A Story of the Bodkin Murders

On Saturday, 20 March 1742, John Bodkin of Belclare Co. Galway was hanged drawn and quartered having been found guilty of the murder of his brother Patrick on Thursday, 3 May 1739. On the gibbet on Gallows Green (now Eyre Square) in the city of Galway, he refused to acknowledge his innocence or guilt of this crime. Instead, as the noose tightened around his neck, he proclaimed I forgive Mankind implying that he was innocent.

I have investigated the possibility of his innocence through the medium of a historical novel in which John Bodkin and Catherine Bermingham, the third daughter of Lord Athenry, are the principal characters. Both are real people but their romance is fictional.

The delay in John Bodkin’s trial was occasioned by the belief of the local Justice of the Peace, Lord Athenry, that Patrick Bodkin had died of natural causes. It was not until the aftermath of the Bodkin Murders in 1741 that John Bodkin was accused of fratricide. These events have been described in Pue’s Occurrences on 10-13 October 1741, later amplified by Oliver J Burke in his 1885 Anecdotes of the Connaught Circuit (p 86-92). Three members of the Bodkin family, Oliver Bodkin (John Bodkin’s uncle), Oliver’s pregnant wife, Margery, his son, Oliver, a visitor, Marcus Lynch of Galway and a number of unnamed servants were murdered in a family feud.

The Bodkin Murders occurred in Carrowbaun House, Belclare, a village, about four miles west of Tuam in County Galway. I have fictionalised Carrowbaun House as Liscarrow House to avoid confusion with the other Bodkin residence of nearby Carrowbeg House. Recent reports of the massacre include those by Jarlath O’Connell, Martin Dolan and William Henry. These adhere closely to Burke’s version.

Burke took some licence with the primary source, a practise I have accepted in the interests of clarity. The most obvious licence is that John Bodkin had three brothers rather than one, namely, Dominick, the aforesaid Patrick and Frank. It was Dominick rather than Patrick who was reputedly murdered by John. I presume that Burke substituted Patrick for Dominick as the eldest son to avoid confusion with his Uncle Dominick, a convicted participant in the Bodkin massacre. Burke removed the youngest son, Frank from his narrative because he had passed away by the time the Bodkin massacre occurred.

Six servants have been chosen to represent the other unnamed victims whose number varies from four to seven in the various sources. These are fictionally named as Henry Burke, Mrs Agnes Burke, James Fallon, Michael MacDonagh, Thaddeus MacHugh and Nora O’Brien.

I wish to thank my son, Dara, who reviewed a 50,000-word draft of my novel written in the month of November as part of the National Novel Writing Month. I am indebted to the members of a writers group, The Corner Table, who reviewed drafts of individual chapters. I also acknowledge the assistance of Dr A J Claffey, Tuam, Co Galway; Frank Canavan, Belclare, Co Galway; John Courtney, Kilconly, Tuam; Frank Higgins, Carrowbeg North, Belclare and Ger Hoade, Carrowbeg House, Carrowbeg North, Belclare both of whom suggested locations for the now destroyed Carrowbaun (fictionalised as Liscarrow) House as being near Polldarragh, Belclare or near a cattle crush close to the Bird Hide, Pollaturk, Belclare; Sean Murphy, for expert advice on family history; Patricia O’Reilly, who introduced me to creative writing; and members of my extended family.

Anne O’Donel: Author’s Note

The reputed abduction of Anne O’Donel by Timothy Brecknock in 1785 was first referenced by Matthew Archdeacon in Legends of Connaught in 1839. Thomas Patrick Faulkner wrote a more concise version of the story in The career of George Robert Fitzgeraldin 1893. Further reference to her abduction appeared in the 1916 play The Spancel of Death by T H Nally where Anne O’Donel is described as the godchild of Sir Harry Lynch-Blosse.

