The Man Who Was
Hanged by Katharine Tynan
It was outside the town of Ballinscreen, on the country side of the
bridge over the Maeve, that Mr. Ramsay-Stewart was shot at in the
League days, and that the shot struck a decent boy, Larry Byrne, a
widow's only son, and killed him stone dead. The man that fired the
shot would rather have cut off his right hand than hurt an innocent
creature like Larry,but there, when you go meddling with sin and
wickedness, as often as not you plunge deeper into it than you could
ever have foreseen. Anyhow the old women, who turn out everything to
show the Lord's goodness, said it was plain to see that Larry was
fitter to go than his master, and that was why the shot glanced by Mr.
Stewart's ear to lodge in the poor coachman's brain as he leant
forward, whipping up his horse with all his might, to get out of reach
of that murderous shower of shot.
Now a few months later all you comfortable people that sit reading
your newspapers by an English fire, and thinking what a terrible place
Ireland must be to live in, were comforted by the news that the man who
shot Larry Byrne was swinging for it in the county jail at
Ballinscreen. But you never made such a mistake in your born lives.
That man was out on the mountains in the bleak, bitter winter weather,
was in hiding all day in the caves up there in the clouds on top of
Croghan, and by night was coming down to the lonely mountain farmhouses
to beg what would keep the life in his big hungry body. The man that
swung for the murder was as innocent as yourself, and more betoken,
though he was great on war and revolutions, would no more fire on a man
out of the dark night than you would yourself. He had little feeling
for sin and crime, always barring the secret societies, by some
considered a sin.
It was beautiful to hear Murty Meehan,that was his name, God rest
his soul!having it out with old Father Phil on that same question.
Why, he told the priest that he himself belonged to a secret society,
for the matter of that, and the most powerful secret society of them
all. Father Phil used to end it up with a laugh, for he was fond of
Murty. He nearly broke his heart over the man when he was in jail,
waiting to go to the gallows, and wouldn't open his lips to clear
himself. Murty had been in every 'movement' from the '48 onwards. But
like all the other old Fenians, he thought worse of the League than Mr.
Ramsay-Stewart himself. His ideas were high-flown ones, and he could
put them in beautiful language, about freeing his country, and setting
her in her rightful place among the nations. But not by the League
methods. There was a bit of poetry of Davis he was fond of quoting:
For Freedom comes from God's right hand,
And needs a godly train,
And righteous men must make our land
A Nation once again.
Many a time he hurled it at the Leaguers' heads, but they bore him
no malice; the worst they did was to call him a crank. I often think
that when Murty died on the gallows for a crime he hated, it was a
sacrifice of more than his life. Well, God be good to him!
Murty hadn't a soul in the world belonging to him. His father and
mother died in the black '47, and the little girl he had set his heart
on sailed in a coffin-ship for New York with her father and mother in
the same bitter year, and went down somewhere out on the unkindly
ocean. She had hung round Murty's neck imploring him to go with her,
but Murty was drilling for the rising of the following year, and could
see no duty closer than his duty to his country. He promised to follow
her and bring her back if there were happier days in Ireland, but the
boat and its freight were never heard of after they left Queenstown
quay in that September of blight and storm. And so Murty grew with the
years into a pleasant, kindly old bachelor, very full of whimsies and
dreams, and a prophet to the young fellows.
Now Mr. Ramsay-Stewart, though he kept himself and his tenants in
hot water for a couple of years, wasn't a bad kind of gentleman, and
now that things have settled down is well-esteemed and liked in the
country. But when he came first he didn't understand the people nor
they him, and there's no doubt he did some hard things as much out of
pure ignorance, they say, as for any malice. He'd put his bit of money
in the estate and meant to have it out of it, and he didn't like at all
the easy-going ways he found there. The old Misses Conyers who preceded
him were of a very ancient stock, and would rather turn out themselves
than turn out a soul of their people. They had enough money to keep
them while they lived; and 'pay when you can,' or 'when you like,' was
the rule on the estate. Every man, woman and child was Paddy and Biddy
and Judy to them. Oh, sure it was a bad day for the tenants when they
went; and more betoken, they had laid up trouble for the man that was
to succeed them.
The people never gave Mr. Ramsay-Stewart a chance when he came. They
disliked him, and he was an upstart and a gombeen man and a
usurper, and such foolishness, in the mouths of every one of them. As
if it was his fault, poor gentleman, that the Misses Conyers never
married, and so let Coolacreva fall to strangers.
