Life

Saturday 17 August 2019

Scapegoats and dark secrets in a small Irish town

Harry Gleeson
Harry Gleeson

Fiona O'Connell

Posters for various events are displayed around this country town, vying for the attention of passers-by. One that caught my eye recently was for a play called Lovers Meeting. For the lack of an apostrophe brought to mind the infamous case of Mary 'Moll' McCarthy, the mother of seven children by, it's said, as many different men, whose murder this month back in 1940 remains unsolved.

The twists and turns of this horrible whodunit seem endless, what with the killer's identity supposedly an open secret among the community at the time, and suspects that included a priest and local gardai. The IRA was also embroiled. Indeed, some claim this is why their former chief, Sean McBride, failed in his defence of Henry 'Harry' Gleeson. Leading to this innocent man being executed for the crime.

Gleeson received the first posthumous pardon in the history of this State only two years ago. Little wonder this not so ancient history still haunts locals, like the woman who lives a short distance from Marlhill, near New Inn, County Tipperary, where the murder occurred. She always thinks of Harry Gleeson whenever she sees a neighbour walking his greyhounds - for Gleeson loved his greyhounds too. Maybe the bachelor was right to favour canine company, given his treatment at human hands in a town where - like Moll McCarthy, who was used and abused by so many of its men - he was a blow-in.

Certainly, Moll's killer guessed correctly that Gleeson (who worked on his uncle's farm next door to Moll) would be the one to find her lying dead in one of the fields, that wintry morning of November 21, with two gunshots wounds to her face. And that then - prompted by civic duty and the dangerous lack of guile of the innocent - he would walk into the trap by calling to the guards to report his grim discovery.

Though how Moll survived as long as she did is itself a miracle.

She had already riled the other women in village by naming her sons after their already married fathers, and her daughters after the fathers' mothers. The women retaliated by repeatedly bringing Moll to court, hoping in the process to get rid of those living reminders of their husbands' infidelity, some of whom likely resembled their own children. But Judge Troy would not condemn her. Their problem was solved when someone got rid of Moll forever. Making it finally possible to visit the sins of the fathers upon her brood, who were sent away and never heard of again.

Until decades later, when an elderly lady grew weepy one night and confided her lamentable life story in a friendly nurse. She explained how she had been locked up in an institution after she witnessed her mother's murder in their home. Before her body was dumped in a field, where another unmarried soul was doomed to discover it.

Harry Gleeson's pardon was announced on April 1 - widely known as April Fools' Day. Which adds a tragic twist to the expression "fool for love".

Sunday Independent

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