Man Pardoned for Family's Murders He Didn't Commit, 136 Years After He Was Hanged

Playing Man Executed for 1882 Maamtrasna Massacre Pardoned by Irish President

A man convicted of murdering a family of five has been pardoned as authorities have declared he played no part in the brutal killing for which he was hanged nearly 140 years ago.

Myles Joyce, or Maolra Seoighe as he was known at the time, was one of three men executed in December 1882 for the killings of his relatives, the Joyce family, in Maamtrasna on the border between counties Galway and Mayo in Ireland. 

In what would become known as the Maamtrasna Murders, John, his wife Brighid, his daughter Peigí and his mother Mairéad were killed in their mountainside home, while his son Micheál died from his injuries the following day in August 1882. The victims ranged in age from 14 to 80.

Patsy Joyce, John and Brighid's youngest child, was also injured but he survived. Their son Martin, who was working as a farmhand at the time of the killings, came home to find most of his family had been slaughtered.

No motive for the killings has ever been confirmed, but several theories were floated, including that John Joyce may have been targeted for allegedly misappropriating money belonging to a secret society, according to officials.

A more commonly held theory was that John Joyce was murdered for his habit of stealing neighbors’ sheep.

Ten men from the Irish-speaking area were arrested, including Myles Joyce, his brothers and his nephew.

They were tried in Dublin before a judge and jury that spoke the foreign language of English, and eight were convicted on the basis of what was later discovered to be perjured evidence. 

Three of the eight, including Joyce, were executed. 

But Joyce always maintained his innocence. 

In addition, the two men sentenced to hang alongside Joyce admitted their guilt, and claimed Myles had nothing to do with the murders.

“The law must take its course,” John Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer, said in a telegram. 

On his way to the scaffold the morning of Dec. 15, 1882, Joyce reportedly said in Irish: "I will see Jesus Christ in a short while — he too was unjustly hanged... I am going... God help my wife and her five orphans."

Joyce's hanging did not go as planned and he died from strangulation in what was ultimately a slow and painful death.

Two years later, one of the informers who swore Joyce was involved confessed that he had lied. The British authorities refused to launch a full inquiry into the case, but Joyce’s execution has remained a focus for many in Ireland. 

In 2015, a report into the case was commissioned by the Irish government and found Joyce was wrongly convicted. And on Thursday, Irish President Michael D. Higgins granted Joyce a posthumous pardon, the first for a case predating the founding of the Irish state. 

Calling Joyce’s execution a “shameful episode in Ireland and Britain’s history to the force,” Higgins spoke in the same building from which Earl Spencer refused to grant the father of five a last-minute appeal for pardon.

Descendants of the Joyces, including those killed in August 1882, as well as authorities who have investigated the case and concluded Joyce was innocent, attended the pardoning, which Higgins delivered in Irish and English. 

"We must recall that English was not the language of those at the center of this case," Higgins said. "Both the murder victims and the defendants lived their lives through Irish and few had any command of the English language, or certainty in its usage... A combination of a systemic contempt for the Irish-speaking accused and an extraordinary zeal to secure convictions regardless of testimony and evidence that should have raised serious misgivings, conspired to deliver what has been described as one of the clearest cases of miscarriage of justice in British legal history."

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