The Coolrain Murder - Thomas Calahan, 1864

The village of, Coolrain, within about three miles of Mountrath , has been the scene of one of those ferocious and ruthless exhibitions, which find their parallel only in the brute creation, where remorseless man slays his fellow, and exults with fiendish pleasure in human gore. The friends of Ireland had hoped that the days when party feud was nurtured and transmitted from sire to son, with almost religious devotion, had past, that our national character had been purged of this dark stain of disgrace and that at length, the sun of peace and plenty was about to beam forth on the length and breadth of our country. But such fancies are vain and illusive as the mirage of the desert; and nowhere more so than in this village of Coolrain. Here, one would have thought a sufficient number of victims had been already immolated on the altar of faction feud, and that this insatiate thirst of blood had been quenched. But no: another victim must be added.[1]

A more ominous and grim introduction to a piece of journalism in Victorian Ireland could scarcely be found than the piece above which appeared in the Leinster Express in April 1864. It simultaneously captures the savagery of what happened to Thomas Calahan and a long history of faction fighting in Camross which claimed dozens of lives in the early to mid-19th Century. Some of these incidents are noted elsewhere in this book but the vast majority of incidents of wanton bloodletting from this violent era are confined to the memories of past generations, too afraid to commit such memories to paper.

Thomas Calahan was a labourer in his thirties who lived in Coolrain village with his wife, Betty (nee Fitzpatrick), and their three young children. This is effectively all that can be said conclusively with regards this case. The contrasting stories that emerged both during and after legal proceedings surrounding the violent death has coloured any sense of certainty with a tint of doubt and suspicion. However, bearing this in mind, the following is a collage of the facts reported on the great scandal of the parish from the 1860s.

In the early hours of Tuesday, 26 April 1864, Calahan and his wife were awoken by several knocks upon their front door and the noises of men shouting. Calahan’s brother-in-law, Martin Fitzpatrick, was staying with them at the time and the shouting emanating from the street indicated that the men outside were looking for him, and not the homeowner. Fitzpatrick claimed that the men were either shouting ‘rotten Calahan’ or ‘rotten Collier’ (Fitzpatrick’s nickname being ‘Collier’). Calahan was very anxious at the commotion outside his front door and he came into his brother-in-law’s room and said that they should go to the police barracks for help. The fact that such a suggestion was made is a sure sign that Calahan was aware that the group of men outside had no intention to come in for a friendly chat. Calahan armed himself with a stick and the two men opened the door. Despite the fact that the barracks was just down the street, a violent encounter seemed inevitable before the alarm could be raised.

The door was swung open and out sprung Calahan and Fitzpatrick. The group of men were, by that time, retreating and were near the house of a family called Feehan by the time the two men spilled out onto the road. Despite this, both men actually approached the group, and not towards the RIC, and they asked one of them, John Downes, what did they want? Downes responded that he wanted to fight and struck Calahan a ferocious blow to the head with a rock. Before Calahan fell to the ground unconscious he managed to strike Downes feebly with his stick but another man, James Fitzpatrick, was upon Calahan in an instant and struck him on the head with an iron tongs, which broke in two such was the force of the blow. Martin Fitzpatrick instinctively struck James Fitzpatrick with a stick but he was floored with a blow also. Another man, William Steele, also present with the group of men, was armed with a white stick and he steadied himself to strike the prostrate Calahan, but was stopped by a shout from a distressed Betty Calahan who was now out on the road. She shouted ‘Billy, I am watching you!’ Steele replied ‘Betty, I am doing nothing’.

The group then left both men on the ground and scattered into different houses as women emerged from their homes with candles to see what the commotion was all about. As a crowd gathered, it was clear that Calahan was clinging to life. One woman remarked that she was glad to see Calahan on the ground lifeless. This woman was Judy Downes, sister of John, hinting towards a deep family feud being the cause of the assault. Constable Joseph Webster finally emerged from the barracks and immediately brought the unconscious Calahan to the doctor. He then tried to ascertain what happened and entered the Feehan’s house where Downes and Fitzpatrick had entered after the attack. Webster found a broken tongs with blood and hair on it. He immediately arrested the two men. He also arrested Steele who protested his innocence.

