A Derry photographer, a murder and a court case

Father James MacFadden.
Father James MacFadden.

The story of Derry photographer, James Glass, and a priest from Gweedore reads like a movie script.

James Glass had two photography studies on Carlisle Road in the 1800s and he was widely recognised as the North West’s leading landscape and portrait photographer.

Glass arrived in Derry with his father from Scotland in the nineteenth century. He was very young when he moved here and would go on to live and work in the city for the rest of his adult life; he is buried in the City Cemetery.

It is for 38 specific photographs that Glass is remembered for today. The photographs are a collection of two projects Glass worked on in the late 19th century.

The first, is a selection of wet collidin prints he took of rural life in Gweedore, Co. Donegal in the 1870s and the second collection are images he took in 1889 when commissioned by the defence in the case of Fr. James MacFadden, who was arrested after the murder of a District Inspector in Gweedore on February 3, 1889.

The case in question was widely reported and debated in The New York Times, The Derry Journal and by MPs in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.

The story of Fr. James MacFadden arose from the ‘Land Wars’ in Ireland in the 1870s.

A recession meant tenants who worked the land all over Ireland found it difficult to pay rent to their landlords. The landlords evicted hundreds of families off the land which subsequently gave rise to the ‘Land League’ which was founded by Michael Davitt whose aim was to seek land reforms for Irish tenants.

Tenants all over the country resisted evictions and violent attacks on landlords, their agents and police officers were common place.

In Donegal the unrest reached serious levels when landlords like Lord George Hill consolidated his land and leased it out to sheep farmers. In 1856 an attack on a shepherd led to a prolonged campaign of violence and political action and the event went on to become known as the ‘Gweedore Sheep War’.

In 1857 John George-Adair evicted 47 families from their homes on his estate in Derryveagh (near Letterkenny) and the third Earl of Leitrim increased rents and evicted families from their homes on his land in north Donegal. The earl and his driver were attacked and killed on April 2, 1978.

Meanwhile, in the parish of Gweedore, Fr. MacFadden encouraged his parishioners to support the ‘Land League’ but when he ignored a court summons to appear at Bunbeg court on charges of conspiracy a warrant was issued for his arrest.

On February 3, 1889 District Inspector William Martin and a group of Royal Irish Constabulary constables turned up at the steps of the church in Derrybeg; a scuffle ensued and it is alleged that William Martin drew his sword and charged at Fr. MacFadden.

Martin was killed and Fr. MacFadden and some of his parishioners were arrested and initially brought to Derry before they were taken to Lifford where their prosecution was granted on remand.

On October 17, 1889 the trial began in Maryborough in Queen’s County (Laois) and James Glass was commissioned by Fr. MacFadden’s defence lawyers to take photographs depicting rural life in Gweedore.

It was the first time in both Britain and Ireland that photographs were used as evidence in a murder trial.

The defence reached an agreement with the Attorney General; Fr. MacFadden pleaded guilty to obstructing police and was released on personal bail. Those charged with the murder of Inspector Martin pleaded guilty to manslaughter - one man was acquitted. Those found guilty received sentences ranging from six months hard labour to ten year penal servitude. All of the men were freed in 1892.

Glass’s photographs went on to become known as the Glass Album and one of the only two remaining collections of his work is currently on show at the Tower Museum. The exhibition will run until the end of October.

Derry City Council’s City Archivist, Bernadette Walsh, said she was delighted with how Glass work was received at the launch on Wednesday night and encouraged locals and visitors alike to drop into the museum to find out more.

“I think it’s a fascinating story. There are so many little twists and turns and nuggets of information that make you stop and think.

“One of the things that impressed me the most about the photographs was James Glass carried around with him a large camera, a lot of equipment and he developed all of the photos as he went. In order for him to do this he would have had to have had a mobile darkroom and a lot of glass plates - I couldn’t imagine doing that in Gweedore in 2013, never mind in 1870s,” said Bernadette.

“Over 60 people turned up to the launch and we were really delighted with how the whole night went.

“The exhibition has legal documents used in the trial of Fr. MacFadden, photography equipment used by James Glass. Obviously because of the rarity of the album it is in an enclosed case but visitors can use an iPad to scan through and examine all of the images contained in the album.

“I just hope people come and see the exhibition now because not only is it an amazing story it’s also absolutely free,” she smiled.

The Tower Museum is open from Tuesdays to Saturdays, from 10am to 5pm. For more information contact the Tower Museum on 02871 372411.