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The John Foran Murder

By Mark Holan


“I wish to point out to you a very much better way – a more Christian and charitable way, which will give the lost man an opportunity of repenting. When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must shun him on the roadside when you meet him – you must shun him in the streets of the town – you must shun him in the shop – you must shun him on the fair green and in the marketplace, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him alone, by putting him in moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of the country, as if he were the leper of old – you must show him your detestation of the crime he committed.”
–Charles Stewart Parnell, Irish Parliamentary Party leader
Speech at Ennis, Co. Clare, 19 September 1880


“Murder and outrage were criminal; and although practiced by some of their members, it is said that the leaders of the [Land] League set their faces resolutely against these weapons. But boycotting was different. It gave their followers work to do, welded them together into a well-disciplined army, and proved a most effectual weapon.”
–A History of the Irish Land League, Impartially Reviewed
Political pamphlet in the 1880s by F. M. Holmes


“I maintain that a Landgrabber is a thief, when he covets and steals his unfortunate neighbor’s holdings, and I want to say once more, what I repeated on a hundred platforms, that the Landgrabber incurred malediction in the days when the Holy Bible was written: ‘Cursed be he who removes his neighbor’s landmark.’ He is a cowardly, slimy renegade, a man who should be look upon as a social leper, contact with whom should be considered a stigma and a reproach.”
–Michael Davitt, Irish Land League Founder
Speech at Rathkeale, Co. Limerick, 29 January 1888


“Another Kerry murder! Unhappy Kerry, that once was one of the most tranquil and happy counties in Ireland, that now is the most turbulent and bloodstained, the prey of the Moonlighter, the evictor, the Coercionist! What is to be done with Kerry?”
–From United Ireland
Issue of 3 February 1888, six months before the Foran murder


“I have always resisted the idea that boycotting is other than one of the gravest crimes.”
–Chief Secretary of Ireland Arthur James Balfour
Private letter of 2 August 1888, four days after the Foran murder


“One of the most shocking murders ever perpetrated in Ireland to enforce the law of the National League against “Landgrabbers” was that of John Foran.
–British parliamentary report about Balfour’s tenure
January 1891, about 30 months after the Foran murder


“So now don’t be too fond
of grabbing the land
For you know the moonlighters
Are nearby at hand.
Down from Castleisland
They’ll surely stroll.
And the death of old Foran
They’ll give at the groves
Of Mountcoal.”
–From “The Groves of Mountcoal”
Popular song about the murder of John Foran, as recounted in 1938. Full lyrics at end of story.


A thunderstorm swept across the city of Pittsburgh in the early morning hours of Aug. 22, 1923. Winds gusted to 35 mph and dropped the temperature to 51 degrees before daybreak. Temperatures barely reached 60 degrees as Nora Foran Scanlon walked to the notary’s office near her North Side apartment.

The storm provided temporary relief from the usual summer heat and humidity worsened by Pittsburgh’s notorious mix of industrial air pollution. The weather probably reminded Nora of the cold, rainy summer of 1888 in her native Ireland, a bitter memory that propelled her stride along Beaver Avenue toward the office of notary Herman P. Young.

She may have worn her best Sunday dress that Wednesday afternoon, a sign of respect to the memory of her late father, John Foran, or perhaps to convey her seriousness to the notary. Her purse likely was stuffed with letters and other documents related to what she described as a “violation of justice.” It was not her first statement under oath about what happened 35 years earlier along a rural road in County Kerry. It was not to be her last.

“My father held an evicted farm in the vicinity of Listowel, Coolaclarig,” Nora swore in her affidavit to Young. “He was boycotted to the meanest extreme and finally shot to death.”

Decades after the killer fired point-blank at John Foran, his murder also was still remembered back in Kerry. Not in sympathy for the brutal death of Nora’s father, but as a warning to those “too fond of grabbing the land.”

Father and Daughter

Nora Foran was born in the last third of the 19th century. Her Roman Catholic baptismal record says Feb. 12, 1867, but also warns the date is “assumed” because it was created years later. If accurate, Nora was 21 at the time of her father’s murder in July 1888. She might have been born in the 1870s, based on other records after she reached America, and only a teen at the time of the shooting.

Inconsistencies about dates, ages and other details are common in documents from this period, especially among immigrants. “They know the price of shoes and what spuds are worth at market, but it is beyond them to recall the date of their birthday, or what the present month may be,” an Ellis Island immigration official wrote in an early 20th century report.

It is also true that many people in this period were suspicious of the customs agents, census takers and other government officials they encountered on both sides of the Atlantic. Some lied about their details to suit their survival and other reasons. In Ireland, Nora encountered police and judges who were biased against her Catholic religion and tenant social class in general, and her family in particular. Her father’s murder, and the events leading to it, made her more wary of authority than most immigrants.

Nora grew up in Kerry’s northwest corner, near the market town of Listowel, a few miles from where the River Shannon empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The rural district is dominated by farms and bogs and landmarked by Knocanore Hill, an 880-foot summit isolated from Kerry’s taller southern peaks. John Foran was born in the same area in the mid-to-late 1820s. The 1888 civil death record after the murder put his age at 63.

His life began as Kerry native Daniel O’Connell championed Catholic emancipation from longstanding penal laws, which restricted practice of the faith and limited other rights such as owning land and holding public office. John Foran was in his early 20s when a potato blight and British indifference created Ireland’s Great Famine. He witnessed widespread starvation and death as Kerry’s population fell to 238,000 in 1851 from 293,000 in 1841, a loss of more than 18 percent.

Property records from 1851, near the end of the Famine, show that John Foran leased a 150-acre farm in Tullamore townland, about five miles north of Listowel on the east side of Knocanore. It is unclear whether this person is the murder victim or his father. By custom, a family’s first son took his father’s forename, as confirmed by the victim’s baptismal record. News accounts of the murder reported the Tullamore lease was passed down through the Foran family, which also by custom went to the oldest son.

As farm people who did their share of physical labor, father and daughter were probably each stout of body. Their dairy operation provided plenty of milk and butter, and potatoes remained a staple of the Irish diet after the Famine. The Foran family likely ate more meat and poultry than their poorer contemporaries. Salmon was plentiful from nearby rivers.

A news story described one of John Foran’s sons as “a red-haired lad,” so it is possible that father and daughter also shared this characteristic. The ship manifest of Nora’s 1895 voyage to America does not record her hair and eye color, or her height, as became mandatory in such records a few years later. It is impossible to know which of her characteristics are reflected in an early 20th century photograph of her first son. There do not appear to be any surviving photos of John or Nora, nor illustrations of them in the periodicals that reported about the family’s troubles.

Tullamore and Coolaclarig

The Forans leased their Tullamore farm from the Kerry estate of John Benn-Walsh. He inherited the land from an uncle, Sir John Walsh, a scientist and official of the East India Company, who acquired nearly 9,000 acres from Francis Thomas Maurice, 3rd Earl of Kerry, in the early 1770s. Benn-Walsh owned another 2,200 acres in neighboring County Cork, in addition to holdings in England and Wales. His North Kerry estate was among the largest in the county, through a few landowners held three to 10 times more acreage.

As a British parliamentarian, Benn-Walsh became the first Lord Ormathwaite, after his primary residence in northwest England. In Kerry, he maintained the manse Tullamore House, plus a smaller residence, Duagh Glebe, a few miles east of Listowel. Ormathwaite was a frequent visitor to Kerry between 1823 and 1864, according to his surviving journals.

On Sept. 6, 1855, Ormathwaite wrote of visiting “my new purchase of Coolaclarig opposite Tullamore,” which he called “a very good investment.” He hired North Kerry native George Sandes, a local magistrate, as land agent for his properties, a decision that made both men unpopular in the area.

On Sept. 12, 1860, Ormathwaite described meeting “Foran of Shronoun,” a subdistrict of Tullamore. It is unclear whether this person was the 1888 murder victim or his father. The men discussed a recent murder allegedly committed by one of Foran’s workers. The victim was a young man who died from “a blow of a bludgeon on the head,” Ormathwaite wrote.

The landlord complained that several people with direct knowledge of the crime were reluctant to speak to authorities unless they were compelled to testify. “Everyone in Ireland is against the law and in favor of the criminal,” he wrote, a comment that foretold the events of 28 years later.

“Querulous discontent”

In February 1858, John Foran married a local woman, Mary Stack, as he neared age 30. Catholic church records show the couple baptized nine children: John in 1860; William in 1863; Catherine in 1865; Nora in 1867; Edmund in 1868; Joanna in 1870; Patrick in 1872; Michael in 1873; Timothy in 1877; and Dennis in 1879. The oldest son left Ireland before the murder, based on the 1888 courtroom testimony of William, who described himself as his father’s “oldest son in this country.”

Tens of thousands of people emigrated from Kerry throughout the 1860s and 1870s. The population dropped below 200,000, or one third fewer than before the Famine. Irish lawyer and author William O’Connor Morris observed a “querulous discontent” in landlord-tenant relations among those who remained in the predominantly agrarian society. “The occupiers of the soil,” he wrote, “are exposed to destruction by the stroke of a pen.” The tenant class was kept “in a state of precarious uncertainty on the land on which it has no hold, and tempts it to have recourse to violent means to obtain the security denied it by law.”

In 1868, for example, The Nation newspaper detailed “two evictions of a very distressing nature” on Tullamore property owned by Ormathwaite and managed by Sandes. The story headlined “The Crowbar Brigade in Kerry” lamented the “rigor and severity of with which the law of evictions is carried out in this country.” Complaints about  Ormathwaite and Sandes, and other landlords and land agents, only increased in the years to come.

By the late 1870s, high agricultural prices helped bring economic prosperity to Kerry. John Foran was counted among a growing Catholic middle class developed among tenant farmers able to lease more acreage than required for their own subsistence. He subleased several parcels at Tullamore to smaller tenants, and his farm was valued in the top 6 percent of properties surrounding Listowel.

As the booming economy raised land values, many landlords increased property rents. Such hikes, however, had a disproportionate impact on the smaller subtenants. Increased farm mechanization also created unemployment and discontent among landless laborers. The agrarian unrest observed by William O’Connor Morris continued to grow.

In 1879, poor weather, a minor potato blight and a cholera outbreak among chickens created a panic and depressed the Kerry economy. Foran went to court against one of his Tullamore subtenants who owned more than £34 in back rent. He later dropped the case in exchange for an £8 payment and promissory notes, but Ormathwaite and Sandes evicted the man, according to newspaper reports.

Boycotting & landgrabbing

Throughout Ireland, calls to reform landlord-tenant relations were blended with efforts to introduce more domestic political autonomy, called Home Rule. Charles Stewart Parnell and other members of the Irish Parliamentary Party championed the effort in London. They also played a key role in the formation and growth of the pro-tenant Irish National Land League.

In 1880, Parnell and the League called on their supporters to protest high rents by refusing to harvest the crops of a particular County Mayo estate. The test effort was bolstered by a ban on doing business and or having social relations with the local landlord’s agent, Captain Charles Boycott.

Such tactics were not invented by late 19th century Irish politicians and farmers, historian Samuel Clark wrote in Social Origins of the Irish Land War. “What was novel … was … the spread and development of this type of collective action on a scale so enormous that the coining of a new term was necessary. Boycotting was becoming the most awesome feature of the [Irish land] agitation.”

Boycotts extended beyond landlords and their agents. The League also targeted local residents who leased the farms of those evicted for refusing to pay high rents, or for falling in arrears due to other misfortune. The offenders were called “landgrabbers.” Such people, Parnell said, should be ostracized “as if they were the lepers of old.”

Once the League declared a boycott, it publicized the decision by posting notices near the leased property and placing announcements in local newspapers. Gathering places such as fairs, markets–even churches–were used to declare and enforce boycotts.

Some boycotted people were called “roasters.” Others were nicknamed “Harvey Duff,” after the villain of an 1874 play who was an anti-Irish informer and police agent disguised as a peasant. Locals whistled at the boycotted people, an old Kerry farmer recalled in a 1930s interview. “The tune and sounds of the words ‘Harvey Duff’ were made to imitate as far as possible the notes of the blackbirds in the summer morning,” he said.

Agrarian outrage  

Though not officially sanctioned by the Land League, violence was often directed at boycotted people and others out of favor with its aims. Agrarian secret societies, which historically exploited antagonism between Catholics and Protestants, now focused on enforcing boycotts. Groups known as “moonlighters” began to carry out nocturnal terror attacks, euphemistically described by authorities as “agrarian outrages.” These actions ranged from posting threatening notes (signed by Captain Moonlight) and maiming farm animals to brutal beatings and murders.

“The single most common motive for outrage was the prevention or punishment of landgrabbing, and the victims in such cases were almost always tenants,” Clark wrote. “Typically, the occupant of a holding from which the previous tenant had been ejected was assaulted, or some property belonging to him was damaged, or he was threatened with personal injury or death unless he surrendered the farm.”

People visited by moonlighters during the 1880s were “punished mercilessly” and “often shot in the legs,” another Kerry farmer recalled in a 1930s interview. The attackers often wore masks to conceal their identity, “for in those days the country was full of landlord spies” a third Kerry old timer recalled 50 years later.

The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) compiled regular reports of agrarian outrages. In 1877, two years before the economic downturn and the start of what became known as the Land War, a total of 236 such offences were reported for all of Ireland, with just eight incidents in Kerry. Four years later, the figure escalated to more than 4,400 violent episodes nationwide, with nearly 10 percent of the cases in Kerry. If the attackers were known to the victim or others, witnesses seldom testified against them. Convictions were rare. Fear and superstition ruled the countryside.

In 1881, RIC records show 17 land-related murders in Ireland, though none in Kerry. The next year, there were 26 agrarian killings in Ireland, including four in Kerry. Not counted in the total, however, were the two most famous murders of 1882, a crime that would put into motion new laws and investigations to stop agrarian violence. Lord Frederick Cavendish, newly appointed chief secretary for Ireland, and Thomas Henry Burke, his undersecretary, were fatally stabbed May 6, 1882, as they walked through Dublin’s Phoenix Park. A secretive, anti-landlord group called the Irish National Invincibles claimed the assassinations.

Within two months, the London government passed the Prevention of Crime in Ireland Act. To reduce moonlighting and boycotting, the law outlawed “intimidation,” which it defined as “any word spoken or act done calculated to put any person in fear of any injury or danger to himself, or to any member of his family, or to any person in his employment, or in fear of any injury to or loss of his property, business or means of living.”

The government also encouraged land reform through simultaneous legislation that established the principle of dual ownership by landlord and tenant. New fair rent directives helped reduce the annual cost of many leases. Land-related crimes in Ireland dropped from more than 3,400 in 1882 to fewer than 800 two years later. There was only one agrarian murder in 1883, none in 1884.

The Irish National Land League was outlawed, though Parnell and his supporters soon reorganized under the similarly-named Irish National League. Land reform, however, became secondary to trying to secure Home Rule. Rural unrest in Ireland was briefly quieted, but it was not quelled.

Foran Boycotted

Arthur John Walsh, Lord Ormathwaite’s eldest son, inherited the family estate when his father died in February 1881. By then, the second Lord Ormathwaite had already borrowed heavily against the inheritance. He soon mortgaged properties to pay off debts and evicted tenants who failed to pay higher rents. In April 1883, he removed Thomas Walsh from a 58-acre farm at Coolaclarig, the land his father acquired in 1855. Sandes, who continued as the land agent, carried out the eviction. Nine months later, John Foran leased the farm, which adjoined his Tullamore property.

How Foran obtained the farm is unclear. William Foran later claimed his father “paid a fine” to Ormathwaite in order to lease the property. Nora Foran said her father “took the tenancy of the farm in satisfaction of a debt due to him by the landlord’s then agent (Sandes).” Regardless of how he got the property, the residents of Coolaclarig, Tullamore and the Listowel district soon boycotted Foran and his family. Local newspapers reported several confrontations between Foran and the community. News of the Foran boycott eventually reached the attention of Parliament in London.

