This case is commonly referred to as the Ireland's Eye murder. I cannot adopt that phrase. On a most careful consideration and collection of the almost verbatim reports of this extraordinary trial, published in the newspapers of the day, I am convinced that no murder was committed, that William Burke Kirwan, who was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of his wife, Sarah Maria Louisa Kirwan, was wholly innocent of the crime. I will now state the admitted facts and the evidence in the case as briefly as may be.
The accused was a professional artist, apparently in good circumstances, residing at 11 Merrion Street, with the woman whom he was accused of murdering, and to whom he had been married 12 years before. Mrs. Kirwan was described by all the witnesses as a well-made and extremely good-looking 'woman of about 35 years of age. She was passionately fond of sea bathing, and a powerful and daring swimmer, as one witness declared the most venturesome ever seen at Howth.
In the month of June 1852, the accused took lodgings with a Mrs. Power in Howth, where he sketched and his wife bathed. On several occasions they visited the little island, Ireland's Eye, a short distance from Howth, for the purpose of sketching and bathing. On Monday, the 6th September, according to previous arrangement, at 10 in the morning, they took a boat to Ireland's Eye, carrying with them a carpet bag containing Mrs. Kirwan's bathing dress, a basket of provisions, with two bottles of water and a sketch-hook. They landed at Ireland's Eye, and the boatman left them with instructions to return at eight o'clock in the evening.
A Mr. and Mrs. Brue landed in the interval, and Mrs. Brue, when she was leaving about four o'clock, offered Mrs. Kirwan a seat in her boat if she cared to return, but Mrs. Kirwan refused, preferring to wait for her own boat at eight. From the time that the Brues left till the boat came about eight o'clock Mr. and Mrs. Kirwan were alone on the island.
But a short time before their boat left Howth for the Kirwans a person named Hugh Campbell, who was leaning against the wall of the Howth harbour, heard a loud cry more than once repeated coming from the island.
A woman named Alice Abernetby, who lived near the ladies' bathing place, heard about the same time cries of a similar kind. Another woman named Catherine Flood, who was standing at the open door of a dwelling house, also heard cries.
A man named John Barrett also heard a cry, and coming down to the harbour to find the cause heard other cries coming from the island towards the harbour. In a boat which was returning from fishing, and which passed close to the island, were four men, of whom one, Thomas Larkin, was on deck and heard similar cries. All the cries seemed to come from a portion of the island named "Long Hole."
At eight o'clock the boat left the harbour at Howth to bring back Mr. Kirwan and his wife, there were on board four boatmen, Patrick Nagle, his cousin, Michael Nagle, Thomas Styles, and Edward Campbell. When they arrived, they found the prisoner alone on a high rock over the landing-place, and he said that his wife had left him after the shower (about six in the evening), and he had not seen her since.
After a prolonged search by Mr. Kirwan and the two Nagles, one of the boatmen caught a glimpse of something white through the gathering dusk, and they found the body on a rock in the middle of the Long Hole. At the time the body was found the rock was quite dry, and the tide had receded six feet from its base. The dead woman was lying on her back on the rock with her bathing dress drawn up from her body.
When the prisoner arrived at the spot he rushed forward and threw himself on the body exclaiming, "Maria! Maria!" Then he turned to the boatmen and bade them go and fetch her clothes. When the boatmen returned, being unable to find the clothes, he said, "I will go myself." He then went away and returned after a short time, and said if they went to the rock close at hand they would find the clothes.
Patrick Nagle then went and found the clothes in a place where, as he swore, he had searched before without success. The boatmen returned to the landing-place, leaving the prisoner alone with the body, and after some time succeeded in bringing the boat round to the Long Hole. The body was then wrapped in a sail and brought back to Howth.
There were scratches on the face and eyelids when the body was discovered, and blood was issuing from a cut on the breast, and from the ears. It was brought on a dray to the house of Mrs. Campbell, where the Kirwans lodged, and on the following day the inquest was held, in which the prisoner and the two Nagles, and a medical student named Hamilton, were examined, and a verdict returned- "found drowned," and the body was interred in Glasnevin Cemetery.
But, almost immediately after the burial, rumours of foul play began to get about, and it was whispered that Kirwan had been guilty, not merely of the murder of his wife, but of a number of other persons. These rumours were strengthened by the fact that for many years he had been living a double life, dividing his time between his wife in Merrion Street and Howth, and a woman named Miss Kenny, by whom he had seven children, and for whom he provided a home in Sandymount.
The rumours were greedily swallowed, and wakened a blaze of public indignation.
