Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: William Bourke Kirwan (page 1 of 2)

Even after death

I’ve often written about the case of William Burke Kirwan on this blog. His was the case that caused me to pursue a different path in life. Since 2010 I’ve been researching his murder of his wife and it’s lead me back to university and in directions I never dreamed of and there’s plenty more to do. So at this stage I’m a little bit proprietorial. My friends know this about me and tend to point out interesting nuggets about the case they stumble upon. In Dublin, after all, it’s a very well know case indeed. You can still argue about it if you take the boat out to Ireland’s Eye from Howth.

So when the Irish Times featured the case as part of their series of stories from their archives, quite a few Irish friends sent me the link and asked me what I thought. Now I’ll say again that this is a case that is very special to me so I’m apt to be a touch judgemental but in this case the article in question raised my hackles both as a historical scholar and as a court reporter.

It doesn’t help that one of my particular interests in this case is the newspaper coverage. I gave a paper on that subject at the Shared Histories conference at the National Library of Ireland this summer and indirectly it gave me the thesis for my doctorate. I’ve got hard drives full of PDFs of newspaper pages, not to mention filing cabinets full of photocopies gathered before digital newspaper archives were as big a thing as they are now. The Ireland’s Eye murder was one of the most notorious cases of it’s day, as big as any of the cases I’ve covered or written about as a journalist. There were a lot of column inches in a lot of newspapers and you can only get the full story if you look at them all.

So my first problem with the Irish Times article is that it only really looks at an Irish Times article from 1904, 52 years after the murder took place. Now, fair enough, the Irish Times wasn’t around to cover the Kirwan’s trial in December 1852 although they did cover Kirwan’s imprisonment from time to time over the years. The problem with their reporting though was, since they had no staff who had covered the case, knowledge of the finer points of it was sketchy and I’ve always discounted their 19th and early 20th century coverage as too removed from the actual case to be much use.

There are numerous factual errors in the piece in the Times, which I’m presuming is down to the 1904 coverage. According to the article the prosecution case was based on the supposition that Kirwan had used a needle like blade to commit the murder. There was certainly a lot of chatter about Kirwan’s supposed sword stick after Patrick Nangle, one of the boatmen, described Kirwan’s “tuck stick” but this was it’s first mention and a sword stick was never the basis of the prosecution case. According to the Crown’s expert Thomas Geoghegan, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, who advised the Crown case but did not give evidence during the trial, the most likely cause of death was suffocation. What the prosecution did suggest was that Kirwan had “burked” his wife, in other words smothered her by compressing her chest and covering her mouth and nose. According to the Freeman’s Journal coverage of the trial when Dr Hatchell, the police surgeon who had performed the post mortem examination was asked to give cause of death he said suffocation.

Freeman's Journal December 10 1852 Cause of death

A more basic error is that Kirwan’s barrister, Isaac Butt, was not yet a politician. The trial took place the week of the British budget and there were press reports after Kirwan was convicted that Butt had taken the mail boat over to England to be back in Westminster in time for the debate. The Freeman’s Journal on December 13 mentions a motion Butt had been bringing forward being postponed.

Freeman's Journal December 13 1852 Issac Butt MP in Westminster for Budget Debate

In fact two months after Kirwan had been convicted Butt used the case as the basis for a bill on second trials in criminal cases which he raised in Westminster. Even though the bill was unsuccessful it gave the Kirwan case a place in legal history as one of the first steps on the road to second trials.

Lastly the piece cites a letter from a Mr Dennis, speaking on behalf of the trial jury in which they expressed relief at the sentence commutation. Actually that’s not quite what the letter says. Dennis is writing to back up the verdict he and his fellow jury members came to in the face of increasing public scrutiny.

Saunders Newsletter January 10 1853 Letter from Mr Dennis, foreman of the jury copyright the British Newspaper Archive

He was writing within days of the news that Kirwan’s sentence had been commuted to transportation for life and mentions in passing that the saving of a life is something to be relieved about. Given that, in 1852 no-one was hung in Kilmainham Gaol where Kirwan was sent, and while it would be years before the death sentence was done away with, in the years after the Famine there was little appetite for execution and most sentences were commuted. Seasoned observers of the courts would have known this and expected the news to arrive. This would have been why the Dublin papers were so slow to print the wild theorising and speculation that appeared in the British press.

