Matters of life and death

During the first half of the last century, 163 people were officially executed throughout the island — 149 in the 26 counties, and 14 in the North.

In the 15 years prior to the Easter Rebellion there were 17 executions — 16 men and one woman.

The one woman was Mary Daly, who was executed in Tullamore on Jan 9, 1903, the day after the execution of her lover Joseph Taylor in Kilkenny for the murder of John Daly, Mary’s husband. Taylor was actually a nephew of the murdered man. The two were convicted largely on the evidence of Mary’s 11-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter.

During the second and third decades of the century, there was a virtual orgy of executions following the Easter Rising and during the War of Independence and the Civil War. Fifteen men were executed by firing squad at Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, in the aftermath of the Easter Rebellion, and 25 men were officially executed during the War of Independence — 11 by hanging and other 14 by firing squad.

The first of those executions was the hanging of 18-year-old Kevin Barry on Nov 1, 1920. The other 10 men hanged included Paddy Moran and Thomas Whelan, who were executed for killing Captain Peter Ames in Upper Mount St on Bloody Sunday. Neither was involved in that killing, though Moran did lead the assassination team that killed two other British officers in the Gresham Hotel at the same time.

During the Civil War, Free State authorities officially executed more than three times the total that the British had executed during the War of Independence. After replacing Michael Collins as commander-in-chief of the government forces, Richard Mulcahy persuaded the Dáil to authorise the execution of anyone found in possession of firearms. Otherwise, he warned, soldiers would take it upon themselves “to execute people in an unauthorised way”.

During the next seven months, the Cosgrave government executed 77 men by firing squad in Dublin, Dundalk, Roscrea, Carlow, Tralee, Limerick, Athlone, Waterford, Birr, Portlaoise, Mullingar, Cork, Wexford, Donegal, Tuam, and Ennis. Those executions did not include atrocities in Kerry, where at least 40 IRA prisoners where killed by Free State soldiers taking the law into their own hands. These and other isolated outrages which occurred throughout the country amounted to executions.

Between the end of the civil war in 1923 and the outbreak of the Second World War in Sept 1939, 26 people were executed — 20 in the 26 counties and six in the North. The British hangman Tom Pierrepoint conducted 25 of those hangings. Two other British hangmen — William Willis and John Ellis — hanged the other two.

Con O’Leary from Kilkerran, near Clonakilty, Co Cork, was executed in Jul 1925 for the murder of his brother Patrick. His sister Annie O’Leary was also convicted of that murder and sentenced to death, but her sentence was commuted, apparently because she was a woman.

Another sister, Anne O’Leary, had also been charged with the murder but she died in jail before trial began. Their mother was charged with complicity in the murder, but the State withdrew the charge.

One woman — Annie Walsh of Limerick — was executed the following month, on Aug 5, 1925, for the murder of her husband. His nephew, Michael Talbot, was hanged about 15 minutes before her. Walsh and Talbot had been having an affair.

During the years of the Second World War, there were 13 executions throughout the island, seven of which were of a political nature. Patrick McGrath, Thomas Harte, Richard Goss, George Plant, and Maurice O’Neill were executed by firing squad, while Thomas Williams was hanged in Belfast in Sept 1942. He was one of six men sentenced to death for killing Constable Patrick Murphy, a Catholic member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

As a result of international pressure, five of the sentences were commuted to life in prison. One of those reprieved was Joe Cahill, who later became leader of the Provisional IRA during the 1970s.

Charlie Kerins was executed on Dec 1, 1944, for the murder of detective sergeant Denis O’Brien. Then taoiseach Eamon de Valera was determined to make an example of Kerins by executing him as a regular criminal. Instead of facing a firing squad, like other IRA men convicted by a military tribunal, Kerins was hanged at Mountjoy by Pierrepoint.

Five of the other six people executed during the years of the Second World War, were hanged for murdering women. The other man — Bernard Kirwan of Rahan, Co Offaly — was hanged on Jun 2, 1943, for the murder of his brother Lawrence. It has been suggested that Brendan Behan’s play The Quare Fellow was based on the build-up to Kirwan’s execution.

Between 1945 and 1963, there were 82 murders in the 26 counties. Seventy-three people were arrested, 34 were found insane and unfit to plead, seven were found guilty but insane, while 18 persons were convicted and sentenced to death.

Three were hanged but 15 — including all three women — had their sentences commuted to life in prison. Those 15 served an average of only six years. The longest term was 11 years, and one of those was released after just three years.

Michael Manning, 25, from Limerick, was the last person executed in the Republic. Albert Pierrepoint — Tom Pierrepoint’s nephew — hanged Manning in Mountjoy on Apr 20, 1954, for the rape and murder of an elderly nurse, Catherine Cooper, who was attacked while walking home in Limerick.

“Very shortly after becoming minister for justice,” Charles Haughey said in a 1984 interview, “I went up to Mountjoy to see the condemn-ed cell and I was so revolted by the whole atmosphere that I resolved to do away with the death penalty.”

Until then, anyone found guilty of murder was automatically sentenced to death.

Capital punishment was practically abolished while Haughey was justice minister, though the death penalty was officially retained for the murder of a Garda on duty, prison officer, foreign ambassador, and a visiting head of state or head of government.

A total of 11 people were convicted of capital murder in the following years, but none was executed.

Noel and Marie Murray were convicted in 1976 of the murder of Garda Michael Reynolds. They were sentenced to death, but as the garda was not in uniform, or officially on duty, at the time of the killing, the Supreme Court overturned the capital convictions. Each was therefore sentenced to life in prison instead. They were both released in 1992.

Patrick McCann, Colm O’Shea, and Peter Pringle were sentenced to hang for the capital murder of two gardaí — Henry Byrne and John Morely — following a 1980 bank robbery in Roscommon. The government commuted their sentences to 40 years in prison in May 1981. Pringle had his conviction overturned on appeal in 1995. His son, Thomas Pringle, was elected an independent TD for Donegal South-West in 2011.

Later the same year, Peter Pringle made international news when he married Sonia “Sunny” Jacobs, who had once been sentenced to death in Florida, after she and her husband were convicted of the murder of a policeman in 1976. Her husband was executed, but Jabobs’ sentence was commuted to life in prison. Her conviction was overturned in 1990.

The Dáil abolished the death penalty completely in 1990, and replaced it with a 40-year minimum prison term for exceptional murders. In Sept 2012 Colm O’Shea, one of the men convicted along with Peter Pringle, had his appeal for early release dismissed by the High Court after he had served over 30 years in jail.

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