Under the headline “A Boycotted Farmer and his Calf,” an April 8, 1884, story in The Kerry Sentinel reported that Foran came to Listowel to sell a calf and was “accompanied by the two policemen who are protecting him.” It continued, “Several persons went through the form of buying the calf but it was evident from the amount of money which they offered, that they had not the remotest intention of buying it.” Frustrated, Foran sent the calf “by another person” to sell at the nearby Ballylongford market.

A month later, Foran was back in court. He alleged that one of his foals had been “maliciously killed and wholly destroyed at Coolaclarig” shortly after he obtained the former Walsh farm. Foran “swore he knew very well that his foal was captivated into the ditch by some moonlighters,” the Sentinel reported. Sandes, the land agent and local magistrate, suggested the foal must have accidentally fallen into the ditch. He dismissed the complaint.

That summer, Listowel residents complained to government authorities in Dublin about extra scrutiny in the district, including the police protection for Foran. Dublin administrators responded that local residents had been told to stop boycotting Foran, but “the warning had however no effect.” Residents disputed that Foran was boycotted at all, with one suggesting he “only wants to be refused” to justify the police protection.

“I wish he came to me with an order for slate or timber, you would see how soon I would give it to him,” one townsman said. He described Foran as a man who “always held very little communication with the town.”

In January 1885, Foran was in court again, but this time as a defendant charged with attempting to sell three firkins of “fraudulently prepared” butter at the Listowel market. Dennis Sheehan testified he bought the butter “from the defendant’s little girl,” but quickly found that the firkins were filled to “within an inch of the top with butter of an inferior quality.” Foran said he was “not aware” of the problem.

Sandes and two other magistrates hearing the case denounced Foran. They noted such tricks could ruin the reputation of the Listowel market. The magistrates imposed “the highest penalty the law would allow,” a fine of £2 for each firkin, plus court costs.

A year later, the Sentinel reported that Foran and his daughter Nora were in court about another incident at the Listowel market. The father and daughter claimed they were harassed while trying to sell a firkin of butter. They asked the court to bring an intimidation charge against John Daly under the 1882 Crimes Act .

Foran testified that Daly “rushed between me and a buyer, and cried out that I was boycotted.” Under cross examination, however, he admitted that his original complaint only mentioned “somebody in the crowd” called out that he was boycotted. He did not name the defendant. “I was irritated at the time I made the information, but I was persuaded since that it was Daly,” Foran said. “I brought it to memory since.”

Nora Foran testified the potential buyer turned away from the butter after taking a small sample. “As if he didn’t like it, and then somebody cried out that your father was boycotted,” Sandes said from the bench.

“Yes, sir,” Nora replied.

Daly’s defense attorney mentioned Foran’s previous conviction and fine for “selling fraudulently prepared butter.” He said Daly was in court for the earlier case to testify against Foran.

Sandes dismissed the case “in consequence of the contradictory evidence of Foran.” The Sentinel reported there was “supressed applause” as Foran and his daughter Nora “left the court in anything but a pleasing mood.”

In March 1886, reports reached Parliament that Foran was unable to obtain a coffin to bury his wife, who died a month earlier. “It appears that he has been more or less boycotted for some time past,” Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland John Morley told MPs. “He was at one time under personal police protection, but this was withdrawn at his own request.”

Kerry MP Edward Harrington, a National League supporter and publisher of the Sentinel, objected to the discussion as “a purely local matter.” He told his colleagues about Foran’s fraud conviction and noted the farmer was considered “generally odious” back in the district.  

Chief Secretary Morley told the MPs that land agent George Sandes instructed his carpenter to build a coffin for Foran’s wife. He insisted Foran “was not refused one at Listowel, Ballylongford, or any other place.”

A month later, the degree of Foran’s ostracism was raised at a “crowded meeting” of the Listowel branch of the National League. “Several members complained” about shopkeepers supplying provisions to the “notorious Johnny Foran,” according to the Kerry Weekly Reporter of April 24, 1886. The League’s central office refused funds to help Walsh, the evicted tenant, because Foran was not boycotted “in a determined and stringent manner.”

The details of Mary Foran’s death are unknown, but the absence of any mention of violence in the parliamentary record or news accounts suggests she died of natural causes. Nora Foran lost her mother before age 20. Her sorrow and isolation would only grow in the years ahead.

Starvation or Surrender

By 1886, Ormathwaite mortgaged his estates for £153,755. As the debt piled up, he pressured Sandes to secure higher rents from the estate’s tenants. This prompted the pro-National League Kerry Sentinel to publish more articles attacking the landlord and agent. A Feb. 26, 1886, story under the headline “The Tenantry in North Kerry Under George Sandes’s Agency,” reported “thousands” of people gathered in Listowel to protest the “grinding rent extractions.” Sandes was targeted for a boycott. This notice was posted:

“Men of Listowel, of North Kerry, of Ireland, it now rests with you to put into practical form your sympathy with those poor people by abstaining from dealing with this tyrant in any way whatsoever. Do not speak to him, do not sell to him, do not buy from him. Boycott him–not like those who are boycotted only in name–but boycott him to starvation or surrender.”

Sandes pushed back against the boycott. As magistrate, he threatened the licenses of merchants and other businesses. As Ormathwaite’s agent, he “invoked all the terrors of the law, sent the crowbar brigade on the warpath, and evicted whole townlands,” the Sentinel reported on Sept. 21, 1886.

The same story also revealed that a priest was dispatched to contact Ormathwaite, “who, of course, spends his Kerry rental in London.” The landlord offered to decrease rents by 15 percent instead of the 30 percent demanded by tenants. The tenants refused, and the strife continued.

Such episodes, aggravated by another agricultural downturn, prompted Parnell and his supporters to return land agitation to politics. They adopted a new rent refusal strategy called the “Plan of Campaign.” Their renewed agrarian advocacy raised the hackles of the conservative press. In March 1887, the Times of London launched a series of sensational articles headlined “Parnellism and Crime,” which attempted to link the Home Rule leader to the 1882 Phoenix Park murders and the latest surge of agrarian unrest.

At the same time, cabinet minister Arthur James Balfour was appointed chief secretary for Ireland as the government introduced tougher laws to counter the Plan of Campaign. The laws suspended the right to trial for people suspected of boycotting and other outrage. The National League was proclaimed a “dangerous association.” Balfour authorized special police powers for troubled areas, with Kerry targeted in particular.

By the middle of 1887, at least 414 people in Kerry were “wholly or partially boycotted” as intimidation “reached a high pitch,” the government reported a few years later. “Without a doubt at this period Kerry was the worst county in Ireland, and a regular reign of terror had been established by gangs of moonlighters, who acted as the police of the [National] League, enforcing its decrees by outrages committed on obnoxious persons on their property.”

North Kerry, 1888

The government crackdown did not stop the violence. On Jan. 31, 1888, farmer James Fitzmaurice was shot to death in front of his daughter Norah as they rode in a horse cart near Lixnaw, six miles south of Listowel. Fitzmaurice, who was in his 60s, was boycotted for claiming land from which his brother had been evicted.

Two men followed the father and daughter as they left their farm for the fair early that morning. “The men were not disguised in any way, and the moon was shining brightly and she saw them plainly,” the anti-Home Rule Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union reported in a pamphlet. Norah Fitzmaurice identified the killers as Daniel Hayes and Daniel Moriarty. Her testimony convicted the men in a trial the Crown moved to Wicklow, more than 200 miles away.

“The importance of the case does not, of course, consist in the fact that the authors of the crime were traced, which often happens, but in the readiness of the jury to defy the terrorists,” The Spectator, a conservative British magazine, reported March 31, 1888. “But for the fears of jurymen, Ireland could never have been reduced to its present condition.”

