On February 7, 1940 — Ash Wednesday, as it happened to be — Peter Barnes and James McCormack became the last Irish Republican Army men executed by the British
They were condemned by the outraged British after a then-shocking terrorist bombing that has largely vanished from the historical memory, subsumed by the simultaneous outbreak of World War II.
Although it was neither the first nor the last strike in the 1939-1940 campaign of Irish Republican attacks on English soil aimed at forcing London to relinquish control of Northern Ireland, the five-pound bicycle-mounted bomb that ripped apart Broadgate on August 25, 1939, might have been the one that most hardened British hearts against the authors.* Five people were killed in the explosion and some 70 injured; the scene resembled a war zone.**
The resulting investigation — explored in great detail here — never laid hands on the man who actually planted this bomb, eventually revealed to be Joby O’Sullivan.
Many years later and near his death, O’Sullivan claimed that the bomb was supposed to be parked at the Coventry police station; other reports have it destined for an electrical station, and the decision to abandon the ticking bicycle in a crowded street a freelance cock-up by O’Sullivan. Maybe. What is known is that on August 24, London police had busted an IRA plot to place explosives at Westminster Abbey, Scotland Yard, and the Bank of England — all timed to explode at the very same moment as the Coventry package, 2:30 the next afternoon. Had that coordinated fourfold bombing occurred, it would have rated one of the bloodiest and most spectacular terrorist events in history.
But the single blast that did take place was more than enough to bring down the crown’s fury.
Five faced trial for their lives, even though no hand among them had actually set the Coventry bomb. In Ireland and many other places, this latter stipulation made the entire affair an outrageous injustice, especially if one takes as a given that the bomb was not meant to hit civilians. We leave that interesting question of justice to the reader’s consideration, but it must be understood that our hanged men were certainly party to the IRA’s bombing project. The accused, for a trial that December, were:
Barnes, an IRA operative in London who had delivered bomb components to Coventry
McCormack, part of an IRA cell in Coventry who had rented the house where the bomb was constructed
Joseph and Mary Hewitt, and Mary’s mother Brigid O’Hara, Irish immigrants who had taken on McCormack as a lodger
Little evidence could be produced against Hewitt family, who appeared to be quite innocent of their tenant’s intentions. The latter three were cleared of all charges, and then vengefully deported.
McCormack kept stoically silent during the trial, rising only at his sentencing to announce “that the part I took in these explosions since I came to England I have done for a just cause. As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army I am not afraid to die, as I am doing it for a just cause. I say in conclusion, God bless Ireland and God bless the men who have fought and died for her.”
Barnes, whose role on the far end of the supply was even more remote from the final detonation, said as he would maintain to the end, “I am innocent and later I am sure it will all come out that I had neither hand, act or part in it.”
The pair hanged together in Birmingham’s Winson Green Prison. The return of Barnes and McCormack’s remains from that gaol’s unmourned yards to Irish soil soon became a running national demand; the remains were finally repatriated (to great fanfare) in 1969.
Amid the patriotic encomia, civil war veteran Jimmy Steele gave an address on the occasion of the republicans’ reburial critical of the Sinn Fein leadership — an address that is often considered a milepost en route to the imminent (December 1969) splitting-away of the Provisional IRA.
* And in a less justifiable expression, against the Irish generally; Coventry’s Irish immigrant populace faced an immediate racist backlash.
** A chilling preview, for the next year Coventry was devastated by German planes — one of the cities hardest hit by the Reich’s bombing campaign.
who is to be Executed at St. Stevens-Green on Saturday the 22d of this Inst January 1725
Since it is my hard Fortune to come to an untimely end, I will give the Publick an Account of my past Life, which you may take as followeth, Viz.
I was born in Dublin, in the Parish of St. Brides, of poor and honest Parents, who gave me Education suitable whereby I might have got honest Bread.
I was desirous to go to Service, and I had my wish, The first place I went to was to Mr. Paris’s in York Street, and after to Mr. John Wards, and several other Credible Services; At length I unfortunately Married to one Pepper, who was Cooke to an Honourable Gentleman; This Marriage was the beginning of my Misfortunes, and the chief Cause of my coming to this shameful, untimely end; As I am a dying Woman, I never knew Man before my Husband, but God forgive me I have known several since, and for the most part other Women’s Husbands, once I turn’d loose I embrac’d what came in my way, as Roberies, &c.
The first that I Rob’d was my Master a French Minister and made off with the Robery to Holly-Head in Wales, from thence I went to London; and remain’d there five Years, where my Husband follow’d me, and brought my Mother and Brothers and Sisters with him, where they all remain (except my Husband) to this Day, if alive, it is now about two Years and a half since I left them.
I by the time of my return to Dublin, came acquainted with Several Thieves and Robbers, and was concern’d in Several Roberies; and in particular this for which I dye.
I was Encourag’d by one Sarah Kenny a Running Broker, who promis’d that any Thing I brought to her, should never be brought to Light, after I had Committed this Robbery for which I justly Die. I was going Directly to the said Sarah Kenny’s Room in Patrick’s Close, and was met by one Patrick Hoy, Butcher a Notorious T_______se, just in the Close, who took by Force from me a Petticoat belonging to the Robbery, and said he would have it for his share, and so he took it to the said Sarah Kenny before me:
The said Petticoat is the Reason of my loosing of my Life, for all that was taken was Return’d except that Petticoat, and if they could have got that Petticoat, the Gentle woman that own’d it would not have prosecuted me.
Tho’ I have seen several persons suffer here for varieties of Facts, yet it did no way daunt me, nor made no impression in my obdurate Heart, till now. I heartily begg of my Great and Merciful God to Bless me and save my Soul, I hope this will be a warning to all ill People.
Having no more to say, I begg the Prayers of all good Christians. I Dye a Protestant of the Church of England in the 33d Year of my Age, and the Lord have mercy on my poor Soul, Amen.
I leave my blessing with good Mr. DERRY, for the great care he took of my Soul.
This is my true Speech, given by me to the Printer hereof, and all others are false, and Scandalous.
