The Attempted Murder of Thomas Magaghey


                                                              – The Irish Times, 25 June 1882

Behind the above newspaper headline, taken from the Irish Times in 1882, lies a tale of murder and intrigue, agrarian unrest and Ribbonmen, court appearances, evictions informers and threats, all leading to the attempted murder of Thomas Magaghey in his home at Kilkeelan, Athboy, on Sunday morning 25th June 1882.

Born in County Monaghan around 1817, Thomas Magaghey joined the Royal Irish Constabulary on 18th July 1838 as a Sub Constable. He was promoted to the rank of Constable in October 1843 and transferred to County Donegal. (Note: RIC ranks of Sub Constable and Constable were changed to Constable and Sergeant respectively in later years). On 29th November 1849, Thomas married Sarah Reas Williams, whose father, Enoch Williams, a native of Wales, was a Coast Guard Officer in the Templecrone area of Donegal.

Thomas Magaghey’s time in the RIC seems not to have been a very happy one. His service record shows that he was disciplined several times, having been fined five shillings by the County Inspector in 1840, one shilling in 1841, admonished (no date) and again a further ten shillings (no date). He was demoted to the rank of Sub Constable on 19th December 1853 for “unwarrantably contracting debts”. He was dismissed from the force on  16th June 1854 and given a small pension. The pension was “payable to his wife, the Sub Constable being insane”!

Following his dismissal from the RIC Thomas took up employment in the Drumgoon area of County Cavan as a land steward and thereafter moved to Johnsbrook, about three miles from Athboy, in the employ of Thomas Tandy.

Thomas Tandy was a man of considerable means who lived in Johnsbrook House and farmed the adjoining land. He was a relative of the famous Napper Tandy but it seems that he was not well liked by his employees and neighbours. Tandy quarrelled with some of his herds and it was this that brought Tandy, and Magaghey who supported him, to the attention of the notorious Ribbonmen.

The Ribbon Society, whose followers were called Ribbonmen, was principally an agrarian secret society made up for the most part by peasant Catholic tenants. The society was formed in response to the miserable conditions in which the vast majority of tenant farmers and rural workers lived in the early 19th century in Ireland. The members were bound by a secret oath but the society was opposed by the Catholic Church which condemned secret oath taking. It’s objective was to prevent landlords from changing or evicting their tenants. Ribbonmen also attacked tithe and process servers and over time had evolved a Policy of Tenants Rights. The name Ribbonmen derived from a single piece of green ribbon worn as a badge in a buttonhole by the members. They were a country wide organization and were not opposed to violence to achieve their objectives.

The Ribbonmen (via

Following a quarrel between Mr. Tandy and one of his herds, a man named Ryan, a reputed member of the Ribbon Society, there was some litigation at Kells Petty Sessions Court . Thomas Magaghey gave evidence on behalf of Mr. Tandy. (Note: The name Magaghey is spelled many different ways in records of the time…Magaghey, McGahy, McGahey, Magahy, Megahey etc. ) On leaving the courthouse Ryan was overheard to say to Magaghey, “I’ll be hung for both of you”. Ryan’s wife was also heard to say to Magaghey “Sooner or later you will pay for this”. Magaghey had a small holding from a man named Garrett Reilly. Reilly received a letter bearing the Kells postmark of 9th July 1878, threatening him with death if he did not eject Magaghey. Reilly then served Magaghey with notice to quit. Shortly afterwards Magaghey went as gatekeeper to Mr. Thomas Flood of Kilkeelan, Athboy, but continued in the employment of the Tandys.

On 24th August 1879 this volatile situation took a very serious turn for the worse when Thomas Tandy was murdered. On that Sunday morning Tandy, as was his custom, went for a walk around his farm at Johnsbrook. When he had not returned by 5pm his family became concerned. A search of the grounds around the house failed to locate the missing gentleman so the police in nearby Scurlockstown were informed. An extensive search of the farm was carried out and Thomas Tandy’s body was soon found in a ditch. He had been shot three times, twice through the head and one shot lodged in his spine. An immediate murder investigation was commenced and over the following days several people were arrested and questioned. The main suspect in the shooting was a man named Doggett, a herd on the Tandy farm, with whom Mr. Tandy recently had a quarrel. Nobody was charged however with the murder.

After the death of Tandy, Thomas Magaghey was active in making his own enquiries into the murder and communicating with the police. In October 1879 Thomas Flood received a letter threatening him with death if he did not turn Magaghey out, but he paid no attention to it. Thus making himself even more dislikeable to his neighbours and people in general, Thomas Magagey was attacked.

