A.K.A.: "The Malahide Murderer"
Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: He was afraid that the impending sale of the house would cost him his job - Arson
Number of victims: 6
Date of murders: March 31, 1926
Date of birth: 1877
Victims profile: Brothers Peter, 51, and Joseph McDonnell, 55; their sisters, Annie, 56, and Alice, 47, and two servants, James Clarke, 41, and Mary McGowan, 50
Method of murder: Beating to death with a blunt instrument
Location: Malahide, Dublin, Ireland
Status: Executed by hanging at Mountjoy Jail on December 9, 1926
1926 December 9th:
'La Mancha' was a large, picturesque house situated within a sea-side resort in the north east of Dublin. Its occupants were the McDonnell family: brothers Peter and Joseph, and their sisters, Annie and Alice. All were unmarried and they had retired to live at the house in 1918 after running a successful business.
On 31 March 1926, Henry McCabe, their gardener. alerted the police that the house was on fire. A neighbour helping to look for the occupants of the house spotted a can of parrafin in one of the rooms which was not ablaze.
Further evidence that the fire was not accidental was noticed when the first body was found in the house. It was clear that the victim had been beaten to death, not burned.
A few hours later. there were six bodies lying dead on the front lawn, all removed from the house which by now had been destroyed by the blaze.
They included all four members of the McDonnell family and two servants. James Clarke and Mary McGowan. The only member of the household to survive was Henry McCabe. who, it was noticed, was wearing a pair of trousers that had belonged to one of the dead brothers.
It was clear that the fire had been started to cover up the slaughter that had taken place inside the house, for all the victims had been beaten to death with a blunt instrument. Not only that, but they had also been poisoned with a dose of arsenic sufficient to weaken them and render themselves defenceless against a personal attack.
McCabe was the prime suspect from the first moment and as evidence was built up against him he was charged with the murders. In November he stood trial before Mr Justice O'Brien.
The case against him was strong but there was a definite lack of motive. The best offered was that he was afraid that the impending sale of the house would cost him his job.
McCabe made a poor show in court and numerous witnesses testified against him, including a guard who had looked after him while on remand. He claimed that McCabe had asked him to pass a message to his wife asking her to lie about the trousers he was wearing by saying that he had been given them a few weeks earlier. The truth was that McCabe had changed into a pair of Peter McDonnell's trousers after spoiling his own during the arson.
The jury took less than an hour to convict him and he was later hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint and Robinson.
Malahide’s most gruesome murder
Did the 1933 discovery of silver watches at Church Road prove the guilt of McCabe?
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Did the discovery of items belonging to residents of the infamous La Mancha in Malahide seven years after their gruesome death prove that local gardender Henry McCabe did actually murder them?
McCabe paid the ultimate price following his trial in 1926, executed in Mountjoy Jail, and his body buried in an unmarked grave within its walls. In 1933 came the remarkable discovery. A youth called Denning was hard at work in the garden of a house at Church Road, a good distance from La Mancha.
The home had been recently purchased and the gardens were overgrown. Denning was brought in to do the clean up when his attention was drawn to an object at his feet. Buried just beneath the surface he spotted a silver watch.
On the back of it he read the inscription 'James Clarke' and suddenly he spotted a second silver watch with 'J MacD' on it. It was beside a heavy gold Albert chain to which was attached a soverign case.
He quickly picked them up and ran to his father. He went immediately to the local garda station and a full scale search was ordered. It was impossible to link the items to the La Mancha murders but the coincidence was surely too incredible not to be.
James Clarke was one of those that died as was James McDonnell. What's more, the rumour quickly spread around Malahide that Henry McCabe had worked in that same garden in the past.
Also, following the murders, a series of searches were carried out by the gardai as they sought to recover certain items that they believed were taken from the home. Those searches centred on the lands just over the wall from La Mancha in the Malahide Demesne.
Nothing was ever found there. But did the discovery just reconfirm Henry McCabe's guilt, or did it imply that somebody else committed the murders and later buried the evidence - after McCabe had been executed?
The La Mancha story began on March 31st 1926 when locals spotted smoke coming from the big house on the Swords Road. Inside lay the bodies of six people, apparently killed in a frenzied attack.