Thanks to James Joyce for the guest post on “the ancient tribe of the Joyces”, originally published as “Ireland at the Bar” on September 16, 1907 during Joyce’s Italian exile for nationalist newspaper Il Piccolo della Sera of Austrian-dominated Trieste. As the reader will see, James Joyce is interested here in this case as symbolic,* but readers curious about the particulars of the murders and this still-notoriousmiscarriage of justice might want to tune into the Irish History Podcast’s three-part series on the case or follow the various links for more. -ed.
Several years ago a sensational trial was held in Ireland. In a lonely place in a western province, called Maamtrasna, a murder was committed. Four or five townsmen, all belonging to the ancient tribe of the Joyces, were arrested. The oldest of them, the seventy year old Myles Joyce, was the prime suspect. Public opinion at the time thought him innocent and today considers him a martyr. Neither the old man nor the others accused knew English. The court had to resort to the services of an interpreter. The questioning, conducted through the interpreter, was at times comic and at times tragic. On one side was the excessively ceremonious interpreter, on the other the patriarch of a miserable tribe unused to civilized customs, who seemed stupefied by all the judicial ceremony. The magistrate said:
‘Ask the accused if he saw the lady that night.’
The question was referred to him in Irish, and the old man broke out into an involved explanation, gesticulating, appealing to the others accused and to heaven. Then he quieted down, worn out by his effort, and the interpreter turned to the magistrate and said:
‘He says no, your worship.’
‘Ask him if he was in that neighbourhood at that hour.’
The old man again began to talk, to protest, to shout, almost beside himself with the anguish of being unable to understand or to make himself understood, weeping in anger and terror. And the interpreter, again, dryly:
‘He says no, your worship.’
When the questioning was over, the guilt of the poor old man was declared proved, and he was remanded to a superior court which condemned him to the noose. On the day the sentence was executed, the square in front of the prison was jammed full of kneeling people shouting prayers in Irish for the repose of Myles Joyce’s soul. The story was told that the executioner, unable to make the victim understand him, kicked at the miserable man’s head in anger to shove it into the noose. [The hanging was botched -ed.]
The figure of this dumbfounded old man, a remnant of a civilization not ours, deaf and dumb before his judge, is a symbol of the Irish nation at the bar of public opinion. Like him, she is unable to appeal to the modern conscience of England and other countries. The English journalists act as interpreters between Ireland and the English electorate, which gives them ear from time to time and ends up being vexed by the endless complaints of the Nationalist representatives who have entered her House, as she believes, to disrupt its order and extort money.
Abroad there is no talk of Ireland except when uprisings break out, like those which made the telegraph office hop these last few days. Skimming over the dispatches from London (which, though they lack pungency, have something of the laconic quality of the interpreter mentioned above), the public conceives of the Irish as highwaymen with distorted faces, roaming the night with the object of taking the hide of every Unionist. And by the real sovereign of Ireland, the Pope, such news is received like so many dogs in church. Already weakened by their long journey, the cries are nearly spent when they arrive at the bronze door. The messengers of the people who never in the past have renounced the Holy See, the only Catholic people to whom faith also means the exercise of faith, are rejected in favour of messengers of a monarch, descended from apostates, who solemnly apostasized himself on the day of his coronation, declaring in the presence of his nobles and commons that the rites of the Roman Catholic Church are ‘superstition and idolatry’.
Myles Joyce (leftmost) along with Patrick Joyce (center) and Patrick Casey (right). All three hanged together.
There are twenty million Irishmen scattered all over the world. The Emerald Isle contains only a small part of them. But, reflecting that, while England makes the Irish question the centre of all her internal politics she proceeds with a wealth of good judgment in quickly disposing of the more complex questions of colonial politics, the observer can do no less than ask himself why St. George’s Channel makes an abyss deeper than the ocean between Ireland and her proud dominator. In fact, the Irish question is not solved even today, after six centuries of armed occupation and more than a hundred years of English legislation, which has reduced the population of the unhappy island from eight to four million, quadrupled the taxes, and twisted the agrarian problem into many more knots.
In truth there is no problem more snarled than this one. The Irish themselves understand little about it, the English even less. For other people it is a black plague. But on the other hand the Irish know that it is the cause of all their sufferings, and therefore they often adopt violent methods of solution. For example, twenty-eight years ago, seeing themselves reduced to misery by the brutalities of the large landholders, they refused to pay their land rents and obtained from Gladstone remedies and reforms. Today, seeing pastures full of well fed cattle while an eighth of the population lacks means of subsistence, they drive the cattle from the farms. In irritation, the Liberal government arranges to refurbish the coercive tactics of the Conservatives, and for several weeks the London press dedicates innumerable articles to the agrarian crisis, which, it says, is very serious. It publishes alarming news of agrarian revolts, which is then reproduced by journalists abroad.
I do not propose to make an exegesis of the Irish agrarian question nor to relate what goes on behind the scene in the two faced politics of the government. But I think it useful to make a modest correction of facts. Anyone who has read the telegrams launched from London is sure that Ireland is undergoing a period of unusual crime. An erroneous judgment, very erroneous. There is less crime in Ireland than in any other country in Europe. In Ireland there is no organized underworld. When one of those events which the Parisian journalists, with atrocious irony, call ‘red idylls’ occurs, the whole country is shaken by it. It is true that in recent months there were two violent deaths in Ireland, but at the hands of British troops in Belfast, where the soldiers fired without warning on an unarmed crowd and killed a man and woman. There were attacks on cattle; but not even these were in Ireland, where the crowd was content to open the stalls and chase the cattle through several miles of streets, but at Great Wyrley in England, where for six years bestial, maddened criminals have ravaged the cattle to such an extent that the English companies will no longer insure them. Five years ago an innocent man, now at liberty, was condemned to forced labour to appease public indignation. But even while he was in prison the crimes continued. And last week two horses were found dead with the usual slashes in their lower abdomen and their bowels scattered in the grass.
* Even, Christine O’Neill-Bernhard argues in “Symbol of the Irish Nation, or of a Foulfamed Potheen District: James Joyce on Myles Joyce” (James Joyce Quarterly, Spring-Summer 1995) to the point of indulging “highly tendentious” polemical misrepresentations, such as inflating the middle-aged Myles Joyce into a 70-year-old patriarch. In James Joyce’s defense, his expatriate apartments on the Adriatic did not comprise a strong fact-checking position with regard to Irish criminal annals, and he might have been working entirely from memory.
