Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Category: Murder (page 1 of 3)

The politics of juries – a strange beast indeed.

 

The selection of the jury in the case of Rex v O’Cioghly Armagh, 1798 Image from Findmypast.co.uk © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England

Over the years I’ve sat through a lot of jury panels. I remember Monday mornings in the Central Criminal Courts in Dublin when Mr Justice Paul Carney would oversee the selection of the juries for the trials that were due to start. Court 4 would be jammed and stifling hot, whatever the season, as jury panellists, various accuseds, victims’ families, barristers, solicitors, gardai and journalists all jostled for elbow room in the body of the court. Carney would often arrive late and was brusque with the excuses of panellists who were reluctant to do their civic duty. The selection process takes time, each person called has a chance to excuse themselves and both prosecution and defence teams have the right to reject anyone they don’t feel will be sympathetic. In a modern trial, they don’t say that reason out loud so you have no way of knowing if you’re on that jury panel if you have been rejected because your hair was too long, too short or some unconscious expression observed by the barristers has convinced them that you will behave in a certain way.

Panellists are also asked if they have any connection to the trial that they could be selected for. If they live near the place where the crime took place, know the accused or the victim or their families, have strong views about the case in any way. Of course, there’s no guarantee that a jury member will always confess a bias but the extraordinary thing about juries is that, whatever their makeup, once they are twelve, and once they have retired to their room, they tend to take things very seriously indeed. Paul Carney’s jury panel sessions were a tradition in themselves. Each week he would issue the same warnings, threaten the same threats of the consequence of not being straight. He would be sympathetic to students with upcoming exams but less so with executives or those in the financial services who would not do their duty. There was a formula to the process and perhaps this was what shapes the juries into the entities they become.

I’ve written a lot about the trial of William Bourke Kirwan, an artist who killed his wife Maria on Ireland’s Eye off the coast of Dublin in 1852. You can read about the case in more detail in posts here, here and here. In that case, the jury actually felt the need to defend their position in a letter to the press. Even though I’ve seen some pretty odd and occasionally downright mad decisions by juries over the years, I’ve never seen a case where they would feel the need to justify their decision. The only exception would perhaps be the Eamonn Lillis case, subject of my second book, Death on the Hill, where the jury explained exactly how they had come to their decision of manslaughter and, possibly because they felt there might be speculation, were absolutely specific that they had decided Lillis was guilty of manslaughter because the prosecution had not proved the case for murder.

Juries interest me, and I’ve often wished I could sit on one simply to see things from the other side, so there’s one record set among the UK National Archives crime records that fascinates me. It’s a little bit outside my period – I usually research Irish courts between 1830 and 1860 or so – but it’s one I keep going back to. It’s a ledger hidden in the rather prosaically named HO130 collection, basically the 130th box of the Home Office records. The fact that it exists I still find amazing. It’s a little piece of colonial history and an insight of how things are done after a rebellion. In these dark times we are living in, perhaps it’s an insight that’s useful to have…

The jury selection was for the trial of United Irishman Father John James O’Cioghly of Loughgall, in County Antrim. Father O’Cioghly and others were on trial for their part in the rebellion of 1798. The jury panel was made up of landed gentry. There were no reluctant students or bankers in this lot. What’s so extraordinary about this record is that it is a record of the silent discussions I watched every Monday in Court 4 in front of Judge Carney, the decisions by prosecution, defence and the magistrate himself on each individual juror. This seems to be a document that was never meant for outside viewing. Justifications for people’s suitability or not are blunt and sometimes brutal.

Take number 22, Sir Richard Glode, for example. The notes comment that Sir Richard should be enquired about. He was strongly anti-aristocratic and this was possibly because he was “exceedingly low born” even if he didn’t show it.

Entry for Sir Richard Glode one of the prospective jurors in Rex v O'Cuighly

Image from Findmypast.co.uk © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England

John Farnaby was not to be trusted. One of the comments notes that he had recently taken his wife’s maiden name of Lennard (sic) – almost certainly the Irish surname Leonard. He was definitely for the cause of a united Ireland.

John Farnaby had recently taken the name of his Irish wife

Image from Findmypast.co.uk © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England

Farnaby might have been tainted by marriage but George Russell had no such excuse. He was “one of the worst of the panel” according to the notes, having actually given £500 of his own money to the United Ireland cause.

George Russell who gave £500 to the cause

Image from Findmypast.co.uk © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England

Luckily for the Crown, eager to make sure O’Cioghly and his compatriots served as a warning, there were also men like Robert Jenner who, the notes reassure, “if eleven would acquit, he would convict.”

Robert Jenner would always convict

Image from Findmypast.co.uk © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England

The jury selection for the case of Rex v O’Cioghly is a rare insight into how a jury is selected, or in this instance possibly stacked. I’m always amazed that such things survive but the historian in me is delighted they do. The journalist in me is equally delighted as this is an insight, however much removed, of a part of the story I could never observe. I’ve been unable to find a trial report for the O’Coighly trial as this was a time when Irish journalism was in its infancy and most newspapers did not yet cover Irish news. Either the jury was well stacked or the Crown’s case was watertight though as Father O’Cioghly was executed on June 7, 1798.

Remembering a monster

Over the past few days this post has been getting a lot of traffic. Written back in 2009, it was my musing on how “Captain” Eamon Cooke, pirate radio legend and notorious paedophile, was still allowed his legendary status by some in the radio industry. Over the years the post has gathered quite a few comments, including from some of those who worked at Radio Dublin and others closely connected with Cooke himself. It’s hardly surprising given Cooke’s death last week and the astonishing news that he may well have been responsible for one of the most famous child disappearances in Dublin, that of 13-year-old Philip Cairns in October 1986.

