While it’s certainly a fun literary game, there is truth in that crimes can often be the result of socio-political circumstances as well as random acts of violence from detached sociopaths. And the case of Robert the painter is such an example.
Long forgotten, the case of Robert Taylor and how he escaped the hangman’s noose after being found guilty of the murder of middle-aged Catholic woman Mary McGowan in 1949 is one that could be seen to encapsulate the pre-conflict Northern Ireland: chummy aristocracy, casual sectarianism, and seemingly corrupt RUC officers.
From Lower Meadow Street, Taylor was an apprentice painter (who had worked in Mary McGowan’s house a few times) who had been fired from several jobs over allegations of theft. Add in a pregnant girlfriend whom he was required to marry, a gambling habit and a shortage of cash, it was always going to end badly.
On the morning of Holy Saturday, 16 April 1949, Taylor called at a public house he often frequented and begged the owner for the loan of £20. Rebuffed, and now desperate, and perhaps with feelings of personal bitterness and sectarian animus as well, he called on Mrs. McGowan at 12.10pm or shortly after. She was alone; her husband was in hospital; her daughter (an only child) had gone to visit an uncle in Newry; and she had met and spoken to Taylor outside the local bank a short time before noon. When she answered the door, he asked to use her phone, and she agreed. Once inside, he closed the door, put a cord round her neck and tried to strangle her. She resisted strongly and he dragged her into the scullery, where he seized a carving knife and inflicted wounds up to twelve inches long on her head, face, and neck; blood covered the floor and spattered the walls up the ceiling. He then pushed her to the floor, kicked her violently, and finally poured a pot of boiling soup over her. Then he rifled her purse (leaving its coins), ransacked the main bedroom, left, and went home.
Although an isolated incident, McAlinden places it in the context of the political and sectarian conflicts of the day (the infamous Belfast Celtic vs Linfield game had occurred a few months previously, and The Republic of Ireland Act 1948 was to come into force a day after the murder). While most tend to think of this period as being one of relative peace and respite following the Blitz, we still had likes of Basil Brooke happy to whip up tension by making bellicose statements like, I ask you to cross the Boyne…with me as your leader, and to fight the same cause as King William fought for in days gone by” in relation to the upcoming local elections.
Such rhetoric would have been directed at working class Protestants like Taylor. Although he didn’t appear to be driven by a fanatical hatred of Catholics a la Lennie Murphy or Johnny Adair, it’s evident that he certainly held the typical view of Catholics being below him. Add in the class factor (the McGowans lived in Ponsonby Avenue, in those days a middle-class area) as well as the previous allegations of theft, and it would seem you had a spide with a chip on his shoulder. Factor in the previously discussed elements of the story and it was the perfect storm.
While both trials are depicted as being handled fairly (the first one was derailed by the jury being unable to reach a unanimous verdict, the second saw a ‘guilty’ verdict) and damaging for Taylor (who, when asked why there was blood present on his clothing when he was arrested, offered up the excuse that he suffered from nosebleeds due to painting and that this had been a common occurrence for the previous few years), the handling of the jury (which is how Taylor escaped death) is a murkier affair. Despite specific instructions from the judge, the jury were allowed to be separated on a day out to Donaghadee. The RUC officers involved were allowed to give statements which meant they couldn’t be put in the witness box and a judge decided that, although the jury were people of integrity, the fact that the process had been violated meant that Taylor did not get a fair trial.
McAlinden recalls that:
The only immediate after-effect of the affair recorded by the newspapers was the jubilation of Taylor’s supporters at the court, outside the jail and the Taylor home. The press, however, did not record that a cheering crowd of these supporters, waving Union Jacks, marched home by way of Eia Street and Duncairn Gardens. At the top of Duncairn they gestured and jeered across at Ponsonby (visible at the other side of bombed-out waste ground), intent on registering another defeat for the Fenians. As they approached our house, my mother, fearful of what might be construed by the marchers and the RUC as provocation, called my inquisitive younger brother in from the front gate, locked the door, and drew all the curtains.
Coupled with gerrymandering, job discrimination and corruption over housing matters, is it any wonder the Civil Rights Association took off the way it did so many years later?
The story and the various twists (plus links with the Patricia Curran murder a few years later) make this a compelling read, even if the book itself has some flaws in terms of spelling (not many, but enough to be noticeable) and lack of citations. Although McAlinden makes it clear that he has pieced together the narrative from reports in the Irish News, the Belfast Telegraph, the News Letter, the Northern Ireland Law Reports, PRONI as well as interviews from people associated with the case, the lack of citations mean that you’re always a little wary of taking everything at face value (even when you’ve no reason not to).
Long out of print, Bloodstains … helps us see how the society that existed in Northern Ireland in 1949 could allow a murderer to go free and live in obscurity.
Thomas McAlinden, 2006, Bloodstains in Ulster: The Notorious Case of Robert the Painter. The Liffey Press. ISBN-13: 978-1904148913
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.