Death, Danger, and Decadence in 1920s Dublin: The Murder of Honor Bright

After the body of twenty-five-year-old Dublin woman Lizzie O’Neill, also known as “Honor Bright,” was found in June 1925, Irish newspapers jumped on the sensational story. The case had everything that readers sought at the time: a who-dunnit featuring the murder of a young, glamorous woman, a pair of unlikely well-off and respectable suspects (a doctor and a policeman), and an intriguing glimpse of the inner workings of the labyrinth-like city during an age of political intrigue. Moreover, Honor Bright, the papers reported, was a scandalous “woman of the night”: a sex worker.

O’Neill’s origins and background remain somewhat obscure, but she, like thousands of other young single women, left rural Ireland to make her way in the modern city in the early twentieth century. Along the way, she apparently turned to sex work to make a living. On the night of her death, she was working outside a popular swanky St. Stephen’s Green hotel, where she encountered a physician, Patrick Purcell, and a policeman, Leo Dillon. According to multiple witnesses, the two men were seen arguing with O’Neill, and then the three sped off in Purcell’s car, headed toward the Wicklow mountains, where O’Neill, shot through the heart, would be found the next morning.1

Cork Examiner, July 20, 1925.

O’Neill’s life and death came to be overshadowed by contexts that were more compelling to Irish people at the time than the demise of one sex worker. Her murder demonstrated to many the links between the decadence of modern city life, and the dangers — not only physical but also moral — that the city posed to Irish women. In the decades following WWI, Irish commentators associated sexual and moral problems with women’s increased public presence in urban areas. As historians have shown for most of Western Europe, the Great War only enhanced fears of female independence and unbridled sexuality. Although some women gained an increased public role during the war, they did so within a culture of surveillance and control that targeted young single women as particularly dangerous and disruptive.2 In Britain, officials believed that levels of premarital sex had risen because of the conflict.3 Anxieties that families were weakening and women occupying too much public space resulted in paramount concerns over female sexuality. In Northern Ireland this in turn led to higher prosecution rates for prostitution in Derry, a new dialogue about venereal disease, and anxiety about “khaki fever” — the fear that young, single women embraced newfound sexual freedoms in the war, in part by chasing after men in uniform — in Belfast.4

Recent scholarship in Irish women’s history has shown how these interwar phenomena combined with nationalist concerns about endemic emigration rates to spark a dialogue about Irish single women’s lives. As thousands of unmarried Irish women left their rural homes for life in cities like Dublin and London, discourses in Ireland represented the city as “the fragmentation of community, while the Irish countryside represented the essence of community spirit.”5 In keeping with nationalist constructions at the time, rural Ireland emerged in this rhetoric as a place of sexually pure and moral girls, whereas cities were spaces of sexual danger, where young women like O’Neill inevitably found “trouble,” or even death. Dublin in particular was “disorderly, uncontrollably complex and chaotic”6— a hub of vice and immorality.

Representations like this held particular meaning in a key era of nation-building, when the new Ireland being constructed was, in the famous words of Prime Minister Éamon DeValera, meant to be “a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry.”7 This idyllic Ireland left no room for urban realities. It also depended on women staying in rural areas, marrying, bearing children, and embracing their domesticity. By their very movement, unmarried migrants like O’Neill rejected fixity and domesticity, troubling contemporary understandings of Irish womanhood. As Maria Luddy has shown, a public obsession with immorality in the 1920s and 30s articulated that “the real threat to chastity and sexual morality resided in the bodies of women.” “Thus moral regulation, by Church and State,” she continues, “attempted to impose, particularly on women, standards of idealized conduct that would return the nation to purity.”8 This regulation attempted to harness women’s bodies, containing and controlling them in the domestic sphere. In 1925, Galway’s Catholic bishop advised men to keep their willful daughters in line: “If your girls do not obey you, if they are not in at the hours appointed, lay the lash on their backs. That was the good old system, that should be the system today.”9 When young, unmarried women traveled to Dublin and even had “illicit” sex there, they betrayed the lie that was the construction of Irish domestic womanhood at the time.

A plaque in Ticknock Cross memorializing Honour Bright. (Courtesy Come Here to Me! blog)

Although the Irish public, particularly in Dublin, expressed a fair amount of sympathy for the plight of Honor Bright, most also understood that her life and death were a clear warning. O’Neill was a modern young woman who had left home on her own. In Dublin, she lived with another female sex worker in an apartment (O’Neill’s roommate, Bridie, also proved troublesome: twelve years after O’Neill’s death, Bridie was brought to court on obscene language charges10). O’Neill moved around the city freely, working and socializing without the supervision of a parent or husband. When her body was found, she was dressed smartly, wearing a “pert hat adorned with a red rosette.”11 She embraced urban sophistications and consumerism, eschewing the simple, modest dress, and life, of the rural wife and mother. She was modern in other troubling ways as well. Reflecting on O’Neill’s death a few years later, a Catholic priest told an audience that her troubles began when she took an alcoholic drink at a local dance. This simple action, he claimed, led her down the inevitable path of vice and, ultimately, death. “Honor Bright was not and is not,” he said, “the only once-decent Irish girl who traces back their ruin to drink at dances.”12 Dancing and drinking were topics addressed frequently by the Irish Catholic clergy in the 1920s, which linked both to illicit sexual practices. Drink, dancing, immodest fashions, sex, and murder: the sad path of Honor Bright was one that any Irish woman who was not careful and vigilant could fall victim to. All Irish women had the potential to be, or to become, Honor Bright.

The two men accused of O’Neill’s murder stood trial in 1926. Despite extensive witness testimonies and physical evidence, the jury acquitted them. No one else was ever charged with her death. The murder of Lizzie O’Neill, AKA “Honor Bright,” according to Irish police, remains an open investigation even today.

Notes

  1. Biographical details about Bright and the details of her murder case are compiled from contemporary newspapers including the Irish Times, Evening Herald, and Southern Star. Return to text.
  2. Angela Woollacott, “Khaki Fever and Its Control: Gender, Class, Age, and Sexual Morality on the British Homefront in the First World War,” Journal of Contemporary History 29, 2 (April 1994): 325-47. Return to text.
  3. Barbara Brookes, Abortion in England, 1900-1967 (London: Croom Helm, 1988), 115. Return to text.
  4. Leanne McCormick, Regulating Sexuality: Women in Twentieth-Century Northern Ireland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 26; Diarmaid Ferriter, Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland (London: Profile Books, 2012), 101. See also Maria Luddy, Prostitution and Irish Society, 1800-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Return to text.
  5. Louise Ryan, “Irish Female Emigration in the 1930s: Transgressing Space and Culture,” Gender, Place, and Culture 8, 3 (2001), 278. Return to text.
  6. Ryan, 275. Return to text.
  7. Emphasis mine. Return to text.
  8. Maria Luddy, “Sex and the Single Girl in 1920s and 1930s Ireland,” Irish Review 35 (2007), 80. Return to text.
  9. Cited in Myrtle Hill, Women in Ireland: A Century Of Change (Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 2003), 30. Return to text.
  10. Evening Herald, April 24, 1937. Return to text.
  11. Kevin O’Connor, Thou Shalt Not Kill: True-Life Stories of Irish Murders (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1995), 108. Return to text.
  12. Southern Star, August 3, 1929. Return to text.

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