Sunday 18 March 2018

'This did not blow up over the last few months. This was deep'

A simmering dispute over the inheritance of land lay behind the tragedy in Carlow, writes Maeve Sheehan

KILLING FIELDS: the Rothwell farm, where the murder-suicide unfolded
KILLING FIELDS: the Rothwell farm, where the murder-suicide unfolded
The home of Michael and Hilda Jordan in Ballycormac
HAPPIER TIMES: the Rolettes showband in 1966, with George Rothwell on sax
George Rothwell
Michael Jordan
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

THE parish of Ballycormick is approached by a narrow country road, with a strip of grass up the middle and muddy ditches on either side.

New houses and established older dwellings line either side of the road, with tracts of green fields in between.

At a dip in the road is an old, yellow bungalow, the home place of Michael Jordan, where he had lived since he was a child and which he shared with his wife, Hilda. A kilometre on is the imposing Georgian farmhouse where Hilda's family, the Rothwells, lived for generations. The two families, one Catholic, one Protestant, owned adjoining farms.

Outwardly, they accom-modated each other as neighbours and then as family, when Michael courted and eventually married Hilda, the only daughter of Fred Rothwell and a sister to George.

When Michael Jordan, 51, turned his gun on his 71-year-old brother-in-law last Wednesday, stories soon emerged of a Protestant/ Catholic divide underpinning a festering dispute over land.

Hilda didn't stir when Michael left the house in the middle of the night, according to reports. Locals think that he may have walked the short distance up the dark, unlit road to the big house.

The gates to the sweeping drive were not securely closed; only one of the original wrought iron gates hung from the gate-post.

Forensics and crime-scene officers relied on cartridges that littered the ground as they tried to understand what had happened.

Michael Jordan would have known that George had a shotgun -- like many elderly farmers who live alone -- and that he would be alert to the possibility of intruders.

One of the theories that garda detectives are considering is that he went to one of three sheds beside the house, where George Rothwell kept his cattle, and set it alight to lure the farmer out of his bed.

Gardai have yet to establish how he set the fire but the shed was full of straw and easily ignited. Perhaps it was this disturbance that caused George Rothwell to come downstairs and into the kitchen that opens on to the yard beside the shed.

He didn't get the chance to go outside to investigate.

Detectives believe that he was shot at through the kitchen window, probably several times, judging by the glass strewn on the floor and the marks left inside by the gunshots.

Michael Jordan then gained entry to the kitchen and shot his brother-in-law several times at close range in the upper body.

The results of ballistics tests will confirm whether -- and how many times -- George Rothwell fired his own weapon before he died on the kitchen floor as the shed blazed outside. His gun lay nearby and spent cartridges were strewn all around him.

A neighbour is thought to have raised the alarm at 3.30am, alerted by the cries of trapped animals and smoke billowing in the night air.

Michael Jordan returned to the bungalow, discarded his shotgun in the undergrowth and hanged himself in an outhouse.

Five fire engines and 22 fire officers took three hours to control the raging fire, releasing the trapped animals, including cattle and horses.

George Rothwell's body was discovered shortly afterwards by fire officers attempting to evacuate the house.

When Hilda awoke that morning to find her husband was missing, she apparently assumed that he had been tending to cattle during the night.

Later, she went in search of him at her brother's adjoining farm and neighbours and gardai intercepted her to break the news of the tragedy.

Gardai had found her husband's body at 9am, in a shed behind their house.

Acrid smoke lingered over the Rothwell farm last week as rumours swirled in the community. It was all about land, local people said, and had been going on for years.

However, the catalyst that caused Michael Jordan to settle this longstanding grudge in so violent and final a fashion has baffled investigators.

"How it got to this level is a mystery. They still had a good interaction with each other. That is something we can't fathom," said one garda source.

According to one local, Hilda and George were raised in a family that was staunchly Church of Ireland. Their father, Fred, farmed cattle and sheep on a couple of hundred acres.

They were "snug" -- comfortably off -- according to one local, and a prominent family in their local church.

