Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

On hashtags, secrets and the balance of power

This post is a hard one to write. I’ve kept this blog for years but this is the post I’ve always second guessed myself out of writing. I’ve written about dysfunctional homes so many times, homes that weren’t safe, predatory men, an inadequate legal system, but I’ve never said that what I had a personal stake in what I was writing – that I understood, that I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to live with a volatile narcissist who will make you doubt the facts in front of your nose. I know what it’s like to dodge ever-changing emotions. I know what it’s like to fear for your life – a dull practical alertness, not a nerve jangling panic.

Writing these words I’m consumed with an urge to qualify, to minimise, to explain. It’s an urge that always comes but I’m not going to listen to it today because I’ve got a few things to say. What happened to me happened. It wasn’t as bad as things that have happened to other people but it was sustained, and it lasted and I was in the middle of it – and I still feel my heart race when I think back to that time. I still jump to the doomsday scenario when I’m stressed because I spent long enough thinking about the bleakest outcomes because they were the only ones I could see. I read Lolita or watch Jessica Jones and I’m floored by the memories. I walked away and I rebuilt myself but I’m never free of it. Not really. I still have days when I’m caught by the tangled mess in my past and held by it. I might see his face in a crowd or on television. These cracks will probably always be there but these days the seams of their joins rarely intrude into day to day living.

So when a hashtag like #MeToo comes along I always think about writing this post. Don’t get me wrong, I think that this public sharing on social media is important. That by opening up the conversation about female safety and the ubiquity of sexual assault perhaps things will finally change – although I doubt it. When the outrage dies down will anything actually change? Will we see changes to the law? Will we see a proper societal shift? Call me cynical, but I doubt it. I’ve seen this before, I’ve read the articles by survivors who bravely shared their stories and the newspaper comments that called each time a watershed, a line in the sand. Things need to change, but will they change now? I’ll not be holding my breath.

You see, apart from having written about violence against women for a long time, apart from having gathered information for most of my adult life, I’ve been through it. A couple of years ago I went to survivors’ charity 1 in 4. With their support I contacted the Gardai and I told my story. Over three days I gave a series of detailed statements. I know what’s needed. I gave my statement to two very experienced gardai, who are used to taking statements, to analysing witnesses. They discussed the case with their superintendent who agreed there was a case to pursue. That man was questioned. The DPP were informed…and then it went no further. I still haven’t had any official notification that the matter has come to a close. I was only a witness after all. He was told. Of course he was told.

I’ll stop again here to silence that persistent little voice, the one that’s telling me I shouldn’t be talking about this, that there was no case to answer. Once again I’m going to silence it because I know what happened to me, and I also know that when it comes to justice for the victims of sexual abuse and assault Irish law could do much, much, much better. On my first visit to 1 in 4 they warned me about going to the gardai. They told me that of the people who come to them the majority choose not to report the case if it’s not necessary because there’s a continuing risk to children. According to the 2002 Sexual Violence and Abuse in Ireland (SAVI) Report, commissioned by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, only 8% of those abused disclosed to the gardai. Only 16%  of that 8% got to court. That’s a little over 1% of abuse cases.  According to a 2013 report from the CPS less than 1% of allegations of rape are prosecuted as false accusations (even though this is a British figure the percentage is a pretty standard one for false accusations). So when I’m writing about my experiences of this, even though my abuser was never convicted, I’m statistically far more likely to be telling the truth.

But again, that’s my instinct to minimise, to justify. It’s a normal response.

This is at the heart of what I’m writing here. I’m tying myself in knots because I know as a journalist that without a conviction my story is weakened. I can’t name my accuser, although I’d dearly like to. During the process of making my statement I mentioned that I thought there had been another victim. The gardai said they’d check it out. I told her I was writing this. We keep in touch – we’d known about each other for years and she’s the only other person who knows what it was like dealing with him. But the law makes me question my own experience because it wasn’t given a chance to stand up in court. And that’s  the problem with #MeToo. The abusers, the harassers, the rapists among us, live in a world that’s underpinned by that law. They are protected, their good name and innocence is sacrosanct. As the Garda Inspectorate report on responding to child sexual abuse points out “although substantial research in Ireland and elsewhere indicates that only a small percentage of allegations of child sexual abuse are false, the Inspectorate is mindful of the devastating consequences in those cases as well.”

This is what I see when I see the outpouring of shared experience under #MeToo. Our experiences are endemic because there is no come back. We are silenced because of the standard of proof of a behind closed doors experience, of our word against his, of his good name against the assumption of our untrustworthiness. I believe in the presumption of innocence, it is an important basis for a system of law. But it won’t lay to rest the experiences that are being shared at the moment or give us justice or peace. For that we would need a fundamental shift in the balance of power – and I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

On the Jobstown trial and certain Young Irelanders – when trials get political

21st Century Rioting by Annie West

Cartoonist Annie West highlights an inescapable feature of modern civil disturbances.

