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.