Dr. John F. Harte, medical officer of the Coolrain Dispensary District, attended to Calahan. He removed 29 pieces of bone from his shattered skull but managed to keep the victim alive. The most serious injuries, the doctor believed, were sustained from the blow with the tongs. Calahan lived for a few days before he died. John Downes, William Steele and James Fitzpatrick were all promptly charged with the murder.[2]

On 14 July, the case was brought before assizes in Maryborough. The story that emerged in this short trial was quite different from the one that initially emerged from the fateful evening in question. Under cross examination of Martin Fitzpatrick and subsequent witnesses it emerged that Fitzpatrick and Calahan may have been the first aggressors in an incident earlier in the evening. This piece of information immediately changed the entire case from one of murder to one of manslaughter. Fitzpatrick was a member of the ‘Collier’ faction in the area and they had fought with another faction around Camross for the past decade. Fitzpatrick’s character was, perhaps unfairly, brought into disrepute by the defence who pointed out that he was an army deserter. In the end, the jury found Downes and James Fitzpatrick guilty of manslaughter and William Steele not guilty of all charges. Mr. Justice Keogh sentenced the men to two years in prison.[3]

The Cardtown Murder - John Dooley, 1883

On 17 August 1883, RIC Constable John Daly, stationed in Cardtown, began to search the property of Catherine Dooley. He was searching for any clues in the apparent disappearance of Catherine’s cousin, John. John Dooley was missing for a great deal of time by that stage. It was entirely out of character for the level-headed, ordinary bachelor farmer. Daly noticed a freshly made cock of hay near the house and had it moved by his colleagues. Underneath the hay was disturbed earth in the shape of a grave. Lime was scattered about on the soil. Barely three feet beneath the clay, the police found the decomposing remains of the missing man. He had suffered tremendous injuries to his head and body. The eyes of Ireland, via the medium of newsprint, were thusly set upon the townland of Cardtown and a story of treachery and deceit.

Catherine Dooley immigrated to the United States at fifteen years of age. She lived with a brother and sister and worked as a maid in a house in Manhattan. Despite a delicate disposition, and some ill-health, Catherine did well in America and managed to make enough money to purchase a small property with her brother and rent it out.  She returned to Ireland in 1879 following a letter from her first cousin, John, informing her that an aunt of theirs was not long for the world and that she should return home. She made her way back to Camross and acquired her aunt’s house upon her death and began to pay rent on the land.  Despite the money that she had earned in New York, she soon found the toil of running a farm in Cardtown on her own very tough and quickly fell into arrears.

Her cousin John, whose letter had prompted Catherine’s return home, began to assist her, and Catherine began to rely upon his help to get by. John was in possession of a considerable amount of money which came from cattle dealing and was more than capable of helping his cousin to make ends meet. But John’s fortunes took a significant turn on an April morning in 1883. After a day at Portlaoise fair, John returned to the smouldering ruins of his home and adjoining stables. All that was spared from the fire, which began in mysterious circumstances, was a single outhouse. Catherine stood in and offered a roof for John and these were the circumstances that led to both of them sharing the one house up to the point of John’s disappearance.

On the morning of 19 July 1883, John Dooley left Cardtown with a cow and calf and headed for Mountmellick where he stayed that night. At the fair the following day he sold his animals for £17. To celebrate, he went for a pint with his friend and neighbour James Lalor of Cappanarrow. They headed back to Camross that afternoon together and when Lalor left the company of his friend there was nothing to suggest that there was anything that was troubling Dooley. Before he reached his home, Dooley entered the home of Mary Keenan, their nearest neighbour, to flee a heavy shower of rain. Keenan made her guest tea and Dooley stayed for a half hour chatting before the rain cleared. He then left and was not seen again by his neighbours. Indeed his departure from Keenan’s was the last event from Dooley’s life that can be ascertained with absolute certainty. What exactly happened subsequently is not clear. But what is certain is that he received massive blows to the head very shortly afterwards, which crushed his temple in two places, broke his jaw and smashed all of his teeth. He was dead after the first blow. The subsequent strikes were the actions of an intemperate hand.

After John’s body was found by Constable Daly, almost a month after his fateful return home from Mountmellick, Catherine was brought to Cardtown Barracks for questioning. A few days later she was brought to Tullamore Jail where she was remanded for the murder of John Dooley. In early December, Catherine was formally charged with the murder of her cousin and she was tried in the Kilkenny winter assizes before Judge Michael Harrison. What emerged from the state’s prosecution, led by Sergeant Hempill and Mr. T P Law Q.C, was a tale of a woman whose behaviour grew increasingly erratic in the days after the disappearance of her cousin.

