Smite is right – Frank McNally on capital punishment, biblical prophecy, and the GAA

A pilgrimage through Monaghan’s Bible Belt

“Execution is killing the Orchardmen” read an intriguing headline in the Irish News on Monday. At first sight, this seemed like a statement of the obvious. Capital punishment is indeed typically fatal for the recipient, albeit orchard workers are not usually at high-risk of such a fate.

On closer inspection, happily, it turned out to be a GAA story. In these enlightened days for Ireland, execution is a thing that happens mostly on sports pitches. So it was here: the Orchardmen being the footballers of Armagh, who had lost to Tyrone at the weekend.

Mind you, as the report went on to explain, it was a lack of execution that “killed” Armagh. Which, on reflection, is not so much a statement of the obvious as a paradox.



The last actual execution in Armagh Gaol was not of an Orchardman, in any sense. On the contrary, the man hanged was a butcher, from Clones, in Co Monaghan. He may have been the original Butcher Boy.

The murder for which he swing happened just over 120 years, or April 16th, 1903, when an egg-dealer named Flanagan disappeared after being last seen at Clones market.

Said butcher, Joseph Fee, was noticed buying a spade soon afterwards. He also went on a livestock-buying spree. But there was no breakthrough in the investigation until eight months later when authorities ordered Fee to remove a public-nuisance dunghill at the rear of his premises.

He delegated two other men to do the job, whereupon the terrible secret under the dunghill was uncovered via the “extrusion of a boot”. Flanagan – felled with a “pole-axe” before having his throat cut – had been buried in a shallow grave, with quicklime. But the peaty soil had counteracted the lime, preserving the body.

Fee protested innocence impressively enough that two local juries failed to agree on his guilt before a third – in Belfast – condemned him. He is said to have remained serene until the end. And just for the record, Orchardmen didn’t execute on that occasion either. As was usual practice, the job was carried out by a practitioner from England.


I was in Clones myself Sunday, making the pilgrimage through Monaghan’s Bible Belt for what would be the only home championship match of the summer.

It’s a long and winding road once you leave the N2, although every turn was familiar. Most of the signs were old friends too: including the one that sounds like a challenge to perform Shakespeare (“Doohamlet”) and the Proustian “Swann’s Cross”, which always unleashes a flood of memories, none involving madeleines.

But this time, there was a new sign too. Amid the drumlin-intense country west of Ballybay, it pointed down a side road to “Cahans Meeting House”.

As I now know, this is a where a community of Scots Presbyterian “seceders” used to worship back in the early 1700s. It was also from there that 300 emigrated to South Carolina in the “Cahans Exodus” of 1764.

The old meeting house has now been restored and was formally opened only last month by a latter-day Presbyterian, local TD and Minister, Heather Humphreys.

But as usual, I was in cutting it too fine for the game to consider stopping. It was already past throw-in time when I reached the outskirts of Clones where, typically, signs at a junction offered three directions: left for “Enniskillen”, straight ahead for “Monaghan”, and right for “Ye must be born again.”


Clones’s atmosphere of Judgement Day used to suit the old GAA championship when, especially in Ulster, smiting was commonplace and defeat in first round meant you were damned for eternity (or for another 12 months anyway, which felt like the same thing).

There was nothing for losing teams then except weeping and gnashing of teeth: assuming they still had teeth, which was always a bonus after an Ulster match.

Then came the “back door,” and more recently the concept of group stages in the All-Ireland. Now, teams can be born again repeatedly in the championship. Fear of defeat is no longer oppressive.

Hence the weird experience of Sunday when Monaghan and Clare played joyous, free-flowing football in the sun, sharing two goals and 41 points, almost evenly, until the polite southern visitors let the home team have the last few.

Afterwards, even the old warning on Clones Gospel Hall – “Prepare to meet thy God” – looked less ominous that it used to. As the sign indicates, it’s a quotation from “Amos 4:12″, which these days sounds increasingly like a plausible football score from a star forward.

We used to joke to visitors that Amos had been a promising underage player, who got his 4-12 in a challenge match once but never delivered on the early promise.

There may even be a grain of truth in this. As designated by St Augustine, the real Amos was one of the so-called “Twelve Minor Prophets”. It may have been just bad luck, or timing, that none of them ever made it at senior.