Seamus Breathnach’s Irish-criminology.com examines Irish society through its norm-creating as well as its norm-breaking agencies. These include the Church controls of Ireland’s State -- its Schools, Law, Police, Courts, Prisons, Media and much more...

 

10.) Capital Punishment

 
    10.) Capital Punishment
    10a.) Bk. 8: Last of the Betagii
    10b.) Bk. 10: A Short History of Capital Punishment in Ireland
 

   

Volume 1: The Evil That Men Do

    10c.) Bk.11: A Short History of Capital Punishment in Ireland
     

Volume 2: The Nineteenth Century Female Calendar

    10d.) Bk. 12: A Short History of Capital Punishment in Ireland
     

Volume 3: Petty Traitors

    10e.) Bk. 13: A Short History of Capital Punishment in Ireland
     

Volume 4: Infanticide Or The Mercy Miracle

    10f.) Bk. 9: A Short History of Capital Punishment in Ireland
       

The Penology of Samuel Haughton

 


Irish-criminology.com

(Cursai Coireolaiochta Na h-Eireann)

Created By Seamus Breathnach.

10. Capital Punishment




Sile, Sean and Seamus

Sean: I think there has been some confusion under the heading of Capital Punishment. Could we straighten that little matter out before we proceed with WebPage 10?  

Seamus: When one is doing research things have a habit of rambling. I can’t remember when I stopped researching stuff on the topic of Capital Punishment in Ireland. A few years ago I was to give a lecture in Criminology at a conference held in Seoul  – I chose to lecture on the execution of Mary Daly in 1903. She was the last Irishwoman to be hanged under the British Administration.Elsewhere I have carelessly referred to this case as the last hanging in Ireland. What I meant to say was the ‘last hanging in Ireland under the British Administration.’  

Even though the tour was postponed, I continued to develop the inquiry and it spread from the 1903 case, to all or most of the cases in the twentieth century. And then, since I had researched the nineteenth century, I took it up again, and so on in an expanding fashion. Having gathered the notes together, I decided to write a history of Capital Punishment, but what I had was not really a ‘history’, and yet it had to be something like a history. So, I called it A Short History Of Capital Punishment In Ireland. 

And I am not sure it is even that. What I am sure of is that the notes now extend to some six works. In the series of Studies they extend inclusively from Book 8 to 13 and are entitled as set out above.  

Sean:  All six deal with a different aspect of Capital Punishment. The Evil That Men Do clearly deals with the male gene, the aggressive gene according to Dr. Dawkins. Is that the line you take in the book?

Seamus:  Partially. The business of compiling stuff in Ireland takes up most of one’s energies, for long before one cane get to the plateau from which one can make social statements, much too much effort has gone into the business of collecting the data that the Department of Justice should have on tap. (Bk.10): The Evil That Men Do, therefore is, for an account and an analysis of twentieth century male executions. The executions here are so numerous that they could easily be extended into two volumes, but for fear of absolute mayhem, it will remain as one volume.  

Sean: How many executions are we talking about anyway – from a historical viewpoint, that is? By what degrees has the use of execution diminished in the armoury of the state?  

Seamus:  Much depends on asking more precise questions. At this stage the numbers ascribable to capital punishments in Ireland is very much like the business of accountancy. If you want to see Balance Sheet valuations or the Trading profits, you can get ‘creative’ accountants to turn out whatever you want. It all depends upon the questions you ask and how precise they are. So, could you ask me again?

Sean: I asked you how many executions there were in Ireland?

Seamus: When?

Sean: For the Nineteenth century. No. I mean for the Twentieth century.

Seamus: You mean for the whole century? Do you mean North or South? Or do you mean North and South combined after as well as before 1922…

Sean: OK. I get your meaning.

