Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Gruesome Secret of Our Ash Tree

Our European Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)        © 2016    by Victor Sullivan.

A fine old tree stands proudly at the east end of our garden, just as it did when my wife and I bought the derelict property in 1970. The large, overgrown plot with its mature Sycamores, Elms and Laurels, had been neglected for decades and it was some months before we cleared an access path and finally touched the massive trunk of our Ash tree. Its present girth is 3.35 Metres. (11 feet). 

We had been advised that this particular tree was the subject of a Preservation Order, a matter of little interest to us at the time, as we had no intention of felling it for firewood. We set about repairing the house that had been built around 1904 and in the course of our repairs we discovered that a small section, we called it the scullery, had once been part of an earlier structure on the same site. From old maps in Cork City Library we learned that our acquisition had replaced a row of three cottages, constructed for Prison Warders employed at the nearby, disused and derelict prison, Cork City Gaol.

During summer, the view of the old prison from my bedroom window is obscured by our Ash tree's dense foliage but in winter, through its bleak, barren, lower branches, the gloomy main gate-house of Cork City Gaol is clearly visible. The gate-house was designed to be, not only the main entrance to the prison, it was also an execution facility that incorporated a cell for the condemned, with twin beds, one above the other. It also had a tiny chapel where the wretched condemned prisoner could receive the Last Rites of the Church. The spot immediately in front of the main door is the precise location where numerous public executions took place between 1827 and 1865. 

Such public events were a popular source of free entertainment and attracted large crowds of enthusiastic onlookers. Some mothers are said to have brought their children to witness the formalities and thus be memorably warned that a similar fate could await them if they were disobedient or misbehaved. Placing bets on how many kicks the victim might achieve before expiring was another common practice at these well-attended events. 

The date and time of each execution was advertised and it was wise to arrive early in order to be assured of a good position for a clear view of the Hangman's performance. Not everyone wished to be 'up too close' to the Hangman, some preferring a more distant over-view of all the onlookers and the focus of their attention in front of the prison's main door.

One execution enthusiast was a very small man of considerable athletic dexterity and a grim determination to see everything. Doney loved executions and he boasted that he had never missed one. His limited height meant that he could only see the details of the Hangman's skill from the front row of the dense crowd but  that was uncomfortably too close to the Gallows, the Rope and the Condemned. If Doney moved further back among the gaping crowd he would have seen only the backs of the people directly in front of him.  

To solve the problem, Doney claimed personal viewing rights on what he considered to be the best position for execution observations, high in the branches of his Ash tree, which, in those days, was the only tree growing in the immediate area. It stood a comfortable eighty yards to the south-west of the Gallows. Doney climbed higher and higher until he reached the topmost branches of his Ash tree, while less agile followers struggled to secure a position on the lower branches.  As some very ancient wounds on the trunk of the tree suggest, far too many people climbed onto the lower branches, snapping them off, hence the tell-tale scars on the now aged trunk.

It is said that 'All good things must come to an end,' and so it was with the public Executions. The 'Respectable Residents' who lived near the Prison raised an objection to the City Authorities, complaining, not about the executions in public, but about the low class of people such spectacles attracted into the area. Their complaint was eventually taken seriously and, in 1865, the last public execution took place outside the main door of the Cork City Gaol. Thereafter, executions were carried out inside the high walls of the prison, hidden from public view, the 'Respectable Residents' who lived nearby were no longer bothered by unsavory crowds of gapers and Doney never again had reason to climb into his observation perch that still grows magnificently at the end of our garden.  

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