On this date in 1944, the Irish Free State hanged Irish Republican Army Chief of Staff Charlie Kerins.
The IRA had been sorely pressed in these war years by the Special Branch, and the inroads of counterintelligence help explain why Kerins himself took such a prominent position in the IRA at the tender age of 24.
And it also explains how he ended up on the gallows at Mountjoy Prison.
Key to the Special Branch’s campaign was the recruitment of Irish republicans — men like Denis O’Brien, a veteran of the Civil War turned police spy whom Kerins and two mates ambushed and shot to death in his driveway on the morning of September 9, 1942.
As one might expect, this incendiary assassination redoubled state pressure against the IRA. Living on the run under assumed names, Kerins managed to dodge arrest until June 1944. But when captured, he knew how to comport himself from implacable precedent of forerunners like Kevin Barry.
Kerins refused to recognize with a defense the legitimacy of the court that tried him; indeed, so reluctant were the authorities to make a martyr of Kerins that they paused proceedings for six hours with his conviction cinched to give Kerins the opportunity to save his neck by applying to submit to mercy. Kerins wasn’t the submitting type.
“You could have adjourned for six years as far as I am concerned,” Kerins sneered when the session reconvened. “My attitude to this court will always be the same.”
In the words of a verse he wrote to a friend just before his hanging —
What, said Cathal Brugha, if our last man’s on the ground.
When he hears the ringing challenge if his enemies ring him round.
If he’d reached his final cartridge — if he fired his final shot.
Will you come into the empire? He would answer, I will not.
Though it was hardly commonly enforced in this way — and it’s obvious from these pamphlets that it was the political pull of the groom’s family that doomed our Edward Shuel or Sewell — Ireland indeed had a real Marriage Act that made it a capital crime to officiate an interconfessional wedding, an act that persisted into the 19th century. It was the product of a campaign by to “de-Catholicize” Ireland that also included a wide variety of other encumbrances upon Catholics, and likewise upon Protestants who failed to shun them — such as disenfranchising Protestants with Catholic wives.
This case, scandalous in its own time, inspired Dublin’s rival broadside publishers to churn out multiple scandal sheets to service the appetite of a voracious public.
Edward Shuel, in “his own” words:
The Genuine Declaration of Edward Shuel
a degraded Clergyman of the Church of Ireland, who is to be Executed near St. Stephens Green, this present Saturday being the 29th of this Instant November 1740. For celebrating the Clandestine Marriage of one Mr. Walker a Protestant, to Margaret Talbot a suppos’d Catholick, on Sunday the 16th of August last, at the World’s End near Dublin.
I might reasonably have expected my Life wou’d have been saved, having obtain’d a Reprieve; but there being a Point of —– Policy strongly against me, to fulfill which I must Resign this Life sooner than Nature or Accident might have otherwise taken it. I must confess tho’ I strove to bear my Sentence with the utmost Resignation and Christian Patience; yet the imbitter’d Reports of my having two Wives tingeing my Character, affected me in some Measure; and in order to clear such infamous and malicious Aspertions which my Enemies (whom the Origin of Heaven and Earth forgive) which I heartily pray for.
To be Concise, I was Born in the North of Ireland, and bred up in the University of Dublin, where I pursued my Studies, and behav’d as became a Student: Having received Orders, I officiated in the Curacy of Carlingford, St. Michans, Christ Church Dublin, and several others Places; where I behav’d as a Gentleman, and suitable to my Function; untill most unfortunately a vile Woman prostituted herself, and seduced me to her dire Embraces; upon which she Reported that I Married my self to her, which is utterly false; and in Order to acquit my self of that Calumny, of Marrying her my self, and fully to extirpate the publick Notion of my having two Wives, I went to Georges Church near Dublin, and there received the Eucharist that I never was Married or Contracted to any Woman under Heaven, but to the Woman now my unhappy Wife, by whom I have two innocent but unfortunate Babes, of which I got a Certificate from the Minister of said Church, which I gave to his Grace _____ which must be acknowledg’d.
The Nature of the Crime for which I am to undergo this most Publick and scandalous Death, is notorious in this Kingdom. The Manner in which I now a poor and unhappy Sufferer was precipitately led into it is, that on the 16th of August last, one Richard Walker came in Disguise in a poor Habit, under the fictitious Name of Wilson, with one Margaret Talbot and another Woman in Company, who intreated me to Marry them: After I had examined them, and swearing them on the Book, who swore they were Protestants; and I believing Richard Wilson as he called himself, to be a Tradesman of no Fortune or Birth, and in his own Power, and I wanting of Support; my Children having not even Bread to Eat that Night, I unfortunately married them ’tis true, for which I received from Wilson Six Shillings and Six Pence.
But had I surmised he had been the Son of the Man he was, or any other Person of Credits Son, I would not for any Consideration have perform’d the Ceremoney, [sic] Nay, I would have sent to the Parents or next Relation and detected him, and at the same time given up the Woman, to the just resentment of the injur’d Parents.
‘Tis true I was degraded and by that Means render’d incapable of supporting an helpless Family; nor was it in my Power to get a Livelihood by Teaching School, for any attempts I made that way which prov’d Abortive, Work either Mechanical or otherwise I was ignorant of; and by my infirmities render’d if capable not to follow it, to beg publickly I was a shame’d, and very well knew the Amount of Charities to Street Beggars, privately I did beg by Petitions to many Persons whose Grants were small, and that but from a very few; and e’en those few wou’d not a second time assist the Wretched, this was my Case; what I then follow’d to support my Family was the Trade as its so call’d of Marrying; but always took care to examine strictly their Religion, Birth, and parentage, avoiding as much as possible to keep out of Disesteen of Families of Credit, so that it might not lie in their Powers to punish me, or to be griev’d at the undoing of their Children.
Yet all this Precaution has not hinder’d my unhappy Exit, which I hope this Calamity of mine, may be a perpetual Bar to others who are after me, who may be drove to the pressing Wants which I have often struggled with, but may God Support them.
O Lord Strengthen me to bear my Misfortunes, bless my Children and be to them a Father, and give them thy Grace, Comfort my Wife, and be to her a Husband, protect my Friends, and forgive my Enemies, and receive me into thy glorious Abode, and that I may this ‘Day sing Praises and Thanksgiving unto thy holy Name, ad infinitum, Amen.