Seamus: So, do you want to rephrase your question? Or, maybe it might be better if I said a few things first. We are mostly interested in the Twentieth Century – by which we mean, not just the incidence of execution, but the incidence of murders, capital sentences, and then commutations and executions in respect of the three periods 1900 – to 1921/22; 1924- 1954; and the Interregnum period of the War of Independence and the Civil War. Having said that, I should also say that we are interested in judicially and civilly determined cases – not military ones.

Sean: I suppose one has to be conscious of Northern Ireland as well.

Seamus: Again, whether to include the figures for Northern Ireland or not comes into play, as well as whether, again, borderline military (IRA) executions should be included.

Sile: I suspect you have to make provision for men and women.

Seamus: Actually that is the easiest part, if you remain on the executions themselves. When you venture into collecting the numbers of sentences and commutations, then things are a bit more difficult.

I suppose the best introduction to the area of capital punishment that concerns us here is through the historical aspect. There is the broad estimate that there have been some five and a half thousand executions in the British Isles since 1800 to the time of their abolition. This figure, it seems to me, is a reasonable guesstimate taken from the following very useful website:

www.geocities.com/richard.clark32@btinternet.com/ireland.html

We have no general dispute with the figures given for Ireland and we highly recommend the website as informative and for the most part accurate. If we find fault, then the faults we find are more matters of detail and style than anything substantial. That said, however, one should remember that we intend a much more social analysis than that which passes off as a string of names and dates of executions.

These details may well have been taken from educational, commercial and governmental sources that widely scan the digitised press. They also come from calendars and directories e.g. like Thom’s Directories. The problem for us lies in ascertaining the contribution made by the Irish to these figures.

Sile: How many people do you say were executed in Ireland?

Seamus: Since the 1800 we believe the Irish contribution to the five and a half thousand has been in the order of 2,000 as computed below.

Guesstimate executions Since 1800

 

Sile: I see that you say 1,500 males and 19 females were executed in the first 29 years of the nineteenth century. Is that a guess?

Seamus: It is an estimate, but one badly compiled from press cuttings and is therefore perfectly inaccurate. But I believe it to be inaccurate in a very calculated way. In other words, it awaits improvement by others and I would expect such amendments to be minor rather than major. The figures for the period 1830-50 are much the same but are, at the same time, more accurate, and the figures from 1850-99 are more accurate again.

 

Computing the 20th Century Executions

 

Sean:  Well, if these figures are as you say, so much the better. Which brings us into the twentieth century. Here you say that there were some 47 cases for the twentieth century, 17 before 1922 and 30 between 1924 and 1954.  Is this not a very low figure as representative of what actually happened?  I mean everybody knows that the Provisional Government in the Interregnum of the Civil War executed at least 77 persons. So how do you come by a mere 47?

Seamus: Not when you realise that our concern – not exclusively in a hermetic way --is with cases that have been judicially tried in a civil court. We are not unduly concerned with military or quasi-military affairs. Put it another way, we believe the military cases should receive a mention, but they distort the judicial magnitudes that we need to unearth first of all and then analyse exclusively as judicial and civil cases.  

Sean: Still, there are some good Web-Sites out there at the moment, and one of them enumerates some 164 cases for twentieth century Ireland.  

Seamus: Quite correct, and I recommend these sites highly. But if you look at the citation to which you refer, it states unequivocally that  ‘There were 164 executions in Southern Ireland during the 20th century’.  

Sean: If I understand his computation correctly, there are 165 persons executed and they compute as follows: Of the 102 persons executed and bracketed above, it is interesting to note that 91 were shot and 11 were hanged. But my primary question remains: How does your number of 47 cases square up with this overall figure of 165?  

Seamus: For the same reason as I have already said – because someone doing a judicial study of the war years would not include all the people shot on all the battlefields of Europe.  

