Bosola: The manner of your death should much afflict you,
This cord should terrify you?
Duchess: Not a Whit:
What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut
With diamonds? Or to be smothered
With cassia? Or to be shot to death with pearls?
I know death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits
John Webster – The Duchess of Malfi
Northern Ireland has become synonymous with murder, shootings and general public disorder. The ‘Troubles’ have left a dark legacy that the nascent peace process has difficulty expunging. The increase in tourism still trades on the mayhem of recent times. It is de rigueur for visitors to be photographed at one of the many murals depicting tribal grievances; a visit to the Falls or Shankill is obligatory. However, as the following examples demonstrate, sectarian outrages have occurred regularly over the years, and the newspapers of the past carry depressingly similar headlines to their contemporary counterparts, paying eloquent testimony to our mutual disrespect.
Researching these newspapers can give one a bad case of deja vu. Headlines flagging up shootings, rioting and bomb attacks occur regularly. The Belfast News Letter, one of the world’s oldest newspapers, is a fascinating source of anecdotal accounts of historical events. The 1798 rebellion and the sectarian pogroms of the 1920s are brought colourfully, and agonisingly, to life.
A story from 1886 headlined ‘Desperate Rioting in Belfast – Firing on the people – Seven Killed’ could be from 1972 so familiar is its content. The original search was for a William Matthews, who was mortally wounded in the violence, and is listed in the report as follows: ‘William James Matthews, aged 18, 47 Great Patrick Street, Carter, bullet wound through head (dying).’
The News Letter described the events which claimed the lives of Matthews and six other people as follows:
… a scene took place last night which is unprecedented in the history even of Belfast Riots. The saying “I was under fire is often treated as a mere picturesque description. When applied to Belfast Riots it possesses a melancholy significance. As a result of last night’s work four deaths have already been recorded…the surgeons of the Royal Victoria Hospital have never had such a list of wounded since the riots of 1864.
On January 16 1884 detailed coverage was given to the inquest into the death of 18 year old Samuel Giffin, who was bayoneted by a policeman during disturbances following an Orange Order parade in Dromore on New Year’s Day. He died on January 9 [8th OR 9th ?] and his funeral was expected to be ‘the largest ever seen in the North of Ireland.’
He lies in Seagoe cemetery and his inscription reads:
Sacred to the memory of Samuel James Giffin of Portadown, when while testifying his loyalty to his Queen and country at the Dromore Meeting, County Tyrone on 1st January 1884, received a bayonet wound from a policeman and of which he died on 8th January 1884 aged 18 years This tablet is erected by a few Tyrone loyalists Also his mother Ruth Giffin, who died 8th Nov 1894, aged 48 years Also his father James Giffin, who died 23rd April 1906 aged 70 years.
The account of the inquest offers a fascinating insight into the legal procedures of the time as well as the enduring nature of sectarian enmity and the conflicting views of controversial events. A witness, Robert Thompson, a farmer from Trillick, described, under questioning, the wounding of Giffin:
Did you see anything occur when the police were going across the ridge? The parties were going back towards the town, and the police were following slowly. Did you see any change of speed? One policeman went a few ridges further forward than the rest. Did you see anything taking place? I saw that policeman take his gun with a bayonet on it – they all had bayonets on – take his gun and strike or punch at a boy or man in the field. I did not know which at the time. What was the effect of that stroke? The boy fell into the furze then. Did he rise again? He made some struggles to get up, but he was not fit to get to this feet. I saw one man strive to lift him but he was not able to do so.
The man who inflicted the wound must have used his full strength, for the weapon went through him, but that it did not come out at the other side. There is another matter – I don’t know whether I ought to mention it or not, that struck me as exceedingly strange, that there were two army medical men there, furnished with every appliance, they were never ordered to attend this unfortunate man. We had the greatest difficulty in getting him a glass of whisky. I know this much of the duties of army medical men, that when engaged in actual warfare, and that they are on the side of the victors after the battle has ended, it is their duty to attend to the enemy’s as well as their own wounded. That is the usual custom.
Amidst the parochial slaughter, a killing with an international flavour is bound to stand out. A brutal stabbing in 1810, which led to a Portuguese sailor being hanged near Carrickfergus, became a sensation of the time. His name was Antonio de Silva, a sailor on board an American ship in Belfast harbour. He allegedly stabbed to death a ship’s carpenter called Robert Morrison, and was subsequently tried and convicted of the crime. The place of execution was a mile outside Carrickfergus, and the apparatus used for the execution consisted of three tall columns, with a cross-beam, to which the rope was attached. They were familiarly known as the ‘Three Sisters’, and stood directly on the seashore.
