Friday 15 November 2019

Fiona O'Connell: 'Old grave tale of Cupid and his poisoned arrow'

Lay of the Land

'Sometimes you don't need to go beyond so much as beside an actual grave to find clues to the terrible truth that it tries to conceal' (stock photo)
'Sometimes you don't need to go beyond so much as beside an actual grave to find clues to the terrible truth that it tries to conceal' (stock photo)

Fiona O'Connell

The days are getting darker, making it time to tell tales from beyond the grave. Though sometimes you don't need to go beyond so much as beside an actual grave to find clues to the terrible truth that it tries to conceal.

Like Thomas O'Flaherty's burial place in a nearby country town. Local genealogists wondered what he was doing so far east. As they noted, Galway is O'Flaherty territory.

Other pieces literally missing from the puzzle included a large section of the mural stone that looked to have been deliberately broken in two. The remaining part eulogises 44-year-old O'Flaherty for being "of unblemished honour, a lover of virtue and friend of mankind".

What it doesn't mention, significantly, is financial security. Which is why O'Flaherty trekked halfway across the country, to marry for money. Certainly, Cupid would have had a hard time angling an arrow into any amour with Suzanna Bourke, who is described in one account as having "no charm of appearance or address and of being indescribably repulsive in manners".

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Maybe O'Flaherty felt he had earned his easy life, but forgot that others might also be attracted to enjoying it. Like Thomas Lonergan, living under the same roof but in the far less luxurious circumstance of being tutor to O'Flaherty's son.

The son was one of several witnesses at Lonergan's trial, this month in 1781, where he and Suzanna stood charged with "mixing and mingling in certain quantity of poison called Arsenick, among boiled turnips... custard pudding... and crab... which Thomas O'Flaherty did eat and swallow down into his body". Leading to his death two days later.

The banal becomes brutal in hindsight: O'Flaherty complaining about the gritty crab; coachman David Fitzgibbon getting violently sick after eating half a spoonful of the pudding. While cook Bridget Brennan repeatedly rinsed out her mouth and scraped her tongue to get rid of the bitter taste from the turnips that Lonergan prepared.

Like O'Flaherty's son, she testified to seeing "great indecencies" between the accused. Such as the time she went into the parlour and found "Mrs O'Flaherty with her petticoats up and the prisoner standing before her".

Suzanna fled the country, abandoning her lover. Though the court heard how she tried to force her son to refute mounting reports that his father had been poisoned, even threatening to turn him out of door if he refused. And despite O'Flaherty's swollen body turning black, his nails blue and his hair falling out, she made him tell his grandmother "that his father's corpse was a handsome one".

Reminding me of Oscar Wilde's quip that "beauty is skin deep - ugly is all the way to the bone". For it's not spirits we should fear, but the living.

Sunday Independent

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