Monday, January 30, 2012


Murder of Michael Fitzhenry

Michael Fitzhenry became Principal of Rathgarogue Male School on January 1st, 1857. Mary Roche was appointed to the girls' school at the same time. They married in 1858 and lived in the teachers' residence. By May, 1863, they had three children and were expecting a fourth.

Joseph Kelly, Mary's first cousin, lived in Poulpeasty with his wife, Catherine, and his father, John. They rented a farm of about 30 acres from Lord Carew of Castleboro. Because of debts and because Joseph wanted to go to America, they made over the farm to Michael Fitzhenry. The deal was that Fitzhenry would pay £75 (€95.25) - £30 (€38.10) to be paid in cash and the rest to pay off the debts. John Kelly would continue to live in the farmhouse.

The Fitzhenry's took over the farm in March, 1863 and had crops sown. They still lived in Rathgarogue but sent two of their children to live with the Kelly's and three servants in Poulpeasty. Joseph Kelly asked Michael to give his father the fare to go to America but Fitzhenry refused.

(The teachers' residence beside the church entrance in Rathgarogue)

On Friday evening, May 15th, the Fitzhenry's went to Poulpeasty to visit their children. John Kelly asked for the £6 (€7.62) fare to go with his son to America but was again refused. Joseph Kelly asked for 8 shillings (€0.50) owed to him by Michael and Fitzhenry said he would pay him next day in New Ross.

The Fitzhenry's returned home and at nine o'clock next morning Michael left for New Ross with an ass and cart to buy coal and other provisions. Shortly afterwards, Joseph Kelly called to the house and argued with Mary Fitzhenry about the fare for his father. He said his father was very upset because he would be left alone and he used threatening language towards the Fitzhenry's. Mary asked a neighbour who was going to town to tell her husband to pay for the disputed fare.

Later in the day, Michael Fitzhenry, Joseph Kelly and his wife, Catherine, called to a shipping agent, William Forristal, in New Ross. Michael changed a £1 note and gave the 8 shillings to Kelly. They asked about shipping papers for the Kelly's. Joseph said he had no money but Michael asked if the agent would take his security and Forristal agreed. When he heard that John Kelly was 70 years old, William Forristal said he would have to find out if he could take him at that age.

Kelly and Fitzhenry bought some iron bars in Ryan's and Fitzhenry bought the coal in Keough's. They were seen together on the Mountgarrett Road out of town later that evening. Kelly was carrying the iron bars. They called to Lawless's public house at Mount Elliott (now Mannion's) and left together with another man, Patrick Kelly, at 10 o'clock (closing time). Fitzhenry was staggering at this stage.

The three went together to Ballywilliam. Fitzhenry was very drunk and kept staggering into the ditches. Patrick Kelly noticed that Joseph Kelly appeared to be trying to hide something that sounded like iron bars under his jacket. They arrived in Ballywilliam at midnight. Micheal Fitzhenry's father, Patrick, met them there and was angry with his son for being out so late. Michael and Joseph left on the road to Rathgarogue. Apart from Joseph Kelly, Patrick Fitzhenry was the last person to see his son alive.

Philip Murray from Ballycoheir was on his way to Mass in Rathgarogue Church at about 7.30 a.m. the following morning when he found the body of Michael Fitzhenry lying in Moran's Lane, a short distance from the Church. He was dead and had been dragged about 10 yards from the main road. The priest, Fr. Alex Kinsella, was called and he arranged to notify the police in New Ross. Soon afterwards, police from New Ross, Ballywilliam, Carnagh and Ballinaboola arrived and started the murder investigation. Later on Sunday, some of the police went to Poulpeasty and arrested Joseph Kelly and his wife, Catherine. She was later released.

On Monday morning an inquest was held in Rathgarogue School. The Coroner, 5 magistrates, 3 senior police officers and 3 doctors attended. A large number of people had gathered from the surrounding areas. A 16-man jury was selected. The jury went to see the body and witnessed the post mortem examination. They also went to the murder scene. After this witnesses were called and the inquest was adjourned at 8 o'clock. It resumed on Tuesday at 1 o'clock. Dr. Howlett told the jury that death was caused by a series of blows to the head and left side of the body by a heavy blunt instrument such as an iron bar. The inquest continued into the early hours of Wednesday morning. The jury found that Michael Fitzhenry had died from severe wounds to the skull and body and that these wounds had been caused by Joseph Kelly. They returned a verdict of wilful murder against Kelly.

The murder trial of Joseph Kelly started in Wexford on Thursday, July 9th, 1863. He pleaded not guilty. The witnesses gave evidence at the inquest repeated their stories without change. On Saturday morning the trial finished. Even though nobody had seen the murder, the evidence against Joseph Kelly was so strong it took the jury only 11 minutes to agree a verdict of "Guilty". Kelly was sentenced to be hanged on Monday, 11th of August. He continued to protest his innocence and had to be removed from the dock. It was later noticed that the 11th of August was on Tuesday and Kelly had to return to the dock at 5 o'clock to be sentenced again.

Joseph Kelly was hanged in public outside Wexford jail. The evening before his execution he wrote a confession. He said he only meant to give Michael Fitzhenry a beating. He left him alive on the roadway and started walking home. He then panicked and returned to kill Fitzhenry so he would not report him to the police.

Joseph Kelly was the last person to be executed in public in Ireland.

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