Hayes and Moriarty were hanged on April 28, 1888, at the gaol (prison) in Tralee, 16 miles south of Listowel. Moriarty’s “poor mother … cried bitterly and proclaimed aloud the innocence of her son,” the Kerry Weekly Reporter wrote in its coverage of the executions. But Hayes and Moriarty “were well known in the moonlight movement,” a Kerry old timer claimed in an interview 50 years later.

The Lixnaw community continued to boycott Norah Fitzmaurice. She was protected by a police escort. Shortly before the executions, two men incited most of the congregation to walk out of St. Michael’s Church as she attended Mass. The pair were later convicted of intimidation and sentenced to six months hard labor.

As these events unfolded in Kerry, Pope Leo XIII issued a preliminary decree from Rome that condemned the Plan of Campaign and land-related violence and boycotting in Ireland. Earlier, the Holy See had dispatched a secret envoy to investigate the troubles. The envoy’s report to the pope described Kerry as the center of moonlighting activity. A later analysis of the report criticized Bishop of Kerry Andrew Higgins as “a cold and indecisive man” who “contributed to the problem because the people were unsure of his principles and opinions.”

In June 1888, Rome followed the preliminary decree with a formal encyclical, Saepe Nos (On Boycotting in Ireland). The document worried that “people were being carried away by ever-increasing vehemence in the pursuit of the object of their desires.” It advised the Irish “to be mindful of their obligations as Catholics, and to take part in nothing at variance with natural right or forbidden by the Divine law.”

The encyclical was more than a reminder of Christian morality. The Vatican was privately negotiating to re-establish diplomatic ties with Westminster for the first time since the founding of the Anglican Church. The pope also wanted to build a Catholic university in Ireland. The encyclical split the Irish bishops between their loyalty to the pope and their ministry to the people. Most of the Irish clerics opted not to enforce the directive.

Now, neither London nor Rome could save John Foran.

The Murder of John Foran

On July 14, 1888, an RIC constable in Listowel optimistically reported the condition of the district “was much improved and free almost from crime and outrage.” The activities of the National League, he wrote, were “much diminished” and boycotting “almost totally disappeared.” He suggested one reason was that the “crops and prospects of agriculture are good.”

In fact, the summer of 1888 was very wet in Ireland. Nearly 16 inches of rain fell at Dublin through July, double the same period a year earlier. “Very broken, wet, cold weather prevailed,” the Registrar General reported. Agricultural records for 1888 show the rain helped green crops, but hurt the “quantity and quality” of potatoes and oats around Listowel, with “little or no wheat, barley or rye sown in this district.”

Such were the conditions on July 29, 1888, as John Foran decided to hire extra laborers for his farm. Because he remained boycotted in the Listowel area, however, Foran traveled 16 miles to Tralee to hire the help. He left early that Sunday morning with his 15-year-old son, Michael. They probably reached Tralee before noon, aided by the steady downhill slope of the topography. In his anonymity, Foran quickly found three willing workers.

By mid-afternoon, Foran steered his horse-drawn cart on the ascending road back toward Listowel. The three hired men crouched in the back of the cart. Michael sat up front with his father, joined by a young girl named Kate Sullivan, who was offered a ride along the way.

At Banemore, Foran stopped at a roadside pub to buy a round of drink for the men while his son and the girl waited outside. At about half past four in the afternoon, the party of six traveled north on the Irremore Road, they passed a group of boys and girls enjoying a dance and picnic in the field. The Sentinel later described the spot at Mountcoal, about five miles south of Listowel:

The road at this point is bounded on either side by a thick  copsewood of fir, larch and shrubbery, extending a distance of considerably over a mile, and affording ample and secure shelter for the perpetrator of a deed of blood. Not a house is to be seen within a radius of a mile, nothing but trees and shrubberies are discernible on either side of the road, the entire place presenting a scene of loneliness and solitude, and wearing a darksome and somewhat awe inspiring aspect even in the day time. The place also has a reputation of being ghost haunted, the alleged spectre being supposed to be that of a man who hanged himself there many years ago.

Suddenly, a man emerged from the woods and jumped to the road from a small stone wall. He held a revolver in one hand and seized the horse’s halter with the other.

“Clear the car,” he ordered.

The ambusher fired four shots at John Foran, while a fifth bullet glanced off the harness gear. The Sentinel continued:

The unfortunate old man on receiving the shots fell forward from the car on the road, and was instantly a stark corpse. The assassin, satisfied that his fell work was complete, lost no time in returning into the wood  at the same point where he had emerged from, and suddenly disappeared through the trees. The three farm laborers and the girl who had got a seat on Foran’s car fled in terror toward where the dance was being held, and the now orphan[ed] little boy was left a solitary spectator to mourn over the tragic fate of his unfortunate father…

The Irish Times suggested that “though the shots must have been distinctly heard by those who were at the dance, not one of them had the humanity to come and offer assistance to the poor man’s son.” Michael Foran, “left to his own resources, was not able to lift his lifeless father into the cart, but put him up against the wall and drove to Listowel,” where he contacted the authorities.

Investigators arrived at the murder scene by six in the evening, still plenty of light remaining in the long dusk of an Irish summer. The squad included Captain Massey, District-Inspector Hickie, Head Constable Stretton, Sergeant Galligan and others. Galligan rode on to Tralee and rounded up the three laborers walking along the road. Other police searched the woods and found a second set of footprints, which suggested the killer had an accomplice.

John Foran was shot three times in the chest and once in the abdomen. His body was taken to the Listowel workhouse for an autopsy. Michael Foran was held in police custody.

Questions and Arrests

John Foran’s murder was widely reported throughout the United Kingdom and in America. All of the accounts described the victim as a boycotted farmer. In Ireland, the Freeman’s Journal declared the murder “one of the most daring, as well as one of the most brutal, which have yet stained the criminal annals of Kerry.”

The Sentinel reported that while it was unclear how Foran obtained the Coolaclarig property, “what tended to add to his unpopularity was the fact that at the time he took Walsh’s farm, Walsh and his brother tenants were engaged in a desperate struggle with the inexorable agent to the Ormathwaite estate, Mr. George Sandes.” Foran “was not the only person on the estate who had taken evicted farms,” but the others “one after another voluntarily surrendered the farms they had taken.” Foran suffered many “annoyances” for keeping the Walsh farm, the Sentinel suggested, but “he was not subject to anything like rigid systematic boycotting.”

As for his personality, Foran “was of such a fearless disposition–being brave even to rashness–that the people of his district had a wholesome dread of himself and his shilelagh.” He “was never apprehensive of any danger to his person owing to his position, and is said to have on several occasions made a vaunt of his having continued to hold the farm despite all public opinion could do to make him uncomfortable,” the pro-nationalist Sentinel reported.

Anti-nationalist newspapers were more sympathetic to Foran. The Irish Weekly Times described him as “a large farmer in affluent circumstances” who, upon obtaining Coolaclarig, “worked it successfully, being a hard-working and industrious man.” A correspondent from the Times of London visited the surviving Foran family shortly after the murder and reported, “The house and offices were very tidy and well slated, and they were evidently industrious and well-to-do people.”

Asked about Foran’s murder a day after the crime, Chief Secretary for Ireland Arthur Balfour told Parliament that he didn’t have any details. In a private letter a few days later, he described boycotting as “one of the gravest crimes” troubling Ireland. MPs continued to ask questions about the murder through August 1888: How did Foran obtain the farm from Walsh? Was the evicted tenant’s rent to Lord Ormathwaite assessed at three times the property’s value? The public record shows no answers from the Balfour administration.  

In Kerry, authorities arrested three suspects, including one described as an ex-policeman. The trio was lined up with other men in the yard of the Listowel police barracks. Michael Foran, Kate Sullivan and the three laborers did not identify any of the suspects as Foran’s killer, so they were released. The victim’s son “left the yard crying,” the Sentinel reported.

A jury was empanelled for a coroner’s inquest into Foran’s death. The Crown insisted that none of the five witnesses would testify in the preliminary proceeding. In response, the jury refused to bring a willful murder verdict against “any person or persons unknown.” The prosecutor grumbled that it was not appropriate to question the witnesses at this stage. One of the defiant jurors shouted, “We will not be lectured by you.”