Yesterday, the verdict was in on the Jobstown 6 – unanimous acquittal for all 6, a decision reached in only 3 hours. The trial had lasted for 8 weeks. Now for any readers not familiar with the Irish water charges protests, I’ll explain before I go any further.

On November 14th, 2014, the then Tainaiste, or deputy prime minister, Joan Burton was attending a graduation at a college in Jobstown, an area of Tallaght in Dublin. There had been ongoing protests about the hugely unpopular introduction of water charges and sure enough, Deputy Burton was greeted by a group of protestors who were shouting and who threw eggs and water bombs at her and her group. After the graduation, the protestors, around 100 or so, were still outside the college. The Tanaiste hurried to her car and the protesters surged around it, there was a standoff lasting several hours. The story even made the BBC news.

Most people watching the news that evening or watching events unfold on social media would have expected there to be arrests. What few expected, was that the charges would include false imprisonment, an offence which could result in a life sentence – an unusually harsh charge for a protest in which no-one had been injured. Socialist TD Paul Murphy and South Dublin County counsellors Kieran Mahon and Michael Murphy were among those arrested. In October last year a 17-year-old boy, who had been just 15 at the time of the protest was convicted of false imprisonment but did not receive a custodial sentence.

When the trial of Paul Murphy and six other men, including the two counsellors, started in April this year, interest was understandably high. Sitting TDs don’t often end up in court in Ireland. Giving evidence Joan Burton described how terrifying she found the whole event. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone told the court that she was scared for the Tainaiste’s safety. Throughout the trial, Paul Murphy tweeted from court including commenting on evidence as it was given, under the hashtag #Jobstownnotguilty.

In the end, it appears to be video footage from the garda helicopter, showing that the Taniaste’s car could have backed out of the situation at any point, that tipped the balance. Today, there has been the dissection. Should the case have taken place at all the press are asking, while Twitter appears to be fairly adamant that it shouldn’t. This has been a case that has divided the establishment, including most of the media, and the public, or at least, those of them that comment online. It isn’t just the armchair pundits up in arms though, former Minister for Justice and serving barrister, Michael McDowell said the false imprisonment charges had been a “sledgehammer to crack a nut”.

My own view is that this could never have been anything but an intensely political trial. While I’m sure Joan Burton was genuinely scared, pursuing this case did seem a bit of a witchhunt. In terms of violent protests, Jobstown wasn’t really up there with a full-scale riot. 100 people isn’t thousands. Shouting crude insults and throwing eggs and water bombs is certainly not peaceful protest best practice but it’s a long, long way from throwing Molotov cocktails or bricks at police in riot gear. I remember watching the events on the news at the time and thinking, why didn’t they just reverse? The crowd were noisy and threatening but looked like a fairly typical angry Dublin crowd. There was a little whiff of Marie Antoinette about it. I genuinely don’t mean Joan Burton any harm. She taught me business and finance in college and was fine as a teacher. As a politician though I’ve had some doubts. As a Labour Minister for Social Protection, she smilingly cut the ribbon on a food bank. I’ve often thought she could be a little tone deaf on the public mood.

The water protests, while they were about the introduction of water charges, ended up encompassing a lot of the anger that had been simmering in austerity-hit Ireland. In much the same way as Brexit was the straw that broke the camels back for a large chunk of Britain’s population, so water charges were the final straw for people who had been putting up with a lot since the economy crashed in 2010. Water protests became a way of protesting everything that was wrong with Ireland.

Another disconnect is visible today in much of the coverage. While I don’t expect the Irish Times to be the most liberal of papers they’ve been drawing a lot of fire online for their coverage of the verdicts. Their editorial announced that “jury trials were under strain”, while elsewhere in the paper Colm Keena wrote that the case showed a damning vision of modern Ireland. The focus has been on the behaviour of the accused men rather than on the fact that this was arguably a case where the state had tried to clamp down on protestors. Ireland has long had issues with members of the public expressing a strong opinion as this 2013 article by Gavan Titley in the Guardian shows. The world has become a much angrier, more violent place since that article was written but we do well to remember how we got here.

Of course, when I start looking back to the beginning of anything these days I tend to overshoot a little. This case has got me thinking about someone I’ve been researching for my PhD, Irish journalist and patriot Charles Gavan Duffy. Duffy was a founder editor of the Nation newspaper and a prominent Young Irelander who, after the failed rebellion of 1848 found himself on the wrong side of the law. Now Duffy and Paul Murphy don’t share much in the way of politics but it’s Duffy’s behaviour when he was on trial in December 1848 that puts me in mind of this case.

