By Kieran Fagan.
The recent pardon for Harry Gleeson, hanged in 1941 for a murder he did not commit, brings into focus the early career of Seán MacBride.
MacBride, then barely four years after relinquishing the role of chief of staff of the IRA, was a controversial choice as Gleeson’s junior counsel, working with James Nolan-Whelan who was a more experienced senior.
Gleeson managed his elderly uncle John Caesar’s farm at New Inn, County Tipperary and, as his uncle was childless, expected to inherit it.
One morning in November 1941, he was out in the fields looking for wandering sheep when he discovered the body of Mary McCarthy lying in the corner of a field. On finding the body, Harry Gleeson ran back to the farmhouse to talk to Bridget Caesar, his uncle’s wife, to know what he should do. She told him to go over to the Garda station at New Inn and report his find, but not to “let on” that he knew who the woman was. Moll was a scandalous woman, and it was better to have no knowledge of her. Moll Carthy, as she was known locally, was approaching 40 years of age, and she lived with her brood of six children in a cottage adjoining Caesar farm. Moll was a bit of a problem for New Inn, having had different fathers for each of her six children, and local efforts to get her to move on or have the children taken into care had failed.
A murder investigation began, and fairly soon the finger of suspicion pointed at Gleeson. He had been carrying on with Moll, it was said, and she was blackmailing him, threatening to tell John Caesar who would disinherit his nephew, and Harry was charged with murder.
This was the case that Gleeson’s solicitor brought to MacBride, whose legal brilliance had become the envy of other more established practitioners at the Irish Bar.
The question which my book asks of Seán MacBride is: why, if he was so talented, did his client hang? The difficulty which many writing about MacBride quickly encounter is which of MacBride’s many personae is in the frame? Is it the gilded youth of the Irish independence struggle, scion of Major John and Maud Gonne MacBride? Is it the hardened gunman of the 1920s and 1930s? Or the gifted lawyer who would earn international acclaim? Ahead of him lay initial domestic political success, founding Clann na Poblachta in 1946, entering government in 1948, and later winning Nobel and Lenin peace prizes, and being the grand old man of liberation struggles in Africa and elsewhere.
For Gleeson’s solicitor John Timoney, MacBride’s reputation as a brilliant and disruptive lawyer was enough. The two lawyers, united by their belief in Gleeson’s innocence, soon became friends and Timoney won a Dáil seat for Clann na Poblachta in 1948.
MacBride’s file on the Harry Gleeson trial still exists and it bears witness to his meticulous preparation, and much burning of midnight oil in the weeks before, during and after the trial leading up to the hanging. His approach to finding discrepancies in witness statements is instructive: he drew a big timeline on which witnesses’ whereabouts were plotted. His old nemesis de Valera would have approved of the scientific approach.
After conviction it shows MacBride tirelessly working his contacts, political and legal, to try to get his client pardoned. But the file also contains material relevant to another facet of MacBride’s complexity – efforts to mediate between de Valera and the IRA, then under severe pressure because of the failed English bombing campaign of 1939. It also makes reference to the IRA kidnapping of Michael Devereux, one of its own members, who was suspected of informing to police. The hue and cry to find Devereux – he was dead at this stage and MacBride would have known that – was putting pressure on IRA sympathisers in south Tipperary in late 1940 when Moll McCarthy was murdered.
But the question remains. Why did MacBride not challenge his former IRA comrade Thomas Hennessy when Hennessy gave evidence of hearing shots which the prosecution said were those with which Gleeson murdered Moll McCarthy? Why did MacBride ignore the existence of a group of former IRA activists in New Inn, people who had an interest in silencing Moll McCarthy because they believed she had become intimate with Garda sergeant Anthony Delaney, and was committing that most Irish of reserved sins, informing on them to the police?
To MacBride’s credit, he did not let the case rest. Throughout his long life he continued to insist that Gleeson should not have been hanged. Harry Gleeson liked him, and MacBride dealt gently with the extended Gleeson family and friends, and with other victims of miscarriages of justice who approached him.
But on the occasion of Harry Gleeson’s trial it is fair to conclude that it was not the defendant’s past which caught up with him, but that of his defence counsel. •