Stranger Than Fiction
Murder Most Irish
By Dean Jobb
Early September, 1852. Dubliners William Burke Kirwan and his wife, Maria, take a day trip to Ireland’s Eye, a small, wedge-shaped island a short boat ride from the village of Howth, on the northern edge of Dublin Bay. William, an artist, sketches. Maria hikes and swims. But when local fishermen return that evening to pick them up, only William meets them.
After a frantic search in the fading light, Maria’s body was found on the rocks at a popular swimming spot. Back on the mainland, a coroner’s jury returned a verdict: accidental death by drowning. Wounds to her face and head were chalked up to the rugged shoreline rocks and the work of hungry crabs. No one thought to mention the screams heard coming from the island that evening. Or the blood that was washed from her body, at her husband’s insistence, before the jury was shown her remains.
Was Maria’s death an accident or murder? Irish Times journalist and true-crime author Dean Ruxton tackles a case that claims “a painful notoriety even in the dismal annals of Irish crime,” as the London Times put it, in Death on Ireland’s Eye: The Victorian Murder Trial that Scandalized a Nation (Gill Books). It’s one of three recent true crime books that revisit cases of murder and terrorism from Ireland’s past.
In the wake of Maria’s death, disturbing reports surfaced of a troubled marriage, threats, and physical abuse. William beat her with his walking stick, she confided to a local woman. “I’ll end you,” her husband was overheard saying during one row at their lodgings in Howth. There was more. Years earlier, it was claimed, he had poisoned her and she had almost died. And William, it was soon discovered, lived a scandalous double life: There was a second, unofficial “Mrs. Kirwan” in Dublin, the mother of his eight children. A month after Maria’s death, he was charged with her murder.
Ruxton dissects this bizarre and complex case with surgical precision. He reconstructs scenes and events from witness statements, but often jumps in with explanations and his own thoughts (one chapter is titled, “Do I Think He Did It?”). These intrusions help connect the dots and never detract from the narrative as damning evidence comes to light, William Kirwan is put on trial, and a war of words ignites in the press over whether he is a heartless murderer or the victim of rumor and prejudice.
Ruxton calls the Kirwan case an “extraordinary chapter in Ireland’s criminal history.” It’s an extraordinary tale as well, and one the author tells with vivid detail and keen insight.
Who killed George Little? That question haunted Dubliners for months after the chief cashier of the Midland Great Western Railway was found dead in his office on a November morning in 1856. His throat was slashed, the door to his office at Broadstone station was locked, apparently from the inside, and there were no signs of a struggle. But suspicions of suicide quickly evaporated when an autopsy revealed that blows from a heavy object had shattered Little’s skull. The hunt was on for a murderer.
In The Dublin Railway Murder: The Sensational True Story of a Victorian Murder Mystery (Harvill Secker), author Thomas Morris explores a baffling nineteenth-century case of crime and detection in the Irish capital. The Dublin Metropolitan Police chased dead-end leads and grilled a long list of suspects but came up empty. Two Scotland Yard detectives parachuted in to help fared no better. One newspaper termed the investigation “The Broadstone Farce” in a headline that reflected the public’s growing frustration.
The motive for killing Little—a “quiet, amiable, unpresuming and as unoffending a creature as ever breathed,” according to one railway official—was robbery. While a large amount of cash was still in his office, the tidy sum of more than £300 was missing. And the crime had all the hallmarks of an inside job. The killer must have known the layout of the railway station, first to locate Little’s office and then to choose an escape route. And a hammer used in the railway’s shops, one of the suspected murder weapons, was found when a canal beside the station was drained.
Morris, who has written previous books of medical history, recreates the investigation in remarkable blow-by-blow detail. He mines press coverage and surviving police and court records—including once-secret correspondence between detectives and government officials—to document this engrossing whodunit.
