Writer and Author

Category: History (Page 2 of 3)

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

For International Women’s Day 2015

I have a badge on the bag I carry around every day. It’s brightly coloured enamel flowers growing up through a large number 8 on a yellow metal background. I’m not sure exactly where the badge is from or when but I know what it stands for. It was made somewhere in the Soviet empire to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8. They were big on badges, the Soviets, and big on causes. I carry it with me not because I agree with everything they stood for but because I think this is one cause that should have a badge. Actually, sod it, it should have a badge and a desert named after it and small children should go to school in costume for it, dressed as their favourite woman like they do for World Book Day. I’d  like to see International Women’s Day as loud and as festive as St Patrick’s Day or Gay Pride – because maybe then things will change, maybe then in a few years we wouldn’t need it any more.

Now I know that, if you’re reading this and you don’t already see why there should be a day dedicated to just one of the sexes, then you probably think there’s already too many women bleating about how hard they have it. They never shut up and they certainly don’t deserve a desert, or even a badge. You may think that the newspapers are already full of the feminist agenda, those pinko liberal rags never stop banging on that particularly over wrought drum. You probably think that I should shut up because I’m a middle class white woman and we already have far more than we should have – what about the men? I should check my privilege and shut up.

If you haven’t already worked it out from those first two paragraphs I’m not in the mood to use sweet persuasion. This year I’m more angry than celebratory. I’m fed up with still talking about this. Yes I was lucky to be born when and where I was but my generation were promised the sun, moon and stars. We were told anything was possible. We were told a battle had been won. And yet we’re still having this conversation.

Researching 19th Century Ireland I’ve come across so many extraordinary women. Not powerful women. The women I am looking at would not be accepted in the grand drawing rooms of the Ascendency. These are the fallen women, those hanging on by their fingernails. They aren’t the nicest people and they aren’t the most charming, but time and time again I’m astonished at their strength and resourcefulness. There’s the wife who was working out how to leave her abusive husband – despite the fact she was living in a time when that would mean walking away from all security and very possibly all respectability. Or there’s the single mother who forced the authorities to provide for her and her children – and the education of her daughters. There’s the prostitute who stood up in court against the man who hit her and spoke so calmly about the realities of her life that the court listened to her in respectful silence. I deal mainly deal with the period between 1830 and 1860 so these women were very much acting without a safety net. The law still had to change in their favour and it would be a very long time before it would change in a way that they would be able to feel.

The harshness of the world they lived in can be shocking but it was the reality of the time. From where I stand, with all my freedoms and protections, context is important. I must maintain a distance from these women – things did change and we have come a long way. I look at them from behind a glass wall, knowing things to be different for me – and that’s how it should be. But I cannot have the same distance when looking at women today who are fighting those same battles. There is no glass wall between me and them. There are no excuses. I am well aware of how easy I may have it, despite there still being a way to go, but how can any of us stop fighting when the world is still as hostile as it is to the female sex.

Take the story of Jyoti Singh, told so brilliantly and harshly in the documentary India’s Daughter. Apart from telling the horrific story of newly graduated doctor Jyoti, who had gone to see a film with a male friend and ended up gang raped and murdered the documentary also looked at the problem in misogyny that is deeply embedded in Indian culture. The rapists came from one of the slums, or semi-slums of Delhi. They had a fairly miserable existence, amounting to nothing, no prospects, no worth – yet they thought that they were superior to Dr Singh. That they could do what they wanted to her. The film was unflinching in it’s description of the rape – and of the widespread grotesque misogyny that seems to infect India. One of the rapists’ defence attorneys was shown saying that if his own daughter dishonoured his family by being raped he himself would burn her alive. We live in a world were women are burned alive or have acid thrown at them to satisfy some warped idea of honour. Where women cannot walk safely after dark. We have come such a long way.

Or take Immaculate Shamalla, a formidable activist, counsellor and women’s educator who deals with misogyny I can’t imagine daily in her work in the West Pokot region of Kenya. Imma works with the victims of rape, of female genital mutilation, of child abuse and she teaches, educating women to give them a voice. I’m in awe of the work Imma has done and is doing for women and children in her region. Her IWD speech, to be delivered in Cheragany Hills as part of the Kenyan government’s celebrations says it all. What follows are her words:

“What would you do if you were told could not vote? Own land? Get a proper education? Would you be upset, furious, frustrated or annoyed? That is how most women felt when they heard this. Do you want that to happen to you and maybe even your daughter? For many years women have been trying to claim their rights while men have many privileges that women do not have. Many countries deny putting women’s rights into action.”

