No Irish Need Apply – Frank McNally on the national hang-up about capital punishment

An Irishman’s Diary

Of all the State's failures in the century since independence, there is at least one from which we might take reasonable pride. In the decades before the death penalty was abolished, an Irish government never managed to hire a native hangman. Nor did they even try, much. Instead, they continued to rely on English practitioners, most notably the uncle and nephew team of Tom and Albert Pierrepoint.

It was the latter who hanged Michael Manning, the Limerick rapist and murderer who in 1954 was the last person to be executed in the State. In the meantime, Pierrepoint jnr had also been involved in an abortive attempt to train in a local man. This was abandoned, eventually, after the candidate proved too squeamish and "timid".

I owe that and other insights on the subject to Katherine Ebury, a senior lecturer in modern literature at the University of Sheffield, and her contribution to a new book of essays about Flann O'Brien, entitled "Gallows Humour".

Her piece – on the author’s relationship to the death penalty – is the most literal interpretation of the collection’s title. The other chapters range widely in subject matter, including GAA violence, venereal disease, and a literary defence of alcohol abuse. But execution was a recurring theme in the real-life Brian O’Nolan’s fiction, especially his surreal novel The Third Policeman, where the narrator is condemned to death and a bicycle is hanged for the crimes of its owner.

Meanwhile, wearing his newspaper columnist hat, O'Nolan also wrote at least twice about a supposed actual meeting he had once with Tom Pierrepoint, in which they discussed the finer points of the grim trade.

As Myles na gCopaleen in a 1959 column for The Irish Times, he claimed they were drinking pints together and even named the Dublin pub where it happened, Fanning's in Lincoln Place. He misspelt the hangman's name slightly, but the rest of the detail, including a flavour of Pierrepoint's accent, sound plausible: "Of Mr Pierpoint [sic] it could truly be said that 'milder-mannered man never scuttled ship nor slit a throat'. He was most gentlemanly and had no hesitation whatever in discussing […] the nature of his craft, its skills and difficulties, and mildly deploring the squeamishness of certain Irish warders. The fee he was paid 'per neck' – that is the technical term – was a mere twelve guineas, plus expenses. Our Treasury Department on one occasion, he told me, tried to settle for expenses only when Mr Pierpoint had arrived in Dublin to be told of a last-minute reprieve. Nao, he said, he would not 'ave that. The Treasury clerks paid up."

The problem with Myles's tale is that Pierrepoint could hardly have drank so openly in a Dublin pub. He was himself a potential target for execution, of the IRA variety, and travelled under pseudonyms.  Ebury thinks the conversation "unlikely, though possible".  Yet O'Nolan repeated his claim in print a few years later, when writing as "George Knowall" (he was himself a man of many pseudonyms) in the Nationalist and Leinster Times.

By now he had added Albert Pierrepoint to the meeting, while still misspelling the family name. And this time he had them broach the question of whether what they did was inhumane: “Pierpoint [sic] told me that he personally did not accept the widely believed and indeed propagated view that death by hanging was instantaneous by fracture of the spinal column […]. Many men he had hanged had shown many signs of life for up to ten minutes after the launch into eternity.”

This was not a problem Ireland would henceforth need to fret about, because that column coincided with abolition of the death penalty in 1964, except for specified capital crimes, and in practice it would never be used again.

It was not just post-independence that we grew squeamishness about carrying out the act, by the way. In the same article, Knowall marvelled that “within the longest memory Ireland has never had a native hangman.” But in the early years of the Free State, this delicacy didn’t extend to a reluctance about execution per se, or about having English visitors do the job for us.

For a time, even as the cult of martyrdom surrounding the executed 1916 leaders grew, men who had carried out one of those sentences were still in line for work here.

Ebury quotes a 2012 history of execution to the effect that John Ellis, who had hanged Roger Casement, remained on a State-approved list "until his retirement due to mental illness in 1924". As late as 1934, "perhaps even more shockingly", the governemnt hired a Robert Baxter who, as Ellis's assistant, had helped despatch Casement from the gallows.