Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Howth

A Missing Piece of the Puzzle

I’m extraordinarily lucky to have a job that I love. I’m even luckier that this job allows me to indulge in old obsessions and follow them in new directions. Lately I’ve been happily stuck up to my eyes in crime records, the UK National Archives newest records release to be exact. It’s been like revisiting old friends but I’ve been particularly excited to find the missing piece in a puzzle I’ve been grappling with for years. Regular readers will know that I’ve been working on the case of 19th Century murderer William Bourke Kirwan for years now. He’s brought me in a whole new direction professionally, not least this change of job and this long, long in the writing book (which is still long in the writing but I’m getting there).

It’s been a while since I’ve written about the case so here are the basics. In September 1852 Kirwan and his wife Maria went out to Ireland’s Eye. They’d been staying in Howth for some weeks and often spent the days out on the Eye where he would sketch and she would read or swim. Maria was a strong swimmer. She loved the water. But that night when the boat came to pick them up Kirwan was standing on the foreshore alone. He hadn’t seen his wife for hours, he said. He’d looked a bit and called but she hadn’t answered. What to do? Where could she be? There was a search as the night drew in and eventually they found her. She was lying half in in the water in a place on the island known as the Long Hole. She was dead. The trial was a bit of a shambles. Kirwan’s mistress, a key witness, did not appear when she was called in evidence. Proof that Maria had lately discovered the existence of the mistress and a second family mere weeks before her death was never produced and the defence called medical evidence that no murder had been committed. One of the most eminent medico-legal experts of the day told the court that Maria had gone swimming too soon after her lunch. It was indigestion that killed her, not her husband. I’ve written an account of the full trial here, here and here by the way, if you want more detail.

Despite all the digging I’ve done on Kirwan and his women there have always been gaps in the story. It’s hardly surprising – this case is more than 160 years old. Although I’ve more documentation for this case than I’ve had for the more recent cases I’ve written about. One piece of the story was illusive though. I’d always known that Kirwan had been as determined as Joe O’Reilly to clear his name but hunt as I might I could not find any of his petitions. I’d presumed that they hadn’t survived despite tantalising breadcrumbs that I’d found along the way. So imagine my excitement when I idly keyed in his name in work and hit “Return”. I’d expected to find documentation about his journey through the prison system. If nothing else, 19th Century British bureaucracy was comprehensive to say the least. What I did not expect to find was his words. They had been lost. I knew that.

But there it was – his petition. Again, even though I was excited to find it, I expected to find departmental correspondence, rather than Kirwan’s own words, his own handwriting. I work daily with copies of three of Kirwan’s sketches pinned to the wall. He was a moderately successful artist, although the examples of his work I’ve seen suggest a rather naive talent at best. I’ve written about the collection of his paintings held in the National Library of Ireland on their blog here. I’ve always suspected that they say more about the public fascination in the murder rather than his artistic reputation. But I know those paintings very well by now. I know that there are some I’d doubt were by him at all. I know there are some that I’ve no doubt were by him. I photographed those sketches from every angle, I’ve shots of each and every signature, every doodle on the back of random pages. I’ve studied them as if they could let me see into the mind of the man who made them. That’s one this this case is missing after all those years in the courts. I can’t see Kirwan in the dock. I can read accounts from the hacks who were there and I can read the words of his evidence but it’s not the same. I can’t see him in the in-between moments, the moments at rest, unobserved. I can’t watch him sneaking a cigarette or talking to his family. I can’t watch him arrive. The pictures are the closest thing I have to that. I’d say they were something similar to whoever bought them, whoever was the reason that they ended up in the National Library collection.

I’m so used to deciphering his doodles that I’ve grown rather familiar with his hand. I know the pressure he put on the paper when he wrote, the way he looped the W and K in his name, even when writing his initials. Flicking through the results in the National Archive results I saw those same loops. Here it was, after years of searching, here was the murderer’s appeal. When I was working in the courts it used to be a standing joke that the prisons were always full of the innocent. You will seldom get a killer who admits what he has done. Once they’ve plead not guilty why would they? So it’s hardly surprising that Kirwan harks back to the “insubstantial” evidence of his case. I’d found rumours over the years that Kirwan had capitalised on his previous life as an anatomical draughtsman, familiar with doctors and death, by finding work with the prison doctor. Sure enough in his appeal Kirwan claims leniency in recognition of his work during the Yellow Fever outbreak at the Bermuda penal colony where he was being held.

Kirwan petition clip 1

He had also, wisely, not argued for the right to rejoin his mistress but instead pleaded to go to his children. In fairness to the man, he does seem to have been a doting father. I’ve a sketch over my desk I’m pretty sure is one of his daughters and it stands out among the pictures in the collection, to an extent that it’s easy to read affection into the precision that captures the tilt of the head.

Kirwan petition clip 2

I’ve stared at so many examples of 19th century handwriting over the past few years but Kirwan’s hand is unmistakable. He writes with speed and flourish. You could almost read an impatience there, perhaps an arrogance. Certainly his appearance in court was with a swagger that marks him out among wife killers. There aren’t many who would argue their case so fluidly and articulately – although I’d still very much doubt that he argued then as an innocent man. His petition is full of the same swagger, especially in his signature –

Kirwan petition clip 3

It appears that despite his fluency and flourish Kirwan wasn’t at all successful in his appeal. The rest of the correspondence suggests that the Irish authorities would have been happier if he had been discretely disposed of when the Bermuda camp was broken up. It would have been better if he had been “lost at sea” rather than returned to Ireland. It’s apparent that Kirwan did return though. Various accounts within living memory of the case describe his life at Spike Island prison in Cork. Apparently he painted murals on the walls of his cell. It was years before he got his wish in the end. This petition was written in 1862, ten years after the murder. It would be another 15 before he would see release. Contemporary accounts describe a broken, elderly man who paid one last visit to Ireland’s Eye before leaving for America (and presumably his children). How did they receive him? That’s a story for another day.

Excerpts courtesy of The National Archives from the Crime, Prisons and Punishment collection on www.findmypast.ie

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.

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.

Walking in Familiar Footsteps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Memoriam

 

Blog-grave-image-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

© 2019 Abigail Rieley

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