But perhaps astonishing is the wrong word to use here. When I first read the initial RTE report on Saturday my gut instinct was that the story was credible, though unlikely to be ever proven. Cooke’s 2007 trial was one of the first sex cases I covered in the Dublin courts and gave me an opportunity to watch the monster at close quarters. It was not the first time Cooke had been on trial. He was convicted of a string of sexual offences against 4 victims in 2003 and sentenced to 10 years in jail but was released 3 years later in 2006 on a legal technicality. Cooke was one of those who benefitted from the existing Irish law on statutory rape being ruled unconstitutional as it did not allow for a defence of honest mistake about the victim’s age. The 2007 went ahead with 2 of the original complainants and should have only lasted a week or two.

Cooke grandstanded the whole way through the trial. It took place in one of the smaller courtrooms upstairs in the Four Courts, a tiny, airless room, especially on a warm summer’s day. Everyone found it airless but Cooke played up the elderly infirm little old man. He insisted on having one of the prison staff bring him a jug of water, while one of his victim’s took the stand. Evidence that should have taken a day or less to give was dragged out over days as he insisted on regular breaks. A trial that should, on the evidence, have taken no more than two weeks, dragged on for a month. I would see the two women who were the chief prosecution victims in the pub across the road from the courthouse at lunchtime every day. I found it more difficult than I ever have to keep a journalistic objectivity as I had my own reasons to identify with the evidence they gave. The same reasons that eventually made me stop covering those kinds of trials (nothing to do with Cooke – but one shrivelled, manipulative psychopath is much like another).

Sentencing Cooke, Ms Justice Maureen Clark, expressed a wish to make all his sentences consecutive rather than concurrent, as she had to under Irish law. Cooke was found guilty on 42 counts which would all have . If the sentences had run consecutively he would have faced a sentence of decades rather than the 10 years he received. With someone like Cooke, who it would be no exaggeration to describe as Ireland’s Jimmy Savile, such a sentence would have surely represented justice – but simply wasn’t possible under Irish law.

I had wanted to cover the trial though – call it curiosity. Anyone who’d worked in Irish radio knew about Captain Cooke. Back in the days of the pirate radio stations, before commercial licences were finally awarded in the late 80s, Radio Dublin was one of the first and one of the biggest. Cooke was a larger than life character but one that there were always stories about. A lot of people, judging by the stories you’d hear in radio circles when I started in the 90s, knew that there was something predatory about Cooke. It was well known that he had a nasty violent streak.

I’ve seen comments on social media the past few days about the need for caution with a case like this. We all know Cooke was a monster but surely he’s too convenient a hook to hang this on? What if the real culprit is still out there? But my feeling is that it’s a neat fit because it’s the right one. The gardai were obviously convinced by what they’d been told and Cooke was that much of a monster.

I’m not just basing that on the evidence I heard or a few weeks in an overly stuffy courtroom. Before I started working in the courts I had come across Cooke in another capacity. I had taken a break from journalism to focus on writing and was doing contract jobs in the meantime. I spent several months working for the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution who’s job it was to take submissions to decide where the Constitution needed updating or revising. I was there while they were examining the portion of the constitution that concerns the family – so we were looking at fathers’ rights, the place of the woman in the home, adoptive rights, gay marriage and the definition of the family – all things guaranteed to get a spirited response from the various sides. It was a major part of my job to go through the submissions received each day, copy and file them and write up a summary for the committee. I would flag major submissions on both sides and the best reasoned individual submissions were brought to notice.

One day a submission came in from Eamon Cooke. I recognised the name at once as I’d been following his 2003 trial, and noted that the letter was posted from prison (either Arbour Hill or Wheatfield I think, but I forget). Cooke argued passionately for the rights of fathers to have access to their children. He spoke of his own situation and how, since he had gone to prison, he was finding it difficult to see his children (I know he had 11 children aged between 4 and 18 at his 2007 trial). He argued for the rights of fathers in prison. He talked about custody issues. He neglected to mention the fact that the reason he was in prison was for sexually abusing children. One of my colleagues read the submission as well and not recognising the sender, wanted to make sure the politicians saw it. I made sure the submission had a note on it about Cooke’s conviction and the inadvisability of using it as grounds for any findings. If I had recognised the name, any other journalist would have done the same. I was shocked by how brazen Cooke was but it really fits with everything else I’ve learnt about him over the years. It would also fit with the kind of psyche who would hide a murder for 30 years and refuse to say where the body was even on his death bed.

I presume that submission is still in a file somewhere, but since the Committee was disbanded long ago goodness knows where you’d find it. I was told at the time, when I asked about access to the submissions in the future, that once the report was published the submissions were a matter of public record. This isn’t my field anymore, but given the recent revelations I thought I’d add this.

Cooke was a monster. He was uncovered as a monster many years ago but as with any prolific, narcissistic predator, there were many silent, ignored victims. Knowing a dark truth about someone who puts a carefully crafted face to the world can be a very lonely place to be. There’s no way of knowing, until that truth comes out, if you are alone or one of many – and men like that guard their reputations. In 2009, when Cooke appealed his 2007 sentence he complained that the allegations against him were simply to harm his reputation. When Radio Dublin staff walked out in 1978 and left the station off air while Cooke was in Spain (according to evidence given during his 2007 trial, with the winner of the competition for the holiday, a 15 or 16-year-old girl) he took to the airwaves on his return to refute allegations of child abuse. If you’ve a strong stomach you can hear part of that broadcast in this clip which someone uploaded to Youtube after that trial.

I hope that for Philip Cairns’ family and Cooke’s many victims there is some peace but men like Cooke don’t leave peace in their wake, they leave shattered lives. A truly evil man has died and, if it is true about Philip Cairns, he kept his power to the end. That sort always do.

It’s in the trees…it’s coming…

Nightofthedemonposter

I thought it was time for another look at real cases that have their echoes in classic films. Last time I wrote about lost Lon Chaney film London After Midnight  and it’s connection to the rather tragic case of Julia Mangan, killed by the obviously disturbed Robert Williams. This time we’re sticking with a horror film but the story has more than a whiff of the supernatural – the link might be quite rather tenuous but I’m going with it. It’s a great film and the cases that echo through the story are fascinating ones.

