• West Cork Literary Festival 2021

Writing History: The Ship of Seven Murders by Kathy Bunney

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Non-Fiction Guides | Researching Non-Fiction

Kathy Bunney

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The Ship of Seven Murders is the true story of murder and madness on the high seas. The book not only re tells the true story of the grisly murders from survivors’ accounts and trial transcripts but also looks at Captain Stewart’s medical condition from the opinion of todays professionals and recreates the gripping court room drama that was to rivet the people of Cork, Ireland in 1828. Written by myself and Allanah Hopkin, it was a wonderful learning experience and has had a great reaction.

I never set out to write a book – it had entered into my contemplation at different times throughout my life, like most people, “Some day I’ll write a book”, but never did I believe that it would become a reality. I would like to share my journey of discovery of the Ship of Seven Murders with you in the hope that the things I have that I learnt along the way will help and encourage new writers/researchers not to give up, to follow though and believe that it can happen…it did for me.

Returning to education in 2008 was a difficult decision. I did not know if my home could operate without me in it, this is not to say that I am indispensible in any way, but my home is a busy one with six sons that trundle through each day needing feeding and parenting. However, I was confident that I could cope and the smallest, Olan aged 2 was enrolled in the college crèche.

Coláiste Stiofán Naofa is a VEC run college in Cork City and provided access courses that could be spread over two years in order to accommodate students like me. Indeed, as the course I chose, Access to Social Studies, was spread over two years we were given options to explore beyond our core modules and delve into other subjects that we may have an interest in, it was this opportunity that led me to the world of Folklore and ultimately led to the beginning of the Ship of Seven Murders.

I never quite took to history in school, too many dates and details that had to be remembered, listed off with no interaction with the people who had lived through the hardships or the battles – just lists to learn. But now, suddenly, I was being transported to a world of legends of Tuatha De Danann, the fairy world that of the legends and beliefs my forefathers had held those that led to the burning of Bidgit Cleary and learning of the world of vernacular traditions and how we as Irish people had transformed over the years. I was hooked.

Our end of year assignment was to choose a school and open the 1937 School Folklore Collection (available at your local County library on micro film), to read the stories and to follow them to present day. We were told to talk to the local people and see which stories had survived and indeed, to see if we could locate some of those who had written the stories held in the collection.

Having such a busy life I began immediately and spent days enthralled by the collection. The hardest decision at this stage was to choose which way to go, what story to take. I decided to pursue the Lester family who lived in Passage West and this culminated in the honour of being able to return Mr. Eoin Lesters’ schoolwork to him 69 years after its completion at the tender age of 13.

My main job was done and yet in the back of my mind niggled the story of a ship that I had read. It was in the Graveyard section of the collection which did not appear to make any sense. The story was repeated in a later chapter of the 1937 Schools Folklore Collection, about a sea Captain who had murdered all his crew with no survivors – but this again made no sense as there had to be a survivor in order to have an account of the murders. The story told of the Captain of the Mary Russell, who had returned to Cork with the bodies of his crew on board, and a grave stone that apparently stood in the local cemetery. Little did I know that this niggling was to take over my life completely for the next three months.

My research began on the internet from the comfort of my kitchen and while elusive at first I did eventually turn up the most amazing account of the story in Memorials of the Sea by Rev. William Scoresbury. Rev Scoresbury was an arctic scientist and so his account was factual and excellently recorded with a deep vein of religious theology running through it. I still needed concrete proof that the murders that I had read about actually had occurred, and so on Valentine’s Day 2009 I set off to the local cemetery to find the headstone that had been spoken of in the Collection.

