It was the week before Christmas, and I was sitting in the death cell in Portlaoise Prison in County Laois, Ireland. Some weeks previously I had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death by the Special Criminal Court for a murder I did not commit. The Special Criminal Court is a non-jury court.
I sat in that death cell, which was a very dismal place. The windows had been blocked off. There was no natural light and a bank of fluorescent lights overhead, which were never turned off day or night and which after a little while began to burn my eyes. I was forced to be always in the presence of at least two jailers, and they would sit quite close to me.
One day I heard them having a conversation. They were discussing what role they might have to play in my hanging.
One said to the other, “Seamus, were you told also that two of us would have to participate in his execution?”
(This was said as if I didn’t exist, as if I wasn’t a human being.)
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And Seamus said, “Yes, that’s right. What do you think we’re going to have to do?”
The third guy, Eddie, said, “Well, whatever we have to do, they’re going to have to pay us extra money, because that is not our usual job, and so we’re going to have to get a bonus for doing this work.”
They went on to discuss what role they might have to play, and they came to the conclusion that at my execution two jailers would be positioned underneath the gallows. When my body came down through the trapdoor, each jailer would have to pull on one of my legs to ensure that my neck was broken quickly.
It was as if I was not there. It was as if they weren’t speaking about me. And I was very angry and upset and disturbed by this, but it illustrates the inhumanity of the death penalty. It even affects the jailers. They’re not allowed to speak to the condemned prisoner, because it wouldn’t do them any good to learn to like the prisoner or to respect the prisoner. Because how can you cold-bloodedly help to kill some- body that you like or respect?
Now, this was in the year 1980, and it was 26 years since this state had executed anybody. And there was a body of opinion which said that it was unlikely they would carry it out. But when I heard these jailers discussing my execution, and the fact that the authorities had told them there would be a role for them in it, there was no doubt in my mind that I was facing death. I tried as best as I could to distance myself from that, and to curb my anger.
Christmas passed in a lonely, dismal way without any contact with the outside world, and without any contact with my loved ones. Shortly after Christmas, as the post was being delivered to the prisoners, a jailer came and handed me a postcard. And this postcard was extraordinary.
It was written by a woman whom I did not know, and she told in the postcard how the day after Christmas she was walking on the shore at Greystones, south of Dublin, grieving for her brother, whose name was Peter. He had been a seaman and had lost his life in an accident at sea.
And she remembered that there was another Peter who was facing death. You see, I had been a fisherman, and I had spent a long time at sea. She remembered that there was another seaman named Peter, and she thought she would write to me to wish me well, and to pray that I would not be executed.
When I got that card, it just lifted my heart. That lady, whom I didn’t know, restored my humanity to me and lifted my spirits. And while I knew that I was facing death, and I knew with certainty that the worst thing that they could do to me would be to kill me—until such time as they did that, I was my own person.
While they could imprison me physically, they could not imprison my mind or my heart or my spirit. And so it was within those realms of myself that I determined that I would live. Within that death cell, in that small space around myself, I had my own sanctuary. I learned to almost totally ignore what was around me.
Sometime later, almost six months later—and 11 days before my execution date—my sentence was commuted from the death sentence to 40 years’ penal servitude without remission, and I was placed back out into the general prison population. This was done because an execution was not in the political interest of the government at that time.
Now, I knew I couldn’t possibly face 40 years there, and, inspired by getting off death row, I determined to try to prove my innocence. I studied law in the prison, and I took my own case. With the help of a human-rights lawyer named Greg O’Neill, we took the case to the Court of Criminal Appeal. While there were a number of grounds upon which my conviction could have been overturned, in May of 1995 my conviction was overturned because of conflicting testimony of police, and I was released from the Special Criminal Court.
It was almost surreal, and when I stepped outside the court, I was faced with a huge crowd of media people with their cameras and their microphones. They were all shoving them in my face, and throwing questions at me, and wanting me to do things like give a clenched-fist salute and all that nonsense.
I didn’t have a moment to myself. And then my lawyer took me, and we went to the television station, and we had an interview for the news. Afterwards my friends had organized a party, and everybody was drinking and happy and enjoying themselves and talking to me and clapping my back.
But I wasn’t really in it. I hadn’t had time to assimilate my liberty.
That night I stayed with a friend in the suburbs of Dublin. The following morning I woke up early, and I went downstairs. The rest of the household was still asleep, and I went out to the backyard.
They had a lovely backyard. It was stretched way back from the house. And I walked down the back garden, and the sun was shining, and I felt so good. I began to breathe in the fresh air and the colors and the greenery and hear the birds singing.
Down at the bottom of the garden, there was an old, old apple tree. I went up to this apple tree, and I put my hand out, and I touched the bark of the tree, which was gnarled.
I was thinking about this tree, which had been growing there for countless years, season in and season out. Every year producing its fruit, shedding its leaves, producing new leaves, and just carrying on its business in nature, oblivious of the big city around it.
Oblivious of the hatred and the anger and the injustice and the wars, the depredation and the hunger and everything that goes on. Just simply being in nature.
And I put my arms around that tree, and I wept.
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