It was a foul night to hang a man. The rain swept across the Irish Sea, throwing itself against the grey stone walls of Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison. Behind its unyielding façade two prison guards stood outside the condemned man’s cell. The number was imprinted on a small metal plaque: D1. It was barely a dozen shuffling steps from the cell across the passage and through the door to the execution chamber. Dermot McCann was twenty-seven years old. He was a thug and a killer, and refused to show these bastard guards his fear. The priest’s incantation barely entered his mind, the words pluming in the cold air of the prison’s walls as the guards fastened manacles on his wrists. His body stiffened, a moment of resistance, his arm muscles straining. One of the guards, the older man, one of the few who hadn’t cursed him for being a Fenian bastard, spoke quietly, his hand squeezing McCann’s shoulder. ‘Steady, lad. This isn’t the time.’ With barely a moment’s hesitation they had stepped through the cell door, across the landing, followed by the priest and the small entourage of officials required by law to witness his death. Voices echoed from some of the half-dozen men incarcerated in other cells. ‘You took more than they can take from you, Dermot!’ ‘You’re a martyr to the cause, Dermot McCann!’ ‘It’s an Englishman that’s hanging ya, my lad! No Irishman would do it!’
But in one of the cells a young man shivered with fear, knees hugged to his chest, back against the cold stone wall. Danny O’Hagan had yet to see his seventeenth birthday, and it would not be long before they moved him into D1. He had neither the courage nor the bravado to face such a cold-blooded death, and every shuffling scuff that echoed from the condemned man’s final steps squeezed his heart to near suffocation. The door to the execution chamber closed behind McCann. Eyes wide, he gazed at the wooden platform, painted black, and the whitewashed stone walls. They called the place of execution the ‘hang house’ – a narrow covered yard where parallel beams ran along the underside of the roof into the gable walls. The hanging rope was attached to chains affixed to these beams. Below the scaffold, in the flickering half-light of the gas lamps, witnesses to his execution gazed up, eyes shadowed beneath their hat brims. They were all men, a mixture of police officers, lawyers and prison guards joined by other civilians who were there to witness his death. His escort had eased him, almost without him realizing it, to the noose that hung immobile in the dank air. A snare drum’s death roll echoed across the yard. He looked up in the direction of the sound, but it was just the rain beating on to the pitched glass roof. His body trembled as the black-suited executioner stepped forward. ‘It’s the cold. Nothing more,’ McCann said. There was one man among the witnesses who had already respectfully removed his hat, and who gazed directly at the condemned man. Joseph Radcliffe was a big man with a broken nose. His eyes always gleamed brightly, and his big hands were wrinkled and tough from years on the open plains. He wore his hair short and kept his face clean-shaven. McCann locked on to his eyes, desperately drawing courage from the last horseman Radcliffe, who had defended him in court but who had failed to save his life. McCann’s mind found a second of clarity, but the words that formed – God bless Ireland! – never reached his lips. The black hood was pulled down across his face, and the words swallowed as he gasped in fear. His panic ended a moment later. The lever was pulled. The trapdoor crashed open. And his final gasp of life went unheard beneath the clattering of the rain. The Mountjoy Prison bell rang, signalling the successful completion of the execution.
At a first-floor window of a townhouse across the city, a frock-coated man stood looking out at the swirling storm. Broad-shouldered, thickset, hair sprinkled with grey above his dark forehead, Benjamin Pierce had known much hardship and trouble across two continents during his forty-nine years. He half turned as a lanky sixteen-year-old boy entered the room and walked across to stand before the radiant warmth of the fireplace. ‘Is my father not back yet?’ Edward Radcliffe asked. Pierce fished the gold hunter watch from his waistcoat pocket, checked it and clicked the cover closed. ‘No. It’ll be a while.’ Pierce knew Radcliffe’s son felt the same unease as he did. When a man died at the end of a rope, the spectre of death shadowed Joseph Radcliffe. He would slip into the house quietly, retiring to his study for a brandy that Pierce would have waiting for his friend, along with a made-up fire to ease the chill of death from his bones. Delaying his homecoming allowed the ghosts to stay in the Mountjoy execution yard a little longer.
The Last Horseman by David Gilman is published by Jonathan Ball. This extract is reproduced by permission.