Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: William Burke Kirwan

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!

An Exciting Couple of Days

GreyfriarsBobby

The Edinburgh statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog who stayed by his owner’s grave for years, His nose has been rubbed bright by luck seeking tourists.

There have been a lot of changes in the past year. One of the biggest is that I’m finally starting to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to the academic side of things. When I started working on the Kirwan case five years ago I was looking for the subject for the next book. I stumbled across the case doing a broad sweep of the National Library catalogue and knew instantly that there was something there. If William Kirwan came up in the courts list while I was on the beat there would be no question it’d be a case to follow. It’s got everything – middle class killer, attractive victim, sexual impropriety. I don’t think there was ever a period in history when that wouldn’t have made headlines.

So I told my agent that I’d found the next subject and started digging.

The one thing I could never have guessed is how much that case would take over my life. I usually get rather buried in my research but this was something else. Where ever I dug I kept discovering more. If I’d been in a certain type of film we would have been stumbling into a new hidden cavern filled with priceless golden artifacts every couple of days. Pretty soon it became clear that the research was too large for one book. There are so many angles to approach it from, so many side branches and interesting avenues to go down as my cast expanded and my timeline grew. This was no longer a single case to study – this was a field. Kirwan wasn’t an end in himself but a door into something so much bigger. I’m still finding stuff and I don’t intend to stop looking, it’s odd to look back these days and see that this whole change of direction came from one rather thin case (when you actually look at the evidence).

It became clear fairly early on that this research was more than just the book. The book will still get written (although it’s evolved rather from that early agent conversation) but things have grown quite a bit. I’m now hoping to start a PhD next year (more of that another time) and I’m working on proving myself academically. So that’s how I met little Greyfriar’s Bobby (in the picture) earlier this week. I was over at Edinburgh University delivering a paper on 19th century newspaper coverage of the Dublin Insolvency courts (and yes, Kirwan did get a mention). It was a fabulous conference. So much fun to get to meet so many people equally nerdy about 19th century newspapers and to so many expert views on a huge range of subjects. I learned that the paper I’ve often turned to for illustrative purposes, the Illustrated Police News, degenerated into a Victorian lads mag by the end, or that Harriet Martineau wrote extensively on the Irish Famine, or that Dicken’s speeches were his form of profile management. Here’s the programme of the full range of talks, with links to all the abstracts if you want to know more about each subject. Also here’s the Storify put together by organiser Dr David Finkelstein, to give a flavour of the couple of days.

I’m planning on putting my paper up on Academia.edu, or even looking into getting it published elsewhere but I’ll keep you posted. The Edinburgh trip was eye opening. Academic presenting is very different from anything I’ve done to date. It’s a specific skill that I want to grow but the experience – stimulating, intense and exhausting – was definitely one I want to get used to.

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

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