Being a journalist, Duffy knew how the papers worked – and that allowed him to play things in his favour, just as Paul Murphy has done with his Twitter followers. The Freeman’s Journal of Thursday, December 7th, carried the rather extraordinary content not only of the actual indictment that had been served against Duffy, but also Duffy’s lengthy response to the Sherriff of Dublin. These would have come from Duffy, of course. In his letter to the Sherriff, Duffy lays down all his problems with the trial, before it was due to start.

Freeman's Journal, December 7 1848

Freeman’s Journal, December 7th, 1848. Duffy argued that his treatment had been unfair. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Duffy was convinced that he would not get a fair trial and gave numerous reasons to back up his opinion.

Freeman’s Journal, December 7th, 1848. Duffy argued that a jury would be prejudiced. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The Freeman’s Journal that day also contains letters from both Henry Grattan and Lord Cloncurry about jury packed against Catholics and Duffy also voices his concerns with reference to the previous trial of fellow Young Irelander John Mitchel.

Freeman's Journal 7 December 1848

Freeman’s Journal, December 7th, 1848. Duffy voices his concerns about the stacking of the jury in John Mitchel’s trial.

Duffy was eventually released after 5 trials.

I’m not saying that the water protestors are the same as the Young Irelanders but I am left with a feeling, after reading the coverage today, perhaps certain parts of the Irish media and certain corners of the government should take a look at their history books and find out how show trials went down in the past. The 1848 rebellion might have been a failure but it was looking for an Ireland that ruled itself. One could argue that the water protesters were also trying to take their country back, in a way.  It’s more complicated than that and I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of the water protests and the problems of modern Ireland in any more detail but the echoes are there – and they leave a discordant note.

The politics of juries – a strange beast indeed.

 

The selection of the jury in the case of Rex v O’Cioghly Armagh, 1798 Image from Findmypast.co.uk © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England

Over the years I’ve sat through a lot of jury panels. I remember Monday mornings in the Central Criminal Courts in Dublin when Mr Justice Paul Carney would oversee the selection of the juries for the trials that were due to start. Court 4 would be jammed and stifling hot, whatever the season, as jury panellists, various accuseds, victims’ families, barristers, solicitors, gardai and journalists all jostled for elbow room in the body of the court. Carney would often arrive late and was brusque with the excuses of panellists who were reluctant to do their civic duty. The selection process takes time, each person called has a chance to excuse themselves and both prosecution and defence teams have the right to reject anyone they don’t feel will be sympathetic. In a modern trial, they don’t say that reason out loud so you have no way of knowing if you’re on that jury panel if you have been rejected because your hair was too long, too short or some unconscious expression observed by the barristers has convinced them that you will behave in a certain way.

Panellists are also asked if they have any connection to the trial that they could be selected for. If they live near the place where the crime took place, know the accused or the victim or their families, have strong views about the case in any way. Of course, there’s no guarantee that a jury member will always confess a bias but the extraordinary thing about juries is that, whatever their makeup, once they are twelve, and once they have retired to their room, they tend to take things very seriously indeed. Paul Carney’s jury panel sessions were a tradition in themselves. Each week he would issue the same warnings, threaten the same threats of the consequence of not being straight. He would be sympathetic to students with upcoming exams but less so with executives or those in the financial services who would not do their duty. There was a formula to the process and perhaps this was what shapes the juries into the entities they become.

I’ve written a lot about the trial of William Bourke Kirwan, an artist who killed his wife Maria on Ireland’s Eye off the coast of Dublin in 1852. You can read about the case in more detail in posts here, here and here. In that case, the jury actually felt the need to defend their position in a letter to the press. Even though I’ve seen some pretty odd and occasionally downright mad decisions by juries over the years, I’ve never seen a case where they would feel the need to justify their decision. The only exception would perhaps be the Eamonn Lillis case, subject of my second book, Death on the Hill, where the jury explained exactly how they had come to their decision of manslaughter and, possibly because they felt there might be speculation, were absolutely specific that they had decided Lillis was guilty of manslaughter because the prosecution had not proved the case for murder.