“Everyone is entitled to have freedom – especially women. Women’s rights let women be independent and treated fairly. Some of the most common rights they fight for are the right to vote, equal pay, owning land and getting an education. These types of problems usually occur in Kitale – but there is a ray of hope. Over the years I see more people respecting women’s rights. And therefore during this International Women’s Day I want to re-emphasis that we women are human beings, we are smart, we are equally important in this world and we rebuke in the strongest terms all the violations we suffer – rape, deliberate infection of HIV, disinheritance , undermined, underrepresented in policy positions. We ask the government to adhere to the one third gender rule, and we still feel the one third gender rule is not enough, we want clean hospitals we can give birth in, we want access to anti-retroviral drugs, education, job opportunities, access to information on our rights. Today I join other women in demanding equality in access and opportunities, I hope that today will remind the government that we exist – and will not settle for less. “

So I will argue that International Women’s Day should be shouted from the rooftops. We should have parades and themed deserts and badges and fancy dress. Because we are all in this together and the battle is far from over. And I for one will be here every year until I can say different. I hope that happens in my life time.

A Question of Identity

Colin-Rieley-Feb-15

My father, Colin Rieley with his bearer and his older sister in India in the 1930s

I’ve grown used to not fitting in. That’s not a plea for sympathy or a “poor me” just an expression of the status quo. I moved to the west of Ireland from London in my teens. Even though I’ve now lived most of my life in Ireland, even though I care very deeply about what goes on here, even though I have dear friends and family here, even though Ireland is my home, on some very basic level I will always be an outsider. Those formative years in London shaped me in a way I just can’t change. They shaped my sense of humour, my political leanings, my values – my reticence. A million little things that make me who I am.

Over the years, on days when that cultural gap felt a little too wide, I thought at lot about where I’d come from, where my family had come from. Having an Irish surname has always been a bit of a double edged sword. One the one hand it proves the fact that I have some Irish roots, on the other hand – it’s spelled wrong. I get corrected all the time on that. Everyone knows how you spell “Reilly”.

So a few years ago I decided to find out where the Rieley came from. Find out where those Irish roots actually were. How hard could it be?

Now, I had some experience of genealogy. My first job after leaving school was working for the Sligo Family Research Society and helping people find their relationship to Yeats. I knew there were one or two issues with the Irish records but I didn’t think I’d have to go back that far. As far as I knew I would have been able to play on the Irish soccer team – not because I can kick a ball of course, but because my grandfather was born here. I knew that my dad had been born in India – that’s him on the left in the picture at the top of this post – but I remembered a story my mum had told me about him applying for an Irish passport at some stage but being told the records had been lost in the Four Courts fire. I knew my grandfather had been born at the end of the 19th century so I didn’t think I’d have much difficulty finding him in Ireland.

The best laid plans…

I started to look for my grandfather and almost immediately hit a brick wall. Apart from one marriage record I couldn’t find him anywhere. I ordered a copy of certificate and found out his father’s name and the fact that he was a bank manager but apart from that, there was nothing. I decided to go back a step and try to find my father’s birth record so I turned to the records of the British India Office and the East India Company, as well as the records painstakingly transcribed by the group FIBIS, the Families in British India Society. With a crash the wall came tumbling down. I found my dad – and my grandfather – and my great grandfather. They were all born in India, and married in India and died in India until my grandfather took wife and children back to England. The more digging I did the more people I found, great sprawling branches of people – all of them born and bred in India. I was back to 1820 and had yet to find anyone who had been born in Europe. I was puzzled with what I found. How had I got it so wrong? Was I misremembering?

Over the years I kept digging as more records found their way on line. I started to discover what jobs people had and time and again, when I did further research, I found that these were typical jobs for Anglo Indians. Could that be a reason why I had heard nothing about this Indian past? Why the Four Courts fire seemed so convenient? Had my family tried to “pass”?