Public hangings were as much a spectator sport as a demonstration of justice in action, and such a large crowd attended De Silva’s execution, that it took an hour to make the short journey to the place of dispatch.
Robert Morrison is buried in Carrickfergus North cemetery and his headstone bears the following inscription:
Erected by the shipwrights of --- in memory of Robert Morrison, shipwright, who was assassinated by a Portuguese sailor, 22nd of April 1810 aged 23 years Array'd in hope that fatal morn arose He knew no guilt and therefore felt no dread He little dream't that ere the evening's close He should be numbered with the silent dead Ye mourning friends suppress your cries Who like the early blessed flower he fell, If Truth and Virtue shall to Heaven arise There with his God, the youth is going to dwell.
The Belfast News Letter covered the inquest into the death of Robert Morrison, and offered, quite literally, a blow-by-blow account of his death. It was clear from the reporting that guilt had already been attributed to the Portuguese sailor.
It appeared in evidence, that the Portuguese had a dispute with some person or persons unknown, and retiring to the ship, which lies at the Quay, had armed himself with a dagger, with which he sallied out to be revenged upon the person with whom he had previously quarrelled: with this weapon he first attacked a man of the name of Campbell, but finding this was not the man he wanted, he relinquished him, and afterwards met with the deceased in company with two other persons, at the door of a public house; one or two other Portuguese were in company, and an assault was commenced by them upon the deceased and his companions, one of whom received two or three stabs with the same weapon, and also a severe blow on the head with a stick. Just at this moment the deceased received the fatal blow, which entered a little below his left breast, and almost instantly expired. The other two Portuguese are also in custody, and were with the principal culprit, committed to Carrickfergus Jail. They have both given evidence before the Coroner against Silva who, it appears certain, was the actual murderer. It is not positively ascertained whether the deceased or any of his companions were any of the persons with whom the Portuguese had previously quarrelled, nor what was the occasion of the dispute. The verdict of the Jury was, “That the deceased came by his death in consequence of a stab he received in the left breast in a scuffle with Joseph Mores, Anthony Silva and Joaquin Ferrenadare.
If, on occasion, foreigners visited these shores with their minds set on murder, sometimes locals travelled to far flung shores to keep an appointment with their maker. A gravestone in Whitechurch graveyard, Ballywalter, was the starting point for an investigation that led to a murder of a local man in Morocco, at the hands of what the Belfast News Letter termed, ‘A Fanatical Mussulman’.
Gone to be with Jesus Erected by Alexander Cooper, Belfast, in loving memory of his son Alexander Cooper who died 19th January 1897 aged 17 years Also the above-named Alexander Cooper who died 11th December 1899 aged 44 years Also his son John H Cooper who died 9th Jan 1901 aged 12 years Also his son David J Cooper, missionary, who was shot in North America [sic] 17th Oct 1902 aged 29 years Also Margaret, widow of above Alexander Cooper, died 1st June 1923 Also Elizabeth, wife of Walter H Cooper, died 7th March 1961 aged 75 years Also the above Walter H Cooper, JP died 13th October 1964 aged 79 years.
The report of October 23 1902 read:
Our issue of yesterday contained the brief announcement that Mr Cooper, a Protestant missionary of British nationality had been assassinated at Fez, the capital of Morocco, by a fanatical Mussulman, who fired at him with fatal effect. It now transpires that the victim of the crime, which took place on the 17th inst., was Mr David J Cooper, of Belfast, a young and zealous missionary, who was highly esteemed by a large circle of friends in the city, and whose untimely end will be sincerely regretted by all who knew him. The deceased was a member of the Albertbridge Congregational Church, of which the Rev. James Cregan is the pastor, and for some time he was employed in connection with the city YMCA as assistant secretary to Mr D A Black. He discharged the duties of this position with tact and skill, and was exceedingly popular with all who came into contact with him … He early showed an inclination for evangelistic work, and when he decided to enter the foreign missionary field, it was confidently anticipated by those best able to judge that he would prove a faithful and devoted labourer. Mr Cooper’s offer of service was accepted by the North Africa Mission … he was appointed to the charge of the mission station at Fez, and here he resided with his wife and two children … After the crime, the murderer sought refuge in a mosque, but he was followed and arrested, and subsequently shot by the order of the Sultan.