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08 Aug 2022

Trip Through Time: What happened at Gallows Hill in Dundalk?

Looking back at Dundalk's past, with former Democrat editor Peter Kavanagh

Trip Through Time: Hangings in Dundalk

Do you you enjoy an horror story?

In my experience most Dundalk folk are fascinated by the macabre and it was for this reason that old horror movies were among the most popular among audiences attending the old cinemas before television came along.

I recall that the Dracula films played to packed houses night after night and some would return to view them, even though they had seen them several times and knew the plot by heart!

Of course, there was always a bit of romance in them and both teenage boys and girls of my youth believed that they would create a sense of attraction to a partner that might not be caused by a musical or even an action film.

This thought occurred to me when I was watching the old black and white 'High Noon' film on television recently.

It was a great movie but, somehow, I don't think it was the sort of film a boy would pick to take a new girl friend for a first date. I believe it is too much of a man's film!

Conversely, why would girls agree to watch something that might scare the daylights out of them in the presence of a person they scarcely knew? Perhaps that was the mystery of such occasions?

This same sense of attraction for gaining knowledge, almost forbidden, also arose in relation to stories about unexplained murders and such-like crimes.

I was very much aware of this feeling when reporting unusual court cases to which the general public were attracted.

Also I wondered if it was even stronger at a times when there was very other little public entertainment.

I suppose it must also have been what made the old story tellers, or 'seanachai' as they were popularly known, so important to their home based audiences on dark nights in those far off times!

I again became aware of this sense of childhood terror which came back to me when I was writing the question about the strange old Dundalk place name 'Gallows Hill'.

I am sure that there must be many other places around Ireland where people still point out as being areas where horrors occurred in the past.

What happened at Gallows Hill that gave it this strange name?-- I am sure it was not the choice of the residents of the area?

There is nobody around now, nor does it appear in any written records, to explain why this name was used for so long?

There are no reports of any executions so far from the centre of Dundalk!

Gallows for the purpose of executions were usually erected at cross-roads on the approaches to medieval towns, as a sort of a warning to any stranger thinking of committing a crime that might be punishable by death – and there were plenty of such offences up to less than one hundred years ago.

The name was used long before the local prison was built; but there was an old quarry on the site where dreadful things may have happened long ago.

The executions of sentences handed down in the Dundalk courts were mostly carried out in the centre of town and these events attracted large audiences.

This was the case in relation to the last public hangings in Dundalk - in July 1852 - when two men were hanged, not for murder, but for a robbery of a gold pocket watch with violence.

Reports from the time show that the victim survived and, surprisingly, pleaded at the sentencing for the judge not to impose the death penalty.

According to a report in the Dundalk Democrat of the time, this execution was attended by a raucous crowd of over 2,000 people.

It was perhaps for this reason that the novelist, William Makepiece Thackery, a cousin of the local Church of Ireland Vicar Rev. Elias Thackery, wrote of a visit to Dundalk in 1842 -

'Opposite the chapel (St. Patrick's which was in the process of being erected) stands a neat, low building - a gaol.

In the middle of the building, and over the doorway, is an ominous balcony and window, with an iron beam overhead. Each end of the beam is ornamented with a grinning, iron scull.

Is this the Hanging Place and do these grinning cast-iron sculls facetiously show the business for which the beam is there? For shame, for shame! Such disgusting emblems ought no longer disgrace a Christian land!

A better cast-iron emblem stands over a shop in place nearby, the factory of Mr. Sheckelton whose industry and skill skill seem to have brought the greatest benefit to his fellow townsmen –'

Ironically, Thackeray seems not have been aware that Alexander Sheckleton had obtained a contract to construct over two dozen gibbets (iron cages) to display the bodies of men, all over North Louth, who had been executed for being involved in the Wild Goose Lodge massacre over twenty years earlier.

It seems that this contract held him to established Iron Factory at the Market Square.

Many of these men gibbeted were innocent of the crime of which they were accused but were intended by the local magistrates to serve as an example to the people of the County of the fate that awaited anyone who opposed the rule of law.

These rotting bodies had hung there for months - sure much more 'disgusting emblems' than the grinning cast-iron scull on the bar outside the County Gaol?

To return to the origins of the name 'Gallows Hill', it appears, according to the late Harold O'Sullivan writing the Atlas of Irish Historic Towns, that it first appears on a map of 1766 and that it is mentioned in a Rate Book of 1844 for a dwelling at St. Dominic's Place (West ) about where the Jail was erected in the 1850s.

Then again, I have seen it suggested that it was merely a misspelling of an older Gaelic name --perhaps from the word 'gall' a place where strangers lived or even 'geal' for 'bright or shining'; as there are many other such names for places in other parts of Ireland.

Whatever, the truth is, it seems that the area beyond the site of the present Garda Station was originally higher and that it was reduced when the railway line was cut through it the 1840s.

The late Noel Ross once told me that human bones were discovered near this place when the railway was being constructed. He says that it was believed at that time that these remains were those of Madeleine nuns who had a hospice in this area but that they were never properly examined at the time to discover the truth.

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