Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

The mystery of the Malahide massacre

The burnt out shell of La Mancha, the scene of the murders and (top) a newspaper bill about the 'ghastly' events

On March 31, 1926, a fire was discovered at a house at Malahide just outside Dublin. Six bodies were found inside - four were burned, one bore marks of violence and another had been stripped.

On March 31, 1926, a fire was discovered at a house at Malahide just outside Dublin. Six bodies were found inside - four were burned, one bore marks of violence and another had been stripped.

Four of those who died were members of a family named McDonnell, formerly of Ballygar, Co Galway. They were Annie, (58) Joseph (56) Peter (53) and Alice (46). The other two people found were their servants Mary McGowan and James Clarke.

The mystery of the blaze deepened as the Fire Brigade discovered that the house had been deliberately set on fire in several different places. Neighbours were asked if there was anything strange about the family which would prompt such madness. However, it was quickly pointed out that they were a quiet family and well respected in the local community.

The McDonnell house was known as La Mancha and was situated on 30 acres of ground on the Dublin to Malahide Road. It was adjacent to Malahide Castle and was on the market for sale when it was burned. A substantial residence of five bedrooms and three reception rooms, the family had bought the house six years previously, having retired from a grocery and drapery business at Ballygar, Galway. It was well known that the family were moving to Dublin, but they were in no rush to sell the house.

Shortly after eight o'clock on the morning of Wednesday March 31, 1926, the gardener, Henry McCabe, who lived in Malahide, arrived at work and noticed that although the smoke was coming from all the chimneys, there were no other signs indicating that any occupant of the house was up. He soon realised that something was wrong when he got close to the house and saw flames inside. The Gardai and Fire Brigade were sent for, but in the meantime a local man, Daniel McCann, along with Sergeant Kenny, looked through the window of a basement room and saw James Clarke lying unconscious on the floor, partially dressed. Breaking the window they entered the room and pulled out the body. Clarke was already dead and his body was quite cold. A deep wound across the front of his skull looked as though it had been caused by a poker.

Across his forearm were several deep weals, which looked like defensive wounds. There was no sign of fire in the room and very little blood, and the men noticed that the room was neat and tidy with the bed made.

No other bodies were found until the firemen arrived, but the fire had taken hold of the building. The roof collapsed and the whole interior of the house was destroyed. The five other bodies were found among the ruins and four of them were burned almost beyond recognition. Peter McDonnell, however, was found in a back sitting room with wounds to his head and a poker lying at his feet. The spreading and lighting of flammable liquid caused the fires that were set throughout the house, as carpets in certain parts of the house were only burnt in the centre and it was believed that those who were burned must have been dead or unconscious when the flames reached them, otherwise they could have escaped.

A short time later Henry McCabe was arrested by the police. When he was searched they found keys of the safe, which was in the cellar of La Mancha. When the police opened the safe it was empty. They now had a motive for the killings and McCabe was sent for trial charged with the murder of all six victims.

Evidence was heard which suggested that McCabe had systematically killed the victims one at a time and them set the fires to try to destroy not only the house, but also the evidence of his brutal crime. Traces of arsenic were found in the bodies of the four McDonnells and Mary McGowan. James Clarke had been dead at least three days before the fire and Peter McDonnell two days. Witnesses were brought to court who testified that they had called at the house and McCabe had sent them away with excuses of a family sickness. He had told them that James Clarke had gone off for a few days.

The jury believed the prosecution witnesses and after retiring for just one hour they returned a verdict of guilty. Asked by the Clerk of the Peace if he had anything to say as to why sentence of death and execution would not be awarded against him, McCabe, in a hoarse and almost inaudible voice, said: "I can only say, God forgive you and the people who swore falsely against me."

Mr Justice Byrne then assumed the black cap and sentenced McCabe to be hanged on December 9, 1926. A petition on McCabe's behalf signed by more than 2,000 people from the Malahide and Dublin City area was presented to the Minister for Justice to no avail. Henry McCabe was subsequently hanged at Mountjoy Prison on December 9.

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