The continuing stooooooory of how the Grand Vizier puts his feet up and lets other writers talk some sense for a change. This week: KT McCaffrey (right) on catching the crime fiction bug.
The Butcher(ed) Boy
Why, you might ask, would a writer choose to take crime fiction as his or her subject? At what point does an author say, yep, that’s what I’m going to write about? Moi? I think I was about nine years of age when I got the bug. This would have been about the time I got to know an old-style cop named John Duffin from my home town of Clara, in County Offaly. Think ‘Heartbeat’ rather than ‘The Bill’, a time when local Gardai, like the parish priest, the bank manager and the school headmaster, were held in high esteem. A friend of the family, Garda Duffin liked nothing better than to chat about his involvement with local ne’er-do-wells.
One of the darker stories he told concerned a local murder that had taken place in 1941. This would have been a decades or so before I was born. It kicked off in a somewhat comical manner.
Bernard Kirwan, who lived with his younger brother Larry on a small farm in Rahan, five miles from Clara, took a notion to do a spot of armed robbery. With minimum preparation, he took a hacksaw to the double barrels of his shotgun, donned a mask, and held up the local postman. Through a contact in the post office sorting room he’d learned that the postal delivery included registered mail containing cash. Bernard could have shot the postman to facilitate his escape but decided instead to blast the bicycle’s tyres with both barrels, an action he hoped would achieve the same objective. He was caught of course (the postman recognised his voice) and was given seven years ‘hard’ in Portlaoise Jail.
His time inside proved uneventful except for the fact that he learned the skills of butchery while there, a factor that would play a major part in subsequent events. Conditional release was granted four years later. He returned to the farm, intending to take charge, but his younger brother Larry had other ideas. Hostilities broke out and a struggle for supremacy ensued.
Larry refused to give Bernard food or a wage for his work on the farm. Bernard, with no means to sustain himself, began to steal food and money. Fist fights, and even a knife attack, marked the brothers increasing bitterness. When it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse, Larry went missing. His girlfriend became worried when he didn’t show for a date. Friends who had expected to see him became concerned when he failed to show. When Bernard was questioned about his brother’s unexplained disappearance, he claimed Larry had gone to visit an aunt in Kildare. Inquiries took a little longer back then but within a few days it was established that Larry had never gone to his aunt.
Foul play was suspected.
Neighbours, aware of the brothers’ hatred for each other, noticed smoke coming from Kirwan’s boiler house twice in as many days. This they considered odd due to the fact that no cooked meal had been fed to the pigs. When it became known that Bernard had learned butchery skills, the Garda decided to investigate. He fobbed them off, saying he’d been burning rubbish, but he now found himself subjected to round-the-clock surveillance. One of those assigned to cover his movements was my friend Garda John Duffin.
Knowing he was being watched, Bernard undertook long bicycle trips to the neighbouring towns of Kilbeggan, Moate, Tullamore and Mullingar. John Duffin, who carried quite a bit of weight, was forced to get on his bike and follow the suspect to each location and back again. At journey’s end, Bernard would wave cheekily to the fully uniformed and totally exhausted Duffin. Prefiguring The General many years later, Bernard liked nothing better than to cock a snoot at the law.
Eventually, men working on a bog, less than a mile from the Kirwan farm, dug up a human torso. With what forensics existed at the time they were able to establish that it was the remains of Larry Kirwan. Bernard stood trial, accused of using his butchery skills to kill his brother, hack off the limbs, burn them, and then bury the torso.
He was found guilty and hanged in 1943.
I wasn’t the only person that John Duffin told this macabre tale to; he also related it to playwright Brendan Behan, who used it as the basis of his 1954 play THE QUARE FELLOW. I’ve never seen the play but then, I have no need to see it. As a young impressionable lad, I’d heard it first hand – related in far more graphic detail than outlined above – something that insured I would retain a fascination for the darker aspects of the human psychic for the rest of my life. I suppose I should consider myself lucky to have channelled this interest into my writing rather than anything, shall we say, more malevolent. – KT McCaffrey
KT McCaffrey’s THE CAT TRAP is published by Robert Hale.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.