'La Mancha' was a large, picturesque house situated within a sea-side
resort in the north east of Dublin. Its occupants were the McDonnell
family: brothers Peter and Joseph, and their sisters, Annie and Alice.
All were unmarried and they had retired to live at the house in 1918
after running a successful business.
On 31 March 1926, Henry McCabe,
their gardener. alerted the police that the house was on fire. A
neighbour helping to look for the occupants of the house spotted a can
of parrafin in one of the rooms which was not ablaze.
that the fire was not accidental was noticed when the first body was
found in the house. It was clear that the victim had been beaten to
death, not burned.
A few hours later. there were six bodies lying dead
on the front lawn, all removed from the house which by now had been
destroyed by the blaze.
They included all four members of the McDonnell
family and two servants. James Clarke and Mary McGowan. The only member
of the household to survive was Henry McCabe. who, it was noticed, was
wearing a pair of trousers that had belonged to one of the dead
It was clear that the fire had been started to cover up the
slaughter that had taken place inside the house, for all the victims had
been beaten to death with a blunt instrument. Not only that, but they
had also been poisoned with a dose of arsenic sufficient to weaken them
and render themselves defenceless against a personal attack.
the prime suspect from the first moment and as evidence was built up
against him he was charged with the murders. In November he stood trial
before Mr Justice O'Brien.
The case against him was strong but there was
a definite lack of motive. The best offered was that he was afraid that
the impending sale of the house would cost him his job.
McCabe made a
poor show in court and numerous witnesses testified against him,
including a guard who had looked after him while on remand. He claimed
that McCabe had asked him to pass a message to his wife asking her to
lie about the trousers he was wearing by saying that he had been given
them a few weeks earlier. The truth was that McCabe had changed into a
pair of Peter McDonnell's trousers after spoiling his own during the
The jury took less than an hour to convict him and he was later
hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint and Robinson.
Malahide’s most gruesome murder
Did the 1933 discovery of silver watches at Church Road prove the guilt
Thursday, August 21,
discovery of items belonging to residents of the infamous La Mancha in
Malahide seven years after their gruesome death prove that local
gardender Henry McCabe did actually murder them?
McCabe paid the ultimate price following his trial in
1926, executed in Mountjoy Jail, and his body buried in an unmarked
grave within its walls. In 1933 came the remarkable discovery. A youth
called Denning was hard at work in the garden of a house at Church Road,
a good distance from La Mancha.
The home had been recently purchased and the gardens
were overgrown. Denning was brought in to do the clean up when his
attention was drawn to an object at his feet. Buried just beneath the
surface he spotted a silver watch.
On the back of it he read the inscription 'James
Clarke' and suddenly he spotted a second silver watch with 'J MacD' on
it. It was beside a heavy gold Albert chain to which was attached a
He quickly picked them up and ran to his father. He
went immediately to the local garda station and a full scale search was
ordered. It was impossible to link the items to the La Mancha murders
but the coincidence was surely too incredible not to be.
James Clarke was one of those that died as was James
McDonnell. What's more, the rumour quickly spread around Malahide that
Henry McCabe had worked in that same garden in the past.
Also, following the murders, a series of searches
were carried out by the gardai as they sought to recover certain items
that they believed were taken from the home. Those searches centred on
the lands just over the wall from La Mancha in the Malahide Demesne.
Nothing was ever found there. But did the discovery
just reconfirm Henry McCabe's guilt, or did it imply that somebody else
committed the murders and later buried the evidence - after McCabe had
The La Mancha story began on March 31st 1926 when
locals spotted smoke coming from the big house on the Swords Road.
Inside lay the bodies of six people, apparently killed in a frenzied
Dead were brothers Joseph McDonnell (55) and his
brother Peter (51) and their sisters Annie (56) and Alice (47) as well
as two workers Mary McGowan (50) from Lusk and James Clarke (41). At
8.30am that morning the first person to spot the flames was the gardener
Henry McCabe of Parnell Cottages in Malahide.
Ultimately, Henry McCabe, described as a relatively
mild mannered man, would stand trial in Green Street for murder.
It opened in early November 1926 before Justice O’Byrne with
McCabe pleading not guilty in relation to the charges.
