One of the great untapped narratives of nineteenth-century Ireland is the spectacle of the gallows. There is an irresistible and macabre fascination with those final despairing moments of a typically wretched character whose journey will face an inevitable and premature termination at the end of the hangman’s rope. So many proclaimed their innocence. If they are to be believed then we can assume that nineteenth-century criminal justice in Ireland is littered with the corpses of wrongly-convicted unfortunates. This is not the case of course although we are not now in a position to identify miscarriages of justice in the delivery of nineteenth-century capital punishment.

illustrated-london-news-16-june-1883
Illustrated London News, 16 June 1883

            In his landmark work, Gallows Speeches from Eighteenth-Century Ireland (Dublin, 2001), James Kelly identified a number of the reasons put forward by the condemned for their fall from grace. Some of those factors included the loss or absence of employment, abandonment of apprenticeship, demobilisation and that great corrupter, moving to Dublin. Some identified influences such as ‘the embrace of swearing, profanity, bad company…drinking, gambling and consorting with lewd women’ as contributors to their demise.[1] One of the factors that makes the historical retrieval of nineteenth-century execution stories possible is the vivid and often graphic reporting that featured in both local and national newspapers. Gillespie correctly points out that ‘rape, family disputes, madness and murder motivated by greed, no doubt provided suitable salacious reading for the consumers of the rapidly growing nineteenth-century press’.[2] Today’s historian can be thankful for the morbid appetites of those readers because with so much of that part of Irish history lost through archival destruction those reports give us an excellent first-hand account of those critical moments.

            The purpose of this section of the website is to recover some of those lost stories. In uncovering the path to execution – one that usually began with the discovery of the body of a murdered human being – we discover much more than the salacious detail of a trial and punishment. We obtain a window into a community. How did ordinary people react? What was the nature of the pageantry? What do we learn along the way…about the way people lived, survived, worked, ate, drank, socialised? For the time being, I will focus on rural executions so we will not see the well-worn excuse of ‘moving to Dublin’ as a corrupting factor utilised.[3] The first account takes place very close to home for me. It details the trial of James Shea for the murder of Rody Kennedy. Shea’s subsequent execution was the first to take place in the North Tipperary market town of Nenagh.

[1] James Kelly, Gallows Speeches from Eighteenth-Century Ireland (Dublin, 2001), p. 49.

[2] Raymond Gillespie, ‘And be hanged by the neck until you are dead’, in Frank Sweeney (ed) Hanging Crimes:  When Ireland Used the Gallows (Cork, 2005), p. 6.

[3] For a wonderful account of capital punishment in Dublin in the late-1700s see Brian Henry, The Dublin Hanged: Crime, Law Enforcement and Punishment in Late Eighteenth-Century Dublin (Dublin, 1994).