Kirwan was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife. The Grand Jury had no difficulty in finding a true bill, and he was returned for trial.
Every day that elapsed between the arrest and the trial served to increase the public interest in the case, and further inflame public indignation against the accused, whose guilt seemed to be assumed.
We read in a contemporary report that on the morning of December 8th, the day before the trial:-
"Long before the arrival of the judges, the avenues leading to the court were thronged with a vast number of gentry seeking admission. However, by the excellent arrangements made by the sheriff, ample accommodation was secured by the bar and the public press. The galleries and the seats in the body of the court were densely crowded with an assembly amongst which we observed several ladies.
"Shortly after 10 o'clock the prisoner, William Burke Kirwan, was summoned to the dock by the Clerk of the Crown. Intense anxiety seemed to prevail amongst all persons to catch a view of the prisoner, who shortly after issued, conducted by a deputy jailor from the lower part of the dock and ascended to the bar in front.
"The prisoner's demeanour was firm and collected. He was a good-looking man of about 30 years of age, with dark hair and eyes, dressed with evident care in a close-fitting paletot of fine black cloth, he wore a black satin stock and black kidskin gloves. On being called he presented himself in front of the dock and leant on the bar. The indictment charged the prisoner, William Burke Kirwan, with having murdered his wife, Sarah Maria Louisa Kirwan, on the 6th of September previously.
"At the moment of appearing first in the dock to stand his trial for his life, and subsequently during the address of counsel for the prosecution, and during the progress of the evidence, the prisoner seemed to preserve a calm and collected demeanour. To some of the evidence he paid the deepest attention, and seemed to watch eagerly its effect on the jury."
Judge; Crampton and Baron Greene presided at the trial. The prosecuting counsel were Mr. Smyly, Q.C.; Mr. Hayes, Q.C.; and Mr. John Penefeather. For the defence, Mr. Butt, Q.C.; Mr. WaIter Burke, Q.C.; Mr. Brereton, Q.C.; and Mr. John Adye Curran.
On the application of Mr. Butt, the witnesses, except the professional witnesses, were excluded from court.
Mr. Smyly, who led for the prosecution in the unexpected absence of the Attorney- General, detailed in his opening speech the facts which have already been stated.
"It would be proved," counsel continued "to the satisfaction of the jury that, though the prisoner had been married to this woman 12 years ago, during the whole of that period he lived with another female by whom he had a family of seven children. The prisoner during each day was occupied in his profession of artist and anatomical draughtsman, but a great part of his time was spent at Sandymount with Mary Kenny, the female already alluded to, and the business was so well managed that it was not until the last six months that either of those women knew that the other had a claim on his attention. Mrs. Kirwan believed that she was the sole possesser of his affection, and Miss Kenny had the same belief up to a recent period."
I may here interrupt the learned counsel to say that I have vainly searched in what purport to be verbatim reports of the trial for the slightest scrap of evidence to support this statement, which had plainly an important bearing on the case. There was nothing in the evidence to show when, if ever, wife or mistress became aware of each other's existence, though there is strong ground for believing that each knew about the other almost from the first.
Throughout the opening speech there was no suggestion of the method by which the accused had accomplished the murder, but counsel laid great stress on the facts that the clothes were found in the place where Patrick Nagle had searched for them in vain, and that a sheet was half under the body when it was first discovered
Alfred Jones, engineer, examined for the Crown, proved the accuracy of a map he had made of Ireland's and the condition of the tide at the Long Hole at various hours during the day of the murder. The tide was full about three o'clock that day; at that time, at the time there was in the Long Hole about eight feet of water on the rock which was itself about a foot over the sea. At about half-past six o'clock, the time the prisoner said his wife left him to bathe after the shower, wthere ere about three feet six inches over the rock; at seven, just before the cries were heard, there was on the rock about one foot nine inches of water. At half-past nine, the time the body was found, the water was about two feet lower than the rock.
Margaret Campbell proved that prisoner came to lodge with her. It was in the middle of June that she first saw the prisoner and his wife. They occupied one room, used as a sittingroom and bedroom. Mr. Kirwan did not sleep in the room every night; he slept there about three nights in the week. He used to be away in the city during the day, returning sometimes by the five o'clock, and sometimes by the last train.
The first month they lodged with her witness swore that she heard quarrelling between them, heard angry words from Mr. Kirwan to his wife. He miscalled her; heard him say he would make her stop there; heard him call her a--; and heard him say, "I'll finish you." On another occasion heard Mrs. Kirwan say, "Let me alone." Next morning Mrs. Kirwan said she was black from the ill-usage she got. Heard no other dispute between them except a word now and then.
