from January 6, 1895.

He was not well represented but even still, some of the prosecution case was farcical. John Brosnan, the witness who claimed that Twiss had got a gun in the days before the murder, was asked whether he had been bribed to give his testimony.

“Is it your conscience or your pocket making you give evidence,” he was asked in cross examination.

“I saw no money from them,” he replied.

“And you don’t expect to get a penny?”

“Surely they can’t have me for nothing,” he said.

At the end of the three-day trial, the jury returned a guilty verdict. The judge, Lord Chief Baron, donned his black cap and handed down the sentence.

“The sentence and judgment of the court is, and I do hereby adjudge that you, John Twiss, be taken from the bar of the court, where you now stand, to the place from whence you came in her majesty’s prison, in this county on Saturday the 9th February, in the year of Our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and ninety five and that also you be taken to the place of common execution within the walls of the prison in which you shall be then confined and that you shall then and there be hanged by the neck until you are dead and that your body be buried within the precincts of the prison walls in which you have been confined and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”

Within days, the campaign to get a reprieve for Twiss was in full flight. The matter was raised in the House of Commons to no avail.

Plea for mercy

On Janaury 30, Fermoy Town Commissioners wrote to the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin Castle asking him to exercise his power to grant mercy in the case. Accompanying the request was a petition signed by 40,000 — a huge achievement in rural Ireland at the time. The letter was acknowledged a week later with a refusal. “The law must take its course,” was the reply.

There was no last minute reprieve. At 8am, on February 9, John Twiss was hanged. The report on that day’s Irish Independent was fresh.

“At one minute past eight this morning John Twiss was hanged in the county jail, near the city. Twiss met death with the firmness of a brae man, the spirit of a martyr and the soul of a child.

“So the accounts obtained by the reporters agree in stating. For the last time, he protested on the threshold of the execution room his innocence of the crime for which he was bout to suffer.

“When reporters were admitted to the jail, about ten minutes past eight, they were met by Mr Andrews, the governor. Twiss, he said, declared his innocence almost as he stopped on the scaffold.”

The reporters crossed the yard in the jail where they were met by Father Patrick O’Leary, “to whose ministrations Twiss had been most attentive from the moment of his conviction”.

The priest was “pale as a sheet and utterly worn out. He could hardly speak after the terrible scene he had witnessed.

But, in reply to a question he said: “Twiss declared himself to be innocent”.

Some 126 years later, that innocence is finally being acknowledged.

The Government has now recommended to President Higgins that a pardon be issued.

The president is considering the request, but it would be highly unusual were he to disregard the advice from the executive.

It is now expected that the pardon will be issued in the coming weeks, a development which will belatedly acknowledge that John Twiss was done a tragic wrong by the state that existed at the time, one which cost him his young life.

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