Irish Legal Heritage: The Innocent Man, Henry ‘Harry’ Gleeson

Over 100 years after the tragedies that befell Rathcannon, another Holycross parishioner was the victim of one of Ireland’s most infamous miscarriages of justice.

Henry ‘Harry’ Gleeson was born in Holycross, County Tipperary in 1903. One of twelve children, he was asked by his maternal uncle, John Caesar, to move to New Inn, Tipperary, to work as a farm hand in around 1920. John Caesar had no children of his own, so when they moved to a seventy-acre farm in Marlhill a few years later, Harry worked for free expecting to inherit the land.

A woman named Mary ‘Moll’ McCarthy lived in a cottage neighbouring the farm with her six children. On the morning of Thursday 21 November 1940, Harry was out looking for his uncle’s sheep when he found Moll’s body. Moll had been shot twice – once in the neck and once in the face, and without any evidence to go on, Harry was charged with her murder.

Harry’s trial took place in the Central Criminal Court in February 1941. The basis of the prosecution’s case was that Harry had been in a relationship with Moll, that he had fathered her youngest child, and that he killed her because she was threatening to tell John Caesar about their relationship – which would cause him to be written out of his inheritance. Of course we know now that none of this is true, and in his book The Framing of Harry Gleeson, Kieran Fagan names a number of Moll’s neighbours “with IRA links” who conspired to murder Moll because they suspected that she was an informant.

On Thursday 27 February 1941, the jury in Harry’s trial returned a guilty verdict, with “strong recommendation to mercy”. Despite this appeal for clemency, Harry was hanged in Mountjoy on 23 April 1941 and buried in an unmarked grave. Throughout his trial, Harry maintained his innocence, repeating that he had “neither hand, act nor part in the murder of Mary McCarthy”. On the night before he was executed, his only request was for his supporters to clear his name:

“The last thing I want to say is that I will pray tomorrow that whoever did it will be discovered and that the whole thing will be like an open book. I rely on you then to clear my name. I have no confession to make only that I didn’t do it.”

On 19 December 2015, nearly 75 years after his wrongful death, Henry ‘Harry’ Gleeson became the first person in Ireland to receive a posthumous pardon from President Michael D. Higgins under Article 13.6 of the Constitution.

Seosamh Gráinséir

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