The Inquiry

As Crown prosecutor Alexander Morphy and defense attorney John Moran debated over producing witnesses for the coroner’s inquest, Listowel police arrested more men suspected of Foran’s murder. The last of these suspects, James Curtin, 23, was described in news accounts as a poor laborer. He was held a fortnight, released, then rearrested on Sept. 14, 1888, at the Tullamore home of Edmond Walsh. News accounts and government reports do not mention any relationship between this man and evicted tenant Thomas Walsh. The next morning, Curtin was escorted into the Listowel courtroom and dramatically “threw the soft, white hat which he wore on the floor, and listened without the least discomposure,” the Sentinel reported.

Dr. John Dillon opened the proceedings with details of his autopsy of John Foran. He testified to finding six wounds on the front and back of the victim’s body, including one “caused by a bullet which entered the chest, passed through the heart [and] broke through the sixth rib on the right side.” Foran died from “hemorrhage and shock,” he said.

William Foran testified about his father and family being boycotted. “Tradesmen, coopers, blacksmiths and tailors refused to work for him, and the neighbors, with the exception of a few, refused to speak with us,” he said. “We were called landgrabbers, and were whistled at and booed and threatened to be shot if we did not give up the farm.”

Michael Foran followed his older brother to the witness box. The 15-year-old had identified Curtin in a police line up as his father’s killer and swore an affidavit against the defendant. He testified that he first encountered Curtin the previous summer while hauling a churn of milk from Coolaclarig to Tullamore with his sister, Joanna, and younger brothers, Tim and Dennis. Curtin stopped them, pulled the churn from their cart and spilled the milk. He grabbed the churn and smashed it with “nine or 10 welts against the road,” the witness testified.

“My father wanted me to go to the court against Curtin, but I was frightened of Curtin and I would not,” Michael Foran said. He recounted other encounters with Curtin on the same road. “He used to look cross at me, and when he had the ass and car with him he would begin to wallop and beat the ass hard.”

Asked if James Curtin was in the courtroom, the teen nodded toward the defendant. Then he testified about the fateful trip to Tralee.

“We passed a son of Tom Walsh of Clountubrid (a subsection of Listowel) on the road; that’s the Tom Walsh who owned Coolaclarig before my father took it,” Michael said. No description of an exchange with Walsh’s son was offered or asked about during the testimony, according to newspaper accounts. It seems odd that Morphy or Moran did not question whether there had been other encounters between the two families in the nearly five years since Walsh was evicted from the farm. The available records are also unclear about whether police questioned young Walsh or his father.

Defense attorney Moran did question Michael Foran about being kept in police custody for several days after the murder. He also asked about a conversation with his sister Nora once he got back home to Tullamore.

“Did you tell your sister Nora that you know who killed your father?” Moran asked.

“I did not, sir,” Foran replied.

“Did you tell her you did not know who killed your father?”

“No sir.”

“You say in the information you made on 10 September: ‘I am very frightened since the murder and my sister Nora’s advice not to give evidence about the murder made me unwilling to swear against the murderer.’ Is that true?

“It is.”

“And it was she prevented you from swearing against Curtin?”

“Yes sir.”

“On your solemn oath sir, if that statement be true what prevented you from telling who the murderer was from the time you came into the [Listowel] barrack on Sunday night [after the shooting] until the Tuesday following [when he got home]?”

“I was in dread sir.”

More Testimony

The Crown’s inquiry into the Foran murder continued at intervals through October and November. Morphy, the prosecutor, and Moran, the defense attorney, spared over several procedural issues. There also were a few moments of humor, such as when Michael Foran was called to testify a second time and told a story of being attacked near Coolaclarig by three men who broke a milk churn, similar to the earlier episode with Curtin.

“It’s turning into a buttermilk case now,” Moran cracked.

Joanna Foran testified about the encounter with Curtin, but Nora Foran was not called to describe her conversation with Michael when he returned home from police custody, according to the courtroom coverage of several newspapers. It appears Nora remained at Tullamore to help oversee a family now missing both parents.

Magistrate and land agent George Sandes testified that he had known John Foran “very well.” He said they signed a lease for the Coolaclarig farm on Jan. 30, 1884, eight months after Walsh’s eviction. The term was backdated to Sept. 29, 1883, but no explanation was reported about the circumstances or finances of the four-month difference.

Michael Moriarty was the first of the three laborers to testify and said he got only “a very small sight” of the gunman. He would not identify Curtain as the shooter. Thomas Clifford said that he gathered the men’s three pikes (harvesting tools) and ran away as the gunfire began. Owen Sullivan testified that Curtin was not the gunman. Had he known Foran was boycotted, Sullivan added, he “would not have engaged to go into his employment.”

Kate O’Sullivan, the young girl who accepted a ride from Foran, said she was turned from the front of the car and did not see the gunman. Mary Lynch of Mountcoal, described by the press as “an intelligent young woman,” testified that she noticed two men standing on the road at Mountcoal the day of the murder, which seemed to corroborate police reports of finding two sets of footprints at the scene.

“One of them appeared to be pairing a stick with a knife,” Lynch said. When she asked the men why they were not at the nearby dance, they did not answer. As Foran’s horse cart approached, Lynch said she turned to get out of the way, then heard “Clear the car” and the sound of gunshots.

Moran, the defense attorney, asked: “As you hope to see your God, is that man Curtin the man that fired the shots?”

“No sir,” she answered.

Other witnesses testified they had seen Curtin at a card game the day of the murder. As the inquiry closed on Nov. 14, 1888, the case was recommended for regular trial in March. The magistrate asked Curtin if he wanted to make a statement.

“I have nothing to say sir, only that I am innocent,” Curtin replied. “I know nothing at all about it.”

Two weeks later, Kerry newspapers reported that farmer James Conner was ambushed by two men on the road at Mountcoal, “where Foran was murdered.” The men fired two shots at Conner, but he whipped his horse to a gallop and escaped without injury. Conner had supplied provisions to police investigating the Foran case, the reports said, “and the attempted outrage on him is ascribed to those circumstances.”

The episode was added to the total of 262 violent agrarian crimes in Kerry during 1888, including the Foran and Fitzmaurice murders. It was the highest tally of any county in Ireland for the year.

Special Commission

In London, a special judicial commission was formed to investigate the Times’ allegations that Parnell played a role in the 1882 Phoenix Park murders, and whether the leader and other land reform and Home Rule politicians were behind wider agrarian violence in Ireland. The three-member “Parnellism and Crime” commission opened on Oct. 22, 1888. Norah Fitzmaurice was among the first victims called to testify.

Norah described how her father was boycotted before his murder earlier in the year. She remained firm in her identification of the executed Hayes and Moriarty. An attorney for the Times asked her what happened immediately after the shooting.

“Now, when your father was lying on the road, did any persons pass by?”

“Yes,” she replied. “There were four or five men with carts.”

“Did they give you any assistance whatever?”


“Did they even stop?”

“One of them stopped and said, ‘He is not dead yet.’”

“Did he then pass on?”


A week later, Patrick Foran was called to testify before the panel, though commission records and newspaper accounts probably misidentified Michael Foran, the murder witness. It didn’t matter. Parnell’s attorney objected to someone from Foran’s family being questioned while the murder case was still in court. The other attorneys agreed. The victim’s son, whoever it was, was dismissed.

In March 1889, Curtin’s trial resumed in Kerry after a four-month recess. The Crown immediately entered a notice of nolle prosequi, or unwilling to pursue, which abruptly ended the case against Curtin without explanation.

Curtin’s defense attorney asked for the jury to be sworn. He said that if the Crown offered no evidence, then a verdict of not guilty could be delivered “so as not to have this charge hanging over the man.” The Crown refused. Curtin was released.

