At present in Ireland, a Domestic Violence Bill is rumbling its way through the Irish parliament, a welcome albeit overdue development. Louise Crowley has noted that failures to enshrine domestic violence as a discrete criminal offense have gone hand-in-hand with Ireland’s historic reluctance to intervene in such cases. A look at gendered violence in Ireland, focusing on historical cases of domestic murder, can help illustrate the contours of gender. Investigating cases of men who were convicted of murdering women from motives attributed to jealousy can reveal Irish societal attitudes to sexual honor and women’s sexuality.1
My research focuses on the period 1864 to 1914. In this 51-year span, I have so far identified eleven cases in which men were convicted of the murder of a female partner in circumstances that were explicitly understood through the motive of jealousy.2 The research project is ongoing, and further research may reveal other cases in which jealousy was present as a less overt motivation.
However, what is clear so far is that these cases exist against a backdrop of violence against women — in the 51-year period, 28 men in total were convicted of the murder of a wife, a number of other men murdered unmarried partners, while other cases reveal sexually-motivated killings.3 In a majority of cases in which men killed partners, there was a history of domestic violence in the relationship; within this context, jealousy was a common trigger for violent behavior.
Prevailing attitudes about jealousy may have reduced the numbers of criminal trials in which it was explicitly argued. Jade Shepherd has explored understandings of jealousy in late-nineteenth-century England. She found that defense arguments that alleged jealousy as a motivation were generally frowned upon in court.
“Crimes of passion,” which relied on jealousy, were less likely to receive a sympathetic hearing in English murder trials in this period as a result. Jealousy as a motivation was considered too “French.”4 The limited acceptance of jealous emotions as an excuse to murder relates to what Martin Wiener has identified as new expectations regarding male working-class respectability.5
However, it is unclear to what extent the same thinking prevailed in Ireland. Carolyn Conley says that domestic violence was not viewed particularly seriously in Ireland, and many men who killed partners were acquitted or convicted of lesser offenses.6
A certain level of interpersonal violence was viewed as normal within marriage. Tolerance of violence can also be linked to a concept of Irish masculinity “that was both violent and irrational.”7 Allied to this conception of Irish men as “wild,” Pauline Prior found that high numbers of men who killed as a result of jealousy successfully pleaded insanity at trial.8 Prior linked this to traditional views on sexual honor that persisted in Ireland in this period.
Domestic murders in this period in Ireland were therefore treated quite leniently. Until 1964, a conviction for murder in Ireland resulted in a mandatory death sentence, but nine of the eleven men I studied had their sentence commuted to penal servitude for life. The two men who were ultimately executed, Patrick Kilkenny and Thomas Parry, both in 1865, may have experienced harsher treatment because their cases occurred earlier, when more death sentences resulted in executions. Also, they had both murdered “sweethearts,” and their victims attracted considerable sympathy. The fact that Parry used a gun also exacerbated the seriousness of his crime.9
Sexual Honor as a Legal Strategy
Ideas of sexual honor were prevalent across the eleven cases, both the sexual honor of the perpetrator and that of the victim. For example, if men killed women who had been unfaithful, the insult to the man’s sexual honor could provide an excuse for the killing. However, in cases where the jealousy was unfounded, prosecution arguments focused on the sexual honor of the victim to create a compelling case against the perpetrator.
In the trial of William Slattery, convicted in 1871 for the murder of his wife Mary, the prosecution was at pains to stress that William’s jealousy was unfounded. The Nenagh Guardian summarized the prosecution case that he had murdered his wife “in a fit of jealousy” for which “there was not the faintest shadow of a foundation.” A local priest gave evidence that “there never was a shadow of impropriety” against the deceased woman.10
While prosecution counsel tended to stress the victim’s sexual propriety, one defense strategy involved attacking the victim’s sexual honor to provide an excuse for men’s violence. This was evident in the case of David McConnaty, in which the defense sought to tarnish the victim’s reputation to make the perpetrator’s actions more acceptable. McConnaty was convicted of the murder of his wife Anne in 1884.
On 17 December 1883, Anne had gone to the local town for a few hours. That night, when her husband returned home, he brought with him rumours that his wife had been seen with a man named Pat Malone. David began to beat Anne, an attack that would last for hours. As he beat her, he yelled, “There is no mercy for a drunken woman.”
In an attempt to make David’s actions more sympathetic to the jury, defense counsel suggested that the allegations may have been true, “Far be it from him to lay a charge against a person who was dead and gone; but it may have been that there were grounds for the insinuation made, or at least that the accused thought so.”11 This demonstrates how the sexual honor of the female victim could be used by both prosecution and defense, in competing strategies in jealousy-fueled murder.
Although David was sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted. The jury recommended him to mercy and expressly stated that jealousy was a ground which motivated this recommendation — although jealousy may not have been met with official acceptance as a rationale to kill, it clearly swayed the views of ordinary people.