This erratic behaviour, the jury heard, began even as John’s whereabouts were known. On the day that John was returning home from Mountmellick, Catherine spoke to a neighbour, Daniel Conroy, who was doing some work for her. She said that she was afraid that two men who had been looking for John the day before would return looking for him. She also asked Conroy if he had heard anything about John marrying a woman by the name of Hogan. It was the first Conroy had heard of either story. She repeated the story of two men having come to search for John to a number of her neighbours that day. This story was elaborated upon in a conversation with Tim Dooley of Derrycarrow a few days after John’s disappearance. Catherine told Tim that the night John was lodging in Mountmellick two men had come to the house looking for him. When she asked them what they wanted to see him for, they responded ‘You would not know if we told you. We will see him ourselves.’ They left that night stating that they were heading to Mount St. Joseph’s near Roscrea but that they would return. Catherine went on tell Tim that they returned the following night when John had come back. She said that they sat by the fire drinking whiskey all night and they all left in the morning, John included. She told Tim that she felt very uneasy about the men and that one of them was a ‘big black, wicked looking divil’.

She continued to claim that she did not know John’s whereabouts over the next few days, telling one neighbour that he may be in Clonaslee with a sister, telling another that he was in Tullamore hospital. She travelled to Clonghil one evening to the home of her cousin, William Delaney. That night she stayed in the home of Hannah Mack, Delaney’s servant. At one stage, on the way to Mack’s house, Catherine grabbed Hannah’s arm and exclaimed that she was afraid of ghosts.

Catherine went to Mountrath to seek a lodger to stay with her a few days later. She came across a young woman called Mary Horan. Catherine told the young woman that she lived in Camross village and that she wanted some company as her nephew was away working. Mary agreed to stay with Catherine for a week and was rudely awakened when she arrived in remote Cardtown. Mary would only stay with Catherine a few days but, in her testimony in Kilkenny, Mary described a very agitated Catherine going about her business in a fitful sort of way and refusing to sleep in the dark, or on her own. A telling sign that something was awry was a worsening smell that Mary got as she passed one side of the house in the morning on the way for water.

On the day that Catherine drove Mary back to Mountrath, she went to William Smith, a druggist and shipping agent in the town. She made enquiries about taking a boat to America and indicated that she was keen on travelling on the ‘Alaska’, a ship upon which John Whitford of Camross already had a ticket for. In the following days she repeated her earlier story that John was in his sister’s house in Clonaslee. But she told others that John was gone away to Tramore. Another story she told was that John had run away with a girl from Clonmel. Her stories were now becoming wildly contradictory. John was allegedly in four places at once were Catherine to be believed. Was he in Clonaslee with his sister? Was he sick in Tullamore hospital? Was he building sandcastles in Tramore? Had he eloped to Clonmel? Or had something more sinister taken place since John was seen last?

By this stage it was over a fortnight since John was last seen and rumours were flying around the area. Catherine’s neighbours had clearly began to collate her stories and grew increasingly worried. They also viewed Catherine’s erratic behaviour and reluctance to sleep in her own home as signs that all was not well in Cardtown. Meanwhile, Catherine continued to make further queries into travelling to America and she also visited Coote’s agent in Mountrath, Captain Stannus, making enquiries into letting out her land and leaving the area. She also began to purchase lime which she claimed was to dampen bad smells caused by dead rats around her home. An auction for Catherine’s residence was advertised for 13 August but was called off moments before it was due to begin.

On 14 August, Mary Delaney, a half-sister of John, told an agitated Catherine that she believed John was dead and that she knew something about it. Catherine stated that she thought her opinions nonsense and quickly left her company. Later that day Catherine asked Pat Whelan, a labourer from Cappanarrow, to help move a cock of hay from one part of her farm to a place very near her house. Pat made suggestions that the place Catherine wanted the cock moved to was too wet and would not be suitable. But Catherine was adamant, so Pat did as she asked. Three days later Catherine went to Mountrath to get some essentials. Constable Daly, who was now adamant that Catherine knew exactly what had happened John, decided to search her residence in her absence. He made the gruesome discovery of John’s body at about half ten in the morning.

The evidence in Kilkenny was damning. The story that took place in the weeks following John’s disappearance, summarised in the preceding pages, was revealed in the testimony of the 38 witnesses that the prosecution had called. Blood stained articles of clothing were also produced further damning Catherine’s case. Only two witnesses were called for the defence, Captain Stannus from Mountrath and Catherine’s sister, Hanora Coleman, who had travelled from America. However, both individuals were not in a position to provide any useful evidence to defend Catherine and merely served as character witnesses.

