By Dan MacCarthy
One of the most notorious murder trials to occur in Ireland transfixed Dublin society in 1852. The murder took place on Ireland’s Eye in Co Dublin — in many ways the Toscan du Plantier death of its day which riveted public attention.
The pretty island, just about 1km in length, has an an attractive Martello Tower and steep cliffs frequented by gannets and shags principally. It is an ideal spot for a day out with boats departing from Howth pier during the summer.
It was here that the artist William Burke Kirwan and his wife Maria Kirwan took a boat one fateful day in September 1852. He later told his trial for her murder that he intended to make some sketches — his paintings still hang in the National Gallery — while she would go for a swim.
The couple left Howth at 10am on September 6 to the island. They were due to return at 8pm. Though another couple landed after them, they left before the Kirwans were due to return meaning the Kirwans were alone on the island.
Shortly before the boat returned with several boatmen, cries were heard by several witnesses on the shore. Kirwan was found sitting on a high rock and claimed he hadn’t seen his wife for a period.
A search ensued and she was found floating at the water at a place called the Long Hole. She was covered in blood.
Her death was reported as a drowning to the coroner but the state ordered the body exhumed after a month and a trial ensued. The MP Isaac Butt was among Kirwan’s defence.
What provide the trial with a fair degree of scandal was that Kirwan had a mistress, so a clear motive in killing Maria was established.
As reported in the Cork Examiner of December 10, 1852, Mr Smyly QC was emphatic on this point:
“The murder in this case was committed on the person of one whom, above all others, the prisoner was bound to cherish and respect, but he [the learned counsel] believed that affection had not existed on the part of the husband, for during the whole period he was married, he lived with a person named Maria Teresa Kenny, neither Mrs Kirwan nor Maria Teresa Kenny, having known till six months before the occurrence, the subject of the recent investigation, that the prisoner shared his affection with another — each female believing that she possessed all his affection.”
The case proceeded with both sides calling many witnesses. Ultimately, a guilty verdict was handed down. The Kerry Evening Post reported:
However, the case became a cause célèbre and ten eminent doctors appealed on the grounds that Mrs Kirwan’s death was consistent with natural causes — that she drowned. Evidence was also submitted by a Reverend Malet who produced a document from Mrs Kirwan’s mother stating he was “always a most kind, affectionate husband”.
Momentum gathered and the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Kirwan served 24 years on Spike Island, Co Cork, and was freed in 1879. The sordid tale was the subject of a book by Michael Sheridan entitled Murder at Ireland’s Eye.
The Vikings also made their mark on Ireland’s Eye in possibly the strongest way: by name. Ireland’s Eye has nothing to do with the ocular organ, though it does appear to peer across at our neighbours across the Irish Sea. Instead the name derives from the Norse word ‘ey’ or ‘ay’ which means ‘island’.
In between it was known as Inish Ereann, Eria’s Island, and Erin’s Ey. Lambay, Dursey and Saltee are other examples of the Norse.
The island is popular with birdwatchers following gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills and many others which throng the quartzite cliffs at the eastern end of the island. In recent years it has also become popular with climbers.
There are the ruins of an early Christian church, St McNessan’s, probably from the seventh century.
How to get there irelandseyeferries.com islandferries.net; aqua.ie/boat-trips-howth
Other: Murder at Ireland’s Eye, by Michael Sheridan, Poolbeg Press; Famous Irish Trials, Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, Wentworth Press.