by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian
The 1800s was a time when Fenian activity was causing both outrage and fear among England’s political establishment. Charles Stewart Parnell had become active in the Land League and in politics after the 1874 execution of three Fenians known as the Manchester Martyrs, believing their execution to be a gross injustice. In October 1881, 137 years ago, the Brits declared the Land League illegal and Parnell and other leaders were arrested prompting widespread violence. Parnell was released on 2 May 1882 after agreeing to curtail the violence. He also secured a promise from PM Gladstone to replace the hated Chief Secretary of Ireland and to adjust rents. Gladstone appointed Lord Cavendish as new Chief Secretary. However, Cavendish and Under-secretary Thomas Burke were attacked and killed by a splinter group of militants known as the Irish National Invincibles in Phoenix Park, Dublin, only 4 days after Parnell’s release causing major outrage against Parnell and the nationalist cause. Parnell condemned the murders and brought the radicals in the movement under control, although with a good degree of difficulty. Five members of the Invincibles were later hanged for the Phoenix Park murders.
Joseph Poole, armorer for a Dublin Fenian circle, was arrested in July 1882 and charged with killing John Kenny, a Fenian, who was suspected of informing on the Invincibles. It was alleged that Poole was a member of a Fenian group known as the Vigilance Committee, tasked with eliminating informers, though he denied this. Poole admitted drinking with Kenny on the night of his death but denied any part in his murder and was released for lack of evidence. However, Poole’s roommate later alleged that Poole returned to his lodgings that night saying, ‘Kenny will tell no more’. Poole was re-arrested in December 1882 and charged again with Kenny’s murder. The Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) sought the death penalty as they suspected that Poole also had a hand in shooting dead one of their constables earlier that year. The shooting had occurred as a result of a clash between two rival Fenian factions in a dispute over control of weapons caches in Dublin. Shots were exchanged but the only casualty was a DMP man who was inadvertently shot when he tried to intervene. A Fenian named Dowling was later charged with the shooting and served ten years in prison.
When Poole stood trial for the killing of John Kenny, the Crown produced his brother-in-law, William Lamie, a former Fenian, who testified to the factional divisions within the movement and Poole’s role in the ‘Vigilance Committee’. However, evidence was circumstantial and the jury was unable to reach a verdict. A second trial was quickly arranged and the jury was ‘packed’ with government supporters to ensure a conviction. Despite no new evidence being presented, Poole was sentenced to death on 20 November 1883. To his father who wept at the verdict, Joseph said, ‘Keep up father, keep up, I am ready to die’. He then told the court: ‘I believe it is on account of being an enemy, humble as I am, of the Government under which I have the misfortune to live, that I have been persecuted in the manner I have been. Still I am not afraid to die, or ashamed of what has brought me to the scaffold. It is not for murder, it is for being a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood that has brought me to the scaffold, and I am prepared to die for it’. Then from the dock he called for ‘Three Cheers for the Irish Republic and to Hell with English tyranny!’
Poole was hanged in the Richmond Bridewell on 18 December 1883 and Father Donnegan, the priest who attended him, reported that he showed, ‘the utmost fortitude’ on the scaffold. A black flag was raised over the walls of the prison and the watching crowd gave ‘a wailing cry’, according to the press. His body was buried in an unmarked grave within the prison. Poole’s case became a notorious example of injustice in Ireland in the 1880s, as it was believed he was innocent and that the verdict had been achieved by ‘packing’ the jury. The Irish Parliamentary Party even brought up Poole’s innocence in the House of Commons. However, public opinion was really aroused when it was learned that Poole’s conviction was attempted by perjury. Frank Grundy, a Fenian and friend of Poole, on completion of a two year prison sentence in August 1884, claimed that he had been twice approached by authorities and offered freedom if he falsely implicated Poole in the killing of John Kenny. Grundy refused. It was also learned that Lizzy Kearns, Grundy’s sweetheart, had also been approached by DMP Superintendent John Mallon and offered her boyfriend’s freedom if she swore falsely; she too refused.
Poole, the last man to be hanged in the Richmond Bridewell, became a potent symbol of misgovernment in 19th century Ireland. During work on the prison in the 1890s, as part of its conversion into Wellington Barracks, Poole’s body was discovered in a casket marked ‘J.P.’. His father recently dead, Poole’s mother and sisters petitioned Dublin Castle to reclaim the body and give it a proper burial. John Mallon of the DMP denied their request and the body was reburied in another anonymous site within the Barracks. The Poole family maintained their republican tradition and four of his brothers served in the Irish Citizen Army during the Easter Rising. In 1958, three of Poole’s younger brothers, by that time quite elderly, approached the Irish Army garrison at what was by then Griffith Barracks, with an exhumation order from the Department of Defence to exhume Poole’s remains for a belated decent burial. However, despite a day of digging, nothing was found. So, a plaque was erected to his memory in Griffith Barracks in 1968 by the National Graves Association. Later put in storage, the plaque was re-intalled in 2007, following correspondence between the Poole family and Diarmuid Hegarty, President of Griffith College. Though we may never be able to lay a wreath on his lost resting place, we are not prevented from remembering him in our prayers as one of the patriots of his native land.