Next week ‘Ceart Agus Coir’ (an Irish & English language series that charts the history of the death penalty in Ireland) looks into the case of the death of Millstreet man Cornelius Dennehy in 1938. (Feb 4th TG4 10.15pm.). The below is a summary of the programme:
BY MICHAEL TRACEY on the Laois Nationalist
IT was a tale of murder most foul that gripped the country and centred around one Laois man.
In January 1939, James Dermot Smyth from the Rushes, Wolfhill, was executed by hanging after he was convicted of the murder of a Cork butter buyer. The victim, Cornelius Dennehy, was found dead in his car near The Swan having been shot in the head at close range.
The pair were well known to each other and Smyth had even described Dennehy as his “best friend”, so the crime became known as the “best friend murder”. The grisly incident is the subject of an episode of TG4’s Ceart agus Cóir series on the death penalty in Ireland.
The programme, featuring research of newspaper articles and court and prison archive, as well as other public records, will be shown on 4 February.
At the time, Smyth was 33 and married with a toddler daughter. He lived in a cottage and farmed 130 acres owned by a cousin. He had attempted the buy the farm but the deal had fallen through despite hefty solicitors’ fees.
Smyth was said to be fond of drink and was well known around the pubs of the area. His wife, Mary, kept rigid control over the purse strings, however, leading Smyth to habitually borrow money if he wanted drink.
The victim, 34-year-old Cornelius Dennehy, from Millstreet, Co Cork, was well-liked during the five years he had lived in De Vesci Terrace, Abbeyleix, where he was known as “the butter man”.
Dennehy travelled regularly to fairs in the midlands and his Ford V8 car was a familiar sight on local roads. It was widely known, including to Smyth, that he carried large sums of money with him on his travels.
On the morning of 17 August, he set out for Tullow where he was due, as usual, to meet a dozen or so butter sellers.
Dennehy’s route from Abbeyleix to Tullow would have taken him through The Swan Crossroads, then on to Doonane Crossroads, Newtown Cross and Tullow.
John Doyle, who worked at Swan Fireclay factory at The Swan crossroads, about a mile from where the shooting took place, said that at about 10.20am, he saw Dennehy driving slowly past in his Ford car. They saluted each other. Doyle was the last person to have reported seeing Dennehy alive.
The Ford car was seen parked awkwardly on a lonely road near The Swan. Passers-by ignored it as there appeared to be no one in the car. That evening, Patrick Kelly, another clay factory worker, passed the car at about 8pm and looked in the passenger rear door but did not see anybody. He went around and looked through the window of the driver’s door and saw a man in a crouched position. It was only when he opened the car and put his hand on the man’s leg to shake him that he realised he was dead.
Although Cornelius Dennehy had been shot at close range there was no significant singeing and there was no gun at the scene. There were signs that the murderer had tried to set the car on fire.
The petrol cap had been removed and there was a bloodstained, burnt match at the scene. Robbery was the obvious motive as Dennehy’s wallet was missing.
His injuries were described as horrific. He had been shot on the right side of the head.
The blast had nearly taken it entirely off his shoulders. According to the state pathologist, Dr John McGrath, the base of the skull was “extremely fractured” and remnants of the brain were splattered across the front seat. Dr McGrath said the fatal shot was fired by a single-barrelled gun.
Fifty gardaí were involved in the case and the investigation drew widespread media coverage. Smyth, at one stage, was said to have been seen in the background in one of the press photos taken at the scene.
During the investigation, gardaí interviewed Smyth who said he had been on the road to visit a friend on the day before Dennehy was killed.
However, it appears Smyth’s wife told gardaí that the day after the murder she had to give her husband a clean collar because he had blood on the one he was wearing.
When gardaí returned to Smyth’s house, Smyth went over to the sergeant’s car and remarked: “Wasn’t I an idiot to be at The Swan on Thursday with blood on my neck?” He showed the sergeant small cuts on his arms that he said he got them cutting scallops.
On 25 August there was a breakthrough in the case as the suspected murder weapon was found in a hedge a mile away from the killing.
Evidence would show that it had been recently fired. The gun was identified as belonging to the Fitzpatricks who had loaned it to Smyth three weeks before the killing. Smyth said he had wanted to shoot a cat.
Two days later, Smyth was cautioned and gave a sworn statement.
The day before the killing, witnesses saw Smyth at the place, known as “Patsy O’Neill’s gate”, where the car and body of Cornelius Dennehy would be found the next day.
Smyth said that on the morning of the murder he cycled into Crettyard, stopping at two pubs for a drink before going home at lunch time. He added he had not carried or used a shotgun for about 14 or 15 years.
When he was searched, a wallet containing a bundle of six £5 bank notes was found on him. These would be linked to Dennehy in the prosecution’s case.
The trial opened on 21 November 1938 and lasted for eight days. This was one of the longest murder trials in Irish legal history to that point.
It was referred to as the trial of the year, with over 100 witnesses called. After Dennehy’s death, Dermot Smyth described him as his “best friend”.
This assertion appeared at odds with Smyth’s statement that he had only gone for drinks with him a few times.
