Launched into Eternity: the Beginning of Capital Punishment in a 19th-century Irish Market Town[1]

On the morning of Sunday 22 May 1842, Rody Kennedy was found in a field near his own house having been battered to death, clearly the victim of murder. The Nenagh Guardian reported that Kennedy was a well-respected individual of exceptional character, the widowed father of five young children[2]. Events moved quickly following a coroner’s court verdict and within a week William Fahey and James Harty were arrested and charged with being accessories to the murder of Rody Kennedy. James Shea – otherwise known as James Smith – was charged with the murder.[3] While awaiting sentence, the accused was detained in the recently-opened gaol in the nearest significant town which was Nenagh.[4]

The trial of James Shea for the murder of Rody Kennedy took place in Nenagh on Monday 1 August 1842. Murder trials were heard at the assizes which was the level at which all serious criminal complaints were processed. In the sometimes violent backdrop of rural Ireland in the 1840s it was not a rare event. This one was different as it was the latest in a chain of legal events that would lead to a historic and landmark moment in the history of the north Tipperary market town.

Rody Kennedy, claimed the prosecutor during his opening statement, disapproved of a relationship that emerged between his eldest stepdaughter and James Shea. It was claimed that he threatened the girl that if they continued to associate with each other then he would throw her out. The prosecutor argued that this was a clue that demonstrated that ‘if Kennedy was out of the way, and that if Shea could get the daughter, he might open a way for himself to a comfortable livelihood’.[5] Although no further mention was made of this line of thought during the trial it was the only motive put forward for the murder, albeit unsupported.

The first witness called was Denis Shanahan, a labourer who worked for and lived with Kennedy. He testified that the last place he saw his employer was in the house before he – Shanahan – left to go to the forge. The next time he saw Kennedy was when he lay murdered in a ditch on his own pasture. A witness named Mary Colborn recalled how she encountered Rody Kennedy’s body. At eight o’clock on the Sunday morning she was on her way to milk a cow and when she passed over a dyke she noticed the deceased man’s head protruding from under some bushes. She left the scene to seek assistance. Under cross-examination she alleged that she had seen James Shea and William Fahey the previous morning, Saturday at 8am, proceeding to their work at the potato field.[6] Eliza Burke confirmed she was the victim’s housekeeper; he looked after four stepchildren and two of his own. They all lived in the house with the exception of the eldest stepdaughter who was fourteen or fifteen years old. The next witness, Eliza Mooney, described how she was on her way to milk a cow for a sick child of her brother’s when she encountered James Shea on a ditch where Kennedy was killed. This was around noon on the Saturday. He had a stick in his hand and was just forty or fifty yards away from a number of men ‘that were pulling the switch grass’ in Harty’s field. Mooney and Shea addressed each other with ‘God save you’ and ‘God save you kindly’ and she remembered that he was pale in the face. Her statements regarding the milk, made under cross-examination, are significant as the defence later attempted to impeach her character by pointing out that she was actually stealing it.[7]

With prosecution witness testimony completed it was the turn of the defence counsel Mr. Hassard to address the jury. From the outset he agreed that there was ‘a case of suspicion’ against the defendant but not enough evidence to satisfy ‘twelve conscientious men’. He rejected the somewhat flimsy motive for murder offered by the prosecutor pointing out that the girl with whom Shea was alleged to have been enamoured – for economic reasons – was only about twelve or thirteen years old. Under the law, he claimed, the land would eventually have been divided between all the children and if it had been a freehold property it would have fallen to the eldest son and not this daughter.[8] Hassard turned next to the clothing worn by Shea and now in the possession of the police. If the defendant had indeed struck the fatal blow then why was there not one speck of blood upon his clothing? The evidence showed that the bushes around the site where the body was discovered were covered in blood and pieces of brain. It would have been nearly impossible for the assailant to escape being blood-soaked, he claimed.

Mr. Hassard’s final line of defence was to attack the two most incriminating witnesses. He described it as ‘observable’ that a prosecution witness, John Butler first revealed his evidence to anyone in the justice system – in this case the inquest magistrate – only after finding out about the reward. Such a sum of money would be of enormous benefit to a labouring man such as Butler who was ‘endeavouring to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, and perhaps obliged sometimes to fast’.

Prosecution witness Eliza Mooney’s credibility was next to be called into question. By her own testimony, her initial evidence following the murder was not given under oath. As a result of this her evidence was not presented in advance of this proceeding and the defence was essentially ambushed. She was of questionable character because her father’s house was closed to her and neither was she welcome at the home of her brother. In this trial she testified that she was on her way to steal milk. He ridiculed the excuse of a sick child needing milk when in fact the witness returned home without it anyway.[9] In condemning the testimony of the two prosecution witnesses who had placed James Shea at the scene of the murder at significant points in the timeline the defence attacked the core of the case against their client.

