Community Historian Brendan Matthews with a tale from 1881.
On a beautiful summers evening, back in the month of June in 1881, a ragman was walking into Drogheda along the Dublin road when he came across a horse and cart that was being driven towards the town at a very leisurely pace. The ragman enquired if perhaps he could hitch a lift from the driver and getting no response he took the silence for consent and so he boarded up alongside the driver.
As the horse and cart jogged along the road the ragman was bemused by the driver with whom he failed to draw into a conversation of any kind until it gradually occurred to him that the driver was actually deaf and dumb. The ragman then took the occasion to investigate the nature of the loading that the cart was carrying and he was astonished to discover that what he thought was a large trunk turned out to be a coffin and after removing the lid a little he was taken aback to find the shrouded corpse of a man inside. For the remainder of the journey the ragman remained as silent as his mysterious driver and on reaching the town he jumped off the cart and immediately informed the police at the South Quay barracks about the incident.
The police apprehended the driver of the horse and cart and took him to the barracks while the coffin and the corpse were removed to the Drogheda Union Workhouse pending further enquiries. Meanwhile the news of the grim discovery spread like wildfire throughout the town. The strange facts not being enough for the popular appetite, a bloody shroud and a mangled corpse added to the tale for sensational effect.
Various different rumours abounded and because this was also at the height of the Land War between the country’s landlords and their tenants and so the story went that the corpse was that of a Bailiff who supposedly had met his death by some sinister means and that the body was to be transported far away from where the crime was committed and by using the deaf and dumb driver he would be relied upon to keep his mind to himself.
However, subsequent enquiries revealed the real truth behind the events. The driver turned out to be one Billy Larkin, a well-known deaf and dumb man residing in Ashbourne, while the deceased was a labourer named Michael Byrne and both men had worked for a Mr. Kirk in Ashbourne and who had heard the news that his horse, cart and driver had been located in Drogheda and so Mr Kirk soon arrived in town.
It turned out that Michael Byrne had taken ill in Kirk’s employment and was removed to the Workhouse in Dunshaughlin where he passed away and Billy Larkin, the deaf and dumb man, was sent to the Workhouse to collect the body and bring it home to Ashbourne for interment.
Apparently Billy Larkin had fallen asleep on some hay which he was given to cover the coffin and awakening some time later he found the horse plodding along on a road that was entirely new to him and so he plodded along further and further from home until he met up with the ragman on the Dublin road outside Drogheda; apparently he had been on the road for two days. It was hoped by Mr. Kirk to then have the remains of the deceased, Michael Byrne, brought back to Ashbourne however, owing to the decomposed state of the body this was not possible and it turned out that the remains of poor Michael Byrne found their last resting place in the Drogheda Workhouse burial ground at Bully`s Acre.