Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: History (page 2 of 2)

A Dark Reputation

Angel

It’s that time of year again. The anniversary of a murder that happened long before I was born but that somehow managed to change the course of my life. William Kirwan haunts me, as do the women whose lives he destroyed – three off whom are looking at me as I write. I’ve written about the Ireland’s Eye murder many times – it’s the case behind the book that I’m working on, that I’m still working on. It’s rather taken over my life.

This year I want to share some of the secondary stories that surround the case. In 1852 the Kirwan case was a cause celebre. Even though the case itself was a fairly simple, tragic case of spousal murder – very like many I’ve covered in the past – the rumours and embellishments that have twisted around it over the years are impressive. William Bourke Kirwan was accused of multiple murders and all kinds of wrong doing. I’ve dug, and dug and dug, believe me. While I’ve absolutely no doubt that Kirwan was a nasty piece of work I really don’t think he was a serial killer. A wife beater and philanderer, of course, but was he guilty of the other crimes he was accused of? Almost certainly not.

I’ve written about the case before, quite a few times actually, but I’ll recap the basics. On September 6th William Bourke Kirwan and his wife Maria went out to Ireland’s Eye, a small island off the coast of Howth in north county Dublin. He was an artist and was planning on sketching some new scenes. She was a keen swimmer and was looking forward to the challenging swimming around the island. At some point that evening, before the boat came to take them back to Howth harbour, William Kirwan killed his wife. Some have said that it was a miscarriage of justice and she simply drowned, but I’ve seen evidence that shows he was a very abusive husband, an all too familiar scenario with a too inevitable outcome. This evidence wasn’t produced at Kirwan’s subsequent trial though, so to many it seemed a motiveless act of unfathomable evil. The fact that he was widely known to have had a second family, with a mistress and no fewer than seven children, cemented his reputation. The rumour mill ground into action until Kirwan was blamed for any inconvenient death.

Among the papers of Thomas Larcom, former under secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland is a note that suggests even the great and good were not immune. Larcom had been in charge of the Ordinance Survey of Ireland and when one of his surveyors was killed in suspicious circumstances a few years before Kirwan was convicted he took a personal interest in the case. A newspaper report of the inquest notes that the dead man’s brother, who had run up considerable gambling debts, had argued with his brother when he refused to lend him money. When questioned at the inquest the brother broke down and the reporter noted how his sobs could be heard throughout the room for the rest of the inquest. Despite the fact that it would seem pretty clear that this had all the hallmarks of a very private tragedy, Larcom’s note is definite that the death was at the hand of “the murderer Kirwan”, in an early, undiscovered atrocity. Larcom might actually have known Kirwan who had a lucrative sideline in colouring the Ordnance maps. Business was so good in that area that he had hired several young apprentices to meet the commissions.

Kirwan certainly seems to have made rather a habit of antagonising people. He might well have got away with killing his wife if it hadn’t been for those with hefty axes to grind. In the month after Maria’s death that rumour mill was being cranked by a very determined woman. Maria Byrne had lived a few doors away from the Kirwans when they lived on Lower Merrion Street before moving to the grander houses on the Upper street. She was a seamstress and had known Kirwan since before his marriage. She obviously felt she knew him well enough to get his measure. She didn’t rest until the Dublin Metropolitan Police had agreed to examine the case. Now Maria Byrne obviously was obviously carrying a grudge. She told police that Kirwan had stolen work from her husband, who shared Kirwan’s other business  of anatomical draughtsman. In this heyday of anatomical demonstration the draughtsmen were much in demand to drew sketches of autopsies and medical specimens. Kirwan had done very well in this line as well. Some of his work is still in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons here in Dublin and several sketches of syphilitic pustules are among the curious collection of sketches in the National Library of Ireland. Mrs Byrne was under no doubt that Kirwan’s success had driven her husband to an early grave. She also told police that he had tried to poison his wife on two separate occasions and as well as her husband, he had also killed his brother-in-law. Maria’s younger brother James had gone to America, and according to Mrs Byrne, was never heard of again.