Our concern is for judicially adjudicated cases. Why? Because the weight of reasoning behind a court civilly constituted is of greater import to us from a social and a sociological standpoint than a war. When people are at war, passions and propaganda are roused, sides are taken, the object is simple; each side wishes to destroy the other. For us It holds no great rationale within the criminological discipline. You could get the same results by watching two gangs of monkeys fighting over territory. The technology may be more sophisticated, but sociologically, the antagonists have declared their aims and their ends. They have no more of a criminological nature to say to us; their encounter is simple, complete and comprehensive: they hate each other and they want to annihilate each other. This rationale of war does not always commend itself to the social sciences. Of course, if such conflicts can be looked at in a completely different light. But, for our present purposes, we are not so concerned with military or non-civil, non-judicially determined cases. Our business here is court cases -- preferably cases accompanied by a jury as well as a civil judge. It is in the context of the overall WebSite that such a rationale that does not interest us, even though it could be claimed that the whole WebSite is aimed at unpacking the military design of the Christian Conquest. In the present context, the yield in sociological data, does not repay the effort.    

Sean: OK. So, which of these figures would you be concerned with? Take the first entry. Dennis Baker says categorically: ‘twelve men and one woman were hanged under British civil jurisdiction between 1900 and 1911’. Do you agree or disagree?  

Seamus: I agree and disagree.  

Sean: Not again!  

Sile: Please explain.  

Seamus: Between 1900 and 1911, there is no ‘ Southern Ireland’ – at least not such that it makes any political sense to talk about it. In any event, we prefer to talk about the period 1900 to 1921/2.  

Sile: So, you are saying that your tables concede that there were twelve men and one woman – that is, thirteen people -- executed between 1900 and 1911.  

Seamus: Yes, thirteen and more. We calculate that there were 17 executions between 1900 and 1922 and they all occurred between 1900 and 1911.   Sean: Why do you say that they occurred between 1900 and 1922,when they occurred between 1900 and 1922?

Seamus: Because for us the time-period we use is not just concerned to nominate names and dates of executions. We repeat, while this is a worthwhile exercise, it can only be considered a first measure towards clarification of further analysis. One has to ask oneself, with reference to what are these numbers and dates significant. One has to compare them with the numbers of commutations that were made along the way and, indeed, where possible, the numbers of capital sentences handed down. In this respect, while the execution numbers involved did occur between 1900 and 1911, there were further cases after 1911 in which capital sentences were handed down and no executions followed. These cases were civil in nature and are to be distinguished from those, which came under the charge of Treason and were associated with the 1916 firing squads.

Sile: Even still, how does one square the number thirteen with the number 17? Either you or this WebPage is in error?

Seamus: Possibly, but as it happens I don’t think that is the case. All that has happened, it appears, is that the WebPage put the number of those cases, which went through Belfast into a separate compartment – the same compartment that they compiled for Northern Ireland after the 1922 Treaty. By way of contrast, we see no reason to do this until after the Treaty itself. In other words, they assume that ‘ Southern Ireland’, as a politically independent place is, in operation since 1900. So, while the WebPage in question quotes thirteen cases between 1900 and 1911, it quotes 16 cases for Northern Ireland throughout the century. We, on the other hand, with one or two minor differences, quote much the same number, but place them in different categories.

Sean: Can you say which cases you refer to?

Seamus: Certainly. The WebSite entitled Capital Punishment U.K.
www.richard.clark32.btinternet.co.uk/contents.html take the following five cases from where they should be, for all happened in Southern Ireland before the Treaty. And we, naturally, have no reason to exclude them.

11/01/1901 William Woods, Belfast

05/01/1904 Joseph Moran, Londonderry

22/12/1904 Joseph Fee, Armagh

20/08/1908 John Berryman, Londonderry

19/08/1909 Richard Justin, Belfast

Sean: Ah, yes. But 17 differs from 13 by four cases. You cite five cases.

Seamus: Quite correct! And if you examine the WebPages above quoted for ‘ Southern Ireland’ and Northern Ireland, you will find – what it took me some time to discover.

Sean: Which is?

