Categories
1916 Rising

Waiting for Execution, Playing Cards, Thomas MacDonagh, May 1916

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In the previous blog post I looked at a letter written by Eamon de Valera in May 1916 in Kilmainham after he was sentenced to death for his part in the 1916 Rising. Like the majority of the 93 prisoners who received the death sentence in that month, de Valera’s sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. In total, 16 men were executed; 14 in Kilmainham in Dublin, Thomas Kent in Cork Military Detention Barracks and Sir Roger Casement in Pentonville Prison in London.

One of the leaders whose sentence was enacted was Thomas MacDonagh. On 2nd May, MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse and Tom Clarke were court martialled and transferred to Kilmainham Gaol, where they were shot on the morning of the 3rd May.   This deck of playing cards is said to have been used by MacDonagh in his cell in the hours before his execution, and were given to the uncle of the donor by MacDonagh’s sister, a nun, who visited him in Kilmainham the night before his death. They were gifted to the National Museum in 1947.

 

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Thomas MacDonagh, born in Tipperary, started his career as a teacher, poet and playwright. He met Pearse on the Aran Islands while there to improve his Irish language skills, and in 1908 helped him found St. Enda’s School in Ranelagh, Dublin, becoming a teacher of English and French. Through his membership of the Gaelic League he met Joseph Plunkett, with whom he edited The Irish Review.

He joined the Irish Volunteers at its inception in late 1913, and was permitted to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1915. By the time of the rising, he was the commander of the Irish Volunteers Dublin Brigade, a member of the military council and was one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation.

MacDonagh was first in command of the garrison at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory on Bishop’s Street during Easter Week. The area saw relatively little in the way of action, serving mostly to try to cut off British Army troops moving into the city centre from Portobello Barracks, and later supplying provisions and men to support other rebel outposts. The news of the surrender reached them on Sunday, and MacDonagh immediately went to Pearse, who at that point was detained, to confirm the order. On his return, he gave the news to his men; the surrender was official. He also gave them a choice – to surrender with him or make their escape, in the hopes of carrying on the fight for an Irish nation. You can read more about the surrender of the Jacob’s garrison in a previous blog post here.

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This deck of playing cards is not quite complete – there are 51 cards of the same set, branded ‘Gallaher’s Gold Bond Mixture’ tobacco, a Joker and Ace of Spades from a second deck, and another Joker from a third, replacing missing cards from the Gallaher’s deck. Two of these have their numbers and suits written on them, both in a different hand. They are well worn, to the extent that the Ace of Clubs symbol has been re-drawn on the card face. While it’s possible that they may have belonged to MacDonagh, it is more probable that they were given to him in the prison, perhaps by a warden, to occupy him in his final hours.

Father Augustine of the Capuchin Order, in his published personal recollections, stated that on the night of the 2nd MacDonagh had wished for his ministrations. He heard the confessions and gave Holy Communion to both he and Pearse, leaving them in prayer between 2 and 3am. He was ordered to leave the prison, and, unable to attend the executions, he returned to the gaol the next morning to retrieve the rosary beads given to MacDonagh the previous night by his sister, the nun Sister M. Francesca. There is no mention of the playing cards, which is perhaps not surprising given that card playing was disapproved of as gambling by the Church, and perhaps seen at the time as unfitting to MacDonagh’s memory.

 

MacDonagh’s last address to the court martial at his sentencing showed him to be proud to die for the cause of Irish freedom, and his friend James Stephens wrote that a British Officer who was witness to his execution said of him ‘They all died well, but MacDonagh died like a prince’.

In whatever way he spent his last hours, the playing cards bring to mind how it must feel to sit alone and wait for death in such a situation. MacDonagh had married Muriel Gifford in 1912, and together they had a young son, Donagh, and baby daughter, Barbara. Though he was accepting of his death, he must have felt the pain of knowing he was leaving his family without a husband and father.

Like Liam Mellow’s chessman, the cards may have provided some small distraction for him in those hours.

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Categories
Irish Civil War

Carved Chessman, Liam Mellows’ Execution, December 1922

The last post on the blog looked at Arthur’s Griffith’s note announcing the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 and the subsequent civil war between Pro and Anti-Treaty forces in Ireland, which lasted from June 1922 until May 1923. During this conflict the Irish Free State government forces, or Pro-Treaty side, officially executed 77 members of the Anti-Treaty Republican forces. The most well known of these was the execution of Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey, Robert Barrett and Rory O’Connor on 8 December 1922.

This wooden chess piece was carved by Liam Mellows in Mountjoy Jail where he was interned after his capture after the fall of the Four Courts at the end of June. It found its way into the possession of a Mr John Finerty of New York, who returned it to Eamon de Valera during one of his terms as Taoiseach between the early 1930s and the end of the 1950s. De Valera in turn presented it to the National Museum of Ireland.

