History: The story of Harry Gleeson and Moll McCarthy

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Harry Gleeson

Harry Gleeson

The 80th anniversary of Harry's wrongful execution is this week

The village of New-Inn, in South Tipperary, came to national attention in November 1940 when Mary McCarthy was found murdered in one of John Caesar’s fields - a farm managed by Caesar’s nephew, Harry Gleeson. Within four months, Harry was charged with the murder, found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. However, then, as now, many knew that Gleeson was completely innocent.


Harry - an everyday man from rural Ireland - enjoyed the GAA, trained greyhounds and was a talented fiddle player. A native of Galberstown, Holycross, in his early twenties, he was offered work by his uncle John Caesar and his wife Bridget on their farm in Marlhill, New-Inn. The Caesar’s had no children, and by 1940, John left the running of the farm in Harry’s capable hands, ably assisted by farm labourer Tommy Reid.


Mary McCarthy, known locally as Moll, was born into and lived in very unfortunate circumstances - with six children to feed, living in a rundown cottage and relying on “gifts” from the respectable men who fathered her children and took advantage of her vulnerability. She was described as a very pretty young woman with striking red hair - at the age of nineteen, she gave birth to her first child, Mary. In the subsequent years, Moll, who never married, would give birth to six more children – with a different, known, father for each child – except for the last child, Peggy, who died just three weeks old. Despite speculation, the paternity of this child remains a mystery. The state’s case against Gleeson was rooted in this mystery - they claimed Harry fathered Moll’s last child and feared he would be written out of his uncle's will should this be known. There was, and is, no evidence to suggest he fathered Moll’s last child or even had an intimate relationship with Moll.


Law unto themselves
Marcus Bourke (1993) noted that a well-respected local group - most former IRA men - were a law unto themselves in New-Inn at the time. Kieran Fagan published ‘The Framing of Harry Gleeson’ (2015), which claimed McCarthy was viciously murdered by this group – with varying motivating factors cited. Moll was shot twice, the first bullet through her neck and the second, when she was already dead, blew away the left side of her face. Still to this day, the full circumstances surrounding the murder is a matter of conjecture. Nonetheless, what is categorically known is that a person or persons’ viciously murdered Moll – and those who were complicit strategically plotted links of her death back to Harry Gleeson.


Moll’s body was left in one of John Caesar’s fields, knowing that Harry Gleeson would be the first to come across it – as Harry routinely walked his greyhounds in that field every morning. And that he duly did – and with it, the conspiracy to convict Gleeson commenced.


Sean McBride, Gleeson’s junior counsel, observed a ‘conspiracy of silence’ unfolding - as the pillars of a rural community collaborated to protect some, and condemn another. The Gardaí fabricated evidence to frame Harry Gleeson. The parish priest, when asked to give a character reference for Gleeson, refused to do so. Many parishioners followed suit – ‘silence’ became the word – an installation of fear from the real perpetrators, who had shown they were not to be trifled with.
Tommy Reid, who offered an alibi for Harry Gleeson, was brought into New-Inn Garda station for interrogation. This quickly turned into a savage beating, orchestrated by Chief Superintendent Edward Reynolds, in the hope Reid would change his alibi. When Reid was allowed to leave, thirteen hours later, he was severely beaten with notable bruises and swollen/discoloured face.

Gun to the head
Reid stated in an interview many years later that a gun was put to his head by a local Garda “if you don’t keep your mouth shut, you’ll get plugged some night”, Reid recalled. In 1940, Bridget Caesar approached Superintendent Patrick O’Mahony about Reid’s treatment; O’Mahony responded, ‘you often heard tell of a good beating to get a thing out of a fella’. Later, Superintendent O’Mahony sent a letter about Gleeson’s character to the Department of Justice - “Gleeson is the type of man capable of committing this crime, there can be no doubt. He is possibly something of a sadist.” O’Mahony wrote this even though Harry Gleeson had no previous convictions.


If the events in Marlhill were bad, the event in the courts would be equally so. Sean McBride was Gleeson’s junior counsel, and Martin Maguire was the judge. McBride was only practising law a mere four years and was gaining a big reputation. A year earlier, Maguire was on the losing side to McBride in the Habeas Corpus case of 1939. A massive case and a huge win for McBride - who was a relative newcomer to the courts. Kieran Fagan (2015) noted, “this was a humiliation on established members of the profession.”