Dead were brothers Joseph McDonnell (55) and his brother Peter (51) and their sisters Annie (56) and Alice (47) as well as two workers Mary McGowan (50) from Lusk and James Clarke (41). At 8.30am that morning the first person to spot the flames was the gardener Henry McCabe of Parnell Cottages in Malahide.
Ultimately, Henry McCabe, described as a relatively mild mannered man, would stand trial in Green Street for murder. It opened in early November 1926 before Justice O’Byrne with McCabe pleading not guilty in relation to the charges.
The prosecution claimed that between 5pm on the Monday and the discovery on Wednesday morning, McCabe, one by one, dispatched the household and spent his time laying plans for the total destruction of the house and the bodies.
The strange thing in the case is that the bodies of the three men were naked. Each of the three women received a blow to the head that cracked the skull. Chief Supt Leahy gave evidence of bringing McCabe into the station two days after the fire and interrogating him for three and a half hours.
A statement was signed afterwards. After some legal argument, the judge said he was not satisfied that the statement was free and voluntary and disallowed it. Very Rev Dr Kielty PP, Ballygar (their home village) spoke of the McDonnells as kindly and religious people while Sheila O’Reilly, a former housekeeper at La Mancha confirmed that a considerable quantity of jewellery was in the house, mainly locked in the linen presses.
Items of clothing were removed from McCabe's home and found to have bloodstains. The defence opened with McCabe who stated that he was a married man with nine children, the youngest just 10 months old.
Summing up, Mr A Lynn BL said McCabe was in the dock through the extraordinary accident that he was working in the house in which all the people had met their end.
If somebody from the household had lived, they would, according to the methods of the police, have been charged with the murder. Mr Garrigan, replying, said that there was no plea of insanity from McCabe and he was not illiterate.
He was an arch-criminal. He was a subtle, skilled man and began a campaign of murder that started on the Saturday and finished on the Wednesday. He claimed La Mancha was rifled, from top to bottom, before being torched. Everything valuable disappeared.
Just after 6pm on the sixth day of the trial, it concluded with Justice O’Byrne stating that they were coming to the end of the longest trial in living memory in that court. ‘If you are satisfied that McCabe was the only person who could have committed this crime you must find him guilty,’ he told the jury.
‘If you have any reasonable doubt, you must give him the benefit of it.’ The jury retired but at 9.50pm returned, after 50 minutes deliberation, to announce that McCabe was guilty of the charge before him.
When asked if he had anything to say he replied ‘All I have to say is God forgive them. I am the victim of bribery and perjury.’ On Thursday morning, December 9th at 8am, the hangman Pierpoint, assisted by Robinson, executed Henry McCabe in Mountjoy Jail, watched by the governor as a crowd of 300 waited outside.
Mrs McCabe, aided by two friends, waited at the gates, head bowed and rosary beads in her hand, bent with anguish. Just after 8am, notice of the execution was placed on the gate, Mrs McCabe collapsing and helped up by friends as they made their way to a motorcar. Later, at the inquest, Arthur A Faulkner, identified the remains of Henry McCabe (48) from Malahide.
The surd as inadmissible evidence: the case of Attorney-general v. Henry McCabe
Jeri L. Kroll
Why not piety and pity both, even down below?
Why not mercy and Godliness together? A little
mercy in the stress of sacrifice, a little mercy to
rejoice against judgment. He thought of Jonah
and the gourd and the pity of a jealous God on
Nineveh. And poor McCabe, he would get it in
the neck at dawn. What was he doing, how was
he feeling? He would relish one more meal, one
‘Dante and the lobster,’ the first story in More pricks than kicks, investigates the initial failure of Belacqua Shuah, Samuel Beckett’s earliest maladjusted artist-hero. Introduced to the reader in his identity as student, Belacqua demonstrates his inability to learn from his most significant confrontation with an absurd universe. Beckett, thus, prepares for Belacqua’s inability to function effectively in his identities as poet and as lover, too—he has equivocal responses to every emotionally charged situation that he encounters in this parody of a portrait of the artist as a young, bourgeois intellectual. Belacqua’s gradual socialization in these stories not only suggests how hard it is to face reality in order, presumably, to write about it, but how hard it is to find a reality to face—what is real in the world and what is illusory?
