Investigators attend to the crime scene inside the wall of the old CBS School grounds on the Newport Road in Westport, with two officers located in the spot where the body of Josie Joyce was discovered on Sunday, September 4, 1983.?Pic: Frank Dolan.
Remembering Josie Joyce
Three decades have passed since Westport was gripped by fear after a terrible murder
RECENT events in Mayo brought unprecedented scenes for many as the county and towns of Westport and Castlebar were cloaked in fear and grief as the dark veil of murder descended amongst local communities during July and August.
For many in Westport it brought back memories of the brutal and random killing of 69 year-old Josie Joyce from Aittireece, who was stabbed dozens of times in a frenzied attack on Saturday, September 3, 1983, as he walked home down the Newport Road after visiting some local pubs.
Thirty years have passed since the town was gripped with fear following the events of that night. For weeks, people were afraid that the culprit was living in their midst and could strike again.
Joseph Joyce (pictured) was a bachelor who lived with his brother Alfie, less than a mile from Westport Town, at Aittireece, just off the Newport Road. He was described as a quiet and inoffensive man who had a word for everybody and a deep love of all things GAA, ‘that made him a virtual encyclopaedia of information and facts and figures concerning players and games’.
On the night he was killed he had left his home at 8pm and had visited Cox’s (now Lavelle’s) and John Gibbons’ (now Conway’s) Public Houses on Bridge Street, before arriving at Sally O’Brien’s Pub on lower Peter Street (now The Big Tree) around 10pm. At approximately 11.45pm he left O’Brien’s and walked down James Street en route home, as he had done regularly. He would never arrive there, and at 7.50am the following morning as he was making his way the short distance to St Mary’s Church for Mass, Brother Hugh McKinney, former principal of the Christian Brothers Primary School on the Newport Road, who was living in the residence on the school grounds, discovered Mr Joyce’s blood-stained body.
A report in The Mayo News from that week describes how Mr Joyce had been ‘viciously stabbed 40 times in the face, neck abdomen and back’ It goes on to state: ‘a garda spokesman said that the only consolation in this horrific and brutal murder is that the victim died almost instantly’.
No attempt had been made to conceal the body, which was removed to the General Hospital in Castlebar, as it was then known, for a post-mortem examination by State Pathologist, Dr John Harbison.
Simultaneously, a major Garda investigation and manhunt commenced, involving over 30 officers, led by Superintendent John Daly of Westport Garda Station, Detective Inspector Colm Browne of The Garda Technical Bureau in Dublin and Detective Sergeant Pat Tuohy from the Castlebar Garda District.
Gardai warned the public to be vigilant, stating their belief that Mr Joyce was the unsuspecting victim of ‘a maniac, a very dangerous person, who could well strike again.’
Gardai also publicly stated their belief that somebody was harbouring the murderer, and that he would have been covered in blood after the multiple stabbing.
As the Garda Sub Aqua Unit searched the Carrowbeg River in the town, murder squad detectives became anxious to talk to a man who had purchased a knife in Hewetson’s on Bridge Street on the day of the murder. The man had told the shopkeeper that he wanted the knife for a present for his brother, but, judging by the stab wounds, Gardai believed it resembled the one that was likely used in the attack – having a blade six inches long. The wrapper from the knife, which cost IR£21 was later found in the toilet of The West Bar on Bridge Street, while another knife was found by children playing near the Tennis Club on the Newport Road, but Gardai quickly ruled this out of their inquiries.
Rumours and reconstruction
With almost two weeks having passed since the murder and no suspects identified, speculation and rumour in Westport were becoming as prevalent as the panic and anxiety the crime had caused. Among the stories doing the rounds were that it had been a ritual killing as ‘it is widely known that witchcraft is practiced in the Mayo area’, The Mayo News stated. There was also speculation the murderer might be a woman and that two men had witnessed a scuffle at the murder scene but would not come forward despite being told to do so by ‘a person from the Kilbree area of Westport’. Local councillors sympathised with the family and appealed for help as a ‘substantial’ reward was offered, amid reports that night-time business had dropped massively in Westport since the killing and tourists had ‘left the district’. The murder also prompted calls for street lighting to be installed and improved around Westport and appeals from the pulpit for the murderer to give themselves up during local church services. Westport was a town living in fear and locked down at night.
Gardai had been frustrated in their attempts to track Mr Joyce’s movements after he left Sally O’Briens on the night he was killed, and decided to have a precise re-enactment of events as they could piece them together, on Saturday September 17, two weeks after the murder. Unusually, they acted out Mr Joyce’s known movements on the day he died, hour by hour, with the local Superintendent’s Clerk, Garda Noel Connell, playing the role of the late Mr Joyce. People who had been in Westport that evening were asked to return to exactly where they were on Saturday September 3, and do exactly what they had been doing, in the hope this might help jog recollections of the night. They also asked anyone who had not been in the town to stay away completely ‘to avoid interfering with the smooth running of the re-enactment.’ Gardai admitted this was an ‘unorthodox’ way of conducting their investigation but later deemed the move a success, yet despite interviewing 3,000 people, taking 1,000 statements and increasing the number working the case to 60, the investigation was stalling in the eyes of the public.
Breakthrough and conviction
On Wednesday, September 21, 1983, 21-year-old Thomas Kirwan from Cooraclare, Kilrush, County Clare, was charged with Mr Joyce’s murder and brought before Ennis District Court. Investigators had travelled from Westport to interview and ultimately charge him, but it transpired that they had been monitoring him as a potential suspect since early in the investigation.
Kirwan was remanded in Mountjoy Prison and appeared before several district court sittings in Mayo before being returned for trial to the Central Criminal Court on June 25, 1984, when he was found guilty but insane after a one day trial before Mr Justice Kevin Lynch.
Mr Kirwan had been in Westport on the weekend of Josie Joyce’s murder, and had been visiting relatives in the Newport area. He had been working on a water mains project and had previously been in prison for serious crimes. A bicycle that had been stolen from outside Gibbons’ Public House and found abandoned on the Newport Road was taken for forensic examination, and it is believed that Mr Kirwan had taken this earlier in the evening but abandoned it and returned to town as he was hungry.
Kirwan stated that he had lost money that night and was angry. He then stole another bicycle, from which the chain had come off at Ashlawn Filling Station, further angering him. It was at this moment he met Josie Joyce, whom he said spoke to him, and made him even angrier.
“I took out my knife. I don’t remember how many times I hit him with it. I can remember the man staggering and falling back, I kept lashing out at him with the knife. He may have staggered across the road. I had lost the head completely at this stabbing and gave him a few more belts,” he told the Central Criminal Court.
Kirwan then headed off walking in the direction of Newport. Near Rampart Wood at the top of the Golf Course Road, he got into a car and fell asleep, but admitted in court to seeing other people in a house in that area, and feeling ‘a compulsion to kill them’.
Mr Justice Lynch ordered that Kirwan be detained in the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum until further order of the court.
His current whereabouts are not known.