Did the Evicted Tenant’s Son shoot the Landlord?

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Imagine if you will what it was like to live in rural Ireland a little over a century ago.  Only the landed gentry (all of English descent), who had money and land, could vote.  Their vote only mattered to the English Parliament, as Ireland had no independent government of her own.

The luxury of democracy, which we take for granted today, did not exist for the Irish citizen.  Of course, if any of us were alive then, we would not be too worried about a vote that only worked in England.  We would have been more concerned about the everyday needs of survival.  Landlords demanded high rents and imposed heavy taxes on farm yields.  As a result their tenants had little chance ‘of improving their lot’.  With no political representation and no vote the Irish people were completely under British rule.

It is hard for us today to imagine the effects of the social and political restrictions imposed upon the Irish then.  The majority however, accepted their fate and felt impotent to react against the imperialistic system.  Perhaps their lack of education and the grueling domestic situation in which they wallowed helped to make any hope of freedom an impossibility.  Such educational and social deprivation only helped to convince the Irish peasantry that the English were indeed a superior race who almost deserved the right to exercise the dominion of vassalage over them and their lands.  It was not until the likes of Michael Davitt, Parnell and John Redmond came along that the Irish people felt they had a right to be free and that there was any hope of achieving that right.

Isaac Butt 

It must be said, however, that the English landlord system, which reigned supreme in Ireland at the time, was not all bad and indeed, some government representatives were enlightened enough to know that England could not and would not rule Ireland.

One such man was Isaac Butt.  He was a Tory barrister who came from Donegal where his father was a Church of Ireland clergyman.  He was one of the most eminent and respected barristers to live and work in Ireland during the heyday of the English landlord system.  Once in a letter to Lord Lifford, Butt wrote: ” . . . the personal character of a landlord is but a poor security for the tenant”.  This very simple statement reflects the sensitivity and understanding which Butt displayed towards the Irish situation.

One must remember that Butt was a Tory ‘pur sang”.  Yet he displayed an intelligence and capacity for experience that was uncommon to most Irish Tories.  He was not above thinking that the Irish deserved to be independent and when given the chance he never failed to make his feelings known.

Butt founded his views on his own first-hand experiences and the belief that the Irish people were easily influenced by good example, authority of station and the power of intelligence.  He made it clear that in his opinion, many landlords did not exercise these qualities.  In his opinion, the Irish revered high lineage-and to some extent this is still true.  He believed that the estrangement of classes at the time led to a mutual distrust between landlord and tenant because, as he said himself, “There is in the Irish gentry a hereditary distrust of the Irish people.  They are taught from their youth up to believe in ‘Irish contempt of law, and the rights of property’.  The people reciprocate the hostile feelings of the gentry”.  Because of these views, Butt believed that many landlords were placed in situations whereby they were “unfitted” to rule and control the lives of their tenants.

Courtroom Firebrand

With such views, it comes as no surprise to learn that Isaac Butt started Home Rule in the 1870s.  Quite apart from his social and political views, Butt also had a reputation for being a firebrand in the courtroom.  He had successfully defended members of the I. R. B. during the 1860’s and his colleagues said that “The cause of the poor was as dear to him as his own”.  Butt was in his element when a case held a human interest which appealed to his sympathies and sense of compassion.  He was not interested in fees but rather in seeing the case of the Irish properly represented in the English court of law.

Peter Barrett 

Having such a reputation, not to mention the validity of his views concerning the landlord system in Ireland at the time, it was obvious why Isaac Butt should have taken it upon himself to defend an Irishman, Peter Barrett, formerly of Moorpark, Athenry, on a charge of shooting at Captain Thomas Eyre Lambert, Castle Lambert, Athenry, with the intent to murder him, on Sunday, July 11th. 1869.

Historical Significance 

In the context of its historical setting, an attempted assassination of a landlord by his ex tenant lit a fuse of emotion among the local Irish people which later helped to ignite the national will to fight for freedom.  Today, the significance of this trial fades with the passage of time.  However, at the time in question, this trial, the legal procedures, the feelings of hatred and injustice it stirred up among the social classes, and the final outcome bear testimony to the situation in Ireland at the time, its influence on our present political and social situation, and not least, to the flawless views put forward by Isaac Butt, a Tory, and a man of English descent, on the suspect landlord system of the time.

