“Additional facts which have been brought to light only tend to deepen the mystery surrounding the fate of the six people who perished in the burned Malahide mansion…”1
n a site, in what is now the Ard Na Mara estate, there once stood an impressive Georgian house known as ‘La Mancha’. The house, which was situated on 30 acres of land, was built by a family called Henley and passed through various owners until it was acquired in 1897 by the Mac Donnells, a family originally from Ballygar, County Galway.2
The Mac Donnells lived at La Mancha for many years until one fateful day in March 1926.
On the 31st of that month, Henry McCabe, a local gardener employed by the family, spotted smoke coming from the house and raised the alarm. When the house was eventually entered, the bodies of 6 people were found inside, apparently murdered.
The six dead were brothers Joseph (55) and Peter (51) Mac Donnell, their sisters Annie (56) and Alice (47), and two employees of the house Mary McGowan (50) and James Clarke (41).
The remains of Joseph Mac Donnell (who had been ill in bed), his two sisters, and Mary McGowan were found in the upper rooms of the house, charred almost beyond recognition. Clarke was discovered in his bedroom in the basement of the house with severe head wounds while Peter Mac Donnell was found in a back room with clothes spread over his body.
The burnt out remains of La Mancha are captured in the photograph2 below taken shortly after the fire.
Two days after the fire, Henry McCabe, was arrested and brought to Malahide police station (then called the ‘Civic Guard’ station) for questioning. McCabe lived at Parnell Cottages, Malahide and was a married man with nine children, the youngest of which was nine months old.
McCabe made the following statement:9
I am a gardener by profession, and was employed by the McDonnell family since they came to Malahide, about six years ago. I noticed some weeks ago that the family seemed very quiet with each other, but friendly. I have never known them to quarrel. Peter was sick on Monday last, and confined to bed, his brother told me. Annie was sick on Monday, Joe told me also.
I did not see her since 12 noon on Monday, when she asked me to kill a chicken for her. I saw Alice on Monday 29th, down in the kitchen a few times. She seemed to be in her usual health. I last saw Mary McGowan on Monday up to 5 pm. She was then in her usual health. Alice was known locally as ‘Mad Alice’, and at times she would come out into the garden with her hair streaming around her, and she screaming and generally appearing like a person in hysterics.
At times Peter seemed very abnormal in his manner and used run round in a circle in the yard; then, throwing himself down on the ground, he used laugh like a schoolboy. Joe seemed to be sensible, but used never speak to anybody. There had been three different cooks there to my knowledge, and each of them has told me that Joe used not to speak to any of the family, even at meals. The only member of the family he used to speak to was Peter, and then only on few occasions, and then the conversation was a strictly business one. I have never seen two of them together in my life, not even on a train or anything. If two of them were travelling in the same train I have known them to be in separate carriages.
On Tuesday night, 30-3-26, I was sitting in the kitchen along with Joe, reading the paper. I left about 8 o’clock p.m., and attended a wake in the locality. I left the ‘corpse house’ at about 7.45 a.m. on Wednesday morning and went home, washed my face, and started for McDonnell’s. When I arrived at the gate lodge I noticed smoke issuing from all the chimneys. Before I got up to the house I noticed a gush of smoke coming out of the bathroom window. The bathroom is over the kitchen, in the back of the house. I then ran up to the house, and I saw the big gate leading to the yard open.
I then ran straight to the kitchen door, and found it had been burst open and the lock broken and lying on the steps inside. I proceeded in as far as I could in the passage, and found part of the stairs collapsed and in flames in the kitchen; the other portion of the stairs was burning over my head. I shouted up through the house, but got no reply, but only the noise of a fierce fire upstairs. I then ran back, running to the gate lodge, and I met Mrs Reilly on the road. I told her what I saw, and then I ran to the Civic Guard Barracks and reported the matter.