I knew that to be considered Anglo Indian the Indian generally passed down through the maternal line. These were the children of Indian women who had children with European men. Could one of the women in the records have been Indian? The names really do not help.

My best bet is that she was the Sophia who married a Patrick Rieley in Madras (now Chennai) in May 1819. She had grown up in the Female Orphan Asylum. Patrick was a teacher in the Free School. The children who went to both the male and the female orphan asylums in those days were often the children of Indian mothers and fathers from Europe. The fathers’ would leave and the mothers would have no way to look after their children – so they would leave them at the orphanage, where the church tried to turn them into useful members of society. I can’t find Sophia’s birth record so I don’t know for certain, but along with everything else this is what fits. It explains a lot, looking at that sprawling tree. It explains why my grandfather’s brother Terence, who ran away to sea and went to America, would tell the Federal Census that he had been born in Ireland. It also explains perhaps, why he wrote on his draft registration for the First World War, that he was a citizen or a subject of India. It explains why they were such a close knit family, never moving far away from each other, intermarrying – because they were “that” community – neither one thing or the other – both.

My theory is that young Patrick Rieley left Cavan or wherever he was from, having grown up with talk of rebellion. He would have heard stories of 1798 and 1803. He would have perhaps had contact with some of the progressive education reformers around at the time. People like Maria Edgeworth, who thought that Ireland’s troubles could be eased if only the children were taught well and taught together. Perhaps young Patrick thought that he could do something good with that education, that he made his way to India. A generation before he arrived, a teacher at the free school had pioneered the method of peer education known as the Madras system. This system of pupil teachers revolutionised teaching in places with a shortage of teachers. Perhaps Patrick wanted to be part of that legacy.

Whatever reason Patrick went to India for – if indeed he was the one who went there – he started a fascinating history. It’s been exciting tracing all those different branches and there’s a lot more work to do. I’ve only found out the direct line. I still don’t know if any branches of the family stayed, if any are still there. I find it hard to understand why anyone would hide such a story – but of course there were, there are a lot of reasons why people choose to do the things they do. This was not and is not a particularly tolerant world.

When I was very small, even before we moved to Ireland, I was still used to looking different. Every now and then I would get asked where I was from, because my face didn’t fit the standard British model. Over the years, I’ve been told my colouring came from Spain, or the Celts, or the Baltic. Perhaps the reason for the dark hair and sallow skin actually goes back to Patrick Rieley. I never did find those Irish roots but I’ll keep digging. Maybe some very early records didn’t get burnt in the Four Courts fire. It’ll be fun looking anyway.

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

Seeing Through his Eyes

 

My dad's front of house picture from the Brian Brooke Company

My dad’s front of house picture from the Brian Brooke Company

The projector whirrs into action, throwing a shivering oblong onto the magnolia wall. At first all that’s visible is a few random pairs of feet, white walled tyres. tarmac with the sky below it. Eventually the picture settles down. I’m transfixed, staring, afraid to blink and miss a single frame. I’ve had this ribbon of tantalising history for weeks now but until this weekend I had no idea what was on it. It was among a random assortment of things that had belonged to my mother. There was nothing written on it to suggest what it could have been. All I had was the phrase “It’s from your father’s time.”

For weeks I’ve been looking at the round yellow Kodak case imagining it’s contents. There were no cine cameras in my childhood. My mum might have left a suitcase full of snapshots chronicling random moments of my childhood but there are no moving images. Growing up I had few pictures of my dad. They were too painful for my mum, I think. She carried a passport photo of him in her wallet and I had a miniature of him painted just before he left his Indian birthplace at seven to go to school in a cold, unfamiliar England. Neither of these pictures seemed to relate to the smiling young man with the movie star looks who stared out of the black frame propped against the wall in the dining room. I knew the picture as “Daddy with his hair on”. I knew it was him because his name was printed below it and underlined with a flourish, but this young man bore no relation to the balding, bespectacled teacher who held the baby me in photographs. That was the man whose hair oil had left a dark stain on the brown fabric of his chair, who had sat there every evening with a book in one hand and me sitting in the other. I knew he had met my mother in a theatre company, I knew that he used to act as well as stage manage, but these were abstract facts that didn’t fit with the man whose absence was a constant hole in my childhood.

