Writer and Author

Tag: Theresa Kenny (Page 2 of 2)

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.

The Siren’s Song

Image by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

Pinned above my desk are the pictures of three women. One is a young bride staring into the face of the man she has just married. One is a little girl marking her place in her book as she pauses to indulge the most important man in her life. The last is the resigned lover, waiting patiently to put her clothes back on whenever he has finished that less than Titanic-romantic life sketch. They are all reacting to the same man. The man who would go on to wreck each of their lives.

I first made their acquaintance almost two years ago and it felt like kismet. I have notes of that first encounter, bristling with excited exclamation marks. The first time I saw their faces I felt a thrill of recognition as I picked out each one. I was familiar with their story but hadn’t yet listened to their voices.  Now they won’t shut up!

Two years ago I had no plans to write a novel. I’d just finished my second book Death on the Hill  and I was looking for another subject. I went into the National Library to look through old cases searching for material, casting the net wide. I searched the library catalogue, putting in random searches and seeing what came up but I knew as soon as I saw it that I’d found something special. If you approached an editor today with a murder case involving a philandering artist who’d bumped off the missus to spend more time with the mistress they’d explode with delight. It’s a story that’s so embedded in the history of Dublin that even for me, a blow-in, there was a flicker of recognition. It’s one of those cases that never stays forgotten for long. It’s been fodder for numerous true crime authors, been turned into a play and was  prominently featured in a rather legendary RTE series back in the 1990s.

It’s mostly known as the Ireland’s Eye murder. It took place 160 years ago this year on the famous island just off the coast of Howth here in Dublin. One evening in September a young woman, 28-year-old Maria Louisa Kirwan, was found dead on the island. The only other person there was her husband, the wealthy artist William Bourke Kirwan. It didn’t take long for suspicion to fall on him, despite Kirwan’s insistence that he had spent the time his wife was dying sketching the sunset. There was a thorough police investigation and a sensational trial. But Kirwan’s conviction didn’t stop the debate and there was so much media and political pressure that his death sentence was reduced to transportation for life.

I’ve covered a fair number of trials of men who’ve killed their partners. I’ve written about many of them on this blog. Men like Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, David Bourke, Anton Mulder, and yes, Eamonn Lillis as well. I’ve heard the excuses, watched the guilty wriggle in the stand. I’ve seen juries struggle to come to a verdict when the weight of taking away another’s liberty hangs heavy on them. I’ve watched the victim become nothing more than a disparate collection of evidence, watched their families try to redress the balance, trying to resuscitate a loved one scattered over a jumble of specimen jars. The first time I read Kirwan’s defence my gut told me he was guilty. The more I read the more he seemed just another spoilt, angry man trying to defend the indefensible and the more the women in his shadow fascinated me.

It soon became clear that to tell their stories I wouldn’t be able to write the book as straight nonfiction. Their history lies in the gaps in the documentary record. They appear as brides, little else. Despite the wealth of information that exists because this was such a very famous case in it’s day I found myself staring at a very narrow view. They were defined according to their relationship to a single event. There was no sense, as there was with all the men involved, that there was a life outside the crime, a full existence off-camera. These were women who lived in a time when to be female meant, for most, a life in the shadows of history, waiting at the corner of the scene, mute until they have to fight for their survival.The suffragettes were a generation away and Mary Wollstonecraft was within living memory. If I wanted to tell the story of the strong, lively, intelligent women staring out from these pictures I’d have to look into those shadows and step right to the edges of the scene.  So I embraced the gaps and started to write a novel.

I’ve written fiction before but after two factual books it’s a joy to take the breaks off. There’s still a lot of research to do, more now that I can look beyond the independently verifiable actually but  now that research is a framework I can hang from like a kid on a climbing frame.

William Bourke Kirwan put down his profession as an “anatomical draughtsman”. In other words he earned a living drawing anatomical illustrations for the medical profession. It was a lucrative profession but he also fancied himself as a miniaturist and portrait artist. He wasn’t actually very good. I know this because the three pictures pinned above my desk are actually his work. They belong to the collection of his work that’s in the National Library collection. It’s a rather odd collection of scraps and half finished doodles along with some rather unconvincing skeletal legs. If this book was nonfiction I’d be able to make educated guesses about what, if anything, was the significance of some of the pictures.

But this book isn’t nonfiction, it’s a novel. I can look at them and put myself in Kirwan’s head, decide what he was thinking when he painted each one, why he painted each one. I look at the faces and I see my characters. It’s their stories I want to tell.

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