Kilmurray cemetery in Passage West Co. Cork, no longer in use, is very overgrown and many of the graves have collapsed. As I battled through, with some willing volunteers, I really thought that this was a hopeless search, but low and behold after two hours of battling the briars, I found the grave of one of the murdered men, standing majestic , upright amongst its crumbling neighbours, the wording clearly visable. “Here lies the body of Timothy Connell…murdered by Captain Stewart on board the Mary Russell 22nd June 1828”. My excitement was palpable… it was true… my first conclusive scrap of proof that the story I had read was more than a fable.

the ship of 7 murders

Now the information had to be confirmed with both primary and secondary sources in order to stand on its own. A primary source is an original document or record from the period you are studying, a secondary source a report or record that uses primary sources but that is open to the interpretation of whoever recorded it. So for instance, an original pamphlet from 1916 is a primary source, a record of the wording reported in a history book is a secondary source. In my case, court transcripts, for instance, were primary sources; the record of the story told in the Folklore Collection a secondary source.

I attacked this part of my research with ferocious energy but found myself progressing and regressing at a similar pace. Keeping a Diary was the best bit of advice that anyone could have given me. Each scrap of information must to be recorded with date, time and location (page number, title & author if it was a book, date of issue if it was a newspaper – as much information as possible). With the benefit of experience, I would also suggest you include the questions that brought you to this place and questions that you need answered having received the information, this ensures that you do not get lost on a tangent, and if you do, you have a point to return to.

To get the background of a story, immersing yourself in the period is essential. . A great source of social history is the local history section of your library – get the newspapers of the day going back a few years and forward a few years to see what the locality was like to live in, and what the pressing issues were for the inhabitants of the day.

The very best resource I found was the librarians themselves…even more friendly when you approach yielding biscuits! The library staff are a mine of information and only too willing to help and guide you through their archives. It is easy to find yourself detached from today’s world and becoming part of the society you are researching.

The local papers of the day provided me with a blow by blow account of the Arraignment, the Trial and the local’s reaction to the terrible murders of seven innocent men. They also provided clues as to subsequent trails that could be explored. Rev. William Scorsebury’s wedding was recorded in the Cork Constitution, confirming his presence in Cork at the time of the murders and thereby confirming that he was in a position to write Memorials of the Sea first hand. Indeed the trial reporters’ accounts were very similar to his own – confirming to me that he was likely to have attended the trial.

As the assignment had begun on a folklore basis it was very important to weed out fact from fiction. I believe that at least two sources must be found to corroborate each fact . The story of the grisly cargo of the Mary Russell has been re-hashed and re-told many times throughout the years but often crucial mistakes are made. These take from the credibility of the entire piece of work and so ensuring facts are correct, has to be given priority. Both primary and secondary sources should be used.

Talking to people yields amazing and vital information – often taking you on a new trail. Don’t be afraid to ask who in the local area may be knowledgeable on the subject, people like to help others…always be courteous and smile…it pays dividends.

Church Records can also be a valuable source of information. As I started my research, Captain Stewart was still very much an enigma to me. I had presumed he was English and had come over here following decommission from the Royal Navy. How wrong I was. The Protestant records allowed me access to his birth and marriage certificates which in turn led me to the Catholic Church records as he had married a papist. Here I found his children’s christening certificates which helped me to build a picture of Captain Stewart’s life prior to the horrific deed that he became infamous for. A good man, one well respected within his community, the ship owner James Hammond had been his best man at his wedding and the families seemed close – so close that Mr Hammond had trusted his delicate son to Captain Stewart on the voyage to Barbados, the very voyage that led to the poor child witnessing seven brutal murders of innocent men.

This an exciting time for any researcher. The information is gathered and must be checked for correct time lines…work them out ensure that all pieces of the puzzle fit together and you know where to cut off when it comes to telling your story. Always ask yourself “Is this relevant?”, “Does it add to the story”? If in doubt leave it out. Place yourself in the reader’s shoes – while a nugget of information may appear like a lottery win to you, it may not in fact do anything more than confirm a fact and does not need inclusion.

Enjoy the process , it is an amazing time. Record all the questions that present themselves to you for the times that you will hit a brick wall – sometimes you need to change track in order to get back on track. And I do hope that my experience, however limited, helps you to embark on a wonderful journey of discovery.

About the author

© Kathy Bunney July 2011

Kathy Bunney is currently studying Law, juggling her studies with her six children. She is presenting Ship of Seven Murders at Kinsale Arts Week9th-17th July on board the Spirit of Kinsale Cruise Boat (12th & 13th 4pm)

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