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Capital punishment has been abolished in the Republic of Ireland. The last execution was in 1954. Death sentences passed after that were all commuted by the President. The death penalty was abolished in law in 1990, and has been specifically prohibited by the Constitution of Ireland since 2002. The constitution provides that the penalty cannot be reintroduced even in war or a state of emergency.


Early history

The last public hanging was 1868 and the following year executions were confined to behind prison walls. Until 1964 the death penalty was available for treason, murder, piracy with violence, and military crimes.[1] The last peacetime execution under British rule was of William Scanlan in 1911 for murdering his wife.[2]

Irish doctor Samuel Haughton developed the humane "Standard Drop" method of hanging that came into use in 1866. Instead of slowly strangling to death on a short rope, which could take up to 20 minutes, the condemned person would now be weighed, and four to six feet of rope would be used to ensure instant death by breaking the neck. The Standard Drop was later refined by the "Long Drop" method from the 1870s, as using an overlong rope sometimes led to severance of the head. The Official Table of Drops was developed between 1888 and 1913, allowing both for natural human variation and the need to make the death instant in all cases.

Execution of Irish Republicans created political martyrs, such as the "Manchester Martyrs" of 1867. The execution of the Easter Rising leaders turned public sympathy in favour of the rebels. 24 rebels were executed during the 1919–21 War of Independence, starting with Kevin Barry.[2][3] In Munster, which was under martial law, 13 were shot in Cork and one in Limerick.[3] "The Forgotten Ten" were hanged in Mountjoy Prison, which helped turn opinion in less turbulent Dublin against the British.[3] The last person executed by the British was William Mitchell, an RIC constable who had murdered a justice of the peace.[4]

The draft version of the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State included a ban on capital punishment, but the Dáil did not adopt this, so the relevant British laws continued in force.[5] This was done because of the outbreak of the 1922–3 Civil War;[5] further, a resolution of the Third Dáil on 26 September 1922 authorised military tribunals to impose death sentences on the anti-Treaty forces.[5][6] During the war the Free State government executed 81 captured anti-Treaty fighters by firing squad,[5] as well as ordering extra-judicial killings.

Later executions

There were a total of 35 executions in the state after the end of the Civil War.[7] In the 1920s, execution was relatively common for murderers.[5] As had happened before independence, the British executioner came to Mountjoy to perform hangings.[2]

The only woman executed after independence was Annie Walsh in 1925. She and her nephew blamed each other for the murder of her elderly husband. The press expected only the nephew to be found guilty, but both were. She was hanged aged 31 in spite of the jury recommending clemency.[5][8]

During the state of emergency in World War II, increased IRA activity led to six executions.[9] Charlie Kerins was hanged, while five were shot by firing squad after sentence by military tribunals under Emergency legislation.[9] Of these, Maurice O' Neill and Richard Goss had shot but not killed Gardaí: the only people executed by the state for a non-murder crime.[2]

Michael Manning was the last person executed in the state.[10] He was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint for murder on 20 April 1954. Mamie Cadden was sentenced to be hanged in 1957 for felony murder after performing an illegal abortion on a woman who died; the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Criminal Justice Act 1964

Successive Ministers for Justice were asked in the Dáil about abolishing the death penalty: in 1936 by Frank MacDermot;[11] in 1939 by Jeremiah Hurley;[12] in 1948 by James Larkin, Jnr[13] and Peadar Cowan;[14] in 1956 by Thomas Finlay;[15] in 1960 by Frank Sherwin;[16] in 1962 by Stephen Coughlan.[17] In each case the relevant minister dismissed the suggestion. Seán MacBride expressed personal support for abolition even while a minister in a government that oversaw the 1948 execution of Michael Gambon.[18]

When Seán Brady asked in February 1963, minister Charles Haughey announced "that the death penalty for murder generally will be abolished but it will be retained for certain specific types of murder."[19] The Criminal Justice Act 1964 abolished the death penalty for piracy, some military crimes, and most murders. It continued to be available for:[20]

