ON March 10th, 1924, a farmer named Michael Walsh was walking through a field in Kilkerran near Clonakilty when he made a shocking discovery.
Under a bush lay a sack which appeared to contain parts of a dismembered human corpse. A severed head lay some yards away.
Walsh reported the find to the gardaí and was so badly affected by the horrific sight that he spent time in a mental hospital. Eight pieces of the body lay scattered around the immediate area, some thrown into a river.
Gardaí were soon made aware of a farmer from the locality, Patrick O’Leary (40), who had last been seen on February 25th. They found Cornelius O’Leary (37), brother of the missing man, in a pub in Milltown.
The gardaí accompanied him to the field and showed him the remains. Cornelius seemed surprisingly unperturbed by the grisly sight but identified it as his brother: ‘Yes, this is Pat.’
A few minutes later, he looked again and said: ‘I do not know whose head it is.’ The gardaí reminded him that he had just identified the head as his brother’s.
Con replied: ‘Oh, I am innocent. My hands are clean.’ He also told the police that he had not taken part in any murder. The gardaí had not accused him of anything of the sort and their suspicions were immediately aroused at this unusual reaction.
There would also be precious little clarity from the other members of the O’Leary family. Hannah and Mary-Anne were asked to identify the head of their brother which the gardaí laid out on the table in front of them. Both women seemed disinterested, claiming never to have laid eyes on that person before.
The gardaí urged them to look again and after several minutes Mary-Anne (41) eventually admitted it was her brother. Hannah (38) then followed suit.
At the wake on the following day, a large crowd of mourners were appalled to see various body parts from Patrick’s dismembered corpse strewn around in an open coffin. When informed that there was suspicion against him, Con replied ‘I’ll go to heaven, anyway.’
One Garda remarked to Hannah, who was known locally as a surly, bad-tempered woman, that it was a terrible case. She replied coolly ‘Wisha, it can’t be helped.’
A day later, the O’Leary’s dog was seen running past the house holding a human arm stripped of flesh in its mouth.
The lack of grief shown by the family was a cause of shock in the area and the gardaí quickly started to look into the background of the eccentric O’Leary household. It had not been a happy home.
The father of the family, Patrick, had died in 1921 aged 80. He had eight children, one of whom had died. Three others had moved away, leaving Con and Patrick on the farm with their two sisters.
Unsurprisingly, Patrick Snr chose to give the 40-acre farm to his widow on his death, instructing that it would next pass to Patrick, the elder son. Unusually Con, the younger brother, chose not to work at home, labouring instead for local farmer William Travers.
Patrick was not happy with this situation, and in August 1922 he went to Travers and complained about it.
Travers told Con about this confrontation but Con replied that he would not work for his brother as he would not get paid.
The two brothers did not have a good relationship and had not spoken for several years before the death of their father.
Mary-Anne also worked and lodged away from home, leaving Patrick to run the farm, with Hannah and his mother in charge of minding the house.
Patrick, considered locally to be an awkward man, did not even sleep in the small house as this would have meant sharing a bed with Con. Things had come to a head shortly before Patrick’s disappearance, when it was said that he had sold cattle at a local fair and had not informed the family about the transaction.
Patrick was missing for nearly ten days before the body parts were discovered, yet no member of the family had alerted the authorities. Con told gardaí he had not mentioned it as Patrick often went away and he didn’t take any notice. Mary-Anne said that she expected him to write any day, although she was forced to admit later that her brother was illiterate.
A bloodstained fork was found in the loft, with traces of blood visible in several places, including on the walls and the potatoes in the loft. The gardaí believed they had sufficient evidence to be confident that a murder had occurred and that it had been committed by a member of the O’Leary family.
None of the O’Learys would admit to anything, however. For this reason all four members of the household were arrested, including the elderly mother, Hannah O’Leary. All four were charged with having murdered Patrick O’Leary at some point between February 26th and March 7th.
This story would become the most closely followed murder trial in the history of the new State.
The trial was fixed for Green Street in Dublin on June 24th 1925. Mary-Anne O’Leary had died of natural causes while in custody and the State’s charge against their mother was also withdrawn due to lack of evidence, leaving Con and Hannah to face the court on the murder charge.
They were tried jointly with both pleading not guilty. Con showed keen interest in the proceedings while Hannah mostly sat bowed, not looking up.
The defence argued that there was no evidence and no bloodstains found on any clothing belonging to the accused pair. They added that there was no way the court could know which member of the O’Leary family committed the crime, if any, and that the real perpetrator may not even be in the courtroom or might have been the recently deceased Mary-Anne.
Neither Con nor Hannah took the stand. Their defence team also refused to call witnesses for the defence, saying that there was no need due to the total lack of evidence that a murder had been committed by either defendant.
Mr Campion, prosecuting, emphasised the horrific nature of the death and dismemberment of Patrick O’Leary. He called the two accused ‘monsters’ for attempting to blame their deceased sister for the crime and reminded the court of their total lack of interest in the horror that had been inflicted on their brother.
The jury deliberated and were deadlocked. A hasty second trial was convened, hearing the same evidence. This jury had no such hesitation, needing only thirty minutes to find both defendants guilty. A recommendation to mercy was given to Hannah, presumably on account of her gender. Con received no such comfort. Hannah and Con O’Leary were thus sentenced to death by Mr Justice Hanna.
Both O’Learys maintained their innocence of the charge, Con saying: ‘I had not hand, act nor part in the murder … I am going to die an innocent man. The two siblings appealed the conviction but after a four-day hearing their appeal was refused.
On July 27th 1925, just before the sentence was to be carried out, Hannah O’Leary received a last-minute reprieve from the governor-general and her sentence was commuted to one of penal servitude for life. Leniency for Con O’Leary was not forthcoming, however. He went to the scaffold at Mountjoy Prison on July 28th at 8am.
The records state his demeanour was ‘calm’, although the same was said for all condemned prisoners. No Irish execution had been conducted publicly since 1868 and the standard line was that it had proceeded without incident. Whether Con O’Leary or any of the other condemned prisoners really went peacefully to their deaths will never be known.
Hannah O’Leary Jnr was finally released from prison in September 1942 after eighteen years. She was considered ‘not quite right’ and had no family member willing to accept her on her release. She was sent to live out her days with a community of Good Shepherd Nuns.
In February 1924, Hannah O’Leary Snr shared her home with four of her children. But barely a year later three of them were dead; one of natural causes, one murdered and a third hanged.
The fourth was imprisoned in Mountjoy Prison. By 1927, she was in her mid-seventies and living alone in Kilkerran. She had little choice but to sell on the farm. The new owners wasted little time in destroying the house and sheds.
Hannah died in the County Home in Clonakilty in January 1928, completing the eradication of the entire O’Leary family in West Cork.
The hearse carrying her remains drove through Clonakility where it was reported that ‘the only person in attendance was the undertaker.’ A fittingly tragic end to a truly horrific case.
Colm Wallace’s book ‘Sentenced to Death: Saved from the Gallows’ will be published by Somerville Press on June 17th. See colmwallaceauthor on Facebook for more.