Lighthouse in a German bog


Lighthouse, by Adam Pomeroy


AROUND 1,000 people submitted ideas to the government about ways to cut public spending, it was reported this week. A thousand people. I make that approximately 0.03% of the adult population. So much window-dressing, so few people to admire it.

The scheme was launched by Public Enterprise minister Brendan Howlin last June, when he invited people – anyone – to suggest “creative and constructive” ideas to eliminate wasteful spending.

“The challenge facing our country is so great that no reasonable PR exercise” – sorry, I mean proposal – “no reasonable proposal can be ignored,” said Howlin at the time. And roughly one in every three thousand of us complied. Statistically, this means Minister Howlin’s office has a slightly better chance of being hit by a satellite than of hearing ideas from the electorate.

A selection of the submissions to Howlin’s department was revealed last week under a Freedom of Information request, and reported in the Irish Times. I wish I could tell you I had seen the whole list, but the information must be top secret, seeing as how John and Mary’s opinions on welfare scroungers and public service fatcats are so sensitive to the national recovery and all.

And anyway, while you’re waiting for some Godot in the Department of Public Expenditure to return your phone calls – or even send so much as an automated email response acknowledging receipt of your query – despair overtakes you. It’s hard to explain, it just happens. Must be something to do with the zeitgeist.

Other things happen, too, while you’re waiting to hear back from the department. Mountain ranges weather away to dust; new stars are born and die; we pay off the national debt. (No, that last is just whimsy.)

From the selection published, it appears people have ideas about welfare, which is typical of the divide-and-rule nature of campaigns such as this. Ideas about welfare tend to involve making sure that no one on welfare can afford satellite television, or cigarettes, or alcohol. And if that doesn’t make them miserable enough, let’s make them do community work as well – maybe they could pick up rich people’s litter? And is there any way we can stop them from spawning?

I’m sure everyone has a few “creative and constructive” ideas about saving the state money, even if we didn’t go to the trouble of submitting them to Brendan Howlin’s office, held back as we were by the sheer, unendurable futility of the exercise.

There are the obvious ideas, to do with forcing reckless European speculators to stomach their own losses, thank you very much; and not giving pensions to politicians until they reach the age of – oh, I don’t know, let’s pick a number out of a hat and say 65; and putting a stop to ‘unvouched’ expenses; and maybe making do with even half the usual number of political consultants…

There are the less obvious ideas, such as establishing a  fresh air utility company and then privatising it. (The IMF would be all for that.) Or couldn’t we just sell Kerry to the Americans? No offence, Kerry. I’m as fond of you as the next person but these are desperate times and you still owe us big for John O’Donoghue. You know how much the Americans would love you, and we’ll buy you back as soon as we can afford you again – once we’ve got rid of the Healy-Raes, say.

And then there are the ideas about welfare. For instance, what about giving people on the dole responsibility for running the country? It would work like this: as soon as you become unemployable, you get appointed to political office. Oh, I forgot, we do that already. It’s called the Seanad.

However, as we know, these crowd-sourcing schemes are about as useful as a lighthouse in a bog. And since the Cabinet now has about as much influence over this country’s economic fortunes as you or I, let’s call it a lighthouse in a German bog.

Remember the ‘Ideas Campaign’, launched a few years ago? There were 5,000 submissions to that, many of which have to be commended for at least bestowing on us the priceless gift of laughter. Then there was Martin McAleese’s ‘Your Country, Your Call’ campaign, now better known as ‘(Whatever Happened To) Your Country, Your Call’.

These schemes are presented as a way of making us feel powerful, even though we’re not. What they’re actually doing is making us feel responsible, even though we’re not.

“Plucky little citizens,” says the government, “we have a long and proud history of overcoming adversity and so on and so forth. Now stick out your chin, and grin, and say…” And we all – or one in 3,000 of us at least – join in in the chorus: “Morgen, morgen, Ich liebe dich, morgen”.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 22 January 2012



‘PIERREPOINT’ has become a useful nickname for anyone who would knowingly hang you – or at least, anyone who wouldn’t lift a finger to help, should you happen to find yourself blindfolded and standing on a trapdoor with your ankles tied together.