Despite the damning evidence that was produced, the jury failed to reach a verdict; eleven of the twelve jurors were in favour of conviction but one disagreed. This sole juror’s doubt bought Catherine time. In the 19th Century, a unanimous verdict in cases such as this was required, so the jury was discharged and a date for a retrial was set. In the meantime, Catherine was sent to prison. The retrial was brought before Judge James A. Lawson on 14 July 1884 in Portlaoise. The closer vicinity of the trial led to a far bigger Camross representation in the galleries. The trial turned out to be very similar in nature to proceedings which had taken place in Kilkenny, with one great exception.

This was the evidence of Peter Brophy of Camross. Mere days before the retrial, Peter made an extraordinary statement to the police regarding a conversation he had had with Catherine in late July 1883. They had met after mass in Camross and had went back to Catherine’s house to discuss the sale of a cow. After business was discussed Catherine broke down and asked Peter ‘Why am I alive?’ Unsettled, Peter asked what she had meant. She told him that John had been murdered by the two men she had been telling everyone about. They had taken John’s body and buried him in the haggard. They then threatened to return and kill Catherine if she told anyone.

This evidence was described in court and Mr. Teeling, who was defending Catherine, logically questioned the character of an individual who had not told anyone this crucial piece of evidence until mere days before the re-trial, not to mention the first trial. In his closing arguments he even began to suggest that Brophy’s intentions in coming to the police so late was an attempt to divert attention away from himself. To this suggestion, Judge Lawson intervened and warned Teeling that he was exceeding the licence of council. No doubt, Teeling didn’t mind what the Judge had to say; seeds of doubt may have been planted in the juror’s mind. Perhaps tellingly, Teeling’s speech was greeted with some applause in the court room according to the Leinster Express. Perhaps, in spite of all the rumours, some people from the area may have softened towards Catherine’s plight upon months of reflection. At ten minutes to two in the afternoon, Catherine Dooley’s fate was made known to the public. The jury returned to the court and delivered their verdict. The scene is described by the Leinster Express as follows;

The clerk of the Crown having called over the names of the jury, said ‘Gentlemen, you have agreed to your verdict and you find that the prisoner is GUILTY. (Sensation)

The Foreman – We wish to recommend the prisoner to mercy.

His Lordship – On what grounds?

The Foreman – Jealousy might have been the motive, my lord.

In reply to the usual question as to whether she had any statement to make the prisoner said in an almost inaudible voice – I am not guilty, sir. I have no knowledge of it.

His lordship then proceeded to pass sentence: he said;

Catherine Dooley, after a long and patient investigation you have been found guilty of the murder of the man, John Dooley, with which you are charged…the jury have recommended you to mercy and of course it will be my duty to forward that recommendation to the proper quarter but my duty now is to pass the sentence which law affords your crime of murder… it remains only for me to pass upon you the sentence of the law [assuming the black cap] which is that you, Catherine Dooley, be taken from the place where you now stand, to the place whence you came and that you be removed thence to Tullamore prison and that you be, on Saturday 16 August next taken to the common place of execution within that prison and that you be then and there hung by the neck until you are dead and that your body be buried in the precincts of the prison. May the Lord have mercy on your soul.

Catherine showed little emotion as her verdict was read out. She clasped on to the wooden platform and a warden had to forcibly release her grip before being removed.

But Catherine’s story was not over. Her sister, Hanora, and her solicitor worked to have her sentence commuted. A list of signatories was drawn up which contained the names of 19 deputy lieutenants and magistrates, 34 Protestant and Catholic clergymen, 14 town commissioners, 7 medical doctors, 74 merchants, farmers and others. Suggestions have been made that the people of Tullamore were vigorously opposed to the execution of someone, especially a woman, who had committed a crime in another county to their own. Her sentence was commuted to penal servitude only three days before she was due to march to the gallows. On 30 December 1898, Catherine Dooley was released from prison due to ill health. Her final fate is unknown. What is probable is that she never returned to her home in Camross.

[1] Leinster Express, 30 Apr 1864.

[2] All information on the circumstances of the death of Thomas Calahan comes from the following editions of the Leinster Express – 30 Apr 1864, 7 May 1864, 28 May 1864.

[3] Irish Times, 15 July 1864.