The prosecution claimed that between 5pm on the
Monday and the discovery on Wednesday morning, McCabe, one by one,
dispatched the household and spent his time laying plans for the total
destruction of the house and the bodies.
The strange thing in the case is that the bodies of
the three men were naked. Each of the three women received a blow to the
head that cracked the skull. Chief Supt Leahy gave evidence of bringing
McCabe into the station two days after the fire and interrogating him
for three and a half hours.
A statement was signed afterwards. After some legal
argument, the judge said he was not satisfied that the statement was
free and voluntary and disallowed it. Very Rev Dr Kielty PP, Ballygar (their
home village) spoke of the McDonnells as kindly and religious people
while Sheila O’Reilly, a former housekeeper at La Mancha confirmed that
a considerable quantity of jewellery was in the house, mainly locked in
the linen presses.
Items of clothing were removed from McCabe's home and
found to have bloodstains. The defence opened with McCabe who stated
that he was a married man with nine children, the youngest just 10
Summing up, Mr A Lynn BL said McCabe was in the dock
through the extraordinary accident that he was working in the house in
which all the people had met their end.
If somebody from the household had lived, they would,
according to the methods of the police, have been charged with the
murder. Mr Garrigan, replying, said that there was no plea of insanity
from McCabe and he was not illiterate.
He was an arch-criminal. He was a subtle, skilled man
and began a campaign of murder that started on the Saturday and finished
on the Wednesday. He claimed La Mancha was rifled, from top to bottom,
before being torched. Everything valuable disappeared.
Just after 6pm on the sixth day of the trial, it
concluded with Justice O’Byrne stating that they were coming to the end
of the longest trial in living memory in that court. ‘If you are
satisfied that McCabe was the only person who could have committed this
crime you must find him guilty,’ he told the jury.
‘If you have any reasonable doubt, you must give him
the benefit of it.’ The jury retired but at 9.50pm returned, after 50
minutes deliberation, to announce that McCabe was guilty of the charge
When asked if he had anything to say he replied ‘All
I have to say is God forgive them. I am the victim of bribery and
perjury.’ On Thursday morning, December 9th at 8am, the hangman
Pierpoint, assisted by Robinson, executed Henry McCabe in Mountjoy Jail,
watched by the governor as a crowd of 300 waited outside.
Mrs McCabe, aided by two friends, waited at the gates,
head bowed and rosary beads in her hand, bent with anguish. Just after
8am, notice of the execution was placed on the gate, Mrs McCabe
collapsing and helped up by friends as they made their way to a motorcar.
Later, at the inquest, Arthur A Faulkner, identified the remains of
Henry McCabe (48) from Malahide.
The surd as inadmissible evidence: the case of Attorney-general
v. Henry McCabe
Jeri L. Kroll
Why not piety and pity both, even down below?
Why not mercy and Godliness together? A little
mercy in the stress of sacrifice, a little mercy to
rejoice against judgment. He thought of Jonah
and the gourd and the pity of a jealous God on
Nineveh. And poor McCabe, he would get it in
the neck at dawn. What was he doing, how was
he feeling? He would relish one more meal, one
‘Dante and the lobster,’ the first story in More pricks than
kicks, investigates the initial failure of Belacqua Shuah, Samuel
Beckett’s earliest maladjusted artist-hero. Introduced to the reader in
his identity as student, Belacqua demonstrates his inability to learn
from his most significant confrontation with an absurd universe. Beckett,
thus, prepares for Belacqua’s inability to function effectively in his
identities as poet and as lover, too—he has equivocal responses to every
emotionally charged situation that he encounters in this parody of a
portrait of the artist as a young, bourgeois intellectual. Belacqua’s
gradual socialization in these stories not only suggests how hard it is
to face reality in order, presumably, to write about it, but how hard it
is to find a reality to face—what is real in the world and what is
In ‘Dante and the lobster,’ Beckett begins by asking some
rudimentary questions about society’s conception of justice. He examines
our pretences about pity and piety, reveals the essential callousness of
our world, and offers his hero a chance to evaluate ways of responding
to the human condition. Belacqua does have a clear, if momentary,
perception of the worth of social and religious institutions, and the
worth of the individual. One of the reasons that Beckett abandons
Belacqua and begins again with Murphy, the hero of the first complete
novel in English, is that, given his fundamental cowardice and his
inchoate heart, Belacqua does not live up to his responsibilities once
he has his epiphany—that is, he does not go on to make use of his
knowledge.2 Betraying his integrity as a human being and as
an artist, Belacqua listens to the comforting ‘patter of the parable,’3
instead of to the unsettling truth.
