HMS Rodney was commissioned in September 1835, and under the command of Captain Hyde Parker, formed part of the British Fleet assigned to patrol British interests in the Mediterranean. Rodney had an official complement of 720, but it usually carried 677 crew (484 adult sailors, 47 boys and 146 Royal Marines), with most of its sailors coming from the southwest of England.
While the ship was at anchor off Barcelona, Spain, on July 16, 1836, a fateful incident took place involving private Thomas McSweeney.
McSweeney, who came from County Cork, in southern Ireland, was the only Roman Catholic among the crew, most of whom were Protestants. He was 21 years old when he joined the Rodney in 1835. Notwithstanding known to have always done his duty to the best of his abilities, he was often taunted by crew members and officers because of his religion and his Irish blood.
Serving on the same ship and being his immediate superior was Lance Sergeant James T. Allen, a 24-year-old from Kent. The fact that Allen was English and a Protestant resulted in the two being incompatible. The sergeant would sneer at McSweeney on the smallest of excuses.
It so happened that when the marines were hoisting the ship’s pinnace inboard, Allen noticed that McSweeney was absent from the upper deck working party where he was supposed to be as a member of the port watch. Going below, he found the missing marine slinging his hammock in his billet in the main deck quarter.
McSweeney was hauled before the Rodney’s executive officer, who told him to wait nearby in the custody of a sentry until there was an opportunity for formal charges to be laid. Allen exchanged words with McSweeney who, in turn, told the sergeant he had been reported wrongly for being ‘Off deck’.
Allen’s poor reason for reporting McSweeney was the last straw for the boy. He lost his temper and assaulted the sergeant. Allen was on the wharf facing the Rodney and McSweeney rushed from the gangway and pushed him into the waist of the ship.
Allen had no warning of the attack and although he threw out his arms in an attempt to break his fall of just six feet, he unfortunately struck his head on the main deck below. Restrained by fellow marines, McSweeney was told by Mr Brothers, the ship’s gunner: “You’ll be hanged for that, you blackguard.”
In the meantime, Sergeant Allen was conveyed to the Rodney’s sick bay. He was examined by the ship’s surgeon, who found him suffering from symptoms of violent concussion of the brain. On July 21, Allen died from the injuries sustained and was buried at sea the following morning.
On August 1, Captain Parker wrote to the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet based in Malta, requesting that McSweeney face a court martial. Clapped in irons, McSweeney was transferred from the Rodney to the frigate Childers, which was sailing for Malta.
McSweeney’s court martial took place over two days – Friday, February 25, and Monday, February 27, 1837 – aboard HMS Revenge, at anchor in Malta. As at that time there was no prosecutor, the Judge Advocate, William Henry Brown, obtained evidence by questioning witnesses on oath, as did the other members of the court.
He began by reading the warrant and then a letter from Captain Parker of HMS Rodney to Commander in Chief Admiral Sir Josias Rowley.
The witnesses were then ordered to withdraw from the court, except for Corporal John Robinson, who was sworn and examined. Robinson stated that Private McSweeney was doing extra guard duty at the ship’s gangway.
As Sergeant Allan approached, the accused ran up behind him and pushed him into the waist. He also added that there had been no previous provocation between the deceased and the prisoner, and that McSweeney was sober at the time. Robinson was then cross-examined by McSweeney. Corporal William Johnson and Private William Bains followed in giving evidence and gave a similar version to that provided by Robinson.
Lieutenant Payne and the Rodney’s mate, Mr Norman, spoke as witnesses for the Irish marine, revealing they found no fault with his character or conduct. Lt Payne said he knew the prisoner from the time when HMS Rodney was commissioned and that his conduct was always good and orderly. According to him, Allen often called McSweeney an “Irish bugger” and sneered at him. Mr Norman said he had overseen McSweeney for the last six months and that he had never found any fault in him.
Such was the interest among inhabitants of Valletta and the Three Cities that they left their homes in the middle of a cholera epidemic to witness the hanging
The president informed the prisoner that the prosecution was closed and called on him to launch his defence and present any evidence he wished to produce on his own behalf.
On February 27, the court reassembled and McSweeney requested the Judge Advocate to read his defence for him. The defendant claimed it had all been a terrible accident, but admitted to being provoked by Allen, who allegedly told him: “You bog trotter, you are in for it now.”
McSweeney said: “I thought I would not let him do so for nothing so made a short run to catch hold of him, without even thinking he could possibly fall into the waist in consequence. And on my oath, I declare it was without the slightest intention or thought of taking his life. Resentment at the moment for what I thought hard and cruel treatment for so slight a cause was my only motive for so doing, but I never harboured or felt ill will towards the sergeant, and I trust it will not be supposed that I could be desperately wicked as to which to take away the life of a fellow creature purely for reporting and calling me names.”
