When loss of liberty is extended long after leaving a prison cell

While men sentenced to death were more likely to be executed, Ian O’Donnell finds that women who found their sentences commuted were often sent to another institution such as a convent after they had served time in prison.

OVER the past 10 years, I have spent countless hours examining dusty files relating to dreadful deeds.

The purpose of this exercise was to learn as much as possible about the men and women who were sentenced to death between the end of the Civil War in 1923 and the abolition of the death penalty in 1990.

Of particular interest was what happened when death sentences were commuted to penal servitude for life. This is an aspect of Irish history that has remained in the shadows and I was keen to discover how long these fortunate murderers spent in custody and where they went afterwards.

The book resulting from thisresearch, published this week, reveals a striking gender bias.

Annie Walsh was the only woman sentenced to death who actually went to the gallows. She was found guilty of murdering her husband, Edward, at their home in Fedamore, Co Limerick.

Her husband’s nephew, Michael Talbot, was convicted of the same crime and the pair were hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint in Mountjoy Prison on August 5, 1925.

Another 21 women heard the solemn pronouncement that they would be hanged by the neck until dead, but they were spared. Sometimes this was an attempt by the government to show compassion for the distressed mother who destroyed her infant child, was found guilty of murder, and received the mandatory death penalty.

Leaving baby-killing aside, the gender difference in execution remained clear-cut. Half of convicted male murderers were executed after trial by jury, compared with just one
in 10 females.

Not only were men more likely to be hanged, if their sentences were commuted they served more than twice as long in prison as women. But these statistics require careful interpretation.

The variation in time served was wide for women. Mary Kiernan gave birth in the County Home in Mullingar, and drowned her 12-day-old daughter, Bridget, after she was discharged. A single woman, she was motivated by what the files describe as a mixture of “shame and disgrace”. She was released six months after her murder conviction. No man benefited from such swift release.

Hannah Flynn had previously worked as a domestic servant for Margaret and Daniel O’Sullivan in Killorglin but her services were dispensed with on the grounds of disobedience and suspected theft. While Daniel was at Mass on April 1, 1923, Hannah attacked Margaret with a hatchet, almost chopping off her face in the process. She ransacked the house and stole a considerable sum of money. For this crime, she served close to 19 years in prison. No man convicted by a jury of his peers served as long.

Furthermore, while men were released directly to the community or allowed to emigrate, most women were transferred to another institution, occasionally the Central Mental Hospital, but more often a convent.

When the State intended to be lenient by transferring a woman to the care of the nuns, its actions sometimes had the opposite effect and the duration of confinement extended beyond what was ever envisaged or what any man had to endure.

Some female murderers ended up serving the equivalent of whole-life sentences, the key difference as regards the loss of liberty being that they did not take their final breaths in a prison cell.

When Hannah Flynn eventually left prison her destination was the Good Shepherd Magdalen Asylum in Limerick where she spent another 30 years.

Hannah O’Leary was involved in the murder of her brother Patrick on the family farm in Kilkerran, Co Cork.

Patrick was beaten to death in his bed, decapitated, and dismembered. His head was found nearby in a potato sack, with other body parts scattered across the fields. Hannah’s brother, Con, was hanged for his part in the atrocity and another sister, Mary Anne, died in prison before the trial took place.

Hannah served over 17 years in prison before being sent to the Sisters of Charity Magdalen Asylum in Cork where she died 21 years later.

These are not isolated cases.

Elizabeth Hannon spent less than three years in prison, but the rest of her life in Dublin’s High Park convent. Margaret Finn spent a little over two years in prison, but the rest of her life in the Magdalen Asylum in Donnybrook.

In other words, it could happen that a jury made a recommendation to mercy (as it did in all of the cases I have mentioned), the judge endorsed this call, the government decided it would be wrong to allow the death penalty be carried out, the time served in prison was short, but the woman remained confined until death.

A mixture of chivalry, paternalism and squeamishness saved women’s necks, and limited their exposure to imprisonment, but it diverted some of them to lifetimes of compulsory
penitence.

These women were treated harshly for their own good. Like so many others who transgressed during the first half-century of independence, it was thought that the stern hand of the Sisters was required to prevent them from straying again.

This research has two messages of contemporary relevance. First, that we have become accustomed to extremely long prison terms for murder. Men who were sentenced to death and whose sentences were commuted were released after seven years or so, on average. Murderers today are held for almost three times as long for crimes that were no more heinous.

Secondly, the way that female offenders are dealt with is fairer because when the prison term finishes another institution does not beckon; there is clarity about when punishment comes to an end. Whether they continue to receive more lenient treatment than men when they commit serious crimes is an open question.

Ian O’Donnell is professor of criminology at UCD. Justice, Mercy, and Caprice: Clemency and the Death Penalty in Ireland is published by Oxford University Press.

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