[Lord Auckland, 3, 1849]

‘The Convict Who Never Was’


Don Bradmore

In mid-May 1847, brothers Michael and John Connolly brutally murdered a man named Thomas Dillon in the small village of Kilmakil, County Tipperary, Ireland.[1] On 22 April of the following year, they were hanged for their crime. A few months after their execution, their elderly widowed mother Mary Connolly and two of their brothers were arrested and charged with their involvement in same grisly crime.[2] At their trial, the court heard that the bloody slaying of Dillon, a bailiff, had been in retribution for his eviction of the family from their small rented farm. These were difficult times in Ireland. It was the time of the ‘Great Famine’ when a potato blight had led to the failure of crops throughout the country. Poor tenant farmers such as the Connolly family could scarcely find enough food to keep themselves alive, let alone to sell to earn an income. When they were unable to pay their rents, their heartless English landlords were quick to force them off the lands on which they had lived and worked for generations.[3] Nevertheless, this was no justification for murder, and Mary was found guilty and sentenced to death. Later, the sentence was commuted to transportation for life.[4] Described then as ‘wretched’ and as ‘an old, emaciated-looking woman, nearly eighty years of age’, she was put aboard the convict ship Lord Auckland for the long voyage to Van Diemen’s Land (VDL). On 3 March 1849, a New South Wales (NSW) newspaper reported that Mary had been shunned by her fellow prisoners on the ship for the blood-thirsty nature of her crime.[5] They had refused to sit with her to eat, or to have anything else to do with her. But, as it happens, when Lord Auckland arrived at Hobart on 20 January 1849, Mary was not aboard. Her name is not listed among the 13,500 (approx.) female convicts known to have been transported to between 1812 and 1853. What had happened to her?[6]

This is Mary’s story:

In early May 1847, at the village of Kilmakil, County Tipperary, Ireland, a man by the name of Thomas Dillon had gone missing. A prominent but unpopular member of the small community, he was a bailiff whose job it was to collect the rents of the tenants of his employer, a wealthy land-owner by the name of Mannion, and to evict those who were unable to pay. His sudden disappearance had come to light when he had failed to arrive at the Criminal Court at Thurles near Kilmakil on the day that he was to prosecute members of six local families who had been evicted from their homes earlier but had forcibly taken possession of them again. It was suspected immediately that he had been the victim of foul play.

Sent to search for him, the police quickly found his badly-mutilated, blood-soaked corpse in a ditch in a ‘boreen’ - a narrow, unpaved lane - running between two houses, the occupiers of which rented land from Mannion. The body was in a frightful state. The skull had been smashed in by a blunt instrument such as a spade and the brains were protruding. His chin had been fractured. One leg had been broken and an arm had been broken in two places. Because of the absence of blood on the ground, and no signs of a struggle in the near vicinity, the police suspected that Dillon had been killed elsewhere and his lifeless body carried to this place. They came to the conclusion that he must have just visited one of the houses – which happened to be the home of one of the families whom he was to prosecute at Thurles – and was on his way to the other when he was attacked.[7]

Within a very short time, two men from one of those houses, brothers Michael and John Connolly, had been arrested and charged with murder. There was no doubt about their guilt and, on 22 April 1848, they were hanged.[8]

Five months later, three other members of their family had been charged with the same crime – Mary Connolly, who was the mother of the executed men, and two more of her sons, Richard and James.

At the time of the murder, Mary was living with her four sons, Michael, John, James and Richard, and her three daughters, Peggy, Ellen, and Kitty all adults. Another son, Thomas, was living apart, a short distance away*.[9] The Connolly family rented land from Mannion but, despite working hard on it, they were desperately poor – as were most other tenant farmers throughout Ireland at that time.[10]

This was an exceedingly difficult time in Ireland, and more so for tenant farmers. Generally, each tenant’s holding was small. For decades, rich and greedy land-owners, most of them absentee English landlords, had been subdividing their properties to such an extent that forty-five percent of tenants' holdings consisted of fewer than five acres.[11] In addition, rents were as much as a hundred percent higher than for similar plots in England. Tenants had no choice but to pay the rent or to be evicted and starve to death – and, in this, landlords were pitiless. What else were the tenants to do? They knew that there were many others willing to take over their land if they were no longer there.[12] 