When I was a child I used to dream that my father had come home. There would be a knock on the door one day and I would run to open it and there he would be looking tanned and relaxed. I knew it would never happen, I understood death, but it seemed extraordinary that the person whose presence I could still feel would have left life without leaving some living impression. My mum kept him alive for me so successfully I could never quite shake the feeling he was just beyond reach, just outside my touch. When I got that reel of film a part of me was triumphant. That child in me was crowing “See, I told you he wouldn’t have left us with nothing.”

So on Saturday I finally sat down to watch the film, more than half expecting to finally see him smiling back at me, found after all these years. Instead I was watching tourist snaps. Stretching away from the camera were rows and rows of rounded Deco windows. The camera panned away, past vivid bougainvillea to smiling black faces waving from a field and white ones waving from a beach. After only a couple of minutes the clicking came to a clacking stop as the film ran to it’s end. There were no familiar faces and after all that no sign of my father. But I knew that I had been seeing through his eyes as he excitedly recorded the sights and sounds lately come familiar, capturing them before they faded and he returned to cold, grey Southampton.

That movie star picture of my father that now hangs above my desk was once in the foyer of a theatre in Johannesburg.  In 1955, at the age of 24, my father travelled to South Africa to work for the famous theatre impresario Brian Brooke. I had known about this as a child, because of the photo. I knew it was a pretty big deal. As an adult I found other proof, corroborating evidence existing outside family legend. Searching Ancestry.co.uk for a family paper trial I chanced upon his arrival in Southampton in April 1956. The trip survives independently of our idiosyncratic archiving.

Among the clutter I inherited earlier this year, as well as the picture and the Kodak reel, was the passport he brought with him on that trip. It was the same passport he had since school. His picture is gawky, a child I’ve never seen before. I had always assumed that the trip was merely something he had done in an a cosmopolitan life. He had spent his first few years in India. From my vantage point in a London suburb I couldn’t imagine how you could top that, I assumed that after a start like that travel would be something simply taken in one’s stride, something to be enjoyed but not viewed with the wide eyes of a little suburbanite like me. But watching the film I begin to see something different. A young man intoxicated by his surroundings, who never wanted to forget the sights and sounds that he was seeing. This was a young man striking out on his own for the first time. These were his experiences, his memories, not those of his family or his schoolmates. This was a year he would never forget.

I don’t know what happened that year. I don’t know what parts he played, if he fell in love, raised hell. All I know is that the gaze he turned on South Africa was an affectionate one. I can forgive him never turning the camera on himself. He showed me something that he would never forget. That’s precious in it’s own way.

The Importance of Remembering

This weekend past I visited the graves of forgotten women. It’s something see I do now and again when I can. It started when I was in the early days of researching this current book. There’s a gravesite in Glasnevin Cemetery, unmarked and unnoticed among the more haphazard stones of a century ago that belongs to one of the women I’m writing about. I know that Maria Kirwan bought the plot DX39 and the one beside it a couple of years before she died. I know that in September 1852 she was laid to rest there, only to be dug up a month later when the police investigation into her death got going.

I know that the grave was waterlogged that grim October day, that the new O’Connell tower was under construction, that the part of the graveyard she inhabits is known as the Dublin section, not quite as posh as the Garden section but classy enough for the good burghers of Dublin town who paid handsomely for headstones for their dearly beloved that left the reader in no doubt about the wealth of the mourners and the success of their businesses on such and such a street. Maria doesn’t have a stone. After her untimely death there was no one to buy one. Her husband didn’t care, too busy with the family he had built behind her back, her mother was too in thrall to the husband that had killed her, taking his money and speaking in his defence. Her brother had left for a new life in America and her doting father was dead. The victim often disappears in a murder case but that bare patch of ground is such a stark reminder of the anonymity of death. I know she’s down there but you can only find her if you know where to look.

