Nobody cried for Harry Gleeson
A farmhand fitted up for murder 75 years ago is to be given a pardon. John Waters, who has been working on a film based on the case, feels he has travelled a fateful road with the wronged man
Published 19/04/2015 | 02:30
I have spent many hours over the past 17 years in the company of a man called Harry Gleeson. Lately he's been in the news, his faded, waistcoated image featuring alongside newspaper reports - like one of those grainy album photographs of long-dead relatives, gawky innocents standing smilingly in their good suits as though from the mists of time. Gleeson is about to be granted the State's first ever posthumous pardon, on foot of his conviction and execution in early 1941 for a murder he did not commit.
It was Gleeson who discovered Moll McCarthy's body, on a November morning in 1940, when he was out walking his dogs close to the farm near New Inn, Tipperary, owned by his uncle John Caesar, for whom he worked as a farmhand. McCarthy had been shot twice in the face. Gleeson reported the discovery to gardai, but soon emerged as their chief suspect. Moll was the mother of six children, all reputedly fathered by different men from the locality. It would be suggested at Gleeson's trial that he was the father of her last child, born just six months before her murder.
From this implication, the prosecution's case took a predictable line, insinuating that Gleeson, having expectations of inheriting his uncle's farm, killed McCarthy to prevent the truth coming out. The circumstances in which Moll and her children lived were primitive and challenging, and it was said that she had a number of ongoing liaisons with powerful local men who helped her financially. She had been denounced more than once from the pulpit of the local church and burned out of her house by angry neighbours.
In 1998, I was commissioned by the BBC to write a screenplay based on a book on these events, Marcus Bourke's Murder at Marlhill. Bourke spent many years investigating the Gleeson story, and compiled an extensive document of the circumstance in which Harry came to be framed. The film rights of Bourke's book had been acquired by Charles Garrad, an Englishman who had worked in various production capacities on various Irish movie and TV projects, including the 1998 production of John McGahern's novel Amongst Women.
In the intervening years we've been collaborating intermittently on the project under the working title Silence, a reference to the chilling omerta that descended around Gleeson, who was allowed to swing while an entire community, well aware of the true identities of the perpetrators, stood idly by.
In those 17 years, the project has involved half a dozen production companies, most of whom, after initial interest, either couldn't raise the funds or got our backs up because they wanted to turn the story into something it wasn't. One Australian 'script doctor' declared the dialogue "too Irish".
Others complained about the "passivity" of Gleeson's character, an unavoidable aspect if you wanted to tell what happened. Gleeson's personality was simple, direct, silent, blessed with an extraordinarily literal faith. Throughout the events leading to his execution, he presented a level of acceptance that drained the primary narrative of dramatic dynamism. It took quite some time of living with the story for the deeper drama to emerge.
The saga of the Gleeson stitch-up provides remarkable insights into the fabric of life in Ireland in the Emergency years: the powers-that-be seeking a scapegoat to cover their own secrets, a community going along out of cowardice and self-interest. Gleeson was an easy mark, an outsider with a placid character. Church, police, legal and political establishments, the republican movement, and the fear-based dynamics of a society not long removed from a dirty civil war, all played their part in the conspiracy of silence that did for Harry.
Bourke's book captures beautifully the almost saintly aspects of Gleeson's character. Gleeson, in his late 30s, a partly-deaf farm labourer, originally from Holycross, Tipperary, was a blow-in to New Inn. An amateur musician and loner, he was profoundly hard of hearing, possibly slightly autistic, and undoubtedly possessed of a kind of natural innocence almost impossible to imagine outside of his time and presence.
More than once I travelled with Harry Gleeson as he walked his dogs that fateful morning of November 22, 1940, and came upon the body of Moll McCarthy in the field he had ploughed the day before. I waited with him for the inevitable knock on the door. I stood with him on the gallows, facing Albert Pierrepoint, less than six months after Moll's body was discovered.
The story of the stitch-up is relentlessly bleak and chastening. There were threats, beatings of at least one witness and wholesale withholding of vital evidence. At the trial, several people who should have been key witnesses for the defence, including Gleeson's uncle and aunt, were mysteriously not called. The judge improperly guided the jury in a direction indicated by the prosecution.