Seamus: One of the cases has been double counted  -- as belonging to both categories. Would that incidentally account for the 164 computing at 165?

Sean: So, what are you saying? It seems to me that if those five Northern cases have been included, as you have included them, then there would be 18 cases, not 13. How do you explain that?

Seamus: The WebPage in questions recites13 cases, 12 men and one woman between 1900 and 1911. It took out the Northern Ireland cases –

Sean: Yes. It took out five cases!

Seamus: No. It took out five cases and one of them it also left in, thereby creating a double entry. Whereas, if it had taken out the five cases without double placing any, it would – should – have claimed that there were only 12 cases of execution between 1900 and 1911. Now, 12 plus five, equals????

Sile: And now you are saying that all those cases in the middle entries -- the 15 executions in 1916 for Treason, plus the 102 between the War of Independence and the Civil War -- really apply to the Interregnum, war-type situation, and do not qualify for analysis, since they have not been judicially and civilly determined cases?

Seamus: We are concerned with them – but yes; they do not come into our analysis proper.

Sean: Ok, Ok. So the number of executions between 1900 and 1922 was seventeen, 16 male and 1 female.  What then about the last entry, the 35 cases.

It is unequivocally stated that ‘Thirty-five people, including one woman, were hanged for murder between 1922 (after Ireland had achieved independence) and 1954’. Do you agree with that figure?

Seamus: Yes; we agree that there were thirty-five people executed, but only thirty of them were executed by way of judicial civil trials. Five of them were IRA cases and the executions took place before a firing squad.

Sile: So, you say that there were 47 judicial executions between 1900 and 1954 in Southern Ireland, made up of 17 and 30 for the respective periods 1900-1922 and 1924-1954 in Saorstat Eireann and the Irish Republic, the said figure of 47 to included two cases of female execution, one under the British and one under Saorstat Eireann?

Seamus: Precisely.

Sean: Yes, but you do appreciate the difference between our figures and those quoted 165 quoted elsewhere.

Seamus: Yes. Perhaps the figure165 was intended. Anyway, I say again, we have no reason to take issue with this number on this site other than we have already taken. Indeed, we highly recommend it to all. We should point out, however – yet again -- that our concerns are somewhat different. We are interested in persons who have been executed as a result of civil and judicial process, not those arising out of either civil war, the war of independence, or the respective IRA campaigns, or military tribunals howsoever etc. Later on, we shall be forced to choose between cases, which overlap in all kinds of ways between the civil and the military jurisdiction.  But this has always presented a problem, just as the exact time break between legitimate governments presents a dilemma as to whether fringe cases should be included or not. When, for example, does the one jurisdiction leaves off and the other take up the count? For the moment, therefore, we have included the figure of 165 executions for ‘20th century executions in the Irish Republic (Eire).

Interestingly, according to Mr Dennis Baker, of the 102 who were executed during the Irish Civil War, 91 were shot and 11 were hanged, whereas in a 6-month period (November 1922 – April ’23) 75 persons were shot by firing squad by the 26 county provisional government. Of course these executions have been well know, but their quantitative submission to a more meaningful context was never given a full calendar.

The following sites are to be recommended:

www.geocities.com/richard.clark32@btinternet.com/ireland.html

www.richard.clark32.btinternet.co.uk/contents.html

www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_MacBride

Sile: Can you make some summation of the state of affair to date?

Seamus: By way of a provisional table, the following magnitudes can be used as an overall perspective of our concerns, even if we can be sure that – outside the execution-figures -- they are apt to prove inaccurate. The number of persons executed is exact, but the numbers who were in receipt of commutations is a little trickier.

Sean: So?

Seamus: So, what we can say is that these are minimal figures and not too removed from what the probable real figures represent. And we will see this when we go through the tables for each period.

Sile: Of course it might be preferable to leave out the Northern Ireland figures altogether and concentrate on the South.

