A web of lies and the ‘foul’ murder of a pensioner in Co Wicklow

In 1927, Mary O’Brien made a grisly discovery when she called to a neighbour’s house for milk

Green Street Court House, Dublin, where William O’Neill was sentenced to death. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/ File

Green Street Court House, Dublin, where William O’Neill was sentenced to death. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/ File

 

Mary O’Brien went to Mass on the morning of May 9th, 1927. Afterwards, she called into a neighbour’s house at Carriglineen in the remote Glenmalure Valley in Co Wicklow; she had intended on asking 84-year-old Margaret “Peggy” Farrell for some milk.

When Peggy didn’t arrive to the door, Mary walked to the back of the house, towards the hedges, where she found her neighbour’s body.

She was about 15 yards from the building, her hands tied tightly and partially extended above her head, according to a doctor named McCormack, who arrived to the scene at about 2.30pm.

In addition to the muffler binding her hands, which had to be cut away, Peggy was naked - according to at least one report - with “a scarf over her face and knotted behind her head. He was certain that she was dead considerably less than 24 hours.”

“The mouth had been gagged,” he said, according to reports in The Irish Times. “The injuries could have been inflicted by a man’s hand or a stick.”

The cause of death was a combination of shock, exposure and partial asphyxia, according to the doctor. Peggy, archive reports say, had also been “outraged” - a euphemism for rape that was in use at the time.

Peggy was a “thrifty” woman, who lived alone. She had an annual income of £100 from a brother in Australia, paid in two instalments every 6 months. The month before her death, she had sold some pigs and earned a small sum of money; she lived on about 6 or 7 acres and was in receipt of the old-age pension. These details were confirmed by her nephew, James Byrne, who was with her on the night she died.

“Her nephew had been with her until 11.30pm on Saturday, and during his visit he thought that he heard footsteps outside. He took no notice of them, but was surprised to find, on going home, that the wicket-gate was open,” reads a report on July 15th.

Chain of contradictions

At about 1am the next morning, 19-year-old William O’Neill knocked on his father’s door, which was in nearby Ballinacor, according to the 1911 Census. William, a casual labourer who could not read or write, often slept wherever he could get work, but would come back and forth from his father’s house.

By William’s account, his father, also named William, reprimanded him due to the late hour, remarking: “This is a nice hour to be coming in.” William jnr said he had been to a wake, and handed his father 15s - unusual in itself, as “he did not often give him money”. The next day, William jnr visited a local grocer and paid off a small debt he owed from weeks before.

The following afternoon, an encounter with two men at a farm belonging to Laurence Byrne, where O’Neill worked, would begin a chain of contradictions that would see William become the chief suspect in Peggy Farrell’s murder.

Shortly after 2pm, he met Pat Heffernan at Byrne’s, who mentioned having heard of a murder in the Glen - that of an old woman, whose name he couldn’t remember. O’Neill clarified, saying “that the only woman living alone in the Glen was Pegg Farrell” and “made some remarks about the murder”.

William then produced a watch and chain from his pocket, according to Heffernan, saying he won it playing cards, “and that it wanted to be cleaned”. He also showed it to a second man, Gregory Rogers.

Later that day, Heffernan and O’Neill were stopped by gardaí and questioned. The topic of the watch came up again, but “he denied having a watch in his possession, and persisted in denying it, even when confronted by Heffernan; but later he admitted having a watch, and said that it was one he found on the Rathdrum road a year ago.”

O’Neill said he’d hidden the watch out of fear that he would break it while horse riding. It was dark when he made his official statement, but he said “if he was given to daylight, he would show them where he hid it.”

The next morning, he brought gardaí to the supposed location of the watch. “At a certain spot the accused man stooped and said: ‘I put it here, but it is gone.’ He took them to the disused house, where they found an old suit of clothes, two shirts, a pair of brown shoes, clothes brush, shaving brush, mirror, and socks. The shoes presented the appearance of being vigorously scrubbed,” reads a report on June 3rd.

On Friday 13th May, gardaí found the watch hidden under a furze bush in the same field - a short distance away beneath a stone, they found £17 in banknotes - one of which had Margaret Farrell’s name written on it.

William was charged with murder, to which he replied: “Very well; charge me with whatever you like.”

The discovery of the watch, identified as Peggy’s, would prove to be the most damning evidence propping up the prosecution case. Court reports in The Irish Times from June and July show a pattern of lies, which would eventually unravel.

Alibi

He had told his father on the night of the murder that he had been at a wake, but the prosecution called a number of witnesses who said he never turned up. He explained that away, saying he made up the alibi so his father wouldn’t be angry at his late call to the house.

He insisted that on the night of the murder he had dozed by a fire in his employer’s house, then gone looking for rabbits, before walking to Rathdrum. While out walking, he said he saw a man near a gate belonging to a man named Bill Cullen; the same location, he said, he discovered the watch on Sunday.

A man named James Twomey, from Carriglineen, said he saw and greeted O’Neill on the road to the townland at 11pm on the night of the murder. O’Neill openly denied it in court, addressing the witness and saying “You did not see me, John.”

His stories about how he came to have the watch - gambling spoils and a chance find - contradicted each other.

As for his increased wealth on Sunday morning, the defence said he worked for it. But a picture of a unreliable and dishonest worker emerged from testimony from a string of previous employers. Laurence Byrne, for one, had given William oats to sell, but never received the money; another had employed him, but “found him not inclined to work”.

On the 16th of July, at the closing of the trial, he was asked if he had anything to do with the murder, to which he replied: “No, not a ha’porth in the world.”

The judge asked the jury “to allow neither their horror of the crime nor the youth of the accused to sway their judgement.” The jury could not agree, and he was put back until November 30th.

On Friday, December 2nd at Green Street Courthouse in Dublin, his second trial heard of his “hard upbringing”. He was the youngest in his family and his mother had died when he was young; records show she died in 1916, when William was about 8.

The defence counsel said the evidence against O’Neill was “altogether circumstantial”, and if anything, showing people the watch was not the behaviour of a guilty man.

As for O’Neill’s proclivity for lying, the jury would “find that in all classes of society, from members of the House of Lords down to the humblest citizen, people told lies: politicians told lies, newspapers told lies, and loose talk was quite common in the country. O’Neill, a boy reared in the country, developed this habit of telling lies.”

The prosecution said it was useless trying to figure out why he showed people the watch, as “it was impossible to understand the psychology of a murderer. His placing the watch where he did was the providential working of a supernatural power, so that the murderer would be discovered.”

The second time around, O’Neill was found guilty. He was asked whether he had anything to say as to why he should not be put to death.

“The prisoner grasped the dock rails, and his lips moved, but there was no audible response.”

William O’Neill was hanged on December 29th, 1927. Likely aged 19, he was the youngest person ever hanged by the Irish State.

This story is part of the Lost Leads series - a revisiting of lesser-known stories that have made the pages of The Irish Times since 1859. What can you find? Let us know on Twitter: @irishtimes or @deanruxton. For more information on subscribing to the archive, see www.irishtimes.com/archive

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