Night of the Demon  was Jacques Tourneur’s version of the classic M.R. James short story Casting the Runes. Released in 1957 it tells the story of the sceptical psychologist played by Dana Andrews who comes up against the charismatically devilish Niall MacGinnis. It’s a tremendously creepy film that has all of James’ hallmarks – intellectual arrogance coming a cropper against older, darker forces – but for the contemporary audience it was a story that carried a particularly plausible shiver thanks to a couple of strange war time murders. Even though there’s no direct link, there’s a very good chance that screenwriters Charles Bennett and Hal. E. Chester were influenced by what they read about these cases when they were updating James’s earlier story.

In 1943 four small boys were poaching in Hagley Woods near the village of Stourbridge in Worcestershire. They came across a large Wych Elm near Wychbury Hill and it was there they made a shocking discovery. Looking for birds nests they climbed the trunk and peered into the hollow. Below them was a human skull still with traces of hair attached.

Local papers appealed for information about the identity of the deceased – a woman believed to be aged between 35 and 40.

Gloucestershire Echo 24 April 1943

Gloucestershire Echo, 24 April 1943

No one came forward to claim her. But someone didn’t want her to be forgotten. As the first anniversary of the discovery approached, the Sunday Mirror took up the story.

Sunday_Mirror_02041944

Sunday Mirror, April 2 1944

The piece explained that shortly before Christmas the previous year the words “Who put Luebella down the wych elm?” were written in chalk on the wall of a house on Hayden Hill Road, Old Hill. The following week the words appeared again on the wall of an empty premises in Upper Dean Street, Birmingham. A few days later, the mysterious writer was obviously getting frustrated that no one was answering them so the words “Hagley Wood Bella” appeared several times near by. Bella has never been formally identified. One theory said she was part of a war time spy ring. The file remains open.

The following year a gruesome murder in nearby Warwickshire dredged up old suspicions and paranoia. On Valentines’ Day, 74-year-old hedge cutter Charles Walton was slashed to death near the village of Lower Quinton with a pitchfork and a slash hook. Initial reports such as this one from the Gloucestershire Citizen the following day made no mention of any supernatural link but that would soon change.

Gloucester_Citizen_15_February_1945

Gloucester Citizen, February 15, 1945

However the case soon became synonymous with witchcraft, largely thanks to the later accounts of the famous Chief Inspector Robert Fabian, who arrived from Scotland Yard to investigate. In his 1950 memoir, Fabian of the Yard, he would write.

“One of my most memorable murder cases was at the village of Lower Quinton, near the stone Druid circle of the Whispering Knights. There a man had been killed in a reproduction of a Druidical ceremony on St Valentines’ Eve”

Fabian suggested that the case had marked similarities with a murder that had happened nearby a generation ago, a murder where witchcraft actually had been a very real part of the story. It’s rather unlikely that the Walton case had anything to do with the occult even if it did make one hell of a good story. The earlier case on the other hand really did seem to arise from good old fashioned superstitious paranoia.

In December 1875, the the trial of James Haywood at the Warwickshire Assizes was covered by the Warwickshire Journal. All the witnesses described Haywood’s preoccupation with witches, leading to a brutal attack on elderly Ann Tennant, who he had attacked with a pitchfork and killed in the village of Long Compton.

Haywood had apparently said that there were 15 or 16 witches in the village and that they were making it impossible for him to work. He said that he would kill them one by one. When the victim’s daughter took the stand, he got agitated in court.

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_1

Worcestershire Journal, 18 December 1875

According to the superintendent of the county lunatic asylum Haywood was insane.

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_2

Haywood was found not guilty by reason of insanity and would spend the rest of his life in the asylum. However it is worth noting the words of an earlier witness, local farmer James Taylor…

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_3

It’s impossible to know how much influence these cases had on the writers of Night of the Demon but it is very reasonable to assume that they were were in the mix somewhere. Fabian’s memoires were adapted by the BBC in the 50s and  the Lower Quinton case in particular was a notorious one. The film is a quintessentially English horror firmly rooted in a world where belief in witchcraft had never fully died out. In fact, in the 50s it was rather a fashionable subject. The founder of modern witchcraft, Gerald Gardiner, had published his book Witchcraft Today in 1954 and Hammer Films were helping horror films back into the spotlight after the war. These three cases undoubtedly formed part of the national psyche and have not lost their resonance today.

All newspapers available on Findmypast.co.uk

Scared out of his wits

Annex - Chaney Sr., Lon (London After Midnight)_02

Lon Chaney as the master detective Edward C. Burke in the film London After Midnight, which allegedly frightened a man to commit murder. Image thanks to Doctor Macro.

It’s been a while since I’ve told the story of a trial. Hardly surprising since that’s not what I do anymore but I haven’t moved very far away from that line of work really. I still spend far too much time immersed in the details of murders and murderers so I’ll continue to share their stories.

When I was growing up Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange was notorious. We all knew it was banned, and unlike the so-called video nasties that were our favourite loans from the video store, it had been withdrawn by it’s  director after being linked to violence.

But 50 years before Clockwork Orange was linked to violence a sad little case came before the courts in London that had a similar link to Hollywood. It went largely unreported by the London papers, unsurprisingly since the case had that familiar ring that even now made it unlikely to generate many column inches. A woman killed by her partner.  I’ve covered so many down through the years and written about them here. But what this case extraordinary was the defence – that the accused man had been so terrified by a film he’d recently seen, London After Midnight starring Lon Chaney, that he had lost his mind, albeit temporarily.

On October 25th 1928 the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette announced the “Hyde Park Tragedy”.

Hyde Park tragedy Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 25101928

The following day the Dundee Evening Telegraph carried a report from the inquest. An unnamed constable described finding the young Irish woman. She was lying huddled, face down with her left hand on her throat. Her glove was saturated with blood.

Patrick Mangan, her brother, told the inquest that his sister had been seeing Williams for three weeks. He had once had to throw him out of her place for being drunk.

