Lynchehaun, James (1858/60–1937/46?), criminal, was born in Tonregee, Corraun, parish of Achill, Co. Mayo, son of Neal Lynchehaun, substantial sheep farmer, and Bridget Lynchehaun (née Cafferky). Having attended the village school, he was appointed class monitor at 14 and progressed by examination after some years to the position of national schoolteacher. A propensity for violence and binge-drinking put an end to his career in teaching after two years’ employment. Absconding to England in 1881 while out on bail on charges of assault, he returned to Corraun c.1885. Established with his father's help as a dealer and shopkeeper in Tonatonvalley, Achill Island, he had commercial success, though his disorderly habits had not changed. In 1888 the Tonatonvalley estate was purchased by Agnes MacDonnell (1842?–1923), a vigorous and eccentric Englishwoman with distant connections to Mayo and Roscommon. Lynchehaun was the third steward-cum-bailiff appointed within a year of Mrs MacDonnell's taking up residence, his employment lasting from December 1888 to c.March 1890, when a feud between landlord and shopkeeper began to develop. Later court proceedings and local lore suggest there may have been a sexual element in the antagonism; it was reported that Lynchehaun was initially enthralled by MacDonnell, who for her part acknowledged that he was a ‘fine, animal-looking man’ (Carney, 145). His advances may have been scorned. Between 1890 and 1894 MacDonnell made several attempts to have Lynchehaun evicted.
On the night of 6/7 October 1894 the Valley House was burned down, together with stables and outbuildings. Local tenants rushing to assist MacDonnell found Lynchehaun in the yard of the house, barefoot and wild-eyed. MacDonnell was seen trying to unbolt the stable doors in her nightdress, and then disappeared. She was later found savagely beaten and lacerated in a bush near the house, part of her nose bitten off and an eye lost. Though it seems indisputable that Lynchehaun was the culprit, the case was enveloped in mystery when tried at Castlebar assizes in July 1895. From October 1894, when he escaped from detention, until he was rearrested in January 1895, Lynchehaun had been in hiding in Achill, evading large search parties of police, concealed for months in a hole under a cabin floor. The Achill peasantry refused to inform on him despite the offer of £300 in reward. Ballads were composed to his dubious celebrity. Defence counsel at his trial tried to have the case viewed as originating in agrarian dispute, but the jury convicted on indictment for wounding with intent to murder, and Lynchehaun was sentenced to penal servitude for life. National interest in the case subsided but was aroused again when he escaped from Portlaoise prison in September 1902. Dodging police surveillance, he made his way first to Glasgow and then to the USA, where he posed as a hero of agrarian conflict. This claim was, however, undermined in late 1902 when Michael Davitt (qv) snubbed him publicly after a Chicago lecture. British and American detectives caught up with him in Indianapolis in August 1903, and extradition proceedings were commenced. A committee of Irish-American supporters funded his defence as a political refugee, presenting the assault as part of a peasant rebellion against British rule. The US authorities and later the US supreme court found for Lynchehaun under the 1842 US–Britain extradition treaty, and the case remained one of the salient precedents in twentieth-century US extradition law.
Between 1903 and 1907 Lynchehaun worked as an insurance agent and saloon keeper, frequently embroiled in trouble. Early in 1907 the first production of ‘The playboy of the western world’ by J. M. Synge (qv) triggered riots in Dublin among audiences viewing the plot and characterisation as a slur on the decency of Irish peasant life. Chants of ‘Lynchehaun’ on the opening night showed that audiences linked the story with the assault case. Synge admitted readily to friends that the case was one of two to have fascinated his imagination in the course of writing the play, which contains an allusion to ‘the man bit the yellow lady's nostril on the northern shore’ (McCormack, 251), adding that he was principally interested in the state of mind of such communities. Though Lynchehaun was considerably more brutal in personality than Christy Mahon (who is of course an impostor in the play), the drama recreates much of the pattern of western life as revealed in the 1890s and early 1900s in the assault case. In the summer of 1907 Lynchehaun revisited Ireland under an alias. He returned again in April 1918 and was taken into custody in Mayo and deported. Admitted to Castlebar workhouse in 1936, he moved to Girvan, Scotland, where he is reported to have died.
He married (c.1885) Catherine Gallagher of Corraun village. They had one son and separated in 1907.