A guest-post by Brian Hopkins
In memory of Norah Verdon Hopkins (1910-1992)
On 10 April 1815, Mount Tambara in Indonesia blew its stack. The phreatic eruption was so powerful that the ash ejected was dispersed by prevailing winds around the world, lowering global temperatures and creating harvest failures. By 1816, the ash had spread to most parts of Europe. Ireland did not escape the rain-soaked Year Without a Summer. It could not have come at worse time.
With end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, Ireland was inundated with returning soldiers, contributing to a marked rise in unemployment. In 1816, the situation was exacerbated by an economic slump, crop failures and typhus. By this time, the ingredients for civil unrest were in place, nowhere more evident than in County Louth.
LOUTH: BANDIT COUNTY
The county was not only dependent on crop production, but even more so on the linen industry, both of which were severely impacted by the economic depression after 1815. Added to a cocktail of growing hardships, in what had been a relatively prosperous county, was the ubiquitous animosity between smallholders and large landlords accused of land grabbing. Inevitably, such hostility resulted in social anarchy becoming rife in Louth and surrounding counties, giving rise to a growth in violence-prone secret societies in rural communities.
One such society was Ribbonism that had become firmly established in south Monaghan. One of the main objectives of the Ribbonmen and the more evanescent agrarian gangs was to gain hegemony over local economic activities. A common focus of their threats and violence was the more affluent farmers, both Catholic and Protestant. One hapless victim was Edward Lynch who farmed flax at the Wild Goose Lodge.
WILD GOOSE LODGE (WGL): CRIME SCENE
The lodge was situated between Ardee and Dundalk in the remote townland of Reagstown on marshy land owned by the Filgate family. When the River Glyde overflowed its banks during winter its remoteness was accentuated as was its vulnerability to attacks by marauding ‘bandetti’ that resulted in Louth being placed under the Insurrection Act (1796), enforced with brutality by the chief of police Samuel Pendleton whose name would become synonymous with events at WGL. There were eight occupants: Edward Lynch, his wife, his son-in-law Thomas Rooney, his wife and infant, and three servants. All were destined to be immolated in their house. How was their fate sealed and what were the consequences?
WHERE ARE THE GUNS?
On the night of 11 April 1816 about 100 men gathered outside WGL, some of whom forced their way in demanding arms. Informed there were no guns, the loom and the furniture were destroyed, Lynch and Rooney bravely repelling the interlopers, with the mob dispersing into the night. Lynch took the fateful decision to inform the authorities, a decision made more portentous by Rooney identifying three of the assailants by name. At the County Louth summer assizes on July 23, the trio were arraigned according to the Whiteboy Act, sentenced to death on July 27, and shortly thereafter hanged in Dundalk.
ENTER PATRICK DEVAN, THE MURDEROUS ARSONIST
The British politician George Lewis who reported on the public impression of the Irish in Britain in 1836, commented on the fate of an informer in Ireland as someone “doomed to certain death such that he would be hunted through the country like a mad dog, every hand would be raised against him”. Labelled informers by the local populace, the fates of both Lynch and Rooney were sealed. Six months after the April attack, they and other members of the household were to be subjected to a barbaric ordeal masterminded and led by Patrick Devan.
Devan had the credentials to become a leader: oratory and written skills in both Irish and English, social standing as a schoolmaster and parish clerk to a local chapel. As a dedicated nationalist, he was committed to wreaking revenge on informers. In the case of Lynch, he harboured resentment against him as Lynch had refused to allow WGL to become a meeting place for an illegal association concerned with wresting control of the local economy from the large farmers.
Denied access to WGL, Devan called a series of meetings of like-minded men in various secret locations during which he engendered hostility towards Lynch and Rooney, exacerbated by the deaths of the three men hanged for their parts in the April attack on WGL. By the time of the gathering held at the chapel just before nightfall on October 29, hostility had reached fever pitch. From there, Devan led a gang of men, some of them fuelled by alcohol, to converge with other mobs on the lodge and encircle it. Lighted turf was thrown on to the thatched roof. With the lodge in flames, the occupants were prevented from escaping on the orders of Devan. They all perished in the inferno including Lynch’s five-month-old grandson.
The gruesome crime invoked widespread revulsion, both nationally and internationally. It led to a manhunt mounted by Dublin Castle under the orders of Robert Peel, then Chief Secretary of Ireland. The new police force under the leadership of Pendleton, constituted in Louth in 1816 to halt the growing contagion of rural disorder, formed the spearhead of the manhunt. Devan meanwhile fled to Dublin and took up work in the docks under an assumed name, where he was arrested in March 1817 and brought to Kilmainham jail awaiting his trial. A letter Devan had sent to his father had led to his discovery based on identification of his handwriting.