Such evictions were commonplace in Ireland at that time. Although there were laws in Ireland to protect tenants from the exploitation of landlords, most of whom lived in England and employed local people like Dillon to manage their holdings, these laws were usually disregarded by tenants and landlords alike. As Smith (1993) put it:

On the one hand, tenants were deterred by the costs of making and enforcing agreements with landlords that the latter would provide compensation for improvements should the tenants leave the farm. On the other hand, landlords were deterred by the costs of monitoring tenants so that the latter did not misuse improvements financed by landlords. Furthermore, landlords had no desire to enter into any contracts with tenants because such agreements would constrain the landlords' power to evict or raise rent. Because the landlords' goal was to extract as much money from the land as possible, any contractual agreement with tenants would have been an obstacle to this.[13]

As a result, the land was used inefficiently. Making matters very much worse for the struggling tenants was the ‘Great Famine’ which, from 1845, had descended upon Ireland when the potato crop had failed in successive years. For almost a century, the nutritious, calorie-rich potato, relatively easy to grow in the Irish soil, had been a staple crop in Ireland, and almost half the population – and especially the poor – had come to depend on it for their diet. By 1847, the very worst year of the famine (and often referred to later as ‘Black 47’), as many as three million people were receiving rations from soup kitchens set up by charitable institutions with the assistance of the British government.[14]

It is estimated that about a million Irish people died from starvation or famine-related diseases during this time and that more than two million migrated to the United States, the Australian colonies and elsewhere. By 1851, the population of Ireland had fallen from almost eight and a half million to six and a half million.[15]

Ironically, while millions of Irish people starved, thousands of tons of grain, meat and other foodstuffs were being exported from Ireland to Britain throughout the famine because Irish tenants, hopelessly exploited under the English land laws, were forced to pay excessive rents for their small plots of land. To pay these rents, tenants had to export immense quantities of the food they were able to grow.[16]

It was amid these terrible circumstances that Mary Connolly and her sons were tried for the murder of the bailiff, Thomas Dillon.[17]  Few, if any, doubted that his murder by the Connolly family had been anything other than an act of retribution for his having evicted them from their home.[18]

At the commencement of the trial, the prosecutor, a Mr. Scott, began, ‘with determination and enthusiasm’, to give a full and very vivid account of the shocking part that Mary- referred to in Freeman’s Journal of 9 August 1848 as ‘an old emaciated-looking woman, nearly eighty years of age’ - had played in the murder. However, he was prevented from going into all of the gory details by the judge, Baron Richards, who thought Mary ‘appeared much affected’ in court. Nevertheless, Scott had already been able to make mention of ‘the atrocity of an aged woman holding the basin to receive the blood of the murdered man after her son had slashed his throat with a hatchet’.[19] 

According to a report of the trial in The Warder & Dublin Weekly of 12 August 12, 1848, Scott then proceeded to state the case according to the evidence. As he was about to finish:

… the old woman (Mary) stood up, and grasped the rail of the dock with her shrivelled hands. Her grey hair hung loosely about her head, and her appearance was that of a maniac; she screamed loudly, and extended her attenuated arms, and repeatedly clapped her hands, at the same time exclaiming wildly, and oscillating her head and shoulders, ‘Oh, gentlemen, look at me, look at me … my two boys are hanged, and myself and my other two boys here …’, and she began to cry most bitterly.[20]

One of the first witnesses called to give evidence was Mary Dillon, the wife of the murdered man. She told the court that her husband had evicted the Connolly family from their house twelve days before his slaying but that, afterwards, he had allowed them to live temporarily at his own house nearby. Subsequently, the Connolly family had moved their furniture and belongings to the Dillon house. However, on the day of the murder, after Dillon had left home, they had decided to go back to their own house and take possession of it again. As they moved out, she had seen one of Mary Connolly’s sons carrying a hatchet.[21]    

Bridget Dillon, the twelve-year-old daughter of the deceased, added to her mother’s testimony by saying that she had seen her father, carrying papers, leave the house that morning. He was wearing a belt on which hung two pistols. She watched him walking towards the Connolly home about a mile distant. She never saw him alive again. Some days later, while visiting another neighbour, she had seen the hatchet that one of the Connolly men had been carrying on the day of her father’s death, and had brought it back to her place.[22]

