20 February 2013

The Mary Aylward Question

Paul Kirby, author of Mary Aylward, first in a series of Hastings County books, left folks who braved the wind and ice to attend last Thursday's Hastings County Historical Society meeting, scratching their heads over a number of challenging questions.

Was Mary Aylward guilty?
Should her husband have been brought to trial?
What part did religious intolerance play?
Did Mary suffer from post-partum depression?
Were the couple tried in the public press rather than the courts?
What motivated crowds to gather for public hangings?
Would we do so today - how thin is the veneer of civilization?

And...why did the chicken cross the road?
Paul Kirby flanked by Donna Fano and Orland French
Most people are familiar with some aspects of the tragic human story which took place in Hastings County in 1862. Mary Aylward and her husband Richard, Irish refugees of the potato famine, who had  suffered so much on the coffin ships before finally settling on their unforgiving north Hastings land grant near today's Maynooth. The couple was accused of the murder of their Scots neighbour Munroe in a disagreement over a chicken they were suspected of killing. As so often happens, distrust led to disagreement which erupted into violence, resulting in the couple's vilification, imprisonment, trial and death. Hundreds of signatures begging the Governor General for clemency were ineffective.

Kirby painted a vivid picture of the public hanging, which brought a crowd of five to six thousand people to the area around the old court house (this in a town of half that number) to view the spectacle. The young woman dressed in white, her husband beside her, prayers with Reverend Mr. Brennan, and their death struggles before thousands of curious impassive spectators, all painted a chilling picture. Was justice done? The issue remained in the public eye and in the press for a long time.

Thanks to Paul Kirby, the story of the Aylwards is once again in our hearts and minds.

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