The Conneries: Heroic Villains?

D.F. Ó Gráda 

in the Comhaltas Magazine "Treoir" 
Iml 20, Uimhir 2 1988 41SSN 0790-004X
 
In Ireland the period before the Great Famine was in many respects one of modernization and radical structural change. Though traditional industry languished, agricultural and communications made great strides; and despite commercial crises and food shortages - from time to time, the lot of many unproved between 1800 and 1845. For the landless and the semi-landless and the structurally unemployed, however, these were years of increasing hardship, as travellers' accounts and official inquiries amply testify. The period was also one of sporadic violence and resistance, of faction fighting and of transportation. Almost six hundred policemen were killed or wounded hi suppressing secret societies in the twenty years before the Famine.
Between 1786 and 1867, when the last convict ship carried Fenian prisoners to Australia, over fifty thousand Irishmen and Irishwomen were transported. Most were sent for "ordinary" crimes, but in the 1820s and 1830s a significant proportion of those shipped out were being punished for crimes of an agrarian nature.
 
Among the latter group, the best-known - certainly to those who have even a nodding acquaintance with traditional music - must be the Connery brothers from Waterford. Three contemporary songs about them have survived, two are still current, and one is among the best-known and tuneful of all traditional songs. The image of folk-heroes whose necks would have been broken by the hangman "marach feabhas ar gcairde", (but for the excellence of our friends) and whose enemies' perjury was wholly responsible for their sad plight, is the stuff of which great ballads are made. But who really were the Connerys? Apart from the work of folklorists, no historical record of them and their adventures is available.
 
A play based on a loose reading of the songs and some folklore won an Oireachtas award in recent years, but its plot turns out to be wildly inaccurate as a record of events.
 
At, or shortly before, the time of the incidents related below, in the 1830s the Connery family occupied a small holding at Bohadoon, about five miles north of Dungarvan. The father, Patrick, was a tenant under Lord Yarborough and others.3 He had a daughter and three sons, James, John and Patrick. Faction fighting was endemic in east Munster then - this was the area of the earlier Shanavest - Caravat rivalry - and the Connery brothers belonged to a faction called the Poleens (na Foil) which was active throughout north and west Waterford, as well as south Tipperary and east Cork. The Poleens were constant adversaries of the Gows (na Gaibhne). Their watchword was 'Shanakerke' (sean-choirce).4
 
This connection with the Poleens brought the Connerys to the attention of the police. John Connery and five others were indicted for the manslaughter of Patrick Krehane on October 2, 1833. The fatal incident occurred at Ballykeroge fair, five miles east of Dungarvan. Evidence was given by one William McGrath that he saw Krehand being beaten with sticks. More than six persons struck him, although he had offered no provocation. McGrath heard 'that they were Poleens and that Krehane had been a Gow. Rev. Thomas Morrissey gave evidence on behalf of Connery, stating that he was in official custody at the time of the attack. Given their strong hostility to faction-fighting, this - and subsequent - clerical intervention on behalf of the Connerys is intriguing. McGrath could not identify the assailants and he was committed to trial for perjury. Connery was found not guilty.5
 
TRIED FOR MURDER
John Connery was also tried for the murder of David Tobin on October 5, 1833. Tobin's widow gave evidence that John and James Connery were in a group returning from Dungarvan after selling a bag of oats. After spending some time in a local pub a row broke out. Tobin's factional allegiance was challenged and his widow heard him cry out "John Connery - you have killed me - run away with your life!" The judge recommended the benefit of the doubt and he was found not guilty.6
 
A Fhoglu mhallaithe, guimse eascain' ort, agus grain Mhic De
Agus Haicead 6 'se dh'iontaigh thu ar a dheis-laimh fein....
(O accursed Foley, I pray maledictions and the hatred of the Son of God on you
And I curse Hackett who changed you to his (right-hand) side.)
 
Thomas Foley was a solicitor with offices in Lismore and Dublin. He acted for landlords in Waterford, and Maurice Hackett was one of his employees. Foley's correspondence with Dublin Castle, particularly with Thomas Drummond (appointed Under-Secretary in 1835) reveals much about the Connerys.
 
