Saturday, November 11, 2017


View of Mahera Point and Bray Head from Corbawn Lane

Click on any image for a larger version.

This would have been Vera Ball's last view of this earth had it been daylight and had she still been alive. But it was the dead of night and she was very dead - bloodied and hacked to death by her son Edward.

This is where Edward brought the body to dispose of it once and for all in the sea. Hopefully to be swept away and never found. Or was that just a bonus? Had he any real thought-out plan or was he just in a panic?

Certainly the murder itself was not part of a plan. TG4 were right to include it in their latest episode of the series RACHT. Niall Ó Donaill translates the term as: Pent-up, violent, emotion; paroxysm, fit; outburst. And it was all of these things.

The pent-up bit may go back as far as the split up between Edward's parents. The Daddy was a prominent and successful doctor on the Dublin scene and the mother came with wads of cash.

While I have been warned never to make value judgments in these matters without having the full facts, and even then, my firm conviction is that the mother was not only unstable but a bitch. The pent-up was kept alive by her constant denigration of her son including in front of his friends.

I gather from Dr. Pauline Prior, through the TG4 programme, that matricides tend to live at home and be financially dependent on the Mammy. That would fit.

The Daddy appeared not to want Edward around the place and the Mammy was fed up supporting him and wanted him out. He was not earning his keep.

In fact he appears to have not been earning at all but at the same time hanging around with a group of rich young folk. He had artistic pretensions and considered himself an actor. This view was not shared by others.

So all in all, he appears to have been under a lot of pressure both psychological and financial.

23 St Helen's Road

Anyway, one night in February 1936 when he was 19 years of age the dam burst and he hacked the Mammy to death in her home at 23 St. Helen's Road in Booterstown.

The pent-up bit had developed a head of steam going back years and the hacking was both violent and prolonged. The pathologist was later to remark that there was no blood on the ceiling. That will give you the idea.

The police soon came acalling as the Mammy's bloodied car was found abandoned near the end of Corbawn Lane in Shankill, near Bray.

Near the end of Corbawn Lane where the car got stuck

Initially Edward said his mother had gone to stay with friends and he didn't know where she was. The police were not convinced and when they eventually broke into her locked bedroom they found the scene described by the pathologist. They also traced a suitcase Edward had left with a friend for safekeeping. When it was opened it contained bloodstained towels and suchlike.

So, Edward changed his story. The Mammy was depressed and she had commited suicide by slitting her throat with a razor blade. Edward had disposed of the body to save the family name. Remember, at that time, suicide was both a crime and a mortal sin.

The pathologist disposed of that one in jig time - too much blood. Then they found the bloodstained hatchet and the game was up.

Judge Deale includes the trial in his book

Edward was tried for murder with the whole country looking on. Initially the legal team pleaded not guilty but with the strength of the evidence against him beginning to dawn on them they opted for an insanity plea. Now if anyone was insane, it was the Mammy, but Edward was sufficiently eccentric to give the plea some credibility particularly when accompanied by medical testimony, no doubt facilitated by his father.

In the end he was found guilty but insane and locked up in Dundrum Criminal Lunatic Asylum for fourteen years. When he was released he inherited the Mammy's money and spent the rest of his life touring the world, on and off.

Now if he had been found just guilty and compos mentis, he would not have inherited the Mammy's money. In fact he would probably not have been around to even think about it.

In the programme, Dennis Kennedy, a former journalist with an interest in the story and a man sane enough to have headed up the Belfast EU Office in his day, was quite clear that he thought Edward was not mad and should have been found guilty, tout court.

Dr. Pauline Prior, a historian, in the same programme felt that his detention in Dundrum for fourteen years suggested there was something seriously wrong with him.

I'm with Dennis on this one.

Richard Cobb

When Edward had been packed off to school in England, no doubt to get him out of everybody's hair, he befriended a boy called Richard Cobb. Richard later became a well known writer, though I'd never heard of him. Anyway, that's neither here nor there; the point of introducing Richard is that he devoted a whole volume of his autobiography to his time with Edward, both in school and visiting Edward and his mother in Booterstown, and much later when he met Edward after his release from Dundrum.

