Framed: innocent man who went to the gallows
The hanging of Harry Gleeson for murder was a shocking miscarriage of justice, according to a damning new book.
Published 18/04/2015 | 02:30
The night before he was hanged for murder in 1941, Tipperary man Harry Gleeson received a visit in Mountjoy Jail from his defence counsel, Sean MacBride. The farmer apologised for bringing MacBride out at night, but he wished to make a final statement on his case.
MacBride felt that Gleeson was going to finally confess to the killing of his neighbour, Moll McCarthy. Instead, Gleeson made a final declaration of his innocence and, wrapping his arms around his lawyer, asked him to clear his name. After MacBride's death, others took up the fight to clear Gleeson's name, and last January he became the first person granted a posthumous pardon by the State.
A new book by Kieran Fagan exposes the scandal of how elements of the State, including the Gardai and the judiciary, engaged in a sinister conspiracy to send an innocent man to the gallows.
In November 1940, Harry Gleeson was checking on his uncle's livestock when he discovered the body of Moll McCarthy in a field. She had been shot twice. Any number of locals could have had a motive. The mother of seven children out of wedlock with seven different men, her personal life was obviously complicated. Her scandalous web of relationships in the small townland of New Inn had made her deeply unpopular.
In his book The Framing Of Harry Gleeson, Fagan speculates that Moll was killed after a rendezvous with a man at a disused farmhouse. Her body was then dumped in the field, something that would have involved more than one person. The medical evidence suggested that she'd had consensual sex shortly before her death.
There is no way of knowing who the actual murderer was. Was it a lovers' row that gotten terribly out of hand? There was a good deal of IRA activity in the area, and rumour had it that Moll was having an affair with the local Garda Sergeant. This in turn fuelled speculation that republicans, suspecting she might be an informer, had subjected her to a punishment beating that went wrong, or had murdered her outright. Another theory was that Moll had been killed by one of her children who despised her promiscuity.
Four days after Harry Gleeson found Moll's body, he was arrested with another local called Tommy Reid. The evidence against either man was non-existent since the police had no precise idea of when or where the woman was killed. Reid provided Gleeson with an alibi covering his whereabouts for a certain time. Some members of the force beat Reid into a rethink. Gleeson was arrested and charged with murder.
Three weeks later at his remand hearing, Gleeson was represented by the brilliant 36-year-old lawyer Sean MacBride. The son of WB Yeats' muse, Maud Gonne, and Major John MacBride, who was executed after the 1916 Rising, McBride was considered the brightest man at the bar (in later life he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize).
It appeared Gleeson could not have a better man to fight his corner. But there would be no justice in this murky affair; instead, MacBride actually became a liability to his client.
MacBride himself quickly realised that his client was being set up by a conspiracy that ran deep in New Inn.
More than three decades later, he wrote: "I came across several pieces of evidence that confirmed my submission that the police evidence was not as reliable as one would expect it to be, even in regard to such matters as maps. Having been in the area previously I knew the locality fairly well. It was a strange, strange atmosphere to work in. I found that the village of New Inn had closed like a tight oyster shell.
"You could get no information from anybody about anything for the very simple reason that practically everybody in the village was related in one way or another to one of Mary McCarthy's children."
MacBride noted that this veil of silence was actively encouraged by the local clergy: "The priest had announced from the altar that this woman had brought disgrace on the whole parish, that this murder had brought disgrace on the whole parish and that no-one was to talk about it."
As far as the local community appeared, it was better that an innocent man be framed than allow the affair drag on.
In MacBride's words: "There was a general feeling that my client was probably not the culprit, but the important thing was to get the matter over and done with as quickly as possible because this was bringing disgrace and suspicion on the whole village. Doors were closed and windows shuttered. This did not apply to me alone, but to anyone making inquiries.
From the first day in court, MacBride knew that the trial would not end well for Harry Gleeson. He remarked: "From the word go the trial judge had taken the bit between his teeth and had decided the accused was guilty and should be convicted."
According to author Kieran Fagan, the judge also had a bitter grudge against MacBride, who had defeated him while a barrister in a landmark case.
As a former leader of the IRA, MacBride was also hated by the Gardai. The staunchly middle-class jury also disliked the politics of the former revolutionary.
MacBride had been raised in France, and the author also speculates that his French accent irked the jury in a land where anything foreign aroused suspicion.
The case went as MacBride feared and Gleeson was convicted. Appealing against the verdict, MacBride's keen detail was met with hostility by the judge. "I had systematically throughout the trial listed the grounds of the appeal, of things that had been unfairly done, evidence improperly admitted, comments improperly made, either by the judge or prosecution," wrote McBride.
"These amounted to 17 - a very large number. I enumerated my 17 grounds of appeal, being interrupted the whole time by the judge who was becoming more and more irritated, and then the trial ended."
The type of rough justice meted out to Harry Gleeson was not entirely uncommon at the time. Judicial execution was one of the key instruments used to knit together the fabric of the Irish State. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail -led governments employed it to snuff out political opposition. And while Harry Gleeson, a farm manager, was not a political activist, the judicial system had no qualms about killing an innocent man to settle a score with a political foe such as Sean MacBride.
In effect, the verdict was targeted at the troublesome lawyer, although it was Gleeson who paid with his life.
The English hangman Albert Pierrepoint was summoned to Dublin to hang Gleeson, and a number of witnesses recruited, who, as was custom, were plied with strong liquor before the act.
Clutching Rosary beads as he awaited his fate, Gleeson told MacBride: "Within a few hours I will be dead. I have no grievance about that. I'm glad to die this way because I can never be better prepared to meet God than I am now, particularly because I am innocent. I wanted to tell you this at the last possible moment when I am alive, because that is the time you would know that I had nothing to gain. Everything I have told you is true. I never murdered Moll McCarthy or had anything to do with it. I don't know what happens when I pass to the next world. The last thing I want to say is that I will pray tomorrow that whoever did it will be discovered and that the whole thing will be like an open book."
MacBride closed his account: "I am convinced that Harry Gleeson was innocent, so was the governor, so was everybody else in that room. He was hanged the next morning."
The Framing Of Harry Gleeson by Kieran Fagan is published by Collins Press, priced at €12.99