The Irish Times, 25th June 1882, best describes the attack on Magaghey and the circumstances surrounding the attempt on his life:

From Our Reporter, Athboy, Sunday

Information was received this morning of as diabolical and cold-blooded an attempt at murder as ever disgraced a country or desecrated a Sabbath, adding another to the long list of crimes perpetrated in circumstances the best calculated to inspire terror, and the conviction is horrible that an attempt of the kind I have to record should, in a supposed civilised country, occur in broad daylight, in the midst of a somewhat thickly populated district, without the least fear of detection. The particulars, as I have been able to glean them from the wounded man and those witnesses of the occurrence, are as follows: – The victim is one Thomas Magaghey, living at Kilkeelan, near Athboy, an old man of about 60 or 65, quiet and inoffensive, hardly capable of incurring the displeasure of anyone. He is a constabulary pensioner, having left the force some twenty years ago. Magaghey and his family live quietly in the lodge-house of Mr. Flood, a large farmer whose residence is but a few hundred yards distant, and who frequently employs Magaghey and his sons in farm work. On this morning the old man was sitting in the kitchen of his house, reading a newspaper to the members of his family who happened to be present, and also to a friend who had just dropped in, when they were startled by the abrupt entrance of two men. Magaghey started up, but his assailants, immediately recognising him, presented a carbine or blunderbuss point blank and fired, the contents lodging in his shoulder. Though almost mortally wounded the brave old man rushed at his would be murderers, who at once got out of the house. Magaghey then sank down exhausted. His daughter then looking through the window saw four men coolly walk away. No one attempted to molest them or follow. So great is the terrorism that no trace of the assassins could be found. The inmates of the house were evidently too terrified to attempt any defence and confined their attention to the wounded man. It further appears that four men were observed about an hour prior to the occurrence issuing from a wood in the vicinity, and no doubt exists that this was the party. The men were all disguised, had blackened faces and false beards, and are evidently strangers to the district. They must be well posted up on the habits of poor Magaghey, as he seldom leaves home for Church in the morning with the other members of his family, but is generally at home reading, as he was found this morning. It seems that the assailants were seen by a labouring man just before reaching the house of Magaghey, but on receiving a threat to go inside his own house the man quietly obeyed.

No reason can be assigned to the outrage, although Magaghey has been subject to much terror at the hands of his unknown enemies, and owing to their persecution of him had to leave a former residence. It is said that Mr. Flood, the owner of the lodge where Magaghey now lives, received a threatening letter some two years ago, warning him to get rid of Magaghey on his peril. Magaghey’s son works as a gardener about the country, and he himself is occasionally employed by farmers about.

It is not expected that Magaghey will recover, his wounds are of so severe a nature. The principal slug wound has made a hole large enough to insert two fingers from the top of his left shoulder, coming out under his left arm at the breast. He bled profusely. Major Lambert HM and Sub Inspector Ruthven were quickly on the spot, and took all possible measures at scouring the country, and in fact they were indefatigable in their endeavours to trace the murderers, but up to late this evening no arrests had been made, although the police have suspicions, and no doubt in a day or two several arrests will be made.Dr Rooney, Athboy and Dr Hackett and a medical gentleman from Clonmellon rendered every possible aid to the wounded man.

