Rachel Willoughby, PRO St. Mary’s Graveyard Project, Thurles, reports.
New possible evidence uncovered in 177 year old murder investigation.
A single shot Percussion Pocket Pistol recently uncovered on the grounds of St Mary’s Churchyard, Thurles, Co. Tipperary, may have been the weapon used to shoot dead the opulent landholder, land agent, brewer and tanner, Charles O’Keeffe, (latter husband of Alicia O’Keeffe) in 1838.
This Percussion Pocket Pistol, possibly of French origin, is of the type then used for self-defence, during the percussion gun period 1800 to 1850. The then popular cheap pistol, whose real manufacturers today are not known, was discovered above ground under a pile of large stones. The stones, latter which were once part of a 17th century boundary wall, had collapsed sometime back during the 1940’s and from the positioning of this find and the pistols present condition; same is believed to have been at sometime concealed within the actual collapsed stone wall.
Mr Charles O’Keeffe (1775 – 1838) a Roman Catholic, was shot dead at close range by a male assassin, then believed to have been dressed in women’s clothing, on October 23rd 1838, just a short distance from St Mary’s Church front gates, close to his then tannery business premises. A ball, fired at close range from an assassin’s percussion cap pistol, entered Mr O’Keeffe left shoulder, wounding him to the extent that he died a short time later.
It is understood that Mr. O’Keeffe had greatly irritated local peasantry by ejecting tenants for non-payment of rent from lands which he either owned or was the acting agent, e.g. the Meagher Estate, (today Thurles Golf Club) and lands held at Rossmult, Drumbane, Co. Tipperary, mortgaged for £1000 to Thomas and James Lenigan on December 22nd 1821).
Within 25 yards from where the pistol was recently located, on the south side of St Mary’s graveyard, lies today the grave of the same Mr Charles O’Keeffe. His weather worn raised flat gravestone bears his Coat of Arms and the inscription; “Sacred to the repose of Charles O’Keeffe Esq., his life, distinguished by Justice and Truth, was devoted to the virtues of Parent, Citizen and Man, his death 23rd October 1838 deprived the poor of a friend; society of a benefactor.”
Certainly on the day of the shooting, the crack of the percussion cap pistol would have drawn the immediate attention of the then residents on St. Mary’s Avenue. The assassin or assassins had only two exits of escape, which would have taken them either westward, unto a busy Main Street (today named Cathedral Street) or alternatively through St Mary’s Church grounds eastwards unto a little populated Lime Kiln Lane (today known as Ikerrin Road). In using the latter means of escape did the assassin hide the single shot percussion cap pistol in a cavity in the 12ft, interior 17th century stone wall which then surrounded the graveyard? Why would such a weapon from this period be present, hidden in a graveyard wall?
Regrettably percussion pistols don’t talk and it is doubtful that we will ever uncover the real truth.
Who was responsible for the death of Charles O’Keeffe on October 23rd 1838?
The murder rate in Tipperary during this period was almost three times the national average. Secret Irish agrarian organisations / societies such as “Whiteboys”, (Irish: Buachaillí Bána) were common here in Tipperary in the 18th and through most of the 19th century. Local grievances relating to land eviction often saw “Whiteboys” threaten, beat and assassinate Landlords’ land agents. Lesser agrarian grievances were dealt with, by “Whiteboys”, through the sending of threatening letters, the severing of animals hamstring tendons where livestock were known to be the property of Landlords or the levelling of ditches that often closed off common grazing land. Male members of the “Whiteboys” were known to dress with women’s outer garments over their clothing; their faces blackened with burnt cork, in an effort to conceal their true identity.
While numerous surnames were associated with O’Keeffe’s murder, mostly based on named persons who had quietly left the Tipperary area bound for America and elsewhere immediately following his death, his assassin or assassins were never brought to justice. Remarkable credible evidence however emerges some 17 years later, from America in 1855.
A sub-tribe of the American Sioux Indian Nation, the Brule (French meaning ‘burnt’ or “Burnt Thighs Nation,”) tribe, then residing in South Dakota, went on the warpath. Prior to the arrival of new European settlers they had mostly led a peaceful existence, but now following a breakdown of relations between both, they soon became involved in ever frequent skirmishes. In 1855, in response to a Brule robbery which ended in the deaths of three white male settlers, a cavalry officer in the U.S. Army General William Selby Harney (August 22nd, 1800 – May 9th, 1889), known to the native Brule tribe as “White Whiskers Harney,” had led a reprisal expeditionary force against the tribe, killing 85 of their warriors and taking many more captive.
Brule braves aware that they were no match for future expeditionary armed force and following a pow wow, now pressed for peace. A peace summit was arranged between both sides to air existing grievances. Though not part of any negotiating team, among those present at these peace talks was an Irish-born priest, Fr. Joseph Trecy. While the conference was in progress, Fr. Trecy heard a voice calling to him from amongst the Brule ranks; “Brathair, an bhfuil Gaeilge agat?” ( Translation -“Brother, can you speak Irish?”). Looking into the assembled Brule delegation, which were fully decked out in war-paint and deerskin clothing, Fr. Trecy, who had left Ireland in 1835 at the age of 11, recalled enough Irish to answer the Indians question, and when the call was once again repeated he replied, “Ta, cuid de” (Translation – “Yes, some.”).
A Brule Indian Chief now stepped out from amongst the Indian delegation and shook the priest’s hand. The Irish-speaking Brule Indian Chief, he soon learned, was actually a Tipperary man who, along with one other companion, was wanted in the 1838 killing of an Irish landlord in Co. Tipperary. These two men had fled from Ireland disembarking at New York, but had been tracked by authorities all the way to Missouri. In an effort to elude their possible captors, they had moved quickly north west to South Dakota and befriended Brule warriors, learned their language and had taken Squaws (Female Indian Woman) as their wives from among their newly adopted tribe. These Irishmen were reported by Fr Trecy to be in need of ‘Spiritual Nourishment’ and before long Fr. Trecy had baptised and married a further 40 Indian families, into the Roman Catholic faith.
Perhaps it was the ‘Seal of the Confessional’, who knows for certain, but Fr. Trecy refused to disclose the identities of the men from Tipperary or the name of the man they had killed. Because of his discretion these Tipperary fugitives were able to escape prosecution and continue on with their lives in their new country of adoption.
Around this period there were three recorded cases of the killing of landlords in Co. Tipperary. In two instances men were tried and hanged for these crimes, although a persistent rumour at the time suggested that others involved might have escaped. However in the case of the shooting of Charles O’Keefe in Thurles, while arrests were made, no suspects were ever charged.
It is therefore credible, by the process of elimination, that the “Brule Indian Chiefs”, now members of the American Sioux Nation from Co. Tipperary, were the same men who shot Charles O’Keefe on October 23th 1838.
The pistol, which has been examined by Thurles Gardaí, has now been returned and is presently on display at St Mary’s Famine Museum in Thurles, Co. Tipperary.