Interview with author and podcaster Fin Dwyer


Historian, author, and one of Ireland's best-known podcasters, Fin Dwyer, has released a compelling new book, A Lethal Legacy: A History of Ireland in 18 Murders, which chronicles Ireland's troubled past through one of our most enduring fascinations: murder. It maps the causes and aftermath of 18 different cases and offers a fresh look at Irish history while explaining how these events played a part in shaping modern Ireland.

Hailing from Castlecomer in Kilkenny, Dwyer says growing up in the area influenced his career path, sparking his interest in Irish history. "As a kid, I spent a lot of time playing in what was then the ruinous former demesne of the Wandesforde Estate, which is now the Castlecomer Discovery Park. That gave me a natural curiosity about the famine. Also, Castlecomer was a coal-mining town, which meant I was surrounded by a very rich and fascinating community history". He went on to study archaeology and Greek and Roman Civilisation at University College Dublin, completing a masters in archaeology in 2004.

We discuss how the 18 murders highlighted in his book shaped contemporary Ireland and the challenges of making history accessible to a broader audience.

In the book, Dwyer explores various periods of Irish history and offers many lesser-known facts about our past. The book begins in the 1800s with Ned and Mary Shea’s gruesome murders before the Great Hunger. Several more murders occurred around the time of the famine. Dwyer says that despite it being the most important event in our history, public understanding of the famine is limited. He says Irish people are less interested in the Great Famine than the 1916 Rising. "In the U.S., it seems people acknowledge the importance of the famine more, and there are understandable reasons for this. People who survived the Great Hunger and remained in Ireland lived in a country that was utterly decimated, surrounded by memories of a deeply traumatising event. They don’t want to remember". Other featured murders happened during the late 1890s, a time of mass emigration, with later murders documented around the Irish revolutionary era through the 1920s. There’s a chapter from the 1940s following Tullamore man Michael O Dwyer, then The Troubles takes us up to the 1970s, with the book finishing on the tragic murder of Declan Flynn in Fairview Park in 1982. Tying them all together is their significance in time and the effect they had on our wider history, effects seen right up to the modern day.

Humans have an inherent fascination with the darker aspects of life, and our interest in true crime has given rise to a multitude of books, documentaries, podcasts, and even dramatisations of real-life criminal events, but Dwyer is adamant that Lethal Legacy, a book he’s been researching for almost a decade, does not fall into the true crime genre. "This book is a history book. The murders were chosen because of when they happened, not how or why. In most of the cases, we know who did it; it's the context of the murders that’s explored and the history around them that I focus on. I have reservations about the wider true crime genre; sometimes the way families and victims are treated is appalling. It's something I’ve thought about a lot. There were particularly graphic details that I came across in my research for this book that I just felt were not necessary and left them out. I’m writing history, so I didn’t add anything that didn’t serve a purpose. Ned and Mary Shea’s murders in 1821 happened against the backdrop of the brewing famine and captured a lot of the tensions that were present in rural Ireland. Their case is particularly brutal, but that’s not why I chose it. Their case wasn’t chosen because of mystery or an unsolved element; it was significant because of the events that were happening around them". He adds, "Individuals don’t make history; they can influence it, and in these murders, we are not looking at people who made history; these cases were chosen more because of all the events that were happening around them".

Some of the murders featured happened over 150 years ago but are relayed with incogitable detail. "Murders are very useful for historians because history slows down around a murder. Historical records hold minute details about the person and their life, and the records from older murders have incredible details as there was a huge interest in the victim’s life at the time, so they give us a really detailed, personal insight into the past. 19th-century news papers would print the court cases almost verbatim, so all the details are all available to research and offer a rich insight into their lives, much more so than today."

One story Dwyer found particularly poignant and thought-provoking was the murder of Mary Hart of Ballyneale in County Kilkenny. "Murder is a very harrowing and traumatic thing, and Mary Hart, who died in very tragic circumstances in the 1890's, was a victim of the attitudes towards mental health that have followed us right through to the 20th century. Her death really tells the story of the problematic way mental health has been treated. This case touches on something broader I try to draw out in the book, and it’s not a unique Irish thing, just the idea that institutions were seen as ways to treat all problems. This idea that an institution could solve any problem had disastrous implications. That came out in the chapter about Mary Hart, where intuitions were seen as the answer to life’s problems, and part of that solution was segregation from society, along with medical views, convincing us that the issues were somehow contagious."

When presenting real-life murder cases, balancing historical narratives with the human stories of victims and the societal impact of the crimes presented ethical considerations for Dwyer. Being mindful that relatives of the victims could potentially read the book, he aimed to avoid revealing sensitive or sensational details that might distress them.

I did try as much as I could and took into account that there may be some relatives reading this book, so I was cognisant of that while writing it up. I didn’t want to reveal anything that would sensationalise these murders, as there are people alive who are descendants of the murder victims. In terms of some of the details I did put in the book, in those instances, it made sense to include details that are harrowing to read, but they were important in conveying the mental state of the murderer."

His successful podcast, Irish History Podcast, has a global listenership and millions of downloads and, as a result, has brought history to a much wider, more diverse audience. When creating content for both his podcast and his books, Dwyer focuses on weaving personal stories into the historical narrative, and by connecting historical facts with individual experiences, he enhances accessibility. "The podcast audience is about 40% Irish, 40% US, then mostly UK and Australian, so it’s diverse, with everyone having varying degrees of knowledge of Irish history. I always start off assuming that people may not have much background knowledge. Maybe they haven’t engaged in history in 30 years since leaving school, and history class might not have been the best experience back then! I try to focus on personal stories, like in this book, then build the architecture of the historic event around that story. It makes it more accessible when people hear about someone's life. One of my recent podcasts is about a woman whose story was meant to be in the book. She was a survivor of the Great Hunger, and it’s a really personal story. I could trace her through the workhouses, but then another woman comes up in the research around 1870 with the same name, and from that point on, their records are indecipherable. It’s disappointing that I couldn’t trace her all the way and finish her story for the book, but that’s where being a historian comes in: the facts have to come first. Her story does feature in a podcast, and I build history and facts around her; otherwise, history can just feel like a lot of unrelatable dates and events." 

Available here 

Sara Colohan
Writer & Researcher