But the darkest accusation had the most tragic outcome. There was one person who had more of a grudge against Kirwan than anyone else, whose resentment and anger went back long before his marriage and who would not be able to live with her accusations failing to strike their target.

Anne Downes Bowyer was the wife of Kirwan’s painting teacher. She came forward in January 1853 once it became clear that Kirwan was not going to hang. She wanted to make sure he got away with nothing. Her story went back to 1837, three years before Kirwan married Maria. She had carried a burning grudge since then and ultimately it would kill her. Hers is one of the most haunting interconnected stories in this case. She was a very lonely, very tragic character.

Anne Gaffney married the artist Richard Downes Bowyer on Halloween 1819. She was considerably younger than him but I’ve always thought it must have been a love match, a thing of passion. They got special permission to skip their last marriage bann. It may have been because she was pregnant, although the couple never had any children. Whatever happened, Anne turned into a very troubled woman. In or around 1824 she was admitted to Dr Gregory’s private Bellevue asylum in Finglas. She was subsequently released but the marriage did not survive. By around October 1836 she and Richard separated. Richard went to stay with Kirwan and his father. He wouldn’t tell Anne where he was going.

Some time later Kirwan went with Downes Bowyer to collect his things from the house on Mountjoy Street. Anne would later say that she was tied to a chair as her husband, Kirwan and several other young men ransacked her house. She took her husband and Kirwan to court in 1837 accusing them of theft. Her husband countersued and threatened to have her committed again. The judge ruled in Anne’s favour. He told her husband that she was entitled to a living of £40 a year for the rest of her life.

Anne obviously wouldn’t let things go. Her husband moved away from Dublin to Killeshandra in County Cavan, Kirwan’s sister went with him to keep house for the old man. Before he went Richard signed over family lands in Rhine, or Rinn in County Longford on the understanding that Kirwan would continue to pay Anne’s stipend of £40 a year. After Richard died in 1841, Anne became convinced that the Kirwan family had contrived to kill her husband. She couldn’t let the idea go and in January 1853 she went to the police with her accusation.

The Dublin Metropolitan police took Anne Downes Bowyer seriously. They even excavated the garden of the house on Parnell Place where Kirwan and his father had lived. Since Downes Bowyer had died in Killeshandra they found nothing to support Anne’s claims but they did uncover a small coffin much to the excitement of the press. The police duly examined the little coffin and found it to contain the bones of a young child. It was long dead and they couldn’t find out it’s story. It didn’t help Anne.

A few months after this Anne was dead. At her inquest, in July 1853, her sister told the coroner that Anne had been living quietly outside Dublin. The family were worried about her and visited her regularly but on July 7th her sister arrived down from Dublin to find the little cottage empty. A search eventually led to a local quarry, where there was a deep pool. Anne’s shoes and shawl were neatly placed beside the black water. The inquest ruled that Anne had died at her own hand but this is one death that I do think should be laid at Kirwan’s door, all be it indirectly.  It might of course be a complete coincidence but that week’s issue of the Nation newspaper carried a caustic article on Kirwan arguing that there was one law for the rich and another for the poor. Kirwan was still in Ireland at this point. His sentence to hang had been commuted on New Year’s Eve but he had still not been transported that summer. As the Nation noted, poorer men with less celebrity would undoubtedly have been hauled off in chains months since. I can only imagine Anne’s reaction if she had read it or had it read to her. Surely enough to take away the last of her hope.

I have always thought that Anne Downes Bowyer was as much a victim of Kirwan as Maria was. He might not have been guilty of the imaginative carnage those who didn’t know him well accused him of but he was a toxic man who saw two women dead. There were other casualties of this case but they are still my subjects so I’m keeping them close to my chest for the moment. William Bourke Kirwan undoubtedly earned his dark reputation.

Dark Tourism

Long_Hole-Ireland's_Eye

Tourists visit the Long Hole on Ireland’s Eye in the 19th century, the scene of a famous murder.

