(Cursai Coireolaiochta Na h-Eireann)
Created By Seamus Breathnach.
10. Capital Punishment
Studies In Irish Criminology: Book 10
10.b. A Short History of capital Punishment In Ireland
Sile, Sean and Seamus
Seamus : As you can see, there are three substantial Appendices in this work. These Appendices have had to be cut to the bone because on their own they take up enough room to constitute a work on their own; but this would be to reduce criminology to the level of criminal reportage. And even if we have no great crushing truths to draw from these cases, we prefer to have them located in space and time, in a way that leaves them open to further analysis.
Of course each of them could be drawn out and treated as a major work. One might even get arty about them, that is, if one had nothing better to do, and if one was going to live forever. But even if one did this, what would one have in the end? Another bout of criminal diarrhea. This is not what criminology is about.
Sean: But Chapter 8 is focused totally on one execution, that of William Gambon.
Seamus: Well you have to make up your own mind about it. It is only one chapter -- and even that is oversized.
Sean: I am not concerned about its size, but the damage you have done to the reputation and memory of President Cearbhaill O’Dalaigh.
Seamus: Explain yourself.
Sean: Hitherto the President was regarded as the most fair-minded, scholarly and patriotic of men. Now, it appears that he attacked a man when he was most vulnerable -- and not only that, but he used the Christian sword to do so, and he used it in preference to his stated passion for Gaelic.
Sean: Don’t you have any respect for natives at all?
Seamus:You’ll want to do better than that!
Sean: If I go with your argument …--- What is your argument?
Seamus (to Sile): You explain it to him!
Sile: Not again. What am I? Maybe I don’t agree with it.
Seamus: And I don’t want to keep on repeating myself!
Sean: Agree with What?
Sile: O, forget it.
Sean: I would surely prefer to talk about music or, preferably, listen to some good music ,than continue this relentless pursuit of logic.
Seamus: We’ll talk about music later, the criminology of music --
Sile: You promise!
Seamus: later. Now , please get on with it.
Sean: The criminology of music!!! Now I have heard everything!
Sile: The issue, as I understand it, is simple. Properly speaking, one’s sympathies go first to the victim and not to the perpetrator.
Sean: A Daniel come to judge us . I agree entirely. And in Gambon’s case -- if that is what we are still talking about -- his crime was awful. He killed his friend with a bar -- after a game of cards. Why should he not pay the penalty for his crime?
Sile: Even if that was the issue - and it is not -- his crime was more akin to manslaughter than murder. And the Saorstat, while merciful in many ways, was perfectly arbitrary in others. For a start, it hardly held reliable records between 1922 and 1944. I don’t just mean retaining the records dealing with the Jury’s request for mercy, but with respect to identifying exactly whom it was specifically whose role it was to award a reprieve. The first ten years of the Saorstat are practically without records -- records, that is, that have become available to the public on all these matters. Furthermore, while De Valera was very fond of rattling back the old letter pointing out that the law had little or nothing to do with him -- even in the case of old comrades -- the fact of the matter was that during this period the law was very uncertain.
Sean: How uncertain?
Sile: For one thing , under British law, if you received a reprieve, it was invariably in favour of Penal Servitude for Life. That meant that no further reprieve was possible. With the Irish , this is changed and some people benefit from both the commutation as well as a reprieve later from prison terms.
Sean: But , is that a bad thing? And did happen that often?
Sile: It didn’t happen that often and it is not a bad thing. What is bad about it is the arbitrariness of it. By the way, in the Gambon case, you can see the arbitrariness in the manner in which he was handled. He is a nobody, that is, in Irish life there was none on his side. He had no social standing: there were no priests, party-faithfuls, or community people on his side. Not even a publican, a house-holder, a friend, a half-farmer. He was the most anonymous of Irish urban dwellers in the forties -- a non-religious, non-political, uneducated, upright, urban member of the proletariat of Dublin’s unemployed. He couldn’t get more anonymous than that -- not, that is, since the anonymity afforded by the Dublin rookeries in Swift’s time. At least there was a camaraderie among thieves then. The criminals used to run to the rookeries behind St. Patrick’s in the substantial hope that the Castle-men would never enter such an impoverished manor in pursuit. In many ways, Gambon, the penultimate person executed by Saorstat Eireann, had no shelter from the horrors of power whatsoever. He was one of the new state’s ‘little people’, one of the one’s who lived between ‘hither and thither’, in constant emigrational flux: a man caught between two poles, the secular and the religious. He was caught in that awful vortex between English reality and Irish mythology. He lived in times when he had to navigate the ‘glue’ that passed between the big wheel of England and its contracting Empire and the little wheel of the Saorstat and its expanding religious Empire. The glue wasn’t just geographical, but emotional also, the kind of Danny-Boy cabaiste that petty Republic love to sacrifice in order to make themselves monstrous.
In many ways, people like Cearbhaill O’Dalaigh and William Gambon are alike. It’s just that one joined the party; the other didn’t know that trick: and the ebb and flow of the religious Empire and its exigencies did the rest.
Sean: Aren’t you a bit hard -
Sile: Hard on who!
Sean: Hard on Cearbhaill O’Dalaigh!
Sile: What did he do with his enthusiasm for Gaelic culture? He didn’t even see the anonymous urban Dubliner as a person. He lashed away with ‘scripture’ and ‘reason’ , like a stuffed Roman dummy, fanning his Christian feathers for all in Fianna Fail to see and admire …
Sean: So , you agree with …
Sile: How could I not agree. What are you? A church pawn!
Sean: He murdered his friend!
Sile: For the umpteenth time , that was not the issue. You know there is always a ready test of ethical behaviour. It is almost an unerring test, and it is this. Our heroes are heroes because they fight the strong on behalf of the weak. You heard Mr Gordon Browne referring to it recently, when he took over from Tony Blair. He rightly wanted to go back to first principles. In his case, the jury is out as to whether he uses words or means conceptually and morally what he says. So, against whom were these politicians, MacEntee and O’Dalaigh fighting? In their public statements , which directly bore on Gambon’s predicament, Messres MacEntee and O’Dalaigh were adding to the load of the weakest of all men : a man on his knees begging for mercy before the entire community of An tSaorstait -- the same society that first branded and brutalized him and his family when they were children, and now that society in 1948 wanted to put a rope around his neck and implement the first lesson of the Christian conquest -- how to use the gallows! Gambon in 1948 and Manning in 1954 in continuance of Christian social teaching baptised the New Republic in blood. Christianity reached across the Saorstat in search of the new Republic. This, as in so many other ways, assured it of its hegemony over its most biddable prey.
