Gallows Speeches from Eighteenth-Century Ireland

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 4 (Winter 2001), Reviews, Volume 9

James Kelly
(Four Courts Press)
ISBN 1851826114

In editing sixty-two broadside gallows speeches from eighteenth century Ireland James Kelly finds himself in the company of another prolific commentator on eighteenth-century Ireland. According to the nineteenth-century antiquarian Thomas Crofton-Croker, Jonathan Swift collected and annotated printed dying speeches of Irish victims. The history of crime and punishment in eighteenth-century Ireland is certainly poorer for their loss. It has, however, been enriched by the industrious Kelly. His writings on abduction, rape, infanticide and duelling have already assured him a prominent place among those who study crime and punishment in early modern Ireland. Here, he seeks to rehabilitate one of many sources (including songs, poems and doggerel verse [in English and Irish]) which have suffered from the eighteenth-century Irish historians’ obsession with history from the State Paper Office and King’s Bench. His lucid and heavily referenced introduction, replete with informative charts, graphs and statistics, places Irish speeches firmly in an English (though not necessarily ‘British’), European and American context.
He suggests that gallows speeches need to be viewed in an extra-judicial, political context. Public executions were not simply a display of brutality to cow the populace but an exercise of power and a didactic, quasi-religious, ritualistic ceremony whose purpose was to emphasise the gravity of the crime committed and impress upon the public the serious consequences of emulating the actions of the condemned. These gallows speeches illuminate the society that produced and consumed them. The speech itself evolved from the set-piece scaffold oration of the mid-late sixteenth century into a distinct genre of popular didactic literature in which first hand accounts, objectivity and veracity were readily sacrificed at the altar of embellishment and dramatisation. The condemned man or woman is invariably born of honest parents. Their lapse into crime usually results from the abandonment of an apprenticeship, dismissal or loss of employment and a gradual slide into immorality drunkenness, profanity, embracing a life of ‘loose’ living or prostitution or consorting with ‘lewd’ women. This often culminates in being led astray by a malefactor or perpetrating a serious capital crime, usually a robbery or killing. In most cases the condemned person expresses remorse, pleads forgiveness and advises his listeners to avoid bad company and shun temptation. However, the real richness of this collection is not in the formulaic, but in their variety.
Kelly isolates the Popish Plot in the early 1680s, as the catalyst for the arrival of the gallows speech in Irish print culture. From its tentative emergence to the early 1690s, it flourished through their golden age in the 1720s and 1730s before their ‘demise’ from the early 1740s. Technological backwardness, censorship, government and ecclesiastical disapproval explain their relatively late emergence. Their decline stemmed from the emergence of crime reports in contemporary newspapers, the surging popularity of criminal biographies and the failure of the gallows speech to convince the public of the merits of capital punishment. He also suggests that their demise coincided with a palpable hardening in public dissatisfaction with the administration of justice and an increased disposition to demonstrate discontent.
Any shortcoming in this book stems from the ambiguity in its title and the narrow definition of what comprises a gallows speech. From its earliest inception the Irish gallows speech had sufficient flexibility to evolve from a broadside into a genre which engaged with diverse political topics such as the Bank of Ireland, Woods’ Half-pence and the Act of Union. It retained this flexibility to the end of the eighteenth century, serving the propaganda purposes of executed United Irishmen such as William Orr, Martin McLoughlin and Patrick Rack Forristal, whose ‘speeches’ should surely have been reproduced in the collection. From the beginning of the nineteenth century until the end of the twentieth the ‘last speech’ or ‘gallows speech’ mutated into the ‘speech from the dock’ and became one of the most powerful vehicles for the articulation of republican and nationalist sentiment.
Kelly’s claim that censorship was abandoned in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution is problematic. Throughout ‘the golden age’ of the gallows speech, the administration continually prosecuted printers such as Patrick Campbell, Luke Dowling, James Malone, Edward Lloyd, Charles Carter and George Faulkner for publishing, importing and circulating material deemed sympathetic to the exiled House of Stuart. The lack of overt Jacobite sentiment in the printed last speeches does not mean that it was not expressed. In 1715, for example, Archbishop King recalled the last words of an executed Irish Jacobite who ‘dyed with a cheerful mind because it was for the service of King James III who he owned to be the lawful king of these realms’. One of two Irish soldiers executed at Tyburn in 1746 for deserting to Charles Edward explicitly stated that he died ‘because his king was not on the throne’.
Kelly suggests that the seeming absence of popular opposition during the early eighteenth century implied that executions were accepted by the public. There is, however, much evidence to the contrary. It is certainly not borne out in the attempted shooting of witnesses against Jacobite recruiters, attempted rescues of convicted recruits and attacks on prisoner escorts. Indeed the legitimacy of king, church and state and the politics of crime are a vital consideration in this regard. Many Roman Catholic commentators (and Protestant writers such as George Story, Charles Leslie and Sir Thomas Hussey) believed that the authorities used the campaigns against crime (Tories and Rapparees, Houghers, Recruits and Whiteboys) to persecute Catholics. This manifested itself in the execution of thousands of innocent Jacobites as Rapparees during the war. In the late 1690s and the early decades of the eighteenth century, the same process is evident in the retaliatory banishment of Catholic clergy from areas of Rapparee and Hougher activity and the extortion of money for Rapparee outrages.
Few would disagree with the consensual historical view regarding the advent of literacy in the 1690s and its significance for the emergence of the last speech. This form was introduced into a country that already had an advanced and vibrant cult of the dead in the oral and literary traditions in Irish. The ability of this tradition (and the inability of the English tradition) to cater to the needs of Catholics and Jacobites is best exemplified with reference to two executions whose shock waves reverberated through eighteenth century Ireland, those of Sir James Cotter and Father Nicholas Sheehy. No printed gallows speech survives from either man. In contrast, the Irish poet through the ‘Marbhna’, ‘Tuireamh’ and ‘Caoineadh’ of the Irish literary tradition supplied an alternative ‘last speech’ that was often highly politicised and more in tune with the overtly republican and nationalistic speeches of the 1790s. These generally extolled the virtues and noble lineage of their hero, voiced disdain for their betrayers and persecutors and excoriated the political and legal system that brought them to the scaffold. These themes resonate in ‘Caointe’ for Tories and Rapparees such as Pádraig Fléimoinn, William Crotty, Séamas Mac Mhuirchidh and Muircheartach Ó Súilleabháin Béarra. These two tradition co-existed and coalesced in the popular song-culture from the late eighteenth century onwards. This is best exemplified in the shared themes of songs and recitations such as ‘Donnchdha Bán’, ‘The Convict of Clonmel’, ‘The Black Velvet Band’, ‘Sam Hall’, ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’, ‘Fornocht do chonach thú’, ‘Kevin Barry’, ‘The Patriot Game’ and ‘The Ballad of Joe McDonnell’. Indeed, Bob Dylan’s reworking of Dominic Behan’s ‘Patriot Game’ (as ‘God on our side’), the ‘last words’ of an Irish rebel (Fergal O’Hanlon) left an imprint on global youth culture in the ‘60s. Likewise, a fine example of this genre is the Jerilderee letter of Ned Kelly in Australia.
The history of crime in eighteenth-century Ireland remains to be written. Any attempt do to so will draw heavily on this volume and Kelly’s other published work. But the scholar who fails to engage with the ‘gallows speech’ in its broadest rather than broadside sense is in danger of depoliticising crime and producing a narrow anglo-centric history.

Éamonn Ó Ciardha

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