Now there was a widow and her daughter, Mrs. Murphy and little
Fanny, that had a big patch of land on the estate, and the memory of
man couldn't tell when they'd paid a penny of rent for it. It was so
overgrown with weeds and thistles, and so strewn with big boulders,
that it was more like a boreen than decent fields. Well, it vexed Mr.
Ramsay-Stewart, who was accustomed to the tidy Scotch fields,
amazingly, and he got on his high horse that the widow should pay or
She couldn't or wouldn't pay, and she wouldn't go. She never thought
the crow-bar brigade would be set on her cabin; but, sure, the new
landlord wasn't a man to stop short of his word, and one bleak, bitter
November day he was out with the police and bailiffs. Before the League
could put one foot before another the roof was off Mrs. Murphy's cabin,
the bits of furniture out in the road, and the pair of women standing
over them shaking their fists at the Scotchman, and whimpering out the
revenge they'd have, till Lanty Corcoran, a strong farmer, took them
home, and set them up snug and easy in one of his outhouses.
Fanny was a pretty little girl, a golden-ringleted, blue-eyed slip
of a colleen, with a sturdy and independent will of her own,
that belied the soft shy glances she could cast at a man. She was
promised to a boy over the seas, who was making a home for her and her
mother in America, and there was another boy in the parish, John
Sullivan, or Shawn Dhuv, as they usually called him because of his dark
complexion, was fairly mad about her. Shawn was well off. He was the
cleverest farmer that side of the country, just the kind of man Mr.
Ramsay-Stewart wanted and was prepared to encourage when he got him.
His land was clean and well-tilled, and he had a fine stock of cattle
as well as horses, and hay, and straw, and machines that had cost a
handful of money, for he was quick to take up new-fangled notions.
People used to say Shawn would be a rich man one day, for he was
prudent, drank little, and was a silent man, keeping himself to himself
a good deal.
Well, little Fanny had a hard time with the mother over her steady
refusals to have anything to say to Black Shawn. She was an aggravating
old woman, one of the whimpering sort; and sorely she must have tried
poor Fanny often with her coaxing and crying, but the little girl was
as stout as a rock where her absent boy was concerned.
Shawn Dhuv heard in time of the eviction, and in a bad moment for
himself thought he'd press his suit once more; he knew he had the old
woman on his side, and he thought he might find the young one in such a
humour that she'd be glad to accept his hand and heart, and the cover
of his little farmhouse. He had an idea too that he'd only to ask Mr.
Ramsay-Stewart for the Murphys' farm and he'd get it, and he thought
this would be a fine lever to work with.
But he never made such a mistake, for little Fanny turned on him
like the veriest spitfire.
'You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Black Shawn,' she cried, with
her eyes flashing, 'to keep persecuting a girl that's as good as wife
to another man. Why, if he was never in the world, do you think I'd
take one like you, that's plotting and planning to take our bit of land
before the ashes of our roof-tree are gone gray? If he was here he'd
know how to avenge us, and not till he had done it would he look the
girl he loved in the face.'
She was holding forth like this, her words tripping each other up in
her anger; but sure, the poor little girl didn't mean what she was
saying about revenge; it was likely some hot words she'd picked up out
of the newspapers that came into her head in her passion, and tripped
off her tongue without her knowing a word of what they meant.
But Black Shawn heard her, turning first the deep red with which one
of his complexion blushes, and then falling off as gray as the dead.
Before she'd half said her say he took up his caubeen, put it on
his head, and walked out of the place with an air as if he were
Now he had an old carbine to frighten the crows, a crazy old thing
that was as likely to hurt the man who fired it as the thing that was
fired at. Black Shawn sat up all night cleaning it, and the grim mouth
of the man never relaxed, nor did the colour come back to his ashy
The next night he lay in wait for Mr. Ramsay-Stewart as he came home
from the county club-house in Ballinscreen, and shot at him, killing
poor Larry Byrne. It was only the length of the bridge from the police
barracks, and as it was but nine o'clock at night, Ballinscreen people
were up and about. So there wasn't much time for Black Shawn to see
what mischief the blunderbuss had done. He saw at the first glance that
one man was down in the dogcart, and another man swinging on by his
arms to the mouth of the terrified horse. But already people were
running across the bridge and shouting, and the dark quay seemed alive
Luckily for Shawn the road away from the town was black as a tunnel.