Seamus: It is our preference to get a picture – a close picture and a comprehensive picture – of most if not all of the crimes that generated these executions. Moreover, the Northern Ireland figures are the least of our concern. They have been well trodden by now. But for the moment, let us concentrate on the magnitudes for the south.

Capital Sentences, Commutations And Executions 1900 - 1954
Capital Sentences, Commutations And Executions 1900 - 1954

 

Sean: Is there anything else in this first book that should concern us.

Seamus: Several things; but they are too protracted to recount here.

Sile: Which chapter did you chose by way of extract?

Seamus: A rather long chapter, as it happens. It is by no means boring, but a bit longer than I anticipated. You must remember  -- these three Appendices enlarge the volume and leave less space for commentary. Nevertheless, Chapter 8 of Bk. 10: The Evil That Men Do illustrates the powerful forces that can gather around the hanging of a citizen. Execution, it should be remembered, is a summons; a social summons to all of us‘ for whom the bell tolls.’

 


 

Sile: What, then, about the female murders and executions?

Seamus:  (Bk.11): The Nineteenth Century Female Calendar and  (Bk.12): Petty Traitors are two accounts of female executions. The first is a simple monograph -- or rather, a calendar and reconstruction of cases, mostly drawn from contemporary newspapers -- of those hanged in the nineteenth century.  There is something ‘boot-hill-ish’ about some of the newspaper accounts of the executions. But these are hard to get sometimes and are often mealy-mouthed about the events themselves. It is as if one should not talk about a hanging – just bear it with some kind of ascetic absorption.

The focus of the work, of course, is narrow, but it has never been done before and without the hard and sometimes simple facts, students feel somewhat in the dark about the actual numbers of those capitally punished, and how it was used as a widespread mechanism of social control.

The work, Petty Traitors, is a more substantial work in ways, is an attempt at a very short history of the subject, incorporating an analysis of received notions of Irish womanhood from the perspectives of crime, punishment and executions.  Because murderers were executed and because most women, when they killed, killed their husbands, the figures for the one approximate the other. In other words, women were mostly executed for killing their husbands (or their children). So, it seemed appropriate to call them Petty Traitors, as husband-murderers were once regarded 

Sean: What then about (Bk.13): Infanticides Or The Mercy Miracle? Where does that fit into the picture?

Seamus: The Mercy Miracle tries to describe the nature of infanticide and the role (to my mind the decisive role) it played  -- first in diminishing the biblical view of capital punishment and secondly in subverting it as a means of social control. Needless to say, the Irish were nowhere leaders in either the scientific development of alternative views on capital punishment or on the humanitarian belief in mercy. Nevertheless, the descending order of historical mercy by which the Irish came to let go of Capital Punishment is itself a kind of imitative miracle, but a miracle no less.

Sean: When, by the way did we get rid of it?

Seamus: Quite recently, I’m afraid. But, as I said, we no sooner let go of it than we wanted to tell the world that we would never introduce it again.

Sean: Even in time of war?

Seamus:  ‘Even in time of war.’

Sile:  That’s what really annoys me.  In it I find that old Catholic nonsense again. We couldn’t convince ourselves (for‘ us’ read ‘RC Church and the Departments of Justice, Foreign Affairs and Education’) to get rid of it, and then, belatedly, when we came round to the idea, we wanted the world to know how humanitarian Catholicism really is. We almost make the case that we were the originators of such mercy. (The soccer metaphor again!).  It’s a bit like the Department of Foreign Affairs, in their latest move to set up a place, where everybody in the world can come and do a‘ Peace Process’.

As the Irish independent reported on Monday, July 21, 2007-07-09

“ FOREIGN Minister Dermot Ahern has set up a conflict resolution unit in his department and asked it to report in the autumn. He has thereby signaled a new stage in Ireland's long-standing involvement in peacekeeping operations worldwide, a stage in which we can use both our domestic and our international experience.”

