Writer and Author

Category: Ireland’s Eye (Page 2 of 2)

Walking in Familiar Footsteps

I’ve been back in court this week. It’s been a while but last Monday I was filling up my shorthand pens and watching a new jury being sworn. I was so occupied that I didn’t realise until I sat down to write my copy yesterday that today would be the anniversary of a trial that’s been occupying me for much of the last two years.

On December 8th 1852 Green Street in Dublin’s north city was thronged with the crowds who’d come to watch artist William Kirwan stand trial for the murder of his life. Maria Kirwan had been found dead on Ireland’s Eye on September 6th and Kirwan had been a suspect before her body arrived back on the mainland. Tongues had been wagging ever since so the crowd that gathered outside the Commission of Oyer and Terminer represented every layer of society.

When the judges took their seats at 10.15 that morning the crush inside the courtroom was intense. Bodies were squeezed into every corner and down the corridor to the street allowing the proceedings to be relayed to the throng outside. I’ve reported on trials that captured the public imagination and the crowds can be immense. During Joe O’Reilly’s trial back in 2008 the crowds were so big that they could only be allowed into the public gallery over in the Four Courts a few at a time. Notices were pinned to the wall to tell them where to go – something never seen in normal circumstances. More recently in 2010, another husband accused of killing his wife in Howth caused problems in the newly opened Criminal Courts of Justice. Then we had an overflow room with closed circuit tv of the court. Back in 1852 the methods were more basic.

Everyone in crowd that day would have known what to expect. The story had been played out before, at the time of Maria’s death, when a hastily convened inquest ruled accidental drowning. The papers had reported Kirwan’s arrest a month later and some details of the route the prosecution would be taking had been teasingly offered at the end of October when the trial had almost gone ahead. As so often happens with criminal trials though, there was a hold up and the trial was put back until a few weeks before Christmas. When Kirwan took his seat in the dock the reporters carefully noted what he was wearing. The following day’s papers would carry arch references to his fashionable mourning attire and his arrogant bearing.

Reading the trial transcript and contemporary court reports it’s striking how little has changed. Even though there were significant differences in the law back then the flow of the trial was much the way it would be run now. This was a high profile case and the plan was that the prosecution would be lead by the Attorney General himself but there had been a hitch. Standing to open the prosecution case Senior Counsel John George Smyly Q.C. explained that matters had fallen to him. He outlined the evidence to the jury giving a tantalising glimpse of a secret second family and a confrontation between wife and mistress that would provide a much needed motive.

Before that juicy evidence could be reached however, the scene had to be set. After the obligatory mapping evidence, still first up in any modern trial along with crime scene photographs, the first witness was the landlady of the house where the Kirwans had stayed in Howth. Margaret Campbell told the court she was a widowed mother of three who took in paying guests. The Kirwans had come to stay with her in June and had been due to stay until November while their house on Merrion Street Upper (where Government Buildings now stands) was being painted. She noted that her guests did not seem the most happily married couple. Mr Kirwan was often away for the night and one day she had heard a violent argument during which the accused man had called his wife a strumpet and had told her “I’ll finish you.”

Next up was Patrick Nangle, one of the boatmen who had taken the Kirwans across to Ireland’s Eye that fateful day.  Nangle, and his brother Michael, the next witness, had long been some of Kirwan’s chief accusers. Patrick suddenly remembered on the stand that Kirwan had been carrying a sword stick that day on the island and made sure to mention the convenient trip that had caused Kirwan to stop when searching close to where his body lay, allowing Nangle to go ahead and discover the body seconds later. Cross-examined by Isaac Butt Q.C and M.P. Nangle agreed that he had argued with Kirwan in the days following his wife’s death. The boatmen had stayed late on the island to search for Mrs Kirwan and had brought the body back to the harbour and up to Mrs Campbell’s house. Nangle maintained that this deserved a rather more substantial payment that the usual ferry fare. He agreed that when the money wasn’t forthcoming he had stopped the dray carrying Maria’s body back to Dublin to leave Howth until the debt was paid.

After the boatmen the evidence turned to the Howth villager who had heard cries coming from the island at around 7pm that evening. They were joined by another fisherman Thomas Larkin whose boat had been returning to harbour at around the same time. As his boat passed Ireland’s Eye he was on deck alone. He clearly heard three cries, the first a loud scream, the next two weaker each time. Larkin had been another of the more vocal accusers since that night. He was adamant that the screams he heard had been those of a dying woman.