There are other minor inaccuracies but these are the ones that really stick out. This is a moment in history not a story. The facts are sacred and deserve to got right.

My second problem with the piece is that it plays into a stereotype that has dogged this case since it happened. It’s a reaction you’ll still see about modern cases. When the accused is a “respectable” man from an affluent background, there will always be a proportion of the reaction that refuses to accept any evidence because he was “our sort”. You can see this reaction most clearly in the Kirwan case. Within days of the verdict, long before the Irish press started commenting, the letters pages of the London Times and the London Evening Standard were full of middle class men expressing their disbelief that one of them could have committed such a heinous act. Because of the outcry from middle class, professional men who identified with the Dublin artist the case became something of a scandal. The great and good connected with the case in Dublin had to justify their actions, some, like the Deputy Governor of Kilmainham Gaol lost their positions (although I’ll go into more detail about that another time.

But most pernicious in my opinion is the way Kirwan has entered history with his character surprisingly unblemished. This was an abusive husband and few who sat in that courtroom had any doubt of his guilt. I’ve seen far more evidence than I will go into here but the evidence was there during the trial. Female witnesses were not particularly thoroughly examined or cross examined but there is a nugget from washerwoman Ann Hanna on day 2 of the trial.

Freeman's Journal December 10 1852 Ann Hanna's evidence copyright the British Newspaper Archive

But after a high profile trial like this everyone likes to be an amateur criminologist and very often it’s the victim who gets forgotten in this process. You might assume that the concept of victim blaming is a modern idea but in January 1853 the London weekly paper The Examiner was most outspoken.

The Examiner January 1 1853 copyright The British Newspaper Archive

Many British papers, who had often only carried part of the trial coverage, were quick to shout about Kirwan’s innocence. The London Evening Standard were particularly rabid when it came to fighting his corner. The whole thing had been a papist plot they hinted. On January 4 1853 they commented on a letter sent by Crown Solicitor William Kemmis, who had written in to argue for the impartiality of the judges and the jury. The Standard claimed, incorrectly as it turned out, that Kirwan was tried by a predominantly Catholic jury and didn’t have a chance as a Protestant convert.

London Evening Standard January 4 1853 Religious makeup of the jury copyright British Newspaper Archive

It didn’t seem to bother them that their jury analysis was wrong, a fact pointed out by Mr Dennis the jury foreman (in fact there were at least 4 protestants on the jury, one of whom knew Kirwan socially but still convicted). Together with the London Times they championed the Kirwan case as a great miscarriage of justice. At the same time more liberal papers like the Examiner and the Morning Post were more trusting of the evidence and the reporting of the Irish press. But as is so often the case, even now, it’s the loud entitled voices of the right who drown out the truth and all to often it’s a garbled version of the truth that gets passed down. It’s worth noting that the Dublin press, who had all sent staff to cover the trial, were pretty unanimous in believing in Kirwan’s guilt. The  Irish Times in 1904 obviously didn’t bother looking for accurate contemporary reports – a mistake repeated in 2016. I’ve been researching this case a long time and I’ve come up against this miscarriage of justice nonsense at every turn. But each time this lazy mistake is made it’s another disservice to the victim, Maria Louise Kirwan. I also wrote the Ireland’s Eye murder for the Irish Times a few years ago by the way – and made some of the points in this piece then. If you want to read in more detail about the trial I covered it here, here and here and there are other posts if you look under the tag. This is the case that changed the course of my life and I will keep writing about it as long as there is material and people keep getting it wrong!

Familiar territory

Recently in work I’ve been buried in 19th Century crime records. As has been obvious for the past while I’m now working with Findmypast, the online genealogy company. Since I started to research Kirwan I’ve spent so much time with historical records that working with them full-time seemed the logical progression.  I’m now their crime history expert and the past couple of months have been insanely busy as we were preparing for the launch of a major collection of court and crime related papers from The National Archives in London. I’ve recorded a couple of webinars showcasing the new records which you can find on the company’s YouTube channel is you’re interested.

As I posted a few weeks ago I was particularly excited to find Kirwan’s handwritten appeal among the records but I find the whole collection absolutely fascinating. After writing two works of true crime I know how tricky it can be to get hold of the actual paperwork. Unlike America, where you can request any document lodged in a public court, in Ireland getting hold of court documents is next to impossible. In fact when I was working on Devil the only garda statements I could lay my hands on where the ones that had formed part of the American case and so had been used as evidence in an American court. It used to be possible to get hold of the book of evidence if you had built up a good relationship with the gardai who had worked on the case or the barristers but these days it’s impossible. I’m used to hearing the exasperation and frustration from foreign journalists who want to research the case when they discover how little information is available here.

You can find out quite a bit from the judgements in appeals of cases which you can find on the Courts Service website but it’s not the same as the book of evidence. There’s also next to no chance of talking to prisoners here. I did get the chance to visit Essam Eid while he was in gaol in Dublin but that was a specific case. It’s rare otherwise.

That’s what I find so fascinating with the court records that you can find from the 19th century. With my Victorian subjects I can read their prison records, appeals and trial transcript. I might even find photographs. The amount of information I can get about a crime that was committed more than one hundred and sixty years ago is vast compared to what would be obtainable for a modern Irish case. I know how difficult it is because I’ve done it and because I still get regular contacts from reporters and researchers who are still doing it.  It’s thankless work, especially if you’re not able to get to the court for the trial itself.

I sat in the same room as the subjects of my books and was able to watch them and listen to all the evidence. I know as much about those cases as it’s possible to know for a writer. But I know more about Kirwan, who died a century before I was born. I know how tall he was, what colour eyes he had, how he spoke, how he signed his name. I know thirty years of his life and the lives of those around him. That’s one of the reasons why I love historical research so much. I know that if I dig hard enough, search thoroughly enough, I will find out more than I could find out sitting in the same room as someone.

When I was researching Devil, seven years ago exactly, I was excited by how much I could find out online. But the possibilities from the digitisation of historical material are awe inspiring. Most of the research I’ve done on Kirwan has been the good old fashioned legwork type. I’ve been in so many different libraries, my pencil case is bristling with readers’ tickets. But so many of the really exciting discoveries I’ve made have been through digitised material. I’m excited to see where things go from here. So many stories, so many connections, so many lives waiting to be discovered. I want to be on the front line of that. How could I not?

The Trouble with Jack

Detail-of-Jack-the-Ripper-coverage-from-Illustrated-Police-News-1888

Detail of a contemporary illustration from the Illustrated Police News showing the face of Jack the Ripper as described by witnesses, 1888. Copyright British Newspaper Archive.

Jack the Ripper is a phantom, a bogeyman, a shadow in the night.  At the height of the terror the Illustrated Police News printed this picture, a mere artist’s impression based on the most recent witness statements. We know that someone committed those murders, that police suspected the deaths of five women, killed brutally in a three month window in the Whitechapel area, were killed by the same assailant. They assumed it was a man, they never caught him. “Jack the Ripper” flirted with the press for a while then faded away. He’s become one of our greatest bogeymen, the archetypal killer, a stock character in film, TV and books. There are countless theories about who he was, countless websites. For a man with no face he’s got a hell of a profile.

Then there were the victims. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly. Very often they don’t even get a name check, they are simply victims one to five, just pieces of the puzzle that is Jack. Their dead faces are familiar, you can find them easily online (I’m not linking to them myself but if you want to find them go ahead).  They give nothing away in those grainy post mortem photographs. Death has brought them a kind of unity, a flat sameness similar perhaps to the way the hardness of their lives would have ground them down in life. These were working class women, whose poverty had dragged them into a precarious existence on the streets. As so many with no other choice they sold their bodies for pennies. These were the women the wealthy would pass by without a glance, unless they wanted to buy. These were the most vulnerable women, the kind that leave no mark on history apart from the odd arrest for soliciting or by meeting an extravagantly grotesque death. There are many like them who died nameless deaths. Take Mary Ann Nichols, whose sad, hopeless life was described by historian Fern Riddell on Twitter last year and in this Storify.

Even today the victim is all too often the missing piece of the puzzle. They existence during the trial of their killer is reduced to mere evidence, a collection of test tubes trying to confirm guilt. All too often the victim is a woman and the killer is a man. I’ve written about it so many times; the families outside the court describing the person they felt was missing from the proceedings. The families of Jean Gilbert and Celine Cawley both felt the need to go to the papers to give them a voice. They had the opportunity. How many women die in Ireland and elsewhere whose murder doesn’t cause headlines, doesn’t sell papers. Certainly in Whitechapel in the 1880s attacks on women were so commonplace that there has always been a debate about cases that could have been connected to the Ripper. As this timeline shows the 1880s were not a good time to be a vulnerable woman. And then, thirty years before, when William Kirwan killed his wife Maria, many of the papers didn’t even bother to get her name right. She often appears in the contemporary press as Louisa and these days she turns up as Sarah, Louisa or Maria or even sometimes Mary. It took a lot of digging to find Maria but you’ll hear her husband talked about on the boat over to Ireland’s Eye to this day.