Echoes of Outrage

The Foran and Fitzmaurice murders continued to echo through legal proceedings and politics, including ongoing hearings of the special commission and parliamentary debates about the Irish land question. In July 1889, William and Michael Foran were summoned to Manchester, England, to testify about their father’s murder during the slander trial of William O’Brien, publisher of the pro-nationalist newspaper United Ireland.

Norah Fitzmaurice also testified at the civil trial, which was shortly after her marriage to Constable Martin Hunt, one of her police guardians. The wedding occurred at the same Lixnaw church where many parishioners had walked out in boycott a year earlier. The ceremony was “remarkable mainly for the large attendance of policemen,” the Sentinel reported.

In November 1889, the special commission released its final report, which absolved Parnell of any role in the Phoenix Park murders. Letters published in the Times that purported to make such a connection were famously revealed as forgeries. This cheered the Irish nationalists. Unionist politicians highlighted evidence that suggested Parnell and his followers had advocated, or at least condoned, the agrarian violence in Ireland.

The main body of the report did not mention the Fitzmaurice and Foran murders. Short narratives of both crimes were included in the detailed appendix packed with tables of agrarian crime statistics from Kerry and the rest of Ireland since 1878. It documented 94 land-related murders in the country during the 10-year period.    

In January 1891, a government report about how Chief Secretary Arthur Balfour reduced agrarian violence described the Foran case as “one of the most shocking murders ever perpetrated in Ireland to enforce the law of the National League against ‘landgrabbers.’ ” The report mentioned Curtin’s release, but nothing of any further prosecution. It concluded that “Foran’s family was strictly boycotted after his murder, and persons who worked for him were threatened and intimidated.”

That spring, shortly after Parnell’s affair with Katherine O’Shea became public and the Irish Parliamentary Party split into factions for and against the leader, the Foran and Fitzmaurice murders became fodder in anti-Home Rule political handbills. Anti-Parnellite candidates prevailed in three special elections to fill vacant MP slots. The disgraced nationalist leader died in October 1891. He was only 45.

Troubled Household

On May 13, 1889, two months after the Crown dropped its case against Curtin, a civil court in Limerick settled the personal estate of John Foran with “letters of administration” granted to William Foran. The “effects” included property and personal wealth valued at £559, or about 10 times the annual lease at Coolaclarig. Today, the total is equivalent to nearly £66,000 ($78,500), according to a basic inflation calculator and August 2016 currency conversion rate. The 19th century amount has a 21st century “relative prestige value” of more than £424,000 ($554,000), according to measuringworth.com

William Foran drank up the money. By June 1890, he had been charged at least three times with drunkenness. He appeared before the Listowel Petty Sessions to appeal a two-month sentence for assaulting his sister Nora at their home in Tullamore because she sold butter without his permission. She testified:

“He struck me more than once, and dragged my head. He said I should not be selling the butter. He is squandering all our means. He is in the habit of taking drink, and assaulted me before in several ways by throwing articles at me.

“He took out administration after my father’s death. He manages the farm, and my sister and myself manage the dairy. I am anxious to forgive him if he would give me quietness, and not be spending our money.”

The judge said Nora had no legal right to sell the butter and voiced indifference that William Foran was a boycotted man. The jurist was sympathetic to the needs of a working farm, however, and reduced the brother’s sentence by a month.

How long Nora remained at Tullamore with William, or what happened to the rest of the family, gets murky at this point. Ireland’s 1881 and 1891 census records, which would have detailed the Foran family before and after the death of both parents, were pulped during World War I. A surviving Catholic church record shows that on June 4, 1895, Nora Foran married Jeremiah Scanlon at Moyvane parish, about six miles east of Tullamore. The record shows the bride lived in neighboring Murhur.

The wedding also was what the Irish called an American Wake. Guests knew that the newlyweds would never be seen again, as if they had died. The couple left Kerry, probably by train from Listowel, and traveled 65 miles to Queenstown (now Cobh) at the southern tip of Ireland. A few days later, they boarded the SS Majestic to America.

The ship’s manifest officer recorded Nora as a 23-year-old “servant” and Jeremiah as a 22-year-old “laborer.” She carried two suitcases, he lugged aboard three pieces of luggage. The couple were assigned separate dormitory-style staterooms for the week-long voyage.

Nora would not forget the sorrows she was leaving behind in Ireland. She could not have imagined the heartaches ahead of her in America.

In America

The Majestic arrived in New York on June 12, 1895. Nora and Jeremiah entered the country through the Ellis Island immigration center. Their final destination was Chicago, according to the ship’s manifest. It is likely that they knew somebody in the city, though the record does not name a personal contact, as became mandatory a few years later.

While most details of Nora’s early years in America are unknowable, available records reveal that she gave birth to two sons: Michael in 1896, and John in 1898. The family also relocated to Pittsburgh, where they were recorded in the 1900 U. S. Census. Perhaps the move was prompted by another tragedy in Nora’s life, whispered in the census by two small numbers that answered two simple questions:

“Mother of how many children?” … 3.

“Number of these children living?” … 2.

Jeremiah worked as a laborer, then later as a mail carrier. The 1910 census shows he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1905. At the time, the law automatically conferred citizenship to Nora as his spouse. The family added three more children.

The Scanlons lived in several tenement apartments within a few blocks of each other on Pittsburgh’s industrialized North Side. The district was bound by a massive railroad switching yard and smoke belching mills and other manufacturing plants along the Ohio River. The sooty urban landscape was a stark contrast to the green fields of Kerry.

Irish immigrants filled the neighborhood. Many arrived from Kerry and Ireland’s other western counties shortly after the Great Famine. Among them were former Land League supporters who had sent money to Ireland in the 1880s. Now, in the early 20th century, some of the men belonged to the secretive Clan na Gael (Family of the Gaels), which urged independence from the United Kingdom through armed rebellion. Other Irish immigrants continued to support Home Rule through politics.

Nora probably kept secret her family’s background. She likely avoided Kerry gatherings of the popular Irish county associations, which sponsored regular dances and picnics where immigrants reunited with others from the same sections of Ireland. Self-imposed exile was safer for Nora than the risk of being harassed or boycotted again in America.

Not all of the city’s Irish immigrants were post-Famine Catholics like the Scanlons. Pittsburgh also had a large presence of Scot-Irish Protestants who emigrated earlier in the 19th century from the province of Ulster. Many of these Ulstermen belonged to the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organization similar to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Irish-Catholic men’s society. A landmark sociology study of living conditions among Pittsburgh’s immigrant population at the time noted that “here the old Irish cleavage has been repeated in the two strong religious elements in the community life.” The Ulstermen vehemently opposed Irish independence. “Home Rule is Rome Rule,” was their unionist, anti-Catholic cry.

On April 6, 1914, police were summoned to a melee among more than 100 Irishmen near Nora and Jeremiah Scanlon’s gritty neighborhood. The New York Times headlined its story “Irish Riot,” and described the brawl as pitting “ardent Home Rulers” against “several Ulster sympathizers.” Rioters blocked the street as they went “hard at it with clubs, fists and bricks,” the Times reported. Some brawlers were “in such a badly battered condition that they fell an easy prey to the [police] bluecoats.” The men were charged with disorderly conduct and ordered to pay a fine of $10, or serve 30 days in the workhouse.

Great War

A few weeks after the Pittsburgh riot, Parliament approved Home Rule for Ireland after more than 30 years of effort. The new law was suspended before it could be implemented, however, as war erupted on the European continent. Over the next four years, more than 200,000 men from Ireland fought for the Allies. Nationalist Catholics joined to preserve Home Rule, while Ulster Protestants enlisted to protect the union with Great Britain.

At first, America remained isolated from the European war, even as Pittsburgh’s steel barons profited from the armaments produced by their mills. In April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson finally declared war on Germany. Two months later, Nora’s oldest son registered in the first round of the American draft along with 60,000 other men in the Pittsburgh region.

