The bloody and divisive Irish Civil War resulted in the surprise restoration of the death penalty.
The last-minute decision to reinstate the ultimate deterrent would cost twenty-nine ordinary Irish citizens their lives after they were convicted of murder, until the death penalty was abolished in 1964 for everything but the murder of public figures.
Dozens more would have the penalty imposed on them only to receive last-minute commutations. Patrick Aylward was one such individual whose escape from the gallows became legendary.
In an increasingly urbanized society it can be difficult for the modern Irish person to comprehend the vicious feuds between rural farming families. Sadly, in the Ireland of 1922, these fights were all too common.
Patrick Aylward was sixty-three years old and a farmer from Mullinavat, County Kilkenny. He had returned to Ireland in 1921 after thirty-nine years in Connecticut in order to nurse his elderly brother on their twenty-five acre holding. Fifty yards away lived the Holden family, which included Patrick, Mary and their eight children.
Relations between the two households had soured shortly after Patrick’s return. He complained about the alleged trespassing on his land by animals belonging to the Holden family, even setting his dog on a goat belonging to Mrs. Holden. On another occasion, a missing fowl belonging to the Holdens was found dead in Aylward’s shed. Mary would describe her neighbor as a violent and unpredictable man who had twice struck her with a stick.
Aylward disagreed, asserting that she was the aggressor and had attacked him several times. Her children also constantly annoyed his animals and used his well as a toilet. What started out as a minor disagreement was about to take a far more sinister turn.
On Saturday, April 21, 1923, Patrick Holden was out working while his wife was minding the children. At 5pm Mary put her eighteen-month-old son William to bed and departed the house to buy an outfit for another son’s confirmation. Despite the lawless nature of the times, Mary saw fit to place eight-year-old Patrick in charge of the house in her absence. She told him to lock the door and stay inside. His younger sister Mary and brother Michael were also present. William, the second youngest of the Holden family, suffered from rickets and was not able to crawl or walk but was sleeping peacefully when his mother left.
Some minutes afterwards, Patrick Aylward allegedly knocked at the Holden’s front door. The children reluctantly opened the door and Aylward burst in shouting that he “would put an end to the trespassing.” Aylward lifted William, who was still sleeping, and walked over to the fire. He then proceeded to hold the infant down over the burning grate. Patrick Holden allegedly endeavored to intervene but was powerless against the older man’s strength.
Aylward stayed watching the crying infant as he burned on the fire, all the while using a stick to hold off the other children. Just as William’s clothes caught fire, Aylward said “Don’t let them goats into my haggard anymore” before striding out the door. The children quickly removed their infant brother from the fire and put him in a bucket of water to quench the flames. The severely-burned baby was then put back into his bed and the door was locked.
Patrick Holden Snr. arrived home within the next few minutes to be met with several hysterical children and a baby suffering from life-threatening burns. There were no gardaí in the area at that turbulent point in Irish history, so Holden instead sent for a doctor from Waterford. He duly arrived and found the baby in a state of collapse. William was charred black all over his body and died from toxemia twenty-four hours later.
The coroner’s inquest took place just days after the death. Aylward appeared and denied having any knowledge of the burning. The coroner referred the case to the gardaí nonetheless, but also had harsh words for the bereaved Holdens, telling them that he did not know whether to sympathize with them because they had abandoned their young children at home. Aylward was arrested on May 8. He replied “I did not do it.”
The murder trial began on the November 26, 1923. The prosecutor stated that the prisoner was “charged with a crime which, if proved against him, was as terrible and hideous a crime as any one described as a human being could commit.” Aylward maintained a cool demeanor throughout despite the gravity of the charges against him. He pleaded not guilty.
Dr. Matthew Coghlan appeared on the stand and told the court that the injuries to William Holden could not have occurred accidentally. When asked about the defendant, he described him as a “degenerate” who lived in squalor, referring to the Aylward homestead as a “manure heap and cesspool.” He did insist that Aylward was sane and capable of distinguishing right from wrong, however.
Patrick Holden also took the stand and was described as an intelligent witness, despite never attending school and being unable to write his name. He described letting Aylward in and witnessing his neighbor grabbing William and putting him across the fire. Patrick attempted to aid his brother but was unable to do so. Michael Holden also recounted Aylward raising a stick at them and telling them as he left the house “Don’t tell your mother or I’ll kill you.”
Patrick Aylward admitted that he had poor relations with his neighbor but insisted that he had not been in their house for five months before the incident when he had complained to Mrs. Holden about her children chasing his sow and swimming in his spring well. Her response was to hit him with a scrubbing brush. He retaliated by giving her a whack with his walking stick. He denied harming the children however, pleading “Don’t you think I have a soul to save as well as everyone else, or what do you think I am?” Aylward insisted that the Holdens had told their children to lie about him. Two witnesses, Aylward’s brother and a friend, also vouched that the prisoner had been tending a sick cow all day and had not visited his neighbors.
The trial took just one day and despite the contentious and contradictory evidence the all-male jury needed just ten minutes deliberation before passing a guilty verdict, with a recommendation to mercy. The judge announced his agreement and sentenced the prisoner to death. Aylward responded “I am not guilty at all. I have not been in that house for five months. May God forgive the woman who put the lie on me and God forgive the jury.” His pleas fell on deaf ears and his execution was set for the December 27, putting him among five convicted murderers to be sentenced to death in that month.
Three of the men would indeed be hanged. Aylward, however, was fortunate to receive petitions from numerous luminaries, including the Bishop of Ossory. His Grace petitioned government minister Kevin O’Higgins, questioning the guilt of the elderly man. He mentioned the Holden family’s “bad moral character,” and alluded to a previous incident when another Holden child had burned to death in suspicious circumstances in 1910.
It was announced just hours before the execution that Aylward’s death sentence was to be commuted to one of penal servitude for life. The minister was not obligated to give a reason for this sudden commutation but a reasonable doubt was surely present. The government may also have been reluctant to execute a man solely on the evidence of children. Patrick Aylward served ten years in prison and was released in 1932. He died three years later, still maintaining that he had taken no part in the burning of William Holden.
The death penalty remained in the Irish Constitution until 1990 and twenty-eight men and one woman would meet their death at the end of an Irish rope. Harry Gleeson was shamefully hanged for murder in 1941, a crime he did not commit. Twenty years before, did Patrick Aylward come within hours of suffering a similar injustice? The truth may never be known.
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. Order on books.ie or Amazon.
**Originally published in March 2016