Michael Dillon, a second cousin of the deceased, told the court that he had helped the police search for him. They had found his body lying on its back under a bush in a sand pit a couple of hundred yards from the Connolly house. He had a huge cut at the back of his head and another on the side of his neck. He was fully dressed but his belt and pistols were missing. A neighbour, Joseph Kirwan, stated in evidence that he had been out looking for the deceased before his body had been discovered and had seen several members of the Connolly family emerging from the ditch where the body was eventually found.[23]     

Not unexpectedly, the jury returned a guilty verdict against all three prisoners. The foreman however, had stated ‘in a very sympathising voice’ that it was the unanimous wish of the jurors that clemency be shown to the prisoners because two members of the family had already suffered ‘the last extremity of the law for the same crime’.[24]

What happened to Mary’s sons, Richard and James, after the verdict had been handed down is not clear but it is assumed that, as in the case of their mother, their death sentences were commuted to transportation for life.

As for Mary, she was taken soon after the trial to Grangegorman Prison, Dublin, to await a vessel that would take her to VDL. Eventually, she was embarked on Lord Auckland which, with Thomas Bacon as master and John Moodie as surgeon-superintendent, two hundred female prisoners and forty-four of their children as well as a dozen or so free settlers who were paying for their passage, sailed from Kingstown, a sea-port and market town five miles from Dublin, on 11 October 1848. By 20 January 1849, after one hundred and one days at sea, it had reached Hobart.[25]

On 3 March 1849 – two months after Lord Auckland had arrived - The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW) had reported the reception that Mary had received from other prisoners when put aboard at Dublin:

When brought on board, the aged culprit was regarded with horror by the other convicts, who are divided into messes of six; but none would consort with her, and she had to be placed in a corner by herself, and to take her food alone. This is, a favourable trait, that even in the most abandoned of the sex the idea of cold-blooded atrocity is fraught with horror.[26]

Many of Mary’s fellow prisoners would have been well aware of the atrociousness of her crime. The records of Grangegorman Prison show that, while Mary was awaiting transportation, there were at least nine other women there who had been convicted at Nenagh, all of them for theft, in July and August 1848, and it is inevitable that they had heard the gory details of Thomas Dillon’s murder – and of Mary’s part in it. Doubtless, the knowledge that she had held a basin to catch the blood gushing from Dillon’s neck as he lay dying so that it would not stain the mat on her floor, and had then emptied it into a hole in her back yard, would have been passed between all of the prisoners with mawkish horror.[27]  

However, what the The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW) obviously did not know was that Mary was not aboard Lord Auckland when it reached Hobart. Shipping records show that all but one of the two hundred female prisoners who had been embarked at Dublin were disembarked at Hobart.[28] The medical journal kept by Surgeon-Superintendent Moodie during the voyage reveals that one convict, a twenty-five-year-old named Mary Whelan, had died, and was buried at sea.[29]

And, so, what had happened to Mary?

While some who might have been anticipating her arrival at Hobart with some kind of morbid fascination might have wondered whether she had thrown herself from Lord Auckland during the voyage, or had been pushed into the sea by fellow prisoners who were revolted by her very presence, the records clearly show that that was not the case.

The fact of the matter is – and this is what The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser ­possibly had had no way of knowing – that Mary had been taken off the ship before it had left Ireland.

At that time, it was normal practice for prisoners to be taken aboard the ship that was to take them away, and settled into their quarters, some days or weeks before the ship actually sailed. The newspaper report of the reaction of the rest of the female prisoners to Mary’s presence must have been based, therefore, on information received before the ship had left port.

However, it was not unusual for some prisoners who had been embarked to be taken off a ship before it sailed. Foxhall (2011) described the process:

On being told that a transport was ready to take prisoners, the prison surgeon selected the prisoners he considered fit for the voyage before submitting them to the convict ship surgeon’s inspection … Prison surgeons served their own interests by attempting to rid themselves of chronically sick convicts, or by hiding cases of serious disease … [but] often the naval surgeon would reject men, women and children who appeared unwell, frail or elderly … Convict ship surgeons had to ensure that the convicts they accepted could withstand the voyage in order to receive their pay for the voyage and passage home.[30]

Prison records at Grangegorman reveal that, on 9 May 1849 - five months after Lord Auckland had docked at Hobart - Mary had been sent back to the County Gaol at Tipperary, presumably to serve out the rest of her life sentence.[31]

Unfortunately, no more is known of her after that time.

