Robert the Painter – an Ulster Parable

Published in Features, Issue 2 (Summer 2000), Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Volume 8

This story belongs to the Belfast of fifty years ago. It is an exemplary tale which illuminates the bitterness and violence that has been Ulster’s fate since 1969. The topography of the area to which the story belongs provides a perfect image of Ulster life in the 1940s. Duncairn Gardens in the north-east of Belfast runs uphill for two miles or so from York Road to Antrim Road. It is intersected near the top by Halliday’s Road above which is a terrace where my family lived at the time. Parallel and to the rear of this terrace are Ponsonby Avenue, Newington Avenue, and Newington Street, parts of an area known as Newington, which was lower-middle class, religiously mixed, but mainly Catholic: a spirit of mutual tolerance generally prevailed. Halliday’s Road and the streets below it constituted Tigers’s Bay, which was working-class and hotly anti-Catholic. The streets on the opposite side of Duncairn Gardens below Halliday’s Road were largely Tiger’s Bay satellites, though not as trenchantly anti-Catholic. On one corner of Duncairn Gardens and Halliday’s Road there was a grocery shop belonging to the Catholic McHughes sisters; on the opposite corner was another grocery, owned by the Protestant Mr McConkey. Each shop was patronised almost exclusively by its owners’ co-religionists.

Bitterly divisive election

This was the district through which Col. Hall-Thompson, the local Unionist MP and Minister for Education would ride at election times on a white horse, mimicking King Billy and evoking primal emotions so as to ensure a maximum turn-out on polling day: unless he enlisted the tribal instincts of the Protestant working-class his party might lose ground to the Labour Party. This equestrian symbolism had been of special importance during the bitterly divisive election of February 1949, which occurred shortly before the events I am about to recall. During the election, the Prime Minister, Sir Basil Brooke, rousingly called on all loyalists to deal the new Anti-Partition movement a crushing blow: ‘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’.

The murder was perpetrated against the background of the bitterly divisive election of February 1949. (The Irish News, 9 February 1949)

The murder was perpetrated against the background of the bitterly divisive election of February 1949. (The Irish News, 9 February 1949)

The Tiger’s Bay militants had always made annual incursions into Newington on the twelfth of July, marching with drums and pipes, singing ‘The Sash My Father Wore’ and the ballad about ‘spilling Fenian blood all over Dolly’s Brae’. But the incursion which spilt Fenian blood in a singularly horrible way, was on 16 April—Holy Saturday—1949. On Good Friday evening, Robert Taylor, a house-painter aged twenty-one from Lower Meadow Street, one of the Tiger’s Bay satellites, had lost £15 of the £20 he possessed when betting on greyhound races. On Easter Monday he was to marry Lily (Elizabeth) Jones of Tiger’s Bay and needed a minimum of £12-9s, the cost of the cars and bouquets he had ordered and was required to pay for in advance on Saturday. Thus on Saturday morning he had to raise money very quickly, somehow.
Taylor had worked for several years for a Mr Barrett, who sent him on four occasions between 1944 and 1948 to decorate the home of a comfortably-off Catholic family, the McGowans of 18 Ponsonby Avenue (Mr McGowan owned a pub). But Taylor had tried to set up on his own; and in mid-February 1949, a few days after that fiercely divisive election, he called on Mrs McGowan looking for work. The door was answered by her eighteen-year-old daughter, Kathleen, who called to her mother in the kitchen that Robert the painter had come about some work. ‘Oh, are you coming already?’ answered Mrs McGowan, thinking he was still employed by Mr Barrett and had been sent to do some work she had already arranged for; but when she discovered he was not with Barrett, she told him she had no work for him.

Mrs McGowan left for dead

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.
Mrs McGowan’s screams had been heard by her neighbour in number 16, Mr Skillen. When she staggered out the back door at about I2.20pm, he ran to support her and guided her towards the rear of number 20, occupied by the widowed Mrs Rafferty. Giving evidence in court, Mrs Rafferty said that at first she did not recognise her next-door neighbour: ‘She didn’t look like a human being at all’. Mrs McGowan had lost her lower dentures and her spectacles. Both eyes were blackened and closed. Blood seemed to ooze from her eyes, her nose, and her mouth as well as from the open wounds. Her hair, shoulders and dress were sodden with blood, soup, and boiled barley. A blood-red cord hung from her neck, around which it had been wound twice, leaving a black ring. When Mrs Rafferty asked who she was, she gasped, ‘Don’t you know me?’ I’m Mrs McGowan’. To Mr Skillen, Mrs Rafferty, and to the police sergeant who arrived within minutes from the local station, she said several times: ‘Robert the painter did it…Robert who works for Mr Barrett’. Before she died in hospital on the following Monday, she repeated this charge and told the essentials of the attack as given here.

