Miltown Malbay on the Atlantic coast of county Clare in Ireland. Like every small Irish town it is steeped in its’ own unique history. Briefly home to the largest hotel in the Irish whos-whoand British isles. A seaside resort for the aristocracy. Once the location of five corn mills. The site of an address by Charles Stewart Parnell. Backdrop to a landlord boycott that saw almost every shopkeeper and publican jailed briefly. And all of this was just in the nineteenth century alone. Something else happened in the years after the Great Famine that was to put Miltown Malbay in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. In September 1852 ‘this hitherto quiet and peaceable locality was struck by as barbarous and revolting a murder as ever disgraced society’.[1] A family resentment resulted in the deaths of four relatively poor members of a farming community. The story of the Stackpoole murder cast a dark shadow over a place not long decimated by the effects of famine.

The affair had its roots in the routine death of a man in Dover in England in February 1852. His name, age and cause of death are almost insignificant to the story that follows. Yet, one single decision made before his passing was to have bloody consequences on the west coast of Ireland. Following the death his widow wrote to Michael Kenny, a solicitor in county Clare. She informed him that her husband was the agent of a certain portion of land in the county and had willed the property rights to his nephew James Stackpoole, a young man of about twenty years old. It was believed that the property would benefit James considerably – in the region of £60-70 per annum once he turned twenty-one. In the event of his death the inheritance would revert to his uncle, as next-of-kin. The deceased English man had another relative in Clare. This individual was older than James and had expectations that he was going to benefit from this will. Thomas Stackpoole was excluded from the inheritance due to what the deceased man felt were his wasteful and squandering habits. The older Stackpoole made it clear he would ignore the will as he believed his rights to the property superseded those of his nephew James.

Thomas Stackpoole takes control

Some months later, on the evening of Saturday 18 September 1852, James Stackpoole turned up at the home of his uncle Thomas and his wife Honora[2] at Bleanalega to borrow a shirt for Mass the following day. The bishop would be preaching at a nearby church and all the community was exercised by this landmark event. James resided with Michael Kenny at Freagh Castle. Thomas and Honora occupied a two storey slated house located about two miles from Miltown Malbay. The couple persuaded the young man to stay the night. After eating an evening meal together, James retired upstairs to bed. He shared the room with the couple’s children and Honora’s nephew, John Halpin, who worked for the family as a servant.

After confirming that their guest was soundly asleep, his uncle Thomas went to the nearby home of his cousin Richard.[3] He took Richard outside where he asked him to come to his house. Their nephew James was sleeping upstairs. The time had come to kill him. ‘Now is the time or never’, Thomas argued. Richard claimed later that he argued against this with his cousin but Thomas hit him on the back with a stick so he reluctantly accompanied him. This opportunity to do him harm was the only reason that Thomas and Honor persuaded James to stay that night. The time had come to right the wrong that had been perpetrated against Thomas.

After reaching the home of Thomas, both men remained outside for quite a while. It could be that they were working up their courage for the bloody task that Thomas had in mind. Richard claimed he waited until his more aggravated cousin went inside and then headed back to his own house. After some time, Honora came in search of Richard who accompanied her back to her house where the unsuspecting James remained asleep upstairs. Inside the house, Richard and Honora found an agitated Thomas standing in his drawers and flannel waistcoat. He was swearing at his wife and cousin that they had no intention of going ahead with what was obviously a planned attack on their nephew.

At some unspecified point, Richard’s wife Bridget showed up. Records show that Richard Stackpoole of Blenelige married Bridget Hynes of Blenelige in the parish of Kilmurry Ibricken (aka Mullagh) on 14 February 1841. To appease his angry cousin, Richard accompanied Thomas and Honor upstairs where James lay sleeping. The sixteen year-old John Halpin slept between James and the wall. Not wanting to strike his nephew in the bed, Richard dragged James out and pulled him down the stairs. Halpin woke up. So too did the young Stackpoole children. In what was described as a tremendous struggle, James never let go of his assailant. Richard held an iron tongs in his hand as a weapon but the ever-impatient Thomas felt he was not using it properly and roared, ‘damn your soul. What are you doing? Here is the way to kill him’. He grabbed the tongs and struck James on the head.

“Oh mercy, uncle”, pleaded James. “Don’t kill me, and I will give you the price of four cows, and stop with you entirely”. Honor and Bridget took hold of James and dropped him on the floor. According to Thomas Stackpoole’s twelve year-old son who witnessed the incident, Richard struck James twice on the back of his head with a hatchet, ‘spattering blood and brains out on the floor’. James did not move after this point. Richard admitted to taking back the tongs from Thomas and administering four or five blows to the back which left the younger man ‘gasping for death’.

“Where is Halpin?” demanded Thomas Stackpoole.

“I am here”, the boy called out from under the stairs.

“Reach me a candlestick, you must have a hand in this for fear of discovering on me”. John Halpin did as he was ordered and broke a candlestick over James Stackpoole’s head.