Williams was expected to be discharged from hospital in about 10 days time. A picture was beginning to form. The inquest was adjourned until he could be questioned.

In November the case came before the Marlborough Street Police Court. This was the first time details of the case had been heard in public. The Nottingham Evening Post informed it’s readers that 21-year-old Julia had been employed as a worked as a house-maid in a house on Stanhope Gardens in South Kensington.

The police doctor said that considerable violence must have been used to cause the wound in her neck. A policeman who had gone to charge Williams in hospital told the court that before he could caution him Williams had told him “I did it, she had been teasing me.”

A couple of months later the case came for trial in the Old Bailey. The Central Criminal Court after trial calendars show that Williams was charged on two counts. One of murder, the other of suicide.

CRIM9 Robert Williams listed in the After trial calendars

I can’t tell how widely reported the case was. I haven’t been able to find a single reference in the London papers, although this is probably down to the late (for digital archive sources) date, but there was quite a bit of coverage north of Watford, as my mum used to say.

The Hartlepool Mail on December 20th 1928 carried a report from the Central Criminal Court, Williams was being tested to see if he was fit to stand trial. He was indicted on the charge of murder and pleaded not guilty but a key medical witness was not available to back up his insanity defence. Williams took the stand and told the court that he had known Julia Mangan for around a month. He had wanted to kill himself three days before he had killed Julia, on October 23rd. He had put a cut throat razor in his pocket. He had not intended to hurt Julia, they were friends. He had wanted to marry her, although he had told her a false name when they first met.

There had been no quarrel he said. “I felt as though my head were going to burst and that steam was coming out of both sides. All sorts of things came to my mind. I thought a man had me in a corner and was pulling faces at me. He threatened and shouted at me that he had me where he wanted me.” The man, it appears, was Lon Chaney as he had appeared in London After Midnight, a film Williams had seen several months before.

The defence put forward their case. A local chaplain from Williams’ home town of Caernarvon told the court he knew of five separate incidences of insanity in Williams’ family. A London doctor said that while he had treated Williams for neurasthenia and would have considered him “abnormal” he would not have certified him insane.

Dr James Cowan Woods, described as a lecturer on mental diseases, suggested that Williams had been suffering from an epileptic mental attack, “epileptic automatism”, much to the consternation of the judge. “You have said that many people of high intelligence are going about their work, although they are suffering from epilepsy. Are you suggesting that they might commit murder tomorrow?”

But by the time Williams stood trial in January there was still some confusion about whether he suffered from epilepsy at all. No firm diagnosis was given during the trial according to the available reports. The Western Daily Press  was more focused on the Hollywood angle, as it appeared was the trial judge, Mr Justice Humphries, when he was summing up to the jury.

“I do not know whether you have been to see any film in which Mr Lon Chaney acted. One of them, we are told is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and another London After Midnight. If any of your members of the jury have seen the later, or even the advertisements of what Mr Lon Chaney looks like when he is acting in that film you may agree it is enough to terrify anyone.”

"London After Midnight Poster 1927 MGM" by MGM - ha.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The film in question, directed by legendary director Tod Browning best known for his later films Dracula (1931) and the infamous Freaks (1934). It is known as the director’s first exploration of the vampire theme and is one of the most famous lost films – the last known copy was destroyed in a fire at MGM studios in 1967. Chaney plays a detective intent on discovering who killed Sir Roger Balfour. It was based on a short story written by Browning, The Hypnotist. Chaney, was already famous for his skills of makeup and one of the selling points of the film was that the audience got to see the master at work as the detective dons various elaborate disguises – including the famous one shown in the poster and the still at the top of this piece – with sharpened teeth and special wire fittings like monocles to give him that special hypnotist stare. The film was rather a flop.

However, during Judge Humphries obviously wasn’t a fan of such popular entertainment and was only going by what had been said in court.

Judge's comments reported in Western Daily Press, January 11 1829

Williams was found guilty and sentenced to death. Judge Humphries instructed that further inquiries were made by the Home Office to try to get to the bottom of that epilepsy diagnosis. I never did find out if he was executed or not.

So the case became part of the legend of a legendary film. Personally, having gone through all the newspaper reports while I was researching this I’d have my doubts about Williams’ story. The story at the heart has too many similarities with cases I’ve covered in the past. There’s Williams’ hospital statement, that he killed her because she made fun of him. Had he proposed and been turned down? Had she broken things off? These would be far more likely scenarios in cases where women are killed by their intimate partner. I’ve also covered cases where the medical evidence was in no doubt, where the accused could not be found guilty by reason of insanity. Those cases are so often marked out by the degree of violence. While the evidence is there that the wound to Julia Mangan’s neck was done with violent force there isn’t the overkill that so often goes with a psychotic break – and I’m not even getting into the whole epileptics as killers undercurrent to the evidence…that seems more like common prejudice than anything that would be born out by modern medicine.

References:

  • Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 25 October 1928, page 8 of 8
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph, 26 October 1928, page 6 of 12
  • Derby Daily Telegraph, 13 November 1928, page 7 of 12
  • Hartlepool Mail, 20 December 1928, page 10 of 10
  • Western Daily Press, 11 January 1929,page 11 of 12
  • Central Criminal Court: after-trial calendars of prisoners (TNA Ref: CRIM 9)

All sources found on Findmypast

Things to do on a Wet Afternoon…

Deserted warehouse by Chris Miller on Flicker reproduced under Creative Commons some rights reserved

Not the warehouse I was filming in but one that would probably make a good location for a true crime documentary. This one photographed by Chris Miller from Flickr reproduced under Creative Commons some rights reserved.

It’s always a deserted warehouse. Over the years I must have visited more of them than your average movie gangster. Sometimes they are the elephant’s graveyard of boomtime optimism, other times the faded corners of old Dublin. Today’s was a relic of 19th century industry, all small basement rooms, crumbling masonry and pigeon droppings. The perfect place to discuss a murder – that’s why movie gangsters spend so much time hanging out in them. That’s why I was there on a rainy Monday afternoon in a Dublin summer.