With both sides having completed their case and statements it was left to the judge to charge the jury. After briefly recapping the evidence and adding his own comments, he sent the jury away to deliberate. Special Constables were placed on the door and at half past nine that night the judge returned to the court. The jury returned to their box and presented their verdict – James Shea was guilty of murder.[10]


Sentencing and execution

The courtroom in Nenagh was crowed and silent as James Shea was placed in front of the dock for sentencing. The Clerk of the Crown addressed the guilty man asking him to put forward any reason why he should be spared the sentence of death and execution. For the first time since the opening statement in his trial, the court heard Shea’s voice. ‘I protest to the Blessed Virgin that I had no hand in it. Oh, my Lord, spare my life’, he pleaded as he wept bitterly.[11] In his response to Shea and his sentencing address, Lord Chief Justice Doherty was uncompromising;

James Shea, otherwise Smyth, I most sincerely join in the prayer, that the Lord may have mercy on your soul. The exhibition which you made the first day, when you pulled the gospel of God out of your pocket, and swore upon it as to your innocence was truly awful. I sincerely hope the short time which is left you to remain in this world will be devoted to that God whom you have offended, and that Gospel which you have insulted. You unhappy man, you have abundance to answer for without invoking His name, a more savage and barbarous murder was never committed than the one which you have been convicted of having perpetrated: and through God alone, who knows the secrets of all human hearts only, can you expiate the guilty crime you committed on that unfortunate old man slaughtered, I may say butchered by you in the most inhuman manner. You had your choice in the selection of your jury, and you were allowed every privilege which was possible to allow a person in your situation. Unhappy man, that is a dreadful crime you have to purge yourself of. I know not that individual, be he ever so pure – or be he his life ever so well spent – that should be prepared to meet that awful judge. You sent that man to his great account; and the blood of that man – like that of the first victim – cried unto Heaven for vengeance. May, I now beg of you, unhappy man to forget this world – for your days are numbered – you must turn to Him, to whom alone we must all look for mercy. With guilt so enormous, and proof so clear, I would not be performing my duty were I to hold out any hope to you of mercy in this world – and may God soften your heart to meet that dreadful fate.


The judge put on the requisite black cap.

It now only remains for me to pass upon you the awful sentence of the law, which is, that you, James Shea, be removed from the place where you now stand to the place of common execution, and that you be there, on Saturday, the 20th of August, inst., hanged by the neck until you are dead, that your body be afterwards buried within the precincts of the gaol, and may the Lord God have mercy on your soul.


Throughout the judge’s final address James Shea wept continually and following the conclusion he shook hands with his sister and other relatives that stood around the dock.[12]

As the successful prosecution of James Shea for the murder of Rody Kennedy drew to a close the scene was now set for the final dramatic chapter as Nenagh and its new gaol prepared – for the first time – for the inevitable public spectacle required to fulfil the judge’s sentence. On the morning appointed for the execution of James Shea a ‘multitude’ of people gathered outside the gaol to witness something they had not seen in their town before this day. It brought with it ‘all the attractions of novelty for the peasantry of the surrounding districts’. As horrific as the spectacle promised to be, hoards of curious onlookers arrived at the ‘drop’ site from the early hours of the morning.[13] As the time approached for the condemned man to step into public view, one of his confessors, the Rev. Scanlan appeared before them. He implored the crowd to observe a respectful period of calm during the ritual that lay ahead. These were the final moments of a ‘wretched man’ and they should not give way to any form of inappropriate expression. Instead he pleaded with them to kneel down and beg God’s mercy for the soul of James Shea.[14] There is no doubt that the civil and religious authorities in the town may have been concerned at the immediate public reaction and mood during this first execution. In the climate of the time it is possible that the influence of a Catholic priest in crowd control was more effective than that of the police.


As the clock at the gaol was heard to strike twelve noon there was movement in the ‘preparation ward’ behind the ‘drop’ which had been set up for the execution. James Shea appeared on the platform looking ‘ghastly’ and appearing to ‘totter’. He remained in physical restraint throughout the procedure. As he placed the rope around the convicted man’s neck it was observed that the hangman also seemed somewhat agitated and he appeared keen to speed up the execution. In a robust and steady voice James Shea addressed the crowd and spoke his last words;

I call Almighty God, The Blessed Virgin Mary, and all the saints and angels, to witness that I die innocent of the murder of Rody Kennedy; that I had neither hand, act, or part, or any knowledge of it. I call God, be in whose dread presence a few short moments will place me, that I am innocent – not only of that, but of any other murder whatsoever. I forgive my prosecutors; I forgive everyone; pray to God to have mercy on my soul. I am innocent – I die innocent – and I hope I will go to heaven.


As Shea spoke these words the crowd knelt down and began to pray aloud. After he stopped speaking the hood was drawn over his face and he bowed his head as if in prayer. A few seconds passed before hangman’s final act ‘launched him off suddenly’. James Shea ‘showed signs of life for eight minutes’ and made some non-violent struggles as he died. His body remained suspended for an hour before he was taken down and buried within the confines of the gaol as directed in sentencing.[15] In much the same way as he fell from the platform, James Shea fell from the public memory, disregarded as an unlikely but significant historical figure in an Irish market town.



[1] For further reading on capital punishment in Ireland see Richard McMahon, Homicide in pre-famine and famine Ireland (Liverpool, 2013); W.E. Vaughan, Murder trials in Ireland 1836-1914 (Dublin, 2009).

[2] Nenagh Guardian, 25 May 1842.

[3] Nenagh Guardian, 2 June 1842.

[4] Prison Register, Nenagh Gaol, 1842.

[5] Nenagh Guardian, 3 August 1842.

[6] Nenagh Guardian, 3 August 1842.

[7] Nenagh Guardian, 3 August 1842.

[8] Nenagh Guardian, 3 August 1842.

[9] Nenagh Guardian, 3 August 1842.

[10] Nenagh Guardian, 3 August 1842.

[11] Nenagh Guardian, 3 August 1842. This statement and the judge’s subsequent sentencing address were reproduced in the Editorial.

[12] Nenagh Guardian, 3 August 1842.

[13] Freeman’s Journal, 23 August 1842.

[14] Tipperary Free Press, 24 August 1842.

[15] Tipperary Free Press, 24 August 1842.