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The Malahide Murders 1926 by Mike Connolly

Article by Mike Connolly ©.
Posted in the Magazine (Tell Your Own Story: , ).
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My father George Connolly was a fireman attached to the Dublin Fire Brigade. On the morning of Wednesday 31st March 1926, he was on duty at the fire station in Buckingham Street in Dublin when a call came in alerting the station of a house fire in Malahide. The crew of fire fighters immediately boarded the fire tender and were soon speeding to the site of the blaze in North County Dublin.

The fire was in a large country house called La Mancha in Malahide, 16 kilometres north of Dublin City, and was owned by the Mc Donnell’s, a wealthy west of Ireland family. The house was on a 30 acre estate and was situated quite close to Malahide Castle. The family consisted of two brothers, Peter (53), Joseph (56), and two sisters, Annie (58) and Alice (46). They also had two servants living in the house with them. Their maid Mary Mc Gowan was a local lady and James Clark had come with the family from the area of Ballygar in County Galway, where the family had sold their flourishing drapery and grocery business before moving to Malahide. Local gossip had it that the family were extremely wealthy.

The fire alarm was raised by the gardener, Henry Mc Cabe, who alerted the local police station. who in turn had called the fire department. Soon on the scene was Garda Sergeant Kenny and a local man Daniel Mc Cann. By the time they arrived at the scene, the fire had taken hold and, on finding the front door locked, they looked in the window and saw James Clark lying still and partly clothed on the floor. They broke in the window and pulled him out and discovered he was already dead and his body was cold.

The fire engine arrived and skidded to a halt and the men got their hoses laid out. My father, seeing Clark’s body lying on the ground, attacked the front door with his axe and made his way into the house. He called out to see if anyone was trapped in the house but, getting no response, he started searching the rooms. He got the smell of paraffin and noticed that the fire was more intense in some of the rooms. When he reached the bedrooms upstairs, he discovered the bodies of the family, some burned beyond recognition. But Peter Mc Donnell’s body he found in a room, quite untouched by the fire, with head wounds and a blood stained fire poker lying nearby. The maid Mary Mac Gowan’s body was found in the lower section of the house.

The firemen removed the bodies and brought the fire under control but not before it had destroyed most of the house and the roof caved in. The consensus among the firemen was that the fire was fairly slow in developing because the windows and doors were shut thereby depriving the fire of oxygen to fuel it.

A murder investigation was immediately underway, directed by Superintendent O’ Halloran. During the police investigation, it was discovered that all the doors at La Mancha were barred and bolted, while the gardener Mc Cabe showed the police a small back door to the property which had been smashed open – suggesting there had been a robbery and the fire set to hide the evidence.

O’ Halloran was not convinced and, during the course of the investigations, a number of interesting facts came to light. A large safe in the basement was found open and empty and the key to the safe was found in Mc Cabe’s possession. Post-mortems carried out on the victims found traces of arsenic, not enough to kill but certainly enough to make the victims ill. The pathologist also found that the victim James Clark should have bled more and concluded that he had been killed elsewhere and his body moved. He also came to the conclusion that all the victims were dead before the fire was started. He also made the point that Peter Mc Donnell had been killed by a blow to the head; it was his unburnt body my father had found in one of the bedrooms.

Superintendent O Halloran felt he had a strong case against Henry Mc Cabe the gardener and he was brought to trial on 8th November in the Dublin Central Criminal Court, before Justice John O’ Byrne and a packed courtroom.

The case aroused great interest with the general public and the newspapers had a field day, suggesting that the Mc Donnells were an “odd family” and that Peter had run amok and killed the others before torching the house. The forensic evidence for the prosecution was very damning, with the traces of arsenic and the evidence that the victims were murdered in advance of the fire. This made it hard for the defence lawyer Alexander Lynn who put up a case that the Mc Donnell family were to blame and that Annie Mc Donnell had been seen on the Sunday in an agitated state.

“Was it because she knew that Clark had been murdered?” Lynn asked the jury. “I suggest to you that it was and that she never suspected Mc Cabe but she suspected members of her own family.”

As the case dragged on, it became obvious that O’Halloran had constructed his case well and the evidence built up against Mc Cabe. The smashed back door he was so anxious to show the police had been broken from the inside. It was also found he was wearing Peter Mc Donnell’s trousers on the day of the fire with the keys of the storeroom in the pocket. A former housekeeper told the court that a considerable amount of jewellery was normally kept in the house and the keys were always kept by one of the Mc Donnells.

The trial lasted for six days and heard over sixty witnesses. The jury deliberated for only an hour and, in the late evening of Saturday 13th November, they brought in a verdict which found Henry Mc Cabe guilty. He was sentenced to death by hanging.

Henry Mc Cabe was hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint the English hangman (as Ireland didn’t have their own hangman) at Mounjoy Prison on the 9th December. It was reported in the press that a large crowd of mostly women, including Mrs. Mc Cabe, gathered outside the prison and she fainted when the news of the execution was posted.

Some years later a young boy was digging in a Malahide garden where Mc Cabe had worked as a gardener and dug up two silver watches, a heavy gold chain, a watch chain with a sovereign case pendant. Both watches had names engraved on them: one read James Clarke and the other had the initials J.Mc D engraved on it.

(c) Mike Connolly

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Michael Connolly was born, raised and educated in Dublin, Ireland. Following a varied sales career which included selling printing and office equipment, he came to Johannesburg thirty years ago. He has travelled extensively in Europe, the Middle East and North America; interests include writing, art, travel, literature, history, architecture, sailing and walking. Read more about Mike at : www.connollyscomments.com
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