There’s always been a fascination for murder. You only have to walk into a bookshop or turn on your TV to see crime, both fact and fiction, is where it’s at. Any high profile trial will have it’s followers. I’ve seen crowds queuing to get into court whenever a case caught the public attention. During both the Joe O’Reilly trial and the Eamonn Lillis trial the crowds got so large they caused problems for the courts staff. During both case, proceedings had to be stopped for public safety reasons. To be honest, if it wasn’t for this hunger I wouldn’t have had a job for as long as I did down the courts.

I’ve been researching 19th century crime for long enough to know that this ghoulish rubber necking is nothing new. The case that I’m focused on, that of wife killer William Bourke Kirwan, was no exception. Murder was a fairly rare occurrence in Dublin back then and when the trial took place in Green Street courthouse in December 1852 the crowds blocked the street.

I’ve been fascinated while researching the wider story how much of a thing this dark tourism was. In January 1853, just days after Kirwan’s sentence was commuted to transportation, an ad appeared in the Freeman’s Journal for “Kirwan the Murderer”. Sadly the advertisement doesn’t go into much detail and was never repeated so I’ve no idea whether “Kirwan the Murderer” was a Penny Dreadful retelling of the case or even a play. I haven’t been able to find any other reference to it and it’s unlikely that any playbill or copy of the pamphlet have survived, though I’d love to see them if they have.

I was amused when I saw it because nothing’s really changed. Any high profile murder trial  in Dublin will be followed by the tabloid commemorative booklet and then a little later with the TV3 re-enactment. It’s always the final flourish of the story. Just as it was then.

What we don’t generally get these days though is the actual murder tourism. It’s still there but they don’t often advertise in the papers. In August 1853 a series of ads appeared in the Freeman’s Journal for boat trips to Ireland’s Eye, the scene of the famous murder. The Long Hole, where Maria Kirwan’s body had been found, was a popular jaunt.  The picture illustrating this piece is an, almost, contemporary sketch from a tourism book, published around 10 years after the murder. The so-called Murder Rock would have been round about where the man and woman are standing as far as I can tell. In September 1853 it was reported that there had been so many pilgrims to the site all seeking souvenirs of the tragic events that the rock had been quite chipped away.

Around the time this story was printed, the  Crown auctioned off all Kirwan’s belongings. The crowds for the viewings were massive, especially for the auction for one of Kirwan’s suits and his gold watch. I’ve always suspected that the National Library collection of Kirwan’s work was bought at one of these auctions. I wrote about my theory for their blog a couple of years ago.

Bidding was swift on all the lots according to newspaper accounts but one expected buyer did not turn up. The Freeman’s Journal noted, at the auction that included Kirwan’s suit, that it was a surprise that none of the bidders had come from a waxworks. Chambers of horror containing effigies of notorious killers were commonplace except, apparently in Dublin. The journalist noted this fact with some satisfaction. The crowd, as well, were less of a throng than one might expect.

Kirwan’s always been a good story. He caught my imagination and if you get the boat out to Ireland’s Eye even today, you’ll hear his story. I wonder will people still be telling the story of Joe O’Reilly in 160 years.

Once Again Words are Not Enough

I’ve hesitated writing about the Tuam babies case. It’s not that I don’t feel strongly about it. It’s not that I’m afraid to write about it.  It’s just that I will simply be one voice in many and surely this is a case where words mean very little unless something can be done about the attitudes that bring us back here again and again and again.

If you’re not familiar with the story, and I’m sure there are plenty who still won’t be, it’s this. On May 24th the Irish Mail on Sunday broke the story. There followed the predictable social media outrage, the even more predictable empty words from those who allowed it to happen, the absolutely inevitable lack of action. Most things don’t happen here until the international press get the sniff of a story and sure enough, once thematter appeared in the Washington Post it really started being talked about.