In early 1835 the three Connery brothers were indicted at Waterford Assizes for the attempted murder of Hackett. It was claimed that Hackett was attacked by men dressed in women's clothing and with blackened faces. The only witness to testify was Laurence Crotty, whose evidence was so contradictory that he was later sentenced to seven years transportation for perjury. Despite this, and following further hearsay evidence, James Connery was found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to transportation for life. He was sent to Botany Bay.8
 
The landlord pursued his efforts to have John and Patrick Connery evicted for their alleged misconduct. In Jury 1835 Foley prosecuted them to conviction for forcible possession of five acres at Bohadoon.9 Escorted by a large police force, he had them ejected, but they returned immediately, bringing back their cattle and erecting a hut for a dwelling. In court Foley claimed that they had sent him a warning notice, a copy of which appeared in the Waterford Mirror (July 25 1935):
 
Mr. Thomas Foley I am credibilly informed that you main to Distrane your tenants in Bohadoon assure you that if you dont chaing your mind to the reverse that you will surely suffer first and foremost your words will be consumed to ashes and as to your own life will be in danger for you wont be at home always.
 
Bally Lemmon Woods is our object.
 
Counsel for the Connerys stated that they were prepared to leave Ireland if acquitted. They were found guilty, however, and sentenced to seven years transportation. Announcing the sentence the judge hoped to make an example of them as they appeared respectable. An unbowed John Connery was then heard to threaten Foley with terrible revenge.
 
Bhiodh cider mills laidir da riaradh i
dtigh na sarfhear Crothadh lamb, is faille san aras cluthmharsamh.
(Sweet strong cider was served in the great man's house, hand shaking and
welcome in the comfortable and pleasant dwelling).
 
The Connerys had already established a formidable reputation. An account published by the Waterford Mail in August 1835 stated that they "had been of the better class of farmer, but having been reduced in circumstances, they turned out to be the most desperate characters in the country". In the same month Foley wrote to Drummond that John Connery had previously been released from Waterford county jail on foot of a discharge document later found to be a forgery.
 
John and Patrick Connery were soon moved to Clonmel jail to join other transportees bound for embarkation at Queenstown. On August 18, 1835, the party rested overnight at Clogheen bridewell on the road to Fermoy. It was from there that the Connery brothers made their first dramatic escape, by climbing the perimeter wall at dusk.10.
 
Gur bhafliodar na sala thar na geatai mora arda. 
Is amach ansiud go brach leo gan spleachas da namhaid."
(They took to their heels over the great high gates. And off they cleared free of their enemies.)
 
Foley complained to Drummond that the Connerys were "alone of all the convicts not having been confined to cells...but being suffered to remain in the yard." He asked for an official inquiry and that a reward be offered for their capture. An investigation was carried out but the findings were inconclusive. The various depositions were contradictory and revealed general negligence. James Bruce, the Govenor of Waterford county jail, who accompanied the transportees, was accused by the bridwell keeper of being drunk at the material time. He also stated that the Connerys had arrived neither handcuffed nor wearing convict uniform, being dressed in "very respectable coloured clothes with sealskin caps and gold bands and tassels." Drummond mentioned the offer of £50 reward - a substantial sum in those days. Foley still complained that Bruce was retained as gaol Govenor, despite being charged in connection with the escape. 11
 
INFORMERS ACTIVE
In the weeks that followed, informers were active. Early in October 1935 the police were told that the Connerys were on the Cork/Waterford boundary between Aglish and Clash-more, drinking at Devine's pub near Lacinsilly. A search party of ten policemen failed to catch them. Patrick Connery made off from a nearby house of a Mr. Bransfield without his clothes.
 
The officer leading the searchers then offered his own reward of £40 for their capture. Foley again accused the police of carelessness and complained that he could not visit his Dungarvan property for fear of his life. Drummond drily noted that a "larger force at a later hour would probably have secured them".
 
Within a few days the runaways were sighted again, drinking in another pub near the turnpike at Dungarvan. They spent many hours there and bought drinks for several persons who arrived. (A reputation for generosity survived them: "bhi bui'ochas og's aosta orthu, 's ba mhaith an ceart gan aon locht bheith ar a mein na a gcail".) (They had the gratitude of old and young. And it was right that their character or reputation had no fault). In the same week they visited the steward employed by Foley's brother near Dungarvan. They bragged to him of having retrieved their cattle through the influence of local grandee Sir Richard Keane M.P. and threatened to kill both Foley brothers unless they received a free pardon.
 
