Gleeson case led to campaign for abolition of capital punishment

It is 60 years since Harry Gleeson was hanged for a crime he did not commit

Almost three quarters of a century after being sent to the gallows for a murder he had nothing to do with, Tipperary man Harry Gleeson (above) is to become the first recipient of a posthumous pardon from the State

This piece by Brendan O Cathaoir was originally published in The Irish Times on December 27th, 2001.

It is 60 years since Harry Gleeson was hanged for a crime he did not commit. His junior counsel, Seán MacBride, was so convinced there had been a miscarriage of justice that it led him to campaign for the abolition of capital punishment.

Marcus Bourke effectively cleared Gleeson's name in his book Murder at Marlhill: Was Harry Gleeson Innocent?, but his remains still lie in prison ground. Bourke used his skills as lawyer and historian to show that Gleeson did not receive a fair trial - and indeed was framed by the real murderers. Marcus considered the question mark in his book's subtitle unnecessary, but Willie Nolan of Geography Publications exercised caution.

Born in Holycross, Co Tipperary in 1903, Harry was one of 12 children. While still in his teens he moved to New Inn to manage the farm of a childless uncle, John Caesar. A good hurler, an accomplished fiddle player and interested in greyhounds, he was well liked locally.


Mary McCarthy, known as Moll Carthy, was a paradox in a rigidly Catholic society. Between 1921 and 1940 she had seven children outside of wedlock, besides several still-born infants. Six of the seven reputed fathers of the children born alive were local residents. The seventh child, born six months before Moll's death, survived for only a few weeks and the father's identity was never revealed.

She lived in a hovel with her children in the heart of this prosperous farming area. From the State she received six shillings (30p) a week in home assistance and two pints of milk daily for her burgeoning household.

Source of tension

In the tightly-knit community Moll's unorthodox lifestyle became a source of tension, especially among the close relatives of the men who had fathered her children. One night, when her unmarried mother was living with her and before John Caesar and Harry Gleeson had come to Marlhill, her thatched roof was set on fire. She was awarded £25 for malicious damage. As a result of pressure by some parishioners, the parish priest condemned her from the altar. Two applications by gardaí to the district court for the committal to State care of her children were dismissed, however.

Moll's cottage was bounded on three sides by the Caesar farm, Harry's home and workplace for most of his adult life. He found her body on his uncle's farm in November 1940. It was discovered in the Dug-Out Field - so called from a Civil War shelter - with two horrific gunshot wounds to the head. Nine days later he was arrested and charged with her murder.

From the day Gleeson reported finding the body, the gardaí had suspected someone from the Caesar household. A motive had already been supplied. Moll, one of her sons claimed, had accused Harry of fathering her seventh child and threatened to expose him. Should John Caesar and his wife believe this, so the police theory ran, his prospects of inheriting the farm would be gone.

Protested innocence

Harry denied having an immoral association with Moll and insisted he had no "hand, act or part" in her murder. After his conviction, MacBride appealed on the ground that the charge to the jury had been "incomplete, defective, unsatisfactory and incorrect". A petition for reprieve signed by an estimated 7,000 people also failed. Peter Berry, future secretary of the Department of Justice, informed Gleeson's solicitor, John Timoney, that the law must take its course.

MacBride visited Gleeson on the eve of his execution in Mountjoy on April 23rd, 1941. From notes taken down in his car outside the jail, he wrote:

"He asked me to let his uncle and aunt and his friends know that he did not mind at all dying, as he was well prepared, and that he would pray for them as soon as he reached heaven. He was quite calm and happy. He assured me several times that he would not like to change places with anyone else, as he felt sure that he had undergone his purgatory in this world and that he might never have such an opportunity of being so well prepared to meet his death."

At the end of the interview he stood up and said: "The last thing I want to say is that I will pray tomorrow that whoever did it will be discovered, and that the whole thing will be like an open book. I rely on you, then, to clear my name. I have no confession to make, only that I didn't do it."

A traditional distrust of the police persisted in south Tipperary, where memories of the Civil War were still fresh. This had serious consequences after the murder, when local reluctance to co-operate with the Garda inquiry manifested itself.

From the day the body was found the New Inn community entered into a conspiracy of silence. Moll not only flaunted convention for 20 years, she had also a disruptive effect on many families in the area.

Because the case involved a woman with her reputation, people withheld information not only from the guards, but also from those working to clear Harry's name. Unwittingly, Mrs Caesar may have sealed her nephew's fate by instructing a farm labourer who could have provided an alibi to say nothing to the gardaí.

The one person to show moral courage was Anna Cooney, a leading member of the Legion of Mary. She took possession of Moll Carthy's body and arranged for its burial in her own family plot. Significantly, as Moll had confided in her, Miss Cooney believed Harry was not the father of the last child; if this was true, he had no motive for committing the crime.

Framed Gleeson

Bourke maintains the real killers, who framed Gleeson, were led by the man Cooney suspected of having fathered the last Carthy child. Garda complicity and a paramilitary connection were further possibilities. While the New Inn sergeant was involved with Moll, the local IRA cell may have suspected her of giving information.

Seán MacBride suggested she was the "victim of a perverted sense of morality bred by a civilisation which, nominally based on Christianity", lacked most of its essentials. Marcus Bourke adds: "Through the conspiracy of silence which prevented Harry Gleeson's lawyers from mounting an adequate defence on his behalf, that same perversion made him a second victim of the unchristian civilisation."

In the light of the recent reburial of our patriot dead, the authorities should consider removing Gleeson's body from Mountjoy Prison.