Taylor’s alibi

Taylor was interviewed at his home within an hour of the assault. He signed a statement declaring his innocence and claiming that he was not in the area at the time. His alibi included an account of a visit to a newsagent and a journey into the city centre where he had arranged to meet at City Hall a Robert Booth, who was to pay him back £5 which he owed him. He said that Booth did not show up, and that after waiting some time he left City Hall and boarded a bus at 12.15pm, making his way to his girl-friend’s house. They discussed wedding arrangements, after which he returned home, arriving at 12.55pm. Asked how he got blood on his overcoat, his jacket, and his trousers, he said it was not blood but paint. Asked how blood had penetrated two pairs of socks and clung to the skin of his foot at the mouth of the shoe, he said he did not know how it got there. The scratches on his face, he claimed, might have been caused by his niece, with whom he had been playing. He claimed he had not seen Mrs McGowan for over a year.
At the trial, Lily Jones said he had arrived at her house at 12.30pm and that there was nothing unusual about his appearance. Since it had been established that the blood on his clothes was not paint but blood, Taylor admitted that he had lied to the police; he now remembered that he had had a severe nose-bleed on Friday evening and that he had been plagued for years by nose-bleeds (two or three per week), even though, he admitted, he never once saw a doctor about them. How the blood penetrated two pairs of socks he still could not explain, but he knew that those stains must have come from his nose. His father claimed that he often had nose-bleeds and was not a violent person, and Jones’s sister said she remembered him having a nosebleed on Friday.
But Kathleen McGowan contradicted his claim that he had not seen her mother for over a year, recalling his visit to their house two months before the assault. Mrs Shiels, of 18 Ponsonby Avenue, who left Newington church at noon on the day of the assault, testified that at about 12.05pm she saw Taylor emerging from Baltic Avenue, a few hundred yards from Ponsonby, and heading in that direction (he had done work for her, too, so she recognised him easily). Booth swore that he had no arrangement to meet Taylor in town and did not owe him money. And the newsagent swore that he did not visit his shop. Then there was the forensic evidence. The blood on Taylor’s clothes and skin was type O, the same as Mrs McGowan’s; but as his own blood was of the same group, this was not in itself a point of major significance. More important were these facts: fifteen white, bloodstained hairs on his coat matched those of Mrs McGowan; there were pieces of barley on his shoes; fibres on the soles of his shoes were identical to those in the carpet of the McGowan home; polish on the soles of Mrs McGowan’s shoes was identical to the polish on his shoes.

‘Fenian liars’

Over the course of the hearing and trial (30 May-28 July 1949), when ‘Twelfth’ passions were on the boil, the Tigers emerged from the Bay and congregated outside the homes of widow Rafferty, the elderly Mrs Shiels and Mr Skillen, shouting ‘Fenian liars’ and the like. The police stood sentinel at the front of the houses but did not disperse the mob. This display of aggression naturally distressed the witnesses, but did not affect their evidence. Judge Shiel warned the jury that if they were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of the guilt of the accused, they would be violating the oath which each had taken if, through fear of the consequences, they failed to find him guilty. The jury remained out for over three hours and returned to say that they could not reach agreement. My mother, a quiet, intelligent woman not given to outlandish claims, said she fully anticipated some such outcome, and gave me her reason: ‘With Mr McConkey as foreman of the jury, what else would you expect?’
At the re-trial in October 1949 the prosecution case was the same, but it was argued with greater finesse. Taylor was exposed to relentless questioning, and his claims about nose-bleeds, which he now elaborated on considerably, were made to look preposterous. He was forced to admit that he had lied several times to the police with intent to deceive, and his excuses (‘I was confused at the time’, ‘I was fed up’) signalled obvious desperation. Inconsistencies in his account of his movements were exposed. Elizabeth Jones was forced to admit that her current version of events contradicted her previous one (‘I didn’t know what I was saying’).
But the judge’s summing up was decisive. By way of introduction, he raised the question of sectarianism:

Set aside any feelings that there is the slightest religious issue or prejudice which anyone outside the court may have endeavoured to introduce into this case…As long as I reside in these courts I will see that Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Moslems or Hindus will receive from me and this court British justice.

Robert the Painter - an Ulster Parable 2

Referring to the defence’s claim that Mrs McGowan would have been too distraught to identify her assailant, he observed that she could not have been distraught and must surely have identified him when she opened the door to him and allowed him in to her house to use her phone. And then, ‘without any idea of being partisan, but purely in the interest of justice’, he left the jury to consider ten questions, the obvious answers to which required a verdict of guilty. Within thirty-five minutes, this jury returned such a verdict. The judge concurred with their decision, adding that it had been arrived at on the basis of ‘not merely convincing but conclusive evidence’. Taylor was condemned to death.

