Michael Manning was the last prisoner executed in the Republic of Ireland, ending a centuries-old tradition of executions in the Emerald Isle and another tradition of their being performed almost entirely by British executioners.
Michael Manning’s case was the last time a group of officials would assemble at Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison at 8am in the morning. Although number of other inmates received death sentences after he was hanged, none of them saw the inside of Mountjoy’s execution chamber.
Staff and inmates alike had some quaintly-tasteless nicknames for it. Inmates at Wandsworth in London crudely nicknamed it the ‘cold meat shed.’ Pentonville’s inmates still refer to the former site of theirs as ‘Crippen’s Grass’ (the shed itself no longer exists). It’s said that Crippen himself has been seen wandering the area with his head tilted to one side, a broken neck being the hallmark of a successful judicial hanging. At Mountjoy prisoners and staff alike still call it the ‘hanghouse.’
Michael Manning would Ireland’s last inmate to walk in and be carried out.
Ireland, not surprisingly given its history, has a strong tradition of abolitionism. That many Irish folk faced a gallows or firing squad in the name of Irish independence still weighs heavy with many Irish people. The symbols of State retribution were and for some still are symbols of oppression. So strong was their distaste for it that, before and after Independence, the Irish authorities still had to employ British executioners. Irishmen seldom applied for or wanted the job.
Knowing the strength of feeling against them and their reason for visiting Ireland, both Thomas Pierrepoint and his nephew Albert made a point of taking precautions. Whenever they crossed the Irish Sea on business both men habitually carried guns. After they executed former IRA Chief of Staff Charles Kerins at Mountjoy on June 16, 1944 it was said that the IRA had passed its own death sentence on both of them. That they were working for the Irish Free State at the time made no difference. The execution of Michael Manning would be the last time a Pierrepoint, or any British executioner, would cross the Irish Sea on business.
Manning’s crime was brutal, the rape and murder of 65-year old nurse Catherine Copper in the city of Limerick on November 18, 1953. It’s fair to say that there was scant sympathy for him personally and little doubt that he’d committed the crime. He was arrested after leaving a very distinctive hat at the crime scene.
At his trial, beginning on February 15, 1954 the defence attempted to plead insanity. They pointed out that Manning’s family had a history of mental illness and argued that the charge should therefore be reduced to manslaughter, a non-capital crime, also claiming there was no evidence of premeditation.
The prosecution, however, begged to differ. Granted, Manning (who blamed the crime on his being extremely drunk) could be proved to have been on a lengthy tour of Limerick’s pubs and bars on the day of the crime. He had even being refused service at one of them on account of his drunken state. But, they argued, he could also be proved to have altered his routine on that day in their view to allow himself more time to commit the crime).
Manning having stuffed clods of grass and earth into the victim’s mouth proved that he knew what he was doing was a crime and had deliberately tried to silence his victim. If he knew what he was doing and knew it was wrong, they argued, then the insanity plea didn’t hold water. The judge sided with the prosecution. Manning would be tried for capital murder. If convicted he would be condemned. If condemned he could very easily be hanged.
The outcome was never really in any doubt. The jury were out for only three hours before rendering their verdict; Guilty as charged. Wasting no time, the judge promptly passed the most severe sentence open to him;
Death by hanging.
This was something of an event. There hadn’t been a hanging in Ireland since William Gambon at Mountjoy on November 24, 1948. Gambon had been hanged by Albert Pierrepoint. The Pierrepoint family had long had a private deal with the Irish authorities dating back to when Albert’s uncle Thomas. Thomas’s deal meant he could work either with no assistant at all ( he often did) or could bring along anyone who wanted to assist and who Thomas felt was up to the job.
Albert’s very first hanging on December 29, 1932 (that of murderer Patrick McDermott) was at Mountjoy assisting Thomas. They worked together so frequently that they became known as ‘Uncle Tom and Our Albert.’ Ireland had been the site of Albert’s first execution, albeit as an assistant. Now Albert, long established as chief executioner for Britain and Ireland with some 400 under his belt, would carry out Ireland’s last.
While there was little sympathy for Manning himself there was plenty for his young wife, especially as she was expecting their first child. The baby was due, in fact, only weeks after Manning’s execution on April 20, 1954. Manning himself was keenly aware of that fact. With his appeal denied his only hope was a personal appeal to Irish President Eamon de Valera, de Valera being the only person with the authority to commute his sentence. His letter contained a poignant (if manipulative-sounding) passage;
“I am not afraid to die as I am fully prepared to go before my God, but it is on behalf of my wife as she is so near the birth of our baby. Instead of one life being taken there could be three as it would be a big shock to my wife if the execution will be carried out on the date mentioned. So I would be grateful to you if you showed your mercy toward my wife and me.”
President de Valera was unmoved. There was no mercy and no reprieve.
At 8am on April 20, 1954 the official party assembled at the ‘hanghouse’ for, unknowingly, the last time in Irish history. With Robert Leslie Stewart (‘Jock’ or ‘the Edinburgh hangman’) assisting, Pierrepoint performed with his usual efficiency. For the last time in Ireland’s history a hooded, roped figure plunged through the floor as the trapdoors dropped with a deafening crash.
Michael Manning (and Ireland’s death penalty) had passed into history. Manning’s widow showed immense dignity, fortitude and courage. She even wrote to the Governor of Mountjoy thanking him for the kindness he’d shown her husband before his execution. Part of her letter read;
“We really adored each other and will until I join him in Heaven someday. I can assure you that Michael is also praying for you and he will return his thanks to you in some other way.”
It would be the last time a prisoner was carried out of the ‘hanghouse.’ No more would the lights in Mountjoy’s ‘Condemned Cell’ burn 24 hours a day until a hanging was carried out. Prisoners still occasionally heard what reporters once called the ‘dread sentence.’ Letters were still sent inviting Pierrepoint and his successors to perform their duties. Prisoners still sat in Mountjoy’s ‘Condemned Cell’ under 24-hour guard, what prison staff called the ‘deathwatch.’ But none kept their date with the hangman.
For Albert Pierrepoint, there was a certain symmetry to it. Mountjoy had been where his career began with the death of Patrick McDermott and he was there again when Ireland’s death penalty died too. In a sense the wheel had turned full circle. For ‘Jock’ Stewart too, there was a certain symmetry.
In 1956 Pierrepoint resigned in a dispute over expenses so new Chief Executioners were needed. Having assisted at Ireland’s last execution, Stewart would himself perform one of Britain’s two simultaneous last hangings. At 8am on August 13, 1964 he pulled the lever on Peter Anthony Allen at Walton Prison in Liverpool. At Strangeways Prison in Manchester, Harry Allen dropped John Robson Walby (alias Gwynne Owen Evans) at exactly the same time.
It wasn’t, however, the last time a section of the Irish population showed their depth of feeling toward capital punishment. Long before it was formally abolished in Ireland in 1990 there was a violent riot at Mountjoy in 1973 when executions were technically still possible. One of the first things rioting inmates did was head straight for the end of D Wing to destroy the ‘hanghouse.’ It has since been restored as an historical monument, a grim reminder of the darker side of Irish history.