I look at Maria’s face every time I sit down at my desk, she’s the subject of one of her husband’s sketches that I’ve copied and pinned at eye level to keep me focused on the task at hand. But every now and then I pay her a visit too. Sometimes I take flowers but every time I stop for a moment to think of her, or at least the version of her that now lives in my book. It started as a focusing exercise, a way of grounding myself to the characters I’m writing but now I pop in if I’m passing Glasnevin cemetery. Her grave reminds me that I’m writing about real women, that even though I’m imagining their story their pain was real, their lives and deaths were real. This is the hinterland of fiction, with its ghosts and phantoms. I have to keep one foot in the real world and be respectful of the historical fact.

This weekend I brought two bunches of flowers. There was another grave I wanted to visit. Actually in Glasnevin there are a number of graves I’d like to place flowers on, just a gentle nod to say I’ve noticed, just an acknowledgement of their story, their passing, a nod of solidarity as one human being to another, a nod to say they are not forgotten. There’s the Millennium Plot, in the somewhat grim mass grave section, this is where they bury those who died alone. Who had no one to mark their passing, on the street, in a bedsit wherever. It’s all too easy to slip through the cracks in this world we live in now, just look at poor Joyce Vincent, subject of the 2011 film Dreams of a Life, who wasn’t discovered for three years after her death, the television still playing for her skeleton when she was found. It’s a very modern fear, that lonely forgotten death, even if it is nothing new.  We should all pay more attention to those around us. Maybe stopping at the Millennium Plot would remind us that.

But this weekend the extra flowers weren’t for them. Last week former presidential spouse Senator Martin McAleese’s report into the Magdalen Laundries was published. It got a rather mixed reception. While it did find beyond doubt was that the Irish State had indeed routinely sent women into the infamous Magdalen Laundries, it also took the word of the religious orders about the word of the women who had come forward to describe their experiences. Lets not forget that these laundries were the sweat shops that provided the grand hotels with nice starched linen, the crisp white tablecloths of State banquets, that kept wayward girls and women off the streets in the days when the female sex were viewed as dangerous and crushable. These were places where the courts sent female convicts, where families sent their rebellious women folk, the receptacle where the destitute and the desperate ended up, in some occasions sent there by those they had approached to help including, staggeringly, the Red Cross, The Simon Community and the Samaritans. Over the past seven days we have watched the Taoiseach stumble his way round a non-apology, the religious orders who ran the homes try to tell the women who had suffered under their care that they just hadn’t fully appreciated the experience in the spirit it was intended and the women who were there still waiting for proper recognition of what they’ve been through.

These workhouses were no different from the grim places of terror that haunted the Famine weakened. They were run with the same pious ruthlessness that calmly discussed in the 1840s how they could make a handy buck from the sale of the bodies piling up within their walls if they sold them to the anatomists. We think of workhouses as fossils, relics from an unrecognisably brutal time when life was cheap and brutal. But the Magdalen Laundries continued into the 20th Century. They continued past the formation of a new State, they continued until the last one closed it’s doors in the 1990s. You can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats it’s weakest. What do these stories, and these, say about Ireland?

It’s not good enough to say that times were different. Times are always different from what passed before. This was a brutal thing done by religious orders who should have shown more compassion, a State that should have shown more concern for it’s citizens and a people that should have cared more about their daughters, sisters, mothers and wives. Sadly the Magdalens aren’t an isolated tale of a section of society ill-treated by those who had a duty of care. We’ve already heard of the Industrial Schools, the Orphanages, the Asylums. modern Irish history is littered with the weak and vulnerable being treated like inconvenient rubbish by those who should have done better. We should at least have the honesty to say that if you didn’t decry the system you allowed it, you condoned it, you are just as liable. It’s easy to feel that it’s just all too much, that the constant revelations over the past couple of decades are threatening to overwhelm you in a wave of intolerable injustice. But you can’t turn away, not this time. When the decision was made to deal with the vulnerable by pushing them out of sight out of mind and turning a blind eye no one came out well. It’s a shame the whole country has to take their part in. It should never have happened, but it did. It should never happen again, but it will.

So that’s where I brought my bunch of flowers.