While Archdeacon claimed that “almost every incident…is founded on fact,” Mary MacCarthy doubted its veracity in Fighting Fitzgerald and other papers in 1930. Her doubt is underscored by the lack of primary sources to confirm the existence of Anne O’Donel, her father, Judge O’Donel, and her betrothed, Hyacinth Martin (portrayed as Jasper Martin in my novel).

While the colourful career of Timothy Brecknock is well documented, his reputed abduction of Anne O’Donel has not been discovered in any primary source. The son of a Northamptonshire farmer, Brecknock matriculated to Pembroke College, Oxford aged seventeen on 10 June 1736. Having left Oxford without a degree, he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn on 19 May 1738. Thereafter, he practised as a lawyer and writer in London. The publication of Droit le Roy (a Digest of the Rights and Prerogatives of the Imperial Crown of Great Britain) in 1764 incensed The House of Lords to such an extent that his pamphlet was burned outside the gate of Westminster Hall. Towards the end of his career, he was appointed as the law agent to George Robert Fitzgerald of Turlough, County Mayo, a post that ultimately led to his demise.  On 12 June 1786, Brecknock aged sixty seven was hanged in Castlebar, County Mayo, along with Fitzgerald, for complicity in the murder of Pat Randal McDonnell, Colonel of the Mayo Volunteers.

When Timothy Brecknock reputedly abducted Anne O’Donel in 1785, he imprisoned her on Glass Island (also known as Islannaglashy), Lough Conn in Co Mayo. Conscious of the public mood that described abduction as “a remnant of barbarity” and “a savage practice,” he may have sought to win her heart initially rather than violate her. My novel deals with this story and its aftermath.

According to Archdeacon, the reputed locations of the O’Donel residence were either in Mossvale, Moynafallen or Moyvale. None of these locations are known today apart from Moyvale, the name of a modern housing estate in Ballina, Co Mayo. Moyvale was chosen as the location of the O’Donel residence due to its proximity to the valley of the Moy River, near the village of Straide, Co Mayo, where the O’Donel family vault is located. A location was also assumed for Grousehall, the residence of Anne’s lover, Jasper Martin, about midway between Westport and Castlebar, based on informed speculation by local historians, Brian Hoban and Adrian Martyn.

Some minor license has been applied to Archdeacon’s storyline. He refers to Anne’s father as Mr O’Donel whereas Faulkner refers to “old O’Donel who had been presiding at the bench,” when George Robert Fitzgerald was accused of complicity in the abduction of Anne O’Donel. I have therefore assumed Anne’s father to be “Judge O’Donel.” I have also assumed first names for Anne’s mother, “Mary” O’Donel, and for Mr Mitchell (namely, “John” Mitchell) of Glass Island. The name of the housekeeper of the O’Donel residence at Moyvale has been fictionalised as “Bridget” Mullen rather than Mary Mullen to avoid confusion with Mary O’Donel. The old courthouse in Castlebar is assumed to have been colonnaded like its successor which was built in the early 1830s.

I am greatly indebted to Claire Chilton, Eileen Gormley, Nicola Jennings, Caroline McCall, Anita Morris and Kathryn Suttle, members of a writers group, the-corner-table.com, who reviewed drafts of individual chapters of my novel; and to expert reviews on my first 5000 words from the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.

I am also indebted to Deirdre Cunningham, Heritage Officer, Mayo County Council; Sylvia Davitt and her children, who showed me the location of the souterrain where George Robert Fitzgerald reputedly imprisoned his father at Rockfield, Turlough, Co Mayo; Ivor Hamrock, Mayo County Library; Brian Hoban, local historian, Castlebar; Jo Hutchings, Archivist, Lincoln’s Inn Library, London; Adrian Martyn, local historian, Galway; Patricia O’Reilly, writer and lecturer, patriciaoreilly.net; Darragh Shaw of Turlough Nursery/Garden Centre, Co Mayo; and members of my extended family.

I would greatly appreciate comments on my novel at paul.mcnulty@ucd.ie.