From top: St Catherine’s Church, Thomas Street, where Robert Emmet was executed and his head severed on a butcher’s block; Kilmainham Gaol
Dublin’s Public Executions sites.
Harry Warren writes:
Walking along a pandemically deserted Hammond Lane in Dublin late at night, a shiver passed up my spine. One of those odd feelings, I turned around to glance behind me to reassure myself that I was on my own. I then remembered that Hammond Lanes original name was Hangman’s Lane. Knowing its history is enough to give anyone the shivers.
It was a medieval route that the condemned walked heading to ‘Gibbets Mead’, (gibbet was an old name for the gallows and mead was a field) located in an area around Smithfield square then known as Oxmantown Green.
Executions were frequent in those days and over the years hundreds walked or were carted to their doom along this route. Dublin had many other locations over the centuries where public executions took place and here are just a few of them.
During the 18th century the majority of Dublin’s public executions were in the area of St. Stephen’s Green. Ever sit in the shade of a tree in the Green enjoying a summers sunshine? Be mindful of what tree you are under as you could be beneath a branch of a tree where an executed body dangled above you…
On the day of the execution a horse and cart would parade the condemned to the Hanging Tree, friends and families of the condemned would accompany the carriage. Whilst the condemned were still in the carriage the rope from the Hanging Tree would be noosed tight around their neck.
The cart would be moved on and the condemned would be left dangling experiencing an excruciating and lingering death from strangulation. The last hanging in Stephens Green was of Patrick Dougherty in January 1782, for the robbery of Thomas Moran.
Dougherty assisted by his partner in crime George Coffey, had mugged Moran and stole his watch, a seal, a key, a pen-knife, and a pair of silver shoe buckles. The stolen goods were worth £15 and Dougherty, found guilty, swung for the theft.
Not only did the condemned suffer capital punishment their executed remains often ended up in the hands of the anatomists in the Royal College of Surgeons or other Dublin medical schools for public dissection.
“Very often the corpse of a murderer was followed to the College gates by his weeping relatives or by a howling mob. A small portion of the anatomical theatre was set apart for persons who might desire to witness the dissections of malefactor’s bodies.”
The good anatomy professors loudly bemoaned that they were restricted to only six corpses a year of convicted murderers who were hanged for their crimes.
The area around Stephens Green began to be developed for buildings. As a result, public executions were relocated to the now demolished Newgate prison on Little Green now the present-day St. Michan’s Park near Smithfield.
Another concurrent location was Gallows Hill in what was then Kilmainham commons. Before Kilmainham Gaol was built on the site of Gallows Hill, the last hanging carried out there was on the double, two brothers named Connolly received the death sentence for the stealing of a cow and were duly hung.
Speaking of Kilmainham, most Dubliners would be aware of the heinous ‘executions’ of the leaders of the 1916 Rising inside Kilmainham Gaol in the Stonebreakers yard, but how about the public executions that took place just outside the entrance door?
The condemned were publicly hanged on the gallows, now designed with a trap door for the condemned to drop through to snap their neck, above Kilmainham Gaol’s entrance doorway.
The new gallows worked so well that in 1798 a virtual copy was installed in Newgate Prison in the city centre. Enjoy the photograph of the Kilmainham Gaol entrance and note the sculptures above the door, the many-headed serpent represented the five worst crimes that resulted in capital punishment, murder, piracy, rape, theft and treason.
Watch out for the two small granite insets in the recess overhead that are visible in the entrance door photo. This is where the gallows used to be attached for public hangings. If a noteworthy or famous person was to be hung, thousands of spectators, men women and children, would visit Kilmainham on the day of execution.
Hawkers sold alcohol and food and the army and cavalry were at hand to control the milling throng. It was truly a ‘Gala Day’. The expression Gala Day is derived from the Anglo-Saxon gallows day when crowds would visit a public hanging. The last public execution in Kilmainham took place in 1865 when Patrick Kilkenny was hanged for the murder of Margaret Waugh.
The young revolutionary Robert Emmet had a particularly grisly end after he was accused and found guilty of high treason. Shortly after 1 o’clock on 20 September 1803, Emmet was publicly executed in front of St Catherine’s Church, Thomas Street, Dublin.
Emmet was hanged and then beheaded. It took thirty minutes for Emmet to die by hanging as there was no ‘long drop’ to snap the neck, he slowly died of strangulation being of light build. His executioner then clumsily severed his head with a large blade on a deal block borrowed from a local butcher.
Displaying the blood dripping head to the crowd the executioner exclaimed: ‘This is the head of a traitor, Robert Emmet’. According to eyewitness accounts his blood seeping into the gutter was hungrily lapped up by dogs.
‘The remains were brought to Kilmainham Gaol and left for some time in the court of the prison where the prisoners might view it from their cells’.
The blood-stained butchers block was displayed to the public for two days at Thomas Street after the execution.
The block itself has an interesting history. It came into the ownership of Sir Thornley Stoker, a leading surgeon and brother of Bram Stoker the author of Dracula. It was later sold at an auction to support the Volunteer Dependents Fund held at the Mansion House on 20–21 April 1917 and presented as a gift to Mrs Margaret Pearse, mother of the Pearse brothers. It is now to be found in the excellent Padraig Pearse Museum in St. Enda’s Rathfarnham.
There are many more locations in and around Dublin where public hangings and executions took place. So, the next time you are outdoors in Dublin, hopefully enjoying some nice weather, you may be relaxing at the site of a long but not forgotten gallows.
All pics by Harry Warren