In December 1835 Dublin Castle was informed that the Connerys were frequenting the uplands north-west of Dungarvan. Major William Miller, Inspector General of Police for Munster, described the area as "wild and thickly wooded", and reported that the runaways got both sympathy and support there. The Connerys also appeared in the south-west of the county near Clash-more, where their cousin William Con-nery lived at Knockaneerish. It was there that the officer commanding the Cappoquin police district carried out a futile raid on Christmas night 1835:
 
"...nothing could exceed the apparent exhultation of the country people at our want of success, several of them made a shew of running off in order to divert out attention, and they shouted after us on our going away ."13
 
Major Miller saw fit to reorganize the operation. Chief Constable Carroll, regarded as the most experienced policeman in Munster, was drafted in from Kerry to lead the search. Other officers were dispatched in disguise to all known haunts, and mountain passes were watched. Informers were offered greater inducements. These sources revealed that the Connerys were going to America. Their passage was to be assisted by money from local gentry and farmers. Drummond ordered that the main Irish ports be watched and the police notified at Liverpool and Bristol.
 
The Connerys dealt severely witn suspected informers. On the night of December 17, 1853, they broke into the house of Sylvester Greany of the parish of Whitechurch. They beat him with their pistols, knocked him down and jumped on his head. It was thought that John Connery would have shot him but was restrained by his brother Patrick.
 
The tactics adopted by Carroll evoked an early response from the local community. A warning was issued to him and two assistants to leave their lodgings at Ballynameela, in the parish of Whitechurch. A notice was posted in the churchuard on Sunday, January 24, 1936, addressed to the owner of the lodging-house: -Patrick Morrissey,
 
Take notice this day that your keeping police in your house for the purpose of hunting the Connerys - any person or persons would due ' so would Surely take the Rewarde if Your not able to pay Rent without keeping police Give up your land to the Drvil - Let every person and persons take notice this day if Mr. Morrissey the Gentleman Gives any more lodgings to police that he will surely suffer for it police must keep theire regular barriks
 
-Mr. Morrissey this is the first and last notice
 
-Be sure or sorry.14
 
On the following Sunday at the same church the congreagation was advised by Rev. Connor that the police should be more concerned with thefts and robberies than with forcible possession. He added that the police were acting at the request of the "Gentlemen", and that the "Farmers" need not support them.
 
During February 1836, Carroll sent his officers and men on further raids. Most of these attempts followed an informer's report. Proceeding with eleven men, Chief Constable Crossley came across a small group including the Connerys at Ballinamuck Cross, just outside Dungarvan. Crossley had already sent six of his force ahead to cut off the escape route through the hills. A small group sat drinking on the roadside ditch as the search party approached. Due to their disguises the police drew close before being recognized. The drinkers ran away across the fields and when they refused to hald Crossley ordered his men to open fire. The fire was immediately returned. Gunfire continued for a time but the Connerys got away under cover of darkness. 15
 
Chuadar go Port Lairge d'iarraidh dul thar saile 
Siud ni nach raibh i ndan doibh is ni'or rainig se doibh 
Bhi fear a mbraite i lathair 'thug timpeall orthu an garda 
'S isteach aris gur saitheadh iad in aras fe bhron.
(They went to Waterford in an attempt to go across the seas but it did not happen.
The informer was present and had them surrounded by guards and once again they were confined (in sadness).
 
By early March the Connerys' preparations for emigration were apparently completed as they were seen in Waterford city. On March 7 they were surprised in a pub directly facing the city barracks. After spending nine months on the run they were taken into custody by a military party led by Bruce, the Governor of the County Gaol. Drummond was elated and advised the Attorney General: "Caught, at last "the reward was renewed a few days ago and copies of the Proclamation sent to Waterford and all the ports." 16
 
The reward was paid to Patrick McGrath, who henceforth struggled to evade the relatives and friends of the Connerys. He tried to join the police, but was deemed an undesirable recruit despite the recommendation of H. W. Barren M.P. and some local magistrates. Nobody in Waterford would employ him, and a year later he was living in fear of his life.17
 