Sean: But Manning was the last hanging in Ireland, the first and last in the Republic. I still don’t see that it was so cruel a performance.
Sile: You wouldn’t , because you do not see the connection between its capital and its corporal programme. If it abandoned capital punishment de facto , it continued it de jure for another half century. And if it gave up the gallows, it shifted its disciplinary focus to beating and buggering the new Republic’s little boys right under the nose of its petty, prostrate, pusillanimous Republic. Pardon me if I do not share your incomprehensible lack of anger. You, who are so full of righteousness, until it comes to doing something to the Roman black guards! Then, you are so like the Michael Woodses of this world and the Fianna Failers and the Fine Gaelers and the Labourites and the Sinners. What a depressing, demoralising shower!
And we still have to listen to the way that bloody church goes on and on about ‘turning the other cheek’, and all to that of it. We get our messages through RTE. the National Broadcasting System under Fianna Fail has become a tannoy System for Rome. RTE saves those goddamn bishops, who cannot stop begging here or caviling there about women, sex, and their foreign colonies, from facing the public for what they have done. When it comes to it, they have as much morals as a Pedophile's pimp. At least the Republic’s whole apparatus doesn’t claim to be any more than a network of thieves and robbers. Hardly one among them with any character! Need I say more?
Sean: You’ve said quite enough! Here’s a cartoon you might like! I stole it from some Website while browsing the internet. I hope you don’t mind. I thought it might provide some light relief for you, seeing as how serious you take things. You might repay the debt, someday. What do you think?
Seamus: Yes , Sile. You should not let your country get to you! Indeed, maybe you should resist your country , as well as your church. Since both are utterly corrupt, you might try and fall back on learning French or even Italian. Believe it or not, the Italians also have a wicked Church-and-State. It’s just that they don’t take the Church as seriously as we do; they know it’s just another political party in the trough. And what do you think of the cartoon?
Sile: I have to say it is very sweet of you.
Sean: I thought you’d enjoy it. I said to myself…. Yes, maybe when she’s down ,or when she’s in a mood, or when she’s ripping with anger… maybe then, I’ll spring it on her. Take the wind out of her sails, as it were. I really don’t really expect a return present. It’s my gift to you!
Sile: I don’t know why you think that you should have to wait before I got you a similar token. I have been thinking about you as well -- you who are so religious, loyal, upright and so hard to convince about anything that has not been given to you from childhood. Sometimes I think you are blessed in your obduracy.
Sean: You don’t really mean that.
Sile: I do. I do. I sometimes think that phlegmaticism of the order that you exhibit, is like impenetrable armor against ‘the slings and arrows.’
Sean: You are so thoughtful… sometimes!
Sile: As it happens, you have been in my mind recently. And , if you don’t mind , I have something that might surprise you as much as you surprised me. I have it here in my purse… Where is it! You can’t find one when you most need one! Here it is. I felt instinctively that you might appreciate it.
Sean:You do. What is it?
Sile: O, nothing -- nothing that one might lose one’s head over!
Sean: I declare! It’s a guillotine!
Sile: So it is. But it is no ordinary guillotine; it is a rather Holy guillotine: blessed by the Popes’ best tap-water. It was used by the Popes throughout the Papal States, that is, when , like the secular states, they had to provide employment, feed families, and grow up. I think however they preferred the land of ‘spin’: it was more lucrative. I know you will appreciate it and hang it safely in your bedroom! You can even find out how popular it was amongst those holier-than-thou Italians if you have a gander at the Museo Criminologico at:
Sean: But you are not claiming that the Saorstat or the Republic were overly cruel in their use of capital punishment, are you?
Sile: O, yes, we are. That ‘us Irish’ used it at all -- and for so long -- was cruel. The civil servants knew it, but the politicians weren’t up to it until MacBride spoke out. And then we really got confirmation of how phlegmatic and cruel the inner psyche of the Irish Church/State ensemble is. In other words, we had our warnings, long before we discovered the Nazi sympathies or the child buggery cases or the capacity of Irish bishops and Opus Dei to dissemble.
You might also remember that the Republic frightened the hell out of women by condemning them to death for infanticide. A lot of these women were no more than teenagers, yet ‘our’ great Republic didn’t spare the horses in handing down death sentences, even when they knew they would not -- could not -- implement them. Eventually, it was only by copying the English (the very bad Protestant people we Catholics couldn’t get rid of fast enough) , that we eventually reconciled ‘ourselves’ to an Infanticide Act. If you read the files, you can still get the whiff of resistance from the Opus Dei-Irish -- they are the voice of everything really and truly and dependably Irish. Indeed, without the Church, where would the Irish -- or the Polish -- be?
Sean: How many people did the Saorstat and the Republic -- and Northern Ireland -- condemn to death?
Sile: All unnecessarily!
Sean: I would have thought the commutation rate was more promising than you would allow. 47 executions out of 132 capital sentences isn’t so excessively cruel is it. These are your own figures: and you also admit that while the figure of 47 is fixed the figure of 132 is possible understated. Moreover, the figures follow the general and dramatic line of diminution since 1800. So, what so bad about that?
Seamus: You can think that , if you like. But before commenting on that aspect one would it not have been better to have regard to a full comparative study with ‘like’ countries. While I feel that there never are sufficiently ‘like’ countries to make such comparisons, one must solider on in the approximating believe that there are. You may well find that in some countries at this time there was no capital punishment at all. Can I ask you then: compared to countries who have given over capital punishment, would you consider the Saorstat/Republic cruel in comparison, even possessing a 47/132 execution/commutation rate -- Romania, for example, which abolished the death penalty in 1864. And even if they restored it. Restored for political crimes in 1938, there had been no execution since 1838. What would you say to that? Sweden abolished the death penalty in 1921 and have had no execution since 1910. Switzerland abolished it in 1942 and has had no execution since 1924. So, it is rather important when you make such comparative statements that they retain some significance in comparison terms. Holland abolished the death sentence in 1870 and had no execution since 1860. Do you still want to compare our execution rate with other countries? And Denmark abolished it in 1892. West Germany and Austria -- before they tried to kill everybody else in the world, managed , ironically to give it up in 1939 and 1940 respectively, but Ireland clung on to it. So, you decide about how the Irish compare? How civilized are we?
