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Saturday, 22 May 2010


This is No.4 in my infinite and occasional series of Austin Coopers. It could also form part of a Tall Tales From The Trees mini-series on assassination. Elsewhere in this blog I’ve written about John and William Gurney, who were both caught up in attempts on the lives of British Prime Ministers. This Austin however (my great great grandmother’s brother) was himself murdered. By mistake, so the story goes, although having read round it a little, I’m not convinced.

A modern-day back-to-back trap
(this one from Denver, CO)

Austin, a Protestant bishop, was on his way to Tipperary Fair in a back-to-back trap (one in which two passengers faced forward and two backwards). His cousin and neighbour Francis Wayland sat beside him and his brother Samuel held the reins. All three were armed, as well they might be. They were all powerful landowners in the area, part of the protestant settler class who had ruled over the native population, in some cases for hundreds of years but in few cases by popular acclaim.

Since 1823, when Daniel O’Connell had formed the Catholic Association to campaign for Catholic electoral rights, unrest had become more active and deliberate. Rents at the time were in the form of tithes to the Protestant Church, a system which the Catholic peasants naturally resented and against which they fought the so-called Tithe War, a campaign of non-payment and violent protest. The Protestant powers responded by simply evicting unruly tenants. With no further redress within the law, frustrated Catholics turned to more direct ways of making their grievances heard.

"When a tenant is removed," said the Devon Commissioners, describing Tipperary in 1845, "he is looked upon as an injured man, and the decree too often goes out for vengeance upon the landlord or the agent, and upon the man who succeeds to the farm; and at times a large numerical proportion of the neighbourhood look with indifference upon the most atrocious acts of violence, and by screening the criminal, abet and encourage the crime. Murders are perpetrated at noon-day on a public highway; and whilst the assassin coolly retires, the people look on, and evince no horror at the bloody deed."

Withholding tithes from a Protestant minister
(19th century cartoon)

On the 5th April, 1838, somewhere between Ballinaclough and Greenane on the back road from Golden to Tipperary, the trap was ambushed. Reports vary, but between three and eight men with blackened faces leapt out from concealment below the roadside and opened fire. Austin was killed immediately, and Wayland died later from a fatal bullet wound in his back. Samuel returned fire, fatally wounding one of the attackers, and made his escape.

When I visited Austin Cooper’s old mansion about ten years ago, the owners (no longer Coopers) told me that he had been shot by mistake as he stood up in the trap to take off his coat. But Wayland’s father George had in April 1837 put out a farmer called Thomas Ryan, and Francis himself had evicted a William Ryan for being £15 in arrears on a rent of £45. Cooper too had recently evicted several tenants and, even if Wayland was the intended target, I don’t suppose the assassins much regretted the “mistake” of catching Cooper in the crossfire.

It was during the harsh winter of early 1838, when those evicted were suffering cruelly, that various members of the Ryan family hatched the plot to “meet” Wayland. Other men were involved, including Cornelius Hickey and William Walsh, two local carpenters. During the manhunt which followed the assassination, at least three men were arrested: Hickey, Walsh and another man who died during custody. In the run up to the trial, George Wayland (and perhaps Sam Cooper too) received death threats by post, and shots were fired at his house in an attempt to get him to drop the charges and release the suspects.

The Main Guard, Clonmel’s courthouse

On 17th January 1839 Hickey and Walsh were convicted of the murders by a special jury and they were hanged outside Clonmel Prison twenty days later on Wednesday, February 6th. A plaque today marks the spot where the gallows stood, and commemorates the “many notable patriots” imprisoned there. In 1838, the year of their crime, tithes were abolished and a system of fixed rents introduced.

Some of the information in this article comes from Butterhill and Beyond, a Cooper family history by another Austin Cooper, Richard Austin-Cooper.

1 comment:

  1. Since writing this I have read a letter from Sam Cooper who survived the attack, which says that Austin had somehow arranged for William Ryan to have his house and land back, and that it was Ryan's son, thus deprived of the land, who planned the attack. To this day the Coopers have a container which holds the lead shot which Sam fired into Hickey's body and which was removed after Hickey's hanging!


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