Events Leading up to the Trial 

Captain Thomas Eyre Lambert inherited his father’s estate in 1867, at Castle Lambert, a few miles northwest of Athenry.  Two years later he evicted Barrett’s father, his wife and family from a 70-acre holding in Moorpark, near Castle Lambert.  It is believed that the reason for the eviction was jealousy.  Apparently Barretts had a large thatched farmhouse and a good holding, while Captain Lamberts brother, Tom (who was also his tenant), lived in a modest house just across the road from them.  It is alleged that the hunt met one morning outside Tom Lamberts gate and one of them, pointing at Barrett’s house, asked if Mr. Tom Lambert lived there.  To his chagrin, everyone laughed when it was discovered that the house in question belonged to some tenants, the Barretts.

Shortly afterwards, Captain Lambert evicted the Barrett family who were then forced to move to a house in Swangate, Athenry.  Luckily some of their children were grown and one of them, Peter Barrett, was working as a postman in London.

The Assassination Attempt 

Shortly after the eviction, on Sunday, July 11th , 1869, Captain Lambert was shot when walking alone up the avenue to his house, between nine and ten o’clock in the evening.

He had gone to dine with his brother in Moorpark and walked back after dinner, which was at five o’clock, accompanied by his sister and two nieces.  After the women had taken some refreshments at his house and picked some fruit from the garden, he escorted them as far as his gate-lodge.

On his way back along the avenue, leading to his own house, Captain Lambert noticed a man in a bowler hat standing in the shadow of some tall lime trees.  Lambert asked the intruder to identify himself and when he failed to do so, Lambert set a small dog on him.  The man then faced Lambert, pointed a small revolver at him and fired five shots in quick succession, at a distance of twelve yards, before escaping through a clump of trees known as ‘The Rookery’.

Miraculous Escape 

Lambert fell to the ground.  He had been shot twice in the stomach, while another bullet had lodged in his temple.  It was this head wound which knocked Lambert to the ground and convinced his attacker, before he fled, that Lambert was fatally wounded.  On the contrary, Lambert had been wearing a hard hat and this had saved his skull from the full impact of the bullet.  It is believed that his pocket watch had also saved him from receiving a chest wound which could have proved fatal.  After his attacker fled, Lambert managed to get up and stumble into the house.  Shortly afterwards the alarm was raised and police later sealed off all exits to Athenry.

Barrett’s Whereabouts 

The shooting occurred some time after nine o’clock and Castle Lambert was approximately three miles from Athenry.  Barrett arrived at Athenry station, wearing a tall hat, and bought a ticket for London shortly before ten o’clock.  He then entered the Railway Hotel and waited in the bar for the train to arrive.  While there, Barrett drew attention to himself by asking a member of the staff the correct time, even though a clock showing the correct time was clearly visible to him.  In so doing, Barrett had made his presence in the hotel at that precise time known to all within earshot.

Shortly afterwards, Barrett boarded the Dublin-bound train.  The police presence in Athenry that particular day was smaller than usual as most of them had been relocated to Belfast for extra duty work, for the July 12th celebrations due to be held the next day.

However, sub-constable Hayden, stationed at Athenry, boarded the Dublin-bound train.  He later noticed Barrett asleep in one of the train’s compartments, following a description given by Lambert of his assailant being a slight, young man in a dark suit.  Barrett fitted this description and he was arrested on the train.  They got off the train at Woodlawn and the following morning Barrett was taken to Castle Lambert where Lambert identified him as his attacker.

Barrett had been searched on the train but no pistol was found on him. His presence in Athenry, however, and the rapidity of his return put him under great suspicion.

A Man with a Motive 

No explanation was given for Barrett’s behaviour.  He was a peasant’s son with a strong motive for shooting Lambert.  On the other hand, Lambert was a magistrate, a soldier and a man of property.  Lamberts unshakeable evidence, the circumstantial evidence, and the background of the case, all combined to weigh heavily against the prisoner.

Barrett’s Defence 

This was the perfect case for a man of Isaac Butt’s legal calibre.  Barrett’s case was calculated to demand all of his attention.  Butt successfully set off most of his client’s suspect behaviour by so completely shaking Lamberts credibility as a witness that it seemed as if Lambert was intent on making evidence to convict Barrett at any cost.