Mrs. Kirwan was in the habit of bathing. Witness was present when the body was brought to the house and the sail taken off; the deceased woman had a bathing chemise on. The body was stripped by three women; witness did not examine the body; observed nothing particular about the appearance of the body; could not unless she was to examine it closely. Mr. Kirwan remained in the house that night; did not notice anything particulate about Mr. Kirwan. He remarked that his feet were wet, and witness assisted him to change his stockings.
Cross-examined by Mr. Walter Burke, Q.C., witness admitted she might have said that Mr. Kirwan and his wife lived most unitedly and happily together; had no doubt she did say it. She remembered having made an information, but she was not sworn; would know if an oath were put to her; heard nothing of an oath, nor any mention of a book. The sworn deposition was then put in and read.
In it she swore she "never knew the prisoner and his wife to disagree except on one occasion; she did not know what caused them to disagree then, but except in that instance she always knew them to live happily together as could be."
Patrick Nagle, one of the boatmen, examined by Mr. Smyly, Q.C., swore to bringing Mr. and Mrs. Kirwan to Ireland's Eye on the day in question. "They had a bag and two bottles of water, Mrs. Kirwan had a reticule bag also. Mr. Kirwan had the kind of a stick called a 'slick stick.'
The Court. What is that?
Witness. I mean a cane with a sword in it.
Witness deposed to the search and finding of the body as already described. Mrs. Kirwan had her bathing shift on; it was gathered up about her waist leaving the rest of her person exposed. There was a sheet under her back, and the sheet was wet and so was her bathing shift, and her head was lying right between two little rocks, her feet were lying in a little pool or hollow containing about half a gallon of water. Witness narrowly inspected the face and person of the deceased as well as he could, there was a cut under the right eye, and scratches on the cheek, and a cut upon the forehead. The cuts were such as might be made by a pin or some sharp instrument, blood was flowing from the cuts. Witness stooped down and tied the sheet, which was under the deceased, about the neck of the body, and folded the other end round the feet.
Mr. Kirwan came up and threw himself on the body and called out, "Oh, Maria! Maria!" Mr. Kirwan then told witness to go and look for the ladys clothes, and witness did so, and could not find them; witness is now on his oath, and will swear that the clothes were not in the place where he searched, and where they were afterwards found.
When witness came back after his unsuccessful search, Mr. Kirwan rose up from the body and went to seek the clothes, and came back in a few minutes and told witness they were on the top of the rock; witness then went back and found them. The clothes were neatly arranged just as she had taken them off, the stockings were folded together. There were bathing shoes on the feet when the body was found.
On cross-examination witness mentioned that Mr. Kirwan almost lost his life during the search.
"Mr. Kirwan was very near being killed himself that evening when the body was found. If I had not called and caught him he would have gone over the rock; if he took a step further he would certainly have been killed. A horse would have been killed if it fell them."
Witness admitted that "he did not know whether the stick Mr. Kirwan carried was a slick stick or not, it was the stick he always carried. He had been examined at the inquest, but was made to draw back when he came to the part about the sheet.
Michael Nagle, examined by Mr. Hayes, Q.C., also described the search and the finding of the body.
"Mr. Kirwan went over," he said, "and threw himself down on the body, and began to moan and cry, before witness had quite come up. Mr. Kirwan desired him to go away and look for the clothes. Witness took the strand way; neither he nor Patrick Nagle found the clothes. When they came back Mr. Kirwan rose from the body and went up the rock. Soon after witness heard Mr. Kirwan say Here they are, and then saw Mr. Kirwan coming down bringing something white in his hand, also a shawl. He then told Pat Nagle to go for the clothes."
On cross-examination by Mr. Butt, witness swore he saw Mr. Kirwan bringing down the shawl and "something white like a sheet."
Mr. Brue deposed to his wife's invitation to Mrs. Kirwan to return with her earlier in the day. To Mr. Curran he said Mr. Kirwan was then engaged in sketching an old ruin.
Mr. Henry Campbell swore he lived in Howth, and on the evening the body was found heard cries from Ireland's Eye; witness heard three cries; he could distinguish no words. Second cry was about three minutes after the first, the third shortly after that.
Thomas Larkin, fisherman, returning in a boat that evening close to Ireland's Eye, heard cries when half way between the Martello Tower and the bay.
To Mr. Butt he said there were five or six minutes between the first and second cries.
Several other witnesses deposed to the hearing of screams.
