A Sentence of Death
The crowds that filled Green Street in Dublin’s north inner city on the morning of Friday December 10th 1852 were bigger than ever. Both days of the trial of artist William Bourke Kirwan had played out in front of a packed courtroom with proceedings being relayed to the unfortunates outside who had been unable to gain admission. But news of the sensational late night verdict had flown around the trial and everyone wanted to see the conclusion.
The air outside the court that morning was crackling with excitement and when the doors to the courthouse were opened shortly before 10 o’clock, people were almost crushed in the surge forward. The prisoner’s legal team, led by Isaac Butt MP, were already in attendance and the well of the court had been occupied by interested members of the legal profession and their well heeled friends before the public gained admittance. The court filled in moments and an expectant hush fell in anticipation of the doomed man.
The judges took their seats at half past ten and Justice Philip Crampton called for the prisoner to be brought into the dock.
If the crowds had been hoping for a broken man they were disappointed. Kirwan took his place confidently and sat up straight, staring straight ahead. Gone was the fear that had been in evidence last night when the word guilty rang out in the court just before midnight. William Kirwan looked like a man who still didn’t believe he had lost the fight.
But before any verdict could be handed down Isaac Butt was on his feet. There were matters of evidence that he maintained had been produced illegally, he told the court. The evidence regarding Kirwan’s mistress should not have been allowed he said, and the evidence of some of the medical witnesses regarding the body of the deceased. He asked for leave to appeal.
Judge Crampton asked if the sentence would be better postponed until the matter had been dealt with but Mr Butt said this would not be necessary. Kirwan’s solicitor John Curran Esq, also objected to the admission of his client’s testimony at the inquest into his wife’s death as evidence in the trial of her murder. The judges rejected his submission since Kirwan had spoken willingly at a time when he was not under suspicion.
Legal wrangling over at last the crowd leaned forward expectantly as the Clerk of the Court turned to Kirwan and asked him if he had anything to add before his sentence was handed down.
Kirwan then stood and put his hands of the edge of the dock. Speaking in a firm and perfectly calm voice with no sign of uncertainty or wavering he addressed the court.
“My lords, might I claim the indulgence of the Court for a few moments for the purpose of stating some matters connected with this unfortunate affair, that have not bee brought of in this trial.” He then eloquently and at considerable length set about outlining the points he was sure would underline his innocence. He spent some time considering who had been carrying his wife’s bathing dress on that fateful day, despite the fact that she had been wearing it when she was found. For the attentive courtroom he picked over all the minor points of that day. What they had for lunch. Where he was sitting while sketching alone of the island. He spent some time explaining how his trousers had got wet. It was rain on the long grass he insisted, not salt water at all. He would have gone through every moment of the more peaceful part of the day if Mr Justice Crampton hadn’t stopped him.
“I am sorry to interrupt you at this painful moment, and you must be well aware that your counsel entered into all these subjects. It is impossible for me now to go into the evidence.”
At a moment when it might have been advisable for Kirwan to mention how much he loved his wife, or how sorry he was that she was dead and gone from him he was only concerned with himself.
“I consider myself to be a doomed person, from the trial that has taken place, and the sentence about to be passed; and I state these matters as well out of regard for my own memory as for the sake of those friends who have been with me, who know my character from childhood, who know my innocence, and who feel it yet as I do.”
Judge Crampton, his voice low and trembling with emotion began his sentence. He told Kirwan that he had been tried by the ablest of counsel and his case had been decided by a very intelligent and impartial jury. He was not going to pronounce his own judgement on their verdict he said but “I can see no reason or grounds to bee dissatisfied with it”, a view that was shared by the second judge on the case, Baron Richard Greene. Kirwan’s crime he said was the most heinous in the eyes of God. He had not raised his hand against another man who had insulted, provoked or injured him but a woman “a helpless, unprotected female – one whom, by the laws of God and man, was entitled to your affectionate guardianship.”
This dreadful act was compounded, the judge went on, by the illicit double life Kirwan had led for the whole of his married life. This double life may also have contributed to his motive. “Embarrassed you may have been by the painful predicament in which you had placed yourself, under this double engagement, and you seem to have resolved to extricate yourself by a desperate crime. Instead of dismissing the mistress and providing for her as well as you could, you appear to have mediated the destruction of the wife.”
Justice Crampton told Kirwan his fate would serve as a warning to the young. “Let them beware of forming immoral engagements, and of entering into profligate courses. The steps of crime are very gradual – there is not much descent from one step to another, and the first leads naturally to the second, and so on until the last fatal step.” Kirwan’s die was cast, the learned judge said. He could look to no earthly consolations, merely hope for the comfort of faith.
At last the judge came to the decisive moment. A shudder passed through the crowded courtroom and for a moment Kirwan lost all his composure, slumping forward in his seat and raising his hand to his eyes as if to close out the world and the inevitability of what was to come next. Justice Crampton lifted up a square black cap and placed it on top of his wig.
“The sentence is, that you William Bourke Kirwan, be taken from the place where you now stand to the place from which you came, the gaol, and that from thence you be there hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be buried within the precincts of the prison in which you are now confined. And oh, may the Lord have mercy on your soul.” As the judge spoke the words “your body buried” Kirwan could be seen to shake as the reality of his situation finally seemed to take hold.
There was a hush in the courtroom after the verdict and the guards came to remove Kirwan from the dock. Before he left he gripped the rail of the dock once more.
“Convinced as I am that my hopes in this world are at an end, I do most solemnly declare, in the presence of this court, and of that God before whom I expect soon to stand, that I had neither act, not part in, or knowledge of, my late wife’s death; and I will state further, that I never treated her unkindly, as her own mother can testify.”
So 160 years ago today one of Dublin’s most sensational trials came to an end.
I found the transcript two years ago when researching a history of the criminal courts. As a court reporter I’ve always been interested in the behaviour of the accused. If I had been sitting in that courtroom I would have been in no doubt that William Kirwan was absolutely banged to rights. It seems that the Dublin press of the day were pretty unanimously of the same opinion. But the sentence was only the beginning. Within days the first letters appeared in the British papers arguing Kirwan’s innocence.
He hired a new solicitor and within weeks statements had been gathered to support his defence, including, finally the word of his faithful mistress Theresa Kenny. Kirwan’s sentence was commuted to transportation for life on New Years Eve 1852. He spent six years in a prison camp in Bermuda, where he appears to have landed the cushy job of working for the camp doctor. When the camp closed he was sent back to Spike Island in Cork where he served out the rest of his sentence. His six living children were scattered, damaged and alone. His mistress, ever loyal, waited for him, although the cost would be great.
When I started to dig into the facts behind the case Theresa was the one who really caught my imagination. The more I dug the more I found strong vibrant women who cried out to have their story told. That’s what I’m doing with this book, telling the stories of those that have slipped out of the pages of history. It is rather taking the long route but their stories deserve to be told.
If you want more detail about the trial itself there are various accounts. My favourite is the account of another court reporter, the indomitable Scot William Roughead. We agree on the fact that Kirwan was guilty as sin, although another account, by Irish judge and patriot Matthias McDonnell Bodkin in his 1918 book Famous Irish Trials sees the whole thing as a miscarriage of justice. Roughead consulted with the prosecution legal team when he wrote his account so perhaps he got to take a peek at the book of evidence. I’ve had a look at it myself. It makes fascinating reading. If you want a more modern take on the trial, true crime writer Michael Sheridan’s latest book is on that very subject. Murder on Ireland’s Eye doesn’t go beyond Kirwan’s story but it’s a comprehensive account of the trial and some of the fallout of that controversial verdict.