In ‘Dante and the lobster,’ Beckett begins by asking some rudimentary questions about society’s conception of justice. He examines our pretences about pity and piety, reveals the essential callousness of our world, and offers his hero a chance to evaluate ways of responding to the human condition. Belacqua does have a clear, if momentary, perception of the worth of social and religious institutions, and the worth of the individual. One of the reasons that Beckett abandons Belacqua and begins again with Murphy, the hero of the first complete novel in English, is that, given his fundamental cowardice and his inchoate heart, Belacqua does not live up to his responsibilities once he has his epiphany—that is, he does not go on to make use of his knowledge.2 Betraying his integrity as a human being and as an artist, Belacqua listens to the comforting ‘patter of the parable,’3 instead of to the unsettling truth.
‘Dante and the lobster’ is constructed around several inter-related motifs from the Bible, from folklore, and from literature that, in some way, embody traditional notions about universal order and justice. Specifically, the representatives of the outcast or the victim in the story are: Cain, Jonah, Christ, McCabe, and the lobster, who were, are, or will be, respectively, exiled, swallowed, crucified, hung, or boiled. We regard the pariah, or the ‘marked’ person (apologies to the lobster’s species), who is set aside for some kind of radical fate from the rest of humanity, with fear, with awe and, sometimes, with admiration. There is often a fine line, however, between whether we perceive exemplary individuals as martyrs, scapegoats, criminals, or lunatics. Exactly how we view a ‘marked’ person depends both on who judges him and why he is being judged. Christ, for example, was characterized alternately as King, clown, heretic, political subversive, and madman.
Henry McCabe, the Malahide Murderer, referred to several times in this story and in More pricks than kicks as a whole, offers another case where society found that it could apply various denominations: was McCabe arch criminal, maniac, or tragic victim? Although those critics who puzzle about the Malahide Murderer at all suggest that Beckett invented him and chose his name solely for its associations with Cain (McCabe, son of Cain),4 it turns out that Henry McCabe was an actual person whose life was legally terminated by the Irish state—he was hung, in fact, for murder.5 The details of his case present a fascinating picture of an inexplicably violent crime that justice, in its attempt to deny the irrational in the world, investigated but never adequately confronted.
If the experiences of Cain, Jonah, and Christ, figures from the Scriptures, reflect upon divine justice and moral responsibility, the experiences of McCabe reflect upon mortal justice, specifically justice as administered by a modern government. In its most rigid form, fallible human justice tries to imitate the infallibility of divine law. The government, the ruler, the father, all are surrogates for God and arrogate some of His omnipotence and inviolability. Humanity, faced with a chaotic universe, often willingly finds shelter within this framework of unquestioning obedience. The bench in the Attorney-General v. McCabe rendered its verdict to a disconcerted public with pompous assurance, and the newspaper’s pronouncements, full of smug moral superiority, were consummately ironic.6
Henry McCabe worked as the gardener for a well-to-do family, originally from the west of Ireland, named McDonnell. There were two brothers, Peter and Joe, and two sisters, Alice and Annie. They had sold their family business and moved east to live out their retirement at a country house called ‘La Mancha,’ located in Malahide, a town not far from Dublin. The immediate household staff consisted of only two employees, a maid named Mary McGowan, and a man-servant named James Clarke.
Early on Wednesday morning, 31 March 1926, Henry McCabe summoned the Civic Guard, notifying them that the house was on fire. Arriving at the scene, the Guard immediately discovered a number of peculiar circumstances. All of the windows of the house were shut tight (except one window in the basement), and all of the blinds were down and the shutters locked. They obviously could not tell if any of the family had been at home when the fire started. There was certainly fire and a good deal of smoke, but when the Civic Guard finally broke into the House they found that several fires had been set and some had been smouldering for hours.
Then they came upon the inhabitants of ‘La Mancha.’ The three women—two sisters and the maid—all lay together in one room, dead and severely burned by the fire. Each man, however, was found in a different room, where the flames had not done as much damage. In fact, two of the male victims had not been burned at all.
