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Crime, murder and the end of the Civil War: The story of the first man hanged by the Irish Free State

Author Colm Wallace tells the story of soldier-turned-criminal William Downes.

A crowd outside Mountjoy. Large groups of people were a common sight outside the prison on the day a prisoner was due to meet their death.
A crowd outside Mountjoy. Large groups of people were a common sight outside the prison on the day a prisoner was due to meet their death.

AT 8AM ON Monday 29 November 1923, William Downes climbed the scaffold in Mountjoy and became the first man executed by the Irish Free State.

The newly formed nation had planned initially to abolish capital punishment. When the time came to write the Constitution however, the government, conscious of the discontent among republicans and wary of an impending Civil War, decided to keep it on the statute books as a tool to quell any potential unrest.

It is ironic then that the first man to climb the scaffold would not be an ‘irregular’ or opponent of the new State. Downes was in fact a pro-Treaty soldier from the National Army.

At 5pm on 19 October 1923, Superintendent F O’Driscoll of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) received a phone call from the Castleknock Candle Factory. The CID was an armed police force which dealt with crime during the Civil War period and the panicked caller told him that his premises had just been robbed by armed raiders.

O’Driscoll and his colleagues rushed to the scene in a Ford motor car driven by Captain Thomas Fitzgerald. When the men arrived they met workmen who told them that the armed raiders had fled by bicycle in the direction of Dunsink after plundering the factory.

The CID continued to Dunsink where they saw three cyclists peddling furiously. O’Driscoll ordered them to stop. The cyclists did not heed the call of the policeman and continued apace.

O’Driscoll and his colleague, Inspector Mooney, succeeded in grabbing the third cyclist as he tried to rush by. He fell off his bicycle and immediately surrendered by putting his hands up.

O’Driscoll grabbed at his pocket and felt a large amount of money, seeming to confirm his suspicion that the young man had been involved in the robbery of the factory.

At that point, Mooney turned to look at the other two cyclists before shouting to O’Driscoll that they were escaping. They ran after the two raiders, O’Driscoll shouting to Thomas Fitzgerald as he did so, “That man has money, search him.”

Mooney and O’Driscoll eventually ended up in a firefight in a field with the two fleeing raiders, George Cullen and James McDonald. McDonald was shot in the head, causing his comrade to surrender.

The CID men, with the two captives, were now about 400 yards from the car where Fitzgerald was left with the other suspected robber. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a number of shots being fired from the direction of where they had last seen their colleague.

Shot dead

They rushed back to discover that the patrol car had been moved a few yards up the road and that some effort had been made to turn it. Captain Thomas Fitzgerald was lying on the driver’s seat. He appeared to have been shot several times.

Fitzgerald would be dead within minutes. The 22-year-old native of Rathfarnham and IRA veteran of the War of Independence was rushed to St Vincent’s Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival, four bullets having struck his chest. The prisoner the policeman had been guarding was nowhere to be seen.

George Cullen, a Free State soldier, was questioned about his missing partner in crime.

Cullen admitted that he had robbed the factory with fellow soldier McDonald, as well as Private William Downes, the missing man.

The CID gleaned the fugitive’s address and by about 8.30pm a number of officers had gathered in his house in Leitrim Place. They heard a sound at the front door.

Arrest

Detective Officer Peter Doran opened it quickly to be met by a well-dressed man in a velour hat with a walking stick.

The detective quickly bundled him into the hallway shouting. “You are Downes.”

Downes replied:

I am Downes. What about it? I have only come from Portobello Barracks.

Downes then attempted to trip his captor with the stick before making a sudden movement for his pocket. Doran quickly slapped down on the suspect’s head with his firearm and grabbed his pocket. It was found to contain an automatic revolver.

On 30 October, 24-year-old James McDonald would die of his injuries without regaining consciousness.

On the same day, Downes’ trial opened in Green Street, Dublin. He pleaded not guilty to murder. The soldier was a Dublin native and aged 24. He had enlisted in the British Army before transferring to the National Army during the civil war. He served as a Despatch Rider, or military messenger, during the conflict.

Downes had given a statement at the time of his arrest admitting involvement in the shooting of Captain Fitzgerald.

He withdrew this in time for the court case, however, claiming it had been made at the point of a gun.

Evidence

Downes did have several bruises, although the CID insisted that he had only been hit when he attempted to attack one of their officers. Downes admitted robbing the factory and shooting Captain Fitzgerald but insisted that the Captain had shot at him first and he had used his revolver to save his own life.

The trial lasted just one day and the jury was unmoved by the protestations of the prisoner. They needed just 20 minutes to find William Downes guilty. When asked if he had anything to say in response to being sentenced to death, Downes answered that he had signed the statement at the point of four revolvers.

He repeated that Fitzgerald had shot at him twice and the killing was done in self-defence.

Nevertheless, the judge placed the black cap on his head and sentenced the prisoner to be hanged on Monday, 29 November. There was no recommendation to mercy.

George Cullen would receive five years penal servitude for his part in the crime, as well as twenty lashes and a fine of £100.

Justice was mercilessly swift in the case of William Downes. He would be executed a little over a month after his crime, an astonishingly short turn around.

The English hangman, Thomas Pierrepoint arrived over to officiate in the hanging, the first one for common murder on the island of Ireland since January 1911.

He would receive £20, plus expenses, for carrying out the grim task.

Final days

At 7am on 29 November, Downes was roused in his condemned cell and given some light refreshment.

Downes, who was still wearing the same clothes as when he was arrested (brown leggings), then attended Mass in his cell and said prayers with the chaplain.

At a few minutes to eight, his hands were pinioned behind his back and he was brought through the cell to the gallows which lay concealed behind a wall just yards from Downes sleeping quarters.

It was stated that the prisoner was resigned to his fate and he was described as walking calmly and firmly between warders to the place of execution, before ascending the scaffold without a murmur.

He was then hanged.

Reaction

Meanwhile a crowd of people, mainly women, waited outside Mountjoy Prison, many reciting the rosary. At 8.05am, as was customary after a hanging, a warder pinned up a notice stating that the prisoner had been executed. At this point an unidentified woman stepped forward and ripped down the notice shouting, “Scandalous, scandalous.”

An inquest was then held where the prison doctor announced that Downes was dead and that in his opinion death had been instantaneous.

James Downes was also present to identify the body of his 24-year-old brother and was described as being very distressed. Later in the day, friends and family of Downes’ were permitted to visit the body which was buried in an unmarked grave in the prison grounds at about 4pm. He would be one of four men executed as murderers in just three weeks by the new State.

What exactly drove William Downes and his two comrades, men employed by the state, to rob the factory will never be known. The reasoning behind Downes’ decision to shoot Fitzgerald are equally unclear.

This was not an isolated incident, however.

In the last six months of 1923, the Civil War was officially over. However, 30 murders would occur throughout the country in that time. A massive 11 of them suspected to have involved a soldier of the Irish Army.

Murder, crime and the Irish Free State

In a time of war, the Free State had gratefully accepted young men into its ranks who were willing to fight the Republican threat. Unfortunately many were wholly unsuited to a life in the army.

Minister for Defence Richard Mulcahy even admitting that “a large proportion of the criminal element found its way into the army”.

“Old soldiers, experienced in every kind of military wrongdoing, were place under the command of inexperienced officers and the resulting state of indiscipline is not to be wondered at,” he said.

William Downes was one soldier who would embark on a life of crime and pay the ultimate price.

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 book shops and Amazon. For more information see the author’s Facebook page.

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

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Colm Wallace

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