The Framing of Harry Gleeson author Kieran Fagan on how an innocent man was hanged
‘Fairly soon I knew who had murdered Moll. And I had a good idea why. But how they got away with it, that was the mystery’
When Harry Gleeson met his lawyer in the condemned cell in Mountjoy prison, MacBride’s note records his client’s final words: “The last thing I want to say I will pray tomorrow that whoever did it will be discovered and that the whole thing while be like an open book.” The Framing of Harry Gleeson is intended to be that book
Where do the ideas for books come from? This one started in Dún Laoghaire on a summer afternoon in 2009. I was early for an X-ray in St Michael’s hospital, and I was killing time in a second-hand bookshop. Some words on the back of a slim paperback caught my eye.
“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 if I can whenever you [his defence lawyers] are fighting and battling for justice.”
The speaker was Harry Gleeson, talking to his counsel Seán MacBride on Tuesday, April 22nd, 1941, the day before he was hanged for the murder of his neighbour Moll Carthy.
Those words bothered me, as they have done others, in the intervening 74 years. I read Murder at Marlhill later that afternoon, and two things became very clear to me: Harry Gleeson was innocent, and Marcus Bourke, author of Murder at Marlhill, knew the names of those who had carried out the murders, but had intentionally withheld that information.
I found him living in a book-lined flat in Clontarf, in poor health but with all his faculties. Yes, he did know who had murdered Moll Carthy, and it wasn’t Harry, but he was in no hurry to give me the names. Marcus Bourke had, like me, been a journalist at Independent Newspapers. By the time I joined in 1981 he had studied law and was working as a parliamentary draftsman. He tired soon and I left him. He told me he would be in hospital in January 2010 and I should visit again after he got out. His health deteriorated and he died soon after.
So I was on my own. Nosy Dubliners poking around in other people’s business in south Tipperary tend not to get very far. And another book project beckoned, co-writing Ed Walsh’s memoir Upstart about the founding of the University of Limerick.
Suddenly it was 2012, and the words in the condemned cell still haunted me. And Moll McCarthy herself had burned her way in to my consciousness. In poor circumstances, with six children to feed, living in a rundown cottage, relying on “gifts” from the respectable men who fathered her children, her spikiness and her spirit attracted me. I was particularly taken by an episode outside the local national school when the respectable women were staring at Moll’s children looking for a likeness to a husband, son or brother. Moll told them to clear off. Her children were every bit as good as theirs. Didn’t they have the same fathers?
So it was back to Tipperary and some of the worst cases of amnesia I have ever encountered. One man – shown a photograph of his own uncle – claimed he had never seen or heard of him in his life. A priest who had ministered in Cashel diocese denied any knowledge of Harry Gleeson or Moll McCarthy, yet I later caught him out having a very well-informed, two-hour discussion on the subject with a neighbour.
And if deliberate amnesia was not bad enough, there were others who wanted to find out what I knew, in case I knew anything about scandals affecting members of their family that had no bearing on the Harry Gleeson case. Hours were wasted wandering up and down these fruitless byways. In looking at the people who lived in and around New Inn in the 1940s, I was looking at a microcosm of Irish society, and everyone had a secret, it seemed, be it something so minor as an inconveniently early date on a birth certificate, an uncle who had left the priesthood, or a marriage overseas for which there was no documentation.
To make things worse, the Harry Gleeson trial file was missing when I sought it in the National Archives. That happens, I was told, things get misfiled, we’ll keep an eye out for it. Cue for conspiracy theories? Perhaps. I returned six weeks later. Still no joy. What about the appeal file? Oh yes, you can have that.
It came in a big bulky folder, suspiciously large for an appeal file, and the trial file had found its way inside it. End of conspiracy theory. Even better, when I opened it, a piece of A4 paper had been folded inside. It was a note, in Marcus Bourke’s handwriting, accusing a local man of firing the fatal shot. Now, in local parlance, I was sucking diesel.
Fairly soon I knew who had murdered Moll. And I had a good idea why. But how they got away with it, that was the mystery. That goes back to the state of the nation barely 20 years after independence: untrained and poorly-led gardaí; the presence of respected former IRA members in every community – people who could and would take the law into their own hands when the official channels failed to work, as they clearly had when Moll was allowed to practice the oldest profession with impunity.
Add to that a wretched performance by the local clergy who stood aside when an innocent man went to the gallows. Defence counsel Seán MacBride spoke at Harry’s trial about a conspiracy of silence in New Inn. Some 70 years later Seán Delaney, who led the Justice for Harry Gleeson group’s campaign for a pardon, suggested that it was more like a reign of terror. A local vigilante group had murdered Moll, it had intimidated the forces of law and order, it had framed an innocent man, its associates had ruthlessly murdered one of their own in Michael Devereux. What might those people do to you if you were stupid enough to open your mouth?
When Harry Gleeson met his lawyer in the condemned cell in Mountjoy prison, MacBride’s note records his client’s final words: “The last thing I want to say I will pray tomorrow that whoever did it will be discovered and that the whole thing while be like an open book.”
The Framing of Harry Gleeson is intended to be that book.
Kieran Fagan is the author of The Framing of Harry Gleeson, published by the Collins Press, at €12.99. collinspress.ie