Hanging on every word – Frank McNally on a suspense-filled night at the theatre

The long drop

The shock opening scene of Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, a play now making its belated Irish premiere at the Gaiety Theatre, involves a trapdoor opening suddenly.

But for those of us watching it from the “gods” the other night, the sound effect was replicated unnervingly by late-comers. Shuffling to their places, they forced the already sedentary to stand, causing a fusillade of seats to spring up with a rattle behind them.

This was in dramatic contrast with the Gaiety’s near namesake on the Northside – the Gate – where I’d been only a few nights earlier.

Here there were no dire warnings beforehand of the effect that audience noise or lights might have on actors.


And up where we were – I was in the very back row of the gods, just under the roof – it probably didn’t matter. In any case, the mood there was as relaxed and irreverent as (we’re told) actual public hangings used to be.

Even the standing ovation at the end felt less obligatory than at the Gate. About two-thirds of the crowd rose eventually. Much as I enjoyed the play, again, these didn’t include me.

If only because it’s not set in Connemara, Hangmen seems very different from McDonagh’s usual theatrical output. This time the scene is the north of England.

But the themes are universal. And one of the executioners of the title, Albert Pierrepoint – who inherited the vocation from his father and uncle – was no stranger to this country.

As noted here before (Diary January 14th, 2021), Pierrepoint jnr benefitted from the fact that, in the decades between independence and the abolition of the death penalty, Ireland never produced a native hangman. This although it produced no shortage of victims, guilty and otherwise. It seems telling that, even in McDonagh’s English play, the rogues/recipients of rough justice are named Hennessy and Mooney.


Ireland being Ireland, I fell into conversation after the show with someone whose ancestors included a man hanged for murder. Or was he? The family lore, she said, was that he had secured a reprieve from the executioner who, while ostensibly performing his duty, had been bribed to arrange that the drop would not be fatal.

My informant’s details were vague, but I have looked the case up since and, although it dates from long before the Pierrepoints, it is well documented. The man’s name was Thomas Lonergan, the year 1781. He was charged then with the fatal poisoning of a fellow Kilkenny man, Thomas O’Flaherty, who had died three years earlier.

O’Flaherty’s demise was at first attributed to natural causes. But when Lonergan and the dead man’s widow became romantically involved, tongues wagged and kept wagging until both lovers saw fit to put advertisements in the paper, protesting innocence.

The widow then took the added precaution of fleeing the country. Lonergan faced trial alone. The case against him included allegations of arsenic in custard pie, but the evidence was entirely circumstantial. Despite which, he was convicted.

If the trial is well documented, the aftermath is more obscure.

An article in the Kilkenny Archaeological Society says that “perhaps mythically”, Lonergan survived the drop and escaped “to a French monastery”. Maybe it was a Trappist monastery. Either way, the rest is silence.


A small vestige of the grim history of hanging in Ireland is the adjective “gallus” or “gallous”, still used in places. It derives from “gallows” but has come to have a wide range of meanings, the only common factor seeming to be the intensity of experience implied.

Hence Terry Dolan’s definition in the Hiberno-English Dictionary, which says the word can mean “wild”, “mischievous”, “horrid”, and “excellent.” All of which could be applied to McDonagh’s play.

JM Synge was fond of the term. In the Playboy of the Western World, he has a “gallus lad”, “gallous Latin” (as read by a priest), and Pegeen Mike moralising on the “great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed”.

Synge is also indirectly responsible for the word’s use by Joyce and Beckett. The former has Buck Mulligan lampooning Irish-English: “Twas murmur we did for a gallus potion would rouse a friar, I’m thinking, and he limp with leching.”

Beckett even dragged it into his translation of a French play, Robert Pinget’s La Manivelle (“The Crank”). Turning Pinget’s Parisians into Dubliners, he converted the colloquial French to its Irish equivalent. Hence the line “ils ont un bien beau garage” becomes “gallous garage they have there”.

The word’s hanging origins have not been entirely lost, however. They also haunt an old Irish-English noun for trouser braces.

Here is Dolan’s example, as credited to a source from Cavan: “He still wears the galluses to Mass of a Sunday.”