Sixty years since Dublin’s last hanging
Opinion: How long will we have to wait for US to abolish executions?
Sunday marks the 60th anniversary of a gruesome but important event in Irish history, namely the final occasion that an English hangman came to Dublin to work the gallows at Mountjoy prison.
The last man in Ireland to feel Albert Pierrepoint place a noose around his neck was Michael Manning, a 25-year-old carter from Limerick. Manning had ambushed and suffocated Catherine Cooper, a nurse 40 years his senior. This was a brutal crime involving a vulnerable victim who had been badly beaten and sexually assaulted.
By Manning’s own account he was making his way home after a day’s drinking when he saw a woman he did not recognise walking alone. As he put it afterwards, “I suddenly lost my head and jumped on the woman and remember no more until the lights of a car shone on me.” Manning took flight at this point but was arrested within hours.
He apologised for what he had done and blamed his appalling conduct on the effects of the large quantity of alcohol he had consumed. He also argued that while guilty, he was insane. The jury was not persuaded and convicted him of murder. In accordance with the law the judge imposed the death penalty.
Manning wrote to the minister for justice from his prison cell seeking mercy but his entreaties were to no avail. Similarly, a petition for clemency signed by members of the Cooper family failed to deflect justice from its dismal course.
Adding to the poignancy of the occasion, Manning’s 22-year-old wife was heavily pregnant with their first child. She wrote to the governor of the prison the week after her husband’s execution to thank him and his staff for their kindness, and to request a death certificate so she could claim her widow’s pension.
It appears that Manning bore his sentence well, passing his time smoking
cigarettes and reading the Irish Independent . On the morning of his execution he attended Mass. The prison’s Catholic chaplains reported that he faced death with “fortitude and resignation”.
Just before 8am on April 20th, 1954, Pierrepoint and his assistant entered the condemned man’s cell and pinioned his wrists. Together they made the short journey to the hang house. Upon arrival Manning was positioned on the heavy oak trap doors. His legs were strapped, a linen cap was pulled over his head and the rope, made of Italian hemp, was fixed in place.
The officials stood aside, the trap doors were thrown open, and Manning fell to his death. Pierrepoint prided himself on his skill calculating the drop required to break a prisoner’s neck swiftly. This calculation related the length of the rope to the prisoner’s weight and physical condition. Having carried out several hundred hangings Pierrepoint had unrivalled expertise in this area. For Manning, death was instantaneous.
In the aftermath of the execution Pierrepoint is reputed to have said: “I love hanging Irish men. They always go quietly and without trouble. They’re Christian men and they believe they’re going to a better place.”
The prison officers involved on the day were less sanguine. For them, dealing with a broken body was a rare and unpleasant duty. To help alleviate their distress, the medical officer requisitioned two bottles of whiskey.
Manning was the last of 30 prisoners to be hanged between 1923 and 1954. Another five were executed by firing squad, having been dealt with by military tribunals during the Emergency. The marksmen were Irish soldiers but the hangmen always travelled from England.
In the early 1940s an attempt was made to recruit a local executioner and a man known by the pseudonym of Thomas Johnston was sent to Pierrepoint for training. Johnston was supposed to officiate at the hanging of Joseph McManus in 1947 but he lost his nerve at the last moment. Pierrepoint, who was there to assist, took charge and concluded the formalities with his customary efficiency. The career of the would-be Irish hangman progressed no further.
The Criminal Justice Act 1964 limited the death penalty to a narrow range of offences and capital punishment was abolished for all crimes in 1990.
It is 60 years since crowds gathered at Mountjoy to pray for the souls of the about to be departed. At this remove capital punishment appears anachronistic, a reminder of less enlightened times.
The international trend is for the death penalty to fall into disuse before it is eventually removed from the statute book. This has been the pattern across Europe and most of the developed world, which makes its retention in the United States all the more striking.
While the number of executions carried out in the US each year is small, there are many inmates on death row. The wheels of justice grind slowly, and uncertainly, for them. One Florida prisoner waited 35 years before being strapped to a gurney and given a lethal injection last May. By contrast, Michael Manning was executed five months after his crime.
This is not an argument in favour of speedier executions but an expression of hope that we do not have to wait another 60 years until the final prisoner in the US is led into the death chamber.
Ian O’Donnell is professor of criminology at University College Dublin.