A bizarre meeting on the Galway train

Executioner James Berry: Stayed in Galway gaol before a hanging, ‘whistling and singing’ in his quarters.

Executioner James Berry: Stayed in Galway gaol before a hanging, ‘whistling and singing’ in his quarters.

Week III

When Patrick Finnegan stepped forward for his trial for the murder of Peter Doherty of Carrigan, Craughwell, on July 23 1884, he must have done so with a heavy heart. His co-accused, Michael Muldowney, on the totally spurious evidence of informers Patrick Raftery and Jack Moran, had just been found guilty and sentenced to hang. The same informers were the main witnesses in the Finnegan trials.

Again, as in the case of Muldowney, the jury was initially unable to come to a decision. There was a second trial on August 5 1884, and despite a ‘packed’ jury of Protestant landlords, or those with landed interests, it found it difficult to accept the contradictory evidence of the two informers. On two occasions the jury came back to the judge to ask for guidance. It was not satisfied with the identification of Finnegan among the gang of men who shot Doherty. Judge James Murphy reminded the jury that Finnegan had been recognised by both informers. When the jury eventually came back with a guilty verdict, the foreman stated the members had unanimously recommended that the prisoner be shown mercy.*

Finnegan now stood forward in the dock and vehemently declared his innocence. He said ‘he was no more guilty than the foreman of the jury’ and, thumping the front rail of the dock, he said he never murdered or conspired to murder anyone. He forgave Raftery and Moran, whom he said would do anything for whiskey. He denied that he was anywhere on the night of the murder the informers said he was. Nevertheless Judge Murphy donned the black cap and sentenced him to be hanged in Galway gaol on August 27.

Meeting at the station

The verdict was greeted with dismay and anger in Galway and Sligo. The Tuam News and the Sligo Champion fiercely condemned the decision. There was widespread unease with the selection of the jury, and the roles of the two informers, particularly that of Moran, who had taken false oaths and made several false statements in connection with his evidence.

As Finnegan was being taken from Sligo gaol to the railway station for Galway on August 8, he was able to address the large crowd which had gathered on the railway platform to support him. He shouted out that he had been offered a bribe and a free pardon with money if he would swear away the lives of his innocent comrades. This he had refused to do as he himself was totally innocent.

And then, surprisingly, the informer Jack Moran, was brought into the same station under heavy police protection, for a Dublin train. Pat Finnegan managed to shout after him: “Ah Jack, Jack, you and Raftery have sworn my life away for money and whiskey. May the Lord forgive ye. Every word you and Raftery swore was false.”

Singing hangman

After that emotional outburst, a more curious meeting was to happen. Finnegan was removed, under police escort, from Sligo to Mullingar where he joined the Dublin-Galway train. He shared a carriage with tall, austere man, whom the police introduced as James Berry, the executioner, regarded as a humane hangman because he was supposed to have perfected the ‘drop’.

August promised to be another busy time for the hangman in Galway. Michael Tansey, convicted of the murder of William Mahon at Ballyforan was to be hanged on August 11, followed by Michael Muldowney the following day. Pat Finnegan was due to be hanged on August 27.

We don’t know what Finnegan thought of sharing a carriage with this man, but he later commented that while in Galway gaol he was unhappy that James Berry’s quarters were directly above his condemned cell. He was disturbed that he could hear Berry moving about whistling and singing.

Berry himself wrote a famous book My experiences as a hangman (P Lund, 1892 ),** and commented that while in Galway the prison governor believed that it was unsafe for him to venture outside the prison. He wrote that ‘he had nothing more lively to do than read the newspapers and walk about the dreary prison yard’.

The suspect talents of James Berry were, however, not needed in the case of Muldowney and Finnegan. The lord lieutenant Earl Spencer was now made fully aware of the many inconsistencies in the evidence against the two men. He was dissatisfied at the ‘packed’ juries in each case, the character of the informers, the offer of a bribe to Finnegan, the general outcry from the south Galway communities, the public subscriptions for their defence, and the widespread belief in their innocence. On August 23 he commuted their sentence to penal servitude for life.

Next week: Freedom after more than 19 years in prison.

NOTES: * I am leaning heavily on an excellent new book The case of the Craughwell prisoners - during the Land War in Co Galway 1879 - 85, by Pat Finnegan (the grandson of the Patrick Finnegan of the story ), published by Four Courts Press, on sale at €35, and €15.

**James Berry was an English executioner from 1884 - 1891. His most important contribution to the science of hanging was his refinement of the long drop method. However, he famously failed to hang John Babbacombe Lee - ‘The Man They Couldn’t Hang’ - in 1885. The trap door repeatedly refused to open. Lee’s sentence was commuted.

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