You shall hang by the neck . . .
As a judge calls for a debate on capital punishment, Damian Corless recalls the last Irish executions -- and the most famous hangman of them all
Published 21/11/2009 | 05:00
Last week, Channel 4 screened The Execution Of Gary Glitter, a provocative fiction which cast the convicted child abuser as the first victim of a reinstated British death penalty. As a tie-in, the station commissioned a survey claiming that 70pc of Britons support execution for certain crimes.
This week the former President of the High Court, Justice Richard Johnson, floated the issue this side of the Irish Sea, saying that the authorities here should look at reintroducing the death penalty for some classes of murder.
He said: "If people arm up and go out to rob and decide to take out anyone who gets in their way, they should pay the price."
Capital punishment is forbidden by the Irish Constitution and by EU law, and Justice Johnson's comments were deplored as "deeply misguided and frivolous" by the Irish Council of Civil Liberties. Others, including the Labour Party, were quick to torpedo his sentiments.
While much of the reaction was hostile, there was some support for the judge's call to revisit the issue. John O'Keeffe, Dean of Law at the Dublin Business School, asserted: "For every piece of research that shows that the death penalty as a deterrent does not work, there's another 10 that says it does."
Crime author Barry Cummins doesn't believe there's any prospect of capital punishment being brought back, but he too insists that this "very experienced judge" is right to open a debate on how we deal with cold-blooded killers.
The last execution in this State was in 1954 when Michael Manning from Limerick was hanged for suffocating an elderly nurse, Catherine Cooper, by stuffing a sod of earth into her mouth.
In the course of his research, Barry Cummins spoke to the nurse's niece, who told him the family petitioned that mercy be shown to the killer. The court heard a doctor's report that Manning was mentally "abnormal". He was also drunk. Appeals to switch the charge to one of manslaughter on the grounds that Manning was of unsound mind were thrown out.
Manning was hanged in Mountjoy Jail and, as was the custom, his body was buried in an unmarked grave on the grounds of the prison. Barry Cummins says: "His body is still there, along with other executed prisoners, and its uncertain if any prison staff know whose body is in which spot." A Prison Service spokesman was unable to say what will happen to these bodies in the promised event that Mountjoy's Victorian shambles will be shut down and redeveloped.
The famous British hangman Albert Pierrepoint came to Dublin to execute Michael Manning. It was a trip he'd made many times since observing his first ever hanging, also at Mountjoy, 22 years earlier. Aged 27, Albert arrived on that occasion as assistant to his uncle Tom, who'd been engaged by the Irish authorities to hang one Patrick McDermott.
Uncle Tom had previously sent off the last woman to be executed in Ireland. Annie Walsh, aged 31, had been convicted of murdering her husband, who was twice her age. Uncle Tom had dispatched Walsh and her co-accused, a younger nephew, in the space of 45 minutes.
Uncle and nephew arose at 6am for the 8am hanging of McDermott. Albert wrote: "I followed my uncle into the cell. I noticed that a priest was there and saw little else. I followed my uncle on to the scaffold, strapped the legs, moved back and hardly had time to get my balance when there was a bang and then a space of complete silence. The traps were open, the rope was straight and motionless, the man was dead."
As the executioner of many Republican prisoners, Albert was targeted by the IRA for abduction and killing, but this didn't put him off visiting when business called.
The Irish government did try to train up a native hangman, and sent an apprentice called Johnstone to learn under Pierrepoint at Strangeways. The arrangement was short-lived.
Albert later said: "I did not think he had the character to be an executioner. He was old, short and timid. When I first took him to the execution chamber his face went as white as chalk."
In truth, any Irish candidate for the post of State executioner would have to measure the emotional and mental trauma involved, with the relatively paltry financial return for what would have been a part-time job. Between the islands of Britain and Ireland there weren't enough regular hangings to keep a single individual in full-time employment.
Albert Pierrepoint fought a running battle with the Crown authorities for better pay, but it was in vain and he had to work as a grocer and later as a publican to make ends meet. His nixers for the Irish State were a welcome top-up to his bank balance.
It was the same for Uncle Tom, who was at one point given a rap on the knuckles by the British authorities when it emerged that he and a rival hangman were scouring the newspapers for guilty verdicts and then approaching the relevant prisons "touting" for the job.
One celebrated execution which had earned Albert Pierrepoint a place on the IRA's most wanted list was that of Charlie Kerins. In late 1942, Kerins became Chief of Staff of the terrorist group, just weeks after taking part in the killing of Special Branch man Dennis O'Brien. The detective was gunned down outside his Dublin home in the presence of his wife.
As she cradled her dying husband she watched Kerins and his gang cycle off in escape.
The German U-boats prowling the Irish Sea didn't stand between Pierrepoint and his Christmas bonus, and in December 1944 he sent Kerins to meet his maker.
Several historians have pointed out that judicial execution was one of the key instruments used to knit together the fabric of the Irish State. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in their early incarnations employed it to wipe out political opposition. In the years before the last execution in 1954, there were damaging accusations that it remained a political tool.
In the 1940s a man called Henry Gleeson was hanged for murder.
Some who've studied the case maintain that Gleeson's defence lawyer, Sean MacBride, got him sent to the gallows. MacBride, not long before, had been an IRA man, and several academics suggest that the verdict was delivered on him, although it was the unfortunate Gleeson who paid with his life.
The death penalty was also dragged into disrepute by way of class politics. The accusation was that social standing greatly reduced the chances of having the trapdoor take your feet from under you.
This was argued on behalf of William Gambon, the second last person hanged in Ireland.
In 1948 Gambon, a casual labourer, got into a drunken argument with his best friend over a game of cards. It came to blows and Gambon hit his friend with an iron bar. He left the scene and only discovered his pal had died when he read it in the paper.
Horrified, he turned himself in. It seemed as clear a case of manslaughter as ever came before a court, but the man of no substance went to the gallows.
Professor Ian O'Donnell of the UCD Criminology Department believes it's neither probable or desirable that the death sentence will be brought back. He says: "It's not a deterrent in cases where someone is in a state of mind where they're intoxicated on drink or drugs.
"Studies have shown that the most pressing deterrent on the minds of those pre-meditating a crime is the likelihood of getting caught quickly."