Smyth admitted in his statement that he was on the road where Dennehy was killed the day before the murder.
A witness, John Poole, who met Smyth on the day before the murder, said he saw what he took to be a gun, with a canvas bag, in the ditch beside Smyth. Smyth argued it was a wooden lath in the canvas bag, which had resembled a gun parcel.
The motive put forward by the prosecution for the murder of Cornelius Dennehy was robbery. A key issue, therefore, was whether Smyth was struggling financially.
The prosecution highlighted that Smyth borrowed money a number of times in the run-up to the killing. On the day of the murder, Smyth was alleged to have spent around £41.
The prosecution outlined payments made by Smyth in the days after the murder. He sent £24 in notes to his cousin in Dublin to clear the debt that he owed on some farm stock. The amounts mentioned compared very closely with the amount thought to be missing from Dennehy.
Defence counsel argued that the defendant was a man of substance but that the prosecution was trying to portray him as someone who “led a strange and peculiar life”.
The prosecution put forward a number of witnesses who claimed that Smyth was on the stretch of road where Dennehy was killed at about the time he was killed.
The evidence of two local children was important. They lived near the scene of the killing. The pair said they saw a man cycling in the direction of The Swan at 8am. Sometime around 10.30am they heard a car up the road brake suddenly and make a screeching sound. Five minutes later they heard what they thought was a shot.
They looked up the road and saw a car parked facing a gate and a man taking a bicycle from the ditch and cycle away in the direction of The Swan. As the man passed them, they noticed a parcel attached to the cross bar and that his hands were red. The children subsequently picked Smyth out of a police line-up.
The defence said that the children were imaginative and impressionable. The defence also argued that the children identified Smyth because he was the only person they had known in the identification parade after being prompted by gardaí.
The defence put forward their own witnesses to try to prove that Smyth was in another place at the time of the killing.
They added that Smyth thought the gun was in his house. It was argued by the defence that the gun may have been stolen by some tinkers who were around the house in the previous couple of weeks.
Judge O’Byrne, in his summing up, concluded that it was reasonable to assume that this was the murder weapon. He said it was also “most unusual to hear of tinkers stealing or being in the possession of firearms”.
The driver’s door of the car had some fingerprints in blood. Inspector Harry McNamara, a fingerprint expert, went into the dock and sat beside Dermot Smyth. He examined fingers on the defendant’s right hand closely and said he was satisfied beyond doubt that a print on the car had been made by Smyth’s right ring finger.
Of the six notes found on Smyth when he was arrested, four were bloodstained, however, Smyth said in evidence that he had cut his arms and hands. Smyth was also found in possession of sequenced bank notes matching notes issued to Dennehy at a bank in Midleton.
In evidence, Smyth answered question after question without hesitation over three days. Smyth said Dennehy had given him money; a fact which had not been in his original statement.
The defence argued the case had been prejudiced by media intrusion.
PJ McEnery said: “The newspapers have been blazoned with the facts, details and circumstances of the case from the state point of view and I will take the opportunity of saying that, by reason of one-sided publicity, Dermot Smyth has already been convicted in the public mind”.
The huge public interest in the trial continued right to the day of the verdict, which saw remarkable scenes even for the courthouse at Green Street, Dublin, the scene of many famous cases, with gardaí closing off the street due to the size of the crowd.
In summing up, the judge said the evidence was circumstantial but there were a number of inconsistencies in the defence’s case. After the jury returned a guilty verdict, Smyth was said to have paled visibly.
When he was sentenced, Dermot Smyth replied: “I am condemned. My next judge shall be my creator. He will prove me an innocent man and I hope and pray that the murderer of Cornelius Dennehy will be got after, to clear my name, so that no man can ever say of my child that her father was a murderer.”
This was not to be the case. Smyth unsuccessfully appealed and a widespread petition that was presented to the government also failed to earn him a reprieve. He was executed at Mountjoy Prison on 7 January, 1939.
The Smyth episode of Ceart agus Cóir will be broadcast on 4 February at 10.15pm.
