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Capital Crime: 1916 and Death Penalty Discourse in Independent Ireland
A man points to the spot in the Stonebreaker's Yard in Kilmainham Jail, where sixteen of the leaders of the Easter Rising 1916 were shot, Dublin 1916. Photo: RTÉ Stills Library

Capital Crime: 1916 and Death Penalty Discourse in Independent Ireland

By Dr David Doyle and Dr Liam O’Callaghan

Given the profound political and, indeed, cultural impact of the executions in the immediate aftermath of the 1916 Rising, it might have been expected that such an episode would have tempered the willingness of Irish politicians to permit their fellow countrymen to face the hangman or a firing party when independence was attained. Yet Taoisigh and ministers who were prepared to allow executions go ahead, had not only been comrades with men executed during the revolutionary period, some themselves had been sentenced to death. As Deputy Sean Dunne aptly pointed out in 1951, the Dáil was peculiarly well qualified to discuss the issue of capital punishment because there were ‘quite a respectable number of Deputies who at some time or other of their political career have had the death sentence hanging over them’. The 1916 executions may not have provided a catalyst for the abolition of capital punishment in independent Ireland, but they did continue to feature in death penalty discourse until abolition de jure in 1990.

The first time an Irish cabinet of any description considered a civilian death penalty case was late in the summer of 1920 after a republican court in county Meath sentenced a man to death for a murder arising from a land dispute. The case had political connotations insofar as the victim was a volunteer, but Ernest Blythe observed in his Bureau of Military history statement that the killing was treated as ‘an ordinary criminal offence’. The Dáil cabinet, consisting of three individuals sentenced to death for their roles in the 1916 Rising (W.T. Cosgrave, Constance Markievicz and Eamon de Valera who was absent in America at the time) and a fourth, Count Plunkett, whose son Joseph was executed, confirmed the death sentence after initially ordering a retrial. Markievicz, recalling, perhaps, her own experience of being sentenced to death ‘was disinclined to sanction the carrying out of the sentence.’ Ultimately, however, the case provided an opportunity for the ‘virtual state’ to exhibit its power and ‘it was agreed that, as we were acting as a government and as the man had been tried by the only sort of court possible and had been undoubtedly guilty of murder, the sentence should be confirmed’. The convicted man was subsequently shot.

Michael Collins at the funeral of Arthur Griffith in August 1922. (Image: National Library of Ireland) 

In 1922, Michael Collins reputedly told Quaker, James Douglas, that ‘we had enough executions in Ireland and that it would be a good thing to see the end of them’, but the pro-Treaty executive, spliced as it was with 1916 veterans (among whom Cosgrave and J.J. Walsh had been sentenced to death), would subsequently sanction the execution of 81 anti-Treaty volunteers, saboteurs, and criminals between November 1922 and May 1923. In civilian cases, though the Cumann na nGaedheal government was statistically as likely to commute a death sentence as to confirm one, a glut of murder cases carried over from the civil war period gave an almost perfunctory appearance to the implementation of the death penalty in the 1920s. Between 1923 and 1926 alone, 11 men and one woman were hanged for murder – more than a third of the total number of people executed in Ireland between November 1923 and the execution of Michael Manning more than 40 years later.

The first capital case dealt with by the Fianna Fáil government after the hand over of power in 1932 involved Patrick McDermott, who was convicted of murdering his brother John. One petitioner writing from Glasgow, and clearly anticipating a changed attitude towards the death penalty given the new political dispensation, first congratulated de Valera on his ‘splendid leadership of the Irish race’ before beseeching him to ‘grant a reprieve for the young Co. Roscommon farmer who lies under the shadow of death and so disappoint the anti-Irish press of this country by not following their hangman system’. Ironically, the de Valera government would subsequently use the ultimate penalty more frequently than its predecessor did in the post-civil war period.

One such case was that of John Fleming who was executed for murdering his wife in 1933. Although Fleming had no known connections with the rebellion, the government received a letter from Grace (Gifford) Plunkett − who infamously married Joseph Plunkett in Kilmainham Gaol only hours before his execution and whose sister Muriel’s husband, Thomas MacDonagh, was also executed. Plunkett asserted that repentance from mortal sin was ‘a long struggle’ and that Fleming, rather than being executed, should receive ten years’ imprisonment followed by ten years in a monastery. Domhnaill O Buachalla, another 1916 veteran, also wrote to the Minister for Justice, P.J. Ruttledge, seeking mercy for Fleming, while Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, whose husband Francis who was arrested and shot without trial by Captain J.C. Bowen-Colthurst at the outset of the Rising, stressed that ‘it seems dreadful to have a hangman from England to kill our Irishmen, however guilty’. Sheehy-Skeffington would become associated with the Society for the Abolition of the Death Penalty in the late 1930s.

Left to right - Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, her husband Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and Capt J.C. Bowen-Colthurst (centre) the man who executed him. (Images: Irish Citizen, 6 December 1916; Irish Life, 16 June 1916; and Irish Life, 16 June 1916. Irish Life is available in full in the National Library of Ireland) 

It was, however, during the Second World War, in the context of the draconian emergency legislation introduced by Fianna Fáil to neutralise the threat of the IRA, that the influence of 1916 on death penalty discourse became particularly evident. After Tomás MacCurtain was sentenced to death in 1940, one petitioner appealed to De Valera on various grounds including his own experience of awaiting execution in the aftermath of the Rising. ‘You yourself know what it is to wait all through a night waiting for the morning’s death and the relief when news of the reprieve came’. MacCurtain – son of the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork who was arrested in May 1916 and later assassinated in March 1920 – was spared after some opportune litigation by Seán MacBride, whose own father, John MacBride, was executed in May 1916. Lineage may have helped to belatedly save MacCurtain from the noose (Thomas Pierrepoint and his assistant had already arrived in Mountjoy Prison) but one of the first men to be executed by firing squad during the “Emergency” was Patrick McGrath who had fought in 1916. As his sister Josephine wrote in a letter to De Valera in August 1940, ‘It is unbelievable that I should have to appeal for my brother’s life to you, who was once his comrade-in-arms’.

The ghosts of 1916, to use Richard English’s words, ‘movingly and lastingly haunted political Ireland’, but they also etched their way into the British political consciousness. After Peter Barnes and James Richards (alias McCormick) were sentenced to death for an IRA bombing in Coventry in 1939, Hugh Montgomery wrote of the hazards of converting ‘a not altogether unsatisfactory situation into one of undisguised hostility like that of 1916’. Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Simon, warned the British cabinet that it was ‘well to remember that there had been cases in the past where the view had been taken that it was not wise to commute a death sentence, but where, looking back, it seemed clear that the infliction of the death penalty had not been justified by the results’.

The last executions in the UK took place in 1964 – the same year that the Criminal Justice Act restricted the death penalty to murder with a number of aggravating circumstances, including that the victim was an on-duty Guard. Yet when Noel and Marie Murray were sentenced to death by the Special Criminal Court in 1976 for the murder of Garda Michael Reynolds, a resolution from the US General Defense Committee returned again to 1916: ‘Is this the Ireland that the martyrs of the Easter Rising fought and died for?  They too were condemned to death before a secret trial’. It would, however, be another 14 years before the death penalty was removed from the Irish statute book – more than 70 years after Easter 1916.

Dr David Doyle is a lecturer at the Department of Law, Maynooth University. Dr Liam O’Callaghan is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Health Sciences, Liverpool Hope University.  The authors would like to acknowledge the support of Maynooth University Commemorations Committee.


Century Ireland

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