By Anne Frehill
In 1897 Mark Twain wrote: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” These perceptive words have been oft-quoted the world over and this statement is relevant when looking at the life of Elizabeth Sugrue. Her date of birth is believed to be circa 1740 while her date of death is recorded as 1807.
She was the daughter of a tenant farmer and she got married early to another tenant farmer called Michael Sugrue, they lived near Killarney. It is probable that it was a match made by her family to ensure that she led a comfortable life. They had two servant boys and owned several books which they stored proudly in the house. It was reported that Michael liked nothing better than reading his beloved books after a long day toiling in the fields and he was happy to teach his wife how to read while she was expecting their first child.
Elizabeth, who was a fast learner, was smitten with the new world which books revealed to her. Two years flew by as two more children arrived and by comparison with many of their neighbours who were scratching a living from the earth, they were all healthy and their ageing landlord was a fair man. However, he died a short time later and his arrogant son appointed a ruthless Scotsman as his new agent. The rent went from £10 to £30, unable to cobble together this astronomical amount they had to leave their much- loved home and soon found a smaller farm with poorer land. The following Spring just when they were starting to rebuild their lives a series of disasters ultimately lead to dire consequences.
The rent was doubled again but despite their best efforts they could not manage to pay it. It appeared that their only hope was to travel to America and start all over but raising the money for their passage there proved impossible. Then their youngest child died from a deadly flu which swept through the country; this was the final straw for Michael who succumbed to depression and within two weeks he followed his child to the grave while Betty was evicted along with her two children.
She took to the rocky roads, and they made their pathetic journey through Limerick, Clare and up into Galway. It was a testament to her ingenuity that all three made it to Loughrea but in that town another child died from starvation. Along with her sole remaining child she tramped onwards until they reached Roscommon town. Eventually, they found an abandoned shed and over time they patched it up.
Her son became the sole focus of her life as she avoided neighbours and he grew into a smart, hard-working young man. After a year working at the local coach-inn as a yard-boy he bought his mother a tattered book. Overjoyed, she taught him to read by rushlight.
He decided to go to America to escape poverty, but it was against his mother`s wishes. One night he left and headed for Dublin, the first stage in his journey. Betty was distraught, yet he had always promised to return someday as a rich man. She rarely ventured outside in daylight, her son`s former boss supplied her with food on condition that she told no one. One year later, he wrote from America and over the following year four more letters arrived, all with bank notes. When they ceased, she managed to eke out an existence by taking in weary travellers for a few pennies a night.
One evening in the depths of November a well-dressed traveller knocked on her door, he had a fine black horse. She told him that he would be more comfortable at an inn in the town but he was determined to say with her. During the night while he slept, she examined the contents of his pocket, his purse was full of gold coins. Impulsively, she stabbed him to death for the money so that she could be reunited with her son in America. Then it occurred to that she had committed a crime of the utmost gravity.
She found papers on him in the name of “Patrick Sugrue”, and after checking his handwriting she realized that his handwriting was the same as the handwriting in the letters, which she had received from America. Horrified, it dawned on her that she had just killed her own son.
Slowly, it all began to make sense to her, he had planned to stay with her for the night under the guise of a weary traveller and then surprise her in the morning. Shortly afterwards, when locals saw her trying to stray a beautiful black horse, they guessed that she had murdered his master.
Following her trial, she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by a public hanging. When the day of Betty`s execution along with others arrived, bizarrely there was no hangman to be found to carry out the macabre job. It is believed that out of respect and loyalty to local rebels -United Irishmen and Whiteboys – who were due to be hanged, the usual hangman had disappeared!
Unbelievably, Betty volunteered to be that day’s executioner on condition that her own hide be saved from a similar end. She not only killed several rebels on that day but continued with her sadistic work for several years, in an official capacity. She was given lodgings inside the prison grounds as she was loathed by all the neighbours. It was not until 1802 that she received an official pardon for the murder of her son, and five years later she died. Her burial took place secretly at night inside the grounds of Roscommon Jail without even a marker on the plot.
However, from the comfort of our 21st Century homes we cannot attempt to judge this tragic figure, all we can do is accept that the full truth has been lost in the mists of time.