 

 Liam Mellows was born in Manchester to Sarah Jordan of County Wexford, and British Army officer William Mellows. He grew up in Wexford, and became a nationalist and socialist at an early age, joining both Fianna Éireann and the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  In November 1913, at the age of 21, he was one of the founding members of the Irish Volunteers. During the 1916 Rising, he led the garrison in Galway in a series of attacks on Royal Irish Constabulary barracks, after which he escaped to America where he was arrested and interned in New York. He was released in 1918 and returned to Ireland, where he was elected for Sinn Fein to the First Dáil in the 1918 General Election, representing Galway East and North Meath. He also became the IRA’s Director of Supplies during the War of Independence.

 

Mellows was a vocal opponent of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, believing that it undermined the principle of the Republic which had been fought for. On 14 April 1922 an Anti-Treaty Republican garrison, led by Rory O’Connor and including Mellows, Dick (Richard) Barrett and Joe McKelvey, took the Four Courts.  The siege lasted over two months, ending when Free State Forces bombarded the building, forcing a surrender on 30 June. Some escaped and continued the fight on the city streets, but Mellows, McKelvey, Barrett and O’Connor were taken captive and interned in Mountjoy as prisoners of war. 

However, after the killing of Michael Collins in August 1922, the new leaders of government introduced a policy of execution on the basis that, as the Treaty had been ratified by the people in the June elections, the opposing forces were rebelling against the legitimate government of Ireland.  The majority of the official executions began to take place in November. As a reaction to this, on 7 December Sean Hales, the pro-Treaty Sinn Féin TD for Cork, was shot and killed by Anti-Treaty republicans as he left the Dáil.

At 3.30am on 8 December, Mellows, McKelvey, Barrett and O’Connor received the following message, signed on behalf of the Army Council by General Richard Mulcahy.

You are hereby notified that, being a person taken in arms against 
the Government, you will be executed at 8 a.m. on Friday 8th December as a reprisal for the assassination of Brigadier Sean Hales T.D., in Dublin, on the 7th December, on his way to a meeting of Dáil Éireann and as a solemn warning to those associated [with] you who are engaged in a conspiracy of assassination against the representatives of the Irish People.

At 8am that morning, the four men were led into the yard of Mountjoy Jail and shot.

 

Mellows’ chess piece is one of the many emotive objects in the National Museum’s Historical collections. When it arrived in the museum it was in a box labeled by the donor ‘Chessman – first of set started by Liam Mellowes in Mountjoy – completion of which was interrupted by his execution’. The piece is small, just over an inch high, but every groove and scratch Liam carved can be clearly seen. It’s almost impossible to hold this object without wondering what he was thinking and feeling when he was making it.  The executions of 8 December were not the first so he must have known his death was a possibility. However, he had been in prison since July and had not yet been tried in a court for his part in the siege of the Four Courts. This chessman should have been the first of a set of 32 pieces, and I wonder if he thought he would have the time to make the full set. His choice to carve a pawn may have some meaning, though it may also be completely coincidental.

 

 

The decision to execute Mellows, McKelvey, Barratt and O’Connor as a reprisal for the killing of Sean Hales on 7 December was sudden, and the men were told they were to die less than five hours before the event.  Mellows took this time to write a number of last messages to loved ones. At 5am he wrote to his mother Sarah Mellows, starting with the lines ‘The time is short and much that I would like to say must go unsaid. But you will understand: in such moments heart speaks to heart’. His letter goes on to reinforce his belief in the pre-Treaty vision of the Irish Republic, and his wish that his fellow Irishmen will once again be united in this vision. 

 

 

1916 Letters Project

Trinity College Dublin are currently running a project titled ‘Letters of 1916: Creating History’, with the aim of creating a digital archive of letters written from Ireland between 1 November 1915 to 31 October 1916. This will include letters held in public collections as well as those held privately. If you wish to contribute to this project by providing a digital image of a letter you own, or by transcribing a letter, click here – http://dh.tcd.ie/letters1916/

 

Categories
19th century

Execution Warrant, The Palmerstown Murder, 1865

 

Kilmainham Gaol may be best known to many people as the location of the imprisonment and executions of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, but the prison was the scene of many executions before then.  Built in 1796, it became the centre of execution for the city of Dublin, and over a hundred people were put to death there for crimes ranging from murder and treason to theft. This death warrant of Patrick Kilkenny, who was publicly hung in the front yard of Kilmainham on 20 July 1865, tells the story of the murder of a young woman named Margaret Farquhar in a crime of passion, and was donated to the museum in 1949 by a relative of Thomas Flewett, Deputy Governor of the gaol.