Getting one back
One of those established members was Martin McGuire - now a judge and in charge of the Gleeson case. This case offered McGuire the opportunity to get one back on McBride. Throughout the case, it was alleged that Maguire subtly influenced the jury in numerous ways favouring the prosecution. On the final day in court, Judge McGuire gave seventy-seven pages to the prosecution’s case and issued a mere nineteen for the defence in summing up proceedings. Among the nineteen pages, he used words like “unbelievable”, “fantastic”, and “far-fetched” to sum up their evidence. . After two weeks in court, the jury returned a verdict of ‘guilty with a strong recommendation for mercy’. Judge Martin McGuire agreed - however, in a private letter to the Minister for Justice, he noted that he saw no grounds for the recommendation of mercy. On February 27, 1941, McGuire sentenced Gleeson to death by hanging – a mere three months after the murder occurred. After a failed appeal, Harry Gleeson’s state execution took place on April 23, 1941. Martin McGuire went on to become a Supreme Court Judge.

McBride Phonecall
The day before Gleeson’s execution, Sean McBride received an urgent phone call from Mountjoy prison. The message indicated that the condemned man wished to see him. McBride received the phone call with mixed feelings – that perhaps, after all, his client had been guilty of the murder and wanted to unburden himself before his impending execution. Not so. In the prison, Gleeson shook McBride firmly by the hand and thanked him for all he had done in his defence. He wanted McBride to know - at a point when nothing could be gained - that he was innocent of the murder - that he had made his peace with God - and was ready to meet his maker. However, he had one request, that Mr McBride and the good people who believed in him, after his execution, would continue the battle to establish his innocence – in Harry’s own words:


“I will pray tomorrow that whoever did it will be discovered and that the whole thing will be like an open book. I have no confession to make, only that I didn’t do it. That is all. I will pray for you and be with you if I can, whenever you are fighting and battling for justice.”


On Wednesday, April 23 1941, at 8 am, Albert Pierrepoint, the hangman, pulled the lever and with it the life of Harry Gleeson. ‘We heard the nearby bells of St Peters church in Phibsboro ring out at 8 o’clock, and we knew a life was passing’, a prison warder noted. Silence descended. All those who had been complicit had achieved their objective. But the cost would endure, and the collateral damage would be borne for generations to come.

Evidence
There is one last piece of evidence, from Harry’s final moments alive, a letter from the prison chaplain, Fr John Kelly to Anastasia Cooney, from New-Inn and strong advocator of Harry’s innocence, it noted:
“You will be glad to know that our friend Henry (Harry) Gleeson made a most edifying end today. Before I saw him, there was a string of visitors as the warders called in to wish him farewell, the governor was the last, and then I had a short chat with him. I then gave him the last blessing and we began to recite his favourite evocations – he answered these bravely right to the end, and I think his last words were – ‘my god, I love you’. He has promised not to forget us and will help us when our time comes.”


An unfortunate but fitting final testament to Harry Gleeson – an innocent man caught in a complex web of lies.
In the coming decades, successive people and groups would work tirelessly to fulfil Gleeson’s dying wish of establishing his innocence. Local historian Eddie Dalton devoted many years to unearthing vital pieces of evidence that would later prove crucial to Harry’s posthumous pardon.


In 2012, ‘The Justice for Harry Gleeson Group’ was formed, spearheaded by Sean Delaney and Harry’s nephew and grandnephew, Tom and Kevin Gleeson. In the subsequent years, they would forge an alliance with the Irish Innocence Project from the Law School in Griffith College Dublin. An alliance that would right the wrongs of the past.
Following a proposal to the Department of Justice for a posthumous pardon, Mr Shane Murphy was tasked with reviewing the case. Murphy’s forensic examination of proceedings found not only was there not enough evidence to convict Gleeson but from his analysis, Harry Gleeson was completely innocent of the crime.

Miscarriage of justice
On April 6, 2015, the Irish Government acknowledged the miscarriage of justice that occurred and apologised for Harry Gleeson’s wrongful execution. In December of that year, President Michael D Higgins signed a posthumous pardon for Harry Gleeson, which formally declared his innocence. The first posthumous pardon in the history of the state. Harry finally got justice 74 years later. However, still to this day, despite the best efforts of the Gleeson family, Harry’s remains still lie in Mountjoy prison grounds.


Last but not least, Bill O’Connor, known as ‘Billo’, would be the first man Harry would thank in heaven. In the 1980s ‘Billo’ privately published ‘The Farcical Trial of Harry Gleeson’ – a publication that lifted the veil of silence on the story and laid the groundwork for what was to come. ‘Billo’, who passed away in 2001, and Harry were good friends in a previous life.

Unmarked grave
Poor Moll McCarthy has not been as fortunate. Today, she lies in an unmarked grave in a disused cemetery in New-Inn – with a plaque on the wall, erected in private, the only acknowledgement. Unfortunately, Ireland of 1940 was not ready for Moll McCarthy. According to Marcus Bourke, author of ‘Murder at Marlhill’ (1993), Moll was a ‘liberated’ woman who did not hide her lifestyle. She was a survivor who reared her children on a welfare payment of six shillings and seven pints of milk a week. In 1926 an attempt was made to burn Moll and her young family out of their home. Shortly after this, the parish priest condemned Moll from the pulpit. Before her death, on two separate occasions, the local authorities applied to the state to have her children taken off her and removed to industrial schools.

