Turtle Bunbury

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Above: This was one of several photograph taken by Sergeant Andrew Gordon of Stepaside police station at the behest of Superintendent John Reynolds, the first Garda officer at the scene of the crime. It shows Lily O’Neill’s corpse by Ticknock Crossroads on the morning of 9th June 1925. According to Patricia Hughes, granddaughter of Lily O'Neill, the photos were neither shown nor aluded to during the trial of her alleged killers.

'WHO KILLED HONOR BRIGHT?' by Patricia Hughes.

At 7:30 am on 9th June 1925, a timber carter strolling past the Ticknock crossroads outside Dublin spotted a young, brown haired woman lying on the ground. She was dressed in a respectable manner – a mid-calf length grey tweed suit, mauve silk blouse, silk stockings, a black hat and black leather patent shoes. When he espied one of her shoes some distance from her body, he went to rouse the girl. It was then that he noticed blood on her chest and realised the woman was dead. He ran a quarter of a mile to Lamb Doyle’s, the only pub in the area, and rang the Civic Guards.

The victim was Lily O’Neill, otherwise known as ‘Honor Bright’, and she is the subject of a new book written by her granddaughter Patricia Hughes with the provocative title ‘Who Killed Honor Bright? How William Butler & George Yeats Caused the Fall of the Irish Free State’.

Hughes postulates that Lily was the mother of W. B. Yeats love-child and that her grandmother was then murdered in a plot hatched by Yeats’ jealous wife George and carried out by the Irish Free State authorities.

Lily O’Neill, the youngest child of a County Carlow blacksmith, was born in 1900. [i] Orphaned by the age of eight, she was raised by her five older siblings, four of whom subsequently emigrated to the USA.

In 1918, Lily moved to Dublin to work as a sales assistant in a respectable ladies outfitter on Kildare Street. Her wages were low but she was given clothes and accommodation in a woman’s lodging house at 48 Newmarket Street in the Coombe. One of her housemates was Madge ‘Bridie’ Hopkins who became her best friend.

Lily also earned some extra money working as a dancer in an unidentified evening club where men paid for the pleasure of each dance. Hughes believes that one of the men who frequented this club W. B. Yeats and that, despite his marriage of 1917 to Georgie Hyde-Lees, the promiscuous poet subsequently embarked upon a seven-year affair with Lily. Hughes discerns a veritable confession to this affair in Yeats poems, particularly in “Michael Robartes and the Dancer” and “A Man Young and Old” which, she says, provide ‘substantial detail’ on how and where he met Lily.

On 9 November 1920, Lily gave birth to a baby boy at the Coombe Women’s Hospital in Dublin. She named him Kevin Barry after the young Carlow patriot who was hanged in Mountjoy Gaol eight days earlier. No father was named on his birth certificate and the boy took on her family surname, O’Neill. However, Hughes is adamant that Kevin’s father was W. B. Yeats.[ii]

Things seemingly turned a dark corner when George Yeats also bore a son less than 10 months later, Michael Yeats.

In 1923, Yeats, now a Senator of the Irish Free State, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Hughes believes George Yeats had become increasingly desperate to protect her husbands’ reputation as ‘a thoughtful, honest, imaginative man who was trustworthy, reliable, impartial and concerned for the whole of society’ from the accusations of a working class Catholic republican woman.[iii] This apparently led George Yeats to approach her close friend Kevin O’Higgins, the Minister of Justice, although no record of such a meeting survives.

According to Hughes, O’Higgins then ordered Eoin O’Duffy, the right-wing Commissioner of the Garda Síochána, and David Neligan, the head of the Special Detective Unit (aka the Special Branch), to put the squeeze on Lily.[iv]

The focus now shifts to Dr. Patrick Purcell, a married father of two who was working as a doctor in Blessington, County Wicklow. In 1924, he began having an affair with Lily’s friend Bridie Hopkins.

