The Playboy of Sligo Gaol 

By Maria Gillen 
 

Maria Gillen has roots on Achill island. Inspired by the island's rich folklore, traditions and stories, she began recording as many as possible from the older generations.

From one such recording her current project, a blog entitled, The Life and Times of Emily M. Weddall (1867-1952) came into being. Emily Weddall is a little known historical figure who set up Scoil Acla (one of the oldest summer schools in Ireland), was a member of the Celtic Revival and Gaelic League, who also played a part in the struggle for Ireland’s struggle for Irish freedom.

http://emilymweddall.com/

https://youtu.be/aE52nuRiWLw
 

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Image of James Lynchehaun which was published in the Belfast Telegraph on 28th August 1903

In May 1920 an elderly man arrived at Sligo Gaol to serve out a seven day sentence. James Lynchehaun looked like an innocuous pensioner who happened to find himself on the wrong side of the law, for some petty misdemeanour or other. Old man Lynchehaun was no petty criminal. He was, in fact, a notorious felon, with an elaborate list of crimes stretching back decades. His stay at Sligo Gaol, for failing to declare his criminal status, was one of many spells behind bars over the years. Lynchehaun had been released from prison two years previously on a criminal licence, but the serial offender failed to stick to the conditions of his probation, which landed him back inside yet again.

James Lynchehaun lived in exile in America for almost two decades after a crime he had committed in Ireland twenty-five years earlier. In 1918 he returned home, in the hopes that the passage of time would have made his conviction obsolete, and his appearance sufficiently changed for him to escape detection. This was not the case. He was quickly recognized, rearrested, and sent back to prison again for his heinous crime of 1894. 
 

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Agnes McDonnell

On the night of October 6th, 1894, James Lynchehaun, while in a drunken rage, set out to get his revenge on Achill landlady Agnes McDonnell. He had rented a house and small shop on her estate in the Valley area of Achill, as well as being employed as her agent. After a disagreement both parties fell out, with the result that Lynchehan’s employment was terminated, as was his leases on the house and shop, which could have serious financial implications for him.

 

Enraged, Lynchehaun vowed to take revenge. After consuming a copious amount of alcohol, he made his way to Valley House, with the intention of burning it to the ground, all the better if his nemesis was inside. She was, but managed to escape the inferno, much to Lynchehaun’s dissatisfaction. Agnes McDonnell, not having to guess at who was behind the destruction, launched an attack on Lynchehaun, who had made no attempt to flee the scene. Lynchehaun, being the stronger of the two, soon overpowered her completely. He then continued to brutalize his former landlady so badly that he thought he had killed her. The doctor who attended her confirmed that her injuries were such that she could not be expected to live. 

Lynchehaun was arrested, but, during transportation by the police to Castlebar Gaol, he managed to escape near the Pulranney area of Achill, his native turf. Disappearing into the wild mountainous terrain, he remained at large for many months. A large police hunt ensued, and a bounty with the life-changing amount of £350 was placed on his head. Lynchehaun, however, was not recaptured. Nobody in the locality dared to blow his cover. It was not for the love of the fugitive but for reasons more complex, as one journalist from The Dublin Daily Mail observed with great insight: “The Achill people who hid the criminal Lynchehaun from the police… did so because it seemed likely that at the time that Lynchehaun would be hanged if he were caught, and they couldn't bear to give up even Lynchehan to the gallows.”

Against the odds Agnes McDonnell did not succumb to her injuries and it became clear she would make a full medical recovery, apart from her facial injuries, which were not life threatening but left her horribly disfigured.

 

When the word of her survival got to Lynchehan thorough whatever grapevine supplied him with information, he knew that he would not hang for assault as he would have for done murder. A rumour went about, even appearing in some papers, that Lynchehaun had orchestrated that a family member report his whereabouts to the police and claim the award! Lynchehaun was subsequently recaptured, stood trial and convicted of ‘feloniously wounding with intent to murder’ carrying the sentence of Penal Servitude. He was incarcerated at Maryborough Gaol (Portlaoise Prison), to serve out his sentence at her Majesty’s Pleasure.

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John Millington Synge

The Lynchehaun saga, named the ‘Achill Outrage’ by the press, held the public’s attention for months and captured the imagination of playwright, John Millington Synge. The high-profile crime story was similar to one that unfolded on the Aran Islands, when Synge lived there. The combination of both stories inspired him to pen The Playboy of the Western World: “twice recently Irish peasant women have shown their fondness for murders by protecting and concealing them…

Giving the case of Lynchehaun as an example; by the aid of Irish peasant women, managed to conceal himself from the police for months and to get away also”.