  • treason —under Article 39 of the Constitution, "treason shall consist only in levying war against the State, or assisting any State or person or inciting or conspiring with any person to levy war against the State, or attempting by force of arms or other violent means to overthrow the organs of government established by the Constitution, or taking part or being concerned in or inciting or conspiring with any person to make or to take part or be concerned in any such attempt."[21]
  • four offences under military law.[22]
  • murders committed in the course or furtherance of certain offences under the Offences against the State Act 1939.
  • "capital murder", i.e.
    • of an on-duty Garda or prison officer; or
    • for a political motive, of a foreign head of state, diplomat, or government member

In 1976 the Supreme Court quashed death sentences imposed on anarchists Marie and Patrick Murray for killing a Garda after a bank robbery, substituting life imprisonment.[23] The Supreme Court upheld death sentences imposed in 1980 by the Special Criminal Court on three men convicted of murdering two Gardaí after a bank robbery in Roscommon. President Patrick Hillery exercised his prerogative of mercy and commuted the sentence to 40 years imprisonment without parole. The conviction of one of the three was overturned in 1995. The last two death sentences in Ireland were issued on 3 December 1985 for killing a Garda; these were also commuted.[24]


Ireland's 1989 ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), effective 8 March 1990, made a reservation to Article 6(5). The Article reads "Sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age and shall not be carried out on pregnant women."[25] The declaration read "Pending the introduction of further legislation to give full effect to the provisions of paragraph 5 of Article 6, should a case arise which is not covered by the provisions of existing law, the Government of Ireland will have regard to its obligations under the Covenant in the exercise of its power to advise commutation of the sentence of death."[26]

The death penalty was completely abolished for all offences by the Criminal Justice Act 1990,[27] which made the penalty for treason and first-degree murder life imprisonment, with parole in not less than forty years. In 1993, Tánaiste Dick Spring said in Vienna that this abolition should be made irreversible, which Taoiseach Albert Reynolds later confirmed was government policy and would involve a Constitutional change.[28] However, the government fell six months later.

One recommendation of the 1996 Constitutional Review Group was:[29]

Prohibit the re-introduction of the death penalty. If this is not deemed desirable, Article 40.4.5° should be retained. If it is prohibited, Article 28.3.3° will require amendment so that the death penalty cannot be imposed in any circumstances.

Article 40.4.5° prescribed the treatment of those under sentence of death; Article 28.3.3° deals with the suspension of rights during a state of emergency. In 2001, the Twenty-first Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland was passed by referendum. This added Article 15.5.2°, which prohibits the death penalty; deleted as redundant Article 40.4.5° and several other references to "capital crimes"; and amended Article 28.3.3° to prevent the death penalty being imposed during an emergency.[30][31]

Ireland adopted the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR in 1993,[32][33] and the Sixth Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in 1994,[34] both of which prohibit the death penalty in peacetime.[35] The reservation to ICCPR Article 6(5) was withdrawn in 1994.[36] Ireland ratified the Thirteenth Protocol to the ECHR, which prohibits the death penalty in wartime, at its opening in 2002.[34]

In November 2009, Richard Johnson, recently retired as President of the High Court, said that he favoured reintroduction of the death penalty in limited circumstances, such as murder committed during armed robberies.[37] The Irish Council for Civil Liberties described his remarks as "deeply misguided and frivolous".[38]