The authorities deduced, therefore, that the house had been set on fire intentionally, if inexpertly. To complicate matters, there were signs of physical violence in the form of contusions on all of the male bodies. Even this circumstance did not prove to be conclusive in at least one case, however—that of Joseph McDonnell. The medical experts could not determine the exact cause of his death, because he had been partially burned. These murders seemed bizarre enough to Dublin on 31 March, but stranger facts were to be uncovered. When the bodies were subsequently exhumed during the investigation, varying quantities of arsenic were found in the deceased. But in the case of the charred women, it was obviously impossible to tell if the arsenic or the fire had caused death.
Given this range of possibly lethal means involved in the multiple homicides, the police and the prosecution began to consider an equally singular range of motives. It emerged during the investigation and trial that rumours had been circulating that the house was up for sale. Wild tales of buried treasure in ‘La Mancha’s’ yard were also current in the neighbourhood. The well-to-do family who owned this mystery house were not exempt from gossip either, the family that, at the beginning of the investigation, had been described in a newspaper account as a stronghold of Victorian domestic bliss: ‘In our part of the country . . . they were given out as a parable in that respect—loyalty to one another’ (3 April 1926, p.8, col.3). The McDonnells may have been noted for their devotion according to some, but they were undeniably noted for their eccentric behaviour according to others. One of the sisters had been dubbed ‘mad Alice’ or the ‘mad woman of La Mancha’ (13 November 1926, p.5, cols.1-2) by the schoolchildren in the area.
Witnesses testified that Alice had run outside her house on occasion, hysterical, her hair undone. Peter, one of the brothers, had the reputation of acting queerly, too, though the newspapers did not elaborate on his ‘queerness.’ Intimations of family jealousies and of sexual assault crept into the trial but were never overtly discussed. Clearly, all sorts of psychological factors were operant in this drama, but were never allowed to surface. No one was destined to make a final, impassioned speech that would reveal the truth to the tense courtroom. There was only an exasperated prosecution, and Henry McCabe and his attorneys—McCabe, the only member of the household left alive and a convenient candidate on whom to try motive after motive.
As the defense stated during the proceedings, the prosecution’s explanation of the accused’s motives for committing mass murder were ludicrously weak. They suggested theft, but nothing was apparently missing; they suggested greed aroused by the hypothetical buried treasure, which no one ever found; they suggested revenge for the hypothetical loss of a job, if and when the house was sold and the McDonnells moved. In addition, when the rumours about the family were considered, the defense argued that it was equally possible that the McDonnells murdered Clarke and McGowan, or that ‘mad Alice’ or the ‘strange’ brother, Peter, went completely insane and murdered the entire household and then themselves.
Furthermore, the unequal amounts of arsenic in the bodies (which did not, by the way, conclusively cause death in any of the cases) raised a whole series of possibilities that were never adequately investigated. For one thing, the question of easy access to the poison itself and the question of opportunity should at least have been considered. McCabe, the gardener, did not live in the McDonnell household with the other servants, but outside, which might have made it difficult for him to poison both his employers and his fellow employees. The defense suggested that poison was a woman’s weapon, hoping to raise the suspicion that one of the disturbed sisters had been surreptitiously poisoning the family.
Considerable discrepancies in the actual time of each victim’s death only further complicated the tangle. Although, in the judgment of the medical examiner, none of the household was alive when the fires were started, exactly when and where each victim died was impossible to determine. The man-servant, James Clarke, for example, had clearly been dead a few days at the time that the Civic Guard answered the fire alarm. Had Clarke been murdered outside of the house and then carried inside? The gardener was a small man and, according to a newspaper report, some of the victims were considerably bigger than he.
Henry McCabe was not formally arrested and charged with homicide until several weeks after the investigation had begun, although he had been detained without a warrant since Friday, 2 April, two days after the discovery of the bodies. His defense called his detention ‘illegal custody’; the Civic Guard alternately stated that he was being held on suspicion of committing a felony or as a principal witness. And, although when McCabe was finally charged he was indicted for all six murders, ultimately he was only tried and convicted of the murder of Peter McDonnell, the head of the household.
One of the grounds for the appeal made by McCabe’s lawyers was that the prosecution was allowed to present evidence relating to the other five homicides, although the defendant was being tried for one homicide alone. The original trial judge decided that since it was obvious that the deaths were so closely linked, he could not logically suppress such evidence. The judge instructed the jury that although they were only to consider the single case of the murder of Peter McDonnell, they could only consider it intelligently ‘ . . . in the setting in which you find it, and that setting is the setting of a burned house containing six bodies’ (IR, 132).