Flowers in front of the Magdalene memorial in Glasnevin Cemetary

 

This stone stands in the car park of Glasnevin Cemetery, commemorating nameless women whose sins went with them to the grave. It’s not the only Magdalen stone in the Graveyard. There are others and still more in graveyards around the country. Then there are the buildings were we locked away those that couldn’t look after themselves, or that didn’t fit in. None of it should be forgotten. This is a part of Ireland’s history that is still a part of our present. We need to remember the truth, the reality of what happened and why it happened and watch for that brutality and nip it in the bud. Maria’s grave helps keep my fiction rooted in fact. I’d like the other flowers to do something similar. I’ll keep leaving flowers and you never know it might catch on, perhaps one day it’ll be as big a trend as the padlocks that hang from the Ha’penny Bridge to honour teenage love. Something that will get people talking, asking questions and will keep the memory of all this stuff alive. It’s our duty to remember or it will keep happening because no lessons will ever be learnt.

A Sentence of Death

The crowds that filled Green Street in Dublin’s north inner city on the morning of Friday December 10th 1852 were bigger than ever. Both days of the trial of artist William Bourke Kirwan had played out in front of a packed courtroom with proceedings being relayed to the unfortunates outside who had been unable to gain admission. But news of the sensational late night verdict had flown around the trial and everyone wanted to see the conclusion.

The air outside the court that morning was crackling with excitement and when the doors to the courthouse were opened shortly before 10 o’clock, people were almost crushed in the surge forward. The prisoner’s legal team, led by Isaac Butt MP, were already in attendance and the well of the court had been occupied by interested members of the legal profession and their well heeled friends before the public gained admittance. The court filled in moments and an expectant hush fell in anticipation of the doomed man.

The judges took their seats at half past ten and Justice Philip Crampton called for the prisoner to be brought into the dock.

If the crowds had been hoping for a broken man they were disappointed. Kirwan took his place confidently and sat up straight, staring straight ahead. Gone was the fear that had been in evidence last night when the word guilty rang out in the court just before midnight. William Kirwan looked like a man who still didn’t believe he had lost the fight.

But before any verdict could be handed down Isaac Butt was on his feet. There were matters of evidence that he maintained had been produced illegally, he told the court. The evidence regarding Kirwan’s mistress should not have been allowed he said, and the evidence of some of the medical witnesses regarding the body of the deceased. He asked for leave to appeal.

Judge Crampton asked if the sentence would be better postponed until the matter had been dealt with but Mr Butt said this would not be necessary. Kirwan’s solicitor John Curran Esq, also objected to the admission of his client’s testimony at the inquest into his wife’s death as evidence in the trial of her murder. The judges rejected his submission since Kirwan had spoken willingly at a time when he was not under suspicion.

Legal wrangling over at last the crowd leaned forward expectantly as the Clerk of the Court turned to Kirwan and asked him if he had anything to add before his sentence was handed down.

Kirwan then stood and put his hands of the edge of the dock. Speaking in a firm and perfectly calm voice with no sign of uncertainty or wavering he addressed the court.

“My lords, might I claim the indulgence of the Court for a few moments for the purpose of stating some matters connected with this unfortunate affair, that have not bee brought of in this trial.” He then eloquently and at considerable length set about outlining the points he was sure would underline his innocence. He spent some time considering who had been carrying his wife’s bathing dress on that fateful day, despite the fact that she had been wearing it when she was found. For the attentive courtroom he picked over all the minor points of that day. What they had for lunch. Where he was sitting while sketching alone of the island. He spent some time explaining how his trousers had got wet. It was rain on the long grass he insisted, not salt water at all. He would have gone through every moment of the more peaceful part of the day if Mr Justice Crampton hadn’t stopped him.

“I am sorry to interrupt you at this painful moment, and you must be well aware that your counsel entered into all these subjects. It is impossible for me now to go into the evidence.”

At a moment when it might have been advisable for Kirwan to mention how much he loved his wife, or how sorry he was that she was dead and gone from him he was only concerned with himself.

“I consider myself to be a doomed person, from the trial that has taken place, and the sentence about to be passed; and I state these matters as well out of regard for my own memory as for the sake of those friends who have been with me, who know my character from childhood, who know my innocence, and who feel it yet as I do.”