There always seems to be someone making a true crime show for Irish television. It seems the public has an insatiable appetite for death and disaster. That’s nothing new of course. Thomas de Quincey turned a satirical eye on the aesthetic appeal of murder in 1827, although he was quite seriously disturbed by the public’s fascination with the crime. George Orwell wrote with more affection on The Decline in the English Murder in 1946. Why should the 21st Century be any different? So around this time of year – ready for scheduling when the nights start drawing in and the time for stories round the fire comes round again, the filming starts. For all our social networked world we haven’t changed so very much. I’ve written on so many cases over the years that I often get the call. If the murder came before the courts between 2007 and 2010 I was probably there and there’s a good chance I’ve written about it here and elsewhere. My words have become part of the record, that first draft of history that journalism provides.

That might sound a little pompous but I certainly don’t mean it that way. That “first draft of history” phrase is one that often runs through my mind as I research 19th century newspapers and I’m so conscious of the fact that the court reports I read there were written by people like me. Just as in modern Ireland it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get hold of a transcript of a trial if you’re simply an observer or wish to tell the story of the case, so the official documentation of so many 19th century trials has been lost. Just as now what I have written and my journalistic colleagues continue to write, fills in the gaps in appeal judgements and provides the colour that gets lost as the public recollection fades, so the 19th century reports breath life into long forgotten cases that would have been forgotten decades ago.

Of course, the cases that generate the most newsprint are the ones that really capture the public imagination. The ones that get talked about in coffee breaks with co-workers, in the pub with friends, on doorsteps with neighbours. There comes a point when they blend into folk memory, become part of social history, inform a generation. Between 2006 and 2008 there seemed to be a mania for murder but that was simply the number of cases appearing before the court. After the press bonanza that was Joe O’Reilly the editors were always looking for the next big case and every month or so there seemed to be a new contender. It’s these cases that are the ones often revisited in warehouses on summer afternoons. Because if you’re going to talk about murder it should be in a suitable desolate setting. Odd perhaps, since the cases we remember are the ones that usually happen in comfortable suburbia with fitted carpets and mod cons. But it’s usually a warehouse, lit atmospherically even if the sun is shining. Perhaps we need that desolate setting to tell these tales. Would a comfortable setting, a living room or kitchen like so many actual murder scenes, be too real, too close.

We can only enjoy murder if it is at that remove. We don’t want to be confronted by the actual death of a person. We want to be told a story, a grim story perhaps, but one that has been told huddled around the fire since lions still had sabre teeth and deer were much, much bigger. If conflict is at the heart of any good story then murder is the perfect story if only we can come to terms with the blood of it, remove the smell of death. I’ve noticed that when I say I’ve written true crime, in some company, the reaction is dismissive, but if I mention historical true crime, or historical fiction the reception is far warmer. I’ve researched the cases as thoroughly, the details of the story might be echoes of each other but one subject has distance and the other doesn’t and that distance is increased as soon as I’m making it up. Because obviously it’s far healthier to be able to imagine the details of a perfect murder rather than simply recount someone else’s actions…

So that’s why I spent this afternoon in a disused warehouse. I was talking murder – just as I’ve often done in the past. It’s a bit of a culture shift talking about recent cases again but I’m sure some day when I’m talking about my 19th century murders I’ll end up doing it in another disused warehouse. It’s the obligatory setting. The expected scene. It wouldn’t be quite the same any other way. As for this afternoon’s effort I’ll give more detail when I have it.

Those twitching net curtains again

“Because they should know better…”

That’s what I was told when, as a young journalist, I asked why it was always bigger news when a crime was committed by someone in a white collar job. I never liked that answer. Let’s leave aside the fact that it assumes that anyone from a less privileged position in society doesn’t or can’t know that committing a crime is wrong, I just don’t think it’s the whole story.

Human beings as a species are naturally nosy. Maybe it grew up as a survival strategy, maybe it’s just one of our baser instincts, whatever the reason, there is a slightly sinful enjoyment to be had from peering into someone else’s life. Look at the success of reality television. Social media means we can stalk our nearest and dearest, not to mention people we haven’t seen since school or who we met briefly once long ago, like never before. But for proper Grade-A snooping, with added moral vindication, you really can’t beat the criminal courts.

When you’re reporting a trial there is a checklist you follow to find that perfect case. A perfect case, especially if you are a freelancer, is a story that will get you “above the fold”. A story that will have good enough quotes that they will appear as a “standfirst” in larger type at the top of your piece. A story with a strong enough hook that you’ll get a nice large headline and maybe a picture byline. A story that lends itself to pictures. A trial with a white collar criminal or a murder with a beautiful or heartbreakingly pathetic corpse tends to tick all the boxes. Add a sexual element, in murder at least, and you can guarantee the press benches will be full and it’ll be standing room only in the courtroom.

I’ve written about these kinds of trials for almost half my career. I wrote two books because the public appetite for these cases meant there was a market for them. I earned my living out from knowing which trials would generate the column inches, noting details when a death was announced, keeping an ear out for court dates, having the research ready. A big trial would mean more money, would mean the camaraderie of a large press posse following every move, could even lead to a book deal or a movie deal. A big trial would be a pay out.

But at the same time you tend to see the worst of people during a big trial. The rubber neckers who turn up every day, rubbing their hands with glee at the juicier evidence. The neighbours who’d grab you for the gruesome details. The callous jokes you hear yourself cracking at lunchtime with colleagues. Even though it was how I made my living, even though I shared the interest, the lack of empathy bothered me and became something I didn’t want to feed any more.

When we look at a white collar accused we do so with smugness. They should have known better than to be there, therefore we can freely judge them. They have transgressed, have let the side down – we are absolved from pity.  All too often this condemnation is extended to the victim. If the victim can also be seen to have failed morally in some way, then the way is clear to enjoy the gory details without being hampered by compassion. I can only imagine how the family of Elaine O’Hara are feeling this week as architect Graham Dwyer is on trial for her murder in a trial that is generating daily headlines about bondage and sadomasochism. Reading the headlines it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s on trial. Whatever the verdict at the end of the trial, Elaine O’Hara will be remembered by many because of her supposed sexual preferences rather than because of the facts, such as they are known, of her death.

