Friday, March 26, 1993

Murder at Mullaghcreelan

On the roadside at Mullaghcreelan opposite the Bushfield Farm entrance gate a mysterious and yet unsolved murder was committed on the night of the 19th December, 1867. William Dunne, a County Laois farmer had attended the Fair at Castledermot where he sold a number of cattle for £40. He was returning home intending to retrace his steps through Kilkea and Athy accompanied by his helper James Coffey when he met his untimely death.

Early on the morning of the 20th of December his body was discovered lying on the grass verge stripped of all clothing. Dunne had been brutally beaten about the head and the murder weapon, a thick stick splattered with blood, was found on the opposite side of the roadway. The victim's companion James Coffey was nowhere to be found and he was immediately suspected of the crime.

A reward was offered by the Dublin Castle authorities for the apprehension of Coffey, a native of Portlaoise, whom it was believed was in hiding in the South Kildare area. Public notices offering a reward of £100 for his arrest and conviction, were posted throughout the district. His cabin in Portlaoise was kept under observation by the Royal Irish Constabulary but Coffey was nowhere to be seen. In time clothes believed to have been worn by Coffey when he left Castledermot Fair with Dunne were found in a sandpit near Mullaghcreelan.

The Coroner's Court was held in due course and a finding of wilful murder against James Coffey was found. The crime captured the imagination of the local and national press and before long a ballad was written "On the death of William Dunne a respectable farmer in the County of Kildare (Sic) who was murdered on the 19th of December near Bushfield." The presumption of innocence until proven guilty did not prevent the balladeer from recounting the events of the 19th of December ending with the positive claim that Coffey was the murderer. The ballad printed by P. Brereton of 1 Lower Exchequer Street, Dublin, included the lines:-
"The 19th of December it's long we will remember,
To Castledermot Fair he went on that day,
James Coffey did attend him but a cursed Judas,
His loving master he basely did betray
Full forty pounds he had in money
Coffey resolved to make his own
The foul deed of murder he has committed
Tho he told all his friends he'd bring him safe home
Early next morning as the day was dawning,

The corpse was found on the ground it lay
And the active police of Castledermot,
They reached the spot without delay."

Local people however believed that the real culprit had escaped justice and the subsequent finding in the area of the skeleton of an adult male confirmed for some their suspicion that both Dunne and Coffey had been murdered on the 19th of December. It was believed that Coffey's body was buried in order to throw suspicion on the unfortunate herdsman for the brutal murder of his master. The local people claimed that a farmer in the Mullaghcreelan area, who was related by marriage to Dunne, had murdered both men and stolen Dunne's money.

The suspected farmer was never arrested or charged and he continued to live in the Mullaghcreelan area dying in old age. If indeed he committed the murders of both Dunne and Coffey he must be acknowledged to have committed the almost perfect crime. He left no witnesses and cleverly had the police searching for a "murderer" who was himself dead and buried before the crime became known.

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