Tag Archives: Forgotten Irish Tricksters

Forgotten Irish Tricksters is an occasional series where historian Sibling of Daedalus unearths the inventive Irish con men and women lost to time.

Number 3: Mary O’Neil

Sibling of Daedalus writes:

Bridget Connell, of 35 Cook Street, Dublin, was an elderly lady with only one thing of value: her life, which was insured with the British Life Assurance Company for the sum of £8.

On March 16, 1904, her niece, Mary O’Neill, with whom she shared a tenement, told Mrs Connell, who was ill in bed, that she was in financial difficulties and going out to get money, to lie very still with her eyes closed and not to be annoyed with her.

As instructed, Mrs Connell lay very still all day. She must have known there was trickery, for her niece had left her covered in a shroud and surrounded by candles, but she did not realise that the trick was on her.

The penny dropped, however, at 4 pm. that evening, when a little girl, passing down the stairs, told her that Mary was up on nearby High Street in a cab with a coal porter and a Royal Fusilier, having a merry old time.

Mrs Connell might have been 83 years old but was not slow at putting two and two together. She headed promptly to the nearest British Life Assurance office, only to find that she had been declared dead by her niece earlier that day, for the purposes of obtaining payment under the policy.

The revived corpse was still very much alive at the trial of Mary O’Neill in the Southern Police Court, Dublin, which took place later that year. Mrs O’Neill’s defence that her aunt was expected to die any time was not accepted by the court.

Bitter after having been sentenced to two months’ hard labour, she informed the court that she was sure Mrs Connell would be dead and buried before she came out. It is not clear if this happened.

What is clear, however, is that old habits die hard…

….Three years later, Mary O’Neill was again before the Southern Police Court, this time as the ringleader of the famous Dublin Mammies Insurance Scam – a complicated bit of trickery involving four middle aged women, six insurance companies and not-so-dead corpses too numerous to count.

This time, her husband, William O’Neill, whom she had described, when registering his death, ‘as fine a man as you could wish to see, and now he is gone’, who came back from the dead to give evidence against her….

illustration: ‘The Spectre of the Hall’ by JM Rymer

Previously: Forgotten Irish Tricksters 1: Mary Kate Hodges

Forgotten Irish Tricksters 2: Maureen Corrigan and Charlotte Brownlee


From top: Ballycotton postcard, 1900s; item in the irish Times, March 16, 1901

Forgotten Irish Tricksters‘ is a new series by distinguished historical blogger Sibling of Daedalus exploring the absolute chancers that brought acting the maggot to an artform but are now barely remembered.

Number 1: ‘Mary Kate Hodges’.

Sibling writes

The Reverend John Hodges, of Ballycotton, County Cork, was a very popular clergyman. So much so, that when his young daughter Mary Kate died tragically in 1888, the local fishermen gave up a day’s work to carry her coffin on their shoulders to burial.

But was she really dead?

In 1901, the Irish Times carried a story about an alleged daughter of the same Reverend Hodges, who claimed to have been the beneficiary of a miracle. After spending her childhood in a deaf and dumb institution in Dublin, she had recently recovered her powers of speech and hearing shortly after reaching her 18th birthday.

Miss Mary Kate Hodges attributed her recovery to having recently become a Catholic, and in turn, was happy to help others by offering up masses for their souls. She needed money from them, however, to pay for masses; otherwise she could do nothing.

A subsequent Daily Mail investigation questioning her bona fides silenced the story for a few years. It came up again in the news, however, in 1904, when the same Mary Kate Hodges, now married to an American by the name of Mitchell Drew, brought proceedings to evict another woman from her family home.

Great excitement was occasioned when, in the course of the proceedings, it transpired that Mitchell Drew was in fact Michael Buckley from Queenstown, and the ‘other woman’ was his lawfully married wife who had refused to leave after having been displaced in his affections by Mary Kate.

Her status as spouse did not help her, however. The jury, impressed with Mary Kate’s evidence of her miraculous recovery and respectable family antecedents, granted her an order ejecting her rival.

Possibly they may have regretted this fact when, a few days after the case, a letter appeared in the Cork Examiner from the Hodges family disclaiming any knowledge whatsoever of a daughter called Mary Kate.

A ‘wrong’un’ hidden away and disclaimed by her family or a cunning manipulative trickster?

Only YOU Can decide.

Sibling of Daedalus