I’m currently researching middle class crime in the 19th century for an academic paper – looking at the very early days of court reporting. I knew from researching the Ireland’s Eye murder that some things never change when it comes to the kind of trials that make the headlines but it’s fascinating to see how court reporting evolved in the early 19th century. Newspapers have never been free of the commercial need to draw in more readers. They’ve always had to “tickle the public”. There was never a time when sex didn’t sell, even when it couldn’t be mentioned.  The trials that are remembered today, that inspired songs and plays back then – like the murder of Maria Marten by William Corder, the famous Red Barn murder of 1827 – would still make headlines. Some things never change.

A Sentence of Death

The crowds that filled Green Street in Dublin’s north inner city on the morning of Friday December 10th 1852 were bigger than ever. Both days of the trial of artist William Bourke Kirwan had played out in front of a packed courtroom with proceedings being relayed to the unfortunates outside who had been unable to gain admission. But news of the sensational late night verdict had flown around the trial and everyone wanted to see the conclusion.

The air outside the court that morning was crackling with excitement and when the doors to the courthouse were opened shortly before 10 o’clock, people were almost crushed in the surge forward. The prisoner’s legal team, led by Isaac Butt MP, were already in attendance and the well of the court had been occupied by interested members of the legal profession and their well heeled friends before the public gained admittance. The court filled in moments and an expectant hush fell in anticipation of the doomed man.

The judges took their seats at half past ten and Justice Philip Crampton called for the prisoner to be brought into the dock.

If the crowds had been hoping for a broken man they were disappointed. Kirwan took his place confidently and sat up straight, staring straight ahead. Gone was the fear that had been in evidence last night when the word guilty rang out in the court just before midnight. William Kirwan looked like a man who still didn’t believe he had lost the fight.

But before any verdict could be handed down Isaac Butt was on his feet. There were matters of evidence that he maintained had been produced illegally, he told the court. The evidence regarding Kirwan’s mistress should not have been allowed he said, and the evidence of some of the medical witnesses regarding the body of the deceased. He asked for leave to appeal.

Judge Crampton asked if the sentence would be better postponed until the matter had been dealt with but Mr Butt said this would not be necessary. Kirwan’s solicitor John Curran Esq, also objected to the admission of his client’s testimony at the inquest into his wife’s death as evidence in the trial of her murder. The judges rejected his submission since Kirwan had spoken willingly at a time when he was not under suspicion.

Legal wrangling over at last the crowd leaned forward expectantly as the Clerk of the Court turned to Kirwan and asked him if he had anything to add before his sentence was handed down.

Kirwan then stood and put his hands of the edge of the dock. Speaking in a firm and perfectly calm voice with no sign of uncertainty or wavering he addressed the court.

“My lords, might I claim the indulgence of the Court for a few moments for the purpose of stating some matters connected with this unfortunate affair, that have not bee brought of in this trial.” He then eloquently and at considerable length set about outlining the points he was sure would underline his innocence. He spent some time considering who had been carrying his wife’s bathing dress on that fateful day, despite the fact that she had been wearing it when she was found. For the attentive courtroom he picked over all the minor points of that day. What they had for lunch. Where he was sitting while sketching alone of the island. He spent some time explaining how his trousers had got wet. It was rain on the long grass he insisted, not salt water at all. He would have gone through every moment of the more peaceful part of the day if Mr Justice Crampton hadn’t stopped him.

“I am sorry to interrupt you at this painful moment, and you must be well aware that your counsel entered into all these subjects. It is impossible for me now to go into the evidence.”

At a moment when it might have been advisable for Kirwan to mention how much he loved his wife, or how sorry he was that she was dead and gone from him he was only concerned with himself.

“I consider myself to be a doomed person, from the trial that has taken place, and the sentence about to be passed; and I state these matters as well out of regard for my own memory as for the sake of those friends who have been with me, who know my character from childhood, who know my innocence, and who feel it yet as I do.”

Judge Crampton, his voice low and trembling with emotion began his sentence. He told Kirwan that he had been tried by the ablest of counsel and his case had been decided by a very intelligent and impartial jury. He was not going to pronounce his own judgement on their verdict he said but “I can see no reason or grounds to bee dissatisfied with it”, a view that was shared by the second judge on the case, Baron Richard Greene. Kirwan’s crime he said was the most heinous in the eyes of God. He had not raised his hand against another man who had insulted, provoked or injured him but a woman “a helpless, unprotected female – one whom, by the laws of God and man, was entitled to your affectionate guardianship.”

This dreadful act was compounded, the judge went on, by the illicit double life Kirwan had led for the whole of his married life. This double life may also have contributed to his motive. “Embarrassed you may have been by the painful predicament in which you had placed yourself, under this double engagement, and you seem to have resolved to extricate yourself by a desperate crime. Instead of dismissing the mistress and providing for her as well as you could, you appear to have mediated the destruction of the wife.”

Justice Crampton told Kirwan his fate would serve as a warning to the young. “Let them beware of forming immoral engagements, and of entering into profligate courses. The steps of crime are very gradual – there is not much descent from one step to another, and the first leads naturally to the second, and so on until the last fatal step.” Kirwan’s die was cast, the learned judge said. He could look to no earthly consolations, merely hope for the comfort of faith.

At last the judge came to the decisive moment. A shudder passed through the crowded courtroom and for a moment Kirwan lost all his composure, slumping forward in his seat and raising his hand to his eyes as if to close out the world and the inevitability of what was to come next. Justice Crampton lifted up a square black cap and placed it on top of his wig.

“The sentence is, that you William Bourke Kirwan, be taken from the place where you now stand to the place from which you came, the gaol, and that from thence you be there hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be buried within the precincts of the prison in which you are now confined. And oh, may the Lord have mercy on your soul.” As the judge spoke the words “your body buried” Kirwan could be seen to shake as the reality of his situation finally seemed to take hold.

