Ireland had a bitter history of the death penalty under the British. Famous rebels like Henry Joy McCracken, Robert Emmet and Padraig Pearse were put to death as a warning to other Irish people considering rebellion against the Crown.
Based on this, it’s no surprise that when the Irish sat down after independence to write their own laws they initially planned to abolish capital punishmen. The Irish Civil War soon changed minds, however, and the ultimate deterrent was kept on the statute books.
Twenty-nine ordinary Irish people would be hanged for murder before capital punishment was abolished in Ireland in 1964, but an even greater number would be sentenced to death before narrowly escaping the gallows. Here is a list of ten men and women who nearly came face-to-face with the executioner.
1. Hannah Flynn
Flynn was from Killorglin, Co Kerry and in 1922 was working as a domestic servant for the O’Sullivan family who lived nearby. She was sacked after just two months, however, for theft and disobedience.
On Easter Sunday the following year Margaret O’Sullivan was found lying on the kitchen floor by her husband when he returned from Mass. She had been butchered with a hatchet. Flynn was immediately under suspicion and was swiftly found guilty of murder and given a date of execution.
She was given a recommendation to mercy on account of her “low intellect” and received a reprieve after the sentence. She spent eighteen years in prison before being released into a convent.
Aylward was involved in an agricultural feud with his neighbors, the Holdens, in Kilkenny in 1923. He was accused, and found guilty, of taking their eighteen-month-old son William and pushing him into the fire, causing him an agonizing death as revenge.
Aylward came within days of execution for the crime, but was reprieved at the last minute. He served ten years in jail instead. He went to his death insisting that he had been framed for the horrific crime.
3. Jane O’Brien
O’Brien lived in Killinick, Co. Wexford, with her nephew John Cousins. In 1932 Cousins was engaged to be married and told his aunt that she would have to move out to make way for his new bride. The elderly woman instead took a shotgun from under his bed and shot him as he returned from the pub. She was found guilty but received a reprieve on account of her age and gender.
4. Mary Agnes Daly
Daly was threatened with eviction in 1948 for being unable to pay her rent. She then attacked a stranger in a church in Glasnevin, Co. Dublin, using a hammer she had brought with her (apparently to break open church money boxes.) The stranger was eighty-three year-old Mary Gibbons. Daly was quickly found guilty and scheduled to meet Pierrepoint, the hangman. She was reprieved two weeks before the execution, spending six years in jail instead.
5. Shan Mohangi
Mohangi was a South African medical student who came to Dublin to study in the early sixties. The 23-year-old started seeing a 14-year-old girl named Hazel Mullen shortly afterwards but proved to be insanely jealous. In August 1963 he strangled her after accusing her of kissing another boy and dismembered her body gruesomely.
Mohangi was sentenced to death for the despicable crime, but in a retrial was found guilty of manslaughter only. He served just four years in prison and returned to South Africa on his release. In 2009 he was running for political office in South Africa when his murderous past caught up with him. He was forced to withdraw from the race.
6. Mary Somerville
Mary Somerville’s daughter gave birth to a child outside of wedlock in Co. Monaghan in 1938. Instead of living with the huge social shame that came with such an occurrence in 1930s Ireland, however, Mary took the baby girl and threw her into a pond outside her house. The body was discovered some weeks later and the grandmother was given a death sentence for two days before Christmas, 1938. It was commuted on the 9th of the same month.
7. Daniel Duff
Garda James Byrne is amongst the unfortunate number of Irish policeman shot dead while on duty. Incredibly, however, it was a fellow Garda who fired the bullet that killed Byrne. Byrne fought with Garda Daniel Duff in 1945 when they were both stationed on armed night-duty in Co. Limerick. Duff, convinced that his colleague was drawing his gun, pulled out his own firearm and shot Byrne twice through the heart. Duff claimed self-defence but was found guilty and given the death sentence. He was reprieved and served just over five years in Mountjoy Prison.
8. Hannah O’Leary
O’Leary was jointly charged with murder in 1924 along with her brother Con. The two were found guilty of killing their brother Patrick and dismembering his corpse before scattering it around a field adjoining their farmhouse in Kilkerran, Co. Cork.
Both denied the charges but were sentenced to death nonetheless. Con was duly hanged, claiming still to be an innocent man. Hannah spent seventeen years in jail, where she was described as “not quite right” by prison authorities. She was released into a convent in 1942.
9. Frances Cox
Cox was a Protestant from Co. Laois who wanted to marry a local Catholic. Her brother Richard did not approve but took ill suddenly in 1949 and died in excruciating pain. The Gardaí treated the otherwise healthy young man’s death as suspicious and examined his organs. They contained large traces of the deadly household poison strychnine.
Frances was found to have the means and the motive to have administered the lethal substance and was given a date with the hangman. Her sentence was commuted and she spent seven years in prison for the murder.
10. Robert Stevenson
Stevenson was from the Isle of Bute in Scotland and was a sailor. His oil tanker docked in Dublin shortly before Christmas 1953. Incredibly, after just twelve hours on Irish soil, Stevenson was said to have murdered Mary Nolan, a woman he met in a pub on the quays in the city. He maintained his innocence but was found guilty and sentenced to death the following year. He was reprieved, narrowly saving himself from becoming the last man hanged in the state.
The death penalty was last used in Ireland in 1954, just months before Stevenson was reprieved. It was abolished for ordinary murder ten years later.
Colm Wallace has written a book “Sentenced to Death: Saved from the Gallows” about thirty Irish men and women who had the death penalty imposed on them between 1922 and 1985. It is being launched on June 17 this year and is available for pre-order on amazon.com