The other, and apparently the principal grounds for appeal, reflects ironically on the court conflicts over American civil liberties in recent years. The defense constructed an intricate five-point argument concerning the admissibility of some of the prosecution’s evidence against McCabe. His attorneys began by maintaining that the court had not properly regulated the admission as evidence of certain statements made by their client. Further, some of these statements had been made by McCabe before he had been formally charged and arrested.
The Court of Criminal Appeal argued, first of all, that these statements were not in the nature of confessions or admissions. Their primary rebuttal of the defense’s appeal, however, rested on a more complicated point of law. They granted, for the sake of argument, that the trial judge should have applied the same rules that govern incriminating evidence to all of McCabe’s assertions in question.7
They then examined the precedents, the legal definition of ‘voluntary,’ and concluded: ‘It can be posited, however, that it is not the law that a statement must be excluded from evidence on the sole ground that either the statement was made in answer to questions put by a police officer or that it was made without a caution having been first administered. But in such cases it is a matter for the Judge at the trial to decide whether, in his judicial discretion, he will admit the statement or not, having regard to all the circumstances, and observing the legal requirements that the statement shall be voluntary, though not necessarily volunteered.’ (IR, 134). Since McCabe’s attorneys did not contest the manner in which their client’s admissions had been obtained at the time that the evidence was originally admitted, the Court of Criminal Appeal supported the trial judge’s exercise of judicial discretion. In fact, they specifically stated that ‘the nature of the custody is also one of the factors in the exercise of judicial discretion as to admitting or rejecting the evidence’ (IR, 135-6).
The Court of Criminal Appeal, therefore, did not have to rule on whether McCabe had actually been detained illegally for several weeks. It was not relevant as far as the admissibility of the evidence was concerned and, in fact, illegal detention itself was not grounds for appeal.
The arrest, trial, and appeal of Henry McCabe caused a sensation in Dublin and its environs, receiving extensive and consistent coverage in the Irish Times from 1 April, the day after the fire, until 10 December 1926, the day after McCabe was hung. (Henry McCabe died on Thursday, 9 December 1926; the lobster, in Beckett’s story, the night before.) It was the longest murder trial, according to Mr. Justice O’Byrne, the trial judge, ‘within living memory in that court’ (15 November 1926, p.8, col.5). Samuel Beckett, who did not receive his BA from Trinity College until 1927, could not fail to have heard about the case.
The newspaper publicity, and the reaction of the Dublin public to this excessive violence and misery, probably intrigued Beckett as much as the illogical nature of the crime. Hundreds of people made Sunday excursions to see the infamous, gothically romantic remains of ‘La Mancha.’ As the newspapers indicate, the good spring weather brought out a crowd of eager photographers and gossipers. ‘Holiday-makers from Dublin flocked into Malahide yesterday, as on Sunday, to see the place where the deaths occurred. They came in hundreds by train, motor, and jarvey car. The Guards had considerable difficulty in preventing them from over-running the place. In some instances young women with cameras were annoyed because they would not be allowed to secure photographic souvenirs of the grim ruin of the house of death’ (6 April 1926, p.1, col.2).
Newspaper headlines announced the possibility of ‘Hidden Treasure,’ and lead stories about the ‘murders for plunder’ made Henry McCabe himself an object of wonder, alternately appealing to the citizenry’s instinct for gory excitement and their greed.8 The gardener, who had a wife and nine children in Malahide, might have been viewed as a suitable object of pity, rather than of perverse curiosity, especially considering the dubious circumstances of the case. In More pricks than kicks, Belacqua, comfortable on a bar-stool and absorbed in his lunch, like the majority of Dubliners only superficially reflects on the plight of McCabe. ‘Then the food had been further spiced by the intelligence, transmitted in a low tragic voice across the counter by Oliver the improver, that the Malahide murderer’s petition for mercy, signed by half the land, having been rejected, the man must swing at dawn in Mountjoy and nothing could save him. Ellis the hangman was even now on his way. Belacqua, tearing at the sandwich and swilling the precious stout, pondered on McCabe in his cell’ (17).9 It is only at the conclusion of the story, when Belacqua meditates upon the concepts of pity and piety, and has an epiphany in the fading light, that he differentiates himself from a public who live vicariously through the calamities of others.
