Tag Archives: John Foran

A modern reference to a 130-year-old Kerry murder

Earlier this year, flying home to Washington, D.C., from Dublin, I opened Fergal Keane’s Wounds: a memoir of war and love, about the struggles of life and death in North Kerry, primarily in the 19th and early 20th century.

Somewhere over the Atlantic, and on page 74 of the book, I was gobsmacked to read a short passage about the summer 1888 murder of John Foran, a Kerry farmer shot in front of his young son and other witnesses on the road near Listowel. It was the first time I had seen a contemporary reference to the 130-year-old murder since I began writing about the case a decade ago.

In addition to period newspaper accounts, Keane references Bertha Beatty’s (nee Creagh) 1930s Kerry Memories, which contains her claim of seeing some “serious”-looking men talking at the crossroads hours before the fatal shots occurred at the site. I was not familiar with this source.

“The investigation followed a familiar pattern,” Keane writes of the Foran case. “There were arrests and court hearings, but nobody was convicted. The witnesses kept the law of silence.”

Keane, Africa editor for BBC News, has family ties to North Kerry through his father. Historian Diarmaid Ferriter reviewed Wounds in The Irish Times shortly after it was published last September.

Here is my work on the Foran murder, archived on this blog under the title Nora’s Sorrow, for the victim’s daughter who later wrote numerous letters to authorities about the case from America:

I am always looking for new information on sources or references to this crime, whether historic or contemporary. I am convinced there is more to learn about the case, including through the still publicly unavailable Irish Land Commission records, which date to 1881. Thanks to Kay Caball of My Kerry Ancestors for her assistance on the Beatty book and other help over the years.

Late 19th century view of countryside near Listowel. Knocanore Hill in the background.

Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Lixnaw murder

This blog serial explored aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page#IUCRevisited


“James Fitzmaurice took, for the sake of the family, the land from which [his brother] Edmund was evicted, and for this he was denounced as a ‘land-grabber’ and boycotted, and finally shot dead in the presence of his daughter [Nora].”
–William Henry Hurlbert

James Fitzmaurice was killed at dawn, 31 January 1888, at Lixnaw, County Kerry, about 175 southwest of Dublin, where Hurlbert awoke for his first full day in Ireland. The American journalist referenced the “hideous murder,” neatly summarized by his quote above, several times in the book he published later that year.

The Fitzmaurice murder fit Hurlbert’s narrative that the people who advocated on behalf of tenant farmers and Irish nationalism were lawless or misguided. He included Land League supporters, Catholic clergy, even British politicians.

“Mr. Gladstone [the Liberal British Prime Minister who in 1886 backed Home Rule for Ireland] would perhaps have hit the facts more accurately, if, instead of calling an eviction in Ireland a ‘sentence of death,’ he had called the taking of a tenancy a sentence of death,” Hurlbert wrote. Gladstone’s 1880 comment was generated by crop failures the year before, which meant many tenants could not pay their rent. The resulting evictions, often followed by starvation, was “very near to a sentence of death,” he said.

Three weeks after the Fitzmaurice murder, Hurlbert visited an estate in eastern County Galway. There, he touched a truth about this period of Irish history as he discussed the case with the wife of a landlord’s agent. “The tenants are in more danger than the landlords or the agents,” she said.

In Kerry and neighboring Clare, in particular, farmers and their families were targeted for boycotts if they leased land other tenants had been evicted from for refusing to pay high rents as part of the agrarian agitation, or if they fell in arrears for other reasons. Boycott activity ranged from social and economic ostracism to verbal harassment, threatening notes, livestock mutilation or physical assaults. Those who cooperated with police and other government authorities often experienced similar trouble.

Period illustration of the 31 January 1888 murder of James Fitzmaurice, witnessed by his daughter Nora. The family was boycotted in the Lixnaw community of Kerry.

On 28 July 1888, shortly after Hurlbert left Ireland, another land-related murder similar to the Fitzmaurice case occurred five miles east of Lixnaw. Boycotted farmer John Foran was shot point blank in front of his young son, instead of a daughter, in the afternoon, instead of at dawn. Their murders were among 262 agrarian crimes in Kerry during 1888, the highest tally of any county in Ireland for the year.

Two men were charged with the Fitzmaurice murder. Their trial was moved more than 200 miles away, to Wicklow, to avoid community bias. Both men were convicted and executed in April 1888, which Hurlbert neglected to mention in his book. Instead, he bashed the Irish nationalist press as “always putting in some sly word” on behalf of the two killers as it neglected the “poor girl and her murdered father.”

Five other people witnessed the Foran murder in addition to his young son, but they refused to identify the suspect in a trial that was kept in Kerry. The government dropped the case.

Both murders reverberated for years to come in legal proceedings and legislative debates about the land question in Ireland. They were raised during the special Parnell Commission hearings that began in the fall of 1888 about agrarian agitation in Ireland. They came up again in 1891 elections after Parnell’s extramarital affair became public and split the Irish Parliamentary Party.