We are now selling the‘ Peace Process’ – Who is it that has such gall? Who is it that imagines that we are so important that we can solve other peoples’ problems, when we couldn’t solve our own?  Believe it or not, the Minister actually mentioned East Timor. Is that a clue to whomsoever it is that has the brass-neck to try and push the Christian conquest on the back of the Irish peace process?

A few years ago, buoyed by the Red Cross, the Irish Catholics went around the world moaning about how evil East Timor was torturing our ‘own priests’ and precipitated on behalf of the RC Church the invasion of East Timor by the Australians. Now ‘ us Irish’ want to set up a kind of a Conference Centre  - A Conflict Resolution Unit – no less. We want to mediate between the East Timorese and Indonesians – in Latin, no doubt - and, at the same time, nudge the old Christian Conquest as we speak and speak and speak….  When you have finished shooting them and bombing them, give them an Irish education: that’s the RC way!  And that’s the Irish way!  As long as we remain insufferably Catholic, we Irish must remain suspect throughout the world for the phonies we are. Under the guise of being world‘ arbitrators’, we, the noisiest little terriers out in the Atlantic, want to teach people how to attain peace.

Sean: Whatever about East Timor – and I accept that having sold time by way of indulgences for the Church, we would sell anything but honesty and the capacity to analyse anything fairly – why do you say that we were phonies in getting rid of capital punishment?

Sile:  Do you not remember? We no sooner banished its remnants from the Constitution, than there was this pious and thoughtless statement to the effect that we will never do it again. Do you not remember the last REFERENDA. It’s true that there was a problem with the manner in which it was given to the public.  Despite the efforts of the press, and the best will in the world – the voters spent most of their time just trying to understand what was involved. They had little time left to look back and assess the historical import or merit of any of the amendments. Even the referendum on the death penalty  - which one might have expected to be easy – was thrown in among complicated data. Apart from the NICE amendment we were asked by the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, John O` Donoghue T.D. to vote on a draft Bill providing inter alia for a constitutional amendment to delete references to the death penalty, that is, to delete articles 13.6 and 40.4.5 (the 21st Amendment of the Constitution – on a Blue Ballot Paper), and to prohibit the re-introduction of the death penalty under any circumstances even in time of war (and for that purpose to amend Article 28.3.3), and a new section establishing an International Criminal Court (the 23rd Amendment of the Constitution  - on a Pink Ballot Paper)

For most – if not all - of these items one instinctively felt there was widespread agreement. But like most things in Irish life, widespread agreement was sustained in the absence of detailed examination. And it is this lack of examination more than anything else that was so disappointing about this battery of received European wisdoms.

Sean: Were you one of the speakers enlisted at the time?

Seamus: I was. I remember speaking about it at length, mostly expressing my surprise that the debate lacked any real passion or, for that matter, conviction. You must remember that because it was a Constitutional Amendment, they had to get speakers like me to talk about it. One couldn’t really find people – few of them, at any rate – who were against the death penalty. Anyway, I was genuinely surprised that we Irish were enacting into law a condition whereby we would never use Capital Punishment, even in circumstances where war was raging -- and the enemy was resorting to capital punishment. It sounded a bit ludicrous, I felt a touch hypocritical. While I was generally against the use of capital punishment, I felt that we were making this constitutional amendment in order to make some religious/political statement to Europe – namely, that we Irish are really a merciful, trustworthy, civilised people, the type of people you might trust the rotating leadership of the EU to. Of course, at this time Bertie hadn’t handed over ‘chairmanship’ to Barusso and no one had heard of Professor Buttigleone, the late Pope’s friend. What we didn’t really want to say to Northern Europe, a people who protected the rights of homosexuals against Buttigleone and the Catholic Irish, was that the death penalty was used here as late as 1985/6 to frighten the wits out of people, here we were – not just denouncing it, but denouncing it with a particular relish. In other words we didn’t really want to admit to Europe what we could not admit to ourselves: that is, that we Irish are as liberal as the Catholic Church allows us (and our Departments of State) to be. As if Europe doesn’t know our predicament! As if Europe doesn’t know who the Irish really are!

