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Shock at a murder most foul in Ballynalargy


The cottage at Ballynalargy photographed in 1939, where Sarah Jane Downey was murdered. All that remains now of this scene is the tree to the right. Reproduced by permission of the News Letter.

The cottage at Ballynalargy photographed in 1939, where Sarah Jane Downey was murdered. All that remains now of this scene is the tree to the right. Reproduced by permission of the News Letter.

SARAH Jane Downey had been at the home of James Ritchie on Saturday January 21 1939 and she left there about 2.30pm after carrying out her domestic work.

She had been due to return there on the following Wednesday and her non appearance was unusual enough to prompt Mrs Ritchie to go over to Sarah Jane's cottage with some milk and eatables for her, believing her to be ill.

William J Robinson accompanied Mrs Ritchie to the front of the three roomed cottage and they found the door locked. It was reported there was no response to William Robinson shouting through the window. Mrs Ritchie also tried in vain to get some response from Sarah Jane.

They discovered the lower window near the end of the house was broken and decided it would be best to get Mr Ritchie, who was attending a funeral at the time. On his return he and his brother-in-law Henry Hunter entered the cottage by the broken window after 4pm. James Ritchie later told the inquest before the Deputy Coroner for the Belfast division of County Antrim, Dr. J.C. Loughridge, J.P. that on entering the room he noticed it was in a state of disorder. He found the kitchen in a similar state.

And it was in the kitchen that he made the gruesome discovery. The partly clothed body of Sarah Jane Downey was lying on the hearth. He had noted blood on her face, neck and head. Realising she was dead he had the police informed and got word sent to her brother Samuel, who was residing in Coronation Cottage at Moira Road.


Samuel Downey arrived about 7.15pm followed by Dr Ireland, Brookhill at 7.30pm. He made a superficial examination of the body by torchlight and informed the inquest the death had taken place inside three days.

Dr. J A L Johnston, crime pathologist, told the inquest he had found a mark on the front of the deceased's neck giving the impression it had been severely nipped and other deep injuries sustained to the neck gave him the impression she had been strangled.

"In witness's opinion death was due to asphyxia and shock, consequent on being garrotted by some person or persons unknown." This was to be the verdict the jury returned to the Coroner.

Captain W F Creery ,district inspector, who was representing the police at the inquest, said he would be relaying this information forthwith to Detective Inspector Moffett, C.I.D., who would have had no doubt this was a murder investigation.

The police had been securing the scene of the crime and taking advantage of the Robinson's hospitality overnight by warming themselves at the fireside.

The police discovered a stone covered with lichen in the room into which the perpetrator of this crime entered the cottage. It was thought they had used this to break the pane of glass to gain entrance. The murderer was thought to have left the scene of the crime through the same window.

The police also examined blood found on the windowsill to the inside of this window. They made a meticulous examination of the scene where they found drawers emptied on the floor, clothes pulled from the bed and floor mats pulled about. It was noted the only thing that seemed to be in place was the furniture in the kitchen. A small empty cash box was found in the cottage.

On Saturday morning the local papers were reporting the post-mortem examination of the deceased suggested Sarah Jane was fiercely gripped by the throat by a strong hand, or, alternatively, that the marks on the throat were the impression of a boot heel.

The crime scene had all the hallmarks of a person or persons involved in a burglary, entering the cottage during the evening and systematically searching it. Police and public were now of the opinion the motive was robbery.

Samuel Downey informed the local press during an interview that shortly before Christmas she had asked him to take some money to the bank for her. She did not make any reference to this again on his next visit and he did not ask her about it. He did not know the exact amount but he was sure there would have been money in the house.

It appeared Sarah Jane Downey had been getting ready for bed when she possibly disturbed the intruder. She may well have known this person, and, as a newspaper reported on Saturday January 28 1939. "they took the course of sealing her lips from bearing witness against them forever." At the administration of her estate in June 1939 she had £86 14s and 3d savings in a bank account.

Sarah Jane was described to be of small stature, about 5 feet tall and of light build and almost 60 years of age. She had been no match for her assailant. There were relatively few visitors to her home and she was considered to be lonely by those who knew her.

At her funeral the minister told those present he had spoken to her about her loneliness and she replied "I am not lonely for I know Jesus is with me." She was said to have told her visitors on their departure "I hope you will not be long till you come to see me again.

 be continued...

* Thanks to Deputy Keeper of the Records, PRONI for the granting of permission to use extracts from the Administration of the estate of Sarah Jane Downey. The Digger can be contacted at

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