The body at Swallow Bridge

The young man was likely dead by this time, lying face down in his own blood.

“Purge the blood out of him, that way it won’t be dropping out the road”, ordered Thomas.

Richard stamped on the body several times and said, “I will go and dig a hole for him”.

“No”, admonished Thomas. “He must be left at Swallow Bridge, the way it won’t be suspected it was in my house that he was murdered”. He ordered Bridget and the young boy to go upstairs and fetch the dead man’s clothes. They brought his trousers, waistcoat and stockings. Thomas removed his own clothing including underwear and threw them on the fire. Bridget and Honor went upstairs and brought him a shirt and a sheet in which to wrap the corpse.

annagh-bridge
Annagh Bridge or ‘Swallow Bridge’ as referred to by the Stackpoole family

Thomas decided that the body should be left at Swallow Bridge because the local fishermen would be suspected of the murder. At some point, Bridget incredibly took the body of James Stackpoole on her back and with John Halpin, made her way to Swallow Bridge to dispose of the dead man. Along the way they met a local man, Michael Sexton, but there does not appear to have been any problem for them in this encounter.  At Swallow Bridge they left the body along with his coat, cap and boots before returning to the house where they burned the sheet in which it had been wrapped. Tom and Honor remained at the house and when John Halpin and Bridget returned the children were back in bed.

The investigation

At around 11 am the following morning, Constable Thomas May, acting on a tip-off, made his way to Bellfordbridge, where he found the body of James Stackpoole. The dead man’s cap and boots lay beside his corpse and the constable reported that portions of the skull and brains were scattered on his waistcoat. He also identified a cut to the head near the neck and another on the left hand. His shirt was stiff from the blood. At that point the policeman made an early conclusion that the victim was probably killed in bed and then dressed. He was correct to a point. Though not killed in bed, Stackpoole was dressed after being murdered.

About two hours later the constable entered the Stackpoole home accompanied by Burdett Morony, a local landowner and Justice of the Peace and Sub-Constable Isaac Bolton. A number of women including Honor Stackpoole were coming and going as if on the look-out for somebody. Constable May ordered Honor into the house and she obliged. Inside they found Thomas Stackpoole and John Halpin. Morony and the police constables were immediately suspicious on finding anybody on the property because the entire locality was at that very moment, in Mullach listening to a sermon from the bishop. Stackpoole was sitting on a chair with his head between his hands and his elbows supported by his knees. The occupants were told to consider themselves prisoners and that Morony, as a magistrate, would be searching the house.

 An examination of the scene got underway. Blood was found on the walls and on the table. In an adjoining room the investigators found a box containing a towel with spots of blood on it, despite evidence of being recently washed. Elsewhere they found a blue cloth cloak, also washed but marked with a spot of blood. ‘A petticoat of stuff’ was discovered hanging in a window shutter and the contents had been washed. Outside on a porch they found a pot full of dirty water. The water was a mixture of the colour of the petticoat and blood. There was much evidence of blood upstairs. On the floorboards. On the bedroom walls. On the floor near the bed. On the pillow. On a coarse sheet under the window. Again, there was evidence that the culprits had attempted to wash away the evidence of their crime but this was without success.

During the melee caused by the intruding investigation one of the Thomas and Honora’s youngest child became agitated and cried continually. In an effort to pacify the little girl, Burdett Morony sat her on his lap. Whatever really occurred at this moment cannot possibly be verified to the fullest satisfaction. Did the overpowering presence of this intimidating landlord overwhelm the child? Probably. Was she frightened after witnessing a most horrific event the night before? Definitely. Was she confused by the sight of the adults, including her own parents, plotting and planning, covering up evidence, panicking, arguing, as they schemed to escape the noose? Assuredly. The child’s declaration of “t’was my daddy killed him” was enough to effectively close the case.[4]

Thomas Stackpoole was prepared with a well-rehearsed, albeit flimsy, response. He claimed he was drunk the night before and fell and received a cut to the head. The cut was so severe that blood was spattered all over the house. He spoke at great length and in considerable detail about the nature of his injury and the consequences. Thomas Stackpoole had worked out his story but would it stand up?

During this part of the investigation it transpired that the blue cloth cloak belonged to Bridget Stackpoole. After finishing their examination the police and magistrate continued on to Richard’s house. There was nobody at the house but later that day they arrested Bridget – also known as Biddy – and Thomas. The entire party was taken to Miltown Barracks where their bodies and clothing were examined. A large spot of blood was found on John Halpin’s leg above the knee. Upon his arrest, Richard Stackpoole was advised of his right not to say anything that would incriminate himself. Seemingly resigned to his fate, he declared that as they ‘were all hanging each other now’ he would tell the truth in the hope that it would save himself.

To be continued…

[1] Kings County Chronicle, 29 September 1852.

[2] Honora is sometimes referred to as Honor in reporting and other documents relating to the case.

[3] Some reporting describe Thomas and Richard as brother. Other accounts describe them as relatives. Most refer to them as cousins.

[4] London Daily News, 5 October 1852.