The story continued in the following days news……

From Our Reporter, Athboy, Monday Night

The old man Thomas Magaghey, who was shot while sitting at his own fireside yesterday afternoon at Kilkeelan, a townland within a few miles distant from the town of Athboy, County Meath, by a band of disguised assassins, has not succumbed, as it was feared he would, to the wounds he received, though he lingers in a very precarious state. Last night the physicians attending him almost despaired of his recovery, but today a slight change for the better took place. Notwithstanding the exertions of the police no arrests have been made in connection with the murderous outrage, and with the exception of the finding near the house of the wounded man of a ramrod supposed to have been dropped by the would-be assassins and a piece of paper containing a black substance, supposed to have been used by them when they put on what may now be called the “murder paint” of moonlight and daylight marauders, no material trace has been discovered likely to lead to the apprehension of the men who made so daring, dastardly and bloody an attack on Magaghy’s house. All the circumstances which have so far come to light tend to show that the outrage must have been deliberately planned and was engaged in by at least four men. The mystery which envelopes the motive for the attempted murder, however, remains as dark as ever, for no reasonable cause can be assigned, the wounded man besides being upwards of three score years of age, bearing the character of an inoffensive harmless old man. The only thing that could by any means be construed into a possible motive for the attack is the fact that he was, it is said, of anti Land League politics to a very marked degree, and occasionally expressed his opinions with much freedom and warmth, regardless of person and circumstance. He had been a member of the Constabulary, but about twenty eight years ago had been, it appears, discharged with a small pension from that force, a consequence, as alleged, of exhibiting symptoms of mental unsoundness. His eccentricity was, so far as I have been able to learn, well known in the neighbourhood, and might be reasonably supposed to have prevented any bitterness of feeling arising from the remarks in which he indulged. It seems however, that for some reason or other, the unfortunate man had become an object of odrum to certain individuals, who some three years ago caused his dismissal from employment that he was then in, by sending threatening letters menacing, if he were any longer detained, the life of the farmer upon whose holding he was working. Driven from this employment, he became the lodge keeper to Mr. Flood, a gentleman of means, owning and farming land in the neighbourhood of Kilkeelan, and he lived quietly with his wife and family in a little cottage on the roadside at the entrance to his employers farm till yesterday, when the attempt, evidently made to “hunt” him out of his home so nearly resulted in his death. The cottage, which is one story in height, and consists of two rooms, occupies a lonely situation, this portion of the country being but sparsely populated. About one o’clock yesterday afternoon, while the customary quietude of the place was even intensified by the fact that the time was Sunday, the old man was seated in the kitchen of his house reading a newspaper. He was near the fire, sitting on a little stool which stood by the side of the open hearth upon which the fire was blazing. Overcome by a feeling of drowsiness, Magaghey was in the semi sleeping condition, and remained nodding over the paper in front of him. A young man, James Conlan, about twenty years of age, was seated upon a table in the centre of the room, and Mrs. Magaghey, her daughter Maria, a girl of about 16 years of age, were standing near the small window at the other end of the room. Nothing disturbed the tranquility and stillness of the scene save the low tone of conversation and the pleasing sound of the burning fire over which the dinner for the family was suspended in a saucepan by means of a iron crook from the chimney, when suddenly the door of the house was flung rudely open and three men with blackened faces and wearing beards and whiskers, palpably false, burst into the room, “jumping in” as Magaghey’s wife described the matter to me today. One stood in the doorway, and the other two, each of whom was seen to carry a gun or blunderbuss, advanced further into the cottage, one stepping almost up to the table on which sat Conlan, and the other remaining a couple of paces behind. Magaghey’s daughter, looking out through the open doorway, saw a fourth man, similarly disguised, and obviously belonging to the same party of marauders, standing at the gate leading into the narrow yard attached to the lodge, keeping guard as it were and ready to alarm his comrades of approaching danger. So suddenly was the entry made, so strange was the demeanour of the intruders, and so curious was their disguise considered to be that not a word was for the moment uttered by anyone, and indeed the supposition of Mrs. Magaghey was that the men were “play acting”. The man who had advanced further into the room said nothing, but looked hastily around as if in search of someone. Magaghey was comparatively hidden from view, as the seat upon which he was sitting was very low and in a sheltered corner between the hearth and a plastered partition wall, a couple of feet high, which runs between the fire and the doorway for a short distance into the room. Apparently not perceiving the old man, the would-be assassin, after a quick glance around the room again, looked at Conlan, and seemingly supposing that as he was the only man there that he must be the one that he came to kill, he levelled the gun and aimed point blank at his breast and would in all probability in another instant have poured the deadly contents of the weapon into Conlan’s body. Maria, the daughter of the wounded man, seeing what was about to take place, suddenly, cried out in fright, “Oh, Father, Father”. Startled by the screams Magaghey half rose from his seat, but had scarcely done so when the assassin saw him, and at once, as if he had found his real victim, or at all events a better subject for his inhuman barbarity, turned the blunberbuss upon him and, Magaghey still being in a semi sitting posture, he fired somewhat downwards, the contents of the blunderbuss passing through the “jerry” hat which the old man wore, and tearing through the upper portion of his shoulder , lacerating the adjoining portion of the breast, and forcing an exit in that region of the side almost directly under the armpit. I examined the hat and there is a large rent in the side of the crown and the leaf and it certainly seems most marvellous that the slugs – for it is supposed that it was with them that the blunderbuss was loaded – did not blow the man’s head into fragments, so closely must they have passed by the side of his skull. That the intention of his assailant was wilful murder is plainly evident. As soon as he had received the wound Magaghey started to his feet, and, though bleeding profusely, rushed upon his would-be murderer, whom, with the assistance of Conlan, he threw against the second and third members of the party, who, falling against each other, were forced out of the door , and the key was then at once turned in the lock. Once they were outside, the marauders, who appear to have submitted to their forceful ejectment in the mildest manner possible, making no resistance, and not attempting to kill Magaghey with the butts of their blunderbusses, which they might easily have done, or at all events endeavouring to leave behind them additional tokens of their murderous visit, suddenly seem to have recovered from their surprise or consternation and knocked for re-admission. Finding the door was not opened they coolly slung their blunderbusses on their backs and took their departures, crossing the fields. On their way they saw a man standing at his cottage door but they beckoned him to retire into his house and he quietly obeyed them. In the meantime Magaghey, as soon as he had pushed his assailants out of the lodge house, had sunk down exhausted from loss of blood and the shock, falling partly on the ground and partly into the arms of his wife, who, her daughter states, had rushed forward when the blunderbuss was raised, in order to throw herself between its deadly volley and her husband. He was then raised up and placed on the bedstead, which stands near the fireplace in the same room. Several persons passed soon afterwards, on their return homewards from their devotions, the alarm was given, and no long interval occurred until the wounded man was visited by Surgeon Hackett, and subsequently by two other Doctors. His wounds were dressed but he refused to allow himself to be conveyed to hospital, preferring to remain in his own house. Upon my visit there this afternoon the aspect of the small dimly lighted, scantily furnished room, was mournful in the extreme. On the bed near the fire lay the old man, his face deadly pale and, although retaining consciousness, so extremely weak was he as to be scarcely able to exchange a word with anyone addressing him. His wife, a woman advanced in years, and his daughter are his only nurses, for his two sons work daily as agricultural labourers. Another incident of some interest in connection with this most foul outrage is that about an hour previous to the time when the attack was made, a son of Mr. Flood who was walking on his father’s land about a mile distant from Magaghey’s house saw four men emerge from a wood, but as soon as they caught sight of him they hastily retired beneath the shelter of the trees. These are supposed to be the same fellows who subsequently attacked the gate lodge. Within ten or twelve miles from here is Barbavilla, where Mrs. Smythe was recently so ruthlessly murdered, and it will be remembered that the weapon used in that case by the assassins, who also numbered about four, was the blunderbuss. All last evening and this morning the Royal Irish Constabulary, under the command of Sub Inspector Frederick St. Claire Ruthven, have been actively engaged in scouring the country and endeavouring to find some clue to the whereabouts of the attacking party, but with the exception of the discovery which I have already mentioned of a ramrod and a piece of paper containing the remains of some black substance, and some footprints sufficiently otherwise unexplained as to seemingly connect them to the retreat of the guilty fugitives, the exertions of the police have been up to the present time unrewarded with success. As the ramrod and the paper were found in a field near Magaghey’s house it appears not improbable that the band completed their preparations – as far as disguises and the loading of their weapons were concerned – only a few minutes before they made their attack.