Sean: I suppose we stayed with the British and hadn’t the wherewithal to break. As you pointed out, we had no debate in Parliament about it. And until the 1950s there was no likelihood that there would be one.
Sile: But that’s the point that Seamus was making: there is no possibility of any epistemological originality as long as the umbilical chords of London and Rome govern the Irish mind. We know nothing but what we are told by either the Pope or the Prince. Indeed, we never had any existence whatsoever, since Gaelic times, outside the knowledges mediated to us by Roman Catholicism and English imperialism. We have no other culture but them: the Roman religion of the middle ages and some gallant notion that we were once part of a real British empire. That’s us! And we cut off the real empire for the unreal one; we preferred some notion of religious life in the nowhere land of the middle ages to being part of British secular life today. That is our culture. We know nought else. And that’s all we know We don’t even know that we don’t know. We don’t even know what and how we do know! Epistemologically speaking, we’re as hopeless as it is possible to be!
Sean: And you see all this by looking at the death penalty?
Sile: If you go down to the National Archives, you will see an overworked staff trying to save the skeletal leavings of the empires records. Just their records mind. And they can’t do it. They provide what they can, but a lot of the stuff has over the years been left out on pallets in the rain, a lot of it has been destroyed, and a lot of it I imagine is damaged. I get the secret impression that many an archivist in Ireland prays that there might be another Four Courts fire, to relieve the little country from carrying around the catalogues and catalogues of someone else’s history on it back.
Sean: What’s your point?
Sile: My point is this. We are too small. We don’t even fit the left off boots of either of the Empires that possessed us. In Britain’s case, we mind their records because we have none of our own. Indeed, one gets the distinct feeling that the archives are more for foreigners than for natives. It’s not just the archives, it’s everything Irish. It’s like as if it all came out of the Quiet Man, as if we are dreamed up, defined, by others, as if we actually have no ego, no discourse with self. We are the Roman’s chalk! The Briton’s Archive. And they know it! If they don’t tell us what to do, we don’t know what to do.
Sean: We seem to be going off course here. Can we get back to capital punishment, please. What were the rates as between the 1900-1921 period and the 1922 -1954 period like?
Seamus: For all Ireland?
Seamus: For the period 1900- 1921 the execution rate was 17 out of 46 capital sentences, and for the period 1922-54, it was 38 out of 94 of such sentences.
Sile: When you say ‘about’ such and such, what do you mean? Are the figures not exact?
Seamus: In so far as they can be, yes; they are exact. But since no reliable records were kept of these things, one can’t be absolutely sure of the number of commutations. To assess how removed the Irish were--even from the possibilities of actually getting rid of the death penalty as late asthe fifties,, see the site on a motion to that effect at:
But for the best site on all UK and Irish statistics of the death penalty:
While this is a very useful and informative site for nineteenth as well as twentieth century names and executions, that’s all it deals with. We do not disagree with this site in any great measure. And in a way that is why we gave the information in the Appendices to this work -- that is , in order that students are not left with an idle name and a date of execution; but rather with some outline of the actual crime.
As I say, we do not differ with these findings at all, but our concern isn’t just with the executions alone, but with the process , the gearings between sentences , executions and commutations. And of course, these findings are useless with respect to such matters. So, apart from corroborating the names and dates of persons executed , we have little further use for this site.
Sean: These names probably came from a newspaper scan which throws up the details of executions. But where does one get the other information, the number of sentences, the number of reprieves, etc.?
Seamus: Well, that’s the problem. One has to work at it. And that is the reason one cannot be dogmatic about the numbers. The most one can do is give of one’s best estimate, given that the names, and dates of the executions -- except for minor adjustments are confirmed by the above WebSite.
The distance between sentencing and execution in terms of time, adjournments , press reports, court appeals and archival references is long and not always traceable. And if one of these sources fail , then one must rely upon the others. If they all fail -- if , in other words, there is no way of coming across a reference to corroborate, then that is that. It remains outside consideration and unknown. There is the way of the petition and the commutation. And in the early days one isn’t quite sure who is doing the commuting, the Governor General, the Minister for Justice, one of the Departments, the President or the Cabinet (Executive Council). And , no matter who does it, there is no specific place that one can find reliable data on the events and outcomes. Even the civil servants provided figures that were not in my opinion comprehensive. On top of that there was the other problem, namely, that a man or a mother might receive a sentence, but recourse might be had to the courts rather than to the executive. If the courts reported their decision, then there was that record, but it might not be connected to the sentence in the same year. And if it was reported further, then the time span between crime, trial, sentence, and execution or outcome was not always readily available. Having said all that, I think we got them all in respect of executions, but maybe there are a few commutation cases still about.
Sile: Finally, what about gender bias? How many females were sentenced and hanged in comparison with males?
Sean: This is one of several works on capital punishment in Ireland.
Sean: So, if the last hanging was in 1954, the period analyzed is more or less half a century rather than a century?
Seamus: True. The Appendices reflect the politically divisions into 1900-1922 and from 1922 to 1954. The last execution in Ireland occurs in 1954. To be comprehensive, I have also looked at each of the several cases of execution that occurred in Northern Ireland over the period.
Sean: So, what can we say about capital punishments -- Irish style?
Seamus: Quite a lot, actually. The extract exhibited ‘A Coalition of Sorts’ deals with the Gambon case. This occurred during the Coalition government of 1948-51 and you can see how dramatic and rather unedifying the whole episode was.
Sile: Do you know what struck me more forcibly than ever, as I read this account?
Sile: The Jacky Charleton metaphor. We really do borrow things and then imagine that we invented them, that we actually know what we are doing, and that we somehow know something about ourselves that is deep and meaningful -- whereas in fact, we are so full of ...
Sean: I was more concerned with the other chapters. I must say they were surprising. But what can we say about capital punishment in Ireland?
Sile: Even from the beginning, there was no need to continue to use capital punishment in Ireland. Other countries had shown the way.