So what happened? It’s a simple enough story. In Tuam, in County Galway, there used to be a home for Mothers and Babies. It stood on the site of an old workhouse and was run by the sistesr of the Bon Secours order. In this home, between the 1920s and the 1960s 800 babies and young children died. But that’s not it. It’s not that 800 dead over 40 or so years means an average of around 2 a month which might to the casual observer seem a wee bit on the high side. If that was all we would no doubt have already been mollified by those who would drag in every measles outbreak, every flu epidemic, every cholera, typhoid and diphtheria outbreak to cast a swathe through the Irish population in the last two centuries, to make the point that sometimes children die, sometimes a lot of children die. Life they would tell us,  is a fragile thing and you can blame germs, or poverty, or ignorance to tidy away the significant numbers of dead babies of times past.

But that’s not it.

The problem with these 800 babies is that there is a good chance some or all of them ended up disposed of with no care or reverence, thrown in a septic tank.  I’ll let that sink in for a moment. They were disposed of in a septic tank. Not buried in a euphemistically called “angel plot” for the unbaptised. Not placed gently in a little white coffin and honoured with flowers and favourite toys. These children were thrown where you would throw rubbish, in an empty concrete tank that had once held the workhouse’s sewage. There have been suggestions that many of the children who died were the sick, the weak and the disabled, left in what amounted to Dying Rooms to die a slow, sad death of malnutrition and avoidable illness. That these children were left because they were not as lucrative as the healthy children who could be sold to childless couples.

Already there have been those who have denied this. There are those who say that the only indication that there were bones in that septic tank were two small boys who investigated a crack in a concrete slab in the 60s and discovered a horror. There are those who are no doubt hoping that the bones turn out to belong to dogs or rats or sheep – if they are ever exhumed. If anyone bothers to try to find out what happened.

We need to focus on that septic tank because it doesn’t matter if there aren’t 800 babies there. If just one bone of one child is in there it tells us something we should never forget. It means that the body of at least one child was treated like rubbish, was denied the basic funerary rites that we have turned towards as a species since neanderthal times. It means that a child’s body was treated like a dead dog – and perhaps that dog would actually have had more care taken of it. It means that someone turned their back on the most basic human compassion, fought what is surely an instinctive need to treat the dead gently. If there is more than one child’s bone, if there are the dozen’s, hundreds, that have been described then that is an image from a scene of war. That is the piles of bodies in a concentration camp, the smoking piles of war dead. That is humanity lost.

Since the story broke the similar stories have come thick and fast. Just as when the first reports disclosed clerical sex abuse or the horrors of the Magdalen Laundries. There’s never a shortage of stories like that in Ireland. This country has a very, very dark past. Each time a story like this has been told it has caused outrage, anger and disgust. Each time there have been the harrowing first person narratives of what life was like in hell. Each time the Church has responded with platitudes and empty apologies that have never been followed up with action. Each time the apologists have gathered to sweep the dirt back under the now irredeemably bumpy rug. Each time, once a suitable period of chagrin has been observed the Church has sulked about anti-religious agendas and shut their doors yet again.

We don’t know what will happen yet with this. At this stage we don’t even know exactly what the situation is. Until things are clarified, and possibly even then, there will be those who ignore the absolute truth that has been staring us in the face for far too long. RTE journalist Philip Boucher Hayes has outlined what evidence is already available here and Catherine Corless, the local historian whose tireless work brought this story out into the open has put this summary of her findings on Facebook. These are both accounts that can be trusted. This is not a delusion, this is not an exaggeration. If one bone of one child found it’s way into that disused septic tank that is too much. This is not something we should look away from and this is not something we should allow to fade into the past.

The problem, the huge problem, with this is not simply that it is yet another account of a past full of unimaginable cruelty and heartlessness, it is because these attitudes have not been left in the past. The attitudes that allowed these things to happen that keep coming to light, that keep shocking us, the attitudes that dismissed life so absolutely are still here and they are all around us.

When a story like this breaks there are still those who deny it ever happened, who accuse the people who have brought the latest horror to light, of attacking the Church. The newspapers will still ask the local bishop what he thinks, will still listen to the response. The investigation will move slowly unless it gets indefinitely postponed while yet another inquiry creaks forward toothlessly. A lot of columnists will write elegant phrases about how hard the past was before moving on to the next outrage. Social media will get outraged for a while until the next thing turns up. Months down the road there will be a report or an investigation where more details come from the mouths of the victims. Outrage, disgust once again – until the next time.