That’s why the story of London’s Ripper Museum is in such appalling taste. The Evening Standard and several other London papers carried the news that a new museum opening on Cable Street in the East End will not be a celebration of East End women and the suffragette movement as the owners had suggested in their planning application but instead a museum dedicated to Jack the Ripper. At first they claimed that this was the way to humanise the victims but their Facebook page, as it stands this evening, makes no attempt to even pay lip service to anything but the public’s lust for a good murder “Jack the Ripper Museum, situated in a historic Victorian house in the heart of Whitechapel, tells the full story of the Jack the Ripper murders. Step back in time to the London of 1888, the greatest city in the world, where the greatest unsolved crimes of all time took place. As you explore the museum, you will discover everything there is to know about the lives of the victims, the main suspects in the murders, the police investigation and the daily life of those living in the east end of London in 1888. Once you have all the clues, will you be able to solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper?”

Now don’t get me wrong. I get why a Jack the Ripper museum would get visitors. I get why it’s a good commercial prospect. I made my living from the public appetite to murder. I’d be a hypocrite if I condemned it outright. But Dark Tourism needs to be respectful – and it certainly needs to be historically accurate. The frontage shown in the newspaper coverage looks more like a Disney Pirates exhibit and, as many of the angry local residents quoted in the Standard piece pointed out, Cable Street wasn’t the site of any Ripper murders. The area has it’s own proud history and that’s what should have been celebrated. What makes the story even worse, or at least adds a particular piquancy to it, is that the man behind the rather dodgy scheme, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, was formerly Google’s head of diversity and inclusion…he told the Standard today “We did plan to do a museum about social history of women but as the project developed we decided a more interesting angle was from the perspective of the victims of Jack the Ripper.” Because obviously a brutalised life gruesomely cut short is so much more inspiring than say, for instance, Sylvia Pankhurst. Local paper The East London Advertiser says that the planning document submitted by the architects cited the closure of the much lamented Women’s Library in the area that “the “Museum of Women’s History”, as it calls the project, would be “the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history””.

A museum of women’s history would be a great thing. It would be somewhere to teach our children and to educate ourselves. A celebration of murder will not do that. No matter how much detail they give about the women who died. The focus is on the phantom in opera cloak and top hat clutching a doctor’s bag. A cliche who will will teach nothing, inform nothing, provide nothing but cheap thrills and feed base instincts. Judging by the story so far this is a ghoul hunting expedition not a celebration of the resilience of East End women. If they’d done what they said the press they would have got would have been over-whelmingly positive. They would have been championed across the planet as an example of how we are moving forward. Instead the social media carrion crows are circling looking for blood. I wonder if the owners think they’ve made a mistake.

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

Those twitching net curtains again

“Because they should know better…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A 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.

Dublin Stories 1: The Haunted Dustpan

Today I’m trying something a little bit different. Since I’ve stopped writing from the courts the blog has been in need of an injection of alternate subject matter. Since I’ve been spending most of my time up to my eyes in history books for the years pop culture didn’t really seem like a good fit. So instead, you lucky, lucky people, I give you this…

This is the first post in a series. Well, as you can tell that from the title. You can probably also tell that I’m not planning an exhaustive account of the social history of Dublin Town. This local history is going to be much more relaxed. Since I moved to Dublin over twenty years, I’ve loved living in a city with such a rich history. I want to tell some of my favourite Dublin stories. This isn’t a history of checks and balances, of historical facts and figures. I’m interested in the stories that have lived, that find their way into the fabric of the city itself, that have bent and flexed into the collective consciousness – in other words, the nitty gritty history of them might have gone lost in the telling. The Ireland’s Eye murder is one of these that but I’m not starting there.  I’m starting my stories with a ghost in a castle. It’s one I know particularly well.

