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 Findmypast.ie.
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