It was through researching the Fitzmaurice and Foran murders that I first came across Hurlbert’s book, though it was hardly a primary source. For more details about both crimes and this period of Irish history, read my 2016 story, Nora’s Sorrow.

NOTES: This post is based on pages 127, 213, 251, 261 and 305 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an Americanand my earlier research of the 1888 Fitzmaurice and Foran murders. … (This post was updated to show the correct location of an estate where Hurlbert recorded the quote about Irish tenants being in more danger than landlords and agents.)

NEXT: Unnamed sources

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan

Finding the missing passages of ‘A Deed of Blood’

Land-related violence in late 19th century Ireland was euphemistically known as “agrarian outrage.” Mutilating a rare political pamphlet about those crimes might be called librarian outrage.

For several years now I’ve been exploring Ireland’s Land War period, 1879-1889. In particular, I’ve focused on the 1888 murders of farmers James Fitzmaurice and John Foran, which occurred within six months and just a few miles of each other in the northern section of County Kerry. Both men were condemned as “landgrabbers” for leasing property after other farmers were evicted. In the case of Fitzmaurice, the previous tenant was his brother.

Cover of the 1888 pamphlet.

Cover of the 1888 pamphlet.

In the 1880s, the Irish National League (or Land League) was waging a campaign to break the grip of absentee landlords, who controlled hundreds of thousands of acres. Farmers were told to refuse paying their rents until the League negotiated lower rates and other rights. When landlords evicted tenants for these or other reasons, the League provided financial assistance and housing. It also declared that the acreage should not be leased by other locals and remain fallow.

Because Fitzmaurice and Foran did not abide these strategies, they were condemned by League officials and subjected to social and economic ostracism, or boycotting. Notices of their offenses were posted near the leased property and at local market places. Each man received limited police protection, but both fatally waved off the security. (Read my piece on the Foran murder for The Irish Story.)

The 68-year-old Fitzmaurice was shot point blank by two assailants near Lixnaw, Kerry, on 31 January 1888. His daughter Nora, about 20, witnessed the murder in the “cold grey dawn of morning,” according to a 16-page political pamphlet, “A Deed of Blood,” published a few weeks after the crime.

“A Deed of Blood” was produced by the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union, an alliance of Irish businessmen, landowners and academics who sought to preserve the existing political ties with Great Britain. The group was formed in 1885 to oppose efforts by Charles Stuart Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party to win land reform and limited domestic autonomy, called home rule.

The pamphlet featured original reporting and quoted from newspaper coverage of the Fitzmaurice murder. It appeared in mid February 1888, shortly after two men were charged with the murder, but before their trial, conviction and execution by hanging at the end of April. For the ILPU, the crime was “yet another link … added to the strong chain of evidence connecting the National League with the latest murder in Kerry.”

Probably only a few hundred copies of “A Deed of Blood” were ever printed and distributed, most likely in London and Dublin. Two copies of the pamphlet are listed on WorldCat, the online global library catalog: one at the Hesburgh Library at the University of Notre Dame, the other at the University of Manchester Library in the U.K.

I obtained Notre Dame’s copy of the pamphlet through an interlibrary loan and was disappointed to learn that “some pages [are] cut,” according to the library’s notes. A total of three paragraphs are clipped from two pages, creating a gap-tooth effect that also disrupts the narrative flow on the opposite pages.

So I reached out to the University of Manchester to obtain intact copies of the four mutilated pages. Here are the missing passages:

  • Cut from the bottom of page 10 is a reference to the 12 June 1887 resolution against Fitzmaurice by the Lixnaw branch of the National League, which was “unanimously adopted.” The missing section at the bottom of page 9 describes “threatening notices” against Fitzmaurice posted near the disputed property on 6 April 1887.
  • The cut section at the top of page 11 continues the resolution against Fitzmaurice from the bottom of page 10. It is attributed to the 18 June 1887 issue of the Kerry Weekly Reporter. Missing from the top of page 12 is the headline ‘The Landlord’s Story,’ which quotes from a letter by Mr. S. M. Hussey.
  • Cut from the middle of page 11 is the text of an October 1887 resolution against the future victim, which calls on the public to show their “disapprobation of the conduct of James Fitzmaurice, who has been so base and inhuman as to grab his brother’s land.” From the middle of page 12 is part of Hussey’s letter that Edmond Fitzmaurice’s farm “seemed hopeless” because “he either could not or would not pay his rent.”

The ILPU later republished the pamphlet in a collection of its works from 1888, but without small details such as the drawing shown below. This version is available online through the Hathi Trust Digital Library.

I’ve sent copies of the four intact pages of the University of Manchester pamphlet to the University of Notre Dame with my interlibrary return. I know this isn’t the type of text many readers or researchers seek on a regular basis. When they do, however, they should get the full story of “A Deed of Blood.”

Page detail from 'A Deed of Blood.'

