William Sydney Clements, 3rd Earl of Leitrim (Lord Leitrim)
Lord Leitrim assassinated
(Readers may prefer the 'Full Authentic Story of the Killing of Lord Leitrim' as set out in the 1962 book 'The Fanad Patriots'
By the 1870s, Lord Leitrim was said to symbolise `evil at its worst'. Although he made Lough Rynn his principal seat, he frequently travelled to his estates in Donegal and Galway, and paid occasional visits to Dublin. At 72, he was still physically strong, though increasingly irascible. The week before his assassination, he was in Dublin ordering seeds for the estate. On being told it would take a week for the order to be completed, he replied, somewhat prophetically, `A week! Where may I be within a week?'
In Donegal especially, his eviction policy and general treatment of tenants had gained him serious enemies, and he was forced to travel heavily armed and with a strong escort. The wholesale evictions ordered in 1878, were the final straw. In Milford, Donegal, three men decided to take matters into their own hands. On 2 April 1878, Michael Heraghty, Michael McElwee and Neil Sheils ambushed and killed Lord Leitrim at Cratlagh Wood, near Milford in a well-planned attack.
Lord Leitrim had risen early on the morning of 2nd April so that he could be at Milford by nine o'clock. He had given his usual orders for his servant and luggage to be taken from his house at Manorvaughan to Milford, so his movements that morning would have been well known. By this time, it was known that the Earl was a marked man and the local constabulary had made it a habit to accompany him to Milford. His friends had warned him not to be so venturesome and never to go unarmed.
But on that morning, Lord Leitrim set out earlier than intended. It was said afterwards that the clocks in Manorvaughan had been deliberately set back. There may be some truth in this. Lord Leitrim was a stickler for punctuality; he was also courageous (or careless) and would not have felt obliged to wait for his police escort. As John Madden said afterwards of one of his last conversations with the Earl, `he was a man who did not know what fear was and never took the slightest precaution'. As it happens, the Earl did take the precaution of carrying two guns on this journey. He had a loaded double-chambered pocket pistol under his overcoat and another heavy revolver in a black bag tied to the driver's seat.
Cover from The Third Earl of Leitrim, Liam Dolan 1978
It couldn't have been a pleasant journey. It was bitterly cold with strong icy winds and driving sleet showers. Lord Leitrim and the others were well wrapped up in heavy coats and horse blankets. The road from Manorvaughan to Milford has a dip at Cratlagh Wood which rises to a steep hill. The horses had to slow to a trudging walk, and were slowed further by the biting wind and sleet. There were two cars in the party. The first was the Milford Hotel coach carrying Lord Leitrim, the Court Clerk John Makim, and a young coachman Charles Buchanan. The second car held Lord Leitrim's coachman and valet William Kincaid and Michael Logue the owner and driver of the car. This car was slowed down with a heavy load of the Earl's luggage and by having a lame horse. Coming some 200 yards behind the first car, Kincaid had a full view of the ambush which he later described to the courts.
The fatal shots
The first Kincaid knew of the incident was a report from a volley of several shots below him on the road. Looking towards the sound, he saw jets of smoke from the guns. Charles Buchanan had been shot in the head and died immediately. He fell to the road, his horse rug still around his knees. John Makim the clerk, was also shot in the head but managed to stumble back towards the second car. He died later. Lord Leitrim never got a chance to get to either of the two guns he carried. One of the first shots hit him in the right arm, fracturing his elbow joint and he took nine or ten bullets in the back of his left shoulder. He fell to the ground and the horses galloped away. Two of the assassins, McElwee and Shiels went to finish him but he managed to get to his feet and struggle fiercely with the two. Even at 72 and suffering gunshot wounds, Lord Leitrim was strong enough to wrestle with his attackers. When he was found later, he was still clutching a portion of a red beard with which he had dragged his assassin around the road until Shiels finally struck him down with the butt of a gun. The blow was violent enough to split the gunstock. We can only assume that the combination of heavy overcoat and fractured elbow prevented the Earl from getting to either of his weapons.
McElwee and Shiels threw the body face down into a water-filled hole close by to assure his death. They then ran to the shores of Mulroy Bay to a waiting boat: Kincaid watched them pull hard from the shore and disappear across the bay.
