The Murder Trial That Gripped Dublin


By Niall McArdle

I am an artist, residing at No. 11 Upper Merrion Street, Dublin. The deceased lady, Maria Kirwan, was my wife; I was married to her about nine or ten years. I have been living with Mrs. Kirwan in Howth for five or six weeks. I was in the habit of going over to Ireland’s Eye as an artist. Mrs. Kirwan used to accompany me; she was very fond of bathing, and while I would be sketching she would amuse herself roaming about or bathing. Yesterday we went over as usual. She bathed at the Martello tower on going over, but could not stay long in the water as the boatmen were to bring another party to the island. She left me in the latter part of the day, about six o’clock, to bathe again. She told me she would walk around the hill after bathing and meet me at the boat. I did not see her alive afterwards, and only found the body as described by the sailors.

Ireland's Eye
Ireland’s Eye

In 1852 Dublin artist William Burke Kirwan was put on trial in Dublin for the murder of his wife, Maria. The case gripped the public’s attention no less than any other salacious crime of the day. Kirwan was accused of drowning his wife in the scenic bathing spot on Ireland’s Eye. The facts of the case were commonplace, and although Kirwan’s barristers (including Isaac Butt) put up a spirited defence, arguing that the deceased suffered from epilepsy and had probably drowned while having a seizure, Kirwan was found guilty and condemned to death.

Sir Isaac Butt, Q.C.
Sir Isaac Butt, Q.C.

The Kirwans lived in Upper Merrion Street. In the summer of 1852 he and his wife were boarders at Howth. Every day they would cross by boat the narrow channel to Ireland’s Eye, where he would sketch and she would swim.

2085-TX-89
Sunset watercolour of Ireland’s Eye by Kirwan. National Library of Ireland Collection

While Kirwan was allegedly sketching and his wife was allegedly swimming at the Long Hole, five separate witnesses heard terrible shrieks from the island, three screams that pierced the evening air. Mr Kirwan apparently heard nothing.

When her body was discovered it was bruised and badly scratched. There was blood on her face and on her breasts and flowing out of her ears. One witness, in a marvellous example of Victorian reticence, stated “there was a discharge of blood, which was not natural, from another part.” Even the official court transcript is too bashful to describe the lurid state of Mrs Kirwan’s other part and reference to it is indicated by a long dash.

All this talk of blood was important because before Mrs Kirwan could be examined by the authorities, her husband ordered her body washed, stating “I don’t care a damn for the police; the body must be washed!” Was he trying to hide evidence or was he simply a grief-stricken husband attempting to preserve her dignity?

The case gets more confusing with the arrival of the medical man to examine the corpse. For reasons lost to history, it appears no qualified doctor was in the city at that time. A medical student, Hamilton, arrived and made a cursory examination. He assumed she had drowned and reported as much to the Coroner.

Green Street Courthouse
Green Street Courthouse

But the authorities were not convinced. A month after her death, her body was exhumed from its grave in Glasnevin and re-examined. Kirwan was then immediately arrested. The trial took place at the court in Green Street. The presiding judges were Philip Crampton and Richard Greene. The prosecution was conducted by John George Smyly, Edmund Hayes, and John Pennefather. Kirwan was defended by Butt, Walter Burke, William Brereton and John Curran. The charge was that Kirwan “did wilfully, feloniously, and of his malice prepense kill and murder one Maria Louise Kirwan.” Kirwan pleaded Not Guilty and maintained he was innocent throughout the trial and its aftermath.

What gave the trial a frisson of excitement was not the manner in which Mrs Kirwan died, which was gruesome but by no means rare. What caused the press and Dubliners vexation was the fact that Kirwan had a mistress by whom he had seven children. Teresa Kenny was installed in a house in Sandymount as Mrs Kirwan, and there was much speculation in the city that Kirwan was a bigamist. The public was against him almost from the start, and it seemed inevitable that he would be convicted.