Drymnagh_castle_Dublin_1820

Back in the early 90s I was working as a tour guide in Drimnagh Castle. If you don’t know the area Drimnagh is a suburb in the south west of Dublin. The modern streets have crept right around the 12th century castle that stands on the Long Mile Road. It’s still got its moat and until the 50s it was the longest inhabited castle in Ireland. When the last family to own it, dairy farmers by the name of Hatch, died out the castle passed to the Christian brothers. They turned it into a school but as the school grew the pupils were moved into new buildings next door and the brothers moved out. Slowly but surely, over the next few decades, the castle began to decay. By the 70s it was a shell. Somewhere where local kids would sneak in to go drinking.

In the 80s, conservationist Peter Pearson started up the Drimnagh Castle Restoration project and FÁS were brought in to provide manpower for the restoration work. The work was all done using traditional methods. I used to draw visitors’ attention to the wooden pegs used to hold the roofing joists together and the fact that the figures of medieval workmen carved at the bottom of those joists had the faces of those involved in the restoration, some of whom still worked on the site. We were very proud of the work that had been done so far. The foreman Godfrey, in pride of place at the end of the hall, had been carved wearing a digital watch. Just to make the point. Legend had it that even our resident ghost knew Godfrey’s name. A few years later, when I’d started working in radio, I met someone who’d recorded a show out there, talking about ghosts for Halloween. I even heard the master. It could have been a woman’s voice. But then, standing next to Godfrey’s wooden form, you’d also be rather close to the window, and the chimney. They can be draughty places, medieval castles.

We all believed in the castle ghost, Eleanora. Supposedly one of the Norman Barnevale family who had built the place, Eleanora was reputed to slope around the castle sighing, as she looked at the mess her love life had ended up. She had been supposed to marry her cousin Edmund, we used to tell the tourists, but as is often the case in these kinds of tragic love stories her heart belonged to another. Unfortunately for all concerned the particular other in this case was Sean O’Byrne, the younger son of the Irish clan that had been making it their mission to make the Barnevale’s feel less than welcome in their chosen domain. The wedding day arrived and the wedding party made their way by carriage to St Patrick’s Cathedral. They never made it. After a savage battle both Sean and Edmund lay dead and Eleanora was somewhat persona non grata. Her uncle, you see, had an inkling of her fondness for the O’Byrne lad and blamed her for the whole fiasco. Eleanora was brought back to Drimnagh Castle and locked away but she made her escape and pined herself to death on her lover’s grave. We all knew the story of Eleanora off by heart – it was one of the chief selling points of the place after all. None of us ever heard any heartbroken sobs but our younger cleaner swore blind that one day as she was cleaning the Great Hall her dustpan stood up on its handle all by itself. Who knows, it might have.

The rest of us were more worried about the Man in Black who was supposed to haunt the 17th century tower. Back then the tower hadn’t been restored and was kept locked as it was still a building site. According to the story the Man in Black had been an alchemist who made a deal with the devil. Before I sat down to write this post I went looking for the notes I had kept from my tours. Unfortunately they’ve been lost somewhere across the intervening years so my remembrance of this particular story is a little hazy. I remember I used to have fun telling it. There was a crow involved and a mysterious disappearance. It used to scare young school children, that story, and that was the simplified version. Of course those of us working there had other details that were completely unverified so had never made it into the tour. We heard the local story that a tramp, finding the derelict tower in the 60s or 70s, had been found dead with an expression of abject fear on his face. One of the other tour guide claimed he had seen a dark figure there one night when he had been closing up after an event. Personally I never liked turning my back on that locked door whenever I was turning out the lights after a late night gig (the castle hosted TV shows and concerts even in those days).

Drimnagh Castle was a wonderful place to work on hot summers’ days. Sitting in the courtyard waiting for tours to arrive you could hear the bees in the herbs growing near the sun dial. There was a very irascible, balding peacock there too who would wander over to you and peck your ankles. He’d outlived three hens at this stage. We wondered if he was depressed at his habitual single status. I remember one Saturday in the old church on Andrews Street in the city centre helping to tear up the floor. The church was being turned into the tourist office it is today and they had donated the tiles to the castle. I have a tile from that floor and a couple left surplus from the Great Hall. They’ve come with me to various flats and houses over the years. A physical reminder of a memorable time. That year the sun always seemed to be shining although this being Ireland that simply can’t be true. I had wanted to write a proper account of the ghost stories to sell to visitors and one of the other other tour guides was an artist who was going to illustrate it. On the slow, hot days we spent more time sitting on benches avoiding the peacock. The artist sketched me, the only long haired female present and years later I visited and saw the Eleanora mural that now decorates the yard. Something in the eyes still looks like me, I think. I’d like to think I’d left a little something there.