Synge loosely based the main protagonist, Christy Mahon, on Lynchehaun. Synge, fascinated by how people harboured their fugitives even if they were guilty of murder, based the plot of his play on the same premise. The Playboy, Christy Mahon, showed up in a pub in a small community, boasting about the murder of his father to a group of enthralled women, who should have been appalled by his crime. Their menfolk, who arrived in the bar drunk after attending a wake, were similarly impressed by Mahon, hailing him a hero. 

It was hardly surprising that when The Playboy of the Western World premiered in January 1907 it did so to much controversy. The audience, comprising of a large number of Nationalists, were outraged by Synge’s portrayal of Irish peasantry, not wanting to believe that it was based on real life. To make matters worse, the mention of the word ‘shifts’, a term for women’s undergarments, scandalized them completely. Synge, who was too ill to attend the premier, was forced to leave his sickbed to defend his work to a special audience invited to the Abbey Theatre by manager, W. B. Yeats.

The poet was also absent from the premier due to a commitment in Scotland, but was kept abreast of its reception by Lady Gregory, who was left alone to contain the irate audience. She sent a telegram to Yeats conveying the unfolding drama that was taking place in the auditorium rather than on the stage: “Audiences broke up in disorder at the word shift”. She described the mood of the crowd as “ugly”, muttering words such as “Blasphemy and blackguardism”, as well as others that she did not wish to repeat. 
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Incidentally the publicity, albeit ‘negative’, did the production little harm. The actors played to full houses for the entire run. It is not recorded what Lynchehaun made of the controversy surrounding the staging of Playboy. No doubt he revelled in the undeserved limelight from the safe distance of the USA, where he was resident since 1902. 

Having served seven years for his attack of Agnes McDonnell, Lynchehaun decided that it was time he should be granted a reprieve as his victim had made a full recovery. He petitioned the Governor for mitigation of his sentence, but was denied. Taking matters into his own hands again, he applied his talent for escapology. He stealthily performed a jailbreak, barefoot and in his underthings only. Free again, Lynchehaun made his way to America, via Scotland and Belgium, avoiding police detection as he went. 

In America he lived freely amongst the Irish diaspora, who were not aware of the extent of his crime against landlady Agnes McDonnell. To the best of their knowledge, he had taken a stand against landlordism and the British establishment in Ireland. That small detail may have been what tilted the balance of justice in his favour, when he was brought in front of a court in Indianapolis. The British Government did their utmost to have him extradited from the U.S., but his savvy lawyer proved his crime to be political rather than criminal. The verdict was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, allowing Lynchehaun freedom there. 

In 1907, emboldened perhaps by the ‘success’ of Playboy, Lynchehaun slipped in and out of Ireland disguised as an American tourist. Had he been recognised by the law he would certainly have been sent back to prison. In 1918, he chanced his luck again and returned to Ireland, under the assumed name of James McElwaine of Glasgow, but was recognised, arrested and sent back to Maryborough Convict Prison. Two years later he was released on a convict licence. Again pushing his luck, he returned to Achill, the location of his 1894 crime, and forbidden under the said licence.

 

He was promptly arrested by a local police officer, who knew well who he was. Tried at the Petty Sessions in Longford Courthouse, his case was almost dismissed as a police failure by the judge. But, just to remind him to stay on the better side of the law, he was sentenced to seven days in Sligo Gaol. He was no sooner released, when he was back behind bars again. On arrival in Cavan he failed to declare his criminal status to the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) there. He pleaded Guilty and was sent to Dundalk Gaol for two months. That was to be his final time behind bars. The ageing ‘playboy’ was becoming more of a nuisance than a public danger. 

After more than a decade of living in uncharacteristic obscurity, Lynchehaun was sought out by The Irish Times. Much to their surprise they found: “Mr. Lynchehaun, who is now in his 87th year is as vigorous and active as a man of 60. A paying patient in the County Home (Castlebar), he employs his time writing his reminiscences.” Unfortunately, he never got a chance to publish his memoirs, which would have made a spectacular read, as his funds dried up, forcing him to leave the home for Scotland.

 

There he died the following year. A letter was found in his pocket addressed to the Achill parish priest, who announced his passing, otherwise Synge’s unlikely muse would have died in complete obscurity. In death the ‘Playboy’ managed to make a column,

however short. The Belfast Telegraph afforded him an obituary of sorts entitled: “Amazing Career Ended; Man who baffled police.”

John Millington Synge, who suffered ill health all his life, died in 1909, only briefly enjoying the success of his famous play.

