Grisly tales of a dark chap­ter in Irish his­tory

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - BREANDÁN MAC SUIBHNE


Once, in the late 1880s, a young fel­low suf­fer­ing from sea­sick­ness and toothache dis­turbed other pas­sen­gers on the Holy­head boat. The stew­ards directed him to a well-dressed man in his 30s. They said you could help, he said. The man ad­mit­ted that he was in the habit of giv­ing drops that would in­stan­ta­neously cure both his ail­ments. But he didn’t think, he added, that he would be will­ing to take his rem­edy.

The young fel­low per­sist­ing, the man pro­duced his busi­ness card: James Berry, ex­e­cu­tioner. It gave the fel­low’s nerves a shock, Berry re­mem­bered, that both cured him and him­self of his pres­ence.

Be­tween 1884 and 1891, Berry killed (po­litely, “ex­e­cuted”) 131 per­sons. Most he killed “cleanly”; in­deed, he claimed to have per­fected “long drop” hang­ing, whereby the length of the drop was de­ter­mined by the un­for­tu­nate’s height and weight so as to break the neck. Still, some of those dis­patched by Berry were stran­gled and one was de­cap­i­tated in a grue­somely botched job.

Berry’s mem­oir, My Ex­pe­ri­ences as an Ex­e­cu­tioner (1892), in which he re­lated with ghoul­ish glee that en­counter on the ferry, has given him a cer­tain promi­nence in the his­tory of crime. Most hang­men did not court pub­lic­ity, but Berry did: even be­fore pub­lish­ing his mem­oir, he gave in­ter­views, when he made a show of pre­sent­ing his macabre busi­ness card.

Busi­ness brought Berry to Ire­land. Here, much as Sec­re­tary of State for North­ern Ire­land Karen Bradley has dis­cerned, with Dorothy-like won­der, that she is not in Stafford­shire any­more, he de­tected dif­fer­ences be­tween Irish and English at­ti­tudes to the “com­mon hang­man”.

“When­ever I have been in ac­tual con­tact with crowds in Eng­land, their at­ti­tude has been friendly. In Ire­land, such knots of peo­ple as may gather are usu­ally the re­verse. In Eng­land, if there is any sort of demon­stra­tion it is a cheer; in Ire­land, it is hoot­ing and groan­ing.”

Gal­way, ac­cord­ing to Berry, was the worst place to hang some­body, for not only were he and his as­sis­tant con­fined to the jail, but the food was “of an in­fe­rior qual­ity”.

“I al­ways look upon a visit to Gal­way Jail as the worst pun­ish­ment I was ever sub­jected to,” he told a re­porter in 1885. Still, he liked Gal­way’s gal­lows. “It is one of the largest and the best, if not the very best, struc­tures, I have seen,” he told that same re­porter. “Eight per­sons can be ex­e­cuted to­gether on it.”

Dean Ruxton’s When the Hang­man Came to Gal­way con­cerns one of Berry’s vis­its to the city, in Jan­uary 1885, to hang two very dif­fer­ent men – Michael Downey, a 25-year-old labourer, from Clon­boo, An­nagh­down, and Thomas Parry, a 27-year-old land stew­ard at Eden­derry.

Parry had com­mit­ted mur­der in broad day­light. On a morn­ing in July 1884, he en­tered the Royal Ho­tel on Eyre Square (now Su­per­mac’s) and there, in the break­fast room, he gunned down Al­ice Burns, a wait­ress, who had just re­turned from a swim at Salthill. There were wit­nesses and the mo­tive was clear: Burns had re­fused his en­gage­ment ring. The only ques­tion was Parry’s san­ity – a court ruled him sane and so he was hanged.

Downey’s case was murkier. On a night in De­cem­ber 1883, some­body am­bushed, shot and killed John Moy­lan, a farmer, of Clon­boo. Moy­lan had been some years work­ing in Amer­ica and, in his ab­sence, his wife, Mary, had an af­fair with Downey. Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters, Mary had al­legedly so­licited mem­bers of a se­cret so­ci­ety to kill her hus­band. Downey pleaded not guilty, but, af­ter con­vic­tion, he con­fessed; for some ob­servers, the only in­jus­tice was that his wife did not hang too.

Ruxton uses th­ese cases to il­lu­mi­nate crime and pun­ish­ment in 19th-cen­tury Ire­land, which he also does in his Irish Times se­ries Lost Leads. He tells his story well, but it might have ended sooner: three chap­ters on Berry’s later ca­reer could be con­densed.

There is also a mi­nor er­ror. Cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment was not “scrapped” in the United King­dom in 1969; it was only abol­ished for mur­der in that year – it re­mained on the statute books for es­pi­onage, piracy, trea­son and some mil­i­tary of­fences, and only in Bri­tain. Then, as now, Union­ists dined à la carte on Bri­tish norms, and North­ern Ire­land re­tained the death penalty for mur­der. It was not un­til 1973, a year af­ter the pro­rogu­ing of Stor­mont (and de­spite Union­ist ob­jec­tions at West­min­ster), that the North came into line with Bri­tain. In­ci­den­tally, the Oireach­tas, in car­ry­ing Char­lie Haughey’s Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Act, had se­verely lim­ited “hang­ing of­fences” in 1964.

When the Hang­man Came to Gal­way will en­gage any­body in­ter­ested in post-Famine Ire­land-and, for sure, there will be many well-thumbed copies around Clon­boo.

Breandán Mac Suibhne is the au­thor of (Ox­ford, 2017)

■ TheEnd­ofOu­trage


Trav­el­ling ex­e­cu­tioner James Berry, who claimed to have per­fected ‘long drop’ hang­ing.

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