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A murder, a hanged man -- and a plea of innocence from the grave

The very worst part of the story of Harry Gleeson, hanged in 1941 for a murder he did not commit, comes to us in his words to his defence counsel the day before he was hanged.

"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. I rely on you then to clear my name. I have no confession to make, only that I didn't do it. That is all. I will pray for you and be with you if I can whenever you are fighting and battling for justice," he told his young barrister Sean MacBride.

Next morning, Wednesday April 23, 1941, Harry, a farm worker, was hanged for the murder of his neighbour Mary "Moll" Mc Carthy, a mother of seven children by different fathers.

But nothing is as it seems in this dreadful yet fascinating tale. A closer look shows Harry to be a deeply moral man. Moll was an immoral woman but a good mother, whose unorthodox parenting skills were recognised.

In 1993 barrister and historian Marcus Bourke published Murder at Marlhill showing clearly that Harry had not killed Moll.

Now one of Ireland's leading writers Carlo Gebler has produced a fictional version. He gets inside the minds of the participants, telling the story as it might have happened, without the burden of sticking to facts. The Dead Eight, published this week, reads like a thriller, but also throws a spotlight on hitherto unexplained events in a little townland in the New Inn in Co Tipperary in the late-Thirties.

Harry Gleeson managed a good farm of 75 acres in the Golden Vale for his uncle by marriage John Caesar. Moll Carthy and her six children lived in an adjoining cottage and used a well on the Caesar farm to draw water. Early in life Moll had discovered that she had something men wanted, and she provided for her family through a system of barter, a thatched roof repaired by one "friend" a sack of potatoes from another.

This did not go unnoticed in the prosperous Golden Vale, where land was valuable, and inheritance rights sacrosanct. Local housewives gathered outside the nearby Knockgraffon school looking at Moll's children to see if they could see their own husbands' likenesses on the faces of her multiplying brood. In 1926 vigilantes tried to burn Moll and her first two children out by setting her cottage on fire. As Moll's family increased, a parish priest had to intervene to protect her, as did a local landowner's daughter.

Earlier, when a court was asked to remove the children from her care, Judge Sean Troy refused, having spoken to them and found they were being well looked after.

In 1939, Moll had her last child, a little girl called Margaret (Peggie) who only lived for six weeks. This appears to have been the trigger for the tragedy which followed. Harry found Moll's body in a field on Caesar's land on the morning of November 21, 1941.

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There are conflicting views as to who the father of that child was. Some believe it was Harry, and others point the finger at a local garda sergeant who visited her the day before she was thought to have died. There is even doubt about when she died, and the murder charge was altered to "on or about November 20 and 21, 1941".

When Bill O'Connor researched the case in the late-Eighties, local people could name the father of each child, though he did not include the names in his book The Farcical trial of Harry Gleeson, which he published privately.

In fictionalising these events, Gebler brings alive Harry -- whom he calls Badger and Foxy Moll, so-called because of her striking red hair. He reconstructs life as it was, still scarred by the wounds of the Civil War that made enemies of good neighbours. In that conflict he finds the resolution of the question of who killed Moll. He names many real people, in what he says is a "hybrid combining some factual content with a great content of invented speculative material."

Some years ago I began researching this topic. I hope someone will now come forward and help me to name, for once and for all, the true killer of Moll McCarthy, and see Harry Gleeson get the pardon he deserves. Then we can finally close the "open book" of which Harry spoke to Sean MacBride the day before he was hanged.

The Dead Eight, Carlo Gebler's new novel which deals with the murder of Moll McCarthy, will be published next week by New Island, price €11.99.

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