Sean: As much as I would like to agree with you, I’m afraid that I can’t. What can a government do with people who are still fighting over the original bone of contention -- the who’s who and the what’s what of Irish power. Raw, naked power is the first thing about which there can be no vacuum. Now I know we have talked at length on the anthropological/history sites about the Surety system in ancient Ireland. I understand the great defense that Nery and the anthropologists have put up for such a system, but the awful question of Maine’s remains unanswered.
Sile: You mean whether capital punishment was necessary in order to progress from Wergeld, the Bot and the Eric to the modern state?
Seamus: I have been thinking about that.
Seamus: I don’t know. It is such a hard question! It’s a bit like what Shakespeare put into the mouth of one of his characters: one has to be cruel to be kind. I wonder if that is true either at the personal or at the sociological level! But the better answer is to be found in the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement. Here there were no capital punishments that did not take place in the field of conflict. Indeed, many might say that for the murder of Policemen, maybe there should have been. I prefer to think that the resistance to such forces have demonstrated their worth in the long term possibilities, if only the Christians -- that is, the organisations that Christians give rise to -- can be educated to the violence that they cultivate.
A Short History Of Capital Punishment in 20th Ireland
Vol 1: The Evil That Men Do
CHAPTER 1: Deterrence By Numbers 1
CHAPTER 2: The Theory 12
CHAPTER 3: The Legacy 1900 -11-1921 20
CHAPTER 4: Intermezzo 1919-22 32
CHAPTER 5: Borrowed Nationalism,1923-29 46
CHAPTER 6: At Home And Abroad, 1930-39 60
CHAPTER 7: The 40s (War and After) 73
CHAPTER 8: A Coalition of Sorts 1948-54 85
CHAPTER 9: Gentle Rain 106
CHAPTER 10: 1950 - the Afghan War 118
CHAPTER 11: The Press 130
CHAPTER 12: Reforms and Insanity 142
Appendix A: 146(32)
(Cases Between 1900 and 1922)
Appendix B 178(66)
(Cases Resulting in Execution At Mountjoy
Between 1922 and 1954)
Appendix C 244(17)
(N.I. Executions ,1922-61)
Reference And Index 261
A Coalition Of Sorts
As we have already seen 1, while there was much paramilitary activity in Ireland, there had been little or no inclination to debate the abolition of the death penalty in either the Dail or the Seanad. People had their opinions , but prior to 1948 2 no serious discussion, political or academic, managed to penetrate any of the very few available forums for public discussion.
During its three year-term of office, the First Inter-Party Government (1948 -- 1951) reviewed the execution of at least six convicted persons, two females and four males, Whatever else we imagine about the Thirteenth Dail, it remains to be said that only one petition of the six mentioned was denied. 3 Although William M. Gambon's application for clemency was denied, the central question grounding its propriety was answered. And even if the question arose under the most remarkable if casual and compromising circumstances, the ensuing public exchange of views, although extraordinarily brief, was equally revealing. What these views mostly conveyed were the effects of a Church/State accommodation which successive governments equilibrated on a pragmatic basis between the dual needs of a Church/State that wanted to portray its Christian beneficence and its tacit sanction of the use of the death penalty as a means of social control 4.
The Saorstat’s oscillation between these two aspirations -- of appearing judicious and merciful while having to deter aliens and criminals -- was best seen in its attitudes to the war. Throughout WW11, Ireland under a Fianna Fail government remained neutral. At the end of the war, however -- and despite the Church/State’s well-intentioned if ineffective intervention on behalf of Jews in Slovakia and Hungary -- Ireland nevertheless became a refuge for many of Europe's Nazis 5, while, at the same time, demonstrating little or no welcome for Jews. 6
Although the public was perfectly unaware of the Church/State policy on ratlining Nazis, some people nevertheless felt the need for political change. In mid-January 1948, the Fianna Fail government called an election for February 4. Fianna Fail lost eight seats , bringing the party quota to 68 -- which, in a Dail containing 147 seats, was well below the majority they had enjoyed as a single-party government. It was apparent that to overthrow single-party government, not only had the unlikely combination of 79 opposition seats to be realized, but ‘one of the most ideologically divided governments in the history of the state’, 7 would then have to be formed.
When Sean MacBride (1904 - 1988) formed a new party called Clann na Poblachta 8, he thought in terms of replacing Fianna Fail altogether, but when his chance came with the 1948 general election, his party returned a modest ten seats. This meant that if the Clann was going to secure any power at all, it would first have to join ranks with very significant others, including the conservative Cumann na nGaedhael party, now called Fine Gael 9. In effect, the new Coalition of hopefuls was a hotchpotch of most of the other right-wing parties. Together they constituted more of a bad substitute than an alternative to de Valera’s Fianna Fail party. If for no better reason than to accord some credibility to Irish parliamentary democracy, visible change of some order was necessary -- and it was this that made the new coalition desirable. Every one knew that Irish political stability centered on one incontrovertible fact 10: no matter what political party assumed office, no matter who went into power, or what party lost power, the Catholic Church would never be called upon to vacate its role as supreme ringmaster. Consequently, the broad unarticulated trans-party support for capital punishment was felt as a benign support for Christian values generally -- values which were rarely if ever reflected upon in a critical manner 11.
From time immemorial the Catholic Church had supported the death penalty 12, not just for witches and heretics 13, or in the Inquisitions and throughout the Papal States of the nineteenth century 14, but throughout the Europeanized Catholic colonies. If the Catholic Church in Ireland, a body which was not renowned for hiding either its virtues or its opinions under a bushel, ever wanted to have capital punishment abolished , it certainly never made its intentions known 15. To the contrary, given its ubiquitous power over the elect as well as the electorate, the obvious -- indeed, the only inference to be drawn -- was that it promoted the sacrifice just as it promoted the 'theory of the just war.' A call to abandon the death sentence as a means of social control only required a sustained announcement from the pulpits on Sunday mornings , or similar announcements to accompany RTE's daily sounding of the Angelus on the National Broadcasting Station, or, alternatively, a declaration of their support for its abolition before the National Anthem, which was played in every cinema in the country. Indeed, a whisper in the ears of any of its favourite politicos would have done the trick. With the exception of Noel Browne, very few in Irish political life came to power without either Church instruction or Church approval -- and that was long before the pro-active influence of Opus Dei made itself felt. And a similar pattern was happening all over the Catholic world, including the US, where, whatever the efforts against abortion, no genuine effort to abolish capital punishment was ever undertaken -- a fact which further testifies to its tacit support of the death penalty. 16
Who was William M. Gambon? 17
William Gambon was the 46th person to be hanged since 1900 and the 29th to be hanged by Saorstat Eireann.