‘Dante and the lobster’ is constructed around several inter-related
motifs from the Bible, from folklore, and from literature that, in some
way, embody traditional notions about universal order and justice.
Specifically, the representatives of the outcast or the victim in the
story are: Cain, Jonah, Christ, McCabe, and the lobster, who were, are,
or will be, respectively, exiled, swallowed, crucified, hung, or boiled.
We regard the pariah, or the ‘marked’ person (apologies to the lobster’s
species), who is set aside for some kind of radical fate from the rest
of humanity, with fear, with awe and, sometimes, with admiration. There
is often a fine line, however, between whether we perceive exemplary
individuals as martyrs, scapegoats, criminals, or lunatics. Exactly how
we view a ‘marked’ person depends both on who judges him and why he is
being judged. Christ, for example, was characterized alternately as King,
clown, heretic, political subversive, and madman.
Henry McCabe, the Malahide Murderer, referred to several times in
this story and in More pricks than kicks as a whole, offers
another case where society found that it could apply various
denominations: was McCabe arch criminal, maniac, or tragic victim?
Although those critics who puzzle about the Malahide Murderer at all
suggest that Beckett invented him and chose his name solely for its
associations with Cain (McCabe, son of Cain),4 it turns out
that Henry McCabe was an actual person whose life was legally terminated
by the Irish state—he was hung, in fact, for murder.5 The
details of his case present a fascinating picture of an inexplicably
violent crime that justice, in its attempt to deny the irrational in the
world, investigated but never adequately confronted.
If the experiences of Cain, Jonah, and Christ, figures from the
Scriptures, reflect upon divine justice and moral responsibility, the
experiences of McCabe reflect upon mortal justice, specifically justice
as administered by a modern government. In its most rigid form, fallible
human justice tries to imitate the infallibility of divine law. The
government, the ruler, the father, all are surrogates for God and
arrogate some of His omnipotence and inviolability. Humanity, faced with
a chaotic universe, often willingly finds shelter within this framework
of unquestioning obedience. The bench in the Attorney-General v.
McCabe rendered its verdict to a disconcerted public with pompous
assurance, and the newspaper’s pronouncements, full of smug moral
superiority, were consummately ironic.6
Henry McCabe worked as the gardener for a well-to-do family,
originally from the west of Ireland, named McDonnell. There were two
brothers, Peter and Joe, and two sisters, Alice and Annie. They had sold
their family business and moved east to live out their retirement at a
country house called ‘La Mancha,’ located in Malahide, a town not far
from Dublin. The immediate household staff consisted of only two
employees, a maid named Mary McGowan, and a man-servant named James
Early on Wednesday morning, 31 March 1926, Henry McCabe summoned the
Civic Guard, notifying them that the house was on fire. Arriving at the
scene, the Guard immediately discovered a number of peculiar
circumstances. All of the windows of the house were shut tight (except
one window in the basement), and all of the blinds were down and the
shutters locked. They obviously could not tell if any of the family had
been at home when the fire started. There was certainly fire and a good
deal of smoke, but when the Civic Guard finally broke into the House
they found that several fires had been set and some had been smouldering
Then they came upon the inhabitants of ‘La Mancha.’ The three women—two
sisters and the maid—all lay together in one room, dead and severely
burned by the fire. Each man, however, was found in a different room,
where the flames had not done as much damage. In fact, two of the male
victims had not been burned at all.
