How Churchill's father wooed Irish nationalists

On 15 December 1882, an Irishman, Myles Joyce, was hanged for the murder of a family of five in Maamtrasna on the Mayo/Galway border. He was an Irish speaker; the trial was conducted in English which he did not understand. His execution is now widely regarded as a miscarriage of justice, in which the British authorities in Ireland were complicit. Last year the President of Ireland issued a formal pardon for Joyce.

The intense controversy which the case generated made it an issue in party politics at Westminster in the mid-1880s, where Charles Stewart Parnell and his Irish Nationalist Party were disrupting proceedings as part of their campaign for a Home Rule parliament in Dublin. The behaviour of Churchill’s father attracted widespread attention, as Alistair Lexden explained in a letter in TLS: The Times Literary Supplement on March 1.


Sir,-- Christopher Cusack (In Brief, February 8) touches  on the political ramifications of the 1882 Maamtrasna murders, describing them as “a rallying point for Irish nationalists”. In October 1884 Parnell and his colleagues held up Commons business for four days while they went over the case in detail, drawing from Gladstone one of his most magnificent speeches in defence of his Irish ministers.

The debates set the scene for machinations centring on a rising Tory star, Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Sir Winston. As a senior minister in 1885 he made clear that he supported reopening the case in defiance of a collective cabinet decision. In a further debate instigated by Parnell on July 17, 1885 Churchill spoke scathingly of the way the Liberals had handled the case, leading to widespread speculation that an alliance was being forged between Tories and Irish Nationalists which could well be the prelude to a Tory offer of Home Rule.

The dramatic impact of the Maamtrasna case on party politics is explored in detail in The Governing Passion (1974) which I wrote with John Vincent.

Alistair Lexden
House of Lords