Gambon and his friend, John Long, had known each other for some five years. They had worked together as laborers. Gambon had convictions for very petty offenses, and at the time of the murder he was 28 years of age with wasting muscles in the left thigh.
The immediate cause of Long`s death arose from a postprandial altercation concerning the loss of £60 at card- playing. Having met Long at Dun Laoire and having made provisions for him to enjoy his sojourn in Dublin, both men dined and decided to play cards. John Long, the deceased, accused William Gambon of cheating. Gambon claimed he won the £60 fairly and offered to give Long half the money back, because he felt the loss was severe. Long persisted in accusing him (and his wife) of orchestrating a fraud. Gambon warned him to desist from abusing his wife, but Long continued.
Thereafter one thing led to another, Long caught Gambon by the throat, and Gambon hit him with a bar. According to Gambon, he never intended to kill Long, Indeed, he didn’t know that he was dead until the following Tuesday, when he read about it in a newspaper and gave himself up at Store Street Garda Station. 18
According to Sergeant John Murray 26C, 1/10/48, who was attached to Store Street Garda Station:
“On the morning of the 24/8/48, I was in charge of the station. The accused William Gambon comes into the station at 8.40 a.m.. He walked over to the office counter and placed a copy of The Irish Press dated 24th August on the counter.
The produced copy of The Irish Press is the copy, Exhibit 32. He then pointed to the top right hand corner of the front page. I looked at it and saw what it referred to. It referred to the finding of a body in the room at 5 Upper Abbey St, and it stated that the authorities were anxious to interview William Gambon the tenant of the room in which the body was found. The accused pointed to the column with his left hand. I said to him “ ”Are you Gambon?' He replied “”Yes””. I then said:”Are you giving yourself up?”, and (he) Gambon replied, “Yes I am. there is nothing else for it”.
Mr. McQuaid for the accused objected to the admission of Gambon's reply. I then opened the door of the office and invited him in and asked him if he had had his breakfast and he replied ”I had, thank you." I took possession of the paper and he remained there until Inspector Ryan arrived." 19
Why did he not give himself up sooner? - ` I was not sure of what I was doing or what had happened`, he said 20.
Was the killing premeditated? - `I didn’t at any stage intend to kill John Long. I regarded him as the best friend I ever had ` 21,
After a three day trial in the Central Criminal Court , the jury took an hour and five minutes to deliberate the fate of William Gambon. On Wednesday November 3rd the jury returned a guilty verdict. Mr. Justice Davitt said he was in complete agreement with the verdict. He donned the black cap and passed sentence in the following terms:
You William M. Gambon - heretofore stood indicted for that you on or about the 22nd day of August 1948 in the City of Dublin did kill. and murder John Long. To that indictment you pleaded `Not Guilty` and for trial put yourself on God and your country which country hath found you Guilty. What have you to say why sentence of death, and execution, shall not be awarded to you according to Law ?
The sentence and Judgement of the Court are and it is ordered and adjudged that you William M. Gambon be taken from the bar of the Court where you now stand to the Prison whence you last came and that on Wednesday the 24th day of November in the year of Our Lord one thousand nine hundred and forty eight you be taken to the common place of execution in the Prison in which you shall be then confined and that you be then and there hanged by the neck until you be dead and that your body be buried within the walls of the Prison in which the aforesaid Judgment of Death shall be executed upon you.May the Lord have Mercy on your soul. 22
According to the press, Gambon stepped swiftly from the dock, and a few women sobbed in the public gallery. Mr. Justice Davitt refused an application for a certificate for leave to appeal. He absolved the jury from service for five years 23.
Gambon, who had been recently married, had three weeks to live -- an extraordinarily short period for a man to settle his personal and familial affairs, talk to his lawyers, plan a possible appeal or, alternatively, formulate a petition of mercy.
Noel Browne , the new Minister for Health, was an outspoken socialist and a liberal, a man who would surely oppose the use of the death penalty. He was now joined by the Republican and one-time activist, Mr Sean MacBride, Minister for External Affairs, who was also opposed to the use of capital punishment. So, for the first time in Saorstat Eireann, there were two thoughtful and outspoken individuals in power who were not afraid to oppose the continued use of the death penalty.
Despite his long involvement with the IRA 24, MacBride unceremoniously opposed capital punishment both in-and-out of cabinet. Of all contemporary Irishmen , in none was the politics of abolition more problematic than in the personality of Sean MacBride 25. To illustrate this problematic further, one has to look at the two worlds MacBride inhabited for a considerable period of time -- the one, a world of military violence in the service of his country and the illegal IRA 26, and the other as a practicing barrister 27 and , since 1948, Minister for External Affairs. Others, like de Valera, had successfully straddled the same or similar worlds. Indeed, it was hard to conceive of a popular Irish leader who had not been involved in the struggle for independence, even if independence was no more than a euphemism for 'catholic emancipation' -- an epistemological truth solely in the possession of the Irish Protestant.
During the 1940s, as we have already seen, some nine people were executed following a capital sentence 28. With the exception of Charles Kerins, these executions were legitimated as sentences handed down after trial by a civil Judge and Jury. Kerins was tried by way of Special Criminal Court on 28.11.44 29. We have already seen, however, that a further five cases of execution by way of firing squad also occurred during the forties -- which reflected the tensions that existed between civil government and recalcitrant Republicans who still had unfinished business with 'Irish freedom.' 30
We have at all times differentiated between political crimes and the court-martial trials and executions that followed them. Indeed, if we had not another reason for juxtaposing them in this way, there would be no need to mention them beyond our treatment of them in Chapter 7. By virtue of their strictly political nature (both in the form of the crime alleged as well as the manner of execution carried out), it is obvious that they do not answer to the process of a judicially constituted civil court of law. Consequently, they have no bearing on this study. But , of course, they have a bearing on the temper of the times, as well as a particular bearing on the respective trials of Henry Gleeson (1941) 31 and Charlie Kerins (1944) 32.