Misleading Evidence

During the trial that followed, Lambert was adamant that he recognised Peter Barrett as the man who shot him.  Yet when he was questioned shortly after the attack he could only describe his attacker’s appearance without giving any name.  When the police presented Barrett the next morning he did not hesitate to identify him.  Butt wasted no time in highlighting Lambert’s apparent excess of zeal in obtaining the conviction of Barrett.  This anxiety, displayed by Lambert to obtain Barrett’s conviction, was not very edifying and cast doubts on his own character.

In his cross-examination, Butt uncovered the truth that Lambert had suppressed some of the facts, including his knowledge of the exact time of the shooting and that some of the trees under which his assailant had stood had been cut down soon after the shooting.

Butt got Lambert to admit that he had held back the detail of the exact time of the shooting because he did not want Barrett’s legal advisors to know everything.  The surprising admission by Lambert that two of the trees under which his attacker had stood were cut down within twelve days of the crime also placed his evidence under greater suspicion.  In court, Lambert’s brother stated that the face of a man standing under the trees would have been hidden by the foliage, thus adding greater significance to the evidence.  Lambert denied knowing anything about the trees and said his wife had ordered their felling as they were spoiling the view.  A map of the area had been made after the crime, which Lambert denied having seen.  Under persistent questioning by Butt, Lambert finally admitted to having seen it.

Dublin Jury

The case of ‘Regina versus Barrett’, was first heard at a Special Commission, in September 1869, in Galway.  However, the jury were unable to agree on a verdict and discharged.  The Crown moved to have a second trial heard in another county, on the grounds that a fair and impartial trial could not be heard in Galway, where public opinion favoured the prisoner.  The Attorney General suggested Dublin as a fair and impartial venue.

It was finally agreed to hold a second trial in Dublin as affidavits of the resident magistrate at Galway, of the Crown Solicitor, Galway, of Mr. Jackson, one of the jurors at the former trial, and of some members of the constabulary, suggested that before and after the offence many outrages had been perpetrated in Co. Galway.  There existed among the peasantry a strong sympathy for such offences and a disinclination to aid the government in detecting the criminals.  Jurors known to favour Barrett’s conviction and the Judges entering and leaving the court-house during the trial were stoned by mobs whose sympathies lay with the prisoner.  Even by resorting to a Special Jury Panel, it was felt that a fair trail could not be held in Galway.

Affidavits made on behalf of Barrett stated that a fair trial could be held in Galway with a selection from the special jury panel.  It also stated that a fair trial could only be held in Galway where the true character of Captain Lambert would be known to the jurors, who knew that his oath had been disbelieved at a former trial in his own county.  Affidavits from jurors at the first trial also stated that they had not been intimidated by anyone during the trial.

In the defendant’s affidavits, it was stated that since the trial in September, Captain Lambert had encouraged and instigated a witness, who was then examined, to leave this country for America and that Captain Lambert had done other acts to injuriously affect the evidence against the prisoner at the second trial; and therefore the trial should take place where Captain Lambert’s testimony would be properly scrutinised.

An affidavit for the prosecution was made denying that Galway was in a tranquil state and also denying any interference with a witness.

Attorney-General Barry, (with him Sergeant Dowse and Edmund Jordan) supported the motion that the case be heard in Dublin.

Butt’s Speech to the Jury 

In his speech for the prisoner, Butt counselled the Dublin jury not to convict on Lambert’s evidence.  He reminded them that in Galway, Lambert would have been known as a man ‘rash in statement, reckless in his vengeance, obstinate in his assertions and violent in his prejudices’.  Captain Lambert, in Butt’s view, did not deserve to be a landlord and Barrett did not deserve to be punished on the word of a man whose character had been called into question.

Whether Barrett was guilty or not, the jury agreed that they would never reach a unanimous decision, and so he was freed of all charges.  He became a local hero to the people of Castle Lambert and the subject of verse and song.

The Trial in Galway 

The jury heard the evidence of Captain Lambert, who claimed he knew Peter Barrett well and that he was the man who had shot him.  There were no other witnesses to the crime.

