June Butler reviews Tomás Seoighe’s tale of a  nation’s avenging angel.

The Queen v Patrick O’Donnell tells the story of a true event that occurred on Sunday 29th July in 1883.

Aboard a coastal steamship called the Melrose having just departed from Capetown South Africa, Patrick O’Donnell (Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde) an illiterate farmer from Co. Donegal pulled a revolver on his drinking companion James Carey (Stephen Jones), and wilfully shot him to death. Three bullets were fired, the first hitting Carey in the neck. His wife Maggie (Sophie Campbell), who had just left the bar, re-entered to witness her husband staggering in her direction. He collapsed on top of her and claimed Patrick O’Donnell had shot him. O’Donnell then fired twice more hitting Carey in the back and upper body. Both Maggie Carey and her husband James, fell to the floor. 

By trying to make sense of this utterly tragic event, the lives of the two parties involved should be investigated and scrutinised. It seems that the meeting of James Carey and Patrick O’Donnell was a perfect storm and had one not encountered the other, both would have gone on to live their lives as best they could. 

On a May evening in 1882, Lord Frederick Cavendish the Chief Secretary for Ireland, and Mr Thomas Henry Burke the Permanent Under-Secretary, walked through the Phoenix Park on the way to their official residence. Along the route, they were accosted by several assailants who slit the throats of both men using surgical knives and repeatedly stabbed them. As brutal crimes go, even for an era known for its vicious attacks, the acts were condemned for being particularly heinous.  

Responsibility for the killings were claimed by a group calling themselves the Irish National Invincibles (or simply The Invincibles) a breakaway group who had originally been Fenian activists. 

Superintendent John Mallon was the lead detective among a group of 13 investigators in the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Tough, aggressive, no-nonsense, Mallon hailed from South Armagh which was at the time, a staunch Republican area.  Mallon had a fair idea of who the Phoenix Park murderers were and he quickly rounded up a number of men he thought responsible. His methods of sorting the wheat from the chaff were at best unorthodox and at worst, felonious themselves. He placed pressure on each suspect, telling them that the other had confessed and implicated them. Among the arrested men was one James Carey, the victim of the Melrose shooting, although at the time, Carey was travelling as James Power. Mallon was sure of his prey – he knew that James Carey was the leader of The Invincibles and was also aware that if he feigned confessions from the other perpetrators, Carey would soon capitulate and turn state’s evidence. In this he was correct. Carey quickly realised the bind he was in, and rather than leave his wife and children without a source of income, not to mention face the hangman’s noose, he co-operated fully with Mallon and identified each man involved in the crime. While the murders were roundly condemned, Carey’s actions were considered to be beyond the pale and for his own safety, Carey and his family were forced into hiding. Killing members of the establishment for whom many Irish men and women considered to be an occupying force, was one thing. Turning on your own was another. Carey became a pariah and fled Ireland for South Africa in what became quite possibly one of the first instances of witness protection. 

Carey, who by now had taken his wife’s maiden name of Power, travelled initially on the Kinfauns Castle, a steamer bound for Cape Town. In Cape Town, Carey aka Power, his wife and seven children, were due to embark and then make their way to Natal on-board the Melrose. Patrick O’Donnell and his ‘wife’ Susan Gallagher (Brídín Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh), were travelling together to forge a new life in Capetown.  They pretended to be married in order to avoid censure from their peers as they travelled. To all intents and purposes, O’Donnell was devoted to Gallagher and the intention was that they would marry as soon as they reached their destination. As they journeyed together on the Kinfauns Castle, Patrick O’Donnell and James Carey struck up a friendship. 

Ultimately, The Queen v Patrick O’Donnell narrates the chilling tale of what ensued after the killing. It is a virtual battle royale – Patrick O’Donnell was a humble man who took justice into his own hands and killed an informer – James Carey was no longer welcome in Ireland and little to no accolades rang out when his untimely death was announced. There is stark evidence to suggest that Patrick O’Donnell might well have escaped with his life but for the fact that the judge presiding over the trial misunderstood a question from the jurors whether deliberately or inadvertently. This tragic misreading by Mr Justice Denman (Simon Coury) at the Old Bailey, cost O’Donnell his life in that he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. 

A slew of erudite historians and native Irish speakers have banded together to make this compelling docu-drama an absolute must-see. Director Tomás Seoighe has drawn on Seán Ó Cuirreáin’s book of the same name to cast doubts over the fairness of O’Donnell’s trial. Ó Cuirreáin is interviewed and goes so far as to state that O’Donnell was unfairly pilloried and a miscarriage of justice had occurred. He suggests that it might be appropriate to seek a re-examination of the case to exact justice and possibly overturn the verdict of hanging – despite it being a moot victory. Clearing Patrick O’Donnell’s name from the taint of murderer to manslaughter, would be an achievement in and of itself. Even Victor Hugo, the eminent French writer, wrote to Queen Victoria and begged her to reconsider the penalty of death by hanging of O’Donnell.  

With The Queen v Patrick O’Donnell, Tomás Seoighe has meticulously crafted his tale to reveal a far darker and deeper mystery than was first thought.    

The Queen v Patrick O’Donnell screened on 22nd July 2021 as part of the Galway Film Fleadh.


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