Tom Galvin


Tom Galvin looms large as one of the most infamous figures of the 18th century as a renowned executioner based in Kilmainham Gaol for over fifty years,  His connection with Crumlin, is that he lived on the Hangman’s lane, subsequently called Dark Lanes and then straightened and widened to become Sundrive Road. The northiside also had a Hangman’s Lane, which is now called Hammond’s Lane.  Galvin’s grim occupation and peculiar demeanour have left a gruesome mark on the era of Dublin history.

He was born c. 1740 and in 1779 he was one of the Duke of Leinster’s postillion (a person who guides a horse-drawn coach or post chaise while mounted on the horse or one of a pair of horses). Having committed a highway robbery, he was tried, found guilty, and condemned either to death, or, transportation for life. Not having a immense desire of visiting Botany Bay, or Targarus,  Galvin proposed a bargain—that the crown should reprieve him, and that he should, for this kind condescension, become his Majesty’s delegate to hang culprits. A compromise was entered into, and accordingly we find the name of Tom Galvin famous for 50 years of expertly in tying on the noose.

Galvin’s notoriety stemmed not only from his profession but also from his eccentricities and morbid sense of humour. Visitors to Kilmainham Gaol would flock to catch a glimpse of the man behind the gallows, and Galvin, relishing in his newfound celebrity status, would playfully loop a rope around their necks, giving it a mischievous tug. His interactions with the condemned were tinged with dark humour and impatience, as he would lament loudly whenever a reprieve was granted, bemoaning the loss of his fee with remarks like, “it is a hard thing to be taking the bread out of the mouth of an old man like me!”

Galvin’s eagerness for efficiency was matched only by his disdain for delays. Accounts recount instances where he grew impatient with condemned men lingering in their final moments, urging them to hasten their prayers with admonishments like, “make haste wid your prayers; de people is getting tired under de swing-swong.”

During the periods of 1798 and 1803, he had abundant opportunities of trying his skill in this sanguinary profession, and some of the bravest heroes and most ardent patriots of modern times, fell victims of their fate and of Galvin’s stern dexterity. Perhaps the pinnacle of Galvin’s macabre legacy was his involvement in the execution of Robert Emmet in 1803. Emmet, sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered for High Treason, faced a fate that even Galvin, with all his experience, couldn’t fulfill entirely. Instead, Emmet was “only” hanged and beheaded, marking the last such sentence passed in Ireland and showcasing Galvin’s limitations in executing such extreme punishments.

The attire of official hangmen in 18th century Ireland added to the morbid spectacle surrounding executions. Adorned in grotesque masks and sporting enormous humpbacks fashioned from wooden bowls, these costumes served a dual purpose. Beyond merely concealing the hangman’s identity, they provided a rudimentary form of protection from unruly crowds. Should the spectators turn hostile and pelted the executioner with projectiles, the wooden bowl offered a makeshift shield, allowing the hangman to duck and shield himself from the onslaught.

He died on 30th March1830,  at his rural retreat in Kilmainham gaol. The newspaper noted at thetime:

“We are sure the news of this important event cause no little sensation amongst the fraternity of peace breakers, many of whose body have experienced lather severe shocks from his battery. As the executioner, whose duty it was to officiate at Newgate and Kilmainham, by merely pursuing the Hebrew mode of reading, might take precedence of the King himself in the lot of administrators of the law, a brief sketch of his life may not be uninteresting.

The Shears brothers and Robert Emmett were executed by this wretch, and we are told that when Lord Edward Fitzgerald died of his wounds this inhuman being was so enraged of the idea of losing his blood-money, that be poured out the bitterest imprecations upon the head of Major Sire.  He had one daughter, with whom he gave his 500l fortune, married to a man who lived the neighbourhood of Lucan. This fellow also committed a highway robbery, and, being sentenced to die, was hanged by his now !!

Up to 1821 he enjoyed rude health but the mild and clement administration of Lord Wellesley, together with  the increasing morality of the inhabitants of this City and county, so lessened the amount of his income, that his spirits began to droop, and he died desponding at the premature age of 90.”

Galvin’s legacy as a hangman is one shrouded in darkness and intrigue. His peculiarities and grim humour, coupled with the barbarity of his profession, have secured his place in history as one of the most notorious figures of his time. Though the era of public executions and their eccentric executioners has long since passed, the legend of Tom Galvin continues to fascinate and disturb, offering a chilling glimpse into Ireland’s darker past.

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Connection with area: Executioner, Hangman lived in Crumlin who "Hangman's Lane" now Sundrive Road is named after.