Vatican urged clemency for couple facing execution for murder of garda


Papal appeal:The pope sent his papal nuncio Gaetano Alibrandi to Áras an Uachtaráin in July 1976 to appeal for clemency for Noel and Marie Murray, the couple facing execution for the murder of an off-duty garda during a bank robbery.

Garda Michael Reynolds (27), from Galway, was shot dead when he gave chase to Noel Murray after the bank raid in Killester, Dublin, in September 1975.

The married couple, aged 26 and 27, with an address in Raheny, were sentenced to death by the Special Criminal Court the following June and were to be hanged the following month.

However, the death sentences were eventually overturned and both were sentenced to life imprisonment. They were released from Mountjoy Prison in 1992, having served 17 years.

The Murrays were also involved in a 10-year legal battle to be given conjugal rights so that they could start a family. The Supreme Court rejected their case in 1991, when Ms Murray was 42.

The planned execution of Noel and Marie Murray, who was described as anarchists with links to the republican movement, caused a public sensation here and abroad. The State files contain several volumes of letters seeking clemency for the couple from people from countries such as Venezuela, Canada, Sri Lanka and Sweden.

President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh wrote to taoiseach Liam Cosgrave in July 1976, saying the papal nuncio had called to the Áras that afternoon to personally deliver a letter about the issue.

The letter said Pope Paul VI had received a request for his intervention in the case.

"Though the Holy See does not know the motives of the condemnation, it considers it dutiful, in conformity with its religious and humanitarian mission, to accept this request," it stated. "Therefore the holy father earnestly appeals to the president of Ireland for a gesture of clemency to spare two human lives."

Thousands of letters were sent to the president and the taoiseach seeking clemency from people including Neil Kinnock, then an MP, David Steel, then leader of the Liberal Party and Bella S Abzug from the US Congress.

Lord Longford contacted the Irish Embassy in London asking that the taoiseach and minister for foreign affairs be told about his request to commute the sentences. He said he regarded the sentences with "absolute horror" and if they were implemented it would be "most shameful for Ireland".

However, not all letter writers opposed the execution of the Murrays. In June 1976, WK Cuthbert with an address in the Waterside, Derry, wrote to the taoiseach saying: "I see in today's Belfast Telegraph that you have no hangman to hang the sentenced. I wish to apply for the post."

The files also show that a group of Italian anarchists invaded the Coras Tráchtála (CTT) offices in Milan in protest over the Murray case in July 1976.

Afterwards, a diplomatic official asked the Department of Foreign Affairs about the advisability of seeking police protection for Ireland's two embassy residences in Italy.

Kevin Neligan, director of CTT in Milan, found himself locked into his office with about 30 anarchists who insisted on speaking to the Irish ambassador, or failing that, a member of his staff. Neligan called the police and the group left "fairly quietly".

The official warned that if the executions went ahead, "there is a possibility of violence particularly in Milan where there is a tradition that way. After the recent executions in Spain there were attacks on the Spanish embassy here with petrol bombs and one fatality [ a passer-by shot by a policeman]."

At the time, rumour was rife that some cabinet members wanted to see the couple hanged. A note from a cabinet meeting stated: "M(inister for) Justice asked M(inister)s to be careful not to indicate to anyone outside the council chamber what their views are on the death sentence on the Murrays."

Another memo taken after a cabinet meeting in May 1976 stated: "Agreed that, in due course, if appeal court confirmed the sentence or rejected the appeals of the Murrays, the Government should consider the question of clemency."

Although the death penalty was abolished for most murders in 1964, it was retained for the murder of police and prison officers.

It was finally abolished in 1990 and replaced with a 40-year sentence for exceptional murders.

In 2001, the public voted to remove all references to the death penalty from the Constitution.