Saturday, 30 April 2016

A case of murder and a genealogical near-miss

This week, as I continued my genealogy research into the lives of Laurence and Bridget Coyle, I came across the most disturbing case of murder ever perpetrated in the city of Dublin. Even today, although the case is now long forgotten, it likely remains one of the most fiendish atrocities ever to have shocked the country.

The victim, Thomas Maguire, was a handsome boy with dark curly hair, about ten years of age. He was found by children at play in a stable lane to the rear of Pembroke Road. His throat was cut from ear to ear. It was five days before Christmas in 1841.

A man named John Delahunt went to the police, claiming to have witnessed the murder. The police became suspicious, arrested him and placed him in custody. At the inquest, Delahunt claimed he saw a woman wearing a large red and green plaid shawl kill the child.

During the trial, John Delahunt continued to deny any responsibility for the attack. He tried to put the blame on the child’s mother, except that poor woman had an air-tight alibi. She was giving birth to a new baby at the Lying-In-Hospital, leaving no one to mind her son.

Sadly for John Delahunt, it was his own family who presented much of the evidence against him. Margaret Delahunt, his sister-in-law, testified Delahunt called to her home in Little Britain Street on the afternoon in question, with the child in tow. The boy, who she swore was the victim, told her his name was Tommy Maguire. Elizabeth and Anne Weldon, her sister and mother, testified they were present that evening when Delahunt returned to the house and they heard Margaret asking him where he had left the child.

Margaret Delahunt also confirmed the murder weapon as her property - her only knife. It had gone missing that day and she had seen Delahunt sharpening it the Saturday before. Other witnesses placed Delahunt near the scene of the crime. The jury deliberated for only twenty minutes before returning a guilty verdict and Delahunt was sentenced to death.

The only motive put forward, and the only one mentioned in Delahunt’s eventual confession, was financial. He had previously presented evidence, later discredited, in the trial of a tinker charged with the murder. He had also testified, again unconvincingly, against some coal porters charged with assault. In both cases the prosecution had paid a fee to their witnesses. Delahunt admitted he had killed the child in the hope of obtaining a financial reward when he helped the prosecutor convict an innocent party of murder. His was probably not the sharpest of minds.

So how are we related to John Delahunt? Not closely, I’m relieved to say. Ten years after the trial, Joseph Coyle, Laurence and Bridget’s eldest son and Dad's great-granduncle, married Elizabeth Weldon. Elizabeth was a sister of Margaret Delahunt, the key prosecution witness who was married to John Delahunt’s brother. Elizabeth served as a prosecution witness herself. While this is a genealogical near-miss for our family, I’m sure none of them ever forgot their close association with the notorious culprit who lost his life in the first public hanging in more than forty years.

At noon on 5 February 1842, John Delahunt was hung in front of a large gathering at Kilmainham Gaol. The assembled multitudes, appalled at the abhorrent crime, numbered well in excess of 10,000 people. Another account of the awful ceremony put the crowd closer to 60,000 people. All the buildings facing ‘the drop’ were full of spectators who had paid dearly for the view.

In the end, death came quickly for the young man who was paralysed with fear as he faced the revulsion of the crowd. Surprisingly, the only sound John Delahunt heard during his final moments was the gentle hum of prayer seeking mercy for his unfortunate soul.

John Delahunt, Murderer, 1842
 Dublin Evening Post, 5 February 1842, p. 3

Sources: The Dublin Weekly Register, 24 December 1841, p. 6; The Clare Journal, 20 January 1841, pp 1,4; Dublin Evening Post, 5 February 1842, p. 3; Freeman’s Journal, 7 February 1842, p.3; The Vindicator, Belfast, 9 February 1842 – accessed

© Black Raven Genealogy


  1. Dara, a shocking crime and a reprehensible motive. It appears as though John Delahunt may not have been of sound mind. The public interest in observing his hanging is fascinating too. (It would probably be streamed live these days.) Glad to know John Delahunt is a 'genealogical near-miss' for you.

    1. No doubt such a popular event would have been streamed live. We can only be thankful that the world has moved on.

  2. What an incredible, and very sad, story! And, I'm sure this did impact your family, even if there hadn't been a marriage between Joseph and Elizabeth. I'm guessing this story would've been talked about in the area for many years.

  3. It saddened me too, Dana, no doubt his family loved him and could never come to terms with what he had done, and as you say, I doubt they were ever allowed to forget his crime.

  4. What a incredibly sad story for everyone involved. I have an ancestor who was brutally murdered and I was so surprised to read about the huge crowd that showed up for the murderer's hanging. So glad that we have other forms of entertainment today.

    1. What people did for entertainment then - reminds me of Roman times when thousands turned up watch people fight to the death or be fed to the lions - gruesome.

  5. Incredible story, and so sad. Brilliantly told. So far, I've found the son of a 3rd great aunt was killed but the perpetrator (rightfully in my mind) got off on a ruling of justifiable homicide, My relative was your basic juvenile delinquent bad guy who went too far and got nailed for it (& died). Not as bad as this chap though.

    1. I remember that story Jo, it was still sad, even though he was a wayward youth.