Michael Scanlon, 21, lived at his parents’ North Side apartment and worked as a lineman for the Bell Telephone Company. The draft record shows he enlisted earlier with the Pennsylvania Volunteers and received some military training in the Army Signal Corps. He shipped overseas in August 1917, and was promoted to corporal a year later. His European service extended to July 1919, eight months after the armistice that ended the war. He was honorably discharged a week later at Camp Dix, N.J.

Michael was “gassed” in Europe, one military record shows, which appears to confirm the story of a surviving nephew. Another Army record, however, leaves blank the space next to the word “Engagements.” The word “None” is typed on the standardized form next to the line, “Wounds or other injuries.” A “0” is key-stroked into the open space, “Was reported __ percent disabled on date of discharge.”

On Dec. 19, 1919, the afternoon Pittsburgh Press reported that Michael died at his parents’ apartment at six that morning. The registry at nearby St. Andrew Catholic Church later listed the cause of death as peritonitis, a painful inflammation of the abdominal tissue. His funeral Mass at the Beaver Avenue church was held three days before Christmas, with burial at North Side Catholic Cemetery.

It was a grim Monday afternoon as the family hosted a funeral reception at Manchester Post 80 of the American Legion. “A heavy bank of smoke and fog today settled over parts of Pittsburgh, the third consecutive day of depressing atmospheric conditions,” the Press reported. Nora was probably too despondent to notice the front page story about Irish rebels’ failed attempt to assassinate the British military commander in Dublin.

“The storm is rising in Ireland,” it said.

Walsh Reinstated

As Nora mourned Michael’s death, Ireland was torn by a war of independence and partition of the island into the quasi-independent Irish Free State and the province of Ulster, now called Northern Ireland, which remained part of Britain. The transition from British control of southern Ireland, including Kerry, to a new Dublin-based government seems to have prompted Nora to seek redress for her father’s murder.

Her first outreach appears to have been in March 1922 to the American Red Cross in London, according to surviving Irish and U.S. files. Her letter is not among those records, but is referenced in the April 11, 1922, reply to the humanitarian organization by the Irish Land Commission. Established by the British in the 1880s to arbitrate rent disputes, break up large estates and transfer land ownership, the Commission continued to operate under the new Irish Free State government.

Commission official John T. Drennan recounted that John Foran obtained the Coolaclarig farm after the previous tenant, Thomas Walsh, was evicted by Lord Ormathwaite. He noted that Foran “was boycotted and eventually murdered” as a result of taking the farm. The letter continued: “His son, William Foran, appears to have continued in occupation of the farm until 1892 when — according to his own statement he was intimidated into surrendering it to the landlord,” Drennan wrote. “William Foran has on numerous occasions urged a claim to compensation for the loss of the farm but, as he was not evicted … there is no statute authorizing the grant of monetary compensation to a tenant dispossessed of or, for any reason, surrendering a holding.” He concluded the letter by saying, “[Land] Commissioners regret that in these circumstances no action can be taken on Mrs. Scanlon’s application.”

After William Foran abandoned Coolaclarig in 1892 (three years before Nora’s emigration to America) the acreage remained fallow for more than a decade. Constables were assigned to protect the landlord’s caretaker. During this period, the British government continued to craft legislation to rectify Ireland’s lingering agrarian problems. Those efforts eventually included the Irish Land Act of 1903 and the Evicted Tenants Act of 1907.

Walsh applied for reinstatement to Coolaclarig in 1903, according to Drennan’s letter. In May 1905, his case was discussed by Parliament.

“As this man [Walsh] has several times applied for reinstatement and been refused will the Government now take action?”, North Kerry MP Michael Flavin asked.

“The Government cannot take action. It is for the landlord and tenant to come to terms,” Chief Secretary for Ireland Walter Long replied.

“The tenant is willing and has said so through me, yet he is being treated with contempt,” Flavin said.

No further reply is recorded for this exchange, but Flavin continued to advocate for Walsh. In May 1908, he noted that Walsh “has been on the roadside for over 20 years.” The administration replied that Ormathwaite rejected its offer to buy the land, but that a compulsory sale was being considered. Five months later, The Irish Times reported the sale of three parcels of Ormathwaite’s North Kerry estate for £1,498.

Flavin’s inquiries on Walsh’s behalf pushed into 1909. On Oct. 18, Attorney General for Ireland Richard Cherry informed MPs that Walsh had been reinstated to Coolaclarig under the Land Purchase Act, originally passed in 1885. The former tenant was advanced £762 to buy back the 58-acre farm, with repayment in an annuity of approximately £25. Walsh also got a £120 grant for the purchase of livestock.

In his remarks to the MPs, Cherry also noted the Foran murder of 21 years earlier. He added, “Walsh was not accused or suspected of the crime.”

The Irish Land Commission oversaw hundreds of property transactions from the mid-1880s through the partition of Ireland in 1921. By the time Nora wrote to the Red Cross, some 13.5 million acres, about 65 percent of the island’s land mass, had transferred ownership. It is unclear if she was aware that her abusive brother William in 1919 applied for a grant to buy the Tullamore farm, which the Forans had leased since the 1850s. The Land Commission rejected his request, just as it had done with his bid to be compensated for Coolaclarig.

Nora’s Letters

Drennan’s April 1922 letter to the Red Cross presumably was forwarded to Nora in Pittsburgh, but her efforts to obtain compensation for her father’s murder continued for another three years. In July 1922, Drennan received a letter from John Gamon, the American Consul at Cobh, Ireland, which contained another affidavit from Nora similar to the one he received in March from the Red Cross. Drennan replied to Gamon on Sept. 27 with a copy of his earlier letter that outlined the history of Coolaclarig.

A year later, the day after an unusual August thunderstorm swept through Pittsburgh, Nora swore another affidavit in the Beaver Avenue offices of notary Herman Young. She also wrote to former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. “I trust you will pardon the liberty I am taking in addressing you, but would beg your kind consideration of the following matter,” Nora began. She recounted her father’s murder and Walsh’s reinstatement to the Coolaclarig farm.

“The consensus of opinion of people here to whom I have explained the matter is that the British Government, even at this late date, may be willing to look into the matter and consider my claim for recompense as one of the heirs to my father’s estate,” Nora wrote. “It is my intention to travel to the United Kingdom in the near future to present my claim in person. As a former British subject, may I ask the favor of your advice or recommendation in this matter.”

On Oct 2, 1923, E.E. Childers, the British consul in Pittsburgh, wrote an “entirely unofficial” letter to Charles M. Hathaway Jr., the American consul in Dublin. The correspondence was “in behalf of a lady with whom I am somewhat acquainted here, Mrs. Nora Scanlon … who is an American citizen, but has asked my advice in a matter very near to her heart.” Nora wrote her own letter to Hathaway, to be forwarded with the note from Childers, whom she described as someone “with whom I am personally acquainted.” Details of their relationship remain a mystery.

Nora detailed the reply she received from David Lloyd George, who “hardly felt the British Government would regard favorably any appeal for compensation in respect to a transaction that had been closed for 35 years, but that if my claim was sound it was open to me to seek redress from a court of law.” She signed off to Hathaway, “Trusting you will do your best for me.”

On Oct. 31, 1923, Hathaway replied to Nora from Dublin. He wrote: “I have communicated with the Land Commission and have obtained their statement of the facts as contained in their letter of April 11, 1922, to the American Red Cross, London, copy of which I presume has been forwarded to you. From this it appears that there is no legal remedy left to you, but to make sure of this I have consulted a Dublin solicitor who advises me that in his opinion you could not successfully maintain an action in court. I am sorry therefore that there appears to be nothing I can do to assist you.”

Hathaway also sent a note to Childers, his diplomatic peer in Pittsburgh, which outlined his response to Nora. He added, “It is evident that the British Government would be unlikely to consider itself responsible for any injustice that Mrs. Scanlon’s father and brother may have suffered and it is equally unlikely that the Government of the Irish Free State would consider it a matter for their attention.”