Mr. Bridgeford swore that he was owner of a house in Sandymount.
"Mr. Kirwan lived in one of the four houses in Spafield of which I am the landlord. He resided there for about tour years. I saw a woman there whom I always supposed to be his wife. I saw children in the house. I have notes from the woman, and I think she signed herself 'Theresa.'"
Catherine Byrne. I have lived with the prisoner at Sandymount as a servant. Mrs. Kirwan lived there; there were seven children in the house. Mr. Kirwan used to be there a good deal in the day time, he slept there with Mrs. Kirwan frequently at night. Her name was Theresa Mary Frances Kenny.
Mr. Hamilton, Medical Student, who made the examination at the inquest, deposed that there were no marks on the body that arrested his attention.
George Hatchel, M.D. and Surgeon, deposed to an examination of the body when it had been exhumed from Glasnevin, 31 days after death. The season had been wet, and there was about two feet of water in the grave, the body was much decomposed. He discovered no internal or external trace of violence.
Mr. Smyly. From your knowledge of the place, the observations you made upon it, and from your observations of the body, are you able to form an opinion how the lady came by her death?
Mr. Butt objected to the question. He submitted that the inference drawn by the witness from what he had seen and learned ought not to be received in evidence.
Mr. Justice Crampton decided that the question was inadmissible.
Mr. Smyly then put his question as follows - From the appearance you observed on the body can you as a medical man form an opinion as to the cause of her death?
Witness. I am of opinion that death was caused by asphyxia or stoppage of the respiration.
Was there any appearance on the body which would enable you to say how the stoppage of the respiration was occasioned?
From the appearance, I should say that the stoppage of respiration must have been combined with pressure or constriction of some kind.
Would simple drowning cause the appearance presented?
Not to the same extent.
The witness was cross-examined at great length by Mr. Butt. He admitted that the appearance might be caused by the lady making efforts to save herself from drowning. He had been told of instruments having been run through the body, but could find no trace of that. Going into the water with a full stomach would likely to cause a fit.
Mr. Butt.. Do I understand you to say that the appearances presented were consistent with the fact of a person with a stomach going into the water?
Witness. I think if probable.
Is it not probable that such was the cause of death?
I am not prepared to say whether it was or not.
From your knowledge as a medical man is it not probable?
Taking it per Se.
Have you heard of a fit of epilepsy being caused by a person going into the water with a full stomach?
It is possible. (To Mr. Smyly.) I have heard of persons falling in a fit of epilepsy giving one loud scream, I never heard more than one scream. (To Mr. Butt.) Frequent screams are not impossible.
Henry Davis, Coroner, in reply to Mr. Hayes, deposed to the holding of the inquest. In reply to Mr. Brereton on cross examination he said he had been Coroner for 12 years. He had seen bodies that had been bitten by crabs. The marks on the eye-lids were like those marks, the nipples on the breasts had similar marks.
Mr. Butt, in a speech of surpassing eloquence, begged the jury to banish from their mind all the calumnies on the prisoner they had heard outside the court. He maintained that all the evidence was consistent with accidental drowning. He ridiculed the idea that the prisoner had first murdered the woman, and then undressed her, and placed her in the position in which she had been found. If the suggestion was that he had followed her into the water and held her under, then his arms and body must have been as wet as his feet.
Surgeon Rynd, examined for the defence, swore that in his opinion the appearance discovered by the postmortem examination would be produced by an epileptic fit.
Mr. Justice Crampton. Without any concurring cause?
Witness. Without any concurring cause. Epileptic patients often scream loudly. A patient in epilepsy might utter several screams. In the opinion of witness, as a medical man, sudden immersion in water with a full stomach might superinduce a fit of epilepsy.
Surgeon Adams had known people seized with epilepsy to scream violently more than once; the first scream is the most violent. (To Mr. Hayes, in cross-examination.) Putting a wet sheet over the mouth and nose would produce all the effects of drowning.
Mr. Brereton. If a wet sheet were put over the mouth and nose would it produce three loud screams?
Dr. Adams (smiling). That is not a medical question. (To the Court.) It would be impossible by the appearances described to distinguish between accidental and forcible drowning.