Note. The above was deliv’d to the Printer hereof, in the Presence of Mr. Nelson and several others, in his own Hand Writing, and Word of Mouth.
Dublin: Printed in Montrath-Street, by Chr. Goulding Book-Seller.
The Last and True Speech of Mr. Sewell
a degraded Clergyman, who was executed last Saturday the 29th of November 1740, at St. Stephen’s-Green, for a clandestine Marriage delivered by him at the Place of Execution
Countrymen and Christians,
It may be thought, perhaps, that the Length of Time given me by the Clemency of the Lords Justice might turn my Thoughts to poor Transitory, Worldly Affairs, I hope thro’ the Merits of Christ I have not been affected so foolishly, for I will not boast, but will humbly hope, I have so numbered my Days as to apply my Heart unto Wisdom, for the Love of the Lord is the Beginning of it. I return to the Chief Governors of Ireland, the only Return I can make, my Thanks and Prayers for their Benignity in extending my shortning Length of Days to the present, in this World unhappy, but in the World, thro’ Christ, in the future, a Blessed Consummation. — Praise be to God on High Peace and Good Will amongst Men.
I am brought forth this Day, as a Precedent and Example to the Marriage Act, as a Sacrifice to its Rigor, the first, and I hope through the Almighty, the last of the kind that shall hereafter be read of in the Annals of the Holy Catholick and Reform’d Protestant Church; nor is it the smallest Pang that I feel in this solemn Anguish of my Spirit that my Memory shall reflect some Disgrace upon my Reverend, Learned and Pious surviving and future Brethern [sic] of the Ministry. Could Worldly Things now amuse or disturb my Mind, I might also be touch’d with a Sense of the Triumph, my unhappy Catastrophe, must give to the Enemies of the Establish’d Religion; but in this, as in all Things else in Heaven and Earth, the Will of the All Powerful and Eternal Father be done, yet let them consider that the Man, the poor weak Man transgress’d and not the Function; let them think that the Transgressor suffer’d, and with his Blood wash’d away Polution [sic] from the Sanctuary. The blessed Twelve should not be blamed for their fallen Member, nor should the Body of the Clergy be reproached for one wretched, sinful, misguided, but thro’ Grace repentant Brother.
Speeches and Declarations are a Custom I know observed by People in my wretched Circumstances; but this has no Influence on me, I only promulgate these few Lines to prevent many gross and ignorant Pieces of Print which may be ascribed to me, when I am past the Power of contradicting such Falshoods. [sic] I am, bless’d be my Saviour, in universal Charity with the World, and therefore neither Bitterness nor Untruth shall fall from me: I am convinced, as my Condition is particular and my self remarkable, the World will be desirous to know what I may say either in defence of myself, or Attenuation of the Crime for which I die; I will therefore briefly go thorough the Heads of my Accusation and Conviction.
I confess that I did solemnize a Marriage between Walker and Talbot, but at the same Time I declare I did not suspect that he was any other than an ordinary working young Man, and not the Son of one of so much Consequence in the City. I had their Oath of Secrecy and an Assurance of their both being of the Protestant Religion, but he appear’d as an Evidence against me; Heaven forgive him and me, and for this Crime I lay down my Life. Were it worth a Moment of my little remaining Time, I might here controvert Margaret Talbot’s Marriage not within the Act, a Point of Law which I did but faintly Urge upon my Tryal: I might have pleaded the Inefficacy of my Degradation, the Indelibility of the Clerical Character, Validity of a Sentence pass’d by a Layman on a Person Canonical, and have spoken to an Appeal which I always apprehended was lodg’d in order to the Subversion of the Sentence of Degredation; [sic] but alas! they are Things below my Notice, for my Mind is above, and perhaps were I to illustrate on these Particulars, it may be construed either Indiscretion or Malice in a Dying Clergyman, and in my last Moments, what ever my past Life may be, I would not give Scandal to the Divine Function.
I acknowledge that I have been a frail weak Man, and that my Transgressions are numberless, and that I have done several unwarrantable and idle Things, inconsistant [sic] with the Character of a Gentleman, a Scholar, and a Divine, but let Man deal with me as I hope to be dealt with by my Heavenly Father, who will thro’ the Merits of Christ cast a Veil over my Sins, and blot out my Transgressions for ever.
I would Recommend to all Parents, with my dying Breath, a Resolution of never forcing the Dispositions of their Children, or thrusting them into a College with a View of the Pulpit, till they, if they are capable, or some Person of sound Judgment shall thoroughly examine if they have such Qualities, and Propensions as may fit them for such Office. On this Rock many Split, too many, and after some Years of Study, they come forth either contemptible for their Ignorance, or abhorr’d for their Vice. But, suppose them never so well endowed for the Ministry, the miserable Provision made for the Inferior Clergy, still more miserable by their Number, and their generally ill-judg’d Early Marriages throws them upon things which after endanger their Bread, and sometimes their Lives, of which I am a wretched Instance.
I beg that my wretched Family may not be Reproached with the Ignominy of my Death, to which I submit with Meekness, Resignation, and Resolution, hopeing [sic] that my Sufferings shall be Sanctified to me, and thro’ this Gulf of Darkness a Passage to Eternal light and Joy thro’ the Merits and Mediations of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to whom, with the Father and Holy Ghost be given all Praise and Worship now and ever more. Amen.
An Hymn Compos’d by the Reverend Mr. Sewell, while under Sentence in Newgate, and sung by him in the Coach as he went to Execution.
Oh Fountain of Eternal Light!
Oh glorious Lord of Host!
With Mercy view my wretched Plight,
Oh spare me or I’m lost.
Grim Death in all it’s [sic] Horrors dress’d
Is ever in my View,
Where is my Hope, now I’m oppress’d?
My only Hope is You.
Injutious Man has laid the Snare,
I’m fallen, alas, I’m caught,
Man drink my Blood, but Father spare
The Soul thy Son has bought.
And suffer not my Blood to reign
O’er his Posterity,
Oh God wash out the Scarlet Stain
And cleanse both him and me.
From Vengeance turn thy gracious Eye,
And see my throbbing Heart,
That melts at thy Divinity,
And feels and heavenly Smart.
And thou, O Son, who didst sustain
A Cross and shameful Death,
Who suffering more than mortal Pain
Groan’d out thy dying Breath.
