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.
According to the prosecution case, several people in Howth heard a woman’s screams coming from Ireland’s Eye at about 7pm on September 6th, 1852. The only two people on the island at that moment were Maria Kirwan and her husband William.
They had come to Howth in June to spend the summer, while their Dublin house was being painted. They would often hire a boat to take them to the island in the morning, staying there until darkness fell. While William, a professional artist, sketched, Maria spent her time reading or swimming. Those who had seen her swim, at the women’s bathing place in Howth, described a strong swimmer, as strong as any man. That particular September evening, some time around 6pm, after a shower of rain, Maria wanted to swim again. She went to a place called the Long Hole, a place where women didn’t normally swim.
At 8pm William met the ferry back to the harbour alone. He hadn’t seen his wife for hours, he told the boatmen. A search in the falling light found her body lying on a rock in the Long Hole. Her eyes were bloodshot and there was blood coming from her ears.
Suspicion immediately fell on the husband, but it was only after Kirwan’s arrest in October that the police investigation really began to take shape.
Maria’s mother told them about the conversation at Theresa Kenny’s gate. Other women came forward with a story of a violent marriage, of Maria’s bruises and desperation, her fear that her husband was trying to poison her. Their landlady in Howth described shouting and scuffling behind a locked bedroom door, Kirwan’s raised voice shouting, “I’ll finish you.”
But a woman’s view didn’t count for much back then and these stories did not make it to court. The Howth landlady did take the stand but the defence were quick to undermine her oblique stories of an unhappy marriage. Not even Theresa Kenny took the stand, much to the disappointment of a Dublin press already disgruntled because they had been barred from initial hearings. They felt they were left to fight the insulting allegations coming from the British press with only rumour and innuendo.
Unmasked and judged, Theresa found herself thrown on to the street with her children. Facing the workhouse, she turned to the Crown for aid. Those respectable solicitors readily agreed that Kirwan’s estate should pay for his children, the four eldest starting their education immediately. But Theresa’s future was a more delicate matter. Eventually they found a solution in America, sending her and the two youngest children to start again, a whole world away from that calm spring day and that exchange across the garden gate.