Mr. Hayes, in reply to Mr. Butt's challenge, suggested to the jury the theory of the Crown as to how the murder had been committed- "Let them suppose that the prisoner induced the deceased to bathe in the Long Hole. He meditated her death. It must have been about seven o'clock when she bathed, and at that time the water was two feet nine inches deep. Let it be supposed she was in this water, that the prisoner came into the hole with the sheet in his hand for the purpose of putting it over her head, that on seeing him approach in this manner his dreadful purpose at once flashed across the mind of the victim, might she not then have uttered the dreadful agonizing shriek that was the first heard on the mainland? If he succeeded in forcing her under the water, notwithstanding her fruitless struggles with all her youthful energy against his superior strength, might they not in that respect expect the fainter, agonizing, and dying shrieks, which both men and women swore they heard from the mainland growing fainter and fainter? It was for the jury to consider all the facts, and to say whether this (for the present suppositious) case was not the most probable."
After Mr. Justice Crampton had charged the jury they retired. At 20 minutes to eight they returned, and the foreman said-" I don't think we are likely to agree.
A second juror. There is not the most remote chance of our agreeing.
A third juror. There is not the smallest chance of an agreement.
Mr. Justice Crampton. It will be necessary for you, gentlemen, to remain in your room for the night.
The foreman then inquired what would be the-latest hour at which his lordship would receive a verdict in case of agreement, and Judge Crampton said he would return to the court at 11 o'clock. At 11 o'clock the judge returned, and the foreman declared they had not agreed, nor-were they likely to agree. The judge then stated that they must be locked up for the night without food.
A juror asked him to wait a little longer, and after about half-an-hour's further deliberation they returned with a verdict of "Guilty." The court then adjourned until the following morning.
A vast concourse of persons assembled at an early hour in front of the Courthouse. The doors were thrown open a little after 10 o'clock, and in a few moments every available space in the court was crowded to its utmost capacity.
Great anxiety was shown to obtain a view of the prisoner. As on the previous day he was neatly, and even elegantly, attired. "His countenance showed no signs of affliction, and his manner was perfectly composed."
The prisoner on being asked if he had anything to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced, protested his innocence of the murder, and gave a long and detailed description of the occurrences on the island during the day. He said he had continued his sketching after his wife had left him in order to catch the sunset effects on the mountain, and referred to the sketch which had been given to the police in which these effects had been reproduced. He explained that his feet had got wet trampling after the shower through the long grass and ferns on the island in search of his wife.
He was interrupted by Judge Crampton, who pointed out that all those points had already been made by counsel.
Judge Crampton then passed sentence of death upon the prisoner. "Upon the verdict," he said, "it is not my province to pronounce opinion, but after what has been said I cannot help adding this observation, that I see no reason or grounds to be dissatisfied with it, and, in saying this, I speak the sentiments of my learned brother, who sits beside me, as well as my own. You have raised your hand, not in daring vengeance against a man from whom you received, or thought you had received, provocation or insult; you raised your hand against a female, a hapless, unprotected female, who by the laws of God and man was entitled to your protection, even at the hazard of your life, and to your affectionate guardianship. In the solitude of that rocky island to which you brought her on the fatal 6th September under the veil of approaching night, when there was no hand to stay and no human eye to see your guilt, you perpetrated this terrible, this unnatural crime. . . . No human eye could see how the act was done, none but your own conscience and the all-seeing Providence could develop this mysterious transaction."
During the delivery of this deeply impressive address, the prisoner continued leaning on the bar of the dock looking intently at the learned judge, and preserving a calm and firm demeanour, but when his lordship pronounced the final words of the awful sentence he appeared for a moment overcome, and dropping his head between his hands he gave utterance to a low suppressed moan, expressive of the deepest anguish of mind.
But he almost instantly recovered the composure he had shown at the trial, and when the sentence was pronounced in a clear, steady voice, he said-" 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 before the God before Whom I expect soon to stand, that I had neither act nor part nor knowledge of my late wife's death, and I state further that I never treated her unkindly, as her own mother can testify."
The extreme sentence of death was commuted by Lord Eglinton, the then Lord Lieutenant, to penal servitude for life. Mr. Kirwan was early in 1853 removed to Spike Island, where he served no less than 27 years. The last definitely known of him is that he was released on the 3rd of March, 1879, on condition of his going to live outside the British dominions.
There is a rumour current amongst the fishermen of Howth that a few years after his release Kirwan, then a decrepit grey-bearded old man, revisited the scene of the tragedy, but I can find no further confirmation of the rumour.
I had heard of a pamphlet dealing with the Ireland's Eye tragedy, but I knew nothing of its contents or purpose when I arrived at the conclusion that the accused was innocent solely on the evidence before the court. Murder seemed to me to be wholly disproved by the appearance of the body and the circumstances of the case. On the theory of murder the accused must have either smothered the woman and then undressed her, and placed her in the water as she was found, or as was suggested by the counsel for the Crown, followed her into the water and smothered her with a wet sheet. It is hard to say which suggestion is more absurd. It is wholly incredible that the prisoner could have strangled his victim without the least sign of violence to him or her. The marks of strangulation are vividly described by the greatest of poets:
But see his face is black and full of blood,
There was none of these signs on the pale, placid body of unhappy Maria Kirwan.