Sustain me in the Hour of Death,
In the disgraceful Cart,
And when the Halter stops my Breath,
Save my Immortal Part.
Thou dost not judge like wretched Man,
For shoudst thou be severe
And all the Faults of Mortals scan,
Who cou’d thy Judgments bear.
Receive me Blessed Trinity,
Receive my Soul in Grace,
And in thy Kingdom let me be
When Times and Worlds shall cease.
On this date in 1591, Brian na Múrtha Ó Ruairc — Brian O’Rourke to the English who killed him — was drawn and quartered as a rebel at Tyburn.
O’Rourke was a chieftain in a disappearing world, the Gaelic Ireland that the English had been engaged in reducing ever since King Henry VIII realized that he was King of Ireland back in 1542.
O’Rourke’s patrimony in this Tudor conquest was the kingdom of West Breifne, with a lineage going right back to its 12th century founder. As far as the Tudors were concerned he was just one more truculent local lord to subdue — even if the very “proudest man this day living on the earth.” (per Nicholas Maltby)
O’Rourke’s pride put him into oppositin against the English satrap and even to succor sailors taking refuge from the shattered Spanish Armada in 1588. But fighting in his environs and eventual outright occupation steadily constrained the scope of his autonomy.
In the end it was his brother-Celts in Scotland who finished him: when O’Rourke turned up there in 1591 seeking license to recruit sword-arms there from King James VI (James was not yet James I of England at this point), Queen Elizabeth successfully prevailed upon her Scottish counterpart to arrest and extradite the man — an incident that triggered a riot in Glasgow.
Tried on the highly dubious grounds of treason against England committed in Ireland — plus a lese-majeste incident of having the queen’s image dragged in the mud tossed into the indictment for good measure* — O’Rourke scornfully refused to plead, or to defend himself unless Elizabeth herself would deign to sit in judgment — sovereign to sovereign. The court required only O’Rourke’s body, not his assent, to proceed.
O’Rourke had a sharp enough tongue when minded to deploy it, however. On the scaffold, he witheringly abused the notoriously avaricious bishop Miler Magrath who had been sent to minister to him. Then …
Upon Wednesdaie the 3 of November, Bren O’Royrke was drawne to Tyborne, and there hanged, his members and bowels burned in the fire, his heart taken out, and holden up by the hangman, naming it to be the archtraytors heart, and then did he cast the same into the fire, then was the head stricken off, and his bodie quartered
O’Rourke’s son Brian oge O’Rourke inherited his position, and his struggle, until younger brother Tadgh O’Rourke deposed him with English support. Tadgh died young in 1605 — and with him, West Breifne expired too.
* Enjoy an itemized list of the naughty O’Rourke’s many offenses against English sensibilities from page 144 of this public domain volume.
On this date in 1925, Cornelius “Con” O’Leary* was hanged in Ireland for the murder of his brother, Patrick. He, his mother and his two sisters had all been charged in the crime, but in the end, Con was the only one to swing for it. The story of his brother’s slaying and his execution is told in Tim Carey’s book Hanged For Murder: Irish State Executions.
In early 1924, five adults occupied the O’Leary farm in the village of Kilkerran in Cork: the elderly mother of the family, the oldest son Patrick, his younger brother Con, and their sisters, Hannah and Maryanne. All of the children were unmarried. (There had originally been eight of them, but one had died and three others had moved away.) Their father had died a few years before and left the farm to his wife, with the stipulation that Patrick would inherit after her death.
Forty-six-year-old Patrick and 40-year-old Con didn’t get along and everyone knew it. Con, contrary to tradition, didn’t work the family farm but had a job as a laborer at a farm nearby, leaving his older brother, a large man with a “quarrelsome” nature, to manage the O’Leary farm alone.
Patrick thought his brother should either start working the family’s land or else pack up and move elsewhere, but Con refused to budge.
The two men hadn’t spoken to each other in years and went to great lengths to avoid each other: Patrick spent his nights in a loft in the barn and got up early, and Con wouldn’t go to the barn until after his brother had left and wouldn’t go to the house until after his brother had gone to bed. Maryanne also spent her nights away from home, at an elderly female neighbor’s house.
On March 7, 1924, a child tending cows in a field near the O’Leary farm noticed a potato sack under some bushes, opened it up and discovered a horrifying sight: a severed head, badly decomposed and beaten to a pulp.
The gardai were summoned and launched a search of the area. They found a severed right arm and a torso. Although the authorities recognized the dead man, they summoned Con O’Leary to make an official identification.
By the time Con O’Leary was brought to the field it was dark. When they shook the head out of the sack the guards shone torches to help him see. Con looked at the head for some time before saying, “Yes, that is my brother Pat.”
“Con, are you sure now?” the sergeant asked.
“Yes, that’s my brother Pat all right.”
At this point a garda inspector arrived. However, when he asked Con if he could identify the head he said he couldn’t. When the sergeant asked, “How is it you identified it for me and you cannot identify it now?” Con said nothing.
Patrick’s head, arm and torso were then brought to the back room of a pub in the nearby village of Milltown. Lit by candles and a bicycle lamp, the head was rested on a bit of hay on a table.
Hannah was brought in, and claimed she did not recognize the remains. Maryanne, however, immediately identified her brother. Con kept insisting that he wasn’t sure, then started rubbing his hands together repeating, “I am innocent, my hands clean.”
When the gardai checked the loft where Patrick slept, it was obvious they’d found the crime scene. The rafters were clearly bloodstained in spite of an apparent attempt to wash them, and although the bedclothes were clean, there was blood on the floor under the bed. He had probably been beaten to death in his sleep; there were no indications of a struggle.
The next day, the O’Leary family held a traditional Irish wake in their home — including the requisite open casket, with the body parts carefully arranged inside. The neighbors attended and openly discussed their suspicions that Con had committed the murder. He only repeated that he was innocent and his hands were clean. That night, of the three remaining O’Learys, only Maryanne stayed up to keep a vigil by the coffin.
Further searches commenced and in the end eight body parts turned up, all within 650 yards of the farmhouse. The final discovery was Patrick’s other arm, which the family sheepdog was seen carrying around; it had already eaten most of it.
