From late eighteenth century onwards newspapers were the premier medium through which ‘the vast majority of the… population gained most of their information about the prevalence of crime and the ways the criminal justice system was dealing with it’.¹ Historians have always recognised the value of newspapers, but dealing with the large bound volumes and delicate pages meant that overall they were underused. Generally historians searched the better known titles, using dates of famous events to guide their searches. Much remains to be discovered within them.
With digitisation newspapers have begun retaking their place in our knowledge of historic crimes. Of particular interest to both historians and genealogists are the coverage of courts, the petty sessions, quarter sessions and assizes. Court reports are lively and full of detail, often including names, addresses, occupations, ages and physical descriptions of defendants and witnesses. While petty session records survive in their millions and have been digitised², newspaper reports are particularly valuable for cases heard at the higher courts whose records do not survive in Ireland. Digitisation permits users to cross-reference stories across several publications, mapping reactions and the ebb and flow of a story in the press. Digitisation also allows us to dip into newspapers and investigate a family name mentioned in a story. It might be them after all…
I had one of these lucky chances. The intersection of an ancestor’s life with a famous court case. While walking in the Phoenix Park Patrick Murray my, then teenage, maternal great-grandfather became part of the story of one of the most famous politically motivated murders in Irish history: the Phoenix Park Murders. The stabbing, on 6 May 1882, of the newly appointed Chief Secretary and the Undersecretary by Invincibles rocked the country.
At the time of the murders Patrick Murray was about eighteen years old. As a young man working at the estate at Farmleigh he would have known the park intimately. In the reports, which are repeated across numerous publications, his positive identification of one of the prisoners as a man that he saw while walking through the park on his way to town, was a small but important piece of evidence.
More valuable for my family’s history is the inclusion in the more detailed reports of the information that on his way home from town, he went to his father’s house in Carpenterstown ‘between Castleknock and the strawberry beds’. His father, who for time being remains nameless, was alive and living at Carpenterstown in 1881. This valuable nugget suggests other avenues of exploration. As any family historian can appreciate with the name Murray the family have proven particularly difficult to trace before 1901. With a common name, and no family anecdotes to draw regarding the whereabouts of Patrick Murray (born c.1865) before his marriage in 1890 at the age of 25 there was little hope of finding enough corroborating facts in any record to prove inconclusively that the Patrick Murray I was looking at was ‘my’ Patrick Murray. But here in one of the most famous murders in Irish history was my Patrick Murray. The mention of Farmleigh was my corroborating evidence, the family connection to the estate continued into the 1920s.
As a historian newspapers are founts of information, biased to be sure, but incredibly valuable. As a family historian there is a frisson from seeing an ancestor’s name in print. Their story becomes richer, their time and place tangible. From the details of the report I can follow the route Patrick took to walk to town (probably to a pub). It is six and a half miles from Carpenterstown to O’Connell Street, as a young man I imagine it took him somewhat less than 2 hours to walk that distance. I can imagine him hearing of the murders, and making his way back, perhaps a little wobbly, to his father’s house. I wonder if he was interested in the events, where his sympathies lay? He could not have known what lay ahead. That his positive identification of ‘Skin the Goat’ would be reported in dozens of newspapers for years afterwards.
1. Peter King, ‘Making Crime News: Newspapers, Violent Crime and the Selective Reporting of Old Bailey Trials in the late Eighteenth Century’, Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, (2009)13.1
2. Petty Sessions Court Registers, via findmypast.ie http://search.findmypast.ie/search-world-Records/irish-petty-sessions-court-registers-1828-1912