The authorities deduced, therefore, that the house had been set on
fire intentionally, if inexpertly. To complicate matters, there were
signs of physical violence in the form of contusions on all of the male
bodies. Even this circumstance did not prove to be conclusive in at
least one case, however—that of Joseph McDonnell. The medical experts
could not determine the exact cause of his death, because he had been
partially burned. These murders seemed bizarre enough to Dublin on 31
March, but stranger facts were to be uncovered. When the bodies were
subsequently exhumed during the investigation, varying quantities of
arsenic were found in the deceased. But in the case of the charred women,
it was obviously impossible to tell if the arsenic or the fire had
Given this range of possibly lethal means involved in the multiple
homicides, the police and the prosecution began to consider an equally
singular range of motives. It emerged during the investigation and trial
that rumours had been circulating that the house was up for sale. Wild
tales of buried treasure in ‘La Mancha’s’ yard were also current in the
neighbourhood. The well-to-do family who owned this mystery house were
not exempt from gossip either, the family that, at the beginning of the
investigation, had been described in a newspaper account as a stronghold
of Victorian domestic bliss: ‘In our part of the country . . . they were
given out as a parable in that respect—loyalty to one another’ (3 April
1926, p.8, col.3). The McDonnells may have been noted for their devotion
according to some, but they were undeniably noted for their eccentric
behaviour according to others. One of the sisters had been dubbed ‘mad
Alice’ or the ‘mad woman of La Mancha’ (13 November 1926, p.5, cols.1-2)
by the schoolchildren in the area.
Witnesses testified that Alice had run outside her house on occasion,
hysterical, her hair undone. Peter, one of the brothers, had the
reputation of acting queerly, too, though the newspapers did not
elaborate on his ‘queerness.’ Intimations of family jealousies and of
sexual assault crept into the trial but were never overtly discussed.
Clearly, all sorts of psychological factors were operant in this drama,
but were never allowed to surface. No one was destined to make a final,
impassioned speech that would reveal the truth to the tense courtroom.
There was only an exasperated prosecution, and Henry McCabe and his
attorneys—McCabe, the only member of the household left alive and a
convenient candidate on whom to try motive after motive.
As the defense stated during
the proceedings, the prosecution’s explanation of the accused’s
motives for committing mass murder were ludicrously weak. They
suggested theft, but nothing was apparently missing; they suggested
greed aroused by the hypothetical buried treasure, which no one ever
found; they suggested revenge for the hypothetical loss of a job, if
and when the house was sold and the McDonnells moved. In addition,
when the rumours about the family were considered, the defense
argued that it was equally possible that the McDonnells murdered
Clarke and McGowan, or that ‘mad Alice’ or the ‘strange’ brother,
Peter, went completely insane and murdered the entire household and
Furthermore, the unequal amounts of
arsenic in the bodies (which did not, by the way, conclusively cause
death in any of the cases) raised a whole series of possibilities that
were never adequately investigated. For one thing, the question of easy
access to the poison itself and the question of opportunity should at
least have been considered. McCabe, the gardener, did not live in the
McDonnell household with the other servants, but outside, which might
have made it difficult for him to poison both his employers and his
fellow employees. The defense suggested that poison was a woman’s weapon,
hoping to raise the suspicion that one of the disturbed sisters had been
surreptitiously poisoning the family.
Considerable discrepancies in the
actual time of each victim’s death only further complicated the tangle.
Although, in the judgment of the medical examiner, none of the household
was alive when the fires were started, exactly when and where each
victim died was impossible to determine. The man-servant, James Clarke,
for example, had clearly been dead a few days at the time that the Civic
Guard answered the fire alarm. Had Clarke been murdered outside of the
house and then carried inside? The gardener was a small man and,
according to a newspaper report, some of the victims were considerably
bigger than he.
Henry McCabe was not formally arrested and charged with homicide
until several weeks after the investigation had begun, although he had
been detained without a warrant since Friday, 2 April, two days after
the discovery of the bodies. His defense called his detention ‘illegal
custody’; the Civic Guard alternately stated that he was being held on
suspicion of committing a felony or as a principal witness. And,
although when McCabe was finally charged he was indicted for all six
murders, ultimately he was only tried and convicted of the murder of
Peter McDonnell, the head of the household.
One of the grounds for the appeal made by McCabe’s lawyers was that
the prosecution was allowed to present evidence relating to the other
five homicides, although the defendant was being tried for one homicide
alone. The original trial judge decided that since it was obvious that
the deaths were so closely linked, he could not logically suppress such
evidence. The judge instructed the jury that although they were only to
consider the single case of the murder of Peter McDonnell, they could
only consider it intelligently ‘ . . . in the setting in which you find
it, and that setting is the setting of a burned house containing six
bodies’ (IR, 132).
