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Abductions in Nineteenth-Century Ireland

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 17, Number 2, Samhreadh/Summer 2013
pp. 17-44 | 10.1353/nhr.2013.0014

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On the night of March 4, 1822, in the townland of Aughrim, near Licarrol in County Cork, twelve well-armed men entered the house of Richard Goold, the son of a prosperous farmer. The abductors were searching for his sister, the eldest daughter of the family. In one of the bedrooms they found sixteen-year-old Honora Goold and asked her if she were the eldest daughter; she said she was not, but the men did not believe her. They ordered her to dress and forcibly took her from the house. Placing Honora onto a horse ridden by James Brown, the party sped off. At one stage the group stopped at a public house where six other men joined them. In that group was a blacksmith, Walter Fitzmaurice, a noted leader of an agrarian movement called the Rockites, and a man accused of murder and other crimes. The abduction party then headed off into the hills of West Limerick and eventually, riding through the night, came to the house of David Leahy, a comfortable farmer, who lived with his wife and two sons. A maid and a niece of Leahy's wife, Mary Cahill (who was a little older than Honora) were also in the house that morning. James Brown soon realized that they had abducted the wrong daughter, but he still proposed marriage to Honora, who refused him.

Over the next weeks Brown repeatedly raped Honora in an attempt to force her to marry him. Honora was moved from cabin to cabin during her incarceration and eventually, David Leahy suggested to Honora that she would be released if she signed a document saying she was in his house of her own free will. She agreed, and when she was finally rescued she was found alone in a cabin "in a most pitiable condition." The abduction, deemed a "barbaric and preeminently atrocious case," was widely reported in the British and Irish press. The youth of the woman, the intense search for her and the involvement of a noted Rockite at a time when the authorities sought to impose law and order against agrarian disturbance in the countryside, made it a case of great interest.

Once recovered, Honora gave information to the police about her abductors, most of whom were eventually captured, with Fitzmaurice giving himself up to the authorities. James Brown escaped, most likely to America. When the case came to court Honora, attired in "mourning dress," gave her testimony "correct and distinct, interrupted only by those bursts of acute sensibility which the narration of the unparalleled outrage committed upon her caused in the recital of it before the font of justice." The Leahys claimed that they had been terrorized into supporting the abduction, but they were nonetheless convicted and sentenced to seven years transportation. Fitzmaurice, at his trial in August 1822, pleaded guilty to the charge of abduction. He was pardoned, probably having done a deal with the authorities. A man named Costello was executed for his involvement in the crime, and in all, eleven other individuals were imprisoned or transported for their participation in the abduction.

Abduction can be described as the practice of carrying off a woman with the purpose of compelling her to marry a particular man—who would then have access to the available dowry of money, land, or other property tied to the woman. In Irish folklore, terms for abduction included "snatching," sugan, fuadach, and "left-handed marriage." The history of abductions in Ireland has received some attention from historians, though most of this research has focused on the eighteenth century and on the higher levels of society. James Kelly and Thomas Power agree that abduction was about money and status. Power also suggests that abduction was a display of communally sanctioned violence against women. Kelly argues that those involved in abductions in the eighteenth century came from a "narrow band of society."

For the first half of the nineteenth century this "narrow band' was considerably wider than might be expected. Servants abducted servants, and landless laborers abducted women of little fortune. Likewise, there was considerable community and local opposition to abductions; those factors, by mitigating community or individual action against abductions, had much...

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