An Irishwoman's Diary
SANDYMOUNT, IN Dublin, 160 years ago, two women faced each other across a garden gate. It was a calm spring day with a storm on the horizon.
The caller, with her mother along for the moral support, was tall, athletic and fashionably dressed. Her name was Maria Kirwan. She had right on her side.
The other woman showed no anxiety. She didn’t want to cause a scene in front of the servants or disturb the child she held on her hip. She was confident, capable, calm. Her servants knew her as Mrs Kirwan. Her real name was Theresa Kenny.
Six months later Maria’s mother explained to the police what happened next. “My daughter showed the woman her wedding ring and said pardon the liberty but I would like to see your husband. That’s an odd thing, said the woman [Theresa Kenny], it would appear that you are throwing a suspicion on my character.”
That was it. They never spoke again, but that brief meeting had a far-reaching effect on both their lives. Within six short months one would be dead, the other facing homelessness. The man they had both called husband, William Bourke Kirwan, would be in Kilmainham Gaol awaiting a capital trial.
The Ireland’s Eye Murder was a Victorian sensation. When William Bourke Kirwan’s trial began in the Green Street Court House in Dublin on December 8th, 1852, with MP Isaac Butt leading the defence, the crowds spilled out of the court to fill the street. Those nearest the doors shouted out the proceedings to the attentive mass. When, two days later, Kirwan was sentenced to hang for the murder of his wife, a roar went up on the street outside.
Everyone had an opinion, but many didn’t burden themselves with the facts of the case. The Dublin press thought the arrogant artist they had watched in the dock should hang. The British press saw the God-fearing victim of a papist plot. The merits of the case were argued in the letters pages of the London Times. A public meeting was held in that city in a Fleet Street hotel where there was talk of miscarriages of justice. The word went round that Maria had not been murdered at all, that she had drowned swimming too soon after lunch. Many decided Kirwan had been judged on his bohemian second family rather than his murderous intent. On New Year’s Eve 1852, the sentence of death was commuted to one of transportation.
Despite open letters from the crown solicitor of Ireland, the foreman of the jury, the most eminent medico-legal expert in Ireland and a statement in parliament by the lord lieutenant himself, public opinion decided that William Kirwan had been convicted on morals, not fact.