Judge Crampton, his voice low and trembling with emotion began his sentence. He told Kirwan that he had been tried by the ablest of counsel and his case had been decided by a very intelligent and impartial jury. He was not going to pronounce his own judgement on their verdict he said but “I can see no reason or grounds to bee dissatisfied with it”, a view that was shared by the second judge on the case, Baron Richard Greene. Kirwan’s crime he said was the most heinous in the eyes of God. He had not raised his hand against another man who had insulted, provoked or injured him but a woman “a helpless, unprotected female – one whom, by the laws of God and man, was entitled to your affectionate guardianship.”

This dreadful act was compounded, the judge went on, by the illicit double life Kirwan had led for the whole of his married life. This double life may also have contributed to his motive. “Embarrassed you may have been by the painful predicament in which you had placed yourself, under this double engagement, and you seem to have resolved to extricate yourself by a desperate crime. Instead of dismissing the mistress and providing for her as well as you could, you appear to have mediated the destruction of the wife.”

Justice Crampton told Kirwan his fate would serve as a warning to the young. “Let them beware of forming immoral engagements, and of entering into profligate courses. The steps of crime are very gradual – there is not much descent from one step to another, and the first leads naturally to the second, and so on until the last fatal step.” Kirwan’s die was cast, the learned judge said. He could look to no earthly consolations, merely hope for the comfort of faith.

At last the judge came to the decisive moment. A shudder passed through the crowded courtroom and for a moment Kirwan lost all his composure, slumping forward in his seat and raising his hand to his eyes as if to close out the world and the inevitability of what was to come next. Justice Crampton lifted up a square black cap and placed it on top of his wig.

“The sentence is, that you William Bourke Kirwan, be taken from the place where you now stand to the place from which you came, the gaol, and that from thence you be there hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be buried within the precincts of the prison in which you are now confined. And oh, may the Lord have mercy on your soul.” As the judge spoke the words “your body buried” Kirwan could be seen to shake as the reality of his situation finally seemed to take hold.

There was a hush in the courtroom after the verdict and the guards came to remove Kirwan from the dock. Before he left he gripped the rail of the dock once more.

“Convinced as I am that my hopes in this world are at an end, I do most solemnly declare, in the presence of this court, and of that God before whom I expect soon to stand, that I had neither act, not part in, or knowledge of, my late wife’s death; and I will state further, that I never treated her unkindly, as her own mother can testify.”

So 160 years ago today one of Dublin’s most sensational trials came to an end.

I found the transcript two years ago when researching a history of the criminal courts. As a court reporter I’ve always been interested in the behaviour of the accused. If I had been sitting in that courtroom I would have been in no doubt that William Kirwan was absolutely banged to rights. It seems that the Dublin press of the day were pretty unanimously of the same opinion. But the sentence was only the beginning. Within days the first letters appeared in the British papers arguing Kirwan’s innocence.

He hired a new solicitor and within weeks statements had been gathered to support his defence, including, finally the word of his faithful mistress Theresa Kenny. Kirwan’s sentence was commuted to transportation for life on New Years Eve 1852. He spent six years in a prison camp in Bermuda, where he appears to have landed the cushy job of working for the camp doctor. When the camp closed he was sent back to Spike Island in Cork where he served out the rest of his sentence. His six living children were scattered, damaged and alone. His mistress, ever loyal, waited for him, although the cost would be great.

When I started to dig into the facts behind the case Theresa was the one who really caught my imagination. The more I dug the more I found strong vibrant women who cried out to have their story told. That’s what I’m doing with this book, telling the stories of those that have slipped out of the pages of history. It is rather taking the long route but their stories deserve to be told.

If you want more detail about the trial itself there are various accounts. My favourite is the account of another court reporter, the indomitable Scot William Roughead. We agree on the fact that Kirwan was guilty as sin, although another account, by Irish judge and patriot Matthias McDonnell Bodkin in his 1918 book Famous Irish Trials sees the whole thing as a miscarriage of justice. Roughead consulted with the prosecution legal team when he wrote his account so perhaps he got to take a peek at the book of evidence. I’ve had a look at it myself. It makes fascinating reading. If you want a more modern take on the trial, true crime writer Michael Sheridan’s latest book is on that very subject. Murder on Ireland’s Eye doesn’t go beyond Kirwan’s story but it’s a comprehensive account of the trial and some of the fallout of that controversial verdict.

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