A number of witnesses who claimed to have seen Barrett in Athenry that evening were called to the stand.  Timothy Kinneen, who knew Barrett, stated that he saw him in the Railway Hotel between 9.30 and 9.45 the evening of the shooting.  Another witness, Michael Cullen, also gave evidence that he saw Peter Barrett on July 11th, near the North Gate at approximately 9.05 p.m. Biddy Murphy, who it was alleged gave Barrett some bread and milk at her house in Frenchfort, Oranmore, just two and a half miles from Castle Lambert, the evening of the shooting, also gave evidence.  In court she said she did not recognise the prisoner and said to the judge, ‘My Lord, he was more like yourself’ referring to the man she had fed.

Local Folklore 

It is known that three men were sitting on a gate that summer’s evening when Lambert was shot.  In court two of them gave evidence that they saw a man walking along the road towards Castle Lambert, shortly before the shooting.  They claimed they did not know the man and could not identify him as Peter Barrett.  The third man, however, said he knew the man to be Peter Barrett.  It is said that in order to find out who was telling the truth, Isaac Butt took a Cambridge needle from his lapel (the Cambridge has the smallest eye).  He gave this needle to each man in turn to thread.  The two men who could not identify Barrett threaded the needle while the third man failed.  Their evidence was crucial in the jury’s decision to free Barrett.

Other Witnesses 

Michael Kelly, who was a gardener at Castle Lambert, also gave evidence in court.  He said that he had seen a man walking on the lawns and had ordered him to get off the grass.  He said he could not identify the man as Peter Barrett.

Mr. Wolloms who owned a firearms shop in Tottenham Court Road, London, gave evidence that Barrett bought a small gun off him on July 9th.  He gave the excuse that he was left minding an empty house for a few days and that he needed the protection of a gun.
Mrs. Sterling, Barrett’s landlady in London, gave evidence that Barrett was always very quiet and never gave her any trouble.  She saw him last on Saturday morning, July 10th, when he told her he was taking a few days off to visit a friend named Lally.

Barrett had told his employers at the Post Office that he had hurt his leg and he had received a doctor’s certificate to verify this, in order to take leave of his work for a few days.

After the jury had heard this evidence they could not agree and the charges were dismissed.  The outcome of the trial, decided by the jury, was described by the Chief Justice as ‘a great misfortune for the administration of justice’.

Who knows for sure if he was fully justified in saying so!

Peter Barrett, once freed of all charges, became a local folk hero and became known as the ‘First Rory of the Hills’.  The story of his trial and the final verdict became the inspiration for many songs and stories.

The real hero of the day must surely be Isaac Butt, about whom these lines were written in the song,
‘Lines Written on the Liberation of Barrett’:

Their locks and keys he threw aside,
The law he soon expounded O,
And every foe of Barrett’s now
He nobly did confound them O.
With talent rich and speech sublime
He freed his client clever O,
Long may he live to wear the gown,
Brave Butt, he is a ripper O.

The work of Butt’s young apprentice, Mr. McDermott, both in the courtroom and behind the scenes, must not be overlooked.  He is remembered for his diligent work on the case which undoubtedly helped ensure the defendant’s release.

After the trial Peter Barrett went to America.  He returned to Athenry ten years later.  While on holidays he stayed with Mr. Corbearsy at St. John’s, Athenry.  It is alleged that both men went into Galway one day.  They were walking down Shop Street when they met with Mr. Thomas Lambert from Moorpark.  He did not recognise Barrett, who was well dressed in the American fashion.  He asked Mr. Corbearsy to introduce him to his friend.  Knowing the outcome of such an introduction, Mr. Corbearsy seemed hesitant to do so.  When finally he introduced Barrett to Lambert, the latter declined to shake hands, turned and walked away.

Nothing remains of Castle Lambert House today.  The only thing worth noting is the Lambert burial chamber, situated at Moorpark cemetery, a couple of miles from Castle Lambert and adjacent to the place now known as ‘Barrett’s Hill’.

Ann Healy

Editors Note: The London Times of the Day mistakenly reported that it was Giles Eyre Lambert who was attacked by Peter Barret but the Court records clearly show that it was his brother Thomas owner of the Castle Lambert Estate who was in fact shot. 

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About this record

Written by Ann Healy

Published here 05 Feb 2021

Page 133 of the The Carnaun Centenary Book archive.

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