Has the heart of the country really changed from the time when families were so soaked in catholic guilt that they would turn their back on their own? Isn’t it still a lot easier to listen to what those in power tell us to do than to stand up and demand change? Isn’t such deference hardwired into jaded souls so that certain views still have weight when they should have been resigned to the past.

It’s buried deep but there is still a checklist that weeds the good from the bad, a rigid code that places each of us in one pile or another. If you don’t check the right boxes you are bad, unsaveable, lost. In a mindset based on black and white, good and evil, ours and their,s that line is drawn deep. In my teens and early 20s I first noticed it. Because I was an “outsider” I could never be a good girl. I’ve seen what that does to the attitudes of the guys who were too sure in the discos we called nightclubs. I’ve seen it in the sneers from a certain type of dark-clad granny who would slowly look me up and down on the bus, making me blush and feel like dirt. That was what they meant to do. I was on the other side of the line. There would be no crossing over. I’m not comparing a few slights to what went on in the various homes but I recognise it.

Having a line like that is a dangerous thing as history never fails to show us. Lines like that destroy empathy. Lines like that cause genocide, brutality, slavery. We don’t even need to look to the world for proof of that. There’s ample evidence at home.

As long as that deference is there then so is the line. It goes deeper than prejudice, it’s the difference between black and white. It is hard wired into this country and it’s something that needs to be fought if  the ground is ever going to be kicked over and humanity restored. As long as that line is there people find it easier to assume that those who have been hurt will lie – as the Irish Times managed to point out when talking about the #YesAllWomen Twitter hashtag (which I’ll return to another time). As long as it’s there the voiceless will never have a voice and the sins of the past will never be truly repaired.

 

In Search of Heroines

Last weekend I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the new Ingenious Ireland walking tour. A specially commissioned tour to mark International Women’s Day and the opening of the new Rosie Hackett bridge across the Liffey, Obstreperous Lassies tells the story of just some of the incredible women who came to prominence in the period between 1913 and 1916 here in Ireland.

Now being an unrepentant liberal lefty feminist type the mere idea of the tour was enough to make me smile. I can’t think of a better way to spend an hour or so on a sunny morning but traipsing around Dublin hearing about women who refused to sit down and shut up, who refused to do what was expected on them and who refused to accept the status quo. It was wonderful to hear about Maud Gonne as the woman who had championed free school meals rather than the aloof romantic figure who used to make W.B. Yeats dissolve into sighs every time she wafted past him. Or Ann Jellico, the Quaker mill owner’s daughter who decided that women needed skills to earn themselves a living and set up schools to teach them. Or Kathleen Lynn, often known as “the rebel doctor”, who helped to set up St Ultan’s clinic on Charleville Street and was instrumental in the introduction of the BCG vaccine. The tour is a wonderful catalogue of women judges and politicians, doctors and fighters, women who were suffragists and pacifists and who played their part in the formation of this country.

After the first hour of being pleasantly inspired though something else started to nag at me. While many of the names I was hearing were familiar, it was striking how many of the details weren’t. I was used to hearing the names as footnotes in the sacred history of the land, women who had stood bravely beside fighting men but were largely remembered as the helpmeets, there to tend the sick and take down a note of history as it passed. The honourable exception of course is Constance Markievicz, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish that I’ll get to in a moment. The point that kept coming home during the tour was that the stories of these women, who were all formidable, magnificent, inspiring examples of their sex, the kind of stories I used to latch onto with fangirl adoration as a teenager, much of that stuff was absolute news to me. It felt almost shockingly fresh to be looking at historical events from a woman’s perspective. It was only by focusing on that angle that you realise how unusual it is to hear.