Nora made at least one more appeal for compensation, according to the surviving files. On May 5, 1925, she addressed a letter to British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in London. “The treatment my father and family received has always been a great sorrow to me,” she wrote. She continued:

“When I came to this country and had my family I thought I would possibly get away from this, but my oldest boy, Michael, joined the American Army to help America and the Allies and was killed in active service. This has also been a great sorrow to me, and I do feel, having gone through so much, that if there is any way for me to secure compensation through the British Government on this claim which I am submitting, I would feel some justice is being done.”  

Her letter was copied and transferred to the Irish Land Commission, which rewrote its April 1922 history of Coolaclarig in a new memorandum dated June 27, 1925. The Irish government denied Nora’s request on Oct. 8, 1925. An unsigned copy of the reply says:

“My ministers have given careful consideration to your claim in respect of the holding at Coolaclarig on the Lord Ormathwaite Estate, County Kerry, at one time in your father’s occupation and that they are satisfied, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, that they have no statutory power to accede to your application for compensation.”

Her Death  

The denial letter from Dublin arrived at Nora’s Pittsburgh apartment about the time the city’s baseball team won a World Series victory. The public celebration contrasted with her private disappointment. It appears to have ended her three-year letter writing campaign. But Nora made one more effort to leverage a personal tragedy into financial gain.

In February 1934, Nora sought compensation for the death of her son Michael shortly after the Pennsylvania Legislature passed the Veterans’ Compensation Act. The law provided payments to relatives of the state’s deceased or incapacitated military members from World War I, the Spanish-American War and other conflicts.

Nora returned to the Beaver Avenue offices of Herman P. Young, where a decade earlier she had sworn several affidavits about her father’s murder. This trip, she got her son’s military service records notarized. In May 1934, her claim was approved for 20 monthly payments of $10 each, or about $175 per month today. The money was probably helpful to the Scanlon family during those lean years of the Great Depression.

By then, her sister Joanna also lived in Pittsburgh. The fates of their other brothers and sisters is trickier to track, in part because the names are so common back in Kerry.  

Nora died of a cerebral hemorrhage on Oct. 3, 1938. She was 69, according to the registry at St. Andrew Church; 65, based on the age she gave in the 1930 census; or possibly 64, by the 1874 birth year in the Pittsburgh Press obituary. The last date means she was as young as 14 at the time of her father’s murder.  

The Press obituary givers her full name as Nora Ford Scanlon. Ford is a recognized variation of Foran. This form of her maiden name also appeared in her son’s 1919 newspaper obituary and the 1934 military compensation claim. Nora used Foran on her children’s baptismal records at St. Andrew.

Her funeral Mass at the church was held on Oct. 6, 1938. She was buried in the same cemetery plot as her son Michael, the war veteran. Fifty years after her father’s murder, Nora was finally at peace.

But the story lingered.

The Groves of Mountcoal

A month after Nora was buried in Pittsburgh, 72-year Mary Kirby of Kerry participated in a nationwide heritage project organized by the Irish Folklore Commission. School children and their teachers were encouraged to document local history by interviewing parents, grandparents and other older members of their community in what became known as The Schools’ Collection. Most of the people interviewed were teenagers or young adults in the 1880s. Several old farmers in Kerry recounted tales of moonlighter violence and whistling at boycotted people.

Kirby had been a teacher in the Irish national school system for most of her adult life, so her participation in the project was not surprising. She gave more than a dozen interviews on a variety of topics, including marriage customs, cooking tips, animal husbandry, and old ghost stories.

She was born about 1866, which means she was 22 at the time of Foran’s murder. She lived in Banemore, where the victim had bought a drink for the three hired workers shortly before the gunfire another mile down the road. Kirby was married in May 1889, two months after the Crown dropped the murder case against Curtin. She lived most of her life near Mountcoal.

She described the Foran murder in two interviews for the Folklore Commission. One piece, titled “Where Sean Foran the Landgrabber Was Shot,” used an Irish variation of the forename John. Kirby said:

“He was a land grabber. He took land that another man owned but could not pay the rent. Foran held it and would not give it up for anything. He was often threatened, but it took no effect of him. He could get no servants to work for him. So one Sunday he went to Tralee for to hire servants.

“He was watched coming home by the moonlighters. They held him up a quarter of a mile from Mountcoal Cross. They ordered the servants out of the car from him, also his son Michael. He pleaded for mercy but they would show him none.”

Kirby also recalled the lyrics of a song about the murder titled “The Groves of Mountcoal.” The song’s sympathies are clear: John Foran is described as “brute” and “the government’s friend;” his son Michael as “the perjures;” and Curtain as “an innocent youth” who suffered eight months in prison.


The Schools’ Collection was completed as Europe plunged into the Second World War. Most of the older generation interviewed for the project passed away by the time southern Ireland achieved full independence from Britain in 1949. The Foran murder “faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland,” as Winston Churchill once said of the Home Rule effort.

Today, the collection of interviews, parliamentary transcripts, U.S. and Irish census records, city directories, historical newspapers, maps and many other records are easily examined online. Satellite and street views of the Kerry countryside are available with a few keystrokes. Such access is convenient, but it isn’t as much fun as pulling archived material from dusty storage boxes, or driving the narrow roads of Mountcoal looking for the Foran murder scene.

Most Irish Land Commission records remain under restricted access because they are deemed to contain private and sensitive information. Critics say the government is afraid the details will stir up too many old disputes. Nora’s letters at the National Archives of Ireland are available for review because of her U.S. citizenship and British government replies. This is similar to when sealed court records get attached to another case and become open for inspection. More of Nora’s letters are held at the National Archives and Records Administration outside Washington, D.C.

Having read both sets of Nora’s letters numerous times, I still haven’t settled on whether she was motivated by money or justice. Too many details remain unknown. More than 70 years after her death, several of her relations that I interviewed had never heard the story of her father’s murder.

I was unable to locate John Foran’s grave in Kerry cemeteries. I suspect he was privately interred at Tullamore, which remains dotted with dairy farms. In Pittsburgh, however, I visited the North Side Catholic Cemetery, where Nora, Michael and other members of the Scanlon family are buried.

I stopped at the cemetery office to verify the grave location against the information I found online. The helpful woman behind the counter handed me a map and carefully traced a route through the cemetery’s winding hillside roads. Soon, I walked among rows of gravestones, many still decorated with small U.S. flags from Memorial Day. It was sunny and humid, the kind of morning that confirms spring has yielded to summer.

I made several passes through the rows of headstones but was unable to find the Scanlon grave. I wondered if the online and office records were incorrect, a reminder that documents often contain errors; either mistakes made by the person taking the information, or deceptions by the people giving it. And I day-dreamed of undiscovered records of the Foran case.

A gravedigger’s superintendent stopped his truck on the road next to where I had parked. I motioned to him. He offered to help me find the grave, and I showed him the combination of letters and numbers for the location. We retraced my steps through several rows.

He stopped suddenly and pointed to an open patch of grass.

“Here,” he said. “There’s no gravestone.”


“The Groves of Mountcoal”

Ye all know Sean Foran
That lived in Shroneown,
He met a sad fate
Coming from Tralee town.
When down from Castleisland
Two moonlighters strolled
And laid him to rest
In the groves of Mountcoal.


He fell from the car
And his head met the road
And Michael the perjures
Began to roar.
Saying o father dear father
For ever farewell.
They’ll send you both
body and soul down to hell.


He sat into his car
And he made for Listowel
On his going through town
He began to roar,
O Sergeant dear Sergeant
My father is dead
And inside his body are four balls of lead.


The Sergeant he jumped
He was like a hound
Saying get ready me boys
Till we make for the ground
For someone will suffer
You now may depend
For the shooting of Foran
The government’s friend.


When they came there
In amazement they stood
The place all over
Was covered with blood.
They looked at each other
Had nothing to see
But a land robbing body
Lying under an ash tree.


Curtin was taken
An innocent youth
He gave eight months in prison
Foran the Brute.
So now don’t be too fond
of grabbing the land
For you know the moonlighters
Are nearby at hand.
Down from Castleisland
They’ll surely stroll.
And the death of old Foran
They’ll give at the groves
Of Mountcoal.