Punch cartoon printed July 1878
The broken gunstock was the only evidence left behind and provided proof against only one of the conspirators, Michael Heraghty. As it happened, Heraghty had left the scene earlier to follow a pedestrian who had passed the three as they took up their positions on the road. Suspecting that the passer-by might have noticed something amiss and afraid that he might warn the authorities in Milford, Heraghty was chosen to shadow the man and ensure he proved no threat. He left his gun behind and it was this that McElwee used to inflict the fatal blow. Why the small, wiry twenty-year-old Heraghty was chosen to leave is a mystery. Of the three, he was reputed to be the best shot, a skill he refined through his main occupation, poaching.
There was little doubt among the tenantry about who the actual assassins were, but no one informed the police. Immediately after the murder, each of the conspirators went back about their daily business. McElwee was to be seen soon afterwards constructing lobster pots and Shiels went back to his tailor shop. Heraghty went to the house of some friends where he had a meal of tea and eggs.
In the end, Heraghty was the only one to be arrested. He died in gaol six months after the shooting from typhus and without being convicted for the crime. Along with Heraghty, the local constabulary arrested five other tenants, three McGrenahans and Charles McEntaggart and Manus Trainor - whose only incriminating action had been to book a passage on an emigrant ship some time before the assassination. Large sums were collected locally for the defense, but the five were soon discharged for lack of evidence.
Of the three men accused of Lord Leitrim's murder, two died before they could come to trial; the third, McElwee - the actual assassin - was never apprehended and continued his career as a travelling tailor until his death in 1921.
Various rewards were offered for the identification of Lord Leitrim's killers. His heir, Charles Clements offered £10,000. A group of thirty magistrates meeting a week after the killing passed a resolution to raise a subscription as a reward for the arrest of the assassins. A few allies contributed £6,000 to the fund, led by a single contribution of £1,000 by the Duke of Abercorn. A £500 reward was offered by the Government. This carried the condition that information had to be submitted within six months - not a great indication of any enthusiasm to apprehend the assassins. Officially, no information was forthcoming and the rewards went unclaimed. However, in the 1960s, it emerged that information had, in fact, been gained by the Lord Lieutenant's man (for seventeen shillings), but it had been filed away in Dublin Castle and was never referred to. The truth was, Lord Leitrim was mourned by neither tenants nor peers and his killers were lauded as heroes who ended the tyranny of landlordism in Ireland. The assassination was seen as a landmark in the fight for Home Rule and is widely believed to have given impetus to the Land League which was founded the following year.
Lord Leitrim's funeral
Robert Clements, a nephew, who believed himself the Earl's heir heard about the assassination in Paris as he and his wife were about to leave for Italy. They immediately made the journey back to Dublin for the funeral and burial in St. Michan's Church.
By the time the funeral procession reached Dublin, word had spread of the Earl's death. The funeral procession along the Liffey was marked by unruly scenes with locals hurling abuse as his coffin passed. John Burges, Lord Leitrim's brother-in-law, and Robert Clements were astounded at the size and anger of the mob that heckled the cortège and threatened to seize the coffin. In the end, Clements feared the crowd so much that he insisted on being the only person to accompany the coffin as it was interred in the family vault. Inside the church, the funeral service provided a contrasting view of the Earl's character. The Dean noted that for St. Michan's at least, Lord Leitrim's `purse was ever open': the Earl had recently given a large donation towards the renovation of Handel's organ and £100 to the curate endowment fund.
Back at Lough Rynn, a number of letters were submitted noting the tenants' regret at Lord Leitrim's death. But there is debate over the genuineness of the sentiments expressed, not least because the letters were signed and handed over by the lease-holders of large farms rather than the tenants of smaller holdings. Only the Orange Lodge in Mohill seemed to regret sincerely Lord Leitrim's passing. After a meeting in Mohill Courthouse, they issued a statement declaring that the Lodge's members `sing the praises of Lord Leitrim, and proclaim to the world that he was a chaste God-fearing man and a kind indulgent landlord and that anyone who would say otherwise are traitors'. Most of the people of Lough Rynn at least seemed to be at one in mourning the twenty-three-year-old John Makim who was shot with the Earl. The young clerk's funeral cortège was met outside Mohill by a `vast number' of tenantry and estate employees, and shops closed until the `beautiful, solemn burial service' was concluded.