Wick low man was youngest ever ex­e­cuted by the State


Bray People - - NEWS -

THE val­ley of Glen­malure, si­t­u­ated in the heart of the Wick­low Moun­tains, is surely one of Ire­land’s most beau­ti­ful, and iso­lated, places. It has a strong tra­di­tion of Ir­ish re­bel­lion and many Ir­ish free­dom fight­ers spent time hid­ing in the vast ex­panse, most no­tice­ably Michael Dwyer.

There have also al­ways been hardy lo­cal folk will­ing to eke out a liv­ing from the lonely moun­tains and val­leys. Peggy O’Far­rell was one such woman whose fam­ily had a long his­tory in the area. She was eighty-four years old and lived in the re­mote town­land of Car­rigli­neen in the val­ley. She had never mar­ried so resided alone in her neat one-storey cot­tage which lay sev­eral miles from the near­est vil­lage.

She did have close neigh­bours, one within 50 yards of her dwelling, and she lived hap­pily on her well-kept six acre farm, em­ploy­ing a labourer who aided her with sow­ing oats and pota­toes as well as keep­ing fowl, pigs and cows. She was also known to have a good deal of money, draw­ing an oldage pen­sion while also re­ceiv­ing an in­her­i­tance to­talling £100 a year from a de­ceased brother who had gone to Aus­tralia.

Her nephew James Byrne also lived in the lo­cal­ity, one quar­ter of a mile up the val­ley. On the night of May 7, 1927, Byrne went to visit his aunt ar­riv­ing at 10.20 p.m. He was a du­ti­ful nephew and called to her fre­quently. His aunt seemed her usual self at the time and the pair talked and had tea to­gether for over an hour.

Byrne did think that he heard noises out in the yard on two oc­ca­sions but saw noth­ing when he went out to check. He left at around 11.30 p.m., clos­ing the door and gate af­ter him to keep the dog in. He did not meet any­one on his way home.

At 11 a.m. the fol­low­ing morn­ing, Mrs Mary O’Brien called to Ms O’ Far­rell’s to get some milk. To her sur­prise she found the front gate and door open and ob­jects strewn all over the house.

There was no sign of Peggy in her home so Mary went out to the back gar­den where she found her neigh­bour.

She had been badly beaten and was dead. Her hands were bound tightly with a blue belt over her head and a scarf was tied around her mouth.

The lower part of her cloth­ing had been dis­turbed and her body was cov­ered with a sack. Mary ran to the neigh­bour­ing Byrne house to sum­mon help.

The gardaí and doc­tor ar­rived from nearby Rath­drum quickly. The doc­tor, on re­mov­ing the scarf, dis­cov­ered Peggy’s mouth and ears were cov­ered in blood. Her face had been struck with sev­eral heavy blows. Death was due to shock, ex­po­sure and par­tial suf­fo­ca­tion. She had also been out­raged, the term most com­monly used for sex­u­ally as­saulted at the time.

The house was in dis­ar­ray and had clearly been ran­sacked.

De­spite the fact that it was known that Ms O’Far­rell had kept large amounts of money at home, there was no notes or coins present and

an ex­pen­sive sil­ver watch was miss­ing. There was also a stick on the bed which did not be­long to Ms O’Far­rell.

A huge crowd at­tended the fu­neral on May 11, the lo­cals ex­press­ing their shock at such a bru­tal crime oc­cur­ring in such a tran­quil ru­ral place.

The na­tional me­dia also took a huge in­ter­est in what must have been a par­tic­u­larly dis­tress­ing crime, one re­gional news­pa­per com­ment­ing: ‘One would have thought that such an abom­inable out­rage was im­pos­si­ble in a civilised or Chris­tian coun­try.’

The gardaí were very quick to ar­rest a po­ten­tial sus­pect. William O’Neill was about 19 years old, although he was un­sure of his own age. He was an il­lit­er­ate ca­sual labourer who was known for work­ing any­where and oc­ca­sion­ally sleep­ing rough, although his fa­ther and sis­ter lived in Rath­drum.

His mother had died nine years be­fore, and his fa­ther ad­mit­ted that his youngest son ‘ had to look af­ter him­self the best he could’. William was ar­rested on May 8 on the way to Peggy O’Far­rell’s wake.

The gardaí had found out the day af­ter the mur­der that O’Neill had shown a sil­ver watch and chain to two men which he claimed he’d won play­ing cards. When the gardaí heard this, they were sus­pi­cious that it was the one miss­ing from Peggy O’Far­rell’s house.

