Writer and Author

Tag: Research

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.

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.

A Rustle of Petticoats

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

One of the glorious things about writing fiction is that I’m not manacled to the facts. Even though many of the people I’m writing about lived and most of the events that I’m writing about happened I’m free to delve into the spaces between and make them my own. As I wrote in my previous post, the current book, while based on a real case, is most definitely a novel. I might have spent most of the past two years in libraries and archives but the details I’ve found there form a framework on which to hang my own story, my own characters.

Even after so long there are still fragments of research that still need doing but now, at last, I’m down to the novelist’s kind of research, the less tangible things, the abstract. This is where I can cast the net wide to capture the fabric of the world my characters move in.

I’ve been through a similar process with both my previous books, visiting locations to find the details you don’t know until you see them, the things that are the difference between a flat description of anywhere and a living, breathing place but for a novel it’s different, there’s a lot more to see and feel.  If my characters experience something that’s alien to me then I’ll try to close the gap in my knowledge. I admit it, I’m a bit method when it comes to getting into my characters’ heads.

It was in the spirit of this less tangible kind of research that I headed to the Merrion Square Open Day at the weekend. I was in search of a location. William Kirwan and his wife Maria lived close to Merrion Square for most of their married life. Unfortunately, both the house they moved into when they first started to climb the social ladder and the grander premises they were leasing at the time of the murder are long gone. The upstairs drawing room where Maria was struck by her husband in one of their many rows – gone. The coach house through which William tried to make his escape the day the police came to call – gone. The bedroom where one of William’s children lay dying, watched over by Theresa his faithful mistress in the days between that fateful day on Ireland’s Eye and the end of their domestic idyll – all gone. Where the grander house once stood Government Buildings now stands with a different scandalous history all of its own but that doesn’t help my preoccupation at all.

I found my approximation in the wonderful building belonging to the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Meticulously restored and bursting with architectural detail it was the closest I could get to having a nose around the Kirwans’ house. William and Maria’s house wasn’t as grand perhaps and it certainly didn’t have photocopiers and computers but it was easy to picture it as a bustling home. In the downstairs reception room, now the home to the Society’s impressive library, I could hear the clink of glasses as William sealed a deal with a client. In the corresponding upstairs room, in a lull in the chatter from the constant stream of visitors, there seemed to be a stirring of the dust as if wide skirts had brushed by. Standing in the little yard outside the kitchen looking up at the colourful garden it was easy to imagine yourself with the servants as the master rushed past above, something definitely afoot. Even though it wasn’t these rooms they’d walked through and the faithful hound buried at the bottom of the garden (see the picture at the top of this piece) belonged to somebody else, it felt like stepping into their lives for a moment.

One of the most frustrating things I’m finding about this historical subject matter is the time machine you need to move around the city they knew. I’ve the maps and the plans and the contemporary accounts but over the past few years I’ve been lamenting the loss of their city. I’ve always been aware that Dublin’s past hasn’t always been sensitively tended (Wood Quay anyone?) but researching this book has given me a fresh insight. I’m not a historian or an archaeologist but I love the places where you can feel all of Dublin’s centuries around you, the markets round Smithfield say or the area around Christchurch with its warren of medieval streets. Most of the streets where my characters lived and worked have been obliterated but I’ll always try to get as close as I can. I’ve lived in Dublin for over twenty years, had flats in Georgian terraces, gone to carols in the cathedral, lived and worked in the bustling, ancient-modern mishmash of a city that is Dublin today but this feeling is new. It’s looking to the past beneath the shopping centres where my characters live and breath, like finding Boudicca’s layer in London soil. Frustrating it might be trying to find those traces but it’s one of the most rewarding things about working on this book and a feeling I hope never fades away.

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