Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Maria Kirwan (page 2 of 2)

Find the Lady…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GUILTY.

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

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

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

Until tomorrow.

Walking in Familiar Footsteps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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