When the State regularly made a killing

THE hanging men: Ireland has executed 29 people - the last in 1954. The Pierrepoint brothers carried out nearly all of them.

When the State regularly made a killing

THE Irish State has executed 29 people, the last in 1954. The Pierrepoints, Tom and his nephew, Albert, did most of the hangings; they were paid £10, plus expenses, for their labours.

Albert used to leave a lit cigar while he did his work, returning to it once he was finished.These were conducted in the hang house at Mountjoy Prison, in Dublin. One of the most striking things about the executions described in Tim Carey’s Hanged for Murder: Irish State Executions was the bureaucracy.

“If there wasn’t one {a protocol} it could have got incredibly messy,” says Carey. “There was a two- or three-page memorandum written out, which describes what happens from the night before the execution, until the body is put in the ground.”

The presiding judges at Green Street Courthouse in Dublin, handed down their sentences in medieval fashion, donning a black cap, while they ordered that the men (and one woman who was executed during this period) be “hanged by the neck until you be dead”.

While awaiting execution, the prisoners were always accompanied by two warders, so they wouldn’t cheat the State by killing themselves, and to keep their spirits up. They were granted luxuries, like newspapers, and board games, such as chess and draughts.

The hangings were at 8am. Their bodies were left hanging for an hour, to ensure strangulation. Afterwards, the governor of the prison would fill out a report card, rating the hangman: “Did he carry out his duty well? Was his general demeanour and appearance satisfactory?”

The trials Carey’s book covers lasted from a half-day to 17 days. The longest a jury spent in deliberation was four hours; the shortest was 10 minutes. Alarmingly, many of the cases were decided on circumstantial evidence. There were some extraordinary cases, particularly the murder of 46-year-old Patrick O’Leary, in 1924, whose body was chopped up into pieces and distributed around his farm, near Clonakilty, Co Cork.

His mother, his brother, Cornelius, and his two sisters, Hannah and Maryanne, were charged with the murder, although only Con and Hannah were convicted. Con was executed. Hannah’s death sentence was reprieved. Carey writes vividly about the bizarre wake the family held for Patrick, the day after bits of his body were discovered. One neighbour, a Mrs McCarthy, said loudly to Mrs O’Leary: “It’s a shame, Mrs O’Leary, to see your son in such a state — it is easily known who did it.” William Gambon, the second-last man hanged in Ireland, in 1948, gave himself up. Judge Davitt, son of Michael Davitt, the founder of the Land League, presided over his case. Gambon killed his best friend, John Long, under unusual circumstances, in his digs one night. “There was obviously a row. There was some talk about Gambon’s wife. I’m just not sure of the exact relationship between Gambon and Long. Long said that Gambon wasn’t the marrying type. He was sending him money from England, where he worked, every week,” says Carey.

There could have been a sexual relationship between the pair. Long called Gambon’s wife, who was pregnant, “a whore”. Interestingly, 10 of the last 24 men executed had recently become, or were about to become, fathers.

The trial of David O’Shea, in 1931, aroused particular public interest. He was an illiterate farm labourer, from Knocknaloman, Rathmore, on the Cork-Kerry border. He was hanged for raping and killing 25-year-old Ellen O’Sullivan, a neighbour who lived about 300 yards from the cottage he shared with his sister and mother. There was extraordinary interference by gardaí in the case.

Garda John Keane, from Killarney, hid under O’Shea’s bed and alleged he overheard a conversation between O’Shea and his sister, in which they discussed a black gaiter that was found downstream of where Ellen O’Sullivan’s body was discovered — this prompted O’Shea to apparently run out to his yard to burn the missing, matching gaiter.

“Six or eight guards had also searched this three-room cottage for three hours,” says Carey. “You would assume they had searched everywhere, but they missed a key piece of evidence, which was a grey sock in a tankard, and then, lo and behold, they find it afterwards.”

Time magazine reported that outside the gates of Mountjoy Prison “a morbid crowd cursed the Irish police that hanged him. It was not that they thought David O’Shea innocent, but, to the Irish mind, he had been caught by unfair means. Irishmen expect sportsmanship in their policemen.”

* Tim Carey’s Hanged for Murder: Irish State Executions is published by the Collins Press. It costs €14.99.

More in this section

ieParenting Logo
Writers ieParenting

Our team of experts are on hand to offer advice and answer your questions here

Your digital cookbook

ieStyle Live 2021 Logo
ieStyle Live 2021 Logo

IE Logo
Outdoor Trails

Discover the great outdoors on Ireland's best walking trails

IE Logo
Outdoor Trails


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up
Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd