Was a man executed for murder by the Irish State actually innocent?

In November 1940 the body of an unmarried mother of seven was found in a field in Co. Tipperary.

The death suffered by Moll McCarthy was horrific.  She had been shot twice in the face with a shotgun.  The first blast hit her in the right side of the neck.  She was dead by the time the second shot was fired.  It blew away the left side of her face, from her chin to above her eye.

The man who reported the discovery of Moll’s body was her neighbour Harry Gleeson.  Within five months of him walking into the Garda station at New Inn, Co. Tipperary, he would be hanged for the murder.

But was Harry Gleeson innocent?

Almost 74 years after the murder, the Department of Justice has been asked to consider granting posthumous pardon in the case.

The Department received a submission last year from the Irish Innocence Project, based at Griffith College with what the Project calls “new evidence” which it argues merits a pardon being granted to Harry Gleeson.

Much of the evidence in the case has been amassed by the Justice for Harry Gleeson Group which has been campaigning in recent years on behalf of the man hanged for Moll McCarthy’s murder.  That group then reached out to the Innocent Project.

In previous decades there have been many debates and discussions about the Harry Gleeson case, but never before has the Department of Justice agreed to examine the case.  It was then Justice Minister Alan Shatter who last year asked the Attorney General, Maire Whelan, to investigate the submission of the Irish Innocent Project.  The Attorney General in turn asked a senior counsel Shane Murphy to examine the file and the submission and report back to her.  That advice is still awaited.

The evidence submitted in support of calls for a pardon has a number of different strands.

Some strands are relatively straightforward – the Irish Innocent Project enlisted the services of an expert Pathologist to estimate the time of Moll’s death, and they say that estimate puts the time of death at an hour when Harry Gleeson had an alibi.  There is also “new evidence” relating to people who heard gun shots at a particular time – these people did not give evidence at the original trial.

There is also an extraordinary tale of what Moll McCarthy’s daughter Mary said when she herself was approaching death.  Over fifty years after her mother’s murder Mary was in a hospital in Dublin and one night was very upset and said to a nurse caring for her the intriguing phrase “I saw my own mother shot on the kitchen floor, and an innocent man died”.  As part of my report on this case I interviewed the nurse to whom Mary spoke.  Anne Martin Walsh believes Mary wanted to send a message and that message was that Harry Gleeson was innocent.

Discuss the Harry Gleeson case with those campaigning on his behalf and you will soon find yourself hearing about the ‘firearms register’.  This, campaigners say, is a crucial piece of evidence that was in the possession of the prosecution and which was withheld from the trial.  The register in question recorded all purchases of ammunition in the area where the murder occurred.  The register was not produced at the trial despite the Judge asking for it.  The register did surface in recent decades and campaigners say it shows something that is a “game changer”.  They say the register shows clear signs of having been “tampered” with.

One thing that cannot be disputed is that the justice meted out to Harry Gleeson was swift.  Within three months of finding Moll’s body he was convicted by an all male jury at the Central Criminal Court in Dublin.  Two months later he was hanged at 8am in the Hanging House at Mounjoy Jail.  A post mortem was immediately held and he was then buried in a grassy area at the back of the prison.

The day before he was executed, Harry Gleeson told his barrister Sean MacBride that he had no “hand, act or part in the murder”.

As part of my report, the custodian of Sean MacBride’s papers, Caitriona Lawlor, kindly allowed us to film correspondence between Sean MacBride and Harry’s solicitor John Timoney.  Both men firmly believed in Harry Gleeson’s innocence and both were profoundly affected by the execution of what they believed to be an innocent man.

Harry Gleeson’s grand-nephew Kevin told me how he and his family have been to visit the Hanging House in Mountjoy.  They met with prison historian Sean Reynolds and laid a rose in the room where in April 1941 Harry had a hood placed over his head before an English executioner named Pierrepoint took his life.  Last ditch appeals for clemency to the then Fianna Fail government of the day fell on deaf ears.  Papers in the National Archives seen by Prime Time show how the Judge in the case told the jury he agreed with their recommendation for mercy, but then privately told the Minister for Justice there was nothing to merit mercy in the case.

In the grounds of Mountjoy Jail, lie the bodies of over two dozen people executed by the Irish State between 1923 and 1954.

Authorities are not sure of the exact burial spot for each body – all that is known is that a small section of land near the back wall of the prison holds the bodies.

Somewhere among them is Harry Gleeson.

That’s Prime Time tonight on RTÉ One at 9.35pm