However, despite this mitigation, the court martial panel reached the unanimously opinion that the charge was fully proved. The following sentence was given: “The prisoner is to be hanged by the neck until he is dead...”
In due course, the sentence was approved by the Commander-in-Chief of the Admiralty in London who ordered that it was to be carried out on HMS Rodney. The ship was ordered to proceed to Malta.
Kept in isolation on HMS Ceylon, McSweeney was not allowed any outside contact, except for two Maltese priests, Padre Maestro Vincenzo Tonna, OESA, and Rev. Dott. Carmelo Falzon, who were zealous in their efforts to prepare the young sailor for his forthcoming execution.
With no defence lawyer conducting McSweeney’s defence, it could be that he did not receive a fair trial. It has been claimed that his statement was actually written by one of the ship’s officers; certainly his minimal and ineffective cross-examination of witnesses suggests he may have been illiterate and probably none too bright.
The verdict appears to have been severe. It is unlikely that McSweeney had intended to kill Allen, and the sergeant was very unfortunate to die considering the height of the fall.
It seems evident that McSweeney only intended to slightly injure Allen, but it was also unfortunate that Act of 1749, which governed naval law, made no provision for manslaughter.
HMS Rodney arrived on June 5, 1837. It dropped anchor in the centre of Grand Harbour, in front of the Senglea peninsula, a spectacular amphitheatre for the forthcoming execution, with ships of the Mediterranean Fleet – HMS Caledonia, Asia, Vanguard, Russell, Ceylon, Rapid, Nautilus, the steam vessels Meder, Spitfire and Firefly and cutter Hind – arrayed all around.
It was pre-dawn, at 5.15am on June 8. As dew dried and mist cleared, a tender-boat drew along HMS Ceylon, and with the prisoner on board, it headed towards HMS Rodney. McSweeney boarded the Rodney and stood hooded at the foot of the main mast.
The Rodney was in full view from the surrounding bastions, where large crowds gathered. Such was the interest among inhabitants of Valletta and the Three Cities that they left their homes in the middle of a cholera epidemic to witness the hanging. The crews were also mustered on decks to witness this execution.
A heavy, breathless silence fell. Captain Parker, dressed ceremoniously in a full frock coat and tricorn hat, read out the death sentence in front of the doomed and distraught McSweeney. His voice boomed clearly over the water, echoing among the centuries-old bastions of the ancient harbour, distinctly heard by the people in the numerous boats.
The common hangman, Michele Prestigiacono, adjusted the noose around the boy’s neck. The end of the rope, reeved through a block dangling from the yard-arm, was held, at its end, in the hands of a number of marines and sailors selected from each warship in the harbour. They waited for the signal to haul him up.
Upon the firing of a gun, at exactly six o’clock, they launched the wretched man into eternity, by running him quickly up to the yard-arm, a height of 60 feet. His death was instantaneous, for he had lost much of his strength from his long confinement and dread of his horrid end.
McSweeney’s corpse turned in the breeze for half an hour. After that, the body was lowered and transported to the Tas-Salvatur chapel, behind Bighi’s Naval Hospital, in Vittoriosa (today Kalkara).
Many Maltese from Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua joined members of the Rosarianti Confraternity of Valletta who conducted, according to tradition, the religious ceremony and organised the procession with the body carried for burial at St Lawrence cemetery, Vittoriosa. Definitely, a most moving sight.
In its edition of June 14, 1837, The Malta Government Gazette solemnly intoned: “May his crime meet with mercy at the Throne of Grace.”
Time and age have not tarnished the memory of Thomas McSweeney. His grave at Vittoriosa cemetery is well kept and tended by local people since the news of the court martial and his fate brought about a great deal of sympathy from the Maltese community.
Some maintain that McSweeney is a saint and that he was hanged because of his Catholic beliefs. Others think the sentence was unfair, since what happened on HMS Rodney was an unfortunate accident. Others believe that the young, polite, fair-haired man who appears briefly to people in the cemetery must be McSweeney. Indeed, McSweeney’s ghost is said to linger by the grave and to possess mystical powers.
Over the years, McSweeny’s burial place has become a shrine for pilgrims commemorating what they declare are the many wrongs inflicted by the English on the Irish. It is still visited nowadays by people who believe they have received graces through his intercession, and candles are always alight and flowers are everyday placed on his grave near the side door of the cemetery.
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