Castledawson Stray Calves, Cousin Murders Cousin

I trust that you are keeping well.

Thank you for the emails and the continued support.  I am always behind in communications, so do not fret (two weeks behind currently).

There are lots of articles in progress.  Many just need to be finished.  I started this week, to more fully research, and start writing, about the vicious murder of Patrick O’Kane, the publican and grocer, at his Waterwall pub, in December 1942.  In previous weeks, the awful 1860 murder at Ballymacombs (Sprucebank) has been given some attention.  These places were only about two or three miles from our farmhouse.

But this weekend, I finally finished an article on the family dispute near Castledawson, that saw cousin murder cousin.

The Belfast Morning News called it “A Dreadful Affair

Coleraine Chronicle ran with “Double Homicide in County Derry

The Tyrone Constitution spoke of a “furious spirit of revenge

The Warder and Dublin Weekly Mail called it a “frightful affair.”

While the Meath Herald and Cavan Advertiser ran with the headline “Fatal Effects of Passion

The Good Friday Killings

In 1862, Good Friday fell on the 18th April.  That same evening saw terrible events occur in the townland of Tubberhead, which is about two miles from Castledawson.

A few moments of madness, over a land dispute, left two cousins dead.

The dispute arose over Mathew McErlane’s calves having trespassed over onto neighbouring land belonging to his nephew, John McErlane.  

cattle castledawson cousin murders

This may have been an ongoing issue, we don’t know for certain.  But it would appear that some bad blood must have previously existed between the two sets of cousins.

John was on his own that Good Friday evening, and was apprehensive enough, as to be carrying a gun. He was busy putting the calves off his land, when he was confronted by his uncle’s offspring, Charles, Patrick, Mary and Jane.

Patrick stepped forward to confront John.  Tempers flared between the cousins.  Angry words were exchanged.

John, having a gun, threatened to shoot. At that point, Patrick retreated.

But Patrick’s brother, Charles, then immediately stepped forward. He also exchanged abusive words with his cousin for a short time, and appeared to advance.

But when he got to within a few yards of John, he stopped and turned to leave. Unfortunately, John discharged the gun. An accidental discharge, or on purpose, we will never know.

The bullet ripped into the back of his cousin, Charles, penetrating his lung and heart.  He fell, mortally wounded.

Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well.

Immediate Frenzied Revenge

In a wild rage, Charles McErlane’s brother, Patrick, on seeing his brother’s fatal wound, seized hold of a grape.

In a frenzied revenge, he stuck it into the murderer several times. His two sisters also got laid in.  They attacked the killer with stones. Some reports suggest a pitchfork was also used.

Once they had John down on the ground, there would be no escape.  Charles was quickly stabbed and beaten to death, by the three siblings. They had their immediate revenge for the loss of their brother.

Police Arrest One Sibling, Others Later

The peelers soon were alerted to the awful happenings and quickly arrived upon the scene. 

One sister, Jane McErlane, was arrested immediately.   The other two siblings made good their escape, but were apprehended later.

An inquest was held, the following day (Saturday), on the bodies of the murdered men, by the coroner for the area, David Kelly.

Manslaughter, Imprisonment with Hard Labour

In early August 1862, some four months after the killings, Patrick and Mary McErlane were indicted for the manslaughter of their cousin John McErlane.

Their solicitor, Mr. Carson, pleaded guilty, on behalf of the two prisoners, and had them ‘throw themselves on the mercy’ of the Court.

He claimed that the fatal attack took place in the heat of passion, after witnessing their brother being killed before their eyes. 

The judge was handed several character references from local clergymen.

His Lordship ultimately accepted their guilty to manslaughter pleas, and sentenced Patrick McErlane to 9 months imprisonment, with hard labour.  Mary McErlane got 6 months imprisonment, with hard labour.


"I have spread my dreams beneath your feet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."

9 thoughts on “Castledawson Stray Calves, Cousin Murders Cousin

    1. no reference was made to her subsequently in the media.

      Guessing, the peelers must have established that she only had a peripheral role in the killing.

      Or else, perhaps the other two siblings took all the blame themselves.

      I did think ‘manslaughter’ was a very light charge, considering the barbarity of what they did.

    1. True Linda. Sadly, there are lots of local issues rurally. Thankfully, nearly all get resolved via peaceable means.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, John.

      Manslaughter, eh, they were a hardy bunch back then! 🙂

      Lots more interesting local material to come.

  1. Such a good story William.

    I’m catching up on my reading of your latest.

    What’s funny is when I read your tales and stories, and since as you know I’m from the States, I find that I must look up some of the lingo before continuing.

    Such as the word “Peelers”. Interesting how and when the word came about.

    What’s really hilarious is the use of the word “grape” here. So I’m sitting here after reading wondering how in the world someone was killed with grapes. Thinking that maybe they were shoved up the nose or in the mouth. 😂 I finally noticed you had it highlighted and went to see what it meant. It’s a pitchfork but not a pitchfork?

    Oh well. I enjoyed the read. Nice piece on your mom and dad too. Especially liked the wonderful picture of them. Take care!

    1. Glad you enjoyed reading the story, Ken.

      Yes, I am tempted to just use the word ‘police’ in articles. I can’t really use ‘cops’ because that is typically an American term, and wouldn’t typically have been used in Ireland back then. ‘Peelers’ would have been commonly used. One would even hear it sometimes in modern times.

      Grape – I had to go and double-check, when writing the story, that ‘grape’ (with an A) was the correct spelling (because I feared of the same named fruit, causing confusion).

      There are some, maybe in the south who might use the Irish spelling, which I think is graipe. But in the north, even as far west as Donegal, I found folk spelling it as grape.

      PS – in the next month or two, I must get back and finish off writing your article.

      All my very best.

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