When farm disputes led to death penalty

This is hard reading if you are a farmer, as many of you certainly are.

However it might be worth your while to read on to the end, especially if you are one of the thousands of farmers right across the island who are involved today in tensions and disputes with neighbours or, more likely, with other members of your own farm family.

That is a reality today as much as it ever was. I know the island and all its provinces and have lived and worked in them all. 

I am also a countryman and, for sure, have never ever lived more than a few miles away from farm families involved in bitter disputes connected with land. 

And these disputes, sadly, as ye all know, rarely diminish over time but fester and develop in a frightening fashion altogether. The pure truth for sure.

It is decades ago since I stood beside a wise old subsistence farmer in North Leitrim near where the Shannon rises and we talked about his life and lifestyle.

His siblings had all emigrated and he, being the eldest son, had inherited the thatched family home and the 30 or 40 clay land acres attached to it.

He said to me something that remains in memory.

He said: “Young MacConnell, I will tell you this. You never own the farm at all. It is the farm that owns you and often drives you astray.”

And so it does as history tells us even in tomorrow’s news headlines.

Decades later in Dublin my dear departed friend Liam MacGabhann — the maestro journalist from Valentia Island — told me of meeting by accident the English hangman Henry Pierrepoint the evening he was brought over by the State here to hang yet another Irish farmer convicted of murder because of a farm dispute. Liam told me that he actually liked Pierrepoint when they met.

He said he was exactly like a quiet competent tradesman, like a carpenter or plumber, who was good at what he did and did it well.

The Pierrepoints, two generations of them, acted as hangmen for us in the years from 1933 onwards and, as a new book now reveals in a most fascinating way, a high percentage of those around whose necks they placed the lethal noose were farmers or related victims of land disputes which boiled over.

The new book I am speaking about is by Colm Wallace, is called Sentenced To Death and deals dramatically yet factually with the men and women who were sentenced to death in this republic between 1923 right up to 1984.

And it is a revealed fact that many of those the Pierrepoints hanged in Dublin were farmers or members of farming families who had been involved in the kind of long-running disputes which, let’s face it, are still a part of rural life in 2016.

I will mention just one of the dozens of cases detailed by Colm Wallace.

This is the case of Bernard Kirwan of Rahan in Co Offaly who returned home after being released from jail in 1941 after serving time for armed robbery. His brother Laurence had been running the family farm in his absence and was not happy at the return of the jailbird.

Blazing rows followed because Laurence did not see fit to pay Bernard for work done around the farm and even refused to feed him. Laurence went missing from home in late 1941. Six months later his remains were discovered buried in a nearby bog.

Bernard was convicted of his murder and Pierrepoint was brought over to Dublin to hang him in June of 1943. Ironically, enough Brendan Behan the playwright was serving time during that period and it is believed the Kirwan execution probably was the most potent trigger for his masterpiece The Quare Fella. The pure harsh truth yet again.

Most of the other cases dealt with by Colm Wallace deal with farming disputes which, over the course of time, grew more bitter and more complex and eventually exploded into bloodletting and — in a different era — another day’s work in Dublin for the competent Pierrepoints.

It would seem to me that if any reader of this is involved in any kind of land-related dispute, from anything ranging from a right-of-way issue upwards, that it would be a splendid idea to invest a few euro in Colm’s book, which is available at Easons and all good bookshops and with detailed information available now at your fingertips via www.facebook.com/colmwallaceauthor. It is a riveting read as well.

Remember, if you are involved in any farm dispute today, that though the Pierrepoints are no longer trading over here, the penalties for “going astray” as the Leitrim farmer put it, are still extremely severe.


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