Jury irregularities

But an appeal was lodged on the grounds that: (a) the accused had been condemned on the evidence of a dead person; (b) there had been serious irregularities involving the conduct of the jury on the two evenings of the trial. The four policemen who had charge of the jury provided sworn affidavits to the effect that on these evenings they had allowed the jury to separate and mix with the public, contrary to the regulations governing the conduct of jurors during a trial. On Wednesday morning, 26 October 1949, the under-sheriff had asked the judge on the jury’s behalf for permission to go to Bangor in a private bus for fresh air and exercise; such a privilege had been extended to the jury in the first trial. The judge assented but instructed that the jurors should be accompanied by four policemen, at least one of whom should be a sergeant, and that the jurors should be immediately preceded and followed on their walk by two policemen. The four RUC men were accordingly sworn in on Wednesday afternoon.
Although permission had been given to visit Bangor only, on the instructions of Mr Woods, the foreman of the jury, the bus drove through it and on to Donaghadee. Here the jurors broke up into three parties, one of which went for a walk, another visited a public house, and another a restaurant, each group accompanied by a policeman. On Thursday morning, the under-sheriff, when questioned by the judge, reported that the trip had been much appreciated; no mention was made of any irregularities. On Thursday evening, and without asking the judge’s permission, or subsequently informing him of it, the jury went on a trip to Antrim. Again they broke up into three parties and visits were made to a lounge bar, a cafe, and a shop. In their affidavits, however, the policemen asserted that the brief exchanges which some jurors had with the public were overheard by them and did not refer to the trial.
The Court of Appeal consisted of Lord Justice Porter and Lord Justice Black. Porter spoke for both of them. He dismissed the claim that the evidence of the dying woman was invalid and devoted over an hour to the irregularities of the jurymen and their keepers. He first read a report from the trial judge, who pointed out that if he had been told of these irregularities either on Thursday or Friday morning he would have dismissed the jury and ordered a new trial, something which was now rendered impossible by the double jeopardy rule. Porter then explained the gravity of the rule governing the separation of the jury during a trial and stressed that this rule had been broken. He fully accepted that when they were in Donaghadee and Antrim ‘the jurors did not discuss the trial with any person whom they met there’. But, he added, in what he seemed to regard as a fact of overriding significance, that ‘they certainly had opportunity of doing so’. Moving to a conclusion, he said that ‘the accused person had the right to complain that his trial had not been conducted according to the established and recognised principles of…legal procedure’. It was imperative, moreover, that ‘public confidence in the system of trial by jury in capital cases should not be shaken by any irregularity’; indeed ‘it would be disastrous if it was thought that a series of irregularities such as those in the present case could be disregarded’. For these reasons, he and his colleague were obliged to quash the conviction. So Taylor was now a free man. His two trials had generated extraordinary interest in the province, and in Tiger’s Bay he had become something of a folk hero. A few days later he and his girlfriend walked into the Belfast office of the Daily Mail and tried to sell their story, but without success.

‘Some unfortunate mischance’

At no point in his report did the appeal judge criticise the four sworn members of the RUC, or the under-sheriff, or the jurors and their enterprising foreman. The trial judge’s instructions had been violated, said Porter, ‘by some unfortunate mischance, arising we know not how…no doubt quite unwittingingly’. There was no suggestion that when the appeal procedure was completed an investigation followed by disciplinary action should be carried out in order to ensure that a similar travesty of justice would not occur again. That a judge dealing with irregularities having so grave a consequence as letting a convicted murderer go free should not mention questions of responsibility, culpability, and procedural flaws, but rather resign himself to ‘we know not how’, is amazing. But other aspects of his judgement are more amazing still. It did not seem to cross his mind that confidence in the legal system in Northern Ireland would be hugely damaged by insisting that what might have happened but did not happen (the jurors discussing the trial with the public) was of greater moment than what assuredly did happen (Taylor’s brutal murder of an innocent woman). He stressed the rights of a proven murderer, but did not pause to consider the rights of the dead woman, her husband, and her daughter. Faced with what he deemed a choice between two evils—letting a murderer go free or tolerating a temporary violation of the letter of the law—the first was considered the lesser of the two. Lastly, it is astonishing that he nowhere voiced any regret about the consequences and implications of his ruling.

Local Unionist MP and Minister for Education, Col. Hall-Thompson, mimicking King Billy during the February 1949 election. (The Northern Whig, 11 February 1949)

Local Unionist MP and Minister for Education, Col. Hall-Thompson, mimicking King Billy during the February 1949 election. (The Northern Whig, 11 February 1949)

What prompted those involved in this fiasco to act as they did may never be known. In the case of the jurors, the police, and the under-sheriff, one might postulate a unique combination of stupidity and thoughtlessness. But since even the trial judges were aware that sectarian intimidation was at work, one might equally suspect deliberate sabotaging of the trial. As for the appeal judges, it seems that they suffered gravely from that social and moral blindness which often afflicts those who worship the letter of the law. But it is by no means impossible that they too were influenced by those forces to which the Minister of Education appealed when he went stomping on his white horse through Tiger’s Bay.

‘What else could you expect?’

The final wonder in the case is that it produced not a whisper of public protest or interrogation. No editorial discussed it. No one of any kind was quoted as questioning it. That not a single voice of Catholic protest was raised might seem especially strange. We might attribute this to the complete cynicism of Catholics in regard to the law in situations where empowered sectarianism was at work (‘What else could you expect?’). The silence of thoughtful Protestants may have been due to embarrassment, or to a feeling that one should never tinker with a malodorous can of worms. No doubt too it reflected a hope that the sordid story would eventually be forgotten, which it certainly was.
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.

Tom McAlindon is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Hull.

The account of the murder and trial is based on reports in the Irish News, the Belfast Telegraph, the News Letter, and also on the Northern Ireland Law Reports (1950), which contains the appeal judges’ verdict in full.


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