The next string of witnesses fulfilled the role that emergency service and hospital staff would have in a modern trial. The three women who had been called to wash the body as it lay in the bedroom off Mrs Campbell’s sitting room. It had been close to midnight by then but the inquest had been called for the following morning so the body had to be made respectable. They worked by candlelight but all noticed blood on the body, beyond that you would expect to encounter in a drowning. They also noticed William Kirwan drying his trousers by the fire as they worked. The dampness or otherwise of his socks and trousers was a matter of some preoccupation for the defence. They were intent on proving that Kirwan had not gone paddling while he held his wife’s head under the water in the Long Hole where her body was found. Any residual dampness had been caused by long grass during the search they insisted, at every opportunity.

The first day finished before the court reached the evidence everyone was waiting for – Theresa Kenny, the Mistress herself. There would be even bigger crowds the next day. I’ll leave it here for now and come back with day two of the trial on it’s own anniversary tomorrow.

In Memoriam

 

Blog-grave-image-2

One hundred and sixty years ago today a woman called Maria Louisa Kirwan died on an island. She died at the hands of the man she feared, who she had thought had tried to kill her in the past, the man she was planning to leave. She was 28.

Maria is nothing to me. We share no DNA. In the years since I started this blog I’ve written of many abused, frightened women like her, who like her, met their death by the one who they should be able to trust the most. Her story’s no different from any of theirs, no greater tragedy. But for me this one’s different. It’s personal.

Every morning when I sit down at my desk she’s one of the muses staring back at me, those three photographs from the Kirwan collection I wrote about a week or so ago. When I’m stuck for a word I look up and she meets my glance, the calm gaze of an infatuated 16 year old watching the man she loves sketch her. Twelve years later, give or take, he will kill her. I stare at that hopeful young face each day as I write her, mapping out her brief future. She grows into adulthood in that horrible marriage, makes do because there’s no way out, asks for help but is ultimately ignored. As I write her story I’m with her every step of the way but I’ll also be with him, when the time comes, choking the life out of her. That’s what’s different with this story. I’m not just telling what I see, this time I’m the puppet master. I’ll make her into a real girl but I’ll also kill her.

When you’re writing nonfiction there’s always a line you can’t cross, like a pane of glass through which you can see a life you write about but you can’t touch it. With fiction there’s no pane of glass. You can get right in there and have have a root around. You have to know your characters before you write them, but that always tends to make me feel rather protective.

So on September 6th I remember her, and by proxy all my other characters who lived but aren’t attached to such a conveniently fixed point in time. I might put flowers on her grave, this year I’m planning something a little further afield. It might sound morbid or a bit obsessive but it’s a way of keeping that concrete link with the past. I know that when she died Maria didn’t have much support. Her only brother was over seas, her father dead and her mother and many of her friends jumped to support her husband. She doesn’t even have a gravestone.

So this year, Maria gets the spotlight. A couple of days ago I wrote an Irishwoman’s Diary for the Irish Times about the time Maria met her husband’s mistress. Today there’s a post
on the National Library of Ireland blog about that picture of Maria that sits over my desk (along with the rest of the William Bourke Kirwan paintings in their collection). You might have to wait a while to read my book though as Maria’s story is part of a far longer tale and it’s still being written. But if you’re so inclined today, spare a thought for Maria Kirwan who was killed by her husband on Ireland’s Eye one hundred and sixty years ago today.

A Rustle of Petticoats

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

One of the glorious things about writing fiction is that I’m not manacled to the facts. Even though many of the people I’m writing about lived and most of the events that I’m writing about happened I’m free to delve into the spaces between and make them my own. As I wrote in my previous post, the current book, while based on a real case, is most definitely a novel. I might have spent most of the past two years in libraries and archives but the details I’ve found there form a framework on which to hang my own story, my own characters.

Even after so long there are still fragments of research that still need doing but now, at last, I’m down to the novelist’s kind of research, the less tangible things, the abstract. This is where I can cast the net wide to capture the fabric of the world my characters move in.