Sexual honor was therefore crucial in presenting a convincing argument in court — for both the prosecution and defense. Wiener has noted that there could be sympathy for men who killed wives who were unfaithful. Therefore, in cases that invoked jealousy, whether the allegations were true or not was important. In the McConnaty case, for example, although a reading of the case suggests that David’s jealousy was unfounded and was instead part of a pattern of abuse in the marriage, the jury was clearly sufficiently influenced by the defense argument to recommend David to mercy.
Jealousy and Women’s Sexuality
In the 1905 case of John Murphy, convicted for the murder of Kate McCarthy, the importance of societal expectations for women’s sexuality were very evident. John and Kate were “courting,” and he had previously displayed jealousy of her friendships with other men. When Kate’s body was found, the medical examination revealed that “an act of impropriety had taken place almost immediately before her death.”12 Not explicitly understood as rape, this was instead viewed as evidence of Kate’s moral failings — something the prosecution had to overcome in building its case. Prosecution counsel declared that:
As this case shows, women who had sex outside of marriage were viewed as immoral and were subject to explicit condemnation. This provided the context in which jealousy, and women’s infidelity, could be used to excuse the lethal violence of “wronged” husbands and partners.
Jealousy as Justification
The Irish profile of jealousy-fueled murder in this period suggests that women’s sexual honor remained a precious commodity, often used by the prosecution to condemn the perpetrator. However, the reverse was true also. Women’s sexuality was supposed to be exercised only within the bounds of marriage. Therefore, even in cases where there was evidence of vicious beatings, allegations that women had been unfaithful could be used by the defense to shift the blame. In these cases, defense strategies emphasized the sexual honor of the wronged man.
These concerns were not merely historical oddities. The lingering acceptance of jealousy as a motive to murder is a feature of the modern criminal justice system, particularly in how legal defenses to murder are understood. Throughout the twentieth century, provocation was increasingly accepted in cases of male jealousy. This has continued into the twenty-first century, and the operation of the provocation defense in Ireland continues to entrench gender stereotypes within the criminal law.14
Tolerance of domestic violence likewise persists into the twenty-first century. A 2014 report on crime investigation found that instances of domestic violence were often not recorded or were recorded as lesser offenses by the Irish police.15 This approach mirrors historical constructions of domestic violence that framed it as a private matter.
Historical research into violence against women can therefore trace the inequities of the past to the injustices of the present day. The ongoing debate on the Domestic Violence Bill is one litmus test by which we can gauge how well Ireland is responding to the challenges of its past.
- Although it is not only men who kill partners out of jealousy, such killings are generally a male preserve. Marianne Constable and Ginger Frost have noted cases in which roles were reversed: Ginger Frost, “‘She Is But A Woman’: Kitty Byron and the English Edwardian Criminal Justice System,” Gender and History 16 (2004): 538; Marianne Constable, “Chicago Husband-Killing and the New ‘Unwritten Law’ [PDF],” Triquarterly 124 (2006): 85. Return to text.
- Seven involved spouses, and four involved unmarried partners (three of which involved a “sweetheart” or fiancé, and one case which involved a long-time partner). Return to text.
- Out of a total of 156 men who were convicted of murder in this period. Return to text.
- Jade Shepherd, “‘I Am Not Very Well I Feel Nearly Mad When I Think Of You’: Male Jealousy, Murder and Broadmoor in Late-Victorian Britain,” Social History of Medicine 30 (2016): 277. Return to text.
- Martin J Wiener, “The Sad Story of George Hall: Adultery, Murder and the Politics of Mercy in Mid-Victorian England,” Social History 24 (1999): 174. See also Jeremy Horder and Kate Fitz-Gibbon, “When Sexual Infidelity Triggers Murder: Examining the Impact of Homicide Law Reform on Judicial Attitudes in Sentencing,” Cambridge Law Journal 74 (2015): 307. Return to text.
- Carolyn Conley, Melancholy Accidents: The Meaning of Violence in Post-Famine Ireland (New York: Lexington Books, 1999). Return to text.
- Pauline Prior, Madness and Murder: Gender, Crime and Mental Disorder in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Dublin/Portland: Irish Academic Press, 2008), 93. Return to text.
- Damien Brennan has noted that “jealousy” was an officially recognized “moral cause” for those admitted to asylums, Damien Brennan, Irish Insanity: 1800-2000 (London: Routledge, 2013). Return to text.
- Something noted by Carolyn Conley in her study. Return to text.
- Nenagh Guardian, March 11, 1871. Return to text.
- Leinster Express, March 22, 1884. Return to text.
- Skibbereen Eagle, March 25, 1905. Return to text.
- Irish Examiner, March 21, 1905. Return to text.
- Clíodhna Chéileachair, “Violence Against Women and the Defence of Provocation in the Republic of Ireland,” Queen’s University Belfast Student Law Journal 2 (2016). Return to text.
- Garda Síochána Inspectorate, “Crime Investigation,” (2014). Return to text.