Sean: Even still, it was a good thing to do, don’t you think?

Seamus: Only if we meant it?

Sean: But we meant it so much that the government moved it as a constitutional amendment. You can’t get more serious than that?

Seamus: Oh, yes you can. You can actually talk about it.

Sean: Well, why we wanted to get rid of it hardly needed much talk. As you just said, we held onto it so long, it was an embarrassment. And in any event, we needed to rid of the bits and pieces that remained of it in the constitution. Moreover, there is hardly a government in Europe, which by law compelled a balanced discussion on the subject, is there?

Seamus: No. On this quirk of Irish experience you are absolutely correct. And it obviously points up two things. One is the felt need to compel discussion, and this can only be legislated for when it is admitted that there is an absence of debate, an absence of competing interests. In other words, it was meant to safeguard us -- as best the legislators could --against the awful homogeneity that obtained in Ireland, even by the very legislators who wanted to enforce debate.

Sean: And the second point?

Seamus: The other point is how we see remedial action in the form of legislation rather than some other way. To enact something like this is to enforce an artificial virtue in place of a spontaneous reaction by the public. And this was visible in the ‘debate’, where the Press couldn’t at this stage find people who were against the removal of capital punishment.

Sean: But according to you, you would not expect the Irish people to be against its removal. And yet you now admit that the Press could not find people to retain anything to do with the death penalty. Isn’t that a bit hypocritical on your part?

Seamus: But that’s just it. To be against the use of capital punishment, having retained it so long on the statute books, one naturally expected to find some people still around with the conviction that it might be retained in some circumstances. But no. Practically everyone was against retaining anything to do with the death penalty. Moreover, those who were against the death penalty were against it in circumstances where the enemy was prepared to use it. This appeared to me to be a rather curious volte face. The absence of any real debate on this aspect, therefore, makes one suspect that there was no real debate at all. It was just the mechanical workings of a governmental policy decided long ago and far away...

Sile: It was a non-debate.

Sean: But maybe Irish people have little interest in the subject.

Seamus: Isn’t that every bit as bad as having no debate at all? Getting rid of the existing remnants of capital punishment in the Constitution is understandable. But even still, one might have expected a historical review of why we kept it on after the British left in 1922, why we hanged Annie Walsh in 1925, and why we kept hanging males up to 1954, and why, indeed, we retained it as a sentence up to the mid-80s. Surely these weighty things require of a civilised society some sense of debate amongst themselves (without the pulpit getting its oversized ladar istigh all the time). When, in other words, do Irish people speak to Irish people without the confessional ear of the Priest? When do we make the visible effort to grow up to the world of secular discourse? And what happened – historically, I mean – between the declared stance on capital punishment as enunciated in 1948 by Cearbhaill O’ Dalaigh and the abolition of capital punishment?

Sean: Well, that’s another story. We did it and that’s that.

Seamus: Not quite. We got rid of the old bits and pieces. Can you tell me where was the debate was and who first moved the further notion that ‘even in time of war’ we would never resort to capital punishment?

Sean: To tell you the truth I don’t know. And if you say there was no debate whatsoever in the Dail or anywhere else about it, then, I will accept what you say. What this means for Irish society, however, is another matter. And I feel I understand where your indignation is coming from. You feel that a society that eventually – after centuries – gives up the use of capital punishment should show through debate and reflection the real reasons why. And this should be so, because it is upon them that the people share the new values. It is a guarantee of not bringing the old values back so readily. Coupled with that, is the further anomaly that while we give up the use of capital punishment without such a reflective debate, we at the same time plunge ourselves into a new state and, again, without assessing things or drawing upon some discourse with self, we make the most outlandish statement for constitutional inclusion. I understand your indignation perfectly, but isn’t it a good thing rather than a bad one, even if we never quite measure up to assuring ourselves of our own intentions?

