By Thomas Somers
On March 17, 1832, three Somers brothers, Michael, Patrick and John, were hanged outside the main gate of Kilkenny Jail. The brothers had been convicted by a jury at the county assizes of entering the house of a man called Manning at the Lotts, Croghtenclogh, and forcing the said Manning to swear a false oath.
They allegedly encouraged him to do so by holding him over a coal fire and burning his backside until he did so. The brothers left behind three widows and a total of eighteen children.
One of the brothers, Michael, was my great-great-grandfather. As a child, I had often heard my father talk of this event, but of course, as is quite common, I only developed an interest in such things much later in life when, unfortunately, the people who held much relevant information in their folk memory had long since gone to their reward.
My interest in this sad event in our family’s history was aroused in 1992 when the Kilkenny People newspaper published a centenary edition that featured an article on Kilkenny Jail. This article included a list of people who had been executed at the Jail during the course of its history, and among them were the three Somers brothers.
Kilkenny Jail was of course closed in 1923 and demolished some years later, the rubble from the site used to build the embankments at Nowlan Park GAA pitch in the city. A plaque and stone slab from the jail now marks the site of this infamous institution and is located at the junction of Gaol Road and Fatima Place. Some weeks after the centenary edition was published, and while reading a subsequent edition of the Kilkenny People, I saw a letter from a Somers man in New Zealand.
He had read the article in the Centenary edition and was seeking information on the Somers executions. I wrote to him and included the limited information at my disposal. He responded immediately and we quickly established that he was in fact a descendent of one of the brothers and therefore a distant cousin of my own. He had been born in Co. Carlow and had emigrated to New Zealand in his youth. He had no knowledge of the events of which I write, as it had never been discussed in his family.
Following on from this contact, I set about doing some research at the National Library in Dublin, where I lived, and also at Kilkenny County Library. However, the only information that I could locate was reportage in the Kilkenny Moderator and Kilkenny Journal of around that time. The reports gave some information regarding the trial of the brothers but mainly covered the events around the actual hanging.
The catalyst for the incident at Manning’s house, which occurred in January 1832, would appear to have been an attempt by a local Whiteboy group to persuade the small farmer/peasant class in the area to refuse to pay the tithes – this being a form of tax that was levied on all households, irrespective of religious affiliation, and which was used for the upkeep of the established church at that time. As Manning was a member of the Church of Ireland, it was probably felt that he would be more likely to pay the tithe – hence the reason for the nocturnal visit and alleged administration of an illegal oath.
Refusal to pay tiths was common across the country at the time, and indeed in a famous incident at Carrickshock, South Kilkenny, during the previous December, twelve policemen and a tithe proctor (tax collector), together with three local men, were killed when an attempt was made to collect the tithes. This incident is still referred to in Kilkenny as ‘The Battle of Carrickshock’. The Somers brothers, together with their parents, wives and some children, had made their way from Wexford to North Kilkenny in the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion, and had taken up plots of land known as ‘Waste Lotts’ in the townland of Croghtenclogh, near Castlecomer, on the estate of the local landlord, Prior-Wandesford.
Because the family had been displaced by the events in Wexford and had moved to North Kilkenny, they may have been seen as blow-ins and were possibly treated with suspicion by both locals and the police of the day. In any event, they were swiftly arrested and brought to trial, which was concluded very speedily, Manning and his daughter being the only witnesses for the crown.
Both swore that a group of masked man had forced entry to their home and had then held Manning over the fire until he swore the relevant oath. They both swore that they recognised the Somers brothers, who were near neighbours, my ancestor Michael living approximately 500 yards from Manning’s house. They also swore that they recognised a fourth man, who lived a number of miles away and was subsequently convicted. The Somers brothers swore that they had no hand, act or part in the incident and that they had not been at Manning’s house for over twelve months.
Notwithstanding this, the jury returned a guilty verdict and the brothers, together with the fourth man, were sentenced to hang. The fourth man was subsequently reprieved and sentenced to transportation for life to Van Diemans Land/Tasmania. In any event, it is fair to say that the brothers’ fate was sealed from the moment the Mannings named them, as no doubt the authorities had decided to take a firm stand against all such activities, particularly having regard to the incidents at Carrickshock during the previous year. In this context, it is somewhat ironic that eleven people who were arrested and charged in the aftermath of the Carrickshock killings were subsequently released due to lack of evidence.
The fourth man’s reprieve appears to have resulted from a campaign of letter writing to local papers of the day by various people, including a District Councillor and at least one member of the jury who had convicted the men. It would appear to have been driven by reference to the demeanour of all three brothers on the gallows just before the hanging, when they professed themselves as entirely innocent of the crime, had never wronged any man of as much as sixpence and were going to God with souls as white as snow.
The coaching of witnesses was apparently commonplace at the time of the incident and it appears that a number of policemen remained with the Mannings at all times leading up to the trials, no doubt for the official reason of providing security, but which was also used to coach Manning and his daughter in the giving of their evidence.
In the aftermath of the hangings, the local papers were sympathetic towards the men and their families, professing their belief in the men’s innocence, and pleading with the authorities to tackle the underlying causes for the blight of ‘Whiteboyism’, which was cited as the root cause of the unfortunate brothers’ fate.