State papers: Nuns took in women sentenced to death for murder

Mother who strangled baby and woman who poisoned neighbour moved in with religious orders after their sentences were commuted, files from 1943 show

Kate Owens (36), who suffocated her baby boy, was an “exemplary prisoner”, according to the Catholic chaplain. Photograph: David Sleator

Two women who received death sentences for murder were later released from prison into the care of religious orders, according to State papers from the 1940s.

Kate Owens (36) was taken into Garda custody in May, 1943, after gardaí found the body of a baby boy buried in the garden of her home in Westmeath. “Subsequent search discovered that the bodies of two other infants had lain buried in the garden for a number of years,” a Department of Justice official stated in a memorandum for Government.

The State pathologist testified that the baby boy, who had been the subject of the investigation, had been suffocated after birth.

According to an Irish Times court report on the case, the prosecution had claimed that Owens had given birth to “five or six illegitimate children” and all but one were smothered.


The memo noted she had lived at home with her parents. “The moral reputation of the family was not good and the accused herself was described as rather weak-minded.”

Nine years earlier, she had been convicted of the crime of concealment of birth and was bound over in her father’s bail of £25 to be of good behaviour for five years.

An insanity plea was rejected by the jury. She was convicted in the Central Criminal court in November 1943 of the murder of her unnamed baby and sentenced to death. Her execution date was set for December 15th. The jury recommended that she be shown mercy and her death sentence was commuted to the sentence of penal servitude for life.

Owens had served almost six years when her case came before the Government. Mountjoy Prison’s Catholic chaplain noted that she was an “exemplary prisoner, both in the practice of her religious duties and her conduct in the prison”.

The prisoner had been visited regularly by the Sisters of Charity and its mother superior said she was "willing to employ Miss Owens as a maid in St Monica's home, 35 Belvedere Place, where she would be under the care of a Sister who is deeply interested in her". This proposal was approved by the Government.

Laced with strychnine

In the same year, the minster also approved the release of Agnes McAdam (53) into the care of a convent. She had been sentenced to death in 1946 for the murder of her neighbour, James Finnegan, in Ballybay, Co Monaghan. He died after eating a jam sponge cake that had been laced with strychnine.

“The accused delivered two jam sandwiches to the home of the deceased, intimating that she wished to present them for a ‘social’ which was to be held in connection with a presentation to two priests who were about to go on the Foreign Missions,” a Department of Justice memo noted.

Mr Finnegan decided to have one of the cakes at teatime as there were plenty of cakes for the function. The Irish News reported that his daughter thought it bitter and spat it out. Mr Finnegan became violently ill and died that evening. It appeared t the dog also ate cake and died.

McAdam denied any role in adding the poison to the cake, but a Garda investigation found she had purchased strychnine in June 1942, saying it was for rats.

Passing the death sentence, Justice Gavan Duffy said: "I got the impression that she was an odd and lonely creature, who may have cherished some imaginary grudge against her community. It may be that she intended to give annoyance and put more poison into the cake than she intended." He noted the jury's recommendation for mercy and the Government later approved the commuting of her sentence to penal servitude for life.

Enquiries were made to see if she could return to live with her brother and his wife, but he refused to accept her. The Convent of the Good Shepherd in Ross agreed to take her, and this was approved by the Government.

The vast majority of women sentenced to death in Ireland were given a reprieve, with many being released into the care of religious orders, to work as maids, or in Magdalene laundries.

Alison Healy

Alison Healy

Alison Healy is a contributor to The Irish Times