It was necessary on this theory, which seems to have found some favour with the jury, that the prisoner should have strangled his wife without any show of violence to her or himself, stripped her, carried her to the water, put her clothes carefully by, put on her bathing dress, laced up her bathing shoes, and returned over half-a-mile of the roughest ground, between Long Hole and the landing place in the interval, less than half-an-hour, between the screams and the arrival of the boat to present himself calm and unruffled for the inspection of the boatmen on their arrival.
No wonder the Crown abandoned this theory as too absurd for credence, but the theory they pinned their case to was not less incredible. That the prisoner followed his wife and smothered her with a wet sheet. It was necessary on the evidence to suggest that the lady saw him approach, and divined his purpose; the screams, with an interval between the first and last, could not otherwise be accounted for. On their theory the struggle must have lasted six minutes. A man helplessly streeling a wet sheet in both hands through the water advances to strangle a vigorous woman, a powerful swimmer at home in the water, with all her limbs free to fight or fly, and he accomplished his purpose without the slightest show of violence, without so much as wetting his sleeves. The theory has only to he examined to make its absurdity apparent.
On the other hand, the theory of accidental drowning in a fit, induced by entering the water with a full stomach, meets all the facts of the case, and its probability was confessed even by the medical witness for the Crown.
That probability was for me at least confirmed by an incident that occurred when I was a law student at lodgings in Williamstown. I was then a strong swimmer, and my young ambition was to rescue someone from drowning. My ambition was realized in a very unheroic fashion. As I was walking one morning along the sea wall to Blackrock, I saw a young man bathing. He had scarcely entered the water when he threw up his hands, screamed violently, and fell in a fit. I dragged him out at no greater cost than wet clothes, the water was not more than two feet deep, and I succeeded by friction in completely restoring him. It is no wonder I found it easy to believe a similar fatality happening to Mrs. Kirwan.
In view of the impossibility of the accused having committed the murder in any fashion that can be suggested, it is hardly necessary to refer to other weaknesses and discrepancies in the case for the Crown.
Counsel urged his wife's recent discovery of the prisoner's relations with Miss Kenny as an urgent motive for murder; there was no scrap of evidence that the discovery was recent. All the facts point the other way. The two women living in the same city, a mile apart, for 12 years, could scarcely fail to know each other. If, as it appears probable, the wife knew and acquiesced, the motive for murder disappears.
The stress laid on the fact that his feet were wet, which might happen from walking through wet undergrowth after the shower, or from stepping carelessly into the boat, only seems to emphasize the fact that his sleeves and coat must have been wet if he committed the murder.
The alleged presence of the sheet under the body, and the fact that Patrick Nagle did not find the clothes in the place he was told by Mr. Kirwan to look for them, were both strongly relied upon by the Crown. In the latter argument I can see no meaning at all, unless it was meant to confuse the jury. No reason was or could be suggested why Mr. Kirwan should send Nagle to look for the clothes in a wrong place. In regard to the sheet, it must be plain on an impartial reading of the evidence of Michael Nagle, that the prisoner himself had brought it down to cover the exposed body of his unhappy wife. Indeed every act of his that terrible night is suggestive of innocence, not the least his choosing to remain alone with the body in the long interval of the night while the men brought the boat round from the ordinary landing-place to Long Hole.
As I have written, I was convinced of the prisoner 5 innocence before I read the pamphlet (now very rare) by J. Knight Boswell, published in 1853 by Webb and Chapman, Great Brunswick Street, Dublin, and entitled "Defence of William Burke Kirwan, Condemned for the alleged Murder of his Wife, and now a Convict in Spike Island, to which amongst other documents is appended the opinion of Alfred S. Taylor, M.D., F.R.S., the most eminent medico-legal writer in the Empire, that 'no murder was committed.'"
I venture to believe that no one - after carefully reading that pamphlet can have the faiintest doubts on the subject. It is somewhat clumsily compiled; gossip and sworn informations and undoubted facts are mixed together, and trivial and irrelevant incidents strongly insisted on, as for example the alleged fact that there was a third person on a different corner of Ireland's Eye at the time the murder was alleged to be committed. But the cumulative effect is absolutely conclusive.
