‘All I ask is that the ideals and principles for which I am about to die for will be kept alive until the Irish Republic is finally enthroned’. –Charlie Kerins
When the serial killer of Rillington Place, John Christie, complained that his nose itched after his arms had been bound, Albert Pierrepoint assured him: “It won’t bother you for long.” And it didn’t. Between the day he joined “the family business” in 1932 and the day he resigned in 1954 as England’s Chief Executioner, Pierrepoint dispatched more than 430 people.
When Charlie Kerins was born on 23 January 1918 in Caherina, Tralee, Co Kerry, his parents never imagined their son would meet such a famous person as Albert Pierrepoint, but he did, in December 1944 in Dublin. It was a brief encounter. The story of that fateful meeting begins in 1940 when Kerins joined the IRA and it reaches a critical juncture on the morning of 9 September 1942 when Detective Dinny O’Brien died in a hail of bullets outside his Dublin home. O’Brien was a member of the Special Branch Division of the Garda Siochána, which had been successfully disrupting IRA attempts to collaborate with Nazi Germany. In June 1944, Kerins was arrested and a special military tribunal charged him with the shooting of Detective O’Brien.
At the end of his trial, the president of the Military Court delayed sentence until later in the day to allow Kerins, if he wished, to make an application whereby he might have avoided the capital sentence. When the court resumed, Kerins said: ‘You could have adjourned it for six years as far as I am concerned, as my attitude towards this Court will always be the same.’ Asked three times if he wished to say anything more, Charlie firmly answered: ‘No!’ When pronounced ‘Guilty’ and asked: ‘Have you, Charles Kerins, anything to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced upon you?’ he merely said: ‘All I can say is that if the Free State authorities are satisfied that I got a fair trial here, I hope their consciences are clear on that point. If this is an example of de Valera’s justice, freedom and democracy, then I would like to know what dictatorship and militarism are. That is about all I have to say’.
Over 77,000 people signed a petition for a reprieve but the Fianna Fáil Government was determined to execute Charlie. His last letter was to his friend Liam Burke in Belfast. Charlie posted him a leaf of a calendar for the month of December, a month he would not see. On it he had written:
‘What, said Cathal Brugha, if our last man’s on the ground.
When he hears the ringing challenge if his enemies ring him round.
If he’d reached his final cartridge — if he fired his final shot.
Will you come into the empire? He would answer, I will not.’
On 1 December 1944 in Mountjoy Gaol, Kerins was hanged. Éamon de Valera pointedly refused to issue a reprieve and, despite his loathing for the Crown, he arranged for Albert Pierrepoint to be brought over to Ireland to carry out the execution for the occasion.
Kerins was then buried in the prison yard. In September 1948, his remains were exhumed and released to his family. He is buried in the Republican Plot at Rath Cemetery, Tralee, Co Kerry.
Charlie Kerins, the Boy from Tralee
Emmet and Barry and the Manchester Martyrs
As comrade have met in the bright Halls above
Another young life has been laid down for Ireland
Another true heart full of faith and of love
With Barnes and MacCormick, he will live in our memory
And inspire us to fight on ‘til Ireland is free
A friend to the faithful, afoe to the traitor
Young Charlie Kerins, the Boy from Tralee
He spoke like a soldier, he stood like a true man
When the cravens condemned him to death and to shame
He followed the path of a long line of heroes
And Ireland forever shall honour his name
On a First Friday morning in the month of December
The hangman from England came over the sea
And traitors to Ireland wreaked vengeance and hatred
On young Charlie Kerins, the Boy from Tralee
God rest him tonight in the brightness of Heaven
God strengthen each true man to walk where he led
To raise up the standard of justice and freedom
And win for the living, the wage of the dead
When the rule of the traitors is ended forever
And the power of their masters from sea unto sea
We’ll praise the brave soldier of Poblacht na hEireann
Young Charlie Kerins, the Boy from Tralee