‘Wilful Murder’ and Black Sheep Ancestors: Introduction

Bytown Gazette, 29 November 1837. The "Lachie" named here was Daniel Lahey, husband of Catherine Lahey, and "the person who struck the blow" was his brother-in-law, James Lahey.

Yet another tale of murder and mayhem in March township. And, like the case of The Queen vs. Kelly, yet another story of a drunken altercation between two brothers-in-law, ending in a shocking fatality. And, again like the case of John Kelly’s killing of Michael Hourigan, yet another instance of either murder or manslaughter involving my (ahem, not always illustrious, but comparatively well-documented: because the Crown, it tends to leave some records in its wake…) ancestors, the Laheys of March.

But where, in the case of The Queen vs. Kelly, it was a Lahey (Michael Hourigan, son of Timothy Hourigan and Mary Lahey) who was the victim; here we have a Lahey as victim: Daniel Lahey, husband of Catherine Lahey, who was the sister of Mary (Lahey) Hourigan and the aunt of Michael Hourigan; and also a Lahey as perpetrator: James Lahey, brother of Catherine Lahey and of Mary (Lahey) Hourigan and uncle of Michael Hourigan, and my 3x great-grandfather.

My dad likes to joke that the reason why John Lahey (aka John Lahey the Elder, and the older brother of the above-mentioned Catherine, Mary and James) donated 2 acres of land to the Church was that the family had so many sins to atone for. But he has also been known to say, more seriously, of James Lahey’s killing of his brother-in-law that “that’s a godawful thing to have in your family.”

This raises, for me, an interesting question about the status of “black sheep” in the family history/mythology. At what point, I wonder, does a “black sheep” ancestor cease to be a source of family shame (James Lahey as ‘axe-murderer’ [inaccurate as to the weapon, but accurate enough as to the outcome] was still a shameful mark against the family when my dad was a child), and start to become, perhaps, almost a source of pride? (such a great story! and what a colourful cast of characters!)?

I suppose it has to do, to a great extent, with historical distance, and the forgiveness of time. If either of my grandfathers had, unthinkably, killed a man 1, you can bet I would not be posting the sordid details of the crime on the internets: that would be too close for comfort, and too recent to have acquired the forgiving, bronze-edged patina of age and time. But my 3x-great-grandfather seems safely enough ensconced in the pastness of the past that his shortcomings (or, er, brutal crime) can be approached with a degree of ironic detachment.

It’s worth recalling, though, the “godawful” nature of the crime: a woman lost her husband at the hand of her own brother (Jaysus.), and four young children lost their father; in the days before andrognyous social roles and metrosexualilty and the like, when the loss of the husband and father of a family was a pretty big deal, was the deprivation of the economic mainstay of the domestic circle, was probably a familial-financial catastrope.

Details of James against Daniel Lahey to follow…

  1. Which really is almost unthinkable, btw, based not only on what I know, or know of, the personal characters of my grandfathers, but also on what I know of the broader socioeconomic contexts: the families, on both sides, had passed from “shanty” to “lace curtain” Irish by a generation or two when each of my grandfathers was born.