The passing of the death sentence.

A house burning, the death sentence, and Lord Farnham’s gout

On March 15, 1825, the Cavan Herald reported on a crime perpetrated on a house, the property of Lord Farnham. A man named Patrick Smyth appeared before the Crown Court to answer questions on the burning of the property, which lay in the townland of Killyfassy.

The first witness called to provide evidence was a pensioner named Constantine Fitzpatrick who said he knew the location of Killiyfassy ‘between Granard and Ballyjamesduff’ and was travelling home to his family in Granard on January 28, 1825. It was about three o’clock in the morning and, although dark, he could identify a light somewhere in the distance. He anxiously headed towards the light obtain a clearer sense of direction as to where the road was leading, when Fitzpatrick saw there were three people some 18 perches ahead of him. The three murky figures, who were moving in the light, appeared to be transporting a container holding a light and, somewhere along the route, they departed from the main road and turned off to the left close to the ditch.

Undetected, Fitzpatrick crept along close by and then, crouching, he looked from behind the opposite side of the ditch to watch what was going on and soon resumed his pursuit of the figures some more. When the three reached a house, they pulled out a chunk of the thatch from its roof and then lit the straw to set the thatched roof on fire. The bright light they were carrying was in fact a fire, lit in a big pot.

Another neighbour called Gaffney who lived near to the scene of destruction was looking from his window and could see a man lay down the pot of fire to assist the individual who set the house on fire. One of the three, it seemed, knocked on a neighbouring door and obtained drink. Next, somebody rapped on Gaffney’s door and the occupants there, being naturally afraid of opening the door to mysterious late callers, replied that they were not inclined to open, but the stranger told the occupants his name was Mr McClean, and he ordered them to open and this time they did.

Afterwards, a person seen entering another property in the area had pointed out the burning house to someone else and informed them that it was one of Lord Farnham’s. That same evening Constantine Fitzpatrick met up with Captain Graham with whom he happily ‘lodged’ his ‘information before’.

During the court proceedings Mr Doherty cross examined Fitzpatrick, a former barber and hairdresser, who resided in Cavan before the event took place but had since gone to live in Dublin. However, Fitzpatrick was in Oldcastle on the day of the arson attack. The next witness summoned to give evidence was Patt Smyth (he was not related to the prisoner of the same name); also called was a witness named John Lynch. Patt Smyth was sworn-in and questioned regarding the whiskey,which he allegedly handed out the men to drink that night. Patt appears to have been making a cheaper brand of the strong stuff because drink had become too expensive in town.

The burned house, stated the paper, was formerly the residence of a certain Patrick ‘Fitzsimmons’ Smyth, the prisoner. At around five o’clock in the morning, the ‘witness’ Patt Smyth remembered how the sun was not yet up and he could see the house gone up in ‘a flame of fire’.

The court asked John Lynch to ‘corroborate the alibi’, and then the examination of a further witness occurred; but neither account seemed to add up. The newspaper concluded: ‘After a clear and concise charge from the honourable Baron McClelland, the jury retired and after a short consultation returned with their verdict of ‘find the prisoner guilty’.

Thereafter the death sentence was passed by the judge who sentenced the prisoner to be hung on March 29, 1825.

The harshness of the sentence deeply moved the counsel for the defence and they called for an ‘arrest of judgment and execution’ on a point of law, that arson was not perpetrated in law, as the house was ‘uninhabited ‘at the time of the attack. The counsel’s request was overruled by the court because they said there were articles of furniture in the house at the time of the conflagration ,which in effect constituted somebody’s property.

A reprieve of sorts appeared to be on the cards for the prisoner when it was announced that the High Sheriff had ‘received a respite for Patrick Smyth, sentenced to be hanged… for burning a house at Killyfassy’ and it was mooted that his sentence, in all likelihood would, ‘be commuted to transportation for life’.

Having checked the list of convict names in the Ireland-Australia Transportation records I was unable at the time of writing to find any Patrick Smyth (Smythe or Smith) respited for the crime of arson committed in 1825.

Lord Farnham’s views on the crime were not made public. However, two weeks after the trial, the Cavan Herald on March 29, 1825, (the date originally assigned for the execution of Smyth), the newspaper reported that Lord Farnham had visited Cavan Town twice in the one week in his carriage and that he was now fully in a state of recovery from a most recent ‘tedious and severe attack of the gout’.