The Jordans moved to Ballycormick when Michael was still a child and farmed cattle and sheep on roughly 100 acres of land adjoining the Rothwells'. As young adults, Hilda and Michael started dating, apparently to her father's disapproval.

"Hilda was going out with Michael for years but her father would not let them marry," said one local.

The father disapproved because Michael was Catholic and such was his depth of feeling on the subject that Hilda and Michael did not marry until after he died more than a decade ago.

Fred Rothwell had left a will, bequeathing his estate equally to Hilda and George. But according to this local man, he never specified how the land should be divided up between them.

George apparently honoured his late father's view and continued to farm the land himself. Hilda never legally got her share.

"That was it," said the local. "That was the source of the bad feeling."

Whatever ill-feeling there was over land, Hilda, Michael and George seemed to outsiders to rub along well together. After they married, Hilda moved into Michael's family home down the road but continued to be as involved as ever in her local Church of Ireland community.

She played the organ for church services and helped out with local charities. She was also a keen horse-rider in her day.

Michael concentrated on his farming, raising ewes and excelling as a sheep-shearer.

George put his showband days behind him and settled into life as a well-to-do bachelor farmer in the big house. He had juggled farming with music ever since he formed the Rolettes with Dermot O'Shaughnessy in 1963.

According to Mr O'Shaughnessy: "We set it up by accident. It was another chap who introduced George to me. We were 18 or 19 at the time and we were like lots of chaps, fooling around with guitars.

"George was interested in joining a band and bought a saxophone. And we were playing within the year."

There was George, Dermot on lead guitar, Jim Drea, Terry Williams, Eddie Sinnot and Denis Farrell. And later, Dermot's brother, Terry.

They played the Television Club and Barret's Hotel in Dublin and ballrooms across England. When the Rolettes folded, George and Dermot formed another group, Bits and Pieces, and finally called it a day after playing their last gig on New Year's Eve 1999.

George never married but his life was filled with committees and sport. He chaired the local ewe-breeders' association and was part of the racing set and a member of the supporters club for the nearby Gowran race track.

Visitors to his home recalled how copies of the Irish Field and the Farmer's Journal were piled up on the antique dining table in the parlour and a fire blazed in the grate.

As farmers, Michael and George had a lot in common. At the annual Borris ewe show and sale, both regularly won prizes for their animals.

On Sundays, George used to go for lunch with his sister and Michael. She used to help George keep the big house and would often prepare meals for him.

"Both of them were grand men," said a local. "To a third party, to meet either of them, there was no problem. But this was always simmering."

A local councillor, Denis Foley, met both men and Hilda at the races in Gowran on the Saturday before the tragedy. He greeted them and they seemed in great form, he said.

Mr Foley, a member of Carlow County Council, grew up on the same road as the Rothwell and Jordan families.

He said he knew both families and could not countenance what had happened. The rumours circulating were just that, he said: speculation.

According to speculation, resentment over the land intensified in recent years.

Michael, said locals, wanted Hilda to have her share.

But agreement could not be reached on how the property was to be divided up and George continued to farm it.

"This did not blow up in the last few months," said one local, adding: "This was deep."

Somehow and for some reason, the resentment spilled over into bloodshed.

People speculated locally that Michael had been suffering from his nerves of late and that he had ongoing problems with depression. But detective sources have no knowledge of that.

They are still waiting to interview Hilda, who has been staying with her first cousin since both her childhood home and the house she shared with her husband became crime scenes.

But the circumstances that caused the tragedy may be buried with Michael Jordan.

Hilda has indicated her own wish to have the men remembered as friends, rather than enemies. At her instigation, both men will lie in repose together in Somers Funeral Home in Bagenalstown, Co Carlow, tomorrow.

Afterwards, they will be buried in separate churches, Michael in Bagenalstown in the morning, followed by George at a Church of Ireland service in the afternoon.

Denis Foley said: "Now that this tragedy has happened, we have to look to Hilda, who has lost a husband and a brother and has a farm to run."

He added: "I'm sure the local community will rally around to her aid."

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News