Sile: Well, if it is so good, will you please explain the fact that we no sooner stick this nonsense into our constitution, than Mr Bush gets on World Television to assure us and the world that he is going to ‘smoke them out’, ‘run them down’, and to kill all those enemies with weapons of mass-destruction like his own? Indeed, in his second campaign even John Kerry (the good guy!) had it as part of his campaign that he would also run down terrorists and ‘kill them.’ Explain to me the wisdom of our constitution when we no sooner sign the constitutional amendments than we are drafted into the USA’s capital punishment programmes. Everyone knows – or ought to know – how uncivilised the Americans are in this regard. They have no history of saints and scholars, or they, too, might know, that men will always have their dignity, and that holy men are the greatest terrorists of all. And, if they realised anything about history, the first thing they would know, or ought to know, is that the threat of death does not solve a thing! Indeed, it is probably why we have so many suicide-bombers.

Sean: Do these suicide-bombers not scare you?

Seamus: Not as much as those who show them such indifference. If European history has taught us anything, it is that if people are prepared to kill themselves systematically, then they have been abused to that end – and they are hurting so badly that they need to be given care and attention – not the reverse! Does no one recall the suicide pact of Masada in Jerusalem in the year 70 or the hunger strikers in Belfast in 1981? The moral is the same: and it might have helped if someone told George Bush about those simple historical incidents. Tony Blair (the Pope’s man) could have done it; but like the Christians in Jerusalem, he probably believed that it was prophesied, if not by God then by Benedict XV1. In any event, the atavistic indifference that has been shown to suicide-bombers is probably the worst index of American barbarism that I can think of. Quantanimo Bay, Death Row, and the other indignities that the Americans occasionally parade upon television are not compensated for by the rhetoric of democracy or the fear of weapons of mass destruction. And the trappings of world policemanship shown by the British and the Americans are not to be condoned. Did the Irish help in this and related enterprises by Romano/Anglo/America? What do you think?

Sean:  What then about (Bk.8) Last Of The Betagii?

Seamus: Last Of The Betagii is an account of the second last execution of a woman in Ireland, or, if you like, the last execution of a woman under the British Administration. It contains singular and astonishing features, which demonstrate the accumulated history of the Holy Family, and how those who instituted it, Pope and Prince, left this peasant woman from Doonane with little or no options either to defend herself or her two children. Mary Daly is, in many ways, the continuation of Alice Kyteler. It has much to say about Irish womanhood, capital punishment, and the weaknesses of the Holy Family.

Sean: So, it only deals peripherally with capital punishment, or, rather, it deals with it in a singular and particularly factual way. What then about (Bk. 9) The Penology Of Samuel Haughton?

Seamus: Haughton, Like Tyndall, as you know was a Carlovian. He was an extraordinary man, whose people came form Killeshin – not far, by the way, from Doonane, on the Leix/Carlow border. He was a Quaker, as were his people – but he was also an extraordinary scientist. As part of his much wider interests and passions he set about making ‘hanging’ more humane, so he cast his very discerning mind on what has been commonly known as ‘The Drop.’ And why Haughton has never been known as ‘The Drop-Haughton’ is a bit of a mystery. Anyway, the rise-and-fall-of-the-drop (if you’ll excuse the pun) is the theme of Haughton’s penology.

Sean: Are all these works finished, by the way?

Sile: Not likely!

Seamus: Mostly. But I am afraid I have the unfortunate habit of breaking the back of something and then, just before finishing it, turning off, and leaving it to finish itself.  So, in one sense they are all finished; in another, some of them need to be polished. In either event, I am your most eager correspondent.

Sile: You are not my most eager correspondent.

Sean; Nor mine either.

Sile: Most disappointing, more like.

Sean: And I agree.

Seamus:  O, well, so long as one is good for something!

Your most disappointing correspondent,

 
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