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John Twiss exonerated of 1895 conviction for murder
John Twiss Pic: Courtesy RTE.ie

01 Dec 2021 / justice Print

John Twiss exonerated of 1895 conviction for murder

Justice minister Helen McEntee has secured Government approval to recommend to President Higgins that he exercise his right to a presidential pardon in the case of John Twiss, who was convicted of the murder of John Donovan, and executed in January 1895. 

Based upon the detailed report received from Dr Niamh Howlin of UCD, Minister McEntee and her Government colleagues have decided that seeking a posthumous presidential pardon, contained in article 13.6 of the Constitution, for John Twiss would be the correct course of action to take.

Noting the rarity of such pardons, Minister McEntee said: “The granting of a presidential pardon is a rare occurrence, and a very high bar must be reached for consideration to be given by Government to make such a recommendation to the President.”

She added that the case was quite well known, particularly in Kerry, and that a clear historic injustice had taken place. 

The decision now rests with President Higgins.

Shot in arm

On 20 April 1894, James Donovan, a caretaker of a farm from which a family had recently been evicted, was dragged out of his house during the night, beaten and shot in the arm. He was found by a neighbour the following morning still alive, but he subsequently died. He had been in the bedroom of the farmhouse with his seven-year-old son when he was taken from the house.

Within five days, John Twiss was arrested, along with one other man, and both were charged with the murder of John Donovan near the Cork-Kerry border. 

The only evidence against Mr Twiss at that time was the identification evidence offered by Mr Donovan's seven-year-old son, who only identified Mr Twiss at the second identity parade, where he was flanked by two police officers.


Three months after his arrest, police produced two further witnesses, Mary Lyons and John Brosnan.

The other man was tried in December 1894 and quickly acquitted. A month later, the trial of John Twiss was held, and lasted for three days, from 7-9 January 1895.

The prosecution case was that John Twiss had been hired to carry out the murder, and that he travelled 16 miles from his home in Kerry to Newmarket in Cork to kill Mr Donovan, and then travelled home. The jury were convinced of his guilt, and sentenced Mr Twiss to be hanged for murder on 9 January.

On 30 January 1895, the Fermoy Town Commissioners wrote to the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin Castle, asking him to exercise his “prerogative of mercy” in the case of Mr Twiss. This petition was accompanied by 40,000 signatures – a substantial number for that time in rural Ireland. The letter was acknowledged by Dublin Castle on 5 February.

On 6 February, the discharge of Mr Twiss was refused, with the statement "The law must take its course".

Expert report

Dr Niamh Howlin, an expert in 19th century trial law, and an associate professor in the Sutherland School of Law, UCD, was asked by the Department of Justice to provide a report on the case, and to advise upon the safety of the conviction, or otherwise, with clear reference to the prevailing standards at that time.

Dr Howlin considered the various aspects of Mr Twiss’s case, including the identification evidence, witness testimony, and the conduct of the trial.

She concluded her report by stating: "Twiss was convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence that can best be described as flimsy, following a questionable investigation ... the problematic aspects of this case are like 'strands in a rope' which, together, led to the conclusion that the nature and extent of the evidence against Twiss could not safely support a guilty verdict".

Minister McEntee thanked Dr Howlin for her comprehensive report on what she termed “a difficult case”.


The minister added: “While we shouldn’t forget that a life was taken, it is clear to me from reading Dr Howlin’s report that the evidence against Mr Twiss, the manner in which that evidence was obtained by the authorities, and the overall conduct of the trial could, in no way, safely support a guilty verdict, even judging by the prevailing standards at the time.

“I intend to publish Dr Howlin’s report in the coming weeks,” she added.

This is the third occasion that a posthumous presidential pardon might be awarded. The first during President Higgins’s term was for Harry Gleeson in 2015. 

The President’s second posthumous pardon, and the first to be granted for events that occurred prior to the formation of the State, was granted to Myles Joyce in April 2018, who was executed, having been found guilty of involvement in the Maamtrasna murders in 1882.

The threshold to recommend a presidential pardon

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