In Edwardian Dublin, before the disruption of the Great War, there were many ways for a girl to find out whether a seemingly interested chap was what he appeared to be or what he said he was before allowing matters to develop further. While there was nothing as efficient as facebook or Google available, for most people – especially the respectable classes ‑ one’s network of friends and relations would pretty quickly confirm a fellow’s bona fides and information discovered would often extend to his seed, breed and generation.
With the altered conditions of wartime, however, and in particular with large-scale movements of men hither and thither, community sources for background information became less effective. Nobody really knew who these interesting, uniformed and sociable men were. Perhaps the melancholy truth is that in the city of Dublin at that time, the increase in the incidence of romantic duplicity and indeed, of its ultimate form, bigamy, is no more than should be expected.
Cases of bigamy which were discovered came before the courts, which took a firm line on the primacy of the first marriage contract. There were three types of bigamous marriages undertaken in Dublin during the Great War: where the fellow duped the girl, where the girl duped the fellow and where they were in it together. Let us look at examples of the three types in the order just given.
In September 1917 thirty-year-old Terrence O’Driscoll married Mary O’Driscoll in St Andrews Catholic church in Westland Row. Terrence had been introduced to Mary by “a friend” and had mentioned that he was a member of the Canadian Mounted Dragoons. The glamour of the cavalry, the uniforms, the braid – if only seen in her mind’s eye –not to speak of the drama of the retreat from Mons, in which O’Driscoll claimed to have been involved, appear to have completely won Mary’s heart, or if not that something else did. She was overjoyed that this brave soldier, on leave and suffering from shell shock and various wounds, proposed marriage and who, as a gesture of his earnestness and the strength of his feelings, drew up a will naming her as the sole beneficiary.
Mary lost no time, she sold her home and furniture handing over the £75 she received for the furniture to Terrence, married him in Westland Row church and departed with him for London and, as she presumably thought, a life of marital fulfilment and love.
Unfortunately, Terrence was not as he seemed but a rogue with designs not just on Mary’s virtue and reputation but on her property. Seven years earlier he had married a young woman in Birmingham who subsequently won a separation order owing to his ill treatment of her. This first wife being still alive the marriage to Mary was bigamous. With Mary’s £75 the newlyweds went to London, where O’Driscoll soon abandoned his wife, stealing her luggage and jewellery, valued at £80. Mary, though no doubt distraught, alerted the police.
The authorities caught up with Terrence and he was hauled before the courts. Seeking to offer the court some explanation in mitigation, O’Driscoll threw his hands up and claimed he did not know what he was doing when he married in Westland Row. He explained that he had been addicted to drugs for some time and had been brought to Westland Row church in a closed carriage while drugged, implying that he had been forced to partake in the ceremony. “I was doped at the time I was driven to the church in a closed car and the ceremony was all rushed through in a few minutes. This was at 7 in the evening.”
This is a strange story and one wonders whether it was a shotgun marriage and whether they were in London in connection with a pregnancy. But if so O’Driscoll did not provide any information along these lines, so we must avoid idle speculation. In any event, the court did not find his account credible or relevant and he was sentenced to fifteen months with hard labour. There is unfortunately no further information available on Mary’s life thereafter.
Our second case, which offers the example of a woman knowingly entering into a bigamous marriage with an innocent male, has less background detail. Nevertheless, the facts of the case are straightforward and the motive was, once again, almost certainly pecuniary. In November 1915 Elizabeth Cooper of 56 Meath Street was charged with bigamously marrying Private Herbert Evans of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers at Meath St Catholic church, having previously married Private John Cooper of the Royal Irish Rifles in Marlborough Street church in 1913. Elizabeth was, we can be sure, in receipt of a separation allowance on foot of her marriage to John Cooper but perhaps found her needs not fully covered by this payment and felt that things would be more satisfactory if she got a second allowance, which desideratum would follow automatically from the simple stratagem of marrying another soldier. Unfortunately for Elizabeth some friends of John Cooper informed on her and she found herself in the dock and facing a prison sentence. The views of Cooper and Evans on the matter are unknown.
In another example of a woman knowingly committing bigamy the motive was not financial gain but rather the desire to have a decent relationship with a man. In June 1919 Mary Ann Kennedy pleaded guilty to bigamy. She married Felix O’Toole in St Audoen’s church, having previously married Thomas Kennedy in St Michan’s. Both men were soldiers. Mary Ann explained that Kennedy never provided a home for her, treated her badly and when he went back to war wrote to say he was finished with her. She was given three months hard labour bur before she left the court to begin her sentence she leaned across the dock railings to kiss Mr O’Toole. This caused great merriment among female spectators but outraged the judge, who ordered the court to be cleared.
Clearly greed does not determine all human relations, and our final example features a couple who knowingly entered into a bigamous marriage for what could be described as altruistic motives which arose against a background of romantic and sexual attachment.
Miss Mary McCarthy went through a marriage ceremony with a man knowing him to have been married with children. The man in question was James Dalton, an engineer of North Brunswick Street. Dalton had married his wife, who was present in court as “an interested observer”, twelve years previously. But before he married had known Miss McCarthy.
Some time afterwards, and supposedly not realising Dalton was married, Mary wrote to him along romantic lines. Dalton’s mother got hold of the letter and confronted Miss McCarthy, telling her of his marriage and advising her that if she persisted in writing she would be “breaking up a family”. This line of attack suggests that Dalton did not view these communications as nuisance letters.
Mary promised Dalton’s mother that she would not write to her son again. Dalton and his family moved to England for a number of years but then returned to Dublin along with his wife and five children. At this point Mary started seeing Dalton (“took up with him”) and before long became pregnant. Dalton paid for her to stay in a confinement home but when she left the home to visit her dying father he, notwithstanding his approaching end, became aware of her condition and was most upset. In order to pacify the dying man, who demanded to see a marriage certificate, the couple knowingly went through the form of the marriage ceremony. Interestingly it was Dalton who was brought before the court. He was released on his own recognisances and it is not known whether or not he managed to avoid prison.