The other, and apparently the principal grounds for appeal, reflects
ironically on the court conflicts over American civil liberties in
recent years. The defense constructed an intricate five-point argument
concerning the admissibility of some of the prosecution’s evidence
against McCabe. His attorneys began by maintaining that the court had
not properly regulated the admission as evidence of certain statements
made by their client. Further, some of these statements had been made by
McCabe before he had been formally charged and arrested.
The Court of Criminal Appeal argued,
first of all, that these statements were not in the nature of
confessions or admissions. Their primary rebuttal of the defense’s
appeal, however, rested on a more complicated point of law. They granted,
for the sake of argument, that the trial judge should have applied the
same rules that govern incriminating evidence to all of McCabe’s
assertions in question.7
They then examined the precedents,
the legal definition of ‘voluntary,’ and concluded: ‘It can be posited,
however, that it is not the law that a statement must be excluded from
evidence on the sole ground that either the statement was made in answer
to questions put by a police officer or that it was made without a
caution having been first administered. But in such cases it is a matter
for the Judge at the trial to decide whether, in his judicial discretion,
he will admit the statement or not, having regard to all the
circumstances, and observing the legal requirements that the statement
shall be voluntary, though not necessarily volunteered.’ (IR,
134). Since McCabe’s attorneys did not contest the manner in which their
client’s admissions had been obtained at the time that the evidence was
originally admitted, the Court of Criminal Appeal supported the trial
judge’s exercise of judicial discretion. In fact, they specifically
stated that ‘the nature of the custody is also one of the factors in the
exercise of judicial discretion as to admitting or rejecting the
evidence’ (IR, 135-6).
The Court of Criminal Appeal,
therefore, did not have to rule on whether McCabe had actually been
detained illegally for several weeks. It was not relevant as far as the
admissibility of the evidence was concerned and, in fact, illegal
detention itself was not grounds for appeal.
The arrest, trial, and appeal of
Henry McCabe caused a sensation in Dublin and its environs, receiving
extensive and consistent coverage in the Irish Times from 1 April,
the day after the fire, until 10 December 1926, the day after McCabe was
hung. (Henry McCabe died on Thursday, 9 December 1926; the lobster, in
Beckett’s story, the night before.) It was the longest murder trial,
according to Mr. Justice O’Byrne, the trial judge, ‘within living memory
in that court’ (15 November 1926, p.8, col.5). Samuel Beckett, who did
not receive his BA from Trinity College until 1927, could not fail to
have heard about the case.
The newspaper publicity, and the
reaction of the Dublin public to this excessive violence and misery,
probably intrigued Beckett as much as the illogical nature of the crime.
Hundreds of people made Sunday excursions to see the infamous,
gothically romantic remains of ‘La Mancha.’ As the newspapers indicate,
the good spring weather brought out a crowd of eager photographers and
gossipers. ‘Holiday-makers from Dublin flocked into Malahide yesterday,
as on Sunday, to see the place where the deaths occurred. They came in
hundreds by train, motor, and jarvey car. The Guards had considerable
difficulty in preventing them from over-running the place. In some
instances young women with cameras were annoyed because they would not
be allowed to secure photographic souvenirs of the grim ruin of the
house of death’ (6 April 1926, p.1, col.2).
Newspaper headlines announced the
possibility of ‘Hidden Treasure,’ and lead stories about the ‘murders
for plunder’ made Henry McCabe himself an object of wonder, alternately
appealing to the citizenry’s instinct for gory excitement and their
greed.8 The gardener, who had a wife and nine children in
Malahide, might have been viewed as a suitable object of pity, rather
than of perverse curiosity, especially considering the dubious
circumstances of the case. In More pricks than kicks, Belacqua,
comfortable on a bar-stool and absorbed in his lunch, like the majority
of Dubliners only superficially reflects on the plight of McCabe. ‘Then
the food had been further spiced by the intelligence, transmitted in a
low tragic voice across the counter by Oliver the improver, that 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. Ellis the hangman was even now on his way. Belacqua, tearing
at the sandwich and swilling the precious stout, pondered on McCabe in
his cell’ (17).9 It is only at the conclusion of the story,
when Belacqua meditates upon the concepts of pity and piety, and has an
epiphany in the fading light, that he differentiates himself from a
public who live vicariously through the calamities of others.
