Crossmaglen Conspiracy

The so-called Crossmaglen Conspiracy of the 1880s rocked the Liberal Government of the time, brought the resignations of Joseph Chamberlain and of O. J. Trevelyan and the return, following a general election, of a Tory Government.

It was nothing short of a government/landlord conspiracy to malign the whole district and its inhabitants, brought long imprisonment to twelve innocent men – and death in prison to two – and caused dozens to flee the country for fear of similar treatment. Most never returned. Lies were told, and false ‘evidence’ concocted, particularly in a contrived document coded the ‘Crossmaglen Book’ of the Patriotic Brotherhood. The latter organisation was never heard of, either before or since the trial.

The ‘outrages’ that sparked the whole affair were said to be as follows:

a. On 24 January 1882 shots were fired over the house of the widow Kelly of Crievekeeran, who it was rumoured was ‘informing on her neighbours’. Several eyewitness reports, that the two men who fired the shots returned immediately into the police barracks there, were ignored and suppressed:

b. Devine’s shop in Creggan was ‘ransacked’ by unnamed individuals.

c. The two policemen implicated in Widow Kelly attack went to the parish priest and asked him to speak out against ‘moonlighting’ by secret societies among his congregation. He refused. Yet a special counsel sent by Dublin Castle to the Belfast trial later falsely testified that ‘over and over again the clergyman of that neighbourhood warned his unfortunate flock to guard against the terrible gulf that was yawning before them when they entered secret societies’. Henry Gustavus Brooke of the ‘Crossmaglen Clock’ fomented the wild image of the district by making it known that his life ‘was under threat’ in South Armagh.

The bigoted Belfast Newsletter entered the fray with gusto, reproducing accounts of thirty year old atrocities to illustrate Crossmaglen’s reputed lawlessness. Under the Foster Coercion Act of 1881 five South Armagh men were arrested – the balladeers Michael Watters and Denis Nugent, as well as James Hanratty of Creenkill, Patrick Finnegan of Lurgancullenboy and Thomas Kelly, all of the Land League – probably the real target.

Soon they were followed by four more from County Monaghan. Later still five more were lifted. One, Edward O’Hanlon of Mullaghbawn was at first witness for the Crown. He it was who testified that the Patriotic Brotherhood had been formed locally from Ribbonmen and other agrarian secret societies he named as the ‘Bogmen’ and the ‘Rednecks’. At the opening trial in Armagh O’Hanlon retracted and admitted the whole affair was concocted. He was immediately charged as a co-conspirator. Another informer named Patrick Duffy was ‘found’ and twelve of the thirteen defendants were found guilty. The thirteenth was living in Scotland at the time and couldn’t possibly have been involved.

In all 153 men were implicated in the forged document known as the ‘Crossmaglen Book’ of the Patriotic Brotherhood. It was never shown to the defence on the grounds that outstanding charges would later be levelled against the others – something of course that never happened. A further 65 men were named as co-conspirators in the parallel forged ‘Mullaghbawn Book’. There was also a ‘Cullyhanna Book’. In all 300 tenant farmers were implicated.

The Crossmaglen Conspiracy became a cause célèbre in the House of Commons for Nationalist M.P.s Tim Healy and party leader Charles Stewart Parnell. The last of the innocents were not released from prison until 1889. They had endured seven years of hard labour. Michael Watters died in prison.

Crossmaglen had acquired the loathsome image it has laboured under ever since.

Written by John McCullagh, for The Newry Journal
Saturday, 19 February 2005