Ireland’s Last Execution
Albert Pierrepoint was 27 and had just killed his first man when the IRA targeted him for abduction and assassination. As assistant to his uncle, the official executioner for the Irish Free State, Albert helped to hang republican prisoner Patrick McDermott in Mountjoy. The year was 1932.
Undaunted, over the next 24 years Pierrepoint acquired over 400 executions to his name (some put the figure higher at 600) becoming expert at the process. After World War two he would make his wage executing Nazi criminals in Germany (200) and England (including Lord Haw Haw, real name William Joyce). Seven seconds was his record – through the chamber, hooded and hanged through a trap door in seven seconds. It remains the fastest execution on record.
The Irish government had tried to train their own hangman, an Irishman called Johnston. While observing Pierrepoint work at Strangeways Prison, Johnston went white at the sight of death and quit. There weren’t enough executions in Ireland to provide full-time employment for a hangman anyway. So, for the last four executions in Ireland, Pierrepoint made the trip from England to do the deed right.
He would later resign over a fee dispute and for a time took a stand strongly against the death penalty, saying “In what I have done, I have not prevented a single murder… capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge. ”
He died in 1992.
Catherine Cooper was a 65-year old nurse, returning home from visiting a friend. In 1954, while walking though dark country road she was ambushed by Michael Manning, a 25-year old carter from Limerick. Manning was drunk and himself walking home when he attacked Cooper and dragged her off the roadside. There he raped her and, to stop her from making noise, stuffed grass sods in her mouth. Doing so, he knocked out five of her teeth, one of which would later be recovered from her stomach during the autopsy. She suffocated on the grass gag and died.
Her body was found that night at 11 p.m. by a couple on their way home who alerted the Gardaí and a priest. Five Gardaí raided Manning’s home at 2:30 a.m. that morning. He had dried blood on his hands and sleeves. When they told Manning that his victim had died, he claimed to be insane on alcohol “I’ll tell you all. Drink was the cause of it.”
Manning’s trial was widely reported in the media. Hundreds of people gathered outside the courthouse and the Gardaí had trouble clearing a path for the accused. When one prisoner arrived to be tried for housebreaking, he had to assure the shouting crowds that he was not the man they were there for.
The defence claimed insanity, saying that Manning was mad on drink and argued that the charge should be dropped to manslaughter as the killing was not planned ahead of time. The prosecution countered that the accused had broken his usual routine to give himself more time for the crime.
Although it did emerge that there was a history of insanity in Manning’s family – one of his uncles had died in a mental home – the judge sided with the prosecution. He advised the jury that drink was not a legitimate excuse in a crime where the accused was aware enough to stuff grass into the victim’s mouth.
The jury deliberated for just 3 hours before returning a guilty verdict. In spite of a petition by the nurse’s family that mercy be shown to her killer, Manning was set to die by hanging within a month. He was first person to be condemned to death by the Irish state since 1948. Manning’s wife was pregnant at the time of his sentence, and was waiting outside the courtroom when the sentence was read.
Manning appealed claiming that the judge had improperly instructed the jury and that his written confessions should have been excluded. Although his appeal was rejected, the hanging was delayed until the next year
The hanghouse in Mountjoy stood next to the condemned cell. Double beams across the top held supported the chains which the rope would be secured to. Underneath the lever-operated trapdoor, a staircase spanned the pit so that the body could be inspected and removed. The hanghouse is preserved in Mountjoy to this day.
After Mass and Holy Communion on the Sunday before his execution, Manning played handball with other inmates. They noted that he seemed completely normal.
The method of hanging relied on the weight of the body tightening the rope as it fell, often over seven feet, and snapping the vertebrae in the neck. On the 20th April 1954, Manning was executed by Albert Pierrepoint.
Manning’s body was buried in an unmarked grave in Mountjoy prison as was the custom for executed prisoners. He was the 24th and last person to be executed by the Irish State since the Civil war ended.
Shortly after his death, Manning’s widow wrote a letter to the Governor of Mountjoy thanking him for the kindness he showed her husband. The letter read “We really adored each other and will until I join him in heaven some day. I can assure you sir that Micheal [sic] is also praying for you all and he will return his thanks to you in another way.”
His execution inspired the play ‘Last Call’ by Ciaran Creagh whose father was one of the two prison officers who stayed with Manning the night before his death. A non-fiction book ‘Beneath Cannock’s clock’ was written by Dermot Walsh about Manning’s death.
For years before the execution of Michael Manning, it was common for death sentences to be commuted by the Irish government. It was only in 1951 that this right to commute death sentences was restricted to the Irish President alone.
Ireland had long considered abolishing the death penalty – one early draft of the constitution included a provision banning capital punishment. In the years prior to Manning’s death further doubts were raised about its fairness in relation to the execution of William Gambom. The second last person to be hanged in Ireland, Gambon was a casual labourer who had killed a friend of his after getting into a drunken fight. When he read in the paper that his friend had died from his injuries, he freely turned himself in. Despite being a clear-cut case of manslaughter, Gambom was convicted of murder and sent to the gallows. It was widely argued that the severity of his sentence was due to his class – a rich man would have received a lesser sentence.
The criminal Justice act of 1964 abolished the death sentence for all crimes except treason, the murder of Gardai and diplomats, and for certain military crimes. Although 11 people were sentenced to death for killing Gardaí since the act passed, all had their sentences commuted by order of the President. The Criminal Justice act of 1990 abolished the death sentence and replaced the punishment for these crimes with life imprisonment.
In 2001, a referendum established the 21st amendment, permanently prohibiting the death sentence and removing mention of it from the constitution. We were the last country in Europe to constitutionally forbid the use of capital punishment.