All in all, then, the Malahide
Murder Mystery remained a mystery, but society refused to acknowledge
its ignorance. Although McCabe could not fully account for his time, and
although the Civic Guard found some damaging evidence (an unexplained
blood-stained shirt), the evidence as a whole does not point to McCabe
as a lunatic capable of mass murder. The prosecution, however, dubbed
him an ‘arch-criminal,’ ‘a subtle, skilled man . . . a fiend’ (15
November 1926, p.7, col.2). In such a messy case, skill and diabolical
cleverness were not exactly to the fore. Moreover, the prosecutor
continually contradicted himself in an effort to explain the crime.
First he designated the gardener as a ‘homicidal maniac’; next as a man
clearly ‘inspired with a sense of grievance at the loss of his situation’
(8 November 1926, p.3, col.3). He went on to insist that McCabe, ‘having
his mind charged with the idea that there was much spoil to be found in
the house, deliberately planned the destruction in detail of one after
the other of the members of the family’ (8 November 1926, p.3, col.3).
The prosecutor later contradicted this vision of orderly mania in turn
when he asserted that there was a mixture of ‘blood, slaughter, lunacy,
and nonsense in the picture that surpassed anything a jury could be
asked to consider’ (15 November 1926, p.8, col.5). And yet the
prosecutor asked a jury to consider just that, to consider McCabe guilty,
and the court to take his life.
The authorities in general took the
opportunity to orate about deterrents to crime and about morality.
Though McCabe, after hearing the verdict, asked God to forgive the court
and those who had perjured themselves, and though he maintained his
innocence up until the day of his death, the judge and the press
wholeheartedly agreed with the finding of the jury. In fact, the trial
judge sternly advised McCabe, since he could ‘hold out to [him] no hope
of mercy in this world,’ to prepare to meet his Maker in the next where,
presumably, he would be judged again. McCabe’s conviction was applauded
by the authorities and his appeal was denied on 3 December.
A leading article on ‘Police and
justice’ in the Irish Times on 10 December asserted: ‘Like other
criminals, he reckoned without the stringent efficiency of the
protectors of the peace . . . The fate of Henry McCabe, ruthless and
deliberate above the ordinary among criminals, ought to serve as a stern
deterrent to all whom passion or greed tempt to the path of crime’ (10
December 1926, p.6, col.4). The fantasy that the destruction of six
people could have been averted if McCabe, or whatever homicidal maniac
perpetrated the murders, had spent a bit more time appreciating the
efficiency of the Irish police and the death penalty, has significance
for the current passionate debate on capital punishment’s power to
Irish society, confronted by the
absurdity of the Malahide murder incident, attempted to subdue its fear
by treating it, ultimately, as an intelligible crime. Once the
authorities could settle the blame on someone, the habitual machinery of
the law, with its concomitant moral platitudes, began functioning.
Whether or not McCabe was a psycho-pathic killer or a scapegoat is,
finally, irrelevant. The community, either ignoring the possibility of
an irrationality that it could not control or comprehend, or fixing
responsibility on an innocent man, acted as if its orderly processes had
never been seriously threatened.
Beckett reinforces this conception of human justice as a hopeless
tangle and divine justice as nonexistent or incomprehensible at the end
of More pricks than kicks. The spectre of the mad gardener
reappears in ‘Draff’ to haunt, of all things, Belacqua’s own funeral.
The hero, obviously not ‘one of the best’ (p.186) when he was alive, is
now ‘draff’ or ‘the damp remains of malt after brewing.’10
The gardener of the late hero’s household does not feel much more useful
than his former employer. An outcast of sorts already, he is brooding,
fatalistic, disturbed. Beckett describes him as ‘a slow shy slob of a
man with a dripping moustache’ who tends ‘in a dazed and hopeless manner
a bed of blighted sweet-william’ (p.192).
After Belacqua’s corpse is suitably coffined and the narrator sees
him off to his grave, the story turns to an encounter, or an attempt at
an encounter, between Mary Ann, the maid, and the anti-social gardener.
He is shut up in the tool shed and refuses to answer her. The narrator
says that he is grieving, but there are intimations that his melancholy
is not simply the result of his employer’s death. The knots that he ties
nervously indicate tension and anxiety. Like most of us, he is grieving
The gardener had secured his retreat, she could not come at
him ... He heard the voice at a great distance, but could
make no sense of it. For he was temporarily at all events,
just a clod of gloom, in which concern for his own state of
health counted for more than he would have cared to admit.