See also


  1. ^ §3, Geneva Conventions Act, 1962 Irish Statute Book, Acts of the Oireachtas
  2. ^ a b c d 20th century executions in the Irish Republic (Eire) capitalpunishmentuk
  3. ^ a b c O Gadhra, Nollaig (14 October 2001). "Gone but not forgotten". Sunday Business Post. Retrieved 2009-11-18.  
  4. ^ Murphy, Brian P. (February 2005). "Kevin Myers and Propaganda". Irish Political Review (Athol) 20 (2): 16. ISSN 0790-7672. Retrieved 2009-11-18.  
  5. ^ a b c d e f Grundy, John (1999). "The Death Penalty in Ireland: A Legacy of the Civil War?". PaGes (UCD) 6.  
  6. ^ "Motion by Minister for Defence". Dáil Éireann debates. 1. Oireachtas. 26 September 1922. cols.790–2.  
  7. ^ Written Answers. - Capital Punishment Dáil Éireann - Volume 552 - 23 April, 2002
  8. ^ "Thursday, 27.08.2009: 22:00 Ceart ‘s Coir". TV listings. TG4. Retrieved 2009-11-18.  
  9. ^ a b Remembering the Past: Executed IRA men reinterred An Phoblacht
  10. ^ The referendum on capital punishment Tony Connelly, RTÉ, 2002
  11. ^ Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Death Penalty Dáil Éireann - Volume 60 - 19 February, 1936
  12. ^ Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Abolition of Death Penalty. Dáil Éireann - Volume 74 - 08 February, 1939
  13. ^ Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Abolition of Death Penalty. Dáil Éireann - Volume 110 - 05 May, 1948
  14. ^ Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Inquiry into Death Penalty. Dáil Éireann - Volume 113 - 09 December, 1948
  15. ^ Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Death Penalty. Dáil Éireann - Volume 155 - 14 March, 1956
  16. ^ Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Abolition of Death Penalty. Dáil Éireann - Volume 181 - 12 May, 1960
  17. ^ Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Death Penalty. Dáil Éireann - Volume 198 - 27 November, 1962
  18. ^ "A Coalition of Sorts 1948-54". A Short History of capital Punishment In Ireland. Retrieved 2009-11-18.  
  19. ^ Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Abolition of Death Penalty. Dáil Éireann - Volume 199 - 24 January, 1963
  20. ^ Criminal Justice Act 1964 Irish Statute Book, Acts of the Oireachtas
  21. ^ Treason Act 1939 Irish Statute Book, Acts of the Oireachtas
  22. ^ §§124, 125, 127 and 128, Defence Act 1954 Irish Statute Book, Acts of the Oireachtas
  23. ^ "Murrays' death sentences quashed: husband gets life, retrial for wife". The Irish Times: pp. 1. 10 December 1976. Retrieved 2009-11-18.  
  24. ^ "Programme 1: Sergeant Patrick Morrissey". Garda ar Lár. RTÉ. Retrieved 2009-11-18.  
  25. ^ Art 6(5), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
  26. ^ "No. 14668. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights" (PDF). United Nations Treaty Series (New York: United Nations) 1551: 352. 1997.  
  27. ^ Criminal Justice Act 1990 Irish Statute Book, Acts of the Oireachtas
  28. ^ col.608–9, Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Constitutional Reform. Dáil Éireann - Volume 432 - 15 June, 1993
  29. ^ Articles 40 - 44; 6: appeals relating to death sentences: p.263 Report of the Constitution Review Group Constitution Review Group, Dublin, Stationery Office, 1996
  30. ^ Prohibition of Death Penalty (2001): The Twenty-first Amendment of the Constitution (No. 2) Bill, 2001 7-June-2001 Returning Officer for referendums in Ireland
  31. ^ Past referendums: Abolition of the Death Penalty Referendum Commission (Ireland)
  32. ^ "No. 14668. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights" (PDF). United Nations Treaty Series (New York: United Nations) 1725: 374. 2000.  
  33. ^ Written Answers. - International Agreements. Dáil Éireann - Volume 437 - 26 January, 1994
  34. ^ a b Ireland: Human Rights (Convention and Protocols only): Treaties signed and ratified or having been the subject of an accession 18/11/2009 Council of Europe
  35. ^ Adjournment Debate. - Death Penalty. Dáil Éireann - Volume 482 - 23 October, 1997, col.322–3
  36. ^ fn.25, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Signatories United Nations Treaty Series, Chapter IV, No. 4
  37. ^ Coulter, Carol (16 November 2009). "Death penalty should be revisited, says ex-judge". The Irish Times: p. 1. Retrieved 2009-11-16.  
  38. ^ Judge’s Death Penalty Remarks “Deeply Misguided and Frivolous”, says ICCL 16-11-2009, Irish Council for Civil Liberties

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