Bourke's book, though astonishingly rich in detail, did not provide a precise account of why Gleeson has been targeted, or of the full range of figures involved in his demise. Bourke told me that he had been reluctant to tell the full story in print because some relatives of the conspirators remained alive around New Inn.
Bourke is now dead, but for several years we kept in close contact and he shared with me many details and theories that are not in his book. It now transpires that documents found among his papers have been crucial in achieving, at last, the exoneration of Harry Gleeson.
In its early stages of development, our script felt like a whodunnit, focusing on the intricate detail of the last months of Gleeson's life - the murder, the aftermath, the police non-investigation, the almost summary trial, the subsequent last-minute attempts to overturn the verdict or achieve a governmental pardon.
But more and more, Charles and I became fascinated by the possibilities of the story of the developing relationship between Gleeson and one of his lawyers - Sean MacBride, the former Chief of Staff of the IRA, who acted as junior counsel in Gleeson's defence team and who subsequently went on to become a founder-member of Amnesty International and one of the Republic's most eminent elder statesmen. MacBride's feelings about the Gleeson case were later said to be a primary influence for his relentless campaigning against the death penalty.
We began to focus our attention on the inner turmoil of MacBride as he trundled towards the gallows alongside Gleeson. In the appeal and subsequent petition to the then Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, MacBride essentially took control, exerting himself ever more powerfully and wholeheartedly in Gleeson's interest.
There are many paradoxes, contradictions, cultural clashes and dissonances in the collision of MacBride and New Inn. With his strange French-Irish accent, he would have struck a jarring note in this habitat. A life-long militant republican, he had recently entered Civvy Street. In his engagement with New Inn and its various protagonists, he was persistently confronted by how little he knew about the people he had adopted as his own. New Inn during the Emergency was a minor hotbed of a kind of Dad's Army-style peacetime republicanism, and it was from here that the lethal threat to Moll emerged. The idea of long-decommissioned patriots turning to criminality, not unfamiliar nowadays, must have been especially troubling to MacBride.
Aside from his own republican past there was the fact that MacBride's father, Major John MacBride, had been one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, executed by the British in the spring of 1916. Major MacBride is remembered mainly in the characterisation by WB Yeats, who in the poem Easter 1916 described him as a "drunken vainglorious lout", perhaps the most outrageous slur in Irish literature.
Soon after her wedding to John MacBride in Paris in 1903, Maud Gonne gave birth to Seaghan, later Sean. After an ugly divorce, in which she made innumerable charges against her husband, most of which were rejected by the court, Gonne took off to Paris with the young Sean and, using Yeats as her Director of Propaganda, did everything in her power to prevent John MacBride developing a relationship with his son. In a calculated effort to distance Seaghan from his father, Gonne insisted that his first language be French - hence Sean MacBride's lifelong peculiar French accent. John MacBride was permitted visiting rights every Monday at Gonne's home. Heartbroken at the outcome, he visited Sean on a couple of extremely tense occasions, and eventually returned to Dublin. He would never see his son again.
Major MacBride was sentenced to death on May 4, 1916, and shot the following morning. Kevin Christopher Higgins, in a poem about the execution, How He Died, quoted words attributed to MacBride addressing his firing squad: 'Let you rest well o' nights; myself will do it for one!/And tell them nobody cried!'
For the whole of his life Sean MacBride was rarely known to speak of his father. His writings contain just a handful of references, and most of these might have been written by a detached historian. In one short passage, he distantly described being called out of church one morning while attending college in France to be told that his father had just been executed.
When I started delving into this aspect of the MacBride backstory, it became obvious that his accompaniment of Gleeson in those final fraught days must have provoked him for the first time to face the enormity of what had happened to his father. Here, it was obvious, we had the title for our Gleeson movie: Nobody Cried.
In his final encounter with MacBride, on the night before his execution, Gleeson would say: "I have nothing to be afraid of. I have said my confession. I would not change places with any man in this world tonight. I am happy to go now. My only worry is for those that are left behind me, with this hanging over them for ever more . . . The last thing I want to say to you is that I will pray tomorrow that whoever did it will be discovered and that the whole thing will be like an open book. I rely on you then to clear my name. I have no confession to make, only that I didn't do it."