Every month we are going to reexamine an old case that has relevance to Galway’s legal history and share it here with you. This month we revisit the murder of Alice Burns in Eyre Square by her one-time fiancé Thomas Parry.
The story of Thomas Parry and Alice Burns’ broken engagement is one of the most notorious cases of its time. In 1884, Parry travelled from his native Edenderry to Galway with a loaded revolver concealed in his pocket before shooting dead his former fiancée Alice Burns in the dining area of The Royal Hotel, Eyre Square.
In late July of that year, Parry received an engagement ring he had purchased for his fiancée, Alice Burns, alongside a letter in which she informed him that the correspondence would end their engagement. Parry, undeterred, boarded a train to Galway and checked into the Imperial Hotel on Eyre Square, ordering supper alongside two and a half glasses of whiskey.
At 6am the following morning, he called for another whiskey and another two hours later. He left the hotel shortly after without breakfast and made his way to the Royal Hotel next door.
When he entered the dining area, Parry approached Alice and asked why she had rejected him. Alice did not reply, and Parry pulled out a revolver and shot her four times. One of the bullets passed through her heart, killing her instantly. After shooting Alice, Parry attempted to shoot himself but only managed to graze his left flank.
In court, Parry pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and his defence cited a “hereditary madness” in his family; the defence pointed to a cousin of his in an asylum and an “imbecile” uncle on his mother’s side. The defence also used evidence that Parry had once threatened to shoot his mother after an argument and had been caught “violently thrashing a shepherd’s dog”.
The jury found Parry guilty of murder, recommending mercy due to his exasperation on July 29th “by reason of the letters he had received from Alice Burns”. However, the judge didn’t have the same sympathy and said the “law had given him time to prepare his defence. He should now have time to prepare to meet his God”.
At Galway jail sometime before 8 am on Tuesday, January 20th 1885, Parry was handed over to executioner James Berry and his assistant and was hanged.
The ruling of this case was incredibly important in the law of homicide. It is one of the earliest examples of a court ruling that a person can be found guilty of murder even if they were insane at the time of the killing, provided they knew what they were doing was legally wrong.
This area of law and our understanding of mental health has obviously evolved significantly since 1884. The Defence of “Not guilty by reason of insanity”(NGRI) is now enshrined in legislation under the Mental Health Act 2001 and is a defence which can be used in criminal trials. The burden of proof rests with the Defendant to produce evidence that demonstrates that they had an existing diagnosable mental disorder at the time of the offence which led to a deficiency in understanding and comprehending the gravity and effect of their actions.
If such a defence is successful, the Defendant is put into the State’s mental health care facilities for a period as determined on a case-by-case basis