February 27, 2010

Victim unknown

Mercurius Politicus reported in January 1653 the names of those who had been condemned to death at Kilkenny, Clonmell and Cork in Ireland. (Throughout this article I'm referring to Mercurius Politicus No 136 pp 2151-2155 for those who want to check the references.) The news came in the form of a letter from Dublin written presumably by someone acquainted with the Irish government. The list comprises of 56 people who were accused and found guilty and executed and 39 people who were found innocent and acquited. All of the guilty were men and many are identifiably Irish in their names. What is perhaps more interesting is what they were accused of: take for example Turlogh Brenan 'for murdering a person unknown at Castle Cumb' or 'Donnogh O'Healy, Doctor in Physick, for murdering of Jo. Smalman and one other etc' or 'Maurice Mac Richard Downam for murdering of John Walker and two other Englishmen unknown'. Obviously from this record we cannot tell anything about the trial and its fairness or otherwise nor of the reasons for the murders or whether they were murders or actions in war. What we can tell though is something rather interesting about the ways that societies in civil war function and the reasons that justice is difficult to acheive.

Of the 56 accused and convicted of murder, only 27 have all their victims identified by name. Four men, L. Col. William Burke, Garret English, Matthew Hiffernan, John O'Heyne, Murtagh O'Heiren and Teige O'Mullryan are accused of the murder of '33 English persons' without any indication of who those people were. I do not think that the writer of the letter would have concealed this information had he known it- he mentions plenty of named victims and in at least 5 cases can name one of the victims. There is no sense that the list is too long either- his reason for not writing down the name of the victim is disclosed in his language: Edmund Roshenan and his accomplices were guilty of the murder of 'an Englishman whose name is unknown'. We can see this in another example where the writer who normally discloses both the first and second name of the victim, cannot find a first name, so Captain Arte Dun is guilty of the murder of 'Wakefield'. Identity is uncertain. Its not merely uncertain for the victims but also for the murderers- the writer gives us a clue to this by listing aliases. So Dermot Mohowny we are told bore the alias Nina and his colleague in murdering Jo[hn] Phillips, Teig O Murray bore the alias Murrogh.

This account was written to provide an English audience with evidence of Irish atrocity. But what is interesting about it is how much ignorance the writer discloses that he himself has of the atrocities committed. Perhaps this is because bodies were burnt, perhaps it is because though bodies were found noone knew the Englishmen and women who had perished. The latter would be true of an English community on the move within Ireland and of an English administration that was just taking form. There is a kind of natural injustice- if we presume that when our letter writer did not know the victim, neither did the court- in not knowing who the victim of a 'murder' was. We can all imagine situations in which that might lead to a miscarriage of justice- just as we can all imagine situations in which such a failure to identify might arise. My point I suppose is that Ireland in 1653 was just emerging from a long and bloody guerilla war- the history of that war and linked atrocities doesn't need to be told here- but what does need to be recognised is the difficulty of rebuilding a society postwar.

The most fundemental instrument of political power is a name for every citizen: without it you cannot identify who owes what obligation to whom, but in Ireland we can see that because of the guerilla war, the effects of migration and starvation, that identity was breaking down. Our letter writer simply didn't know who had been murdered, he knew that people were dead or says he does and we have no evidence to the contrary, but he didn't know who they were. That reflects a society in turmoil and it reflects a society in which aliases could be common. Imagine now the difficulty of governing that society and you can get a sight into the reasons why whether in seventeenth century Ireland or twentieth century Rwanda, societies that have just errupted in civil war are very difficult to govern. People flee the fighting, systems to understand the population fail and a large proportion of that population fear authority: in that circumstance you are likely to lose track of who you are governing. Its revealed pretty dramatically by a list of 56 murderers, in 29 of whose cases you cannot fully identify the victims.