IN MARCH 1835, 10,000 people crammed the streets of Carlow to see the public hanging of Lucinda Sly and John Dempsey, who had been convicted of the murder of Lucinda’s husband Walter.
Lucinda was a 58 year-old Protestant landowner; John a 26 year-old Catholic, and her labourer. They were lovers. The story is the subject of a compelling new play, Lucinda Sly, written and directed by John McKenna and performed by Mend and Make Do Theatre Company. It comes to the Town Hall Theatre on Wednesday September 23 at 8pm.
“I moved to Carlow three years ago, and in the county museum there is the trapdoor from the scaffold on which Lucinda and Dempsey were hung," McKenna says of how he first encountered the story. "That piqued my interest and one of the museum staff told me their story. I later found the transcript of the trial in a local paper of the time, The Kilkenny Sentinel. I did some more research locally, talking to people who live in the area and knew stories about the case. That left with me with the bare facts and sometimes contrary opinions from various people. For me it was exciting that there were gaps in the story, enough gaps to allow me put flesh on the characters.
“Most of the stories I heard were very damning of Walter Sly. He had a problem with alcohol and was violent with his wife but I didn’t want him to end up an absolute baddie so I tried to balance out his character and give him some positives. Lucinda had a son from her first marriage, she married when she was 18 and that husband died. She was estranged from the son, but Walter brought about a reconciliation between them which is interesting. The son was a policeman and was the first on the scene when Sly’s body was discovered. He then withdrew from the case obviously. The play evolved from working with the actors, we started with a very basic script and developed it over six months through rehearsal and improvisation and workshops until we had the final version.”
How does the play portray the relationship between Lucinda and Dempsey? “There was obviously something about her that made her very attractive to him,” McKenna notes. “Now it may have been that she was relatively wealthy compared to him, but they did have a torrid sexual relationship. I wanted to cast an actor of Lucinda’s own age so that we portray a relationship between a young male and a mature woman. We spent a lot of time working on the physicality of their relationship. In the real story Dempsey’s first connection with her was when he stepped in a number of times to prevent violence on her from Walter. I suppose that made him attractive to her and the relationship developed. Their plan was to kill Walter, sell the farm, then move to America. It reached a tipping point when Sly threatened to kill them both and they decided to get their retaliation in first.”
Lucinda and Dempsey were arrested a couple of days after the murder in November 1834. “Even though they initially denied it, it quickly became clear that they had done it,” McKenna tells me. “Within a couple of days Dempsey confessed but Lucinda never admitted to it, right up to the bitter end.”
Lucinda Sly has a cast of nine, featuring Marian Brophy (Lucinda ), Tom McGrath (Walter ), and Stephen Casey Bracken (John Dempsey ). For tickets contact 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie