Wednesday 14 November 2018

End of the rope: last man to hang

The last killer to be executed in Ireland might have fallen through the trapdoor 60 years ago, but the death penalty wasn't abolished until 1990. How times have changed...

Death penalty: reporter Graham Clifford holds the hangman’s noose in the Mountjoy Museum, a grim reminder of a form of punishment meted out until as recently as 1954. Photo: Martin Maher.
Death penalty: reporter Graham Clifford holds the hangman’s noose in the Mountjoy Museum, a grim reminder of a form of punishment meted out until as recently as 1954. Photo: Martin Maher.
Hangman Albert Pierrepoint.
Kevin Barry, one of the 163 people who were executed in Ireland during the last century.

Graham Clifford

The lever-operated trapdoor opened and the prisoner fell nearly eight feet with the hangman's noose tied around his neck. Convicted murderer John Toole dropped, the rope tightened, and at 8am on March 7 he was executed at Dublin's Mountjoy Prison. He had slit the throat of his lover, Elizabeth Brennan, as she'd slept. Outside, a crowd of around 500 heard the prison bell toll and a black flag rose slowly to signal the passing of the prisoner.

In the execution chamber or hang house as it's become known, I pull back the lever to open the door beneath as the executioners had done across six decades during the last century.

It was here that prisoners such as Kevin Barry took their last few steps before the double-doors below opened. Glass panels above would have provided their last glimpse of the skies outside.

Few have been allowed back into this building, which for decades was locked and off-limits. It remains as it was left in the middle of the last century save for a bricked-up doorway leading to the condemned cells.

Curator at the Mountjoy Museum Sean Reynolds, who worked here as an officer for 34 years, tells me the hangings were carried out quickly.

"From the moment the condemned entered the hang house to the moment they died took no more than 10 seconds – often less," he says.

"The executioners became experts at planning the hangings, estimating how much rope to give based on the prisoner's height and weight and ensuring the killings were as close to instant as possible." In the museum I hold nooses used to kill prisoners and a hood to cover their faces.

In all, 163 people were executed in the Republic of Ireland in the last century – 49 of them here in Mountjoy and many during the various wars linked to the republican struggle, most notably the execution of the Easter Rising leaders in 1916.

But between 1924 and 1954, the State executed 31 people. Two of these were killed by firing squad in Portlaoise Prison – Richard Goss in 1941 for shooting at Free State forces, and IRA member George Plant a year later for murdering a suspected informer.

Women too fell foul of the dreaded hangman's noose.

In January 1903, Mary Daly was executed in Tullamore the day after the execution of her lover Joseph Taylor in Kilkenny for the murder of John Daly, Mary's husband. The lovers were convicted largely on the evidence of Mary's 11-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter.

Twenty-two years later, a similar tragic tale unfolded when Annie Walsh of Limerick was hanged for the murder of her husband. His nephew, Michael Talbot, was hanged about 15 minutes before her. Walsh and Talbot had been having an affair.

It has been 50 years since the death penalty was abolished in Ireland (1964) for all crimes but the murder of gardaí, diplomats and prison officers. Amazingly, it was not until 1990 that it was abolished for these remaining offences.

The last state execution took place in 1954 when 25-year old Michael Manning from Limerick was hanged after he was found guilty of the rape and murder of Catherine Cooper, a 65-year-old nurse.

Manning's execution was carried out in Mountjoy by Albert Pierrepoint, who had travelled from Britain. Pierrepoint executed at least 400 people in his career as a hangman – 13 of those in Mountjoy.

Albert's Uncle Tom carried out the majority of executions from 1923 to 1944 in Ireland. Included in his list of victims was Charlie Kerins, who was executed on December 1, 1944, for the murder of detective sergeant Denis O'Brien at his home in Rathfarnham. Though Kerins was an IRA member, the Taoiseach of the day, Eamon de Valera, was determined to make an example of him by executing him as a regular criminal. So instead of facing a firing squad, like other IRA men, Kerins was hanged at Mountjoy.

The youngest person to be executed in the last century in Ireland was 18-year-old Gerard Toal. The chauffeur was convicted of the murder of housekeeper Mary Callan (36) in Faughart, Co Louth, in the summer of 1927. Toal confessed that he had strangled her after a quarrel and then thrown her body into a water-filled quarry. He was hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint in Mountjoy on August 29 1928.

Also executed, in 1941, was Harry Gleeson, who was hanged for the murder of his neighbour Mary "Moll" McCarthy, a mother-of-seven in Tipperary. Last November, the then Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, ordered a review into the case. Mr Gleeson found Moll McCarthy's body but denied her murder. Between 1954, when the last prisoner was executed by the State, and 1990, when the death penalty was abolished entirely, 11 people were handed death sentences but none were executed.

In 1976 Noel and Marie Murray were convicted of the murder of Garda Michael Reynolds following a bank robbery in Killester. The off duty garda had chased the criminals into St. Anne's park in Raheny but was shot in the head as he attempted to stop them from fleeing with their loot of £7,000. They were sentenced to death, but as the garda was not in uniform or on-duty, the Supreme Court overturned the punishment. It sent shock waves throughout the country, but Noel and Marie Murray were instead sentenced to life in prison and were both released in 1992.

The Dáil finally abolished the death penalty completely in 1990 and replaced it with a 40-year minimum prison term for exceptional murders.

The death penalty: Alive and well

While it's been six decades since the last execution was carried out here there are still 21 countries across the globe which continue to use the ultimate punishment tool.

Among those nations that still execute prisoners are China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Japan and, of course, the US.

In those US states that continue to use capital punishment, the method of execution varies from hanging to lethal injection, firing squad, electric chair and gas chamber.

Between 2007 and 2012, it's thought that thousands of people were executed in China, making it the world leader in the gruesome act.

In second place was Iran with 1,663 executions, followed by Saudi Arabia (423), Iraq (256) and the US (220).

And just earlier this year, an Egyptian judge sentenced 683 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death after an eight-minute trial following the coup in the country.

In August 2011, a survey conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion in the UK showed that 65pc of Britons supported reinstating the death penalty for murder.

Closer to home, the outgoing Mayor of Limerick Kevin Kiely advocated in 2010 that the death penalty should be given to "anyone involved in the planning and premeditation of a murder".

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