The pamphlet declares that suspicion was first aroused against Kirwan by the information made on September 21, 1852, by a Mrs. Byrne, who always had a bitter grudge against the prisoner, and constantly strove to make trouble between him and his wife.
Amongst other things she swore that "having ascertained that the said Mr. and Mrs. Kirwan had left their residence about three weeks ago, she suspected that Kirwan had taken his wife to some strange place to destroy her, and had made inquiries as to where the parties had gone, and that she had no doubt in her mind that the said Mrs. Kirwan was wilfully drowned by her husband, and that she had strong reasons-to believe that he (Kirwan) had made away with other members of the family under very suspicious circumstances."
Mrs. Crowe, the mother of Mrs. Kirwan, contradicted this information. "There could not be a quieter husband than Kirwan was to her daughter, who had a full supply for her every want," and she gave many illustrations of Mrs. Byrne's vindictiveness against Kirwan.
Mrs. Bentley, described as a "lady of the highest respectability," swore that to her knowledge as well as to that of several members of her family, Mrs. Kirwan was fully acquainted with Mr. Kirwan's intimacy with Miss Kenny within one month after her marriage 12 years before.
Miss Kenny's information contains a pitiful account of the persecution to which she and her children were subjected after Mr. Kirwan's conviction, driven from lodging after lodging, and subjected to threat and violence in the vain attempt to exhort a false confession that she had been married to Mr. Kirwan; but the only matter relevant to the trial is her statement that she and Mrs. Kirwan were all along aware of each other's positions.
Further informations were made by Mrs. Bentley; Anne Maher, who was a servant of Kirwan and his wife; Arthur Kelly, Thomas Harrison and his son, who all swore they were on terms of affection ate intimacy with the Kirwans, and all deposed that Mrs. Kirwan was subject to fits.
Her servant, Ellen Malone, swore - "On one occasion, about six months before I left Mrs. Kirwan's service, while she was sitting in a tin bath of lukewarm water, Mrs. Kirwan told me she felt her senses leaving her. I perceived her face suddenly turn pale, and she became insensible."
As illustrating the fantastic theories that operated on the minds of the jury, an extract is given of a letter written by a juror to the Freeman's Journal', "That the jury believed that about five minutes past seven o'clock the unfortunate woman had been decoyed to the spot where her bathing cap had been found, and then thrown down, the damp sheet held forcibly on her face while the murderer knelt upon her belly. As soon as resistance ceased Kirwan stripped the body, attired it in a bathing-suit, and carried the body to Long Hole as far as the depth of his own knees."
In a letter to the newspaper, in reply to criticisms on the manner in which the inquest was held, the Coroner, Mr. Davis, stated that the body was stripped and was carefully examined by the medical student himself and the jurors, and that there were no marks of violence except those evidently made by crabs. He alluded, he explained, to the small green crab which-frequents the strand, and is sure to attack a dead body, the eyes first. He added- "I have met with cases showing their marks in all stages from a body not an-hour in the water having only the eyes touched up to the head completely deprived of all flesh."
The Coroner gave the lie direct to the statement of Pat Nagle that he was prevented from giving evidence about the finding of the sheet.
"What did occur was when Mr. P. Nagle, in his evidence, came to the finding of the body, he said she was lying with the sheet partly under her, whereupon Michael Nagle interrupted him and said- 'No, Pat, the gentleman brought down the sheet.' Pat Nagle himself also gave direct evidence that Mr. Kirwan brought down the sheet from the rock to wrap up the-body."
Alexander Boyd, foreman to the coroner's jury, also wrote to the same effect. "Pat Nagle," he said, "admitted at the inquest that he might be mistaken about the sheet"; the writer expressed his own unshaken belief that no murder had been committed.
Dr. Taylor, even to this day the standard authority on medical jurisprudence, in a long article in The Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, February 1853, minutely examines the evidence in the light of medical authority and example, and of his own personal experience, and concludes by declaring- "The theory of death assumed by the prosecutor is not only not proved, but actually disproved by the appearances on the body. . . . I assert as my opinion on a full and unbiased examination of the medical evidence in this case, that so far as the appearance of the body was concerned, there is an entire absence of proof that death is the result of violence at the hands of another Persons bathing or exposed to the chance of drowning are often seized with fits which may prove suddenly fatal, though they may allow of a short struggle. The fit may arise from syncope, apoplexy, or epilepsy, either of the last conditions would, in my opinion, explain all the medical circumstances in this remarkable case."