I’ve been through a similar process with both my previous books, visiting locations to find the details you don’t know until you see them, the things that are the difference between a flat description of anywhere and a living, breathing place but for a novel it’s different, there’s a lot more to see and feel.  If my characters experience something that’s alien to me then I’ll try to close the gap in my knowledge. I admit it, I’m a bit method when it comes to getting into my characters’ heads.

It was in the spirit of this less tangible kind of research that I headed to the Merrion Square Open Day at the weekend. I was in search of a location. William Kirwan and his wife Maria lived close to Merrion Square for most of their married life. Unfortunately, both the house they moved into when they first started to climb the social ladder and the grander premises they were leasing at the time of the murder are long gone. The upstairs drawing room where Maria was struck by her husband in one of their many rows – gone. The coach house through which William tried to make his escape the day the police came to call – gone. The bedroom where one of William’s children lay dying, watched over by Theresa his faithful mistress in the days between that fateful day on Ireland’s Eye and the end of their domestic idyll – all gone. Where the grander house once stood Government Buildings now stands with a different scandalous history all of its own but that doesn’t help my preoccupation at all.

I found my approximation in the wonderful building belonging to the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Meticulously restored and bursting with architectural detail it was the closest I could get to having a nose around the Kirwans’ house. William and Maria’s house wasn’t as grand perhaps and it certainly didn’t have photocopiers and computers but it was easy to picture it as a bustling home. In the downstairs reception room, now the home to the Society’s impressive library, I could hear the clink of glasses as William sealed a deal with a client. In the corresponding upstairs room, in a lull in the chatter from the constant stream of visitors, there seemed to be a stirring of the dust as if wide skirts had brushed by. Standing in the little yard outside the kitchen looking up at the colourful garden it was easy to imagine yourself with the servants as the master rushed past above, something definitely afoot. Even though it wasn’t these rooms they’d walked through and the faithful hound buried at the bottom of the garden (see the picture at the top of this piece) belonged to somebody else, it felt like stepping into their lives for a moment.

One of the most frustrating things I’m finding about this historical subject matter is the time machine you need to move around the city they knew. I’ve the maps and the plans and the contemporary accounts but over the past few years I’ve been lamenting the loss of their city. I’ve always been aware that Dublin’s past hasn’t always been sensitively tended (Wood Quay anyone?) but researching this book has given me a fresh insight. I’m not a historian or an archaeologist but I love the places where you can feel all of Dublin’s centuries around you, the markets round Smithfield say or the area around Christchurch with its warren of medieval streets. Most of the streets where my characters lived and worked have been obliterated but I’ll always try to get as close as I can. I’ve lived in Dublin for over twenty years, had flats in Georgian terraces, gone to carols in the cathedral, lived and worked in the bustling, ancient-modern mishmash of a city that is Dublin today but this feeling is new. It’s looking to the past beneath the shopping centres where my characters live and breath, like finding Boudicca’s layer in London soil. Frustrating it might be trying to find those traces but it’s one of the most rewarding things about working on this book and a feeling I hope never fades away.

The Siren’s Song

Image by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

Pinned above my desk are the pictures of three women. One is a young bride staring into the face of the man she has just married. One is a little girl marking her place in her book as she pauses to indulge the most important man in her life. The last is the resigned lover, waiting patiently to put her clothes back on whenever he has finished that less than Titanic-romantic life sketch. They are all reacting to the same man. The man who would go on to wreck each of their lives.

I first made their acquaintance almost two years ago and it felt like kismet. I have notes of that first encounter, bristling with excited exclamation marks. The first time I saw their faces I felt a thrill of recognition as I picked out each one. I was familiar with their story but hadn’t yet listened to their voices.  Now they won’t shut up!

Two years ago I had no plans to write a novel. I’d just finished my second book Death on the Hill  and I was looking for another subject. I went into the National Library to look through old cases searching for material, casting the net wide. I searched the library catalogue, putting in random searches and seeing what came up but I knew as soon as I saw it that I’d found something special. If you approached an editor today with a murder case involving a philandering artist who’d bumped off the missus to spend more time with the mistress they’d explode with delight. It’s a story that’s so embedded in the history of Dublin that even for me, a blow-in, there was a flicker of recognition. It’s one of those cases that never stays forgotten for long. It’s been fodder for numerous true crime authors, been turned into a play and was  prominently featured in a rather legendary RTE series back in the 1990s.