It runs between the two stone walls that shut out Lord Cahirmore's deer
and black cattle from the public gaze. Down this black tunnel raced
Shawn, sobbing like a child, for the black fit was gone over and the
full horror of his crime was upon him. He was a quick runner, and he
got the advantage, for the police in their flurry stopped for a minute
or two debating whether to take the river banks or the road. But in
Shawn's head the pursuing footsteps beat, beat, while he was yet far
beyond them, and the trumpets of the Day of Judgment rang in his
miserable ears. He had the smoking gun in his hands, for he hadn't the
wit to get rid of it. And yet the man was safe, if he had had his wits
about him, for he was the last man for Mr. Ramsay-Stewart to suspect or
allow suspicion to fall upon.
Well, he raced on blindly, and all of a sudden, as he turned a
corner, a man flung up his arms in front of him, and then caught him by
both wrists. It was Murty Meehan, and more betoken, he was on his way
to a drilling of the Fenian boys in a quiet spot in Alloa Valley. Murty
was wiry, despite his years, and his grip seemed to Black Shawn like
the handcuffs already upon him. There was little struggle left in
Shawn, and he just stood sobbing, while his gun smoked up between him
'What black work is this, my fine fellow?' said Murty quietly.
Black Shawn came to himself, seeing he was stopped by a man and no
'Let me go, for God's sake,' he sobbed out. 'I've shot
Ramsay-Stewart below at the bridge, and the police are after me.' Just
then the moon rolled from behind a cloud, and Murty Meehan saw his
prisoner, saw that he was young, and would be handsome if his face were
not so distorted by emotion. Now there came a sudden sound of footsteps
pelting along the road, and Shawn was taken with a tremor, though, mind
you, he was a brave man, and it was horror of his sin was on him more
than a fear of the rope. Murty Meehan made up his mind.
'Give me the gun,' he said. 'I'm old and worn-out, and I might have
had a son of your age.'
Shawn, hardly understanding, fled on the moment he was released. A
bit further the lord's wall gave way to iron palings, and not far
beyond was the open country and the road to the hills. Once in the
hills Black Shawn was safe.
But they found Murty Meehan with the smoking gun in his hand, and
what more evidence could be wanted? He was tried for the murder, and
pleaded 'Not guilty'; and the number of witnesses called to testify to
his character was enough to fill the court-house, but then, he couldn't
or wouldn't explain the gun, and the judge declared it was the clearest
case that had ever come before him. He was very eloquent in his charge
over such a crime being committed by an old man, and expressed his
abhorrence of poor Murty in a way that might have seared the face of a
guilty man, though it didn't seem to come home very closely to the
A month later Murty was hanged in Ballinscreen jail. He was many a
day in his quicklime grave before Black Shawn heard how another man had
suffered for his crime. After long wandering he had escaped to the
coast, and coming to a seaport town had been engaged by the captain of
a sailing vessel, short of hands, who was only too glad to give him his
grub and his passage in exchange for his work, and ask no questions.
But it was a time of storms, and the ship was blown half-way to the
North Pole, and as far south again, and arrived at New York long after
all hope of her safety had been given up. If Black Shawn had known he
would never have let an innocent man die in his place. So said the
neighbours, who had known him from his boyhood.
They will tell you this story in Munster, as they told it to me,
sitting round the open hearth in the big farmhouse kitchens of winter
nights. Down there there is not a man that won't lift his hat
reverently when they name Murty.
For long enough no one knew what became of Black Shawn, and when the
League was over and its power broken, and a better spirit was coming
back to men's hearts, many a poor boy was laid by the heels through the
use of that same name. Many in Munster will tell you of the stranger
that used to come to the farmhouses begging a rest by the fire and a
meal in the name of Black Shawn, and sitting there quietly would listen
to the rash and trustful talk of the young fellows about fighting for
their dear Dark Rosaleen, the country that holds men's hearts more than
any prosperous mother-land of them all. His name is a name never
mentioned in Ireland without a black, bitter curse, for he was a famous
informer and spy, own brother to such evil spawn as Corydon, Massey,
and Nagle. But 'tis too long a story to tell how the spy masqueraded as
Black Shawn, and I think I'll keep it for another time.