There was a hush in the courtroom after the verdict and the guards came to remove Kirwan from the dock. Before he left he gripped the rail of the dock once more.

“Convinced as I am that my hopes in this world are at an end, I do most solemnly declare, in the presence of this court, and of that God before whom I expect soon to stand, that I had neither act, not part in, or knowledge of, my late wife’s death; and I will state further, that I never treated her unkindly, as her own mother can testify.”

So 160 years ago today one of Dublin’s most sensational trials came to an end.

I found the transcript two years ago when researching a history of the criminal courts. As a court reporter I’ve always been interested in the behaviour of the accused. If I had been sitting in that courtroom I would have been in no doubt that William Kirwan was absolutely banged to rights. It seems that the Dublin press of the day were pretty unanimously of the same opinion. But the sentence was only the beginning. Within days the first letters appeared in the British papers arguing Kirwan’s innocence.

He hired a new solicitor and within weeks statements had been gathered to support his defence, including, finally the word of his faithful mistress Theresa Kenny. Kirwan’s sentence was commuted to transportation for life on New Years Eve 1852. He spent six years in a prison camp in Bermuda, where he appears to have landed the cushy job of working for the camp doctor. When the camp closed he was sent back to Spike Island in Cork where he served out the rest of his sentence. His six living children were scattered, damaged and alone. His mistress, ever loyal, waited for him, although the cost would be great.

When I started to dig into the facts behind the case Theresa was the one who really caught my imagination. The more I dug the more I found strong vibrant women who cried out to have their story told. That’s what I’m doing with this book, telling the stories of those that have slipped out of the pages of history. It is rather taking the long route but their stories deserve to be told.

If you want more detail about the trial itself there are various accounts. My favourite is the account of another court reporter, the indomitable Scot William Roughead. We agree on the fact that Kirwan was guilty as sin, although another account, by Irish judge and patriot Matthias McDonnell Bodkin in his 1918 book Famous Irish Trials sees the whole thing as a miscarriage of justice. Roughead consulted with the prosecution legal team when he wrote his account so perhaps he got to take a peek at the book of evidence. I’ve had a look at it myself. It makes fascinating reading. If you want a more modern take on the trial, true crime writer Michael Sheridan’s latest book is on that very subject. Murder on Ireland’s Eye doesn’t go beyond Kirwan’s story but it’s a comprehensive account of the trial and some of the fallout of that controversial verdict.

Find the Lady…

Day two of the Ireland’s Eye murder trial, 160 years ago today. It was a crisp December morning but Green Street was already bustling by 8am. Members of the public who had managed to get in for the first day’s evidence were determined to get their seats a second day while those who had waited outside, craning to hear the updates being shouted from the  door of the courtroom were equally determined to get their own place today.

When the doors finally opened people were almost crushed in the surge to get in but by the time the public got through the door the well of the court was already bustling with barristers who had no real reason to be there. Anticipation was great no matter where you looked because today the mistress was due to take the stand. The world and his wife now knew that artist William Bourke Kirwan had kept another home away from the wife he was accused of murdering. A home full of children with a woman who had brazenly described herself as Mrs Kirwan although another held that name by law.

At 10 o’clock the judges took their seats and shortly afterward the prisoner took his place in the dock. Once again the press bench noted his fashionable appearance. He was a stocky man with dark Byronic looks and an arrogant swagger, it seemed to them. Journalists in 1852 didn’t worry so much about their descriptions during a trial prejudicing the jury against the accused. The Dublin hacks were unanimous that that Kirwan was a wrong ‘un.

Much to the disappointment of the heaving courtroom the first witness was not the one anticipated and there was fidgeting while one of the arresting officers dropped the rather juicy nugget that the eagerly awaited Teresa Kenny had slipped into her dead rivals shoes at the earliest opportunity. When police officers arrived at 11 Merrion Street Upper early on the morning of October 6th they found the nefarious Ms Kenny minding a sick child while an older boy played with a baby.  There were still breakfast things on the table and it was quite obvious that they had walked into a family home rather than a house of mourning. The man of either house was trying to make a surreptitious getaway by nipping out through the stables at the back but the officers who had thoughtfully headed round the back of the house stopped his escape.

Interesting as this story may have been it had leaked out in the long wait for the trial. There was an excited intake of breath as the usher called the next witness. Teresa Kenny.

In the eager coughing anticipation that followed you could have heard a pin drop. Nothing happened. A murmur rippled through the court as it became apparent that Miss Kenny was nowhere to be seen. The crowds waited with baited breath but there was no second call. Matters would move on without the star witness.

It’s been the subject of much discussion over the years exactly what happened to Teresa that day. Did she stay away to avoid incriminating the man she loved? Or did she simply fall ill, As she herself suggested a few weeks later, falling faint after a nasty cut on the hand in the appalling crush outside the court? Whether or not Teresa actually felt faint and too ill to take the stand I’ve my own theory about why the prosecution didn’t press the matter. In the trial transcript, just before the call for Teresa went out there’s an interjection from one of the judges, Mr Justice Crampton. He disputes evidence pulled from a maid who had left the Kirwan’s employ some months before the events on Ireland’s Eye. “I do not see what these things have to do with the questions at issue” he rather sharply asks George Smyly, the prosecution senior counsel. The transcript doesn’t show any further legal argument but I’ve seen modern trials when evidence outside the direct run of evidence has been disallowed, no matter how pertinent. It seems probable that the same rule had been invoked and Smyly decided it wasn’t worth pushing the issue by leading Teresa Kenny through the confrontation she had had with Maria Kirwan several months before the latter’s death. Both Teresa and Maria’s mother, Mrs Crowe had told police about the standoff during the investigation but neither woman is called during the trial. One can only assume that the law just didn’t go the prosecution’s way that day. But it was not, as has been suggested many times in the past 160 years, that the prosecution case was simply too weak to stand up.