Millstreet Mother’s Claim. Abbeyleix Crime recalled in CORK CIRCUIT COURT
(BUTTER BUYER’ S END – JUDGE MAKES AWARD OF £300 COMPENSATION)
AT Cork Circuit Court, on Friday of last week, before Judge J. E. O’Connor, a claim for £300 compensation was made under the Workmen ‘s Compensation Acts on behalf of Timothy Dennehy, Killarney Road, Millstreet, for Norah Dennehy, widowed , mother of Cornelius Dennehy, butter buyer, who was murdered at Doonane, Abbeyleix, on August 17th last. The claim was in respect of the death of Cornelius Dennehy and the respondents were the Irish Butter Exporters’ Association, of 34 Dunnar Street, by which ho was employed. It will be remembered that Dermot Smyth, a small farmer , of Abbeyleix , was convieted of the crime and was hanged on January 12 last. Mr Michael Binchy, S.C. and M. Frank Neville (instructed my Messrs. C. W. Ashe and Co., solicitors , Macroom) appeared for the applicant and Mr. Michael O’Driscoll (instructed b y Mr. James McAuliffe, solicitor) for the respondents. STAGES OF EMPLOYMENT. Mr . Binch y said that deceased entered the employment of the respondents when he was a boy of fourteen years of age and had been with them up to the day of his death. Mr. Shanahan , who was a director of the respondent company, took Dennehy from school . The deceased was the son of a labourer and was one of a family of shr (?) children . In l922 when he was fourteen years old, Mr, Shanahan took him into the business to train him. At first the boy received 30s. weekly all round, both in and out of season. Later on there was another arrangement, in which he received 10s. a day in the season and 30s weekly out of season. The third stage in the course of his employment was reached in the year 1933 when he was transferred by His employers to Maryboro’ and was put in charge of the business there. Then the arrangement as to paying. him changed. He was still controlled in every way by the Arm, but instead of being paid so much a week, he was paid percentage on commission on what butter he bought. In addition, he was paid his travelling expenses by the firm , and any other expenses incurred, such as casual help under that arrangement he received cheques Several times weekly for the purpose of buymg butter and roburne?. a weekly account of his outgoings to his employers, crediting himself with his ‘board and lodging, etc. , and returning the balance . The final stage in his employment conditions . .was reached when the deceased was told to remove from Maryboro’, to Abbeyleix , and make his head quarters there. From there the deceased attended markets in a great many neighbouring towns and villages.
LETTERS OF INSTRUCTION. Counsel then read a list of the markets attended by deceased from day to day. Continuing, he said the new Arrangement as to payment, in force at the time of the death of the deceased, was due farthing per lb. on butter bought, plus his expenses. He would show that the deceased had no discretion himself but was controlled absolutely from Cork. I counsel read a letter of April 17 , 1936, sent to him by the respondents when he was in Abbeyleix and al/o a telegram of May 14, 1938 . ‘ In addition, counsel said he had in court a bundle of original betters of instruction Dennehy had got from his employers, and the tenor of them all was consistent with tha assumption that the deceased was controlled in every way by the respondents. The deceased steadily sent money to his home, went, on counsel , and shortly before his death had sent a sum of £20 to his mother. Sometimes he had sent her £40 . In addition to those cash payments, the deceased, when he went home, paid all the bills on the homestead, in fact, when last at home, a short time before his death, he had the house done up at his own expense. It was part of his business as a butter buver to carry about with him large sum of money which he received from his employers for the purpose of his work – He was murdered on August 17 by one Dermot Smyth— that was – ‘ fitted. On the Saturday before he ‘Wth he received from his employer a cheque for £200, which he cashed in a bank in Abbeyleix. Between that and the day on which he was murdered he had received another £200 cheque, which was found undashed after his death. When he got, those cheques he usually cashed them. paid out whatever he wanted for personal expenses, and then went around to the various markets with a bundle of notes out of which he paid cash to the customers who sold him their butter.
IN BLACK WALLETT. He usually carried large bundle of notes in a black wallet, and while attending a market would have the wallet and a quantity of silver and corroers on a table paying out for the butter, according to weight . That was his practice for a considerable time befor his death, and the practice was well-known around the countryside, among others, to Dermot Smyth . A week before his death, at a market in Carlow , the deceased carried out that procedure. He had given a drive in his motor ear to a man named White, and White would tell, the Court about the black wallet . While White was there with Dennehy, Dermot Smyth came up and asked Dennehy to give him a lift home, which he did. It was important to note that Smyth went there not to buy butter at all , but to see what was going on, and he was quite familiar with the methods employed by the deceased, and that Dennehy was going around the towns from market to market with this montey. In fact, one p1ace wittmessed Dennehy held a market cast a house or a brother of Smyth’s there tho same procedure was ^otlowod. It was aS jpitt ed, ^aid Cfouhae^’ f WShat Dennehy: was; murjdeijed and he hoped to produce ample evidence to his lordship that he was killed in wag …….. he was paid his railway fires from place to place by the respondents, and it wai in that way the car was bought. It might be argued deceased used the car as a hackaney car , because he had it registered as such, but he hoped to prove the car was used -for his business and the money he was, allowed by the respondents for railway fares was James White said ihe was employed by applied towards its up keep, Edward Morrissey, merchant , Abbey leix , and knew the deceased , who called at his employer ‘ s place . He had seen Dermot Smyth when Dennehy was buying butter at the house of Smyth’ s brother at Wolfhill
– from the Souther Star, July 8th 1939
See more on the case in the book Hanged for Murder
Death Registration of Cornelius Dennehy, 17th August 1938, aged 30.
Here is the family in the 1911 Census
Surname Forename Age Sex Relation to head Religion
Dennehy Peter 40 Male Head of Family Roman Catholic
Dennehy Nora 36 Female Wife Roman Catholic
Dennehy Daniel 6 Male Son Roman Catholic
Dennehy Ellen 5 Female Daughter Roman Catholic
Dennehy Cornelius 3 Male Son Roman Catholic
Dennehy Timothy Male Son Roman Catholic
Dennehy Ellen 80 Female Mother Roman Catholic
He was born on the 10th of April 1908, to Peter and Hanoria Dennehy, of Annagloor.
TODO: add photos from the funeral from Picture Millstreet.