Noose headline – Frank McNally on a famous escape from the hangman

The extraordinary tale of Thomas Lonergan

Further to the fascinating story of Thomas Lonergan (Diary, March 22nd), I’m indebted to reader Leo George Devitt for a cutting from an old parish magazine which fills in more of the detail.

“The amazing case of John Lonergan” reads the headline of the July/August 1960 issue of The Acorn, a periodical covering life and history in the north Dublin villages of Raheny and Killester.

And the different first name apart, its account agrees with the broad facts of the story as told here earlier this week.

That in 1781, Lonergan was sentenced to hang for the poisoning of a Kilkenny man, Thomas O’Flaherty, three years earlier. That O’Flaherty’s death had first been considered natural, until an affair between Lonergan and the widow raised suspicion.


That Mrs O’Flaherty had meanwhile absconded, leaving her lover to swing for the crime. And that swing Lonergan did, although according to persistent lore, he somehow survived the hanging, and later started a new life abroad.

When I first heard the tale last week, from a Lonergan relative who was in the audience at Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen at the Gaiety Theatre, she thought her ancestor’s escape had something to do with a mysterious incision made in the back of his neck during the execution process.

The Acorn article, quoting the 19th-century memoirs of a Dublin police magistrate and other sources, explains the incision at least, if not the miraculous survival.

It seems that, because Lonergan was an employee of his alleged victim, he was charged with the old offence of “petit treason”. This covered murder of a husband by his wife, or of a master by a servant, and was part of English law from the 14th century until 1828.

Such a crime was considered worse than common murder, so punishable not merely by hanging, but by hanging and quartering. In Lonergan’s case, the first part of that sentence was duly carried out, at the “Dublin Tyburn” of the period, near where modern Baggot Street now stands.

But it was carried out in a less-than-clinical manner. Instead of a gallows, the prisoner was placed on a cart, which was pulled from under him. There was no real drop, just strangulation.

After 20 minutes or so, the body was taken down, apparently lifeless. Whereupon, to comply with the letter of the law if not the full medieval procedure, a cross was carved into the back of the deceased’s neck, leaving him officially “quartered”.

This is where Raheny enters the story. As a young man, Lonergan had attended the school there of one Rev McKenna, who remained a friend, ministering to him during and after the trial, up to and including the execution, and who now took the body to Raheny for burial.

Except that Lonergan was not dead. The shortness of the rope and the lack of a drop had combined only to put him in a coma of sorts, until the blood-letting from the back of his neck somehow revived him.

Instead of being buried in Raheny, he was taken to a safe house in Skinner’s Row, near Christchurch Cathedral, from where he was later smuggled onto a ship to Bristol.

His story also features in the celebrated memoirs of Jonah Barrington (1756-1834), lawyer, judge, and politician. Barrington misnames him as “Lanegan”, but has him escaping eventually to the “Monastery of La Trappe near Abbeville”, where he lived out the rest of his days “in strict seclusion”.

A competing theory is that he emigrated to the US. That’s the one favoured by The Acorn. Apparently using the police memoir as source material, it says Lonergan moved to America, “where, under the name of James Fennell, he lived for a considerable time, and supported himself as a teacher.”


While we’re at it, I must also return to the vexed question of executions in post-independence Ireland and my claim (again in Wednesday’s diary) that, during the decades before capital punishment was abolished, the State “never produced a native hangman”.

Perhaps I should have qualified this to “a successful native hangman”. Because as another reader, Joseph Kearney, reminds me, Eamon de Valera’s government did once attempt to redress this skills shortage.

And Joseph is an expert on the subject because, for an RTÉ documentary in 2016, he “spent the best part of a year and many air miles” trying to discover the candidate’s identity.

Officially, the would-be executioner was “Thomas Johnston”. But in real-life, he was a James O’Sullivan from Cork. And after learning the basics of the trade at Strangeways, Manchester, he was due to carry out his first Irish hanging at Mountjoy jail in 1947. The intended victim them was Joseph McManus, convicted of murdering his lover in Co Meath.

O’Sullivan couldn’t do it, however. It was left to the State’s usual service provider, Englishman Albert Pierrepoint (who features prominently in McDonagh’s play), to step in and finish the job.