The Ireland’s Eye Murder Case

The death of Sarah Maria Kirwan (née Crowe, 1819-1852) of Dublin is a tragic story. She was my 1st cousin 3 times removed — that is, we shared a grandfather going back three generations.  The sad irony is that the ancestor we have in common, George Crowe, apparently killed his wife too – that being Sarah O’Brien.

Sarah Kirwan is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.  The cemetery records show her aged 28, although she was actually 33 when she died.  Nonetheless, she is definitely our Crowe relative.  In the space provided in the cemetery record for the ages of children is written ‘Murdered by her husband at Ireland’s Eye’.

If any Crowe relatives visit Ireland and can locate her grave, I’m sure a photo of her gravestone would be of interest to many Crowe relatives. Incidentally, grand memorials of two famous Irishmen — Daniel O’Connell and Tom Steele – are also located in Glasnevin Cemetery.  These memorials are well worth seeing and they have connections with the Crowe family story.

One of the most sensational trials in Ireland in the 19th century concerned the death on 6 September 1852 of Sarah Maria Crowe, wife of Irish artist and illustrator William Bourke Kirwan.  She was the eldest of four children born to Lieutenant James Crowe and Maria Conan of Dublin.  Lieutenant Crowe was the James Crowe who unsuccessfully claimed inheritance of the estates in County Clare of his grandfather, also named James Crowe.  Initially the inheritance case in question was held in Ennis in 1819 and then again three years later in Dublin.  There is more about those events in the page on the ‘forgotten branch’ of the Crowe gentry of county Clare.

Maria, the name by which she was usually known, and her husband rented accommodation in Howth near Dublin for their summer holidays in June of that year.  He was interested in sketching seascapes and she enjoyed the newly-fashionable recreation of sea bathing.

Howth is located on the northern side of the approaches to Dublin harbour. In 1852 it was a small fishing village, separated by a small body of water from the mainland.  Today that separation has been filled so Howth is now a peninsula.  A short distance north of Howth is a small island, mostly rocky, which has been uninhabited during most of recorded history and has the unusual name of Ireland’s Eye.

The name is so unusual I think it needs to be explained.  In Celtic times it was known as Eria’s Island, Eria being a woman’s name. Over time Eria became confused with Erin, an Anglicisation of the Irish name for Ireland.  So Eria became Erin which became Ireland.  Now for the second part of the name.  When the Vikings occupied Dublin, they used the Norse word for an island, ey.  Island became ey which became eye.  So, that rocky place eventually became Ireland’s Eye.  Well, so the story goes.

It was Monday morning and the Kirwans engaged a boatman named Patrick Nagle to row them to Ireland’s Eye with provisions for the day – his sketching materials, her bathing clothes, two bottles of water, and a basket of food.  The boatman left with instructions to return at 8 o’clock that evening.

Soon before the boatman and his cousin Michael Nagle left from Howth to collect the Kirwans, three local residents separately hear loud cries come across the water from the island. When the boatmen arrived one of them caught a glimpse in the gathering gloom of something white on the rocks.   It was the body of Mrs Kirwan.  Immediately William Kirwan arrived on the scene and threw himself on his wife’s body crying ’Maria! Maria!’  He turned to one of the boatmen and told him to find his wife’s clothes.  After some time, the boatman returned empty handed.  William Kirwan said the clothes were on a rock close at hand and he would get them himself.  And so he did.  The boatman exclaimed he had looked there but no clothes were to be seen.

In due course, the body of Sarah Maria Kirwan (née Crowe) was rowed back to Howth where a medical student was on hand who pronounced that Mrs Kirwan had died by drowning.  Wasn’t it fortunate that such great medical expertise was so close at hand?  I wonder how far along he was in his medical studies.  And so her cause of death was determined and her body was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.


Burial record extract for Sarah Maria Kirwan (née Crowe).  Image from Glasnevin Trust, Dublin

However, rumours spread in Dublin that Mrs Kirwan had been murdered by her husband.  It turns out that Mr Kirwan had a second family with a Miss Kenny by whom he had seven children.  The Kirwan residence was at 11 Merrion Street, Dublin – a most respectable part of town; the Kenny residence was about one mile distant.

This new information came to the ears of the authorities who arrived at the not unreasonable assumption that William Kirwan had a motive to kill his wife.  He was arrested and put on trial.   It was a sensation.  A newspaper reported that ‘Long before the arrival of the judges, the avenues leading to the court were thronged by a vast number of gentry seeking admission’.

After arguments had been put by the prosecution and the defence, the jury retired to consider the evidence.  At 20 minutes to eight, the jury returned and told the judge there was not the remotest possibility of them agreeing on a verdict.  The judge ordered them to continue their deliberations until 11 o’clock, but alas they still could not agree.  The judge ordered the jury be locked up for the night without food.  A juror asked that he wait a little longer, and in about half an hour they returned with a verdict of ‘Guilty’.

William Kirwan was sentenced to death by hanging, later commuted to life imprisonment.  He spent 27 years in the notorious Spike Island prison in the harbour of Cobh in Cork before being released on condition he settle nowhere in the British Empire.  It is believed he went to America, but this cannot as yet be confirmed.