[Home] [Introduction] [Family Gateway] [South Armagh] [County Down] [Song and Story] [Local News] [Site Map] [Links] [What's New?]



When I was visiting my Boyle grandparents in Tullydonnell in the 1940s and early 1950s I would usually go over the fields from Ballsmill. The final leg of this shortcut took me past an empty house, then in use by my grandfather for cattle, and down a lane to the Newtownhamilton to Dundalk road. The house, and adjoining land, was known as Dan Reels and I was aware that it was associated with murder and suicide. This knowledge, although I was not aware of any detail, made the place very eerie and frightening and I would hurry past as fast as I could. I was also vaguely aware that the people involved were in some way relatives of ours, although I never enquired as to the precise relationship. In researching the family tree I recently discovered that Mrs Reel was my grandfather's first cousin, and therefore mine also, but twice removed. So, fifty years after those field crossings I decided to find out more about those terrible events.

The following account is partly based on a report of events in the Dundalk Democrat on Saturday 23 April 1927.

It was Tuesday, 19 April 1927. People were gathering and the local newspaper, the Dundalk Democrat, had sent a reporter. They were awaiting the arrival of the police.

For two days, Sunday and Monday, there had been no movement in or around the farmhouse, at the head of a lane on the Newtownhamilton-Dundalk Road close to the County Louth border and occupied by Dan Reel and his wife Alice. Mrs Reel had not been seen at her regular early Sunday Mass at Kilcurry Chapel. On Monday afternoon a neighbour, Arthur Murphy, heard cattle on the farm bawling, a sign of distress, and decided to send for Johnny Boyle, Mrs Reel's cousin, to check what might be wrong. Johnny and his eldest son, Felix, and a neighbour, Michael Murphy arrived late in the evening but could not gain access as the door was locked on the inside. They decided to send for the police. About two am on Tuesday, while waiting the arrival of the police, Arthur Murphy shone a bicycle lamp into the bedroom window, at the back of the house and saw Dan Reel lying on the floor. It was then clear that something terrible had happened in the house.

The house itself was distinctive. Its long roof was thatched in the centre, over the kitchen, and slated over the bedroom and barn at either end. Also, there were no windows at the front; two were at the back. The house and the nine acre farm (irish acres) belonged to Mrs Reel's family.

Alice Reel, aged 48, was one of seven daughters of Michael and Alice Boyle. The 1901 Census of Ireland records Michael and Alice living in the house with two of their daughters, Maggie (aged 22) who later married Charlie Duffy, and Bridget (aged 18) who later married Peter McGahan. Alice, who would then have been about 19, was not enumerated and must have been elsewhere on Census night. She seems to have married Dan Reel in her 40s. Dan had been born in Carnally, a nearby townland. He was aged 45. At the time of the tragedy they had been married for about 5 years and had no family. Jane Boyle, later O'Callaghan, Alice's first cousin, one removed, was bridesmaid. Alice O'Reilly remembers that Jane wore a royal blue costume and that they had gone to the wedding -8:00 am in Crossmaglen, by sidecar. Alice Reel's mother (also called Alice) had lived with the Reels and had died only six weeks previously.

When the police arrived they tried to gain entry and when this failed they broke open the door with a spade.

The kitchen was empty and showed no signs of disturbance. The floor was swept clean, the dishes on the dresser were shining bright, the ashes on the hearth were swept back, there was butter and eggs on the dresser. It had all the appearance of a well kept country farmhouse. However, when they entered the small bedroom they were met with a terrible scene. In the narrow space between two beds Mrs Reel was stretched out on her back in a pool of blood and with severe head wounds. Dan Reel was lying on his face close by, with his hands clasped round his throat, which was cut from ear to ear.

On the dressing table was an open razor and a piece of blue blood stained wrapping paper with the words "The reason I...." written in pencil. There was also a hand written agreement of some kind dated 5 March. The nature of this document is not known.

Underneath Mrs Reel's body was found a "strickle", a sanded scytheboard used to sharpen scythes before beind replaced by the sharpening stone. It was covered in blood and hair.

