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'Hanging is too mild for such a savage': The story of the youngest man executed by the Irish State

William O’Neill was executed four days after Christmas, on the 29 December 1927. He was 19 years old.

PastedImage-86045 Source: The Lawrence Photograph Collection/National Library of Ireland

THE VALLEY OF Glenmalure, situated in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains, is surely one of Ireland’s most beautiful, and isolated, places.

It has a strong tradition of Irish rebellion and many Irish freedom fighters spent time hiding in the vast expanse – most noticeably Michael Dwyer.

There have also always been hardy local folk willing to eke out a living from the lonely mountains and valleys. Peggy O’Farrell was one such woman whose family had a long history in the area. She was 84 years old and lived in the remote townland of Carriglineen in the valley.

She had never married so resided alone in her neat one-storey cottage which lay several miles from the nearest village. She did have close neighbours, one within 50 yards of her dwelling, and she lived happily on her well-kept six acre farm, employing a labourer who aided her with sowing oats and potatoes as well as keeping fowl, pigs and cows.

PastedImage-65879 Glenmalure Source: The Lawrence Photograph Collection/National Library of Ireland

She was also known to have a good deal of money, drawing an old-age pension while also receiving an inheritance totalling £100 a year from a deceased brother who had gone to Australia.

Her nephew James Byrne also lived in the locality, one quarter of a mile up the valley.

On the night of the 7 May 1927, Byrne went to visit his aunt arriving at 10.20pm. He was a dutiful nephew and called to her frequently. His aunt seemed her usual self at the time and the pair talked and had tea together for over an hour.

Byrne did think that he heard noises out in the yard on two occasions but saw nothing when he went out to check. He left at around 11.30pm, closing the door and gate after him to keep the dog in.

He did not meet anyone on his way home.

At 11am the following morning Mary O’Brien called to O’Farrell’s to get some milk. To her surprise, she found the front gate and door open and objects strewn all over the house.

Badly beaten

There was no sign of Peggy in her home so Mary went out to the back garden where she found her neighbour. She had been badly beaten and was dead. Her hands were bound tightly with a blue belt over her head and a scarf was tied around her mouth. The lower part of her clothing had been disturbed and her body was covered with a sack.

Mary ran to the neighbouring Byrne house to summon help.

Gardaí and the doctor arrived from nearby Rathdrum quickly. The doctor, on removing the scarf, discovered Peggy’s mouth and ears were covered in blood. Her face had been struck with several heavy blows. Death was due to shock, exposure and partial suffocation.

She had also been ‘outraged’, the term most commonly used for sexually assaulted at the time.

Ransacked

The house was in disarray and had clearly been ransacked. Despite the fact that it was known that Mary had kept large amounts of money at home, there was no notes or coins present and an expensive silver watch was missing.

There was also a stick on the bed which did not belong to her. A huge crowd attended the funeral on 11 May, the locals expressing their shock at such a brutal crime occurring in such a tranquil rural place.

The national media also took a huge interest in what must have been a particularly distressing crime, one regional newspaper commenting:

One would have thought that such an abominable outrage was impossible in a civilised or Christian country.

Arrest

Gardaí were very quick to arrest a potential suspect. William O’Neill was about 19 years old, although he was unsure of his own age. He was an illiterate casual labourer who was known for working anywhere and occasionally sleeping rough, despite his father and sister living in Rathdrum.

His mother had died nine years before, and his father admitted that his youngest son “had to look after himself the best he could”.

William was arrested on 8 May on the way to Peggy O’Farrell’s wake.

Gardaí had found out the day after the murder that O’Neill had shown a silver watch and chain to two men which he claimed he’d won playing cards. When gardaí heard this, they were immediately suspicious that it was the same one missing from Peggy O’Farrell’s house.

They questioned O’Neill, who initially denied possessing a watch.

When he was confronted with the sworn testimonies of the two witnesses who had seen him with it he admitted he had shown it to them, but swore that he had found it the year before.

He had then hidden it in a field on Byrne’s farm, where he had been labouring for some time. When questioned as to why he had hidden the watch, O’Neill claimed that he was “afraid he would break it getting up on a horse”.

He brought the gardaí to the field where he claimed to have left it but it was nowhere to be found. He did lead the gardaí to a dilapidated house nearby where he kept a suit, shoes, a mirror and razor. The shoes had the appearance of having been vigorously scrubbed.

After a seven-hour search of the rest of Byrne’s farm, the gardaí finally found incriminating articles.

A silver watch was discovered in a patch of bushes, while £17 in £1 and £5 denominations was found rolled up in a collar. On one of the notes the name Margaret O’Farrell was written clearly.

On the 10 May, William O’Neill was charged with wilful murder, to which he replied “very well, charge me with whatever you like”.

His trial began in Dublin on the 14 July 1927. As O’Neill entered the courtroom, his demeanour was cool and he smiled at acquaintances. He walked to his father with an outstretched hand.

His father shouted “Go away, go away.”

The younger O’Neill then showed signs of agitation, sitting down and saying, “Don’t take it that way.”

His father gave evidence of his son’s movements on the night, stating that the younger O’Neill had arrived home after 1am on the morning of the murder and given his father several half-crowns, a rare occurrence, before going to bed.

On the day of the murder O’Neill told the court that he had been working on Laurence Byrne’s farm. That evening Byrne had went to a wake in Glenmalure and O’Neill also claimed to have attended the same event, although none of the mourners could vouch for his presence.

He also said he did not hear about the murder until the day after it had occurred and had not been near the deceased woman’s house. James Toomey, neighbour of Peggy O’Farrell, contradicted this, however, asserting that he had met the accused walking towards Carriglineen at 11pm on the 7 May and they exchanged greetings.

O’Neill pleaded not guilty.

His defence said that he had not been in trouble with the law before. He had been working regularly for several farmers in the district, and was therefore in no great need of money.

When the accused took the stand himself he denied emphatically having anything to do with the murder. His story had, by now, changed about his movements on the night in question.

He was left alone in Byrne’s house when the farmer had gone to the wake. O’Neill had shaved before going out into the field with two dogs hunting rabbits. He had then slept briefly but was awoken by the dogs so he got up and took the “shortcut” to Rathdrum arriving home at 1am.

He had not been to the wake or near Ms. O’Farrell’s house and had found the silver watch the next day. He did not know why he had said he won it or told other lies. He explained that the money in his pocket was earned by himself in his labouring but the money found in the field was not his.

O’Neill admitted he was in the habit of telling lies and found it easy to do so but added that he was now definitely telling the truth because “he was cautioned”.

Second trial

PastedImage-7255 The vast majority of death sentences, including William O’Neill’s, were handed out from this building. Source: National Library of Ireland

In the first trial the jury could not agree. The second trial began on the 30 November, hearing the same evidence. This time, O’Neill’s pathological and persistent lying worked against him and he was found guilty of the murder of Peggy O’Farrell and sentenced to death.

He had brutally and callously ended the life of an old woman. In doing so, he inadvertently brought about his own death.

One newspaper had said before the trial that “hanging is entirely too mild for such a savage”.

William O’Neill was executed four days after Christmas, on the 29 December 1927. He was, in all probability, 19 years old and the youngest man ever executed by the Irish State.

Colm Wallace has written a book Sentenced to Death: Saved from the Gallows about 30 Irish men and women who had the death penalty imposed on them between 1922 and 1985. It is available in all good bookshops, on Kindle and on Amazon.com. For more information see Facebook or Somerville Press

Read: 50% more people were executed last year than in 2014

More: The man who lived: How one convicted murderer escaped Ireland’s death penalty

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Colm Wallace

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