On the eve of Lily’s murder, Dr. Purcell was attending a summer fete in Blessington when he met his colleague Leo Dillon, the 25-year-old superintendent of the Dunlavin police station in County Wicklow. It was 8th June, the hottest day of the year. The two men then made their way to Dublin in the doctor’s grey two-seater ‘Swift’ sports car. After an evening of heavy drinking, they met with Bridie and Lily outside the Shelbourne Hotel on Stephen’s Green shortly after midnight.

Drunk on whiskey, Purcell became violent, shouting about a woman in grey who had robbed him of £11 and a silver cigarette case. He apparently showed his revolver to Bridie, remaking ‘I always carry a revolver with me and I could blow you all off the Green if I wished.’ Superintendent Dillon is also assumed to have been carrying a gun although he later denied it.

At about this time, Lily hailed a taxi and went home. However, it was alleged that Purcell and Dillon followed her and then either persuaded or man-handled her into their car, before making their way towards Ticknock.

It is not clear what happened next but Dr. Purcell arrived back at his home at 4:25am, clambered through his study window, ate a sandwich, drank some milk and slipped back into his wife’s bedroom.

The following morning Lily was found dead. Her heart had been pierced by a bullet fired from a small Browning pistol from a distance of between 6 and 10 feet which struck her on the right breast, ‘close to the nipple’, leaving just a trace of blood. Death was instantaneous.[v]

Within 24 hours the coroner J. P. Brennan opened the inquest, advising a rapidly growing crowd that the deceased was ‘a decent, innocent victim of a heinous crime’ and that her clothes were undisturbed.

However, the story took a dramatic twist that afternoon with the unexpected arrival of Commissioner O’Duffy who ordered Brennan to adjourn the inquest for three weeks.[vi] Brennan and Superintendent John Reynolds, the principal investigation, were then informed that their services were no longer required and that O’Duffy would personally look after this case.

On June 11th, Superintendent Dillon came forward and confessed to the crime.[vii] Dr. Purcell was arrested the following day and the two men were taken into custody.

Nearly seven months would pass before the four-day trial began at the Central Criminal Court in Green Street on 1st February 1926. Hughes argues that this time lapse was necessary so that Minister O’Higgins, working through Commissioner O’Duffy and Chief Superintendant Neligan, could conduct a massive cover up, reconstructing statements and falsifying evidence.

There is not room here to go into the minutiae of Hughes argument but it is certainly intriguing and plausible, albeit with much conjecture and cryptic interpretation of Yeats poetry.

What cannot be denied is that when the trial opened, Dillon changed his story and pleaded ‘not guilty’. The prosecutor William Carrigan, KC, described the murder as ‘a sordid tale of debauchery by a pair of moral degenerates … who quitted their families and their responsibilities to spend a night of debauchery in the City of Dublin.’

However, if anyone was to be deemed guilty, it was the late Lily O’Neill who was, as Carrigan put it, cast as ‘one of those unhappy creatures who … was compelled to seek her living on the streets at night.’

Hughes asserts that the ‘reconstitution’ of her grandmother as a prostitute was part of a deliberate plan to devalue and belittle the deceased so that public sympathy would wane, particularly in the newly formed Irish free State where prostitution was seen as a legacy of the British colonial period as well as something morally repugnant to all Catholics. The conceit was that because she was a prostitute, she got what she deserved. And certainly that is how Joe O’Connor, the defence counsel, appealed to the jury: ‘Is it because they go on a spree, and fall victim to the two things that men have fallen victims to since the beginning of time –wine and women – that you are not to judge them by ordinary standards, but to treat them as human vampires?’

