An ill-fated turn of events: The story behind Thomas McSweeney’s 1837 grave in Birgu
If you’ve ever visited the cemetery of St Lawrence in Birgu, you’d notice one grave that is particularly eye-catching: that of Private Thomas McSweeney. But you'd be forgiven for wondering: what is a foreign marine doing in a Maltese cemetery? Thomas’ story is quite chilling, and a tale that has lived on till this day, with further details revealed in a 2017 article.
Jumping back to the 1830s
Private Thomas McSweeney was a young Irish Catholic who joined the British Marines at 21 years of age. He was stationed aboard the HMS Rodney in 1835, but what he didn’t know was that it would be the only ship he’d serve on.
Out of a crew of around 700 men, he was the only Roman Catholic; the rest were all Protestants. He was often taunted by members of the crew and other officers for his religion and Irish blood.
Thomas served on the same ship as Lance Sergeant James T. Allen, his immediate superior. The 24-year-old was English, from Kent, and a Protestant, so as you can imagine, the two weren’t the best of friends.
Th ship was anchored just off Barcelona on 16th July 1836 when a fateful incident occurred involving the young McSweeney and Sergeant Allen. The Sergeant had poorly reported on McSweeney, and after enduring some verbal abuse, McSweeney lashed out, accidentally pushing Allen off the gangway into the waist of the ship – a six-foot drop. Sergeant Allen didn’t die on impact but passed away on 21st July from his injuries, and was buried at sea the next morning. Private McSweeney was shipped to Malta.
The court martial took place on Friday 25th February and Monday 27th February 1837 aboard the HMS Revenge which was anchored in Malta. There are no details of his time between July 1836 and his court date.
During the hearing, different witnesses came forward including the ship’s mate, Mr Norman, who vouched for McSweeney saying he had heard the Sergeant call him an “Irish bugger.” McSweeney’s personal statement was apologetic and emotional, saying it was an accident. “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,” he says.
Despite all this, the court ordered him “to be hanged by the neck until he is dead” and it was to be done on the HMS Rodney, which was then ordered to proceed to Malta. Many have noted that it wasn’t a fair trial, with McSweeney having not had a defence lawyer.
Large crowds gathered, even in the midst of a cholera epidemic, to witness McSweeney’s execution. At exactly 6am on 8th June 1837, the order to haul McSweeney up on the main mast on board HMS Rodney in the Grand Harbour was fulfilled. The 23-year-old died instantly, having lost strength from his confinement.
His corpse hung in the wind for 30 minutes. The Maltese requested for his remains to be brought to shore to bury him accordingly. Mc Sweeney was transported to the Tas-Salvatur chapel behind the Bighi Naval Hospital.
The grave today
Fresh flowers and candles burn on the grave to this day – showing the local devotion the Maltese have displayed throughout the centuries, to an Irishman no less, who it is believed was victim to a serious injustice. The grave is also still well kept to this day, even visited by people who claim to have received graces by praying to him. A saint in the making, possibly?
Have you ever seen the grave?