All in all, then, the Malahide Murder Mystery remained a mystery, but society refused to acknowledge its ignorance. Although McCabe could not fully account for his time, and although the Civic Guard found some damaging evidence (an unexplained blood-stained shirt), the evidence as a whole does not point to McCabe as a lunatic capable of mass murder. The prosecution, however, dubbed him an ‘arch-criminal,’ ‘a subtle, skilled man . . . a fiend’ (15 November 1926, p.7, col.2). In such a messy case, skill and diabolical cleverness were not exactly to the fore. Moreover, the prosecutor continually contradicted himself in an effort to explain the crime. First he designated the gardener as a ‘homicidal maniac’; next as a man clearly ‘inspired with a sense of grievance at the loss of his situation’ (8 November 1926, p.3, col.3). He went on to insist that McCabe, ‘having his mind charged with the idea that there was much spoil to be found in the house, deliberately planned the destruction in detail of one after the other of the members of the family’ (8 November 1926, p.3, col.3). The prosecutor later contradicted this vision of orderly mania in turn when he asserted that there was a mixture of ‘blood, slaughter, lunacy, and nonsense in the picture that surpassed anything a jury could be asked to consider’ (15 November 1926, p.8, col.5). And yet the prosecutor asked a jury to consider just that, to consider McCabe guilty, and the court to take his life.
The authorities in general took the opportunity to orate about deterrents to crime and about morality. Though McCabe, after hearing the verdict, asked God to forgive the court and those who had perjured themselves, and though he maintained his innocence up until the day of his death, the judge and the press wholeheartedly agreed with the finding of the jury. In fact, the trial judge sternly advised McCabe, since he could ‘hold out to [him] no hope of mercy in this world,’ to prepare to meet his Maker in the next where, presumably, he would be judged again. McCabe’s conviction was applauded by the authorities and his appeal was denied on 3 December.
A leading article on ‘Police and justice’ in the Irish Times on 10 December asserted: ‘Like other criminals, he reckoned without the stringent efficiency of the protectors of the peace . . . The fate of Henry McCabe, ruthless and deliberate above the ordinary among criminals, ought to serve as a stern deterrent to all whom passion or greed tempt to the path of crime’ (10 December 1926, p.6, col.4). The fantasy that the destruction of six people could have been averted if McCabe, or whatever homicidal maniac perpetrated the murders, had spent a bit more time appreciating the efficiency of the Irish police and the death penalty, has significance for the current passionate debate on capital punishment’s power to discourage crime.
Irish society, confronted by the absurdity of the Malahide murder incident, attempted to subdue its fear by treating it, ultimately, as an intelligible crime. Once the authorities could settle the blame on someone, the habitual machinery of the law, with its concomitant moral platitudes, began functioning. Whether or not McCabe was a psycho-pathic killer or a scapegoat is, finally, irrelevant. The community, either ignoring the possibility of an irrationality that it could not control or comprehend, or fixing responsibility on an innocent man, acted as if its orderly processes had never been seriously threatened.
Beckett reinforces this conception of human justice as a hopeless tangle and divine justice as nonexistent or incomprehensible at the end of More pricks than kicks. The spectre of the mad gardener reappears in ‘Draff’ to haunt, of all things, Belacqua’s own funeral. The hero, obviously not ‘one of the best’ (p.186) when he was alive, is now ‘draff’ or ‘the damp remains of malt after brewing.’10 The gardener of the late hero’s household does not feel much more useful than his former employer. An outcast of sorts already, he is brooding, fatalistic, disturbed. Beckett describes him as ‘a slow shy slob of a man with a dripping moustache’ who tends ‘in a dazed and hopeless manner a bed of blighted sweet-william’ (p.192).
After Belacqua’s corpse is suitably coffined and the narrator sees him off to his grave, the story turns to an encounter, or an attempt at an encounter, between Mary Ann, the maid, and the anti-social gardener. He is shut up in the tool shed and refuses to answer her. The narrator says that he is grieving, but there are intimations that his melancholy is not simply the result of his employer’s death. The knots that he ties nervously indicate tension and anxiety. Like most of us, he is grieving for himself.