It’s mostly known as the Ireland’s Eye murder. It took place 160 years ago this year on the famous island just off the coast of Howth here in Dublin. One evening in September a young woman, 28-year-old Maria Louisa Kirwan, was found dead on the island. The only other person there was her husband, the wealthy artist William Bourke Kirwan. It didn’t take long for suspicion to fall on him, despite Kirwan’s insistence that he had spent the time his wife was dying sketching the sunset. There was a thorough police investigation and a sensational trial. But Kirwan’s conviction didn’t stop the debate and there was so much media and political pressure that his death sentence was reduced to transportation for life.

I’ve covered a fair number of trials of men who’ve killed their partners. I’ve written about many of them on this blog. Men like Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, David Bourke, Anton Mulder, and yes, Eamonn Lillis as well. I’ve heard the excuses, watched the guilty wriggle in the stand. I’ve seen juries struggle to come to a verdict when the weight of taking away another’s liberty hangs heavy on them. I’ve watched the victim become nothing more than a disparate collection of evidence, watched their families try to redress the balance, trying to resuscitate a loved one scattered over a jumble of specimen jars. The first time I read Kirwan’s defence my gut told me he was guilty. The more I read the more he seemed just another spoilt, angry man trying to defend the indefensible and the more the women in his shadow fascinated me.

It soon became clear that to tell their stories I wouldn’t be able to write the book as straight nonfiction. Their history lies in the gaps in the documentary record. They appear as brides, little else. Despite the wealth of information that exists because this was such a very famous case in it’s day I found myself staring at a very narrow view. They were defined according to their relationship to a single event. There was no sense, as there was with all the men involved, that there was a life outside the crime, a full existence off-camera. These were women who lived in a time when to be female meant, for most, a life in the shadows of history, waiting at the corner of the scene, mute until they have to fight for their survival.The suffragettes were a generation away and Mary Wollstonecraft was within living memory. If I wanted to tell the story of the strong, lively, intelligent women staring out from these pictures I’d have to look into those shadows and step right to the edges of the scene.  So I embraced the gaps and started to write a novel.

I’ve written fiction before but after two factual books it’s a joy to take the breaks off. There’s still a lot of research to do, more now that I can look beyond the independently verifiable actually but  now that research is a framework I can hang from like a kid on a climbing frame.

William Bourke Kirwan put down his profession as an “anatomical draughtsman”. In other words he earned a living drawing anatomical illustrations for the medical profession. It was a lucrative profession but he also fancied himself as a miniaturist and portrait artist. He wasn’t actually very good. I know this because the three pictures pinned above my desk are actually his work. They belong to the collection of his work that’s in the National Library collection. It’s a rather odd collection of scraps and half finished doodles along with some rather unconvincing skeletal legs. If this book was nonfiction I’d be able to make educated guesses about what, if anything, was the significance of some of the pictures.

But this book isn’t nonfiction, it’s a novel. I can look at them and put myself in Kirwan’s head, decide what he was thinking when he painted each one, why he painted each one. I look at the faces and I see my characters. It’s their stories I want to tell.

The Flow of the Narrative

I was watching The Last Seduction with the Husband last night. It’s one of my favourite films.  Afterwards we were jokingly wondering if this might have been the film that gave Sharon Collins the idea for her ill-judged bit of online retail.  It’s doubtful. The similarities between fact and fiction are slim, to say the least, but it’s a joke we always make. After all, if Sharon had simply been one of my characters then she probably would have been influenced by one of my favourite films, I could have made her influenced by anything I wanted.

It might seem like an obvious distinction between fiction and non-fiction but it’s one that it’s all too easy to blur in the writing. Writing a book is completely different from writing a piece for a newspaper or a post for this blog about the trial while it’s going on. It’s an opportunity to stand back and look at how the story flows, to find the rhythm at it’s heart. It doesn’t feel any different telling a true story or making one up once I get down to writing. The research and planning stages might be different but once the story starts to pick up speed it’s always a question of following the narrative flow. It’s the same with characters. Whether I’m replaying in memory words and actions I know happened, that have been proved in front of a court of law, or allowing the characters to block out their own movements in the theatre of my imagination, it all comes out much the same.

I’ve remarked here before about how strange it feels seeing “characters” in the flesh when a case comes back to court. Something happens when you’ve spent weeks in front of the screen with a subject. In a way it becomes part of you, as do the dramatis personae.  You can get rather possessive. With recent cases the problem’s academic. They’re live stories that will continue to develop outside the scope of my book. But today I’m more concerned with the flow of the story itself.