While Henry Gleeson was a non-political case with great possibilities of an acquittal, it was one of the earliest trials in which Sean MacBride was involved. At thirty years of age, Mac Bride had been Henry Gleeson’s junior counsel. According to Marcus Bourke BL, who studied the case in great detail, Henry Gleeson's trial left much to be desired , since on the face of it Gleeson was most likely innocent. But part of the unfairness, especially in judicial attitudes exhibited towards counsel and counsel's witnesses, must surely have been engendered by the fact that MacBride , with a pronounced French accent, was pleading the cause of his client at a time when he was hardly out of the company of those who threatened the state -- and had not only murdered the State's policeman,but refused to recongnize tge very court in which MacBride sought justice. 33 These facts were well known to the judges , who could hardly be gratified by them.The trial not only demonstrated in detail sufficient reasons for abolishing the death penalty, but revealed as many more reasons for amending - if not abolishing -- the whole criminal justice system 34.
The Kerins' case, on the other hand, concerning the murder by shooting of Detective Sergeant Denis O`Brien (Dublin), was tried in the Special Criminal Court 35. In this it was unlike all the other 'political cases', which were disposed of by way of court-martial. Charlie Kerins, a fine young man, was Deputy Chief of Staff of the IRA. At his trial , he chose initially not to recognize the court. This was compounded later by the fact that he made no defense at his trial, had no legal representation by way of counsel or solicitor, and made no objections to the proceedings. This was regrettable because when he changed his mind and decided to recognize the court, he found his application for a certificate for leave to Appeal suffered because of the infirmity of his earlier misjudgments 36.
By a succession of improbable decisions, therefore, Henry Gleeson and Charles Kerins met a most tragic end.
Perhaps it was because of his involvement in both of these cases, amongst others, that MacBride came to set his face steadfastly against the use of capital punishment. Neither should one forget that MacBride's father, Major John MacBride, a veteran against the British in the Boer War, had also been executed at Kilmainham Jail in 1916 for his part in the Easter rising. As Minister for External Affairs in the Coalition government, MacBride now had a platform to open a debate on the subject, it was nowhere his stated intention to generate controversy about it in public. Nevertheless, when the opportunity arose, he was not one to push his private convictions to one side, however unpalatable their public expression might become.
Students’ Literary And Debating Society
On Saturday October 25, a week before Gambon's trial, the Students' Literary and Debating Society of the Rathmines Technical School held a debate 37. The proposition debated was entitled ' That capital Punishment Is Not Necessary For The Protection Of Society.' The guest speaker was Mrs. Van der Elst, an enthusiastic abolitionist , who had been agitating for some time in Wales and more recently in Ireland 38. Even though it was her first time to speak in Ireland , her views had been widely reported and she had ,incidentally, purchased a residence in Sutton, Co. Dublin 39.
Towards the end of the debate, another guest, Mr Sean MacBride, got up to speak. He explained at the outset that he was not speaking 'as a member of the Government'. Nevertheless, he was hoping that his views would help the students to take a part in forming public opinion that would agitate for the abolition of capital punishment. The Irish Times carried the following report:
`…War, Mr. MacBride stated, must be considered in relation to capital punishment, It was quite obvious that another war would mean the total destruction of the countries through which it passed, and might mean the complete destruction of Europe if it took place on the Continent. They knew from the development of atomic weapons that war would cause greater destruction than could be imagined.
' The State was a group of people ,who happened to be elected, seized power, or somehow got control of a country, and the government if they claimed, because they so happened to have power in their hands, that they were entitled to take life, then, inevitably, groups in other countries, even in their own, would make a similar claim.
' We like to talk about our civilization ; say we have progressed a lot, but have we?' continued the Minister. " Do our people know that hundreds of thousands have had their lives ended in concentration camps even before the last war? This extermination was done by people who were every bit as much civilized as we were. Once you recognize the right of the State to take human life it becomes very difficult to draw the line."
`If, in the course of war or popular excitement, Mr. MacBride continued, the State deemed it advisable to execute people for the acts which they committed or for the views which they held, the gates to concentration camps were opened. That was one reason why he felt that the question of capital punishment was not completely unrelated to the question of finding means by which the human race would be stopped rushing to a course which could only lead to its own destruction
Relating experiences of murder trials, Mr. MacBride said that the life of one of his clients was saved by a juror who had an objection to capital punishment. In the second trial on the same evidence and facts the accused man was unanimously acquitted by the jury. In the last 10 or 12 years there were, at least, two men who had to receive a free pardon after serving portion of their sentences by reason of confessions made by the people who committed the crimes.
Capital punishment had been abolished in six European countries and, in his opinion, the experience in those States was that crime had not since increased. 41
According to The Irish Times the motion ' That capital Punishment Is Not Necessary For The Protection Of Society.' was carried by a large majority 42.
Given MacBride's antecedents, the Times' report now assumed the status of a challenge to those in favour of capital punishment. It had , after all, served the Saorstat continuously since 1922. Notwithstanding World Wars one and two, most Irishmen brought up in Catholic social ethics could hardly conceive of a properly run state without the use of capital punishment. It is not surprising ,therefore, that onlookers could not conceal their grave misgivings about MacBride's Rathmines' statement. And now that Gambon had been found guilty on November 3 , with three weeks to live, the only definite people who stood between him and the rope was a strange eccetric Dutch woman, Mrs Van Der Elst, a reformed terrorist-come- Minister for External Affairs,and anequally eccentric socialist-come-- Minister for Health.
It was not long before the Fianna Fail Deputy, Sean MacEntee, composed a note to be put 'to the Taoiseach' ('chun an Taoisigh'). The questions that followed centered on Mrs. Van Der Elst ‘s exploits and her reportage. But they also sought an emphatic answer before November 24, the day designated for Gambon's execution.Quoting the Times article , MacEntee felt that the Taoiseach should be asked :
Whether, in view of the divergence of these opinions from the fundamental laws governing the nature of the State and its inherent right to take life in accordance with law, he (the Taoiseach) will dissociate the government from such opinions; and if he will state the government’s attitude to the public expression of such views by its individual members,having regard to the doctrine of collective responsibility of Ministers.' 43
Whereas MacEntee saw in MacBride`s statement a way to embarrass the government and by the use of the doctrine of collective responsibility, to prize the coalition apart by calling upon the Taoiseach, John A. Costello, to formulate policy upon a matter which he was sure they would not -- or could not -- agree. That such tactics were employed at the expense of a candidate at risk of having his petition denied, did not appear to enter the political equation. Perhaps it was considered a virtuous restraint at the time that MacEntee was not so sanguine as to comment directly on the petitioner's merits to have his sentence commuted. By insisting however that an answer be given before November 24 , MacEntee was unfairly compromising Gambon's chances to have his petition favorably received; for consequent upon his question 'chun an Taoisigh', Gambon's petition was instantly tainted by party-political considerations, which compromised the condemned man's right to an untrammeled claim to mercy.