Seven months after the murder, with the investigation at a standstill, a railway employee named James Spollin was accused of the crime. Mary Spollin told the police she had watched her husband destroy his bloodstained clothing, and she knew where he had hidden some of the stolen money. Spollin was charged with murder. But the prosecution’s star witness was never heard from at the trial; under a law in force at the time, a wife was barred from testifying against her husband. Would there be enough evidence to convict? “If an unscrupulous Victorian newspaper editor had been minded to cook up a fictional murder in a desperate attempt to increase sales,” Morris notes, “he could hardly have written a more intriguing story.”
A double murder in Dublin in May 1882 remains one of the most notorious crimes in Irish history. On his first day as the chief secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish went for an evening walk in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. His second-in-command, Thomas Henry Burke, decided to tag along. Two men armed with surgical knives, willing to kill to win Ireland’s independence from Britain, ambushed and stabbed them to death. The brutal act sent shock waves through the British government. Prime Minister Gladstone adjourned the House of Commons and described Cavendish, his former aide, as “one of the very noblest hearts in England.” Cavendish’s wife had been the Queen’s maid of honor, and Victoria lamented the “too terrible” news in her diary.
The killings were the work of the Invincibles, an assassination squad set up within the ranks of the Fenian Brotherhood, the extremist movement behind a campaign of terrorist bombing attacks on British cities. The assassins were arrested when one of the Invincibles’ leaders, James Carey, betrayed them to the police. The men who killed Cavendish and Burke, and three conspirators, were hanged, and Carey became the most reviled man in Ireland.
The final act in the Phoenix Park assassination tragedy played out more than a year later and thousands of miles from Dublin. Patrick O’Donnell, a former ironworker, befriended a fellow Irishman named Power during a voyage from London to Cape Town. Power, it turned out, was James Carey. And O’Donnell was about to become an unlikely Irish hero.
Seán Ó Cuirreáin presents a story of crime, vengeance, and uncertain justice in The Queen v Patrick O’Donnell: The Man Who Shot the Informer James Carey (Four Courts Press). A former journalist and broadcaster who served as Ireland’s first language commissioner, he ferreted out archival records in four countries on three continents—including British documents kept secret for a century—in his search for the truth about what happened aboard the steamer Melrose off the coast of South Africa in July 1883.
This was no murder mystery. The British government, in a Victorian Era version of a witness protection program, had provided Carey with a new name and shipped him to a remote corner of the Empire. But the plan was exposed in newspaper reports, which included Carey’s portrait, tipping off O’Donnell. When “Mr. Power” joined him in the steamer’s saloon for a drink, heated words were exchanged. O’Donnell denounced “the blasted Irish informer” in front of more than a half-dozen witnesses, drew a pistol, and shot Carey three times.
Was it a chance encounter that turned deadly, or was O’Donnell a Fenian agent ordered to hunt down and assassinate the man whose testimony had sent his fellow Invincibles to the gallows? Witnesses disagreed on what O’Donnell said as Carey lay dying. The ship’s captain thought he heard the words “I didn’t do it,” an odd denial of such a blatant act. Carey’s wife, who witnessed the shooting, heard something more sinister: she swore that O’Donnell declared, “I was sent to do it.” While O’Donnell had spent time in the United States—the hotbed of Irish extremism—Ó Cuirreáin found no connection to the extremist groups demanding Irish freedom. He lashed out and killed Carey, it appears, because he was incensed to discover he had been duped by the notorious Irish traitor.
The author’s relentless sleuthing uncovered forgotten evidence of a possible miscarriage of justice. Carey toted a pistol of his own—supplied by the Dublin police, no less—and may have been armed when he was shot, supporting O’Donnell’s claim to have acted in self-defense. And the jury at his Old Bailey trial seemed inclined to acquit him of murder and return a verdict of the less-serious offense of manslaughter. But the trial judge, Ó Cuirreáin convincingly argues, was determined to see O’Donnell convicted of murder and hanged. Even, it turns out, if he had to mislead the jury to do it.
Dean Jobb’s latest true crime book, The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer (Algonquin Books), was longlisted for the American Library Association’s 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.