 

 

 

On the morning of Saturday 10 June 1865, a 40 year old farm labourer named Patrick Kilkenny arrived at the police station at Beresford Place to confess to the murder of 26 year old Margaret Farquhar from Co. Meath the previous evening at Palmerstown.  After a short search, the police found Margaret’s body in a ditch, face down in the water and covered with grass and weeds. It seems Patrick and Margaret had had a courtship of sorts over a number of years; Patrick regularly called to her family house and they were often seen at dances together, though no engagement was ever announced. Patrick was described in the newspapers as a low-sized, stout and muscular man with the character of a drunken bully, while Margaret was reported as being considered the best looking girl in the parish. Just days previous Margaret received a letter from an ex-suitor, an Englishman who had emigrated to America for a new life and was now offering her marriage. Patrick, on hearing the news, strangled and drowned her in a roadside ditch, then sat by her body before handing himself in to the police the next day.

 

On 19 June, coming up to Kilkenny’s trial, The Irish Times expressed its suspicion that it was insanity, rather than jealousy, that caused the murder. It urged careful consideration of the case to avoid the execution of a man for a murder similar to two recent incidents where the accused, both of a higher social class than Kilkenny, did not receive the death penalty. The cases they referred to were the Townley Murder in England in 1863 and the O’Dell Murder in Dublin in 1864.

In the English case, George Victor Townley, a 25 year old from a respectable upper middle class family, stabbed his fiancé Elizabeth Goodwin when she broke their engagement. He was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death, but his family’s money and influence allowed for Townley to be later found insane and his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He committed suicide in prison in February 1865.

William O’Dell, a 55 year old former barrister and employee of the Fine Arts Department of the Royal Dublin Society, confessed and was convicted of the murder of Bailiff Richard Fox in October 1864. Fox had come to O’Dell’s home at 91 Upper Rathmines Road to collect goods to the value of £8 in lieu of rent arrears, and as he was leaving the house O’Dell fired his revolver, shooting Fox in the head. He was found by the jury to have suffered a ‘paroxysmal mania’, or a fit of mania, and he escaped the death sentence.

 

Patrick Kilkenny’s fate was to be different. The jury found him guilty and, despite their call for mercy, Judge Baron Deasy passed the death penalty with the statement ‘Actuated apparently by the passion of jealousy, you struck down to death that unfortunate young girl that was the object of your love. For that, through that passion, two lives are sacrificed’. On 20July 1865 Kilkenny became the first recorded hanging in Dublin since the execution of John Delahunt, the murderer of 9 year old Thomas Maguire, in 1842. The Delahunt execution reportedly drew a crowd of 20,000 people, and Kilkenny’s execution, which took place on the drop-platform balcony over the main entrance of the gaol, also attracted a large crowd of spectators.

The Freeman’s Journal questioned the practice by asking what comfort it could give the family of Margaret Farquhar as it would not restore her life to her, stating that it was not a deterrent to crime, and also calling public executions a revolting and abhorrent spectacle which disgraced Dublin. The newspaper describes the execution scene in detail with no attempt to disguise its distaste. ‘The novelty of an execution taking place within our city invested the sad scene of Thursday morning with a peculiar and an unusual interest for numbers of that idle and degraded class which is sure to be found in large communities – a class whose morbid love of the terrible, the exciting, the cruel and the sensational is in strange and strong antagonism with the much vaunted civilization of the time. A kind of semi-love romance which was sought to be imported into “The Palmerstown Murder” to some extent contributed to induce the wanton curiosity-monger, the professional sight-seer, the indolent, the vicious, and the depraved to be present at the last act of the fearful tragedy, and as a consequence vast crowds continued to pour from all parts of the city and surrounding suburbs from an early hour this morning and take up their positions in front of the jail or wherever a good view could be obtained of the place where the dread sentence of the outraged law would be carried out’. One hour after the hanging, Patrick Kilkenny’s body was cut down and interred in the grounds of Kilmainham.

Three years later the Capital Punishment Amendment Act was passed, which required all executions to be carried out within the walls of the prison in which they are interned. This saw the end of public executions in Ireland and the UK.  In 1868 John Logue, a convicted murderer, was the last person to be publicly executed in Ireland. However, capital punishment remained common even past the formation of the Irish Free State and Republic. The last execution took place in Mountjoy Jail 1954; that of 25 year old Limerick man Michael Manning who raped and murdered a 65 year old nurse called Catherine Cooper. From that point, any death sentence passed was commuted to life imprisonment by the President of Ireland, until 1990 when it was finally formally abolished. It is now prohibited in the Constitution, and cannot be re-introduced even in the case of war or a state of emergency.