'By its nature the petition for mercy presumed the closure of all pleadings, the end of all contested issues, and the resolution of all questions of guilt as between on the prosecution , the Judge and the Jury on the one hand and the convicted felon on the other. Somewhere between the executive of the brash Saorstat and the citizen as a convicted felon, reposed a theoretical social space more sacred than a confessional, in which one begged for the license to live -- albeit in captivity!. MacEntee's question ignored that space; it sought unconscionably to remove the petition from its quasi-executive origins and to continue the trial in a political arena, thereby removing Gambon's petition (and its merits) out of the sanctuary wherein the executive (formerly the Monarch) contemplated the merits or otherwise of the petition. But now MacEntee had harnessed the petition to the creation of government policy, so much so in fact that the petition could not be determined before November 24th without first determining whether or not to discipline MacBride for breaching collective responsibility and, by necessary implication, the merits of the petition. The privilege to commute Gambon's sentence, was now burdened and transformed into the obligation of determining whether the doctrine of collective responsibility was breached.'
Furthermore, the question was framed in the certain knowledge that the parties to the Coalition did not share either Sean MacBride's or Noel Browne's liberal views on capital punishment. Indeed, MacEntee knew that most of the cabinet were no different than the members of Fianna Fail -- that is, proud of their unyielding stance on punishing criminals, especially convicted murderers. This, of course, did not mean that the Coalition government could not have reprimanded MacBride for speaking about such things personally without having consulted with his cabinet colleagues, and still gone on to commute Gambon's sentence. But however slim the chances were that this would happen, the whole matter was compromised immediately by a second spectacularly insensitive volley from the opposition benches.
Cearbhaill O Dalaigh was regarded as a bright spark among the Fianna Fail party faithful. While little is ever spoken of his formative years, it has been reported that he was 'born in Bray of modest circumstances' 44. He was educated at Synge Street Christian Brothers. Later on he graduated from UCD in Celtic Studies. He served on Fianna Fail’s National Executive in the 1930s. He also became Gaelic editor in the Irish Press and was called to the Bar in 1934. Over the years he became a close friend to De Valera. Indeed, by 1948, he had already given party-service, when, as A.G. (the youngest ever!) 45, he assumed office for years 1946-8. In keeping with his Christian values and his party allegiances, he favored the use of capital punishment but not apparently on all occasions. 46
'Although regarded generally as a mild mannered man and a great Gaelic enthusiast, close aural attention to O' Dalaigh's spoken Gaelic betrays a curiously imported element. The truth is that Cearbhaill O' Dalaigh spoke Gaelic with a goose -step. In this regard, he was not unlike so many of the Northern Irish, who, whether real or imagined, came South during the ‘troubles’ as part of a Catholic 'brain drain'. They , too, loved to import a sense of the guttural german into the softest and most primitive language in Europe. No explanation was ever put forward for the incidence of such teutonic flattery, but one cannot help thinking of de Valera's obvious resonance with the other 'brain drain' -- that is, the euphemism called the Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin, which curiously accommodated the colonization of so many of the RC Church's superior Nazis, and at the same time augmented the intelligence quota of the Irish. Had the Irish been more egalitarian in their preferences,they might well have bagged far more and far better Jewish than Nazi intelligence. But sometimes there is no accounting for the Vatican's taste! And when the Fueher committed suicide, de Valera, to remove all doubt as to where the sympathies of the small, secret governing faction of the Irish Church/State reposed, went to the German envoy in Dublin as late as May 2 1945 and offered his condolences 47.'
On November 10, while William Gambon languished in Mountjoy Gaol, the future President elect wrote a long letter to The Irish Press 48. Lest some readers should miss his counsel, a copy was also published in The Irish Independent 49:
Minister and Capital Punishment.
Cearbhaill O Dalaigh S.C. writes:
"A Minister of State, admittedly speaking on his own behalf, recently gave his view on the abolition of Capital Punishment. With these views I am not concerned, nor with the time or occasion of their delivery. He did, however, advert to the claim of the State to take human life and he purported to enunciate what in his opinion were or would be the consequences in this Country of recognizing such a right. In The Irish Independent he is represented to have said,
"Capital Punishment had this bearing on the question of avoiding war ; if the State or a group of people arrogated to themselves the right to take life it became very hard as a matter of principle to outlaw the taking of life in general. It became a question of degree. If the State claimed that they were entitled to take life. then, inevitably, other groups in other countries, and even in their own country, would make a similar claim. Once they recognized the right of the State to take human life it became very difficult to draw the line."
What is implicit in that paragraph is dangerous doctrine and in the public interest it should not be allowed to pass without comment.
The State claims the right to inflict the death penalty. That claim is not on its part an arrogation of power. On the contrary, the power exists in the State as of right,and it can be justified from both scripture and reason. The power of life and death flows from the very nature of public Authority and it is only because of a failure to admit that premise that it can be said that `if the State claimed that they were entitled to take life, then, inevitably, other groups in their own countries, and even in their own country, would make a similar claim`.
There is nothing inevitable in other groups in our own country making a similar claim provided no countenance is given to the suggestion that the States insistence on Capital Punishment in an arrogation of power.
`Other Groups` in the State have no right to take the lives of citizens and there can and should be no difficulty in drawing the line between the right of the State and the arrogation of other groups.