Based largely on McCabe’s statement, the police initially surmised that Peter Mac Donnell “must have lost his reason during the night, and having slain the whole household, set the place on fire and succumbed himself to heart failure or was suffocated by the smoke, or else poisoned himself.”2
As the investigation progressed, however, attention switched to McCabe as the likely perpetrator of the crime.
Eventually, McCabe signed a statement of confession and was sent for trial at Kilmainham Court in November, 1926. At the trial though, the judge disallowed the confession believing it was not signed freely or voluntarily. McCabe also protested his innocence throughout.†
Robbery was put forward as a motive for the killings. A former housekeeper at La Mancha, Sheila O’Reilly, testified that there was a considerable quantity of jewellery in the house. Evidence against McCabe included items of bloodstained clothing removed from his house.3
At the conclusion of the trial, Justice O’Byrne told the jury ‘If you are satisfied that McCabe was the only person who could have committed this crime you must find him guilty…if you have any reasonable doubt, you must give him the benefit of it.’*
After just under one hour of deliberation, the jury found McCabe guilty of the crime and he was sentenced to hang at Mountjoy jail.
Given an opportunity to say something McCabe stated ‘I can only say, God forgive you and the people who swore falsely against me. I have been the victim of bribery and perjury.’3
On Thursday morning, December 9th, 1926, McCabe was executed by one of the well-known family of hangmen, the Pierpoints. His body was buried in an unmarked grave within the prison walls.
Although McCabe strenuously protested his innocence throughout the investigation and subsequent trial, newspaper reports in the aftermath of his execution claim that certain facts were known to the police as they set about building a case against McCabe but “the code of criminal procedure forbade their use in the case for the prosecution.” This refers to the law of the time which did not allow reference to be made by the prosecution to any past criminal deeds of a person on trial for his or her life.5
What were these facts? Apparently, McCabe had originally emigrated from county Dublin to England at an early age and “quickly found himself at variance with the law”, being involved in some unspecified crime in the northern counties for which he served time in prison. Upon release he made his way to Birmingham where he found work in a small arms factory. He became involved in a relationship with a woman and was subsequently indicted for her attempted murder. He served fifteen months in prison for this offence.5
McCabe eventually found his way to Malahide and was employed by a man called Robinson as a gardener at La Mancha. When Robinson died the house was sold to the Mac Donnell family and McCabe was retained as gardener.5
Some seven years after the tragic events at La Mancha, a local boy called Denning was working in a garden in a house on Church road in Malahide village.
While digging he unearthed two silver watches in the soil – one was inscribed with the name “James Clarke” while the other had the inscription “J. MacD.”
McCabe, it was claimed, had at one time worked in this same garden having “planted the shrubbery surrounding it.”6
*The trial of McCabe is referred to by Samuel Beckett in his work “More Pricks Than Kicks”4:
“…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.”
†Much of this wall remains in place. It runs from a point on the Malahide-Swords road around to the entrance of the Ard Na Mara estate on the Dublin road. At various points the wall has been broken through – for example, when Castleview Park was built on the grounds of La Mancha 3 years after the fire, sections of the wall were removed to allow access to the houses from the Dublin road. The gate pillars attached to the wall in most of the houses are also built from a different brick/stone, indicating that they were added later.
1. Irish Independent, May 11, 1926; Page 11.
2. Connacht Tribune, Apr 3, 1926; Page 11.
3. Hopkins, Frank. Rare Old Dublin: Heroes, Hawkers & Hoors. Mercier Press Ltd, 2002.
4. Beckett, Samuel. More Pricks Than Kicks (1934). Pan Books, 1974.
5. Sunday Independent Dec 12, 1926; Page 1.
6. Sunday Independent Oct 29, 1933; Page 1.
7. Ordnance Survey Of Ireland 25″ Map: online. Reproduced under licence from Ordnance Survey of Ireland; Licence No. NE 0000414.
8. Irish Times, April 5, 1926.
9. Irish Times, June 19, 1926.