As a child in the 70s and 80s I knew I was lucky to be born into a time when as a girl I no longer had to fight for my education. Growing up in a middle class area I was expected to go on to university, I was expected to have the freedom to follow whatever career path I chose. It never occurred to me that as a girl I was any less able than a boy. I knew women had already fought for the right to vote, the right to an education, the right  to own property and to not pass into the ownership of the man they married. I saw all of these as battles that had been won, as rights I now had. Like any child I couldn’t see limitations until they appeared right in front of me. Back then it never occurred to me that the world was anything but equal. I wasn’t short of role models. I saw strong women all around me, in my family, in popular culture and in the books I read. It wasn’t until much later that I began to see that the world was a far from equal place. That’s when you really need your heroines.

The one thing that I really remember about my stint doing the @ireland Twitter account last year was a conversation that took place on my last day. That week there had been a lot of media coverage of the suffragettes. It was the centenary of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison and all the columnists were in a retrospective mood. At the end of a conversation about the various memorials to the suffragettes in the UK I had asked the 15,000 or so followers of the @ireland account to recommend similar Irish memorials to inspirational women down through the years. Several hours later we were still struggling to come up with anyone who wasn’t Constance Markievicz. And that’s my problem with the good countess. While she was undoubtedly a formidable force to be reckoned with and surely a fine role model for any trailblazing young Irish woman (or any other woman – or man for that matter – she really was a hell of a woman), it does appear that Constance has been venerated to the exclusion of almost all other women. When you look at the number of women who have been equally extraordinary and who have been all but wiped out of the history books it almost smacks of tokenism.

It’s taken until 2013 to have a bridge named after a woman. Calls to rename Merrion Square after Oscar Wilde’s extraordinary mother have fallen on deaf ears. Apart from Constance Markievicz there are very few memorials to prominent women in Dublin or anywhere else in Ireland. If you go by public monuments Ireland is a country that was built and maintained purely by men. That’s the thing that get’s me more than anything else with all of this – because Irish women are and have always been ballbreakingly strong. From the Celtic archetypes of the Morrigan or Queen Meabh, to the pirate queen Grace O’Malley who faced down Elizabeth 1, to any of the women who fought for Irish freedom right through to the indomitable Irish Mammy there’s no shortage of Irish heroines – many of whom were actually real people and aren’t simply mythological constructs.

In a world where inequality is rife, where violence against women is endemic, it might seem superficial to talk about statues and wallplaques but it’s all part of the same thing. Public statues are things we walk past on a daily basis, they are part of the fabric of our lives. We might ignore them most of the time but one day we’ll probably ask their story. Their mere existence tells us that there is a story to be told. Women’s history so often slips by, it’s harder find their stories because for so long they didn’t have a voice, they weren’t in a position to make a difference. So when they were we should celebrate them all the more. So to get the ball rolling I’d like to propose a statue Winifred Carney in the GPO.  She was there with James Connolly during the 1916 Rising, known as the typist with the Webley. I could see her as a little figure with a typewriter standing in the main hall on the edge of the crowds. They’d bump into her as they queued, especially at Christmas. People would stub their toe against her, apologise absently as they brushed past. They’d ignore her most of the time but every now and then someone would look to see who she was. It doesn’t have to be Winifred Carney, I just like the idea of the statue.

I’m fed up of feeling that jolt of surprise when I hear a woman hosting primetime radio, or when a walking tour for International Women’s Day feels like a novelty, or feeling that it’s something to be applauded when a bridge or a banknote bears a woman’s name or a woman’s face. This stuff shouldn’t matter. I’m fed up of feeling I should be happy that a woman is being represented regardless of whether I have a reason to applaud their achievement. This isn’t a big, earth shaking change though it’s a canary in a coalmine issue. When it’s no big deal if a woman is on the bank notes or even when there are complaints because all the bridges are named after women, or all the voices on prime time are female or all the banknotes have women on them then we’ll have actually got some kind of equality. At the moment that still feels like science fiction and it’s utterly wrong that it should feel that way.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Seeing Through his Eyes

 

My dad's front of house picture from the Brian Brooke Company

My dad’s front of house picture from the Brian Brooke Company

The projector whirrs into action, throwing a shivering oblong onto the magnolia wall. At first all that’s visible is a few random pairs of feet, white walled tyres. tarmac with the sky below it. Eventually the picture settles down. I’m transfixed, staring, afraid to blink and miss a single frame. I’ve had this ribbon of tantalising history for weeks now but until this weekend I had no idea what was on it. It was among a random assortment of things that had belonged to my mother. There was nothing written on it to suggest what it could have been. All I had was the phrase “It’s from your father’s time.”