Painting of Eleanora at Drimnagh Castle

Painting of Eleanora at Drimnagh Castle

The castle’s still open for tours though the restoration work’s stopped now. You can even hire it out for weddings or filming – even book launches. You can find them here. Though I presume the peacock’s long dead by now.

Do let me know in the comments if you like the piece. I’ve lots more in the pipeline

Gateways into Other Lives

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

Every time I start a new book, once the idea’s solid and the characters are more than half formed, I work out the music that will accompany the writing. It’s one of my favourite parts of these beginnings, like buying new notebooks and a pencil case before the start of a new school year, a little ritual that makes all the work ahead a little less daunting. It’s my favourite tip about writing and one I tend to give at the drop of the hat, because I don’t know a better way to find the beating heart of a new book when you’re still at the tentative feeling around stage and the book hasn’t really started taking shape. While my characters are still getting themselves settled in having their own playlist seems to speed the process.

Music acts like a shorthand for the mood of whatever I’m writing. My desk is under the stairs in the middle of the house, equidistant from the front door and the kitchen. Even when I’m on my own in the house it’s not the quietest place to work. But once the music is playing I’m there. I start to feel a little of what my character must feel in the scene. It’s far easier to find that elusive zone where the words flow easily and it almost feels like you’re describing events unfolding before you. So far I’ve found that nonfiction works best with a single playlist for the whole book but for fiction character playlists are the only way to go.

The book I’m working on at the moment is broken up into several parts. Each part focuses on one central character and it’s their playlists I’ve been working on. Because this book is set in the 19th Century I’ve been listening to a lot more instrumental pieces than I would normally. While I’m trying to keep the choice of music historically accurate I’m more interested in how each piece makes me feel and whether that emotional response suits the character I’m writing. So for my first chapters, set largely in the 1830s I ended up listening to a lot of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, including a particular favourite below.

Now that the story has moved on a pace and I’m in a place with a lot more drawing rooms. The music for this section is heavily piano based. I’ve been listening to some Bach, a little Chopin and a lot of John Field, like this nocturne.

As the story moves on the action will be travelling to America so I’ve a feeling I’ll be listening to a lot more Aaron Copeland even though once again the period’s off, although as always I’ll be open to suggestions.

By the time I’ve finished this book this music will have become the soundtrack, inexorably linked. When I get stuck and need to go for a walk to clear my head I can take the playlists with me and listen to them while I walk. Away from the page the music sometimes works its magic and cuts through a knot that has been confounding me all day. The only time the music isn’t useful is when I’m editing. I need to edit in silence, or with something familiar but incongruous playing in the background. Without the familiar soundtrack I can better tell if the emotion in a scene is real or hasn’t translated.

At the end of a book the playlists get relegated and I move onto the next thing and the next soundtrack. Finding them again is a little like finding a photograph of an old lover. Sitting in the music folder of my computer is the playlist named for the hero of my first book, the one that’s sitting in the filing cabinet in the next room and will almost certainly never see the light of day. Every now and then I revisit his playlist and toy with the idea of resurrecting him. I haven’t deleted the playlist after all these years so perhaps one day I will.

So if you’re reading this as a writer do you have any tricks that help you get into your characters’ heads? Any touchstones that you need to help you get into the writing zone? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know.

How She Did It…Or Not…

It’s hard to believe that Devil in the Red Dress was published over four years ago. Even though I’m working on my fourth book at the moment Devil  is the one that keeps coming back like a bad penny and it’s not likely to stop doing so any time soon.

The main reason for this is the petit blonde at the centre of the Irish half of the story. Was there ever as winsome a femme fatale before the Irish courts as Sharon Collins? I doubt it somehow. I remember Sharon well from her trial – eight weeks is a long time to see someone everyday. Even with a very heavy Damoclean sword hanging over her head she still managed to sparkle when the mood took her. I remember watching some footage of one of her police interviews, shown to the jury to indicate minute differences in the syntax of her answers that had not been fully captured by the garda scribe. She sat in the bare interview room, twisting a handkerchief in her hands as she called the gardai by their first names. I watched that footage, the jury watched that footage and I don’t think any of us particularly bought her story. There was something of the air of a little girl twisting a curl around her finger to deflect a parent’s wrath.

