The long road from the Bloody Code

‘No person shall suffer death for any offence’ - no, it is not a medieval monarchical decree, it is in fact the first order of the Criminal Justice Act 1990. The Act prohibited capital punishment under all circumstances within the Republic for the first time. The death penalty had remained on the Irish statute books exclusively for the offences of treason and murder, but from 1990 onward those crimes would carry a sentence of life imprisonment. To say the 1990 Act ended centuries of capital punishment in Ireland would be telling only half the story.

Early Irish, pre-Norman, law actually discouraged the death penalty. It was not until the laws of the Old English and later New (plantation ) English took hold that capital punishment became a frequent feature of the punitive Irish justice system, and neither prince nor pauper was safe. Even the venerated Pádraig Ó hÉilí, Catholic bishop of Mayo, was hanged for treason in 1579. The number of offences which carried the punishment of death grew steadily through numerous Acts of Parliament, a development later labelled the ‘Bloody Code’. During the era of the Bloody Code, offences for which a person could hang rose from 50 in 1688 to 220 by the end of the 1700s. The number of offences warranting death rose in response to fears of foreign invasion and the rise of unlawful, native, secret societies. Reports in the 1770s of two such societies, the Hearts of Steel and White Boys, committing violent crimes in Mayo made the authorities very nervous.

When the feared invasion did occur and sparked rebellion in 1798, the law was enthusiastically applied. It was during this period of zero tolerance that Westport’s Denis Browne MP, High Sheriff of Mayo, acquired the nickname 'Denis the Rope' for his fervour in hanging rebels. Courts martial in Mayo took place after the rebellion and the convicted were executed with disregard for their social status. Two men, a Doctor Barret and a Mr O’Brien, described as ‘persons of the better rank of life, and leaders in the rebellion’ were executed in May 1799. A number of years earlier in 1786, Browne would no doubt have been pleased to see his old duelling opponent George Robert Fitzgerald of Turlough hanged on The Green in Castlebar for complicity in a murder. Another notorious Mayo case was that of Captain Gallagher, a highwayman operating in the east of the county. A Robin Hood figure, Gallagher attacked those with property and threatened landlords who forced evictions. Alas, the popular bandit was captured, tried, and convicted in Foxford and executed in Castlebar in 1818.

The Bloody Code was swept away by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which reduced the number of capital crimes to just three; murder, treason, and piracy with violence. For some decades prior to the 1861 Act, death was often commuted to transportation to the colonies but that decision was at the judge's discretion which meant no regularity. In 1826, Pat Malley of Westport was convicted of sheep stealing and sentenced to death. Just five years later, Michael McGreevy was indicted for the murder of Matthew Kirby in Mayo. McGreevy was found guilty of manslaughter and was sentenced to only five years imprisonment.

The execution of Irish nationalists and republicans for crimes against the Crown continued into the 20th century, most famously in 1916 when Mayo man John MacBride was among those shot by firing squad. The independent Irish state executed 35 people in the 30 years up to 1954 but as many death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment during the same period. In 1954, Michael Manning became the last person executed in the state. Capital punishment remained on the books however, for certain murders, despite national and international condemnation of the punishment.

Debate heated up in the 1980s when Noel Browne introduced a bill to the Dáil to abolish the death penalty. Amnesty International, the Prisoners' Rights Organisation, and the Irish National Council for Civil Liberties requested that Mayo's local authorities support their call for the outright abolition of the death penalty. Castlebar Urban District Council voted down the request, five votes to two. Politicians across Mayo were split on abolition. Claremorris Fianna Fáil members reportedly held mixed views. Westport councillor Seán Staunton believed capital punishment should be removed, but citing republican killings, his fellow townsman Michael Ring disagreed. Ballyhaunis based Senator Jim Higgins stated that capital punishment was an anathema to him and the Fine Gael party. After the 1989 general election, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats' programme for government included abolishing the death penalty and the Criminal Justice Act 1990 was passed.

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