The Long Hole, Ireland's Eye, where Maria Kirwan's body was found
The Long Hole, Ireland’s Eye, where Maria Kirwan’s body was found

The evidence against him was strong. Her screams were heard a mile away, yet Kirwan claimed to have heard nothing. There was the business of insisting her body be washed. And why had she gone for a swim at the Long Hole? Locals insisted nobody swam there because the rocks were sharp and dangerous. There were scratches on her body and around her eyes. There was a theory that these were caused by crab-bites or by the swell pushing the body against the rocks, but this was dismissed; there were no crabs seen near the body, and the sea that evening was “as smooth as a lake.” The first mention of the missing woman came from the boatmen come to collect the couple, not from the husband. A Dr. Adams testified he doubted Maria had an epileptic fit; “it is unusual for an epileptic to scream more than once.”

In addition, several witnesses testified that Kirwan was verbally and physically cruel to his wife. The woman who owned the boarder house claimed she heard them rowing. “I heard him miscall her; I heard him call her a strumpet. I heard him say ‘I’ll finish you!’ …Next morning I heard her say to him she was black from the usage she had got the preceding night – across her thighs.”

Maria Kirwan, sketched by her husband William. National Library of Ireland Collection
Maria Kirwan, sketched by her husband William. National Library of Ireland Collection

Kirwan’s mistress was not called as a witness, but her Sandymount landlord was, as was the maid at “Mr. Kirwan’s home from home.” The woman who lived in the house was generally known as “Mrs. Kirwan.”

All of this was reported in the city’s papers, and the public was fascinated and appalled. The prosecution dealt with this scandalous aspect brilliantly, using it to discredit Kirwan.

“Is it reasonable to suppose that a man had been living with a concubine for ten years, and during all that time gave her his name, while he was beating his legitimate wife at Howth, could entertain connubial affection for the woman he treated so grossly?”

The jury could not reach a verdict; after several hours they came back in the evening and asked to hear more evidence from Dr. Adams. The judge, assuming the good doctor was probably at home asleep, and eager for the jury to decide, gave them his own recollection of his evidence. The jury returned a short time after and delivered a guilty verdict. Kirwan – still protesting his innocence – was sentenced to death.

Watercolour by Kirwan. National Library of Ireland Collection
Watercolour by Kirwan. National Library of Ireland Collection

There followed a bizarre public outpouring of sympathy for the convicted killer and a call for a second trial. Two separate pamphlets by member of the public were published – one by a solicitor, J. Knight Boswell, the other by the Rev. J.A. Malet. Both presented new “evidence”. Malet’s includes testimony from the deceased’s mother that said Kirwan was “always a most kind, affectionate husband,” and that Maria “was very venturesome in the water, going into the deep parts of the sea, and continuing therein for a much longer period than other ladies.” No less than ten Dublin physicians asserted their belief – based on the evidence – that Mrs. Kirwan had died of simple drowning. Her cousin said she often complained of blood to the head and “confusion of ideas.” Boswell’s pamphlet included testimony from Teresa Kenny: she and her children “had suffered much persecution at the hands of the righteous.” Boswell also managed to uncover another witness, John Gorman, who was on Ireland’s Eye that day, who swore Kirwan was innocent, but who would not come forward “for fear of being implicated himself.”

In the end, public pressure held sway. The Earl of Eglinton, the Lord Lieutenant, commuted the sentence to life. He spent 24 years in prison on Spike Island and was released in 1879 (on condition that he leave Ireland).

When he was released, he was described as “an aged and very respectable looking gentleman, white-haired, bent, and feeble, and with nothing in his aspect or manner to suggest that he was guilty of the awful tragedy on Ireland’s Eye.” There was a local legend at Howth that years later returned to Ireland and stood “wrapped in contemplation at the Long Hole, surveying the scene of his adventure.”

You can see some of Kirwan’s drawings and paintings here

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