A County Kilkenny Kidnap
Peter McQuillan (27/2/2014)
The year is 1779, the place is County Kilkenny, and the main actors in this story are, on the one hand, two young sisters from Rathmaiden in the County Waterford, and, on the other, Garret Byrne and his friend James Strange.
The girls, Catherine and Ann Kennedy, aged 15 and 14, each with a respectable legacy of £2,000, were daughters of a widow, Ann Kennedy, whose big concern in life was that her daughters married well. She brought them to stay with a cousin in Co. Carlow so that they could take part in the social scene in Kilkenny and so meet the right people and enter the marriage market.
Garret Byrne (22) was a cousin of the Kennedy girls and was of the class known as “squireens”, i.e. young men of respectable families but with little means of their own and even less prospects. This was at a time when young Catholic men were excluded from any civil or military posts. Garret, being a cousin, was allowed to accompany the sisters to social events with his friend James (20).
All went well and the two young men and the girls had been having a good time in each others’ company, and likely growing closer together, at least as far as some if not all of them were concerned. But, on the occasion of an assembly (dance) in Graiguenamanagh in April, 1779, the lads turned up late, possibly having been drinking, and found the girls dancing with other partners. After hanging around briefly the men left, much piqued by what they saw as a rebuff.
A week later the girls and their mother were again in Graigue for an evening at the home of a friend, James Neale when, suddenly, the door was broken down and a crowd of armed men rushed in and seized the two Kennedy girls. They were thrown over horses ridden by Gerald and James who were accompanied by a number of others, including James’ brother, Patrick, and Ann Byrne, a sister of Garret.
The girls were taken to a house at Kilmacshane, near Inistiogue. They both rejected any idea of marriage. Ann Byrne suggested asking a priest to intervene to sort out matters and a clergyman was produced who conducted a ceremony after which it was claimed the girls were married to their two abductors. The men went drinking at a local shebeen, and when they returned, well fortified, their felony was compounded by the forcible drunken rape of the Kennedy sisters.
There was no going back. The party, reduced now to six, roamed the countryside for some days before a decision was made to try to leave Ireland altogether. They headed for Rush, Co. Dublin, and got passage on a boat to Bordeaux in France where there were many Irish, including some relatives.
As a result of some loose talk by the abductors, they were followed by police but got away in time. When their boat stopped off at Wicklow for supplies. Garret and James went ashore, leaving the Kennedy girls with Patrick and when the authorities boarded the boat and took him and the girls away, the two men ashore escaped. They succeeded in making their way to Wales where, in due course, they were arrested and jailed.
In a sensational trial in Kilkenny the defence produced letters alleged to have been sent by the Kennedys, which showed they had consented to the abduction and had even invited it!. However, under cross-examination Ann Byrne admitted forging the letters. The verdict was ‘Guilty’, appeals were unsuccessful, and on December 2nd, 1780, Garret Byrne and James and Patrick Strange were publicly hanged before a large crowd.
At the time, and over the years, many questions have been raised about these events. A full reconstruction is made by Margery Weiner in her book ‘Matters of Felony’, which is in the KAS library in Rothe House.