Why does it seem amusing that Sharon Collins might have been influenced by The Last Seduction? Because it works with the story. It underlines her mixed attempts to be a real life femme fatale by contrasting with a great fictional example.  When I was writing Devil in the Red Dress I used to listen to the Last Seduction soundtrack (a great noirish jazz affair) and my movie viewing tended to revolve around Bogart and Bacall or the Coen Brothers. While I couldn’t do anything with the facts of the case or the words of the witnesses, the underlying beat to that one was most definitely Hollywood Noir with a rather comic edge.

I’m not one of those writers who has to work in silence. I’ve been a journalist for too long for surrounding babble to worry me that much but given the choice I’d rather have my choice of music than Sky News and radio bulletins. So far each book has had it’s own mp3 playlist on my laptop. Devil was smoky jazz, Death on the Hill was written to an accompaniment of mainly French pop and this new one appears to be insisting on passionate instrumentals of Irish or Russian origin. When I was working on my novel I had a different playlist for each character – it helped to keep them solid while I was still working them out.  Whatever it’s content though the playlists all serve the same purpose. They’re a shortcut to the narrative flow. A way of getting to where I need to go.

At the moment, because I’m at an early stage of writing, I’m still feeling for that rhythm but I know it’s there. I think that narrative flows through life like an underground stream. We all instinctively know what works and what doesn’t, based on the facts before us and our knowledge of our fellow man. It’s that same knowledge that can lead a jury to a verdict or make a novel feel like it isn’t working. It’s that gut feeling that creates archetypes and truisms.  There’s a rhythm that undercuts everything and any story has to fall into step or at least be damn good at syncopation.  I’m not talking about the simple stuff that we’d always like to be true – boy gets girl, good always triumphs and evil gets it’s just deserts. It’s just real life. They’re basic rules that always affect the story no matter what you write – true crime or crime fiction, chick lit or fantasy.

At the moment I’m working on something where hearing that rhythm feels more important than ever. I don’t have the benefit of observing my characters and I can’t make them up. If I get them wrong I’m doing a disservice to a story that has, after all, already unfolded.  It’s rather different from anything I’ve ever done.  But I think I’ve found the melody at last, enough for me to follow until the narrative flow catches me and the story takes hold.

A Change of Pace

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the National Library recently.  It’s a completely different place to work to the Criminal Courts of Justice and the work I’ve been doing has been different too.  The courts are all about immediacy, making sure you get the quotes right and into a cohesive article that’ll read fresh when people flick through the paper over their breakfasts.  In the library I’m dealing with old, dry facts, digging through brittle pages to find that glint of a story.  It’s proper old fashioned research and I’m loving it.

The National Library itself is a wonderful place to work. Quite apart from the fact it’s an incredible resource with a dedicated and helpful staff, it’s also one of the most stunning buildings in the country.  Coming into work every day and going through the iron gate, climbing the steps to the colonnade that surround the entrance, walking across the wonderful mosaic floor.  Even the toilets are like something out of a more civilised, genteel time.  Have I mentioned that I’m loving the work?

But I’m not giving up on my genre in the least.  I’ll be back down to the courts in a few weeks, business as usual, and later this week I’m going to be taking part in a panel on True Crime as part of the Dublin Book Festival.  It’s on Thursday March 3rd at the lovely Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar and should be a good night – it’s also free, so if you’re in Dublin, come along.  It should be a good night. 

It’ll be great to talk about True Crime with my colleagues.  It’s a fascinating genre, strong stories, strong emotions, all the ingredients to make a compelling story.  It’s also one of those genres that people tend to have strong opinions about. Some people love reading the stories I tell, other people don’t like me digging into other people’s pain.  I’m fascinated by the different perceptions of what I do, just as I’m fascinated by the trials I cover.  Some people think it’s seedy, some think there’s a kind of glamour there…personally I tread the middle ground. The courts are too starchily academic to be one hundred per cent seedy, but it’s hardly glamorous either.  I tell people’s stories, that’s all.  I try to tell them as vividly and compellingly because I’m not a lawyer or a garda, I’m a writer and telling stories is what I do.  But it all makes for a lively discussion so roll on Thursday, it should be fun.

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