The chilling legacy of 50 years of hangings at Mountjoy Prison

Last used 60 years ago, the Hang Room in the jail retains sorrow and eeriness

Sean Reynolds, curator of Mountjoy Prison Museum shows us some of its very unusual exhibits and brings us into the prison's execution chamber, known as the 'hang house' which was last used in 1954.

It is the most chilling room you will ever stand in. The Hang Room – or execution room – at Mountjoy Prison in Dublin was last used in 1954, but it remains intact, tucked at the back of a wing of the prison undergoing renovation.

Retired prison officer Seán Reynolds, who curates a small museum on the prison site, unlocked the door to this grim chamber during a visit facilitated by the Irish Prison Service this week.

Even the tool-buzz and chatter of workers renovating adjacent rooms doesn't detract from the eeriness of this space where 45 men and one woman were hanged between 1901 and 1954. They included the young Kevin Barry and nine other volunteers executed during the War of Independence and buried on the prison grounds until their remains were disinterred in 2001.

The first man hanged in Mountjoy was John Toole, executed on March 7th 1901 for the murder of Lizzie Brennan on Charlemont Street; the last execution was that of Michael Manning on April 20th 1954 for the murder of nurse Catherine Cooper.


Annie Walsh, the only woman hanged here, was executed on August 5th 1925 for the murder of her husband Ned.

Standing above the open trap doors, Reynolds recounts the story the last hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, told of himself: that he had hanged a man "in less time than it took the ash to fall off a cigar I had left half-smoked in my room at Pentonville [prison]".

Nine seconds to die

Between eight and nine seconds would elapse from the time a prisoner was led through the door from the condemned cell and their drop through the doors into the void of the lower chamber.

The museum itself – not open to the public – is housed in an old cash-and-carry on the prison site. This small room, tended by Reynolds for a few hours each week, contains hundreds of artefacts, many of them donated by family members of retired or dead prison staff.

“I always had an interest in these old bits and pieces you can see around me here. With the help of our chief officer here at the time, Jim Petherbridge, we decided we’d set up a museum. I’ve been running this now here since I retired in 2006,” says Reynolds.

At the back of the room, two huge wooden panels dating from 1858 and from the old Protestant church in the prison, display the Ten Commandments.

Not an inch of wall or floor is free of pictures, artefacts or prison memorabilia. Most are connected to Mountjoy's 164-year-old history but some are from other prisons in Ireland and elsewhere.

Cabinets display implements of torture alongside the most mundane of items once used by prisoners and prison officers. Old-school cigarette and tobacco packs lie beside whistles on chains, a cat-o-nine-tails and birch rods once used for delivering lashes. Tailors’ dummies model uniforms worn by prison officers and prisoners – many made from tweed woven on one of the 24 looms once housed in the prison’s workshops.

At one stage there were two tailors, two shoemakers and a weaver on the prison staff.

Release outfit

The so-called liberty suit, cut from very fine cloth, stands out. “That was given to a prisoner on release after completing a penal servitude sentence. Anything over three years; he was entitled to a suit of clothes going home,” Reynolds explains.

There are items you might previously have thought were the work of writers’ imaginations, such as the skilfully plaited strands of a bedsheet used to make a rope for an escape attempt. “Thanks to the due diligence of the staff, that was caught before it could be used.”

A modern Chambers dictionary on a table beside an old telephone turns out to have had its pages hollowed out – the ideal hiding place for a mobile phone or a knife, says Reynolds.

"Someone was a fan of the Shawshank Redemption."

Reynolds says the stand-out item for him in the museum is a German Maxim gun, found in poor condition under a kitchen in 2006 when the foundations were being dug for a new medical unit.

Prisoner Markievicz

It was recently restored with the help of prison officers and the Army at the Curragh.

Some famous and infamous names appear in registers on display. The name of Constance Georgine Markievicz is neatly inked in one along with the charges against her for partaking in the 1916 Rising. Markievicz had been transferred from Kilmainham Gaol after the rebellion. In another book is the name of Mary Anne (Mamie) Cadden, the Dublin back-street abortionist sentenced to death after one of her patients died of an embolism in 1951.

The sentence was later commuted. Cadden’s name is recorded with a tally of points awarded by the prison officer in charge for her knitting skills.

Meticulous preparation for the hangings is reflected in items on display – a dummy made of a type of sack-cloth, which would be filled with sand to help calculate the rope drop required to successfully execute a prisoner.

A plaster “death mask” of Pierrepoint is on the wall, along with a handwritten table of “drops” based on a prisoner’s weight and height. Reynolds unlocks a wooden crate which has been in the prison since 1900. Thick, hangman’s ropes and some heavy leather straps, used to bind a prisoners’ hands behind their back before being hanged, are nestled inside.

It is deeply disturbing, the heft of this rope in your hands, the leather covering the noose cracking in places.

“These were all used; every one of them,” says Reynolds.