Was he overdoing things about the place? It was hard to say.
He heard Mary Ann in the run, her voice raised in furious
hallali, butchering a fowl for the table. He began to look
about him for his line. Some unauthorised person had taken
his line, with the result that now he was helpless to put
down his broccoli. He rose and let himself out, he slobbered
out of darkness into light, he chose a place in the sun and
settled, he was like a collosal fly trimming its load of
Gradually he cheered up. Ten to one God was in his heaven.
The mourners return from the
cemetery to find that the gardener has gone mad, raped the maid, and
set fire to the premises. Religion’s reasonable odds are losing
The confusion that Beckett creates
around the gardener’s breakdown in ‘Draff’ further suggests the
complexity of the Malahide mystery, but with a decidedly comic turn. The
servant girl in the McDonnell household was called Mary McGowan, and
there was speculation at the trial about possible sexual assaults on the
female victims. Beckett’s Mary Ann seemed to be flirting with the
gardener earlier in the story, but with little success. Perhaps she is
annoyed at his repulse, or invents the attack as a way of adding drama
to her single maid’s life.
‘Ravished Mary Ann’ exclaimed the Smeraldina.
‘So she deposes,’ said a high official of the Civic Guard.
was she who raised the alarm.’
Hairy looked this dignitary up and down.
‘I don’t see your fiddle,’ he said. (202)
So Mary Ann raises the alarm during
the fire, supposedly after being raped, and not the gardener. Oddly
enough, ‘he had neither given himself up nor tried to escape, he had
shut himself up in the tool-shed and awaited arrest’ (202). With
Belacqua dead, perhaps the desolate gardener in ‘Draff,’ being left with
nothing but draff, too, fears losing even the little that is left—his
job, his place in the world (one of McCabe’s supposed motives). Or
perhaps, if all that is left is draff, he feels that there is nothing to
lose. But Beckett’s character does wait for the authorities consciously.
When they arrive, he purposely resists arrest, and is subsequently taken
to a hospital. A comfortable padded cell, far from the ‘copious nuisance’
of Mary Ann’s ‘opinions and impressions’ (199), and the vicissitudes of
gainful employment, and from which he cannot be expelled by unexpected
death, may have been his original intention in setting the fire. In any
case, the sudden insanity of Beckett’s ‘shy slob’ seems inexplicable to
society. The absurdity of the fire, as the absurdity of the Malahide
incident, is suppressed instead of confronted. No one is particularly
concerned about really understanding the circumstances once the initial
excitement is over. The practical widow and her new paramour Hairy
vacate the scene of the crime rapidly. ‘Take me away,’ said the
Smeraldina firmly, ‘the house is insured’ (203).
‘So it goes in the world’ (204).
The Belacqua who refuses to confront the insensitivity of human nature
and the hypocrisy of society in the first story of More pricks than
kicks is victimized by it in the last. The hero’s final material
home on earth, ‘the home to which Belacqua had brought three brides’
(202), is destroyed, his employees are traumatized or hospitalized, his
widow is already promised to another—“Why not come with me,” said Hairy,
“now that all this has happened, and be my love?”’ (203). The last
remnants of Belacqua Shuah, recondite scholar, arcane poet, and
eccentric lover, are purged from the Smeraldina’s memory. His best
friend has even less difficulty in beginning to forget the deceased. He
starts by failing to recall the epitaph that Belacqua once mentioned he
could like to have.
Belacqua, the first Beckett hero,
had been given the chance to evaluate the worth of humanity’s brand of
justice, pity and piety. If he had found individual emotion and
collective pity wanting, he would have had one more reason to withhold
himself from the macrocosm, to rebel against an insincere world to seek
for value in the only other possible place—the microcosm. Though social
structures change with the course of time, Beckett suggests as early as
More pricks than kicks that unhappiness and injustice are always
present in some form. A human being, however, that ‘thinking thing,’ can
still turn within to begin the search for truth, although even that
internal search is a kind of torment.
