Saturday 3 December 2016

Review: One Mortal Night - A Miscarriage of Justice by Patrick Kelleher

Somerville Press, €12.99, Paperwork

Published 22/01/2011 | 05:00

The murder of a policeman has always been big news in this country. When the murderer is himself a member of the force the news is both sensational and unprecedented.

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On the night of September 25, 1946, Garda Daniel Duff shot Garda James Byrne twice in the heart in the orchard of a big house near Pallasgreen, Co. Limerick.

Byrne, then aged 39, was a loner, cantankerous, aggressive, fond of the drink and given to "relentless nagging" of Duff.

He and Duff had spent nine months protecting the house against a local lunatic who had accused the owners of land-grabbing.

According to Duff, there was a conspiracy between Byrne and the local superintendent to have him transferred out of Pallasgreen. And there had been a row over Duff using Byrne's bicycle without permission -- there's more than a touch of Flann O'Brien farce about the murder.

Duff, who on the night "had a certain amount of stout taken", was only 23-years-old.

A native of Suncroft, Co Kildare, he was dashingly handsome, "almost a god", and the possessor of a wonderful voice -- "It could have been John McCormack himself".

He was also a poet in Irish and a gifted artist, though one with somewhat unusual tastes in subjects: over the fireplace in the barracks he kept a portrait of a woman remarkable for her "extraordinary motherly quality". According to Duff himself, she loved "a man scarcely deserving of her".

Her name? Eva Braun. His name? Adolf Hitler. That "scarcely" is a nice touch.

Duff was apparently more than god-like in looks: he had a neck like a steel rope. 'They couldn't,' he said, 'hang me even if they tried'.

But in the event the government brought the hangman Pierrepoint over to Mountjoy to let him have a go. Pierrepoint said "he enjoyed hanging Irishmen ... because they were so religious ... and often eager to meet their maker". Fortunately for Dan, the Minister for Justice at the last moment commuted the sentence to one of life imprisonment.

Eventually Duff was released and, according to this book, ended up as a uniformed commissionaire on the door of the Hibernian Hotel in Dawson Street.

As for the verdict being a miscarriage of justice, the claim seems well-founded, but only because nowadays it is almost impossible to be found guilty of murder in an Irish court -- stabbing, burning, dismemberment, kicking to death rarely amount to more than manslaughter.

One Mortal Night is a book that has about it, in Charlie McCreevy's immortal phrase, 'a high degree of unusuality'. This is partly explained by the author's closeness to the events and people he describes. His father was the sergeant in the Pallasgreen barracks and gave important evidence at the trial -- he was also violently at odds with the Catholic Church.

Young Kelleher grew up to become a senior manager in Cadbury's chocolate factory and then a teacher of English -- his book is written in a style that is richly fruity and agreeably nutty.

Despite the grimness of the theme, I laughed the whole way through it. It's bound to become a classic of Irish crime literature.

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