Women and the death penalty in Ireland

The stories of the only two women hanged for murder in 20th-century Ireland and those who were sentenced to death only to be given a last-minute reprieve

Michael Mallin and Countess Markievicz being escorted away by British troops after the Easter Rising. Both were sentenced to death and Mallin was executed but but Markievicz was recommended for mercy “solely and only on account of her sex”. Photograph: National Museum of Ireland

One hundred years ago Countess Markievicz was sentenced to death for her part in the Easter Rising, but was recommended for mercy "solely and only on account of her sex". She was one of a large number of women who had the ultimate punishment imposed on them in 20th-century Ireland but as was the case for the vast majority of women she would see her death sentence commuted to imprisonment at the last minute.

Two women would pay the ultimate price for murder after 1900, however. Mary Daly lived in Crettyard, Co Laois in the early part of the century and was married to John. The couple had two children but their marriage was said to be far from harmonious. The Dalys were at loggerheads constantly and Mary was even said to have attacked her husband with a hatchet on one occasion. At some point in their marriage she began having an affair with her neighbour, Joseph Taylor, although he was about 15 years younger than she was. She complained about her husband to Taylor and eventually the two lovers decided that killing John would be to their advantage.

Mary seemed to have been the instigator, giving money to the young man in return for completing the grim task. Taylor, after drinking alcohol all day, arrived at Daly’s house on the night of June 16th, 1902. He beckoned John Daly over, before beating him to the ground. He then kicked the older man repeatedly before finally getting a pitchfork and using it to brutally finish him off. Mary Daly’s two children witnessed the attack and gave evidence against their mother and Taylor. The court eventually decided that Mary Daly, along with her lover, deserved to be executed for their crime and both were hanged within days of each other. Mary Daly would be the first woman executed in Ireland for more than 30 years. Offaly woman Margaret Sheil had been put to death in 1870 along with her brother Lawrence after the pair killed their neighbour, Patrick Dunne.

It would be 22 years after Mary Daly's death that another woman would suffer the same fate. The similarities in the two cases are striking. Annie Barrett married Ned Walsh in 1916 and moved to his family home in Fedamore, Co Limerick. Ned was 30 years Annie's senior and the couple lived in abject poverty in a small cottage outside the village. It was an unhappy marriage and Annie Walsh began an affair with her husband's nephew, Michael Talbot. The lovers eventually decided to murder Ned Walsh. They hoped that Annie would receive compensation for his death and they could use it to elope together. Ned Walsh was killed in his own home with a hatchet on the night of October 25th, 1924.


Annie did not stick to their story about an intruder, however. After rigorous questioning she told gardaí that Michael Talbot had murdered her husband. Talbot, realising that he had been double-crossed, pointed the finger at Annie Walsh for the murder. Both defendants pleaded not guilty in court, with each placing the blame squarely on the other. It would not prove to be a clever strategy. Both prisoners were found guilty and hanged in August 1925. Annie Walsh had hoped until the end that her sentence would be commuted. Looking at the history of condemned women in Ireland, it was a reasonable aspiration. For reasons known only to the Irish Government of the time, however, Annie Walsh would not receive a commutation and would be the only woman hanged by an independent Ireland.

Despite these two exceptions, women would generally have a far better chance of seeing their death sentence reprieved than men. Of the criminals hanged for murder in Ireland in the 20th century, only two of over forty would be female. One woman who committed an unspeakable crime but received a reprieve in the early days of the State was Hannah Flynn. Flynn was from Killorglin and had been dismissed from her job as a domestic servant by the O'Sullivans in 1922. Flynn, described as sullen and rather dull, harboured a burning resentment towards her former employers, however. She threatened them with violence several times and attacked Daniel O'Sullivan. On Easter Sunday 1923, Daniel went to Mass, leaving his wife Margaret at home to prepare for dinner. When he returned home he found her beaten to death after a horrific and prolonged attack with a hatchet. Money and valuables had also been stolen from the house. Flynn had been seen in the area and footprints outside the house matched her shoes. She was also found to have Margaret's shawl in her possession. The jury needed little time to find her guilty and sentenced her to death, a sentence that was commuted days afterwards. She would serve 18 years in prison before being released into a convent.

Other women who would see the judge place the black cap on his head and pronounce the dreaded death sentence on them were Jane O'Brien, Mary Somerville and Mary Agnes Daly. All three would be reprieved shortly before their sentences was due to be carried out. Sixty-year-old O'Brien had shot her nephew dead in Killinick, Co Wexford in 1932 after he threatened to evict her from the farmhouse they shared in the village. Somerville was found guilty of taking her unmarried daughter's new-born baby girl and throwing her into a pond outside her Co Monaghan home in 1938. Ten years later Mary Agnes Daly (27) would spot 83-year-old Mary Gibbons kneeling in prayer in a church in Glasnevin. Daly, who was in arrears with her rent money, beat the elderly woman over the head with a hammer in an attempt to steal her bag. She would die some days later. Daly denied the crime but was caught red-handed and sentenced to death. After a reprieve she would spend six years in jail instead.

Another condemned woman was Frances Cox from Co Laois. Cox was a Protestant and due to marry a local Catholic, a match of which her brother Richard did not approve. Fearing her lover was getting cold feet, Frances decided to kill her brother to speed up the wedding process. She put strychnine in several drinks she prepared for Richard, eventually causing him an agonising death. Suspicion was quick to fall on her and she was found guilty of murder after a six-day trial in December 1949. Cox would also have a narrow escape, being reprieved two weeks before her date with the hangman Pierrepoint.

The death penalty for common murder would remain on the Irish statute books until 1964. Among the last prisoners to be under sentence of death was American citizen Mamie Cadden, known in Dublin as the Hume Street abortionist. She performed illegal terminations in her home in Dublin but when a client, Helen O'Reilly, died on the operating table in her kitchen in 1956, Cadden coldly left her body lying on the street. The details of the case stunned Ireland, a conservative nation in the 1950s where abortion was strictly prohibited. Cadden was sentenced to hang, before having her sentence commuted to penal servitude for life. After just a year in prison she was declared insane and transferred to Dundrum Mental Hospital where she died two years later.

In 1964 the law was altered so that the death sentence could only be pronounced in the case of capital, or political, murder. Marie Murray would be the last woman in the condemned cell. She and her husband Noel were found guilty of murder in 1975 after Garda Michael Reynolds was shot dead. The Garda was running after the pair who had just robbed a bank in Killester. Although overtures were allegedly made to England for the employment of a hangman, the pair eventually received a reprieve and were sentenced to penal servitude for life.

In 1990, the government passed the Criminal Justice Act, which prohibited capital punishment for all crimes, including treason and capital murder. These offences would now receive a mandatory 40-year jail term without parole instead. In 2001, Ireland went a step further when 62 per cent of the Irish electorate voted to place a constitutional ban on the death penalty, even in wartime. Forty-seven years after the last execution by the State, and 76 years after the execution of Annie Walsh, the hangman’s noose was put away forever.

Sentenced to Death: Saved from the Gallows (Somerville Press)Opens in new window ]