The gardener had secured his retreat, she could not come at
him ... He heard the voice at a great distance, but could
make no sense of it. For he was temporarily at all events,
just a clod of gloom, in which concern for his own state of
health counted for more than he would have cared to admit.
Was he overdoing things about the place? It was hard to say.
He heard Mary Ann in the run, her voice raised in furious
hallali, butchering a fowl for the table. He began to look
about him for his line. Some unauthorised person had taken
his line, with the result that now he was helpless to put
down his broccoli. He rose and let himself out, he slobbered
out of darkness into light, he chose a place in the sun and
settled, he was like a collosal fly trimming its load of typhus.
Gradually he cheered up. Ten to one God was in his heaven. (199)
The mourners return from the cemetery to find that the gardener has gone mad, raped the maid, and set fire to the premises. Religion’s reasonable odds are losing ground.11
The confusion that Beckett creates around the gardener’s breakdown in ‘Draff’ further suggests the complexity of the Malahide mystery, but with a decidedly comic turn. The servant girl in the McDonnell household was called Mary McGowan, and there was speculation at the trial about possible sexual assaults on the female victims. Beckett’s Mary Ann seemed to be flirting with the gardener earlier in the story, but with little success. Perhaps she is annoyed at his repulse, or invents the attack as a way of adding drama to her single maid’s life.
‘Ravished Mary Ann’ exclaimed the Smeraldina.
‘So she deposes,’ said a high official of the Civic Guard. ‘It
was she who raised the alarm.’
Hairy looked this dignitary up and down.
‘I don’t see your fiddle,’ he said. (202)
So Mary Ann raises the alarm during the fire, supposedly after being raped, and not the gardener. Oddly enough, ‘he had neither given himself up nor tried to escape, he had shut himself up in the tool-shed and awaited arrest’ (202). With Belacqua dead, perhaps the desolate gardener in ‘Draff,’ being left with nothing but draff, too, fears losing even the little that is left—his job, his place in the world (one of McCabe’s supposed motives). Or perhaps, if all that is left is draff, he feels that there is nothing to lose. But Beckett’s character does wait for the authorities consciously. When they arrive, he purposely resists arrest, and is subsequently taken to a hospital. A comfortable padded cell, far from the ‘copious nuisance’ of Mary Ann’s ‘opinions and impressions’ (199), and the vicissitudes of gainful employment, and from which he cannot be expelled by unexpected death, may have been his original intention in setting the fire. In any case, the sudden insanity of Beckett’s ‘shy slob’ seems inexplicable to society. The absurdity of the fire, as the absurdity of the Malahide incident, is suppressed instead of confronted. No one is particularly concerned about really understanding the circumstances once the initial excitement is over. The practical widow and her new paramour Hairy vacate the scene of the crime rapidly. ‘Take me away,’ said the Smeraldina firmly, ‘the house is insured’ (203).
‘So it goes in the world’ (204). The Belacqua who refuses to confront the insensitivity of human nature and the hypocrisy of society in the first story of More pricks than kicks is victimized by it in the last. The hero’s final material home on earth, ‘the home to which Belacqua had brought three brides’ (202), is destroyed, his employees are traumatized or hospitalized, his widow is already promised to another—“Why not come with me,” said Hairy, “now that all this has happened, and be my love?”’ (203). The last remnants of Belacqua Shuah, recondite scholar, arcane poet, and eccentric lover, are purged from the Smeraldina’s memory. His best friend has even less difficulty in beginning to forget the deceased. He starts by failing to recall the epitaph that Belacqua once mentioned he could like to have.
Belacqua, the first Beckett hero, had been given the chance to evaluate the worth of humanity’s brand of justice, pity and piety. If he had found individual emotion and collective pity wanting, he would have had one more reason to withhold himself from the macrocosm, to rebel against an insincere world to seek for value in the only other possible place—the microcosm. Though social structures change with the course of time, Beckett suggests as early as More pricks than kicks that unhappiness and injustice are always present in some form. A human being, however, that ‘thinking thing,’ can still turn within to begin the search for truth, although even that internal search is a kind of torment.