The jury found Dillon and Purcell not guilty and both men were discharged.[viii]

The trial, argues Hughes, was a whitewash in which even Lily’s allies such as Bridie Hopkins were ‘coerced into silence’. She notes huge gaps in the prosecutions case, including the failure to interview either Coroner Brennan or the man who found Lily’s body. Much key evidence was also omitted, including the police photographs that show the body of Hughes’ respectably clad grandmother lying on the roadside. On the other hand, new “details” appear to have been added such as claims that Lily’s possessions at the time of her death included ‘a Malthusian sheath’ (or condom) and that a semen-stained handkerchief was found in her hand.[ix]

Hughes also asserts that the case of Lily O’Neill explains why Yeats was absent from the public spotlight from the time he spoke in favour of divorce in Seanad Éireann on 11 June 1925, two days after her murder, until 8 February 1926, four days after the trial ended, when he attended the opening night of Sean O’Casey’s play ‘The Plough and the Stars’ which culminated in a riot at the Abbey.[x]

‘Who Killed Honor Bright?’ by Patricia Hughes is available via www.HuesBooks.com [xi]


[i] Her father came from the tiny hamlet of Graiguenaspiddoge, near Tinryland, County Carlow. Born on 11 June 1900, her murder took place two days before her 25th birthday.

[ii] By the time of her sons' birth, Lily had relocated to a semi-derelict tenement home on nearby Catherine Street where she befriended Margaret Magill and James White. The couple later became foster parents to young Kevin, raising him alongside White’s own son.

Kevin O’Neill only discovered his mothers’ identity when he joined the British Army in 1942 and was asked to find his birth certificate to prove his age. He passed away in 1980, aged 59.

Among those who apparently knew of Lily’s pregnancy were Oliver St John Gogarty, John Quinn and Maud Gonne.

[iii] When I questioned Patricia Hughes about George Yeats possible motives, she replied:

“In the first place no-one knows what Lily thought, felt or said about anything. All her papers etc. were destroyed (they may still be held by the Garda Archives). The trial was meticulously organised so that no details about her emerged at all, except her name, address and age, and her location in relation to the location of the two accused that night. People will inevitably jump to conclusions about what she said or did WITH NO EVIDENCE but why start off with irrelevant assumptions? I prefer to stick to the truth.

In the second place George did not advertise her own feelings in public, so no-one knows what she felt. However her biographies show that she was from a psychologically unstable home, as Yeats was financially. Both of them really valued their homes, property and social status and George in particular was very unwilling to become a deposed ex-wife - since Yeats was probably planning to divorce her, as I say in the book.”

[iv] David Neligan made his name working as a spy in Dublin Castle for Michael Collins during the War of Independence.

[v] Lily O’Neill, aka Honor Bright, was buried at Kilgobbin Cemetery, near the East side of the road from Dublin to Kiltiernan and Enniskerry.

[vi] Hughes maintains that the authorities hope for a quick and discreet conclusion were kyboshed by the intrigue of the press, necessitating a public trial so the case could be concluded legally.

[vii] Born in Cork, Leo Dillon, a physically imposing man, was a veteran of the Great War. Appointed Superintendant of small West Wicklow town of Dunlavin, he was entrusted with policing the districts of Baltinglass, Donard and Blessington.

[viii] Dillon and Purcell finally stood trial from 1-4 February 1925, 7 months after the murder. This seemingly gave O’Duffy and Neligan enough time to fabricate a story in which they could ‘reconstitute [Lily] as a prostitute’.

Hughes argues that the trial was a complete whitewash, largely designed to ‘remove all suspicion from George Yeats’ and ‘to disassociate Kevin O’Neill from the Yeats heirship in order that her own son Michael could inherit.’

[ix] Newspapers reported that Honor’s possessions comprised of some Woodbine cigarettes, a powder compact and puff, some few coins and a rosary. However, Hughes maintains that as part of the bigger project to falsify evidence, the Coroner’s report was amended to include ‘a box containing a Malthusian sheath’ (ie: a condom) in her possessions, thus sealing her reputation as a prostitute.

Hughes says that she has been unable to access the police records for the case, despite requests.

[xi] O’Higgins was assassinated in July 1927, just over two years after Lily’s murder. Neligan and O’Duffy retained their posts until dismissed by de Valera in 1932 and 1933 respectively; O’Duffy later founded the Blueshirts. Dr. Purcell and Leo Dillon emigrated to Kent and Canada respectively.

Nobody knows what became of Madge Hopkins.