Sir, – I am writing regarding Frank McNally’s “An Irishman’s Diary” of January 15th, in which he states that the Irish State never hired “a native hangman. Nor did they even try.” Not so.
In the 1940s, there was a little-known episode that I came across while researching my book Mountjoy: The Story of a Prison (2000).
It is the story of a Corkman who was briefly engaged by the State to be Ireland’s hangman in the 1940s. This was presumably because Éamon de Valera was uncomfortable with continuing to engage an English hangman to execute Irish people.
The man employed was provided with a false name of “Thomas Johnston”. In a letter to the governor of Mountjoy, in advance of meeting him for the first time, he described himself as 46 years, 5 foot 7 inches in height, with a fresh complexion, blue eyes and balding at the temples. “Thomas Johnston” trained in the macabre work of hanging at Strangeways prison in Manchester in 1945. In 1946, he was due to carry out his first execution but the prisoner under sentence of death was reprieved. In March 1947, “Johnston” was assigned to execute Joseph McManus for the murder of Alice Gerard in Meath. As it was so long since he had been trained, he asked the Mountjoy governor that “our friend”, Englishman Albert Pierrepoint, be present to assist him. However, while preparing for the hanging in Mountjoy, the governor and Pierrepoint agreed that Pierrepoint would lead on the execution as “Johnston” did not appear competent to carry out the act. After this execution, “Johnston” was never again called to implement the most drastic of punishments. There were just two more executions in Ireland after this.
The story of “Thomas Johnston” was subsequently made into an excellent RTÉ radio documentary by Joe Kearney called Ireland’s Secret Hangman (2016). – Yours, etc,