It is my opinion, as the result of 20 years experience in the investigation of those cases, that the resistance which a healthy and vigorous person can offer to the assault of a murderer intent on drowning him or her is in general such as to lead to the infliction of greater violence than is necessary to insure the death of the victim. The absence of any marks of violence or wounds on the body of Mrs Kirwan, except such small abrasions as might have resulted from accident, may be taken in support of the only view which it appears to me can be drawn, that death was not the result of homicidal drowning or suffocation, but most probably from a fit resulting from natural causes."
Dr. Taylor's opinion is strongly confirmed by a certificate of a number of eminent Dublin doctors and surgeons.
William Jackson Porter, Professor of Surgery, Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland; Robert Graves, M.D., F.R.C.S.I.; Thomas Edward Beatty, Professor of Midwifery, formerly Professor of Medical Jurisprudence, Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland; J. Moore Nelligan, M.D., Physician to Jervis Street Hospital; Charles Johnson, M.D., ex-Master of the Lying-in-Hospital; Joshua Smyly, Examiner in Surgery, F.R.C.S.I.; Thomas P. Mason, M.B., F.R.C.S.I.; Thomas Rumley, Examiner in Medicine and Surgery, Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland; and Francis Rynd, A.M., F.R.C.S.I., who jointly certified that "the appearances on the body when found were compatible with death caused by simple drowning, or by the seizure of a fit in the water, and we deem it highly probable that the latter was the unhappy cause of death in this instance; for it appears on the sworn testimony annexed of Arthur Kelly and Anne Maher that Mrs. Kirwan was subject to fits, and are given to understand that her mother now alive rives her pension on the medical certificate, that her husband, the late Lieutenant Crowe, Mrs. Kirwan's father, died of a fit eight years ago in Irishtown in the County of Dublin."
Surely no one reading the evidence at the trial supplemented by the evidence in the pamphlet can have the faintest doubt of Mr. Kirwan 's innocence, and it is amazing that the authorities did not grant him in the customary form "a free pardon" for the crime which he manifestly never committed. His only offence was against morality, and even here he was innocent of anything that savoured of cruelty. Strange as it may seem, both wife and mistress acquiesced in the arrangement, sharing his affection and attention contentedly as the wives of King Solomon or the ladies in a Turkish harem. But it was plainly prejudice, excited by the disclosure of this immorality, and the malignant and ungrounded rumours so set afloat that induced his conviction.
It is clear from the report, that in spite of popular prejudice, some at least of the jury were reluctant to convict. After many hours' deliberation they still held out against a verdict of guilty, and it was only on what amounted to a threat that they would be locked up all night without food that they were induced to convict. It is amazing that Judge Crampton should, in the circumstances, take such strong measures to over-ride reluctance of the jurors. For it would appear that he himself had at least a reasonable doubt of the guilt he prisoner.
In reply to Mr. Boswell, Mr. John Wynn, Secretary Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Eglinton, wrote "in commuting the death sentence passed on Mr. Kirwan, Lord Eglinton acted on the recommendation of Judge Crampton and Baron Green, with the concurrence of the Lord Chancellor, and he neither solicited no received the advice of any other person whatsoever.
There could be no possible palliation for the crime if it had been committed. Either the prisoner had been guilty of a premeditated and atrocious murder or he was wholly innocent. If the conviction was right he should have been hanged, if it was wrong he should have been set free. The course adopted was wholly illogical and savagely unjust. Mr. Kirwan was entitled to his acquittal, and to freedom if there was (as the judges in effect confessed there was), "a reasonable doubt of his guilt."
On a calm consideration of the evidence, there can be no reasonable doubt of his innocence, yet he was subjected to the terrible penalty of 27 years of living death. I would be glad to believe that what I have written may help at least to rescue his memory from the undeserved disgrace which it has suffered so long.
The late Dr. P. O'Keife, .formerly doctor of Spike Island prison, told a friend of mine that he accompanied Kirwan when, on his release, as the last prisoner on Spike Island (before it was turned to its present use), he proceeded to Liverpool, whence he sailed to America, with the intention of joining and marrying the mother of his children, whose name figured so prominently at his trial.
Dr. O'Keife also told my informant that Kirwan, during his imprisonment, painted a series of artistic decorations for the prison chapel at Spike Island. A miniature of Kirwan, and one by him of his wife, were sold at the auction of his effects after his sentence, and passed into the hands of Mr. Charles Bennett, the well-known auctioneer of Ormond Quay. They are still, presumably, in the possession of his family.
[Taken from 'Famous Irish Trials' by Judge Bodkin]. Who was Judge Bodkin? Answers to firstname.lastname@example.org