On the 70th anniversary of the execution of Charlie Kerins by Tom Pierrepoint, Ryle Dwyer examines some of the sensational aspects of the story
DURING the Second World War, the IRA sought to align this country with Nazi Germany against Britain. But members of An Garda Síochána were particularly effective in counteracting this treachery.
As Garda commissioner in 1933, Ned Broy had moved to avert the danger of a Blueshirt coup d’etat by recruiting some former republicans for the Special Branch. They were dubbed the “Broy Harriers”. With their old contacts within the IRA they were later able to round up republicans engaged in Nazi intrigue.
The IRA ran through seven different chiefs of staff during 1941 and 1942. The fact that Charlie Kerins was only 24 when he became IRA chief of staff in October 1942 was indicative of the Special Branch’s success.
Det Sgt Denis O’Brien was possibly the most effective of the Broy Harriers. As a result, the IRA murdered him on September 9, 1942, outside his home in Ballyboden, Co Dublin.
Details of eight men wanted for questioning in relation to the murder were posted in every Garda station in the country.
Michael Quille of Listowel, Co Kerry — No 1 on the wanted list — was arrested in Belfast in early October and handed over to the gardaí.
A detective sergeant testified that he saw Quille near the scene on the day of the murder, but Quille insisted he had gone to Belfast a week earlier and had remained there until he was arrested. He vigorously contested the prosecution case and was acquitted, with the help of a powerful legal team headed by Seán MacBride.
Kerins, who was No 2 behind Quille on the Garda wanted list, managed to remain at large until June 1944. He was so young that none of the Broy Harriers knew much about him.
On a visit to Kerry in early 1943, Kerins stayed at the home of Catherine Commane Spring. She had 14 children, most of whom would have been older than Kerins, so outside visitors would not have attracted much attention.
As a 19-year-old, Kerins had played on the local O’Rahilly’s senior football team that won the Kerry County championship in 1939. As a result, one of his older teammates — Catherine’s son, Dan Spring — went on to captain the Kerry team that won the 1940 All-Ireland.
Dan, who also played on two other all-Ireland winning Kerry teams, headed the poll in the county council election of 1942, and had high hopes of winning a Dáil seat for the Labour Party in the 1943 general election. Paddy Finucane of Clann na Talmhan was also a strong contender.
In an April 1943 letter produced at his trial, Kerins had insisted “that it would be inadvisable to put forward a republican candidate” in Kerry, as this would split the anti-Fianna Fáil vote. “The present Labour and Farmer (Clann na Talmhan) candidates, though not members of the army, have very sound republican principles,” he added.
Both Spring and Finucane were duly elected to the Dáil in June 1943, and retained their seats at the head of the poll, despite the Fianna Fáil landslide in the snap general election of 1944. A fortnight after that general election, gardaí arrested Kerins in Dublin.
Unlike Quille, Kerins refused to recognise the court and thus passed up the chance of challenging the highly circumstantial case against him. The only direct evidence linking him to the area of the murder was a fingerprint from his right ring finger that was found underneath the handlebar of a bicycle left behind a building near the scene of the murder.
The Special Criminal Court warned Kerins that a prima facie case had been made against him and it gave him a weekend to think seriously about securing legal representation to answer the case. “You could have adjourned for six years, as far as I am concerned, because my attitude towards this court will always be the same,” Kerins declared the following Monday. He was duly convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
It was only then that Seán MacBride became involved. He would probably have been able to drive holes in the evidence against Kerins, especially in matters linking him with Quille, who was depicted as having been at the murder scene, even though he had been acquitted of involvement.
Kerins had failed to highlight that, or the fact that one of letters introduced in evidence by the prosecution indicated he was actually disturbed over the loss of a bicycle some days before the murder. “Having contemptuously refused assistance, he could not now rely on the fact that he had not been represented,” the Court of Criminal Appeal concluded.
The government was determined to make an example of Kerins, and the attorney general blocked any appeal to the Supreme Court. Even if Kerins did not pull the trigger, it was suggested that he was IRA chief of staff and was therefore responsible for the crime. But he did not become chief of staff until a few weeks after the murder. The government brought over Tom Pierrepoint, the British hangman, to execute Kerins.
The censor suppressed all advertising of public demonstrations for clemency, as well as press reports of those gatherings. The Ceann Comhairle refused to allow a Dáil debate the issue on the eve of the execution.
The Kerry deputy, Paddy Finucane, protested so vehemently the he was suspended, and Dan Spring then followed. “This young person did not get a fair trial,” Spring protested.
Spring was then suspended. The Dáil proceedings were adjourned amid uproar. Some 20 deputies remained in the chamber to protest, even after the lights were turned off on them.
Kerins was hanged the following morning.
“If we let him go,” de Valera told the Dáil, “we will have other cases of murder.”
In fact, the IRA later tried to murder the Det Sgt Pat O’Connell, who had arrested Kerins. He was to be murdered while he would be at home with his family on Christmas Eve, but Timmothy Drummond — who had been No 3 on the Garda wanted list in relation to the O’Brien murder — quietly tipped off O’Connell, who sent his family to the country while he moved into Dublin Castle for Christmas. Armed men duly arrived at his home on Christmas Eve, only to be told by the next-door neighbour that the family had gone away for Christmas.
One can only imagine the government’s reaction if the IRA had desecrated Christmas by murdering a detective in front of his family for merely doing his duty. O’Connell and his family had to live in Dublin Castle for a number of years.
Dan Spring went on to serve a further 37 years in the Dáil before being replaced by his son, Dick, who rose to lead the Labour Party and gained the distinction of being the only tánaiste to serve under three different taoisigh in the 1980s and 1990s.
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