 

Agnes McDonnell, Lynhhehaun’s victim, was not deterred by her ordeal. Within the year she ordered the rebuild of the Valley House, where she lived until her death in 1923. Her face was so badly disfigured she never appeared in public without the concealment of a metal plate and heavy veils. The Valley House is now a hostel and bar. Thought it has been modernised over the years still retains its old world splendour, just as Agnes McDonnell would have liked it.

 

The Playboy of the Western World is still being performed in Ireland and the wider world over a century after its controversial opening.
 

Sources


Weekly Freeman's Journal 20 April 1918. p. 4
Dublin Evening Mail 05 February 1907. p. 2
Drogheda Conservative 19 January 1895 p. 7
https://search.findmypast.ie/record?id=IRE%2FPETTYS %2F005174008%2F00413&parentid
Irish Independent 30 January 1907, p 5
https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/synge-s-opening-night-to-remember-1.1291816 retrieved 12/02/22
31 January 1907 - Belfast News-Letter - Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland 
https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/sep/23/playboy-western-world-old-vic retrieved 12/02/22
https://www.dib.ie/biography/lynchehaun-james-a496, Contributed by McCabe, Desmond
https://discover.hubpages.com/education/The-Playboy-and-the-Yellow-Lady
https://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1891/act/69/enacted/en/print.html
https://search.findmypast.ie/record?id=IRE%2FPRISR
https://www.findmypast.ie/search/results?firstname=james&firstname_variants=true&lastname=lynchehaun&sourcecountry=ireland&sid=998
McDonald, Theresa. Achill Island. Tullamore: I.A.S, 1997. p239-242
https://www.dib.ie/biography/lynchehaun-james-a496, Contributed by McCabe, Desmond
Weekly Irish Times 18 April 1936. p 12
Belfast Telegraph 02 December 1937. p 1
https://www.valley-house.com/

Special Thanks
Ciaran Parkes
Vincent English, Longford
Alice Gallagher of the Valley House Hostel and Bar

 

Escape from Sligo Gaol June 1921

By Barry Deignan
 

Barry is from Ardrahan Co. Galway. Thomas Deignan was his grandfather, who fought in WWI in France in the US army and subsequently in the Irish War of Independence and Civil War. 

Photo of Tom Deignan taken at the 50th anniversary of 1916 in Markievicz Park.

(Image courtesy of Barry Deignan)

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There have been a few escapes from Sligo Gaol. Notably the Frank Carty rescue in June 1920. A full 12 month later 3 IRA volunteers were also to gain early freedom from this establishment. This is their story as recalled by 2 of the participants.


In Culfadda near Ballymote, on the 1st of June 1921, while trying to meet with the local Battalion leader to plan an operation in the area Thomas Deignan (Riverstown) was shot at and apprehended by a troop of British soldiers. He was recognized as a wanted man but as luck would have it there were no RIC or Black & Tans on hand, so they were unable to associate him with any specific engagement. He was brutally interrogated for several days and then transferred to Sligo Gaol on the 5th of June.


During this transfer an attempt was made to ambush it and rescue him by a unit of local IRA volunteers however, they did not prevail and Deignan was delivered to the gaol. At this time there were about 160 prisoners incarcerated and amongst them were Frank O'Beirne and Charles Gildea.
 

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These men had already been sentenced and knew their fate.  Fearful of recognition by one of the freed soldiers from a Ballisodare shooting of 2 RIC men. Deignan and the aforementioned O'Beirne and Gildea decided that escape was the only option. However, this was going to be perilous.

Prior to a previous escape of Frank Carty there had been a military guard of up to forty British soldiers stationed in the gaol to help prevent a recurrence.


With the help of a warder, Joseph Henry, who was sympathetic to the cause, they took impressions of the cell and some outer door keys. These were given to a local unit on the outside who were able to create copies and smuggle them back into the gaol.

 

The escape was carefully planned in unison with Billy Pilkington who arranged for an armed unit to cover off the front of the gaol hidden by hay carts. This was to prevent the military from getting out or any other reinforcements from getting in. Another unit was deployed to throw a rope ladder over the wall and to meet the escapees on the outside.

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In the early hours of 29 June, the call to action finally came. Tom and his comrades got out of their cell, the friendly warder who was guarding the corridor that night was tied up and gagged to remove any suspicion of his involvement. They made their way between two sentry towers to the hangman's yard.


The rope ladder had already been slung over the wall. All 3 were able to climb over where they were met by comrades and furnished with bicycles.

 

From there they cycled to a safe house Clarkes of Tirrearagh and returned to life on the run.

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If you have an interesting story relating to the gaol or the people who worked or were incarcerated there, we would love to hear from you.  

Just email us at info@sligogaol.ie