On March 14, a week after the discovery of Patrick’s head, his mother, brother and sisters were all charged with his murder. The gardai decided he had probably been killed on February 26, which is the last day he was seen alive. Curiously, the family hadn’t raised the alarm after he disappeared. They later said they thought he’d simply dropped out of sight of his own accord and would return soon enough.
While awaiting trial, Maryanne died of cancer in prison. She claimed, probably truthfully, that she had been away on the night Patrick died and had no knowledge of what happened to him.
Because Mrs. O’Leary was elderly and in poor health, the charges against her were dropped and she was released from prison. She returned to the family home and lived there alone until her death in 1928.
Con and Hannah went to trial on June 23, 1925, and both pleaded not guilty. The jury deadlocked on reaching a verdict for either of them, however, and a second trial began a week later. It lasted two days.
There was virtually no evidence to implicate Hannah, but that didn’t stop the judge from suggesting in his summingup about how she might have been involved: he said changing Patrick’s goresoaked bedsheets for clean ones might “might be a woman’s job” but chopping him into bits and pieces was probably “a man’s job.”
In less than an hour, the jury convicted both of them, but with a recommendation for mercy in Hannah’s case.
Con, who maintained his innocence to the end, went to his death a month after his conviction. He was executed by Thomas Pierrepoint and buried in an unmarked grave. Hannah was sent to Mountjoy Women’s Prison. She was released in 1942, at age 56, and went to live in a Magdalen laundry.
THE GENUIN [sic] DECLARATION AND LAST DYING SPEECH OF
PIERCE TOBIN AND WALTER KELLY
Sailors, who are to be Hang’d and Quarter’d near St. Stephen’s Green, for the Murder of Vastin Tunburgh a Dutch Skipper, this present Saturday being the 27th of this Instant July 1734.
Friends, Brethren and Country-Men,
I am here presented a Spectacle both to Men and Angels! Sinking, not so much under the Terrors of approaching Death, as the deepest Remorse and upbraidings of Conscience!
Were I brought hither to meet the Fate of ordinary Crimes, then the Confusion of my Face, if not the Terror of my Conscience might be less, but my Crime being out of the usual course of Sin, a Crime not only against the Divine, but human Nature in general, how shall I recommend my self to the Mercy of the one, or the pitty of the other!
Here mention need not be made of my Birth and Parentage, it being sufficiently known in this City. But I conjure you (as you are People of Candor and Generosity) despite [sic] not the Parents for the Sons Crimes; point not your angry Resentment at their Aged Heads.
Were it any advantage to you my Spectators, or else to my afflicted Soul, to ennumerate [sic] the several Sins I have been Guilty of, I should draw each forth in their deepest shade of Guilt; I should tell, and expose each Circumstance, till I’d faint away under that grievous Task. But why should I do, what would rather terrify, than Instruct you; it is enough; (too much) to say, I Walk’d in the Counsel of the Ungodly.
It also would be unnecessary to give a particular Account of all the Transactions of that fatal Night; let it suffice to add thus much to what I have said, that when I came up to those Dutch-Men at Aston’s Quay, of whom I suppose the Deceased was one, I said, Play away, and gave some stroaks to the Deceased, but had not the least Design of proceeding so far as to take away the Life of any of them.
But since the Law has thought fit to look upon all Persons concerned in a Fact of this Nature, as Principals, I resign my self to their Determination, and Confess my self very Instrumental in the Death of that Person for whom I Suffer, and indeed was I Consious [sic] of having given the mortal Wound to the Deceased, no consideration should now induce me to conceal it.
Thus much from a Dying Object, who humbly begs your Prayers to the Great God for my poor Soul; I Dye an unworthy Member of the Church of Rome, and in the 19th Year of my Age.
Newgate, July 26 1734
The Speech of Walter Kelly.
I am brought here this Day, to Dye, a base and Ignomenious Death, for the Murder of Vastin Tunburgh a Dutchman; nor can I say that I am Innocent, since all Persons that are present at the Transaction of so horrid a Deed, are Guilty alike, according to Law; therefore I can make no excuse at all for my self, yet I will lay before you my Spectators, and that in the briefest and clearest method, the particulars of all the Transactions of that fatal Night, viz.
Mr. Tobin, my present fellow sufferer, and I being intimates, and but just return’d from a Voyage, we both agreed to go to Bagnio Slip, in order to get a Whore; and there being some Dutchmen there who had a falling-out among themselves; we alas! very presumptiously went to their Room, and took both their Pipes and Canddel [sic] from them, I must confes [sic] it was very ill done; but they being reconciled, went their way, but one of them took the Barr of the Door with him, in order (as I suppose) to defend themselves, in case we should follow them, but as God is my Judge we had no such thought, untill one of the cursed Women cry’d out, One of the Dutchmen has taken the Barr of the Door, pray follow them, and take it from them. We being in Liquor, and hot-headed withall, pursued them to Aston’s Quay, among us there arose a Quarrel in which the Dutch Skipper receiv’d his Death; but how, or by what means, I know not, for my part I had neither Sword or Knife, nor am I any way sensible that I struck any one.
But Oh! My God, I must confess that I deserve this Death, for the many innumerable Offences I have committed otherwise against thy Divine Majesty; yet will I not despair of thy Mercy, and I do firmly hope you will say to my Soul, as you did to that of the Penitent Thief on the Cross, This Day shalt thou be with me in Paradise; Grant this O most Heavenly Father, thro’ the Intersecion of our blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.
Having no more to say, but to beg all your Prayers to God for our poor Souls, I Dye an unworthy member of the Church of Room [sic], in the 25th Year of my Age, Good Lord have Mercy on my poor Soul, Amen.
Royal Irish Constabulary officer Gerald Smyth was executed by an Irish Republican Army hit team on this date in 1920.
A true child of empire, born in Punjab and veteran of the First World War where he had lost the use of one arm, Smyth had been assigned to Ireland during the bloody Irish War of Independence. One year’s time out from this post, almost to the day, Great Britain threw in the towel by agreeing to a truce that led to Irish self-government (and Irish Civil War).
The “execution” — assassination — that we mark this date was consequence of an event called the Listowel Mutiny, which occurred in June 1920.
