Deadly deeds in darkest Dublin 1841

This is the  fictionalised yet utterly fascinating and intriguing account of a real life murder case which rocked Victorian Ireland.

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– John Delahunt was hanged in 1842 for the murder of a young boy Thomas MacGuire.

On a cold December morning, a small boy is enticed away from his mother and his throat savagely cut.

The killing causes an outcry even in a city already ridden by violent crime and unrest in all its forms. Yet, Delahunt seems not to feel any kind of revulsion or guilt – in fact  he feels no regret at all.

As he sits awaiting execution in Kilmainham Jail, he starts to write an account of events leading up to his incarceration.

Kilmainham jail - image courtesy of Wikipedia
Kilmainham jail – image courtesy of Wikipedia

My warder is a  man named Turner, an old Kilmainham guard with a grey moustache stained yellow and one eye turned inward. He treats me well enough because of my refined manners and clean habits. The details of my conviction don’t seem to bother him.

It’s set among Dublin’s dark alleyways, taverns and tenements and you can almost feel the wet cobbles underneath your feet and the smells of the dark and dank streets as you follow John around as he creeps and hides in the shadows –

Map of central Dublin  - Google maps showing the castle (A) and the streets around Merrion Square, St Stephens Green and Castle Street
Map of central Dublin – Google maps showing the castle (A) and the streets around Merrion Square park, St Stephens Green and Castle Street

Despite the hour, shadowy figures walked along the footpaths. We skirted the enclosed park, tall houses and grand public buildings , then turned right into York Street.

He led the way through sloping cobbled streets, still slick from the evening showers…..

The character list reads like something straight out of a Dickens novel – there are plenty lowlives and blackmailers hiding around every corner not to mention  the sinister agents of Dublin Castle. Delahunt is an informant and in the pay of those at the Castle. As one of the agents himself says –

‘I know there’s some stigma attached to the Castle’s methods, but it’s undeserved. As if we live to skulk in the shadows and pry into the business of honest men.’

But almost in his next breath, he commiserates with the fact that Delahunt has reported a death ‘too early’ as if he had waited another day, then he would have received a bigger reward as 

‘Murder,’ he said. ‘That’s where the money is.’

Murder is not far behind – for on one cold December morning, a small boy is enticed away from his mother and his throat savagely cut.

The entire novel is laced with dark humour, and you can almost smell the alcohol and the damp taverns as you turn the page. This is a gripping historical thriller about a man who betrays his family, his friends and, ultimately, himself. It’s a world of predators, every man for himself. The raw descriptions of life on the streets and hiding in Dublin’s underbelly makes, at times, for a difficult and gut churning read.

All the more shocking that it is based on true facts.

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You won’t want to visit this kind of Dublin for real, but in the literary setting of this debut novel, then it is quite a journey. Thank goodness for being able to visit this side of Dublin from the comfort of an armchair. Yet, within a few lines, the soft furnishings had turned into a hard wooden chair, in a dark dank tavern with the stale smell of beer imbued in the pages.

As John Delahunt says himself –

Nothing delights the general public so much as the trial of a murderous woman.

Replace ‘woman’ with ‘a man called John Delahunt’ and oh the irony…

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