At the time of the trial Richard was afraid that the Irish police might think he had been Edward's accomplice in the murder and he contrived to get a medical opinion that he was traumatised by what had happened and so could not travel to Dublin. And to be sure to be sure, he went and stayed in Belgium for a while, which country did not have an extradition treaty with Ireland at the time.

All pretty exciting stuff. But the conclusions I draw from Richard's accounts are that (i) Edward was not mad, (ii) the Mammy was a complete bitch, and (iii) there is a possibility that Edward was homosexual, whether he realised it or not. And I should say that this last element arose not from Edward's friendship with Richard, who was not homosexual, but from an event which Richard experienced in Dublin while Edward was in Dundrum.

My Name is Norval

While we're on the subject of books, the thought occurred to me that this whole story would make a great novel. It had so many elements that you could play with and, being fiction, you could give them the full blast.

Imagine my disappointment when I learned, from a talk by Dennis Kennedy, that the novel had already been written and by a neighbour from up the road in Ballybrack, Terence de Vere White.

And before we leave the world of books, Ray Kavanagh, in his biography of Mamie Cadden, reports that Mamie attempted to give Edward an alibi for the night in question as she was convinced that it was the Daddy what done it. Friends like that you don't need.

The Clincher

A bloodstained hatchet

As I mentioned above, finding the bloodstained hatchet was the clincher. Richard reports that Edward later told him of his surprise at the blood on the hatchet as he had washed it with boiling water.

When Edward had mentioned this to the detective at the time he was told that was a big mistake. Apparently you wash off blood with cold water, boiling water simply congeals it on the object.

The Car

A lock of the type on Vera Ball's Austin car.

We've seen that the car got stuck just short of the end of Corbawn Lane.

In his witness statement, Detective Garda Bernard Walsh, from Bray Garda station, recounts how it took six policemen to move the car back from the barrier.

A real key

The next requirement was to get the car back to town. This was likely to call for a tow truck as the key was missing and the car could not be started without it.

Or could it?

Garda Walsh to the rescue. He recounted how he started the engine with a Petersen pipe cleaner. That really blew my mind.

I had heard of all kinds of electrical improvisations in my day, including the dangerous one of using silver paper from a cigarette packet as a fuse. But a pipe cleaner? All they were good for was making little stick men.

But having researched the lock and key above ....

The pipe cleaner/tool

... and realising that the pipe cleaner referred to was a tool and not a furry piece of wire, I got the message that the flat end would probably start or open anything in the times that were in it.

The Television Programme

I forget how I first got involved in the television programme but my first physical contact was with the Director and Researcher in the National Archives in Bishop Street.

Neepa Sodhi and Sian Nic an Bheatha had come down from Belfast to go through the Garda notebooks and the witness statements related to the case.

Newspaper reports were not sufficient in themselves, particularly when it was possible to consult the original sources. This was a very laborious process but it impressed on me how professionally the team were approaching the project.

This impression was reinforced when I ended up filming with Neepa (Director), Chris (Camera) and Michael (Sound) in Corbawn Lane and in the public library in Tallaght. Real professionals, perfectionists, and working smoothly as a team.

While I'm at it I might as well pass out a few other compliments. I gathered in the course of my contacts with the team that TG4 insist on high standards, not just in the presentation of the final product but in what lies behind it, including the quality of the research. And clearly Paper Owl, the production company based in Belfast, are well up to the challenge.

I'm really grateful to them all. I learned a lot in the process and enjoyed the whole adventure immensely.

Me and Edward

40 Upper Fitzwilliam St

So what's my interest in Edward. Well I first heard about the case when I was living in Ballybrack and Corbawn Lane is just down the road, after a fashion. I was also researching my local history and this one was too good to miss.

But it was only when I started following up my family history that I realised that Edward and I had been born in the same house, he in 1916 and me in 1944.

This was 40 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, then a nursing home run by the Misses Foody and now an English language school. Shucks, we might even have been born in the same bed.

And it was only recently I learned that my Uncle Pat played cricket with the Dundrum inmates way back then. So who knows.


The sea shore at the bottom of Corbawn Lane

So we'll finish where we started, at the bottom of Corbawn Lane.

Be careful if you're ever walking the shore below the cliffs at Shankill. You never know what might fall on you.

You can watch TG4's RACHT here. It's the episode broadcast on 9 November 2017

You can read Dennis Kennedy's talk here.

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