The inquest, presided over by the Coroner for South Armagh, Moore Boyle, was held that evening in the kitchen while the two coffins were outside the door. The following jury was sworn -

               John J. Johnston (Foreman)
Denis Lavelle
Bernard Smyth
William McShane
Patrick Grant
Thomas McGahan
James McMahon
James Kerley
James Lavelle
John Kelly
John Finegan
Patrick Rowland
Patrick Rice
John Carty
John Campbell
Brigid Traynor
Patrick Lynch
Brigid Garvey
Henry Murphy

The first witness was Mrs Kate Lambe, from Dundalk, Mrs Reel's sister who had identified her body.

Arthur Murphy testified that he had seen both of the Reels on the Saturday evening and had spoken to Mrs Reel. He said that he had heard a row between them about 6 o'clock. When Mrs Reel later came to his house to borrow a bicycle pump she asked him if he had heard it and walked away crying when he said that he had. He did not know what it was about but said that there were rows every week that had been going on for years. He testified that on the Sunday he had not seen Mrs Reel on her usual journey to Mass in Kilcurry but that as he had not returned home until late on Sunday night he did not notice anything unusual. However, at about 2 or 3 o'clock on Monday afternoon he heard cattle bawling and decided to send word to Johnny Boyle, Mrs Reel's cousin. He arrived, with Felix Boyle and Michael Murphy about 11:30 that night and together tried to gain entry, but the door was locked and they decided to send for the police. Later he had looked through the bedroom window with a bicycle lamp and had seen Dan Reel lying on the floor.

Sergeant Quinn, of Crossmaglen, testified to investigating a complaint that a couple could not be found and it was believed that they were closed up in the house and had met with foul play. He had arrived about 11 o'clock and as a result of what the neighbours said he had burst the door open. He testified to finding the bodies, to their disposition, and to the other articles found, including the "strickle", razor blade and note. Asked by the Coroner, he said that he had come to the conclusion that Mr Reel had battered his wife to death with the "strickle" and had then cut his own throat.

Dr McBride, Crossmaglen, testified to knowing both parties for thirty years. His examination of the bodies found that Mrs Reel had died from laceration of the brain and shock and Mr Reel from loss of blood and shock. He believed that Mr Reel's injuries were self-inflicted and that Mrs Reel's injuries were consistent with being repeatedly struck with the "strickle".

Following a summing up by the Coroner, who expressed deep sympathy to Mrs Lambe and the other relatives, the Jury found that Daniel Reel died by committing suicide by cutting his throat while insane. They found that Mrs Reel died from laceration of the brain and shock from injuries inflicted by her husband while he was insane. They also expressed sympathy to the relatives of both parties.

Although there is no mention of it in the newspaper report, it is possible that the assault on Alice Reel began outside the house as it appears that her false teeth were found in a rain-barrel. There is also some evidence that Dan did not kill himself immediately after the death of his wife. According to Nelly Murphy (RIP) she was, on the Saturday night, sitting up with cow that was due to calve when she heard a step in the yard which hesitated and than retreated. She always maintained that this was Dan coming to confess what he had dome or to seek help and than changing his mind. [I am grateful to Michael Carragher - Nellie's grandson - for this information.]

Apart from the facts quoted, there is little enough to explain the horrific events of that night. While it is clear that Dan Reel had lost his mind there was no direct evidence as to the cause. That the couple's relationship was strained is not in doubt but that alone is not likely to have been the motive for what happened. There was speculation that there was a dispute about the farm, with Mrs Reel refusing to sign it over to him (and which may have been the subject of the "agreement" found at the scene), but likewise this seems insufficient reason for murder and suicide. Whatever the explanation, which will never be known, a moment of madness ended the lives of a hardworking couple and brought tragedy to a peaceful community.

All trace of the house is now gone.

Some years before I wrote the above, Michael Carragher, a third cousin and grandson of Nelly Murphy, wrote a fictionalised account of the tragedy in his book, A World Full of Places. The story, Women and Men is here. (P.D. 14 Feb 2014)

eXTReMe Tracker