Beckett’s own life, significantly, offered him proof that human
experience perpetually baffles the understanding. After the publication
of More pricks than kicks in 1934, Beckett was composing poetry
that points to a sensibility which, like the gardener’s, is enervated
and cynical. In the poems in French written between 1937 and 1939, the
little world does not promise the raptures that it holds for Murphy,
‘matrix of surds,’12 although it remains attractive as a
haven from the meaningless big world. And it was this absurd macrocosm
that involved Beckett in a mischance that ironically reflects on his
mature treatment of the irrationality in human affairs. Right after the
New Year, in 1938, he was seriously stabbed in the ribs on the Avenue
d’Orléans in Paris by a ‘mec from the milieu’13;
by a man whom Beckett later visited in jail to ask why; by a man who
said that he did not know why he had done it.
1 Samuel Beckett, More Pricks than kicks, London,
Calder and Boyars, 1970, 20. All quotations will hereafter be cited in
the text by page number only.
2 Since Beckett was a young artist himself, he of course
had not yet worked out an appropriate response to the hypocrisy of
society and to outmoded literary convention.
3 Dream of fair to middling women, 143. Ca. 1932.
Unpublished work. Composed primarily during 1932 in Paris, the
unfinished novel (whose hero is Belacqua) was discarded in favour of
More pricks than kicks.
4 Ruby Cohn suggests McCabe as ‘(son of Cain and Abel?)’
in Samuel Beckett: the comic gamut, New Brunswick, N. J., Rutgers
University Press, 1962, 19.
5 Beckett alludes explicitly to the danger in Malahide
and to McCabe later in More pricks than kicks. In ‘Fingal,’ Dr
Sholto is astonished when he learns that Winnie and Belacqua have walked
alone from Malahide (32). In ‘A wet night,’ the narrator characterizes
Caleken Frica as ‘goose … flying barefoot from McCabe’ (80). Also see my
discussion of Beckett’s treatment of the mad gardener in ‘Draff’ at the
end of this essay.
6 I have reconstructed the Malahide murder case from
partial accounts in both The Irish Reports and the Irish Times.
The case in The Irish Reports: 1927, ed. Albert D. Bolton,
Dublin, 1927, appears as Attorney-General v. McCabe on pp.129-36.
Quotations will be cited in the text by IR and page number.
Articles in the Irish Times concerning the incident ran
intermittently from 1 April 1926 to 10 December 1926, and will be cited
hereafter in the text.
7 ‘It has been admitted in argument, however [by whom the
transcript does not make clear], that these statements, which on the
face of them are not confessions or admissions, do not contain anything
incriminating the accused. On the contrary, they contain the outlines of
his defence…..’ (IR, 133)
8 Beckett himself details this need for morbid
titillation later in More pricks than kicks in the story ‘Ding-Dong,’
where people queuing for the cinema are in a quandary – they long to see
a ‘ triturated child’ who has been run down by a bus, but they are loath
to lose their place in line.
9 I have not yet been able to find any evidence of this
overwhelming public support for McCabe. The Irish Times certainly
thought that he deserved his fate.
10 According to Webster’s Dictionary, draff is ‘often
used as an appetizer or supplement in animal rations.’ ‘Draffy’ is a
synonym for worthless. The story treats a ‘leftover’ Belacqua, the
remnants of his body and soul. While the corpse is being buried, the
spirit is being mutilated, as Belaqua’s best friend Hairy Capper Quin
adopts some of the late hero’s mannerisms.
11 One of Beckett’s favourite statements by Augustine:
‘One thief was saved. Do not despair. One thief was damned. Do not
12 Samuel Beckett, Murphy, New York, Grove Press,
1957, p.112. Murphy was first published in 1938, so that Beckett
was working on it roughly about the same time as the French verse.
Although Murphy definitely identified himself with the
‘microcosmopolitans’ for the majority of the novel, his confidence about
finding fulfillment in his mind is considerably damaged, if not
completely gone, after his final confrontation with Mr Endon. This
disillusionment occurs just before his accident (or suicide) with the
gas (or chaos).
13 A. J. Leventhal, ‘The Thirties,’ in Beckett at 60:
a Festschrift, ed. John Calder, London, Calder and Boyars, 1967,
7-13: ‘Sam was stabbed by some mec from the milieu – a
sort of Gidean acte gratuit’ (9).