When loss of lib­erty ex­tended long af­ter leav­ing a prison cell

While men sen­tenced to death were more likely to be ex­e­cuted, Ian O’Don­nell finds that women who found their sen­tences com­muted were of­ten sent to an­other in­sti­tu­tion such as a con­vent af­ter they had served time in prison

Irish Examiner - - Analysis - ■ Ian O’Don­nell is pro­fes­sor of crim­i­nol­ogy at UCD. Jus­tice, Mercy, and Caprice: Clemency and the Death Penalty in Ire­land is pub­lished by Ox­ford Univer­sity Press.

OVER the past 10 years, I have spent count­less hours ex­am­in­ing dusty files re­lat­ing to dread­ful deeds. The pur­pose of this ex­er­cise was to learn as much as pos­si­ble about the men and women who were sen­tenced to death be­tween the end of the Civil War in 1923 and the abo­li­tion of the death penalty in 1990.

Of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est was what hap­pened when death sen­tences were com­muted to pe­nal servi­tude for life. This is an as­pect of Ir­ish his­tory that has re­mained in the shad­ows and I was keen to dis­cover how long these for­tu­nate mur­der­ers spent in cus­tody and where they went after­wards.

The book re­sult­ing from this re­search, pub­lished this week, re­veals a strik­ing gen­der bias.

An­nie Walsh was the only woman sen­tenced to death who ac­tu­ally went to the gal­lows. She was found guilty of mur­der­ing her husband, Ed­ward, at their home in Fedamore, Co Lim­er­ick.

Her husband’s nephew, Michael Tal­bot, was con­victed of the same crime and the pair were hanged by Thomas Pier­re­point in Moun­tjoy Prison on Au­gust 5, 1925.

An­other 21 women heard the solemn pro­nounce­ment that they would be hanged by the neck un­til dead, but they were spared. Some­times this was an at­tempt by the gov­ern­ment to show com­pas­sion for the dis­tressed mother who de­stroyed her in­fant child, was found guilty of mur­der, and re­ceived the manda­tory death penalty.

Leav­ing baby-killing aside, the gen­der dif­fer­ence in ex­e­cu­tion re­mained clear-cut. Half of con­victed male mur­der­ers were ex­e­cuted af­ter trial by jury, com­pared with just one in 10 fe­males.

Not only were men more likely to be hanged, if their sen­tences were com­muted they served more than twice as long in prison as women. But these statis­tics re­quire care­ful in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

The vari­a­tion in time served was wide for women. Mary Kier­nan gave birth in the County Home in Mullingar, and drowned her 12-day-old daugh­ter, Brid­get, af­ter she was dis­charged. A sin­gle woman, she was mo­ti­vated by what the files de­scribe as a mix­ture of “shame and dis­grace”. She was re­leased six months af­ter her mur­der con­vic­tion. No man ben­e­fited from such swift re­lease.

Han­nah Flynn had pre­vi­ously worked as a do­mes­tic ser­vant for Mar­garet and Daniel O’Sul­li­van in Kil­lor­glin but her ser­vices were dis­pensed with on the grounds of dis­obe­di­ence and sus­pected theft. While Daniel was at Mass on April 1, 1923, Han­nah at­tacked Mar­garet with a hatchet, al­most chop­ping off her face in the process. She ran­sacked the house and stole a con­sid­er­able sum of money. For this crime, she served close to 19 years in prison. No man con­victed by a jury of his peers served as long.

Fur­ther­more, while men were re­leased di­rectly to the com­mu­nity or al­lowed to em­i­grate, most women were trans­ferred to an­other in­sti­tu­tion, oc­ca­sion­ally the Cen­tral Men­tal Hos­pi­tal, but more of­ten a con­vent.

When the State in­tended to be le­nient by trans­fer­ring a woman to the care of the nuns, its ac­tions some­times had the op­po­site ef­fect and the du­ra­tion of con­fine­ment ex­tended be­yond what was ever en­vis­aged or what any man had to en­dure.

Some fe­male mur­der­ers ended up serv­ing the equiv­a­lent of whole-life sen­tences, the key dif­fer­ence as re­gards the loss of lib­erty be­ing that they did not take their fi­nal breaths in a prison cell.

When Han­nah Flynn even­tu­ally left prison her des­ti­na­tion was the Good Shep­herd Mag­dalen Asy­lum in Lim­er­ick where she spent an­other 30 years.

Han­nah O’Leary was in­volved in the mur­der of her brother Patrick on the fam­ily farm in Kilk­er­ran, Co Cork. Patrick was beaten to death in his bed, de­cap­i­tated, and dis­mem­bered. His head was found nearby in a potato sack, with other body parts scat­tered across the fields. Han­nah’s brother, Con, was hanged for his part in the atroc­ity and an­other sis­ter, Mary Anne, died in prison be­fore the trial took place. Han­nah served over 17 years in prison be­fore be­ing sent to the Sis­ters of Char­ity Mag­dalen Asy­lum in Cork where she died 21 years later. These are not iso­lated cases. El­iz­a­beth Hannon spent less than three years in prison, but the rest of her life in Dublin’s High Park con­vent. Mar­garet Finn spent a lit­tle over two years in prison, but the rest of her life in the Mag­dalen Asy­lum in Don­ny­brook.

In other words, it could hap­pen that a jury made a rec­om­men­da­tion to mercy (as it did in all of the cases I have men­tioned), the judge en­dorsed this call, the gov­ern­ment de­cided it would be wrong to al­low the death penalty be car­ried out, the time served in prison was short, but the woman re­mained con­fined un­til death.

A mix­ture of chivalry, pa­ter­nal­ism and squeamish­ness saved women’s necks, and lim­ited their ex­po­sure to im­pris­on­ment, but it di­verted some of them to life­times of com­pul­sory pen­i­tence.

These women were treated harshly for their own good. Like so many oth­ers who trans­gressed dur­ing the first half­cen­tury of in­de­pen­dence, it was thought that the stern hand of the Sis­ters was re­quired to pre­vent them from stray­ing again.

This re­search has two mes­sages of con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance. First, that we have be­come ac­cus­tomed to ex­tremely long prison terms for mur­der. Men who were sen­tenced to death and whose sen­tences were com­muted were re­leased af­ter seven years or so, on av­er­age. Mur­der­ers today are held for al­most three times as long for crimes that were no more heinous.

Sec­ondly, the way that fe­male of­fend­ers are dealt with is fairer be­cause when the prison term fin­ishes an­other in­sti­tu­tion does not beckon; there is clar­ity about when pun­ish­ment comes to an end. Whether they con­tinue to re­ceive more le­nient treat­ment than men when they com­mit se­ri­ous crimes is an open ques­tion.

It could hap­pen that a jury made a rec­om­men­da­tion to mercy, the death penalty was not car­ried out, and the time served in prison was short, but the woman re­mained con­fined un­til death

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