The account for this event is quite incendiary, and it bears mentioning that it hails from a Republican newspaper, Sinn Fein’s Irish Bulletin. In it, former policeman Jeremiah Mee explains the circumstances of his own departure from the constabulary: Smyth had arrived at the Listowel barracks to deliver his demoralized constables an ukase directing an aggressive shoot-on-sight policy, to take the fight to suspected militants.
Sinn Fein has had all the sport up to the present and we are going to have the sport now … I am promised as many troops from England as I require, thousands are coming daily. I am getting 7,000 police from England [Smyth is referring here to the influx of Black and Tans -ed.] …
Police and military will patrol the country at least five nights a week. They are not to confine themselves to the main roads but take across the country, lie in ambush, and when civilians are seen approaching shout “Hands up.” Should the order not be immediately obeyed, shoot, and shoot with effect. If persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets and are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped and you are bound to get the right persons sometimes. The more you shoot the better I will like you; and I assure you that no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man and I will guarantee that your names will not be given at the inquest.
The constables gaped at this directive until Mee retored, “By your accent I take it you are an Englishman and in your ignorance forget that you are addressing Irishmen.” Then he removed his cap, belt, and bayonet: “These too are English. Take them as a present from me and to hell with you — you are a murderer!”
This Listowel Mutiny reached its narrative closure a month later when that IRA team burst into Cork smoking room where Lieutenant-Colonel Smyth was relaxing and startled him with the revengeful taunt, “Colonel, were not your orders to shoot on sight? Well you are in sight now, so prepare.”
Smyth’s murder in turn further escalated tensions in war-torn Ireland, helping contribute to an outbreak of sectarian pogroms days later that saw thousands of Catholics driven out of the city and/or work in Belfast.
We meet these men, as we often do in this period, through the cheap hang-day publications that were hurried to press to sell for the occasion, and since in this instance we have two such brochures for the same event, it is a handy occasion to turn our gaze upon these ubiquitous ephemera.
Then as now, publishing was a perilous hustle forever beckoning its practitioners to shady expedients further to enhancing narrow margins.
Public executions — especially those of particularly notorious offenders — were pretty much the clickbait of broadside printers, and this one weird trick they could resort to was hawking rival pages each purporting to be the “last words and confession” of the poor sap on the gallows. Competition for access to a condemned fellow was intense, and where there could be the least question as to authenticity (for formulaic plausibilities could easily be hung around the handful of publicly discoverable facts) printers made free to use these solemn partings to take astonishingly vituperative shots at their commercial rivals* — a sure irreverence entirely in keeping with the carnivalesque orgies for which public hangings became infamous. Here a huckster whose main purpose is to use a dying man’s last passion to retaliate a rival scribbler’s previous libel, there a future gallows-bird relieving a gawker’s pocket of the penny he meant to waste on the tabloid.
Well might we latter-day ghouls thank these unprincipled pushers: their scandalous documents, be they ever so compromised and artless, constitute a rare and precious glimpse into the criminal class of the early modern world.
We are indebted in this instance to James Kelly’s fascinating Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland, a book we have previously cited, for the two rival, contradictory, and mutually recriminatory broadsides recounting this execution. As Kelly’s own introduction notes, the mere existence of multiple competing reports — which we here humbly present for the reader’s discretion — does underscore “that public demand could sustain this volume of publication in individual instances.” And that fact alone would surely make the list of 26 secrets to make it as a printer in the the 18th century.
The True Last Speech, Confession, and Dying Words of
Mr. James Stevens and Account of Patrick Barnwell
who are to be executed at St. Stephen’s Green, on Wednesday the 25th Inst. May, 1726, being condemn’d for feloniously taking from Mr. Philip Kennersly of Dame-street, a Glas-case, Value 50l.
If it were not usual for Men of every Degree, in my unfortunate Circumstances to make a Kind of Declaration at their Death of their past Behaviour, I shou’d not, as at this Day, nor even should the above mention’d Considerations move me to make this, my Only and Last, were I not sensible of the many Villanous [sic] Falsities, which might be publish’d concerning my unhappy Fate, by Persons of the vilest Characters themselves; such as one Hoy in Pembroke-Court, who publish’d a scandalous and wicked Paper on the last poor Wretches that suffer’d, under the name of G.F. or George Faulkner, a Person known to have no Being in this Kingdom, this long Time past, altho’ make his Tool and Screen for scandalizing the Chiefest of our Just and Good Governours, as vilely as the poor undone Wretches: Beside him, there is another as notorious for the like Villainy, living at the Rein Deer in Montrath-Street, unworthy, and noted for the above named wicked Practice. On these Considerations only, then I say, I the unhappy and unfortunate James Stephens, have thought fit to tender to Richard Dickson of Dame Street, Printer, THIS, for Publication, as he thinks proper.
FIRST, Then, since I see it is the Will of the most High God, whose Name be for ever Blessed, That in this World I should be brought from my Former happy, to this Wretched state, I submit, beseching [sic] humbly for his most Gracious mercy and Forgiveness for my manifold Transgressions in the Follies of my youth, and misspent Time, which began in the City of London, where I first Drew my Breath, being an entire Stranger here, of Creditable and Honest Parents, who Bred me Tenderly and well, till I was able to go Apprentice, which Time I serv’d to an Image-maker, after I had done with him, I Work’d for my self, and growing worth money, after I had spent some of my untainted Youth, in the Service abroad, belonging to the Ordnance, I set up to keep Hire-Horses, for the Court, in Nature of the great Mr. Blount, in the Parish of St. James, having Licenc’d coaches, and dealing for upwards of 500l, a year, till many Misfortunes comming [sic] on me, I was oblidg’d to leave my Native Country, and on a Woful [sic] Day, I came for Ireland with some small matter of Money, about a year since, where I follow’d making Images, till I came acquainted with the vile Woman Eleanour Fenly, who to save her Life at Tryal falsly [sic] said she was my Wife, Poverty forceing me to keep first with her, she pretending to have Friends who would make my Fortune, which alas! they have, it being her Brother, Fernando Fenly, and his Accomplice who swore my Life away, in declaring That about the 25th of March, last I have a Box of Goods, which were Mr. Kennersly’s, afterwards found in his Custody, and that I paid him 2 Shillings for carryage from the Sun Inn, in Francis Street, to Ross, which I vow all False, nor was I e’er Guilty of what was sworn, tho’ for it I must dye, having no Friend to appear for me, yet with the Constancy of a Christian who can accuse himself, of no great Crimes I go to meet my Fate, Dying in Charity with the World.
