Rumours of illegitimate children and land disputes haunt tragedy
An inquest into the murder-suicide of two farmers in rural Carlow has left many questions unanswered, writes Donal Lynch
"I kissed thee ere I killed, no way but this, Killing myself, to die upon a kiss." William Shakespeare, Othello, Act V Scene ii
IN THE sleepy townland around Bagenalstown, where the river Barrow flows through Carlow's lush pastures, neighbours still speak in whispers about a tragedy they can barely comprehend.
A year-and-a-half has now passed since this community awoke to the news that two of its best-known farmers had perished in an apparent murder-suicide. During that time there has been wild speculation as to Michael Jordan's motives for shooting his brother-in-law, George Rothwell, and setting fire to his barn before taking his own life. Rumour and counter-rumour – of land disputes, illegitimate children and jealousy – have animated gatepost chatter.
This past week was to provide a resolution, some closure. But in an inquest that left many questions unanswered, Hilda Jordan, Michael's widow and Rothwell's sister, gave the court another puzzling detail: an "intense" kiss from her husband that marked the last time she would see him alive.
A kiss was also where the story began. When Michael Jordan began courting Hilda Rothwell, George's only sister, more than 20 years ago, he became closer to his family's wealthy Protestant neighbours.
Local sources say that, like many elderly farmers of his generation and faith, the patriarch Fred Rothwell hoped and expected that his children would marry into the Church of Ireland. Michael, whose family were Catholic and had been granted neighbouring land under the Land Commission, therefore waited until Fred had passed away before he proposed to Hilda.
When Fred died, he left his estate of a couple of hundred acres, complete with two-storey Georgian pile, to Hilda and George jointly, rather than dividing the entire property separately into two equal parts. Fred did this in the interest of fairness, but his decision was said by some local observers to have been a source of some resentment to Michael, as George, a successful sheep breeder and champion racehorse owner, retained control over the land.
At 52, Michael was younger than both his wife and his brother-in-law and likely to outlive both of them. But even when they passed on he had no guarantee that the Rothwell land would be his. Michael likely knew as much as anyone in the area about his brother-in-law's dark secret.
George Rothwell, 68, had always been a bit of a man-about-town. A handsome, charming musician, he was famous for his prowess on the saxophone. In the early Sixties he formed the Rolettes, and the group toured local dance halls and ballrooms around England. When the band came home to Ireland he played in parish halls around the midlands. It was at one of these gigs that George met a young woman with whom he would have a brief tryst. To her dismay she fell pregnant, and when it was no longer possible to ignore the fact she told her mother. The woman would travel with her mother to Ballycormick House. In the doorway they were met by Fred, who told them in no uncertain terms to: "Get out, there is nothing for you here."
Three days later she was taken to a mother and child home in Roscrea, Co Tipperary. In October 1967 she gave birth to the child and it was given up for adoption. Shortly afterwards, a cheque for £250 from Fred Rothwell arrived for her. It was, she felt, an attempt to buy her silence. Meanwhile, the young woman's mother began sending George birthday and Christmas cards, supposedly from the daughter he had given up.
The story of George's illegitimate daughter did the rounds in Bagenalstown, where it was also rumoured that he had fathered a boy. To Michael, who lived with Hilda in a bungalow next to his brother-in-law's mansion, these stories must have seemed like a further erosion of his claims to the land, on which he was said to have wanted to build a property.
If this was a worry for Michael it percolated quietly away in the background, however. On the surface family relations were healthy. The two men were close and shared much more in common than just Hilda. They were often seen together in public and, Hilda would later say, dined together "almost religiously" every Sunday. They went to the races together and helped out on each other's properties. Michael suffered from depression and was a "worrier by nature", Hilda said last week, and had a tendency to become stressed about money. Another local said last week that Jordan was "a quiet man, not the kind of romantic you could imagine planting a passionate kiss on anyone".
In an interview with The Nationalist, Hilda recently gave a snapshot of life on the adjoining
properties: "Farming at Ballycormick was between myself and George, and Michael had his land to farm at Glenaharry but he would always be there helping George if he ever needed him." She went up to her brother's farm each day where she kept thoroughbred horses. The sign outside the gate told visitors that the grounds of Ballycormick were a game sanctuary. Another indicated that shooting was forbidden. Both Rothwell and Michael Jordan held legally owned shotguns.
The sign was to be given a tragic significance on the early morning of February 22 of last year. Hilda and Michael spent the early part of the previous evening watching a farming programme on television. The only difference that Hilda noticed between this and any other night was that before she went to bed he gave her a deep kiss, grabbing her by the shoulders and staring into her eyes, "with an intensity I hadn't seen before". She felt it was "very different" and it took her by surprise. But she "saw nothing different about him" that evening. At around 11.45pm that evening Michael went out, he said, to check on a cow calving. Unbeknownst to her he took his gun from under the bed. It was the last time she was to see him alive.
It now appears that Michael Jordan stormed across his property that night and set fire to Rothwell's hay barn. At 3.18am Rothwell phoned emergency services in Tara Street in Dublin. At that point his only concern seemed to be for his property and livestock, not his own personal safety. When fire fighters arrived within 10 minutes from Bagenalstown, they found three buildings on fire on his property. Ballistics expert Ronan Lawlor would later tell the inquest how a hole in the window of Rothwell's kitchen was consistent with shotgun being blasted through from the yard. Several shotgun blasts were fired through the house, and the floor between the scullery and the kitchen was splattered with blood. Rothwell's body was found lying in the kitchen with a double-barrel shotgun near his legs. The gun had not been fired. Michael Jordan was later found hanging in one of the sheds by a neighbour, who cut him down with a penknife. Hilda Rothwell awoke in the morning to the dreadful news that both her husband and brother were dead. The two men would later be waked side by side.
In her grief, Hilda brushed aside hurtful speculation that a religious divide had led to the double tragedy. "Religion never came in between the two families," she insisted. "My father, Fred, was a great friend of Michael's father Willie. I remember when Willie died very suddenly one summer, my father said: 'Today, I've lost my best friend. . . religion never came into it.'"
And still the rumour mill churns. The mystery of exactly what prompted Michael Jordan to commit the murder-suicide may perhaps never be solved. George Rothwell's offspring have not come forward to make a claim on the property, and while Hilda Rothwell's property has been repaired her heart remains broken by the events of last year. She has remained on the land, however, and has grieved with what locals describe as "courageous dignity".
Friends say she has tried time and time again to find out what could have caused this tragedy, but she is as baffled as anyone why her family life would be torn apart in this way.
"It's impossible to know what happened, we'll probably never know," she said recently.
"It's one of those cases. Something happened to Michael and. . . I don't know. . . we probably never will."