For weeks I’ve been looking at the round yellow Kodak case imagining it’s contents. There were no cine cameras in my childhood. My mum might have left a suitcase full of snapshots chronicling random moments of my childhood but there are no moving images. Growing up I had few pictures of my dad. They were too painful for my mum, I think. She carried a passport photo of him in her wallet and I had a miniature of him painted just before he left his Indian birthplace at seven to go to school in a cold, unfamiliar England. Neither of these pictures seemed to relate to the smiling young man with the movie star looks who stared out of the black frame propped against the wall in the dining room. I knew the picture as “Daddy with his hair on”. I knew it was him because his name was printed below it and underlined with a flourish, but this young man bore no relation to the balding, bespectacled teacher who held the baby me in photographs. That was the man whose hair oil had left a dark stain on the brown fabric of his chair, who had sat there every evening with a book in one hand and me sitting in the other. I knew he had met my mother in a theatre company, I knew that he used to act as well as stage manage, but these were abstract facts that didn’t fit with the man whose absence was a constant hole in my childhood.

When I was a child I used to dream that my father had come home. There would be a knock on the door one day and I would run to open it and there he would be looking tanned and relaxed. I knew it would never happen, I understood death, but it seemed extraordinary that the person whose presence I could still feel would have left life without leaving some living impression. My mum kept him alive for me so successfully I could never quite shake the feeling he was just beyond reach, just outside my touch. When I got that reel of film a part of me was triumphant. That child in me was crowing “See, I told you he wouldn’t have left us with nothing.”

So on Saturday I finally sat down to watch the film, more than half expecting to finally see him smiling back at me, found after all these years. Instead I was watching tourist snaps. Stretching away from the camera were rows and rows of rounded Deco windows. The camera panned away, past vivid bougainvillea to smiling black faces waving from a field and white ones waving from a beach. After only a couple of minutes the clicking came to a clacking stop as the film ran to it’s end. There were no familiar faces and after all that no sign of my father. But I knew that I had been seeing through his eyes as he excitedly recorded the sights and sounds lately come familiar, capturing them before they faded and he returned to cold, grey Southampton.

That movie star picture of my father that now hangs above my desk was once in the foyer of a theatre in Johannesburg.  In 1955, at the age of 24, my father travelled to South Africa to work for the famous theatre impresario Brian Brooke. I had known about this as a child, because of the photo. I knew it was a pretty big deal. As an adult I found other proof, corroborating evidence existing outside family legend. Searching Ancestry.co.uk for a family paper trial I chanced upon his arrival in Southampton in April 1956. The trip survives independently of our idiosyncratic archiving.

Among the clutter I inherited earlier this year, as well as the picture and the Kodak reel, was the passport he brought with him on that trip. It was the same passport he had since school. His picture is gawky, a child I’ve never seen before. I had always assumed that the trip was merely something he had done in an a cosmopolitan life. He had spent his first few years in India. From my vantage point in a London suburb I couldn’t imagine how you could top that, I assumed that after a start like that travel would be something simply taken in one’s stride, something to be enjoyed but not viewed with the wide eyes of a little suburbanite like me. But watching the film I begin to see something different. A young man intoxicated by his surroundings, who never wanted to forget the sights and sounds that he was seeing. This was a young man striking out on his own for the first time. These were his experiences, his memories, not those of his family or his schoolmates. This was a year he would never forget.

I don’t know what happened that year. I don’t know what parts he played, if he fell in love, raised hell. All I know is that the gaze he turned on South Africa was an affectionate one. I can forgive him never turning the camera on himself. He showed me something that he would never forget. That’s precious in it’s own way.

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.

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.

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