Nobody was ever charged with the attempted murder. Thomas Magaghey recovered from his injuries and continued to live in Kilkeelan, At Kells Petty Sessions Court in January 1883 Magaghey was awarded compensation for his injuries under the Crimes Act. He was awarded £450. Thomas Magaghey died at his home on 18th October 1887 from a malignant tumour of the lower jaw.  Although his death is recorded in the Church of Ireland Death Register there is no confirmation of where he was buried but most likely he would have been interred in the adjoining St James Old Cemetery.  There is no marked grave there now for Thomas. The subsequent life of his wife and family remains a mystery.

4 Replies to “The Attempted Murder of Thomas Magaghey”

  1. Hi there i have just been sent this article about mr magaghy and his awfull attempt on his life, my 3 times great grangather was enoch williams , father of sarah who was married to thomas magaghy, such a sad story, but grateful to add it to my ancestry files.


    1. Hi Sharon
      Glad the article was of interest to you. Unfortunately, to date, I have been unable to trace where either Thomas or Sarah was buried. If they are buried here in Athboy then the grave is definitely unmarked. However they may both have been buried elsewhere, in some family plot.
      Bernard Walsh


      1. The article about states he was buried in the old cemetry in athboy, so is this not correct, and is their not a church record of this? I am going to proni next week, and would like to investigate these family relatives. Any info would be great help x thanks


      2. Sorry for the confusion. Thomas did indeed die here in Athboy. His death is recorded in the Church of Ireland register but his burial is not confirmed as being in Athboy. Most likely he was buried in the Old St James cemetery but there is definitely NO marked grave there now for Thomas. There is no record in the register of Sarah’s death


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