ESCAPE FROM JAIL
While the depositions and other evidence were being prepared by the Attorney General the Connerys were detained in Waterford County Gaol. They were to be charged with the jail break and the attack on the informer Greany. On May 22, 1936, however, fourteen prisoners, led by the Connerys, escaped from custody. Some of the prisoners had succeeded in overpowering Bruce and his assistants, and then proceeded to release their fellow captives. "They had provided themselves with stones but the precaution was useless, for the spectators in Ballybricken applauded them." A reward of £30 was immediately offered for the capture of each prisoner. Major Woodward, the Inspector General of Prisons, was sent from Dublin to fully investigate the break-out. Soon afterwards Bruce was dismissed as Govenor.
 
Some of the escapees were captured within days. Police came across the Connerys two days after the escape near Cappoquin, in the company of John Casey, another fugitive. In the ensuing chase Casey was shot in the ankle and easily captured, but the Connerys got away by swimming across the River Blackwater. Following this dramatic escape from Cappoquin they kept out of view for a considerable period. Despite renewed police vigilance they remained at large for almost two years.
 
In October 1837 they visited the Waterford County Lieutenant, Hon. Henry Villiers Stuart, to ask whether he would secure a pardon for them. His reaction was to send to Villierstown for the police. They took off, "crossed the park....taking the direction of the Forest. The police searched for them within the hour but without success... these convicts are evidently harboured in this immediate neighbourhood." Villiers Stuart then asked Dublin Castle to double the police establishment at Villierstown, and that was done.19
 
The Connerys re-arrest happened by accident. On March 27, 1838, three policemen entered a pub at Cappagh on the main Dungarvan-Cappoquin road, looking for a sheep-stealer. The Connerys were caught there and taken to Dungarvan jail. On the next day they were moved to Waterford under heavy escort. A large crowd assembled outside the jail on their arrival, but there was no disturbance. They were held in Waterford for five months.
 
Public interest in the Connerys grew apace. Almost two thousand people gathered to see their departure for Dublin (Kilmainham jail) on August 24, 1838. Fearing yet another escape bid, the security forces were present in strength, and included mounted police. Most of the crowd were merely curious. But when Patrick Connery pulled out his handkerchief and waved it over his head, some of them took up the cry of "Carrickshock" (the scene of a famous tithe affray in Kilkenny). Some stones were thrown at the police, who retaliated by drawing their bayonets and beating up some individuals, and a few elderly bystanders were hurt in the action. There was widespread indignation at their behaviour: following a blistering account in the Waterford Chronicle an official inquiry was held, but that proved inconclusive.20
 
Despite their great local fame, the story of the Connerys became confused and half-forgotten. As early as 1841 the Halls in their celebrated work referred to the Connollys (sic) as "two notorious outlaws". Their account was otherwise accurate, but has been generally overlooked. The Oireachtas play, mentioned earlier, placed the Connerys in a Land War context, yet we have seen that their era ended well before the Famine. We can probably assume that the songs, too, were composed before the Great Famine.
 
It seems safe to say that the songs themselves have not changed much since they were composed. Nevertheless, versions collected in the late nineteenth j century clearly contain inaccuracies regarding the names of people and places. The clearest proof of this is a 1940 Lismore version containing references to Thomas Foley ("A Fhoghlu mhall-laithe") (O accursed Foley) where the most common rendition refers to "A i Choimin mhallaithe" (O accursed Cummins) and to Foley's agent Hackett where there is commonly "angasra ud". ("that crowd!")
 
The enigma of the Connerys remains.
 
Were they fallen "strong farmers"? Evidence of a privileged background is circumstantial and primarily reflected in a predilection for finery. Similarly, little can be firmly stated about the family group. The 1837/8 transportation register gives Patrick's age as forty years and John's as thirty, suspiciously rounded estimates. Perhaps it is better that some uncertainty remains. Imprecise attributions in the songs contribute to their more general appeal by allowing the imagination a freer response to their dramatic and romantic elements. 
 