The jury, after watching this footage and also after watching her on the stand over two whole days, convicted her on all counts. She was convicted of both conspiring to kill her lover PJ Howard as well as his two adult sons and soliciting someone to kill them. Her co-accused, Egyptian poker dealer Essam Eid, was acquitted on conspiracy charges and the DPP eventually conceded that it would have been difficult for Sharon to have conspired alone but the soliciting charges stuck. Despite her earnest demeanour, despite her protestations, it was hard to believe the story of the rogue creative writing tutor who had travelled from America with blackmail and extortion on her mind (this was honestly the main  thrust of her defence). About the only one who seemed to believe her story was her main victim, PJ Howard. He vowed to clear her name back then and hired private detectives to track down the mysterious Maria Marconi. Everyone drew a blank. One Las Vegas detective, so I heard from my sources, was so irritated by the wild goose chase she had been sent on that she approached gardai to give evidence in the trial about the non existence of the Machiavellian tutor. The FBI tried to find Maria Marconi. They drew a blank. No one by that name had  entered or left the United States at the time she was supposed to have been up to no good in Ireland. I tried to track down Ms Marconi when I was researching the book. I found most other people connected with the story. Her I didn’t find. At one point in their investigation the gardai thought that Ms Marconi bore a striking resemblance to Essam Eid’s dodgy paramour, Theresa Engle. Sharon Collins didn’t go with that one though. Maria Marconi was real and dangerous. Maria Marconi, the six foot invisible white rabbit of the creative writing fraternity!

I never had any doubt about the veracity of her conviction. I watched her daily for six weeks and I would have convicted in a heartbeat. There’s something about the story told by a guilty person on the stand that stands out. It’s hard to put your finger on but it’s something you start to see when you watch a lot of trials. It’s actually what drew me to the story I’m working on now. I was reading the transcript of court proceedings from a hundred and sixty years ago and that guilt was drumming out the same rhythm. It tends to show itself in a certain obliqueness, a reliance on minutiae, on incidental details that an innocent person wouldn’t have picked up on. If you’re aware of what you’re doing when you commit a crime surely part of your brain is going to be looking for loopholes, the details that can save you. Those are the things you’ll remember and those are the things you focus on. But you get so focused on the details that you forget to the basics of innocence. The fact that you didn’t do it. It comes out as “You can’t think I did it because of this thing” rather than “I’m innocent.” I doubt this is hard and fast but then the people who end up before the courts aren’t exactly the best criminals – they are the ones that got caught. That same rhythm’s in the Maria Marconi story.

Why am I picking over the defence of a case that’s four years old, the time served, the matter closed? Well it’s not closed. Not if Sharon has anything to do with it. I haven’t heard her mention Maria Marconi recently but she still claims she was set up.

When she was first released from prison Sharon Collins wasn’t allowed to talk to the press. That embargo was up around New Years and sure enough there she was in the last days of 2012, making herself heard. Now this is a case that has made headlines both here and in the States. I know from experience that there’s massive interest in retelling it and it was always going to be the way that Sharon was courted to tell her part as soon as she could. Apart from the inevitable documentaries and movies she is apparently in discussions to write not one but two books. She’ll be following an age old tradition if she goes down that route. My Victorian case spawned at least three pamphlets from supporters of the convicted man. Back then the accused didn’t have as much of a right to reply as they would have in a modern court. They certainly wouldn’t get to take the stand. But Sharon did take the stand, and the jury didn’t believe her. They convicted. Unanimously. It was Eid, who also took part in an eerily similar plot on the other side of the Atlantic, they had difficulty with. Now in fairness, Eid also professes his innocence – but then the gaols are full of innocent men!

Perhaps it’s because I’ve dug so deeply into this story;  perhaps it’s because I’ve heard about the evidence the DPP didn’t use; perhaps it’s because when I’m face to face with someone I trust my gut but I find these protestations of innocence irritating. I get that this is a great story and the whole world is interested in learning more about it but using that notoriety to undermine the case put against you leaves a bit of a nasty taste. I’d be interested to hear why she did it, or how, what it was like emailing a man she thought was a hitman, discussing your partners death with such flippant coldness, but the perpetuation of the fairy tale she tried to fob off on the jury? No thanks.

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