Page detail from ‘A Deed of Blood.’

The Foran murder in Kerry, 125 years ago

As July draws to a close I must note the 125th anniversary of the Foran murder in County Kerry.

“Terrible Murder Near Listowel,” the Kerry Sentinel headlined on August 1, 1888. “A Farmer Shot Dead in Broad Daylight.”

Late 19th century view of countryside near Listowel. Knocanore Hill in the background. 

Late 19th century view of countryside near Listowel. Knocanore Hill in the background.

John Foran, about 60, leased a farm in Coolaclarig townland, three miles north of Listowel on the east side of Knocanore Hill. He was ambushed on a Sunday afternoon, shot six times by an assassin who emerged from the woods at the side of the road. The murder was witnessed by his 15-year-old son and three hired laborers who were traveling with Foran in a horse cart on the way home from Tralee.

“The circumstances in connection with it are undoubtedly of a most appalling character and would leave one to fancy we were living in the medieval ages, among a tribe of barbarians, rather than in this nineteenth century, among a civilised [cq] and Christian people,” the Sentinel said. The murder also was reported in other Irish papers, as well as publications in England, Australia and the United States.

Foran had been boycotted by his neighbors for several years after taking over the lease to the Coolaclarig farm from the previous tenant, who was evicted after falling behind in his rent to the absentee English landlord. Foran was a victim of “agrarian outrage,” a euphemism for violence associated with the land struggles of the period. His was the second such murder in north Kerry that year, and both killings would become grist in subsequent Parliamentary elections.

A man was arrested, charged and put on trial for Foran’s murder that fall. The victim’s son gave conflicting testimony about his identification of the accused. The three laborers said the couldn’t identify the shooter. “Too much smoke,” they claimed. The Crown dropped the case in early 1889.

The case became fodder for political pamphlets in the 1891 Parliamentary elections, and continued to be discussed at Westminster over the next 20 years. The evicted tenant was eventually restored to the property, even given a grant to buy cows and other supplies.

Nora Foran Scanlon, one of the victim’s daughters living in Pittsburgh, wrote to British and Irish Free State government officials requesting return of the farm or financial relief as late as 1925. In the letters, she also attempted to use the death of her eldest son in World War I as further justification for some type of compensation. Her pleas were rejected.

The Foran case illustrates a number of social and political realities of the period. My research continues. Anyone with additional information please contact me through the blog.

Popular politics and agrarian violence in Kerry, 1880s

I just finished Donnach Sean Lucey’s “Land, Popular Politics and Agrarian Violence in Ireland: The Case of County Kerry, 1872-1886.” The link contains a review of this 2011 academic text.

My interest in Lucey’s subject are twofold. First, my maternal great grandfather and great great grandfather leased a 5-acre parcel in Lahardane townland near Ballybunion during the period. Second, I am researching the murder of a nearby North Kerry farmer two years after the period detailed by Lucey.

My maternal ancestors would have been well aware of the Land League and later Irish National League activities in the area, especially in the nearby market town of Listowel. Their level of participation in rent strikes and other protests, if any, remains unclear to me at this point. Property records from the Irish Valuation Office indicate great great grandfather William Diggin was evicted from the farm during the 1884-1899 period, but his son John Diggin is shown as occupier of the same parcel from 1900 forward.

Agrarian violence, euphemistically called “outrages,” was widespread during the period, especially in the north-central Kerry triangle between Listowel, Tralee and Castleisland. The activity ranged from maiming cattle to murder. As Lucey writes:

By the end of 1882 Kerry had become synonymous with agrarian violence and was one of the most disturbed counties in Ireland.

He goes on to detail how the violence was driven by complicated and overlapping motivations, including Fenian-inspired nationalism, anti-landlord rent disputes and family feuds. Not surprisingly, most of the violence was perpetuated by young, unmarried men who did not own or lease land and were not their family’s oldest son and thus in line to inherit such a role. They were late 19th century rural gang-bangers, called “moonlighters,” causing alcohol-fueled trouble for kicks as much as for any social or political reasons.

Which brings me to the case of farmer John Foran (Forhan, in some documents), who was shot to death near Listowel in July 1888. His trouble started in 1883, when he obtained the farm of another man who fell a year behind in his rent. The community shunned, or boycotted, Foran and his family to such a degree that it was reported he could not obtain a coffin to bury is wife.

Foran’s situation reached the attention of the English Parliament in London two years before his murder, and it was propagandized in anti-Irish home rule political fliers during the 1892 elections, four years after his death. English lawmakers continued to discuss the Foran murder as late as 1909, when the original tenant was reinstated to the farm. Foran’s daughter Nora, who immigrated to Pittsburgh, continued to seek remuneration for her father’s death as late as 1925.

Readers with information about the Foran murder or other late 19th century political activity and agrarian violence in North Kerry are encourage to contact the blog. Meanwhile, thanks to Donnach Sean Lucey for his excellent and enlightening work on the subject.