TRIALS AND EXECUTIONS
Finances to pay for information leading to the prosecution of those involved resulting in the arrest of those who took part in the second attack on WGL had already been garnered by Louth magistrates in November 1816. It amounted to £1500 (£83,000 in today’s money). More than enough for Pendleton to expedite the manhunt and select witnesses. There were two types of witnesses: approvers (Catholic working class, many of them with criminal records that would be amended if they agreed to give evidence), and the aptly named collaborators (mainly Protestant farming class).
Devan was brought to trial on 21 July 1817 in Dundalk in front of a 12-man jury. He was accused of breaching state laws in murdering those who had enabled the prosecution of three men held responsible for the first attack. As with the choice of collaborators, it was stacked against Devan with the likes of wealthy farmers and merchants forming the jury who had a strong antipathy to secret organisations based on experience. According to reports, Devan competently defended himself, but the outcome was inevitable: he was sentenced to death by hanging. His execution became a cause célèbre.
On July 23, Devan’s journey to the scaffold took five hours accompanied by a large contingent of police and military personnel. The final destination was WGL where he was hanged from a beam between the chimneys of the ruined house, watched by an estimated 30,000 spectators. His body was then encased in a gibbet cage and suspended close to his father’s house remaining there for about twenty months as stark warning to any other potential agitators. After Devan’s hanging, famine and fever swept through the area delaying the trials of the other arrestees for twelve months. The next assizes were scheduled for March 1818.
A conspiracy of silence continued to pervade the area after Devan’s execution due to the dread of reprisals by secret societies. Pendleton ensured that this was rectified by a commingling of threats and financial inducements, as well as feeding misleading information to approvers. In contrast to Devan’s trial, propertied Catholic jurors were recruited and the accused assigned defence lawyers.
Prisoners were allotted to one of three tranches of trials, mainly in groups of three or four. Starting March 4, the first group of men was defended by Leonard McNally, a Dublin Castle informer who had betrayed Robert Emmet. So much for a fair trial. The trials of the remaining eleven men were completed by July 4. In total, 18 of the condemned were executed on various dates from March 12 to July 6 in a variety of locations in Louth. Eleven were hung and gibbeted (all 10 from the first tranche), the remainder executed and bodies sent to Dundalk for surgeons to dissect. Those gibbeted were denied Christian burials and wakes such was the stigma attached to it.
The decomposing bodies dangling from gibbet cages was the scene greeting the author William Carleton as he travelled through north Louth. He recounted this vista in preternatural terms as part of his book Traits and stories of the Irish peasantry published some 15 years later that was a mixture of fact and fiction. His first-person account gained international prominence, even though it was less than authentic, and it became a pervasive lieux de memoire.
Landlord Filgate survived until ripe old age of 101 despite threats to his well-being for being the owner of WGL. The same experience applied to the 57 jurors. Such was not the case for the 29 victims and convicted arrestees in what was the worst atrocity of the 19th century in Ireland. To put it into context, more people were executed than in 1916. Given the way witnesses were intimidated or bribed, it is not surprising to learn that more than half of the condemned were innocent.
Carleton’s obfuscating narrative that spread as far as mainland Europe made no reference to the innocent men who were executed. What it did do was to elevate Devan to a folk hero and lay the blame for the murders on Ribbonism. In his masterful book on the WGL tragedy, Terence Dooley cogently argues such was not the case, but rather a coming together of local gangs nurturing agrarian grievances fermented by the grandiloquence of Devan and underpinned by an unwritten agrarian code (akin to Brehon law). All told, the cause of Catholic emancipation was not advanced by the mayhem, but rather anti-Catholic prejudice was reinforced in the British government.
Finally, a film. Entitled Wild Goose Lodge, it was released in 2016, involved over 200 extras and starred Finbar Furey among others. It was filmed on location close to where WGL stood. The degree of its historical veracity has not yet been confirmed.
- Daniel J. Casey, Wild Goose Lodge: the evidence and the lore. Journal of the County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society, 18 (1974), 140-164.
- Terence Dooley, The murders at Wild Goose Lodge: agrarian crime and punishment in pre-famine Ireland (Dublin, 2007).
- Réamonn Ó Muirí, The burning of Wildgoose Lodge. Journal of County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society, 21 (1986), 117-147.