Beckett’s own life, significantly, offered him proof that human experience perpetually baffles the understanding. After the publication of More pricks than kicks in 1934, Beckett was composing poetry that points to a sensibility which, like the gardener’s, is enervated and cynical. In the poems in French written between 1937 and 1939, the little world does not promise the raptures that it holds for Murphy, ‘matrix of surds,’12 although it remains attractive as a haven from the meaningless big world. And it was this absurd macrocosm that involved Beckett in a mischance that ironically reflects on his mature treatment of the irrationality in human affairs. Right after the New Year, in 1938, he was seriously stabbed in the ribs on the Avenue d’Orléans in Paris by a ‘mec from the milieu’13; by a man whom Beckett later visited in jail to ask why; by a man who said that he did not know why he had done it.
1 Samuel Beckett, More Pricks than kicks, London, Calder and Boyars, 1970, 20. All quotations will hereafter be cited in the text by page number only.
2 Since Beckett was a young artist himself, he of course had not yet worked out an appropriate response to the hypocrisy of society and to outmoded literary convention.
3 Dream of fair to middling women, 143. Ca. 1932. Unpublished work. Composed primarily during 1932 in Paris, the unfinished novel (whose hero is Belacqua) was discarded in favour of More pricks than kicks.
4 Ruby Cohn suggests McCabe as ‘(son of Cain and Abel?)’ in Samuel Beckett: the comic gamut, New Brunswick, N. J., Rutgers University Press, 1962, 19.
5 Beckett alludes explicitly to the danger in Malahide and to McCabe later in More pricks than kicks. In ‘Fingal,’ Dr Sholto is astonished when he learns that Winnie and Belacqua have walked alone from Malahide (32). In ‘A wet night,’ the narrator characterizes Caleken Frica as ‘goose … flying barefoot from McCabe’ (80). Also see my discussion of Beckett’s treatment of the mad gardener in ‘Draff’ at the end of this essay.
6 I have reconstructed the Malahide murder case from partial accounts in both The Irish Reports and the Irish Times. The case in The Irish Reports: 1927, ed. Albert D. Bolton, Dublin, 1927, appears as Attorney-General v. McCabe on pp.129-36. Quotations will be cited in the text by IR and page number. Articles in the Irish Times concerning the incident ran intermittently from 1 April 1926 to 10 December 1926, and will be cited hereafter in the text.
7 ‘It has been admitted in argument, however [by whom the transcript does not make clear], that these statements, which on the face of them are not confessions or admissions, do not contain anything incriminating the accused. On the contrary, they contain the outlines of his defence…..’ (IR, 133)
8 Beckett himself details this need for morbid titillation later in More pricks than kicks in the story ‘Ding-Dong,’ where people queuing for the cinema are in a quandary – they long to see a ‘ triturated child’ who has been run down by a bus, but they are loath to lose their place in line.
9 I have not yet been able to find any evidence of this overwhelming public support for McCabe. The Irish Times certainly thought that he deserved his fate.
10 According to Webster’s Dictionary, draff is ‘often used as an appetizer or supplement in animal rations.’ ‘Draffy’ is a synonym for worthless. The story treats a ‘leftover’ Belacqua, the remnants of his body and soul. While the corpse is being buried, the spirit is being mutilated, as Belaqua’s best friend Hairy Capper Quin adopts some of the late hero’s mannerisms.
11 One of Beckett’s favourite statements by Augustine: ‘One thief was saved. Do not despair. One thief was damned. Do not presume.’
12 Samuel Beckett, Murphy, New York, Grove Press, 1957, p.112. Murphy was first published in 1938, so that Beckett was working on it roughly about the same time as the French verse. Although Murphy definitely identified himself with the ‘microcosmopolitans’ for the majority of the novel, his confidence about finding fulfillment in his mind is considerably damaged, if not completely gone, after his final confrontation with Mr Endon. This disillusionment occurs just before his accident (or suicide) with the gas (or chaos).
13 A. J. Leventhal, ‘The Thirties,’ in Beckett at 60: a Festschrift, ed. John Calder, London, Calder and Boyars, 1967, 7-13: ‘Sam was stabbed by some mec from the milieu – a sort of Gidean acte gratuit’ (9).