The line is clearly drawn; the State alone, as the legitimate public authority, has power over life and death; `other groups` in the country have not and cannot be conceded a similar power, nor can they be even heard to make a claim to such a power. Any suggestion to the contrary is not conducive to public order. "
It was highly probable that when O’ Dalaigh wrote the above letter, he had in mind the threat posed by the IRA, just as MacBride probably had IRA prisoners in mind when he spoke of the abolition of capital punishment. In any event , if anyone wanted to speak on behalf of Mr. William Gambon, or his petition for mercy, they would now have to grapple with the Scylla of ‘scripture’ and the Charybdis of ‘reason’. Moreover, an-about-to-be Republic, which boasted that it beat the British Empire out of Ireland, was infinitely less belligerent when it came to challenging the tenets of the Holy Roman Empire. Such formidable weapons in a God-fearing people were not to be underestimated.
'Between 5.30pm and 7.30pm on Friday November 19th the following people were present in Council Chambers to discuss the question of commuting Gambon`s sentence 50.'
|Tanaiste and Min. for Social Welfare
|Min. for Education
|Min. for External Affairs
||Mr Mac Bride
|Min. for Lands
|Min. for P and T
|Min. for Finance
|Min. for Justice
|Min. for Defence
||Dr O’ Higgins
|Min. Industry and Comm,
|Min. for Local Government
|Min. for Health
|Min for Agriculture
|Also in attendance
|Parliamentary Secretary to the Taoiseach
||Mr Lavery S.C.
After due consideration of the memorandum dated November 13 submitted by General MacEoin, the Minister for Justice, the Government decided that it would not be justified in advising the President to exercise the prerogative of mercy, which meant that ‘the law should take its course’. The meeting adjourned at 7.30pm. 51
However stereotypicalised the tensions in the Coalition cabinet had become, its capacity for mercy was hardly in doubt. In the Gambon case, however, If Browne and MacBride were pressing for clemency, who was against it? Did the entire cabinet vote against mercy? In his book `Against the Tide`, Noel Browne -- perhaps somewhat unfairly in the face of the numbers reprieved -- recalled the unflattering attitude of some of his coalition colleagues:
"The most simple illustration of our helplessness in Cabinet was the fact that on a number of occasions both of us argued for clemency for men under sentence of death before the civil courts... Because of what I had heard about General Mulcahy and the `seventy seven`, I watched his reaction. In his usual style on such `simple issues`, he was curt, brash and uncomplicated: `they must hang.` The deeply religious Blowick’s comment, in his high-pitched squeak, was, `Hang them, hang them. ` There was no attempt to argue or to rationalize their positions. With their majority they had no need to." 52
At 8 am on the morning of the 24th of November I948 about two dozen people gathered outside the gates of Mountjoy Prison. They came to bear witness to William Gambon's execution 53. A number of women were reported to have knelt in prayer and some of the men took off their hats. According to D.T. Murphy, the prison medical officer, death was instantaneous, while according to Governor Kavanagh the execution 'went off without a hitch' 54.
So ended the short life of William M. Gambon, a one-time citizen of Saorstat Eireann. Even as a child , he soon came to know the Saorstat's less merciful and uncompromising outlook. When questioned by a prison doctor, Gambon clearly recalled being sent (aged 10 years) to Artane with his brother, while his younger sister received the benefits of an education at Goldenbridge -- two religious institutions, which for their incomprehensible cruelties to their charges have lived to fester in the Irish psyche up to the twenty first-century. For the pettiest of larcenies, William M. Gambon was detained in Artane Industrial School for five years. 55 Thereafter he remembered his two brothers and his sister emigrating to England. At one stage, he confided that he entertained notions of becoming an Office Clerk, but he could never get the requisite education. 56
Noel Browne (1915-1997) had a patchy political career, most of it being spent in a futile search for a suitable socialist party worthy of his talents. He won a labour party seat in 1989 and later served as a senator. He retired from politics in February 1982 and died in 1997 57.
Sean MacBride (1904 - 1988) went on to receive a string of medals and prizes, including the Nobel Peace Prize (1974) , the American Medal for Justice (1975), the Lenin Peace Prize (1976) and a Silver Medal from UNESCO (1980). 58
Cearbhaill O' Dalaigh knew no bounds to his successful career. He was re-appointed Attorney-General in 1951. Two years later he was appointed to the Supreme Court (the youngest ever!) and soon afterwards he became Chief Justice. He then served on the European Court of Justice. In 1974 he became President of Ireland and served for two years before he felt compelled to resign. 59
Why did the first citizen of the Republic resign?
In 1976 the IRA murdered Sir Christopher Ewart-Biggs, the British Ambassador to Ireland. As a result the government sought to beef up security by introducing emergency legislation. President O'Dalaigh delayed this legislation by referring it to the Supreme Court to have its constitutionality tested. Even though the President was perfectly within his rights and was doing no more than he ought to do -- since he felt the legislation constitutionally oppressive -- the then Minister for Defence, Mr. Paddy Donegan of Fine Gael, was none too pleased with the legislative delay.
In his frustration he called the President a "thundering bollocks and (a) fucking disgrace." But common Irish cultural expletives suffer such a metamorphosis when they are projected into the public arena that the tendency is to imagine them in their best light rather than acknowledge them in their true light. And what better way to excuse unchivalrous behaviour that put it down to the Irish weakness for drink. According to his friends, therefore, Paddy Donegan, unlike any other ‘Minister of War’ was drunk when he uttered the unutterable about his President!
Not surprisingly, therefore, it soon transpired on reflection that Mr. Donegan never , perhaps, called the President either a 'bollocks' or a 'disgrace'. The cognoscenti now claimed it was more likely that, in sending the legislation to the Supreme Court, he was referring to the President's action -- and not to the President’s person. Indeed, on further reflection, it appeared more likely that he never used those words at all, but might have referred to the said event as a 'thundering disgrace.' And with the advantage of hindsight, it has been piously suggested that the whole incident occurred because of Mr. Donegan's possible alcoholism. In other words, had the President not resigned, Mr. Donegan might not have taken his addiction as seriously as he ought. After some thirty years, therefore, it now appears to some that President O’Dalaigh (the youngest ever!) resigned as an altruistic response to the Minister for Defence’s alcoholism. Or, as one commentator suggested:
“... alcoholics are never happy people, and sympathetic complicity rarely does them any real favors.
Instead, as O’Dalaigh perhaps tried to demonstrate in calling Donegan to account, they need reminding that the illness cannot rob them of every shred of personal responsibility”