Isn’t it surprising, then, to discover how principled the Pierrepoints – the family that, in an early example of outsourcing, gave this country three of its most memorable executioners – actually were?

In March, it was reported this week, Mealy’s will auction an expenses claim submitted by Thomas Pierrepoint for a double hanging at Mountjoy in August 1925. Let’s put it this way: Ivor Callely is not likely to be among the bidders.

The occasion was the hanging of the last woman ever executed in this state. Annie Walsh, 31, was put to death together with her nephew, Michael Talbot, for the murder of Annie’s husband Edward who, I think tellingly, was 30 years older than her.

The usual price for a hanging was £10, but Thomas offered to do the second for half-price. This suggests that, had a third malefactor been implicated in poor Edward’s demise, the state would have been able to dispatch three for the price of two. It’s a very competitive way of doing business, you must admit, and if Thomas were alive today, he’d surely be running a discount supermarket, or an airline.

Thomas and his assistant spent the night before the hanging at Mountjoy, saving the state the expense of their lodgings, and claimed only 10 shillings each for “refreshments”. Drinking before a job was frowned on. Thomas, after all, was the brother and successor of Henry Pierrepoint who, British Public Record Office documents lately revealed, was discreetly removed from the Home Office executioners’ list after turning up for one hanging, in July 1910, “considerably the worse for drink”.

Having said that, Thomas was no teetotaller either. Myles na gCopaleen went drinking with him at least once. In 1959, he wrote: “Although I am neither a murderer nor a politician – the distinction is often nominal – I have had the distinction of ingesting pints of plain porter in Fanning’s old pub in Lincoln Place, Dublin, in company with the late Mr Pierrepoint, Hangman Plenipotentiary to the Eerie Government of Occupation.”

Myles, in his unique way, was quite taken with Thomas’s personality. “Of Mr Pierrepoint it could truly be said that ‘milder-manner man never scuttled ship nor slit a throat’. He was most gentlemanly and had no hesitation whatever in discussing most objectively the nature of his craft, its skills and difficulties, and mildly deploring the squeamishness of certain Irish warders.”

Thomas was also uncle of the more famous Albert, who acted as his apprentice for a decade or so before gaining a reputation for himself as the most efficient executioner in British history.

Hanging had once meant slow strangulation, but by Albert’s time, the authorities had discovered that, by placing the knot in the noose correctly (to the left of the chin), the prisoner’s second and third vertebrae would break and death would be humanely expedited. This meant weighing the prisoner to calculate the appropriate drop. Albert’s fastest execution is said to have taken just seven seconds, easily beating his uncle’s record of 60 seconds, and he was very proud of this competence.

However, in 1974, Albert wrote his autobiography, Executioner: Pierrepoint, in which he amazed everyone by revealing that he had never been in favour of capital punishment after all.

“I do not now believe that any one of the hundreds of executions I carried out has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder,” he wrote. “Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.” Good for you, said everyone. Laudable sentiments indeed, if a bit belated.

Albert was responsible for at least 400 hangings in his career. The first he ever attended was at Mountjoy in 1932, when his Uncle Tom executed one Patrick McDermott for murder. He performed or assisted at 13 executions in Ireland, including the last ever carried out here, when Michael Manning was hanged in 1954.

Ironically, Albert resigned in a quarrel about expenses. In 1956 he went to Strangeways to execute Thomas Bancroft, but the man was reprieved after Albert arrived. The sheriff of Lancashire offered him only £4 in incidental expenses, instead of his full fee of £15. Albert’s pride was wounded and he quit. You can push a man’s sense of fair play only so far, it seems, even if he’s a professional killer.

Mealy’s Auctioneers believe Thomas Pierrepoint’s parsimonious claim for expenses might fetch at least €600. Add in the mere 55 cent it would cost to post it to whichever politician you think hanging is too good for, and you’ve got yourself a salutary lesson for a relatively modest price. However, it’s unlikely to act as a deterrent, even now.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 8 January 2012