The prosecution case continued, much as a modern trial would have with the forensic evidence, such as it was. James Arthur Hamilton, the medical student who had given the body a cursory examination for the inquest was followed by the police medical examiner George Hatchell. There was another medical man sitting in the body of the court, the foremost expert in medico judicial matters in Ireland. Thomas G. Geoghegan, professor of forensic medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland had been brought in to consult by the prosecution. He had not attended the post mortem itself but had visited the murder scene and it was on his advice that all the medical witnesses were present in court while the civilian witnesses were examined, to glean what they could from those utterly amateur preliminary examinations of the body. Geoghegan wasn’t called to give evidence but would give his views later, when the prosecution case was seriously questioned.

Hatchell gave a thorough testimony of the postmortem he conducted on the month old body. It had been a wet month and the body when it was exhumed from wet ground at Glasnevin Cemetery was not in the best condition. Hatchell was unable to give a conclusive analysis on cause of death although he found the lungs engorged with blood. Something that would have been consistent with a sudden stopping of respiration. He was firmly of the opinion that the body did not show the signs of a simple drowning and this enlargement of the lungs together with the blood that had been observed coming from the ears and sexual organs of the victim by the woman who had washed the body were both to his mind signifiers of a more violent death. He leaned towards the prosecution case of “burking”, borrowing the name and m.o. of famous grave robbing murder William Burke, who with his partner William Hare had dispatched 17 victims by covering their nose and mouth and compressing their chests.

After the medical evidence, Kirwan’s evidence to the inquest into his wife’s death was read to the court. Rather unsurprisingly this amounted to nothing more than the fact that he and his wife had gone to Ireland’s Eye on September 6th and she had died. He had offered the coroner’s jury a look at the sketch book he had taken to the island that day. He had been painting the sunset he told them. A fact that would pinpoint his innocence as he could not have been sketching a scene on the other side of the Ireland while killing his wife at the Long Hole.

After barely two days of evidence the prosecution was at an end. Defence barrister Isaac Butt made his closing argument, pointing out the flaws in the prosecution case to the jury. The witnesses who had claimed to hear a woman screaming from Howth Harbour could have been hearing gulls. The only such witness who could be trusted he told them, was fisherman Thomas Larkin but even he could have merely heard the cries of a drowning woman. The prosecution he said, hadn’t proved their case. The medical evidence was inconclusive and a mode of death had not been determined. “Did he strangle her?” he asked them. “Did he go into the water and drown her?” Both these options were hardly likely. The prosecution hadn’t even proved that the Kirwan’s were alone of the island, he argued. Anyone could have killed the unfortunate woman, if she was killed at all.

Much to the surprise of the prosecution, who in those days could have been reasonably confident to know what tricks the defence had up their sleeves, Butt then suggested a new possibility. Wasn’t it equally possible he asked the jury, that having eaten a large lunch the poor lady had simply been seized by an epileptic fit as she swam too soon? He called several eminent medical witnesses to prove his point including Dr Francis Rynd, an old friend of Kirwan’s and a handy ally in Kilmainham Gaol, where the accused man had been sent and the good doctor ministered to.

Both doctors put forward the post lunch fit scenario but both agreed with the prosecution, under cross-examination, that the burking scenario was equally probable.

Finally the prosecution made their closing speech, in the complete reverse of a modern trial where the defence always has the last word.

Finally it was time for the jury to begin their deliberations. It had been a long day and the court room had remained stuffed for the duration. After listening to evidence since 10 in the morning the jury retired at 7 o’clock.  After only 40 minutes they were back.

They were already at an impasse they said. There was no way they were ever going to reach an agreement.

Now this happens from time to time in modern trials. Juries can deliberate for three hours, after which they can be offered a majority verdict of ten to twelve. Great care is taken that they do not feel pressured to come to a speedy verdict. Time was, they would be sent to a hotel for the night and given days to deliberate. Now they can go home after a long day’s deliberating but the result is the same. Juries cannot and should not be rushed. If they are justice is not served.

On December 9th 1852 Mr Justice Crampton was having none of it. The jury would remain in their jury until agreement had been reached. He would come back at 11 to see how they were doing. At 11pm he was back. When the exhausted court was in position he asked them about their progress. Nothing. Well he had had enough, he said. He was going home for the night. If they didn’t have an agreement they would be locked in the jury room until morning.

Could they at least have seats, the jury wanted to know. Seating yes, ruled the judge, but no food or drink.

The jury conferred. Would it be possible to hear the defence medical evidence again? Judge Crampton told them shortly that the medical doctors were long in their bed. He had taken a note of the evidence however, although his notebook was back in his rooms. If the jury were satisfied with his memory he could tell them what he remembered.

The jury conferred again. They would have another go at reaching an agreement they said.

Rather unsurprisingly they came back a mere 15 minutes later with a verdict. A night together in the jury room was obviously just too much.

Once the prisoner was in the dock and the legal teams had assembled the jury filed back into the court. The clerk read out their names and asked if they had a verdict. They did.

“How say you, gentlemen? Is the prisoner William Kirwan guilty or not?”

GUILTY.

As the word punched the air of the stifling courtroom the prisoner could be seen to sag slightly. He quickly recovered his composure but the pressmen had noticed the sign of weakness. He really had thought he would get away with it.

And that was it. Verdict given. The journalists all rushed to get their copy ready to catch the night mail to England for the papers there were all hanging on the Irish murder. The sentence would be in the morning. They would all gather again to see Kirwan learn his fate.

Once again I’ll finish along with them. The final instalment, that sentence will come tomorrow, on it’s own anniversary. I hope you’re enjoying this change from my modern court reports. When I discovered that trial transcript two years ago I knew I wanted to tell the story of William Kirwan. It was only when I dug a little deeper I discovered I’d rather tell the story of Maria who died, or Teresa, so tantalising in her absence. So that’s what I’m doing, but this weekend I’m marking the events that started it all off.

Until tomorrow.

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

 

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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.

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