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.