The Liberation of Hugh Maguire in 1848

Jonathan Smyth's latest instalment of Times Past recalls the Young Irelanders, and the unlawful arrest and liberation of Hugh Maguire of Kilsub, Templeport.

The Young Irelanders who were formed in the early 1840s believed that Ireland should have its own government, independent of Britain. Its founders included Thomas Davis, John Blake Dillon and Charles Gavan Duffy. The Nation, a newspaper founded in 1842, promoted nationhood through education and cultural development, but the 1840s was a challenging period, not least because of the shocking situation caused by ‘an Gorta Mór’. Irish families suffered in the most unimaginable way possible, and I believe that London’s initial response to the starvation was at best clinical and distant. Colonial administrator Trevelyan’s denial of emergency relief and his attitude of blame towards the Irish for their own misfortunes was sickening. As the famine progressed, the Young Irelanders grew more radical which culminated in an unsuccessful uprising. Amongst their supporters was a West Cavan man named Hugh Maguire who was unlawfully arrested and jailed in May of the same year.


The Act of Union that came into effect in 1801, took away Ireland’s government and placed the country under London’s thumb. In 1830, Daniel O’Connell formed the Repeal Association demanding the Irish parliament’s restoration. The Young Irelanders ran out of patience with the Repeal movement’s lack of progress and when Thomas Davis, an ‘outspoken’ but ‘moderating force’, died in 1845, the new editor of The Nation, John Mitchel, adopted a hard-line stance, writing an article on how railways might be ‘sabotaged’ and troops ambushed. The Young Irelanders then established a new organisation calling for the restoration of power named the Irish Confederation whose Confederate Clubs were more democratic and less centralised than the Repeal movement.

Hugh Maguire

On Sunday May 14th, 1848, Fr Philip Maguire urged the congregation of St. Mary’s Church, Swanlinbar, ‘of the necessity’ of joining a Confederate Club. Following the service, Hugh Maguire of Kilsub, Templeport set up his table in the grounds of St. Mary’s and took the signatures of new members. Later that day, Hugh Maguire went home to Kilsub with the list of names. Three days later he received a visit from the local police force.

A change in London’s attitude to the Young Irelanders came about, when William Smith O’Brien MP, had called on the people of Leinster and Munster to mobilise, and the British fearing a rising decided to arrest the leaders, without trial. In response to this outrage, they chose to rebel rather than go to prison. The motivation for the arrests was obviously a knee jerk reaction by the British in response to the several revolutions which erupted across Europe, inspired by the French Revolution. William Smith O’Brien (pictured above) and Thomas Meagher’s return from France after congratulating the ‘new Republic’ must have set off alarm bells; Meagher famously brought home a silk tricolour flag from his trip, which today is Ireland’s national flag. Smith O’Brien’s hope was that armed citizens supported by a National Guard from the middle classes would be enough to restore Dublin’s parliament without bloodshed.

On May 17, at 3.00pm, Hugh Maguire was visited by Constable Rea, of Swanlinbar, and twenty police officers. They charged Maguire with sedition on the previous Sunday when he took a list of the names of persons joining Smith O’Brien’s National Guard. The police searched the house and removed the list and a copy of a speech given by Smith O’Brien in the House of Commons on April 10th. Maguire was brought before Mr Holmes R.M., who accepting the oath of Constable John Duggan regarding the material found at the house, committed Maguire to Cavan jail and refused him bail. Other men arrested at the time, included John McHugh, Belturbet, for having a pike; and Michael Gray, Ballyjamesduff, on an unknown charge. The Kerry Evening News noted that Maguire and his co-signatories, were not aware of what law they had broken.

Cavan Jail

What I found most shocking, was the treatment of Hugh Maguire whose human rights were essentially taken from him, as the Nation noted with horror on May 27, 1848.

The article tells us how Maguire was treated: ‘as a common felon … been obliged to submit to have his hair cut, and to put on the felon’s dress’.

Holmes the magistrate, when questioned as to why the man was refused bail, casually replied that ‘the authorities in the Castle were so occupied with other matters’, that they have not had time to consider the matter and until he received further instruction, Maguire must remain a prisoner, and therefore be ‘treated as a felon’. He added, Dublin Castle’s ‘leisure is his only charter’.

Hugh Maguire was recognised by the Nation as a man of high standing and called for the public to stand by him during his ordeal. What was most offensive, as pointed out in the Nation, was how the Dublin Confederate Clubs were freely handing-out Smith O’Brien’s speech from April 10th and did not face arrest.


Not before time, on Wednesday May 31st, 1848, Dublin Castle’s order for Maguire’s release came, after fifteen days spent unlawfully locked up as an ‘unsentenced’ felon.

Mr Maguire subsequently wrote a letter to this newspaper on the indignity he had suffered. He wrote: ‘It may be unfamiliar to your readers to have heard it pass current as an aphorism that under this blessed constitution every man’s house is his castle; and again, that our glorious constitution was as jealous of the personal liberty of the peasant as of that of the prince or peer, and that all this was guaranteed by the bill of rights and Magna Carta … But in my case, it would appear that the paid servants of the government … knew nought of such a thing as Magna Carta, or any of the subject to eat, drink, wear, or enjoy any liberty, but as the good will and pleasure of the said gracious and paternal administrators’.

Maguire begs the question as to whether Ireland was then really living under free institutions and a representative government at all, adding: ‘The real question is, will Irishmen forever submit patiently to see every vestige of their rights torn from them by petty English officials, who play tricks before high heaven, until they have become intolerable?’

However, Hugh Maguire hoped that an Irish parliament could be restored, bringing about ‘the cordial’ union of Irishmen under a ‘native legislature’.

An uprising did occur on July 29, 1848, in Tipperary.

Its leaders were arrested and sentenced to death, but they were spared when Queen Victoria intervened, commuting their sentences to transportation to a penal colony in Australia.


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