Legal Opinion: Death of capital punishment does not end law and order

The last men sentenced to death in Ireland were both released late last year. Michael McHugh and Noel Callan murdered Patrick Morrissey, an unarmed Garda sergeant, after a robbery in Ardee in June 1985.

President Patrick Hillery, acting on the then government’s advice, commuted their sentences to 40 years penal servitude. As the men were entitled to remission at the standard rate of one quarter, their releases took place a decade earlier than originally envisaged.

Ireland’s relationship with the death penalty has long been ambivalent and it will come as a relief to many that the final link with this abhorrent practice has been consigned to history.

In the Free State’s early years, there was a debate about whether capital punishment should be abolished as an unwelcome reminder of the colonial power. It was retained on the basis that the ultimate sanction was an essential part of the State’s repertoire when it came to dealing with the threat of subversion.

The rationale behind retention was that the decision-making calculus of the political offender would be more likely to be influenced by a considered assessment of costs and benefits than the criminal who acted in the heat of the moment.

Yet, of the 35 executions carried out after Independence, only six involved politically motivated offenders.

There were other curiosities. While the government was prepared to allow the executions of IRA members on home soil, it lobbied the UK government to dissuade it from taking similar action in England and Northern Ireland for fear of making martyrs of the men concerned.

Reflecting public distaste for the practice, the State found it impossible to recruit a hangman and looked to England whenever there was an Irish murderer’s neck to be broken.

There was a clandestine attempt in the 1940s to train an Irishman to fulfil the executioner's role and the pseudonymous Thomas Johnston travelled to Strangeways prison in Manchester to learn the ropes from Albert Pierrepoint. He assisted at a small number of executions but his nerve failed when called upon to take the lead and he returned to obscurity, unlamented and soon forgotten.


The last man hanged in Ireland was Michael Manning, a 24-year-old carter from Limerick who killed an elderly nurse after a drunken sex attack. He went to the gallows in April 1954, leaving his heavily pregnant wife in a state of high distress.

After 1964, capital punishment was reserved for killers of on-duty gardaí or prison officers. Pockets of support for the death penalty remained. In 1976, when Noel and Marie Murray were convicted of capital murder, a request was sent from the Irish police to their counterparts in London for the services of an executioner.

Unsurprisingly, the authorities in England were not receptive to this entreaty, having abolished the death penalty for murder more than a decade previously. (One wonders if an approach to France might have been more fruitful as the guillotine was still in use at the time. The last man to hear the swish of a downwardly descending blade was Hamida Djandoubi, a sadistic sex killer, who was executed in September 1977.)

In any event, a hangman was not required as the Murrays’ death sentences were overturned on appeal and replaced with terms of life imprisonment.

There was a spate of capital convictions in the 1980s. It is interesting to contrast the fates of the men convicted then with subversive prisoners sentenced to death in earlier years.

If the latter did not benefit from executive clemency they were dead within weeks. If their lives were spared, they were released after periods of time that would be considered absurdly short today. Thomas MacCurtain murdered a Garda detective in 1940 and was granted clemency at the 11th hour, after Thomas Pierrepoint had arrived at Mountjoy prison to hang him. He was released having served less than eight years.

Thomas Hunt was sentenced to death later the same year. He had been involved in a firefight that resulted in the deaths of two gardaí. The government allowed him to live and he was released within five years. It could be said that the politicians who sat around Cabinet tables in the 1980s lacked both the steely resolve and the capacity for mercy exhibited by their predecessors.

Barbaric practice

In 1990, capital punishment was abolished for all offences and a referendum in 2001 removed any reference to capital punishment from the Constitution and prohibited its reintroduction.

When the last men to hear a sentence of death pronounced upon them regained their liberty, the final remnant of a barbaric and uncivilised practice was consigned to history. This will be a cause for quiet satisfaction among those who believe that no circumstances justify the State snuffing out a human life.

There is a message here for the dwindling number of countries that continue to execute their criminals. It is that the abolition of a brutal practice does not presage the breakdown of law and order. How many more death rows will have to empty before this message is learned?

Ian O'Donnell is professor of criminology at UCD. His latest book, Prisoners, Solitude, and Time is published by Oxford University Press