There is a small island, situated just off the north Dublin coastal town of Howth, that is as famous for its outline, as it is for a ‘murder’ in 1852.
William Bourke Kirwan was a Dublin miniaturist and anatomical artist. He married Maria Louisa Crowe in 1840. On the surface William Kirwan lived a charmed life. He was a prosperous businessman, and a successful artist with a charming and handsome wife. The only fly in the ointment was that there were no children from the marriage. In the summer of 1852, the couple rented rooms at the seaside village of Howth. While there, they took several boat trips out to Ireland’s Eye, where Kirwan spent his time sketching and Maria liked to go swimming.
On the 6th of September, William and Maria went to the island again for the day. Other visitors to the island saw and spoke to them and they were even offered lifts back to Howth, but both said that they were waiting for the evening boat to fetch them.
When Patrick Nangle, the boatman arrived, William Kirwan was standing on the shore alone. He told Patrick he hadn’t seen Maria for hours and had been searching for her. The pair continued to search until it was almost dark. It was Patrick who discovered Maria’s body lying on the rocks in a cove known as the Long Hole. It was a tragic accident – or so everyone initially believed.
The rumour mill began to work. William and Maria had been overheard having arguments in their lodging in Howth, and a neighbour from Merrion Street said that William used to beat her (which her mother, under oath, denied). Eventually, suspicion turned in William’s direction. When the Dublin Metropolitan police came to arrest him, the same day Maria’s body was exhumed in October, they discovered his mistress in the house on Merion Street, with some of their 7 children – Kirwan had been leading a double life!
The trial, which began on 8th December 1852, was a sensation and the crowds so large that the street outside Green Street courthouse was blocked all day. The trial lasted 3 days and was reported widely in the international press. The prosecution made a great play on the fact that William had a second family and claimed that his wife had recently found out and that was why William had murdered her. However, during the trial, witnesses for the Defence claimed that Maria had known all along about her husband’s mistress, Miss Kenny. Miss Kenny made a statement to the effect that the women had known about each other, but it is unclear if this was made known to the jury. The medical witness said that although the body was decomposing by the time he examined it, there were no signs of physical trauma other than those you would expect to see if a body was washed up on the rocks. It also transpired that Maria was epileptic (her maid recounted seeing her having seizures) and the doctor admitted that she could well have had a seizure while swimming.
The jury was discharged and after twenty minutes came back to say they could not envisage reaching an agreement. The judge told them to try again and when they still couldn’t agree he said that they would have to be locked up for the night without food (!!) until they reached a decision. Thirty minutes later they came back with a ‘Guilty’ verdict (which is hardly surprising). The following day, William was found guilty and sentenced to hang and in the dock he proclaimed his innocence. Perhaps there was a general unease about the verdict but eventually Lord Eglinton, the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, commuted the sentence to penal servitude for life. William served 27 years in Spike Island prison off the coast of Cork. He made frequent petitions to be released and was finally released on Licence in January 1879 and went to Queenstown (or Cobh in Cork) and boarded a ship to America to join his mistress and children.
To this day, the Kirwan trial has split opinion. Some say he was a victim of Victorian moral conservatism and that his wife drowned after going swimming too soon after eating, others are convinced that he took the opportunity to get rid of his wife by making it look like an accident so that he could marry his mistress.
Unfortunately, we will never know – Ireland’s Eye will keep its secret.