Their final words

Eddie Mulligan reviews Gallows Speeches from Eighteenth-Century Ireland by James Kelly, Four Courts Press, £19.65 hbk

THIS BOOK deals with a neglected and relatively unknown area of social history, providing an interesting account of the last words of people who were publicly executed in Ireland between 1680 and 1800.

The 'theatre of the scaffold' was the drama surrounding the pubic execution of people accused of wide-ranging crimes.

Civil authorities and the Church contrived together to encourage public participation in these events and the crowds swelled in some cases to as many as ten thousand.

Public execution served to convey the power of the state more graphically than other forms of punishment. It was stage managed by the Church and state as a public manifestation of law and order, social control and religious observance. For this to be effective, the accused had to identify themselves, admit their guilt and show contrition.

The gallows speeches coincided with the advent of cheap print in Ireland, which allowed last speeches to be circulated widely among the population. It could be viewed as an early form of tabloid press and the whole process became a political as well as a judicial ritual.

By 1720 printed copies of these speeches printed in Dublin were ready for sale on the day of the execution and some of these 'broadsides' were circulated outside the capital, which shows the degree of sophistication developing in the publishing industry.

Thoroughly-researched and clearly-written this work will be of value to students of this period of Irish history.

December 2001/January 2002

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-02-04 23:24:29.
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