But this I further for my Innocency declare, I ne’er had Intention to rob Mr. Kennersly, nor e’er sold any of his Goods, but going into the Country with the Aforemention’d Eleanor Fenly to her Brother’s in Loghreagh, where he lives well; she came in Company with one Byrn, a Fellow [I] did not like and who resolv’d I suppose to do us an Injury, upon which I quarrel’d, and happening to be damag’d by some People in Caterlogh. I resolv’d to get Justice of which, being by ‘em suspected, they got me apprehended on Suspicion of an idle Person, and Nell Fenly getting some Toys to sell there, she was discover’d at that time, on which her Brother made the Examination aforesaid, against me, which caused me to be transmitted and tryed upon it, to save his own Life; she as I before said, escaping by alledging she was my Wife &c. I may likewise add, that had not my Fellow Sufferer hop’d to have sav’d his Life, he cou’d have clear’d me, for which I pray God forgive him, And now Dear Christians, I have nought to say, but heartily beg that some of you, who shall see me dye, out of mere Pity to my unhappy State, (an entire and poor Stranger) will cover me with Earth, an Hindrance to those Men whose Business it is, to keep forlorn Wretches from their Graves, for private Practice o’er their mangled Bodies. I now conclude begging your Prayers to God for my Forgiveness, being about 37 Years of Age, A Protestant Member of the Church of England.
PATRICK BARNEL Who is to dye with Mr. Stephens, on the Persuasion of some Friends has declin’d making further Confession, than to his Ghostly Father, which he desires so might be forth, lest any imprudent Person should pretend he had made any Speech, giving no further Account of himself, than that he was pritty [sic] well educated, and when young, that he serv’d Major Arthur, to whom he owns great obligation, that after he left him, he went to serve a Weaver, whose Business he after, follow’d, dating his Misfortunes to begin in being concern’d in Mr. Kenerslys Robbery; to whom he afterwards gave up several Things in hopes to save his Life. He Dies a Roman Catholick, begging the Prayers of All good Christians.
Mr. Gray having by Gracious Mercy, obtained a Reprieve, ’tis hop’d no notice will be taken of the absurd Pieces, design’d and publish’d, by the said Hoy in Pembroke Court, or under any feign’d Name whatever, which is notoriously known to be intended by Hoy, who surely will cheat the Publick with some scandalous and lying Paper, intitled a Speech to the abovenamed unfortunate Men, in prejudice and defamation to the Printer hereof, who unwittingly gall’d hiim, in saying th’other Day, He look’d like Death, when a Person affirm’d to his Face, in the open street, he said he was a MOLLY, (term well known for Sodomite) a charge so bold, that it might be wished, before he strives to taint another’s, he’d clear his own Character, from that Aspersion, if so it may be term’d.
Printed by Richard Dickson, and Gwyn Needham in Dames-Street.
The Last Speech, Confession and Dying Words, of
Patrick Barnel, and James Stephens
who are to be executed at St. Stephens Green, this present Wednesday, the 25th of this Inst. May, 1726. For the Robbery of Mr. Kinnersly in Dames-Street.
The Speech of James Stephens.
I James Stephens, was born at Cheswick, about five Miles from London: my Parents put me to a free School to learn to write, where I had the Character of an unlucky Boy. At 14 Years of Age, I was entertained by the celebrated Jonathan Wilde, under whom I arrived to such Dexterity in Picking Pockets and Impudence in bare-fac’d Robberies, that I robb’d on a Play Night in Drury Lane Edward Martin, Esq, of 75 Guineas and a Gold Watch. My honest Master for the sake of a Reward of ten Pounds for the Discovery of the Persons who committed the Robbery, made Oath that I was the Person.
But I having Timely notice of it, fled to France, where I with some others Rob’d and Murder’d Mr. Lock, and the English Gentlemen in his Company, then I took Shipping at Calais, and landed at Cork, where Information in a little Time was given against Me, for several Robberies; this obliged me to come to Dublin, where I most impudently perform’d that unparalleled Roguery of Stealing a Glass Case with Rings, Silver Spoons, Snuff-Boxes, &c. to the Value of Seventy Pounds from Mr. Kinnersly Goldsmith in Dame Street. I heartily and sincerely repent of my horrid Crimes, and desire the Prayers of all my Fellow Christians. I dye an unworthy Member of the Church of England.
The Speech of PATRICK BARNWELL
Good Cristians, [sic]
I Patrick Barnel was born in the County of Dublin of Poor, but Honest Parents; their mean Circumstances was in a great Measure, the Cause of my Present Misfortune, for they could not give me any Education, and I was often obliged to take away from the little Children of the same Town their Victuals to satisfie my Hunger, when I was a Boy, I stole several little Things, and escaped without Punishment.
I was induced to commit great Rogueries; I became acquainted with a Gang of Tories who kept their Rendevouz [sic] in the County of Kerry with whom I committed such Cruel and Barbarous Actions, that we were all Obliged to disperse and shift every one for himself, it was my Fate to come to this City where I had not been above Six Months, before I introduced into the Company of my ellow-Sufferer, who was the Head of a Gang of about a Dozen, having no Manner of Subsisting myself.
I committed several petty Thefts with him and others, and at last that most notorious one for which I now die, I cannot deny that I am guilty, but having a true sence of my Crimes, I repent of them, and I desire your Prayers for my soul, I die a Member of the Church of Rome in which I was bred, and the Lord have mercy on my poor Soul.
N.B. On Sunday last, one Dickson a Printer who publishes Papers under the Name of G Needham, came to us in Newgate, and we not thinking him a proper Person to make any thing publick from us. We desire the publick be aware buying any Speech of ours from him, for whatever is printed by him is an Imposition of the Town, and can only be excused by his saying, He is a poor Boy, and must endeavour to better his miserable Circumstances, and maintain himself and his little Family. He had already advertised, that he has the Speech of one who is not to die.
Dublin: Printed by G.F. in Castle Street.
* The emoluments available for intermediating the sentiments of the hanged become quite obvious through the lucrative quasi-monopoly the Ordinary of Newgate was able to establish around his privileged access to London’s condemned.