However, each time the application was dismissed, the judge stating that these children are well looked after and Moll McCarthy is a good mother. In the end, after Moll’s death, each of her six children was removed to industrial schools. Moll can take solace in the fact that her eldest daughter Mary, when approaching death over fifty years later, said to a nurse, ‘I saw my own mother shot on the kitchen floor, and an innocent man died.’ This statement would prove crucial to the posthumous pardon that Harry Gleeson would receive.


God rest Moll McCarthy and Harry Gleeson, and Godspeed to all those who fight against the miscarriages of justice.
Recalling the wrongs of the past can be a difficult assignment and is often a contested space, but a necessary task nonetheless. Paul Ricoeur would say, ‘to be forgotten is to kill twice’. However, remembering should be a two-pronged approach - President Micheal D Higgins suggests the act of ethical remembrance ‘is an act of reconciliation’ - a method of forging a better tomorrow and leaving the ill-feeling of the past in the past.

An unfortunate but fitting final testament to Harry Gleeson – an innocent man caught in a complex web of lies.
In the coming decades, successive people and groups would work tirelessly to fulfil Gleeson’s dying wish of establishing his innocence. Local historian Eddie Dalton devoted many years to unearthing vital pieces of evidence that would later prove crucial to Harry’s posthumous pardon.


In 2012, ‘The Justice for Harry Gleeson Group’ was formed, spearheaded by Sean Delaney and Harry’s nephew and grandnephew, Tom and Kevin Gleeson. In the subsequent years, they would forge an alliance with the Irish Innocence Project from the Law School in Griffith College Dublin. An alliance that would right the wrongs of the past.


Following a proposal to the Department of Justice for a posthumous pardon, Mr Shane Murphy was tasked with reviewing the case. Murphy’s forensic examination of proceedings found not only was there not enough evidence to convict Gleeson but from his analysis, Harry Gleeson was completely innocent of the crime.

Miscarriage of justice
On April 6, 2015, the Irish Government acknowledged the miscarriage of justice that occurred and apologised for Harry Gleeson’s wrongful execution. In December of that year, President Michael D Higgins signed a posthumous pardon for Harry Gleeson, which formally declared his innocence. The first posthumous pardon in the history of the state. Harry finally got justice 74 years later. However, still to this day, despite the best efforts of the Gleeson family, Harry’s remains still lie in Mountjoy prison grounds.


Last but not least, Bill O’Connor, known as ‘Billo’, would be the first man Harry would thank in heaven. In the 1980s ‘Billo’ privately published ‘The Farcical Trial of Harry Gleeson’ – a publication that lifted the veil of silence on the story and laid the groundwork for what was to come. ‘Billo’, who passed away in 2001, and Harry were good friends in a previous life.

Unmarked grave
Poor Moll McCarthy has not been as fortunate. Today, she lies in an unmarked grave in a disused cemetery in New-Inn – with a plaque on the wall, erected in private, the only acknowledgement. Unfortunately, Ireland of 1940 was not ready for Moll McCarthy. According to Marcus Bourke, author of ‘Murder at Marlhill’ (1993), Moll was a ‘liberated’ woman who did not hide her lifestyle. She was a survivor who reared her children on a welfare payment of six shillings and seven pints of milk a week. In 1926 an attempt was made to burn Moll and her young family out of their home. Shortly after this, the parish priest condemned Moll from the pulpit. Before her death, on two separate occasions, the local authorities applied to the state to have her children taken off her and removed to industrial schools.

However, each time the application was dismissed, the judge stating that these children are well looked after and Moll McCarthy is a good mother. In the end, after Moll’s death, each of her six children was removed to industrial schools. Moll can take solace in the fact that her eldest daughter Mary, when approaching death over fifty years later, said to a nurse, ‘I saw my own mother shot on the kitchen floor, and an innocent man died.’ This statement would prove crucial to the posthumous pardon that Harry Gleeson would receive.


God rest Moll McCarthy and Harry Gleeson, and Godspeed to all those who fight against the miscarriages of justice.
Recalling the wrongs of the past can be a difficult assignment and is often a contested space, but a necessary task nonetheless. Paul Ricoeur would say, ‘to be forgotten is to kill twice’. However, remembering should be a two-pronged approach - President Micheal D Higgins suggests the act of ethical remembrance ‘is an act of reconciliation’ - a method of forging a better tomorrow and leaving the ill-feeling of the past in the past.