What also remains a mystery is why Mary was taken off the ship. As Foxhall (2011) explained, surgeon-superintendents were keen to deliver – alive and in good health - as many prisoners as possible to their port of destination because their own pay and future appointments depended upon it. Thus, they tried to have removed from the ship those convicts and children whom they thought were too old, too frail or too ill to survive the long and arduous journey.

But was Mary really too old, too frail or too ill?

Although she had been referred to as being ‘about eighty years of age’ at her trial at Nenagh in August 1848, the description given of her when admitted to Grangegorman Prison to await transportation shows her age as sixty-four. (She was four feet and eleven inches - about 150cms – tall, with grey hair and a sallow complexion; she could neither read nor write. She had had no previous convictions.)[32]   

Why, then, was she taken off the ship? Was it out of regard for the feelings, or the safety, of her fellow prisoners? Was it for her own safety? Was it because she was deemed to be too evil to have aboard?  Or was there some other reason? It is unlikely that the real reason will ever be known.


The author acknowledges the outstanding contribution to this research of volunteers at the Female Convict Research Centre, Hobart, in particular Elaine Crawford, Rhonda Arthur and Peter Selley.  


* Nenagh Guardian Saturday March 25, 1848 reported that witness Biddy Dillon, 11 year-old daughter of Thomas Dillon stated that Thomas Connolly had been sleeping in her father’s house for 12 days before his (Thomas Dillon's) disappearance.




[1] A report of the trial at Nenagh, Ireland, of Michael and John Connolly has not been located but see The Warder & Dublin Weekly, August 12 1848; see also

[2] Freeman's Journal (Dublin), 9 Aug. 1848. British Library Newspapers at|Y3204569414&v=2.1&it=r&sid=BNCN&asid=6e7b4e35; Gale Document Number: GALE|Y3204569414, accessed 14 Feb.2021.

[3] Smith, C. E. (1993). ‘The Land-Tenure System in Ireland: A Fatal Regime’ in Marquette Law Journal, Vol. 76, Issue 2, Article 6.

[4] As for Note 2, above.

[5] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW), 3 March 1849, p.4.


[7] Freeman's Journal, 27 May 1847.


[9] Freeman's Journal (Dublin), 9 Aug. 1848; see Note 2, above.

[10] ‘Mannion’ is named as ‘Manning’ in Freeman's Journal, 27 May 1847; see also Note 1, above.

[11] 1841 Census of England and Ireland.

[12] ‘Land-Holding in Ireland, 1760-1880 – History Home’ at; Smith. (1993), op. cit,

[13] Smith (1993), op. cit.



[16]; see also Smith (1993), op. cit.

[17] The age given in Freeman’s Journal, Ireland’s national newspaper, is probably incorrect. Later evidence suggests that she was only in her late fifties; see Note 32, below.


[19] Freeman’s Journal, 9 August 1848, p.4.

[20] The Warder & Dublin Weekly Saturday August 12, 1848.

[21] Freeman’s Journal, 9 August 1848, p.4.

[22] Freeman’s Journal, 9 August 1848, p.4.

[23] Freeman’s Journal, 9 August 1848, p.4.

[24] Freeman’s Journal, 9 August 1848, p.4.


[26] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW), 3 March 1849, p.4.

[27] Grangegorman prison register: IRE_PRISR_RS00018280_4492651_00544.


[29]; f

[30] Foxhall, K. (2011). ‘From Convicts to Colonists: The Health of Prisoners and the Voyage to Australia, 1823 – 1853’ in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 39 (1), pp.1-19 at

[31] Grangegorman prison registers: IRE_PRISR_RS00018280_4492651_00544 and IRE_PRISR_RS00018280_4492642_00155.

[32] Grangegorman prison registers: IRE_PRISR_RS00018280_4492651_00544 and IRE_PRISR_RS00018280_4492642_00155.



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