They ques­tioned O’Neill, who ini­tially de­nied pos­sess­ing a watch. When he was con­fronted with the sworn tes­ti­monies of the two wit­nesses who had seen him with it, he ad­mit­ted he had shown it to them, but swore that he had found it the year be­fore. He had then hid­den it in a field on Byrne’s farm, where he had been labour­ing for some time. When ques­tioned as to why he had hid­den the watch, O’Neill claimed that he was ‘afraid he would break it get­ting up on a horse’.

He brought the gardaí to the field where he claimed to have left it but it was nowhere to be found. He did lead the gardaí to a di­lap­i­dated house nearby where he kept a suit, shoes, a mir­ror and ra­zor. The shoes had the ap­pear­ance of hav­ing been vig­or­ously scrubbed. Af­ter a seven-hour search of the rest of Byrne’s farm, the gardaí fi­nally found in­crim­i­nat­ing ar­ti­cles. A sil­ver watch was dis­cov­ered in a patch of bushes, while £17 in £1 and £5 de­nom­i­na­tions was found rolled up in a col­lar. On one of the notes the name ‘Mar­garet O’Far­rell’ was writ­ten clearly.

On May 10, William O’Neill was charged with wil­ful mur­der, to which he replied ‘Very well, charge me with what­ever you like.’

His trial be­gan in Dublin on July 14, 1927. As O’Neill en­tered the court­room his de­meanour was cool and he smiled at ac­quain­tances. He walked to his fa­ther with an out­stretched hand. His fa­ther shouted ‘Go away, go away.’

The younger O’Neill then showed signs of ag­i­ta­tion, sit­ting down and say­ing ‘Don’t take it that way.’ His fa­ther gave ev­i­dence of his son’s move­ments on the night, stat­ing that the younger O’Neill had ar­rived home af­ter 1 a.m. on the morn­ing of the mur­der and given his fa­ther sev­eral half-crowns, a rare oc­cur­rence, be­fore go­ing to bed.

ON THE DAY of the mur­der O’Neill told the court that he had been work­ing on Lau­rence Byrne’s farm. That evening Byrne had went to a wake in Glen­malure and O’Neill also claimed to have at­tended the same event, although none of the mourn­ers could vouch for his pres­ence.

He also said he did not hear about the mur­der un­til the day af­ter it had oc­curred and had not been near the de­ceased woman’s house.

James Toomey, a neigh­bour of Peggy O’Far­rell, con­tra­dicted this, how­ever, as­sert­ing that he had met the ac­cused walk­ing to­wards Car­rigli­neen at 11 p.m. on May 7 and they ex­changed greet­ings.

O’Neill pleaded not guilty. His de­fence said that he had not been in trou­ble with the law be­fore. He had been work­ing reg­u­larly for sev­eral farm­ers in the dis­trict, and was there­fore in no great need of money. When the ac­cused took the stand him­self he de­nied em­phat­i­cally hav­ing any­thing to do with the mur­der. His story had, by now, changed about his move­ments on the night in ques­tion. He was left alone in Byrne’s house when the farmer had gone to the wake. O’Neill had shaved be­fore go­ing out into the field with two dogs hunt­ing rab­bits. He had then slept briefly but was awo­ken by the dogs so he got up and took the ‘short­cut’ to Rath­drum ar­riv­ing home at 1 a.m. He had not been to the wake or near Ms O’Far­rell’s house and had found the sil­ver watch the next day.

He did not know why he had said he won it or told other lies. He ex­plained that the money in his pocket was earned by him­self in his labour­ing but the money found in the field was not his. O’Neill ad­mit­ted he was in the habit of telling lies and found it easy to do so but added that he was now def­i­nitely telling the truth be­cause ‘ he was cau­tioned’.

In the first trial, the jury could not agree. The sec­ond trial be­gan on Novem­ber 30, hear­ing the same ev­i­dence. This time, O’Neill’s patho­log­i­cal and per­sis­tent ly­ing worked against him and he was found guilty of the mur­der of Peggy O’Far­rell and sen­tenced to death. He had bru­tally and cal­lously ended the life of an old woman.

In do­ing so, he in­ad­ver­tently brought about his own death, that of an il­lit­er­ate young man with no real home. One news­pa­per had said be­fore the trial that ‘ hang­ing is en­tirely too mild for such a sav­age.’

William O’Neill was ex­e­cuted four days af­ter Christ­mas, on De­cem­ber 29, 1927. He was, in all prob­a­bil­ity, 19 years old and the youngest man ever ex­e­cuted by the Ir­ish State.

This is an ex­cerpt from ‘Sen­tenced to Death: Saved from the Gal­lows’ by Colm Wal­lace, which tells the story of 30 Ir­ish men and women who had the death penalty im­posed on them be­tween 1922 and 1985. Pub­lished by Somerville Press, it is on sale now at €15.

Glen­malure val­ley, where Peggy O’Far­rell was mur­dered in May 1927.

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