As might be expected, many versions of the songs exist. Professor Tomas 0 Concheanainn, in his Nua-Dhuanaire Vol. I (Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1981) identifies the most popular song ("A Fhoghlu mhall aithe..") as Na Conneries and the longer song as Na Conairigh. Longer versions of both songs appear in Duanaire Deiseach, compiled by the late Nioclas i Toibin (Dublin 1978). The words and music of the main song appeared as early as 1927 in an anthology published by Oxford University Press under the title Londubh an Chairn, being Songs of the Irish Gaels, edited by Margaret i Hannagan and Seamus Clandillon.
 
Versions of the more obscure third song are to be found in the collection of the Department of Irish Folklore, University College, Dublin.
 
Recordings of the two main songs are available. These include the versions on three LPs issued by Gael Linn, viz. CEF 075, Na Ceirmni 78; CEF 062, Nioclas i Toibin: CEF 097, Philip King and Peter Browne, Seacht Noimead Deag chun a Seacht
 
REFERENCES:
Records of correspondence are takenfrom the Chief Secretary's Office Registered Papers/Outrage Papers in the State Papers Office, Dublin unless otherwise stated.
 
Shaw, A.G.L., Convicts and the Colonies, a study of penal transpor tation from Great Britain and Ireland to Australia and other parts of the British Empire, London 1966; Rude, George, Protest and Punishment, The Story of the Social and Political Protestors transported to Australia, 1788-1868, Oxford 1978;
Robson, L.L., The Convict Settlers of Australia, An Enquiry into the Origin and Character of the Convicts transported to New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, 1787-1852, Melbourne 1965.
O 'Milleadha, Padraig, Seanchas Sliabh gCua, Bealoideas Vol. VI, No. 11, 1936.
The Waterford Mail 25/ 7/1835.
Thomas Foley to Thomas Drum-mond 21/8/1835; unsigned police report dated 9/2/1836; The Water-ford Mail, 4/3/1834, 29/4/1835, 6/4/1838.
Sylvester Jones to Drummond 11/3/1836; The Waterford Mail 4/3/1834.
T. Boate to Drummond 28/12/ 1836; The Waterford Mail 4/3/ 1834.
The Dublin Almanac 1835.
Foley to Drummond 21/8/1835; Jones to Drummond 11/3/1836; The Waterford Mirror 14/3/1835.
Foley to Drummond 21/8/1835; The Waterford Mail 25/7/1835; The Clonmel Herald 26/8/1835, 29/9/ 1835.
Foley to Drummond 21/8/1835; The Waterford Mail 22/8/1835; 9/3/1836; The Waterford Mirror 24/8/1835; The Clonmel Herald 26/8/1835.
Foley to Drummond 28/8/1835; another 31/8/1835; James Bruce to P. G. Barron 22/8/1835; depositions of Marcus Jackson 28/8/1835, and James Bruce 29/8/1835, and Corporal Edward Toner 28/8/1835.
Foley to Drummond 3/10/1835; Sub. Imp. S. Croker to Major W. Miller 17/10/1835; Miller to Vise-count Morpeth 22/10/1835; Drummond to Miller 23/10/1835.
Croker to Miller 27/12/1835;Miller to Morpeth 29/12/1835.
Miller to Drummond 27/1/1836; Miller to Morpeth 6/2/1836.
Chief Constable Crossley to Miller14/2/1836; Miller to Drummond 15/12/1836; The Waterford Mail 20/2/1836; The Clonmel Herald 24/2/1836.
Capt. M. Bloomfield to Drummond 7/3/1836; Chief Const. Lumsden to Miller 8/3/1836; Miller to Drummond 8/3/1836; again 9/3/1836. The Waterford Mail 9/311836.
H. Winston Barron to Miller 1/5/ 1836; Miller to Barron 11/5/1836; George Warburton to Miller 24/5/ 1836; memorial of Patrick McGrath 28/11/1836.
The Wateford Mail 25/5/1836; The Waterford Mirror 25/5/1836; Yhr Clonmel Herald 28/5/1836; Prisons of Ireland, 15th Report of Inspector General on the general state of the prisons 1836.
D. Villers Stuart to Chief Const. Crossley 22/10/1837; Crossley to Miller 23/10/1837.
The Waterford Mail 31/3/1838, 26/8/1838, 15/9/1838,19/9/1938.
Transportation Register, Males and Females 1837/8 VI1 Centre 22 p. 163.

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