Juries interest me, and I’ve often wished I could sit on one simply to see things from the other side, so there’s one record set among the UK National Archives crime records that fascinates me. It’s a little bit outside my period – I usually research Irish courts between 1830 and 1860 or so – but it’s one I keep going back to. It’s a ledger hidden in the rather prosaically named HO130 collection, basically the 130th box of the Home Office records. The fact that it exists I still find amazing. It’s a little piece of colonial history and an insight of how things are done after a rebellion. In these dark times we are living in, perhaps it’s an insight that’s useful to have…

The jury selection was for the trial of United Irishman Father John James O’Cioghly of Loughgall, in County Antrim. Father O’Cioghly and others were on trial for their part in the rebellion of 1798. The jury panel was made up of landed gentry. There were no reluctant students or bankers in this lot. What’s so extraordinary about this record is that it is a record of the silent discussions I watched every Monday in Court 4 in front of Judge Carney, the decisions by prosecution, defence and the magistrate himself on each individual juror. This seems to be a document that was never meant for outside viewing. Justifications for people’s suitability or not are blunt and sometimes brutal.

Take number 22, Sir Richard Glode, for example. The notes comment that Sir Richard should be enquired about. He was strongly anti-aristocratic and this was possibly because he was “exceedingly low born” even if he didn’t show it.

Entry for Sir Richard Glode one of the prospective jurors in Rex v O'Cuighly

Image from Findmypast.co.uk © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England

John Farnaby was not to be trusted. One of the comments notes that he had recently taken his wife’s maiden name of Lennard (sic) – almost certainly the Irish surname Leonard. He was definitely for the cause of a united Ireland.

John Farnaby had recently taken the name of his Irish wife

Image from Findmypast.co.uk © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England

Farnaby might have been tainted by marriage but George Russell had no such excuse. He was “one of the worst of the panel” according to the notes, having actually given £500 of his own money to the United Ireland cause.

George Russell who gave £500 to the cause

Image from Findmypast.co.uk © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England

Luckily for the Crown, eager to make sure O’Cioghly and his compatriots served as a warning, there were also men like Robert Jenner who, the notes reassure, “if eleven would acquit, he would convict.”

Robert Jenner would always convict

Image from Findmypast.co.uk © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England

The jury selection for the case of Rex v O’Cioghly is a rare insight into how a jury is selected, or in this instance possibly stacked. I’m always amazed that such things survive but the historian in me is delighted they do. The journalist in me is equally delighted as this is an insight, however much removed, of a part of the story I could never observe. I’ve been unable to find a trial report for the O’Coighly trial as this was a time when Irish journalism was in its infancy and most newspapers did not yet cover Irish news. Either the jury was well stacked or the Crown’s case was watertight though as Father O’Cioghly was executed on June 7, 1798.

New horizons…

Me at the Brighton Pavilion

I’ve been terrible about updating this blog this year. I finally started my PhD in January and between a full-time job and trying to narrow down what my thesis is going to be all about, there hasn’t really been much time to think, let alone write any remotely cogent prose.

They don’t tell you when you sign up for a PhD that the research proposal you are accepted on is not the end of the discussion when it comes to your thesis subject. I had blithely thought that the rather scattered idea I had pitched would be the broad base for my thesis. Um…no.  After a couple of meetings with my supervisors, I’ve ended up refining my focus considerably, even changing tack quite considerably.  At times I wondered how I had got to this point at alI, if there was such a distance between my initial research proposal and my finished research plan. You see, I still think like a writer – I see a research proposal as a pitch and in my mind, I had already completed the initial stages and was now ready to settle down to the research.  But, as I keep discovering, academia is not the same as publishing. This is a good thing. The plan I now have for the thesis is so much stronger than the idea I had come up with over a few days in a panic at submitting an application for an actual doctorate. This research plan has an elegance and sophistication I’ve never managed to get into a synopsis and chapter plan for a publisher.

I probably shouldn’t admit that, but the academic process is vastly different. If I had been writing it as a book I would have worked on the synopsis and chapter plan (containing much the same information I would put into a research plan) alone, in a mild panic as I tried to crystallise an idea that was still not quite ready to be formed.  Whether you’re writing a synopsis or a chapter plan the problem is the same. It’s something you write at a very early stage in research. You write it before you know what problems, what discoveries you will make along the road, you write it with a skeleton idea, what you think is going to work. What comes out the other end is invariably a different beast.  Obviously, in both cases, the idea you’re pitching is a solid one as it’s one that you know has the legs to become a book or your subject but any idea at the beginning of a project is a shadow of what it will become. As a writer, you go through the uncertainty and doubt alone. You must grapple with your idea until it is ready to present to the publisher – who will just throw it back at you if it’s not ready to go.  In academia it’s different. It’s a far more collaborative, supportive process. That’s not to say it’s not still as frustrating as hell but I’m almost out the other side now so I can be benevolent. I like the fact that academic ideas are allowed to mature a little bit slower.

I knew that taking on this PhD part time while I hold down a full-time job would be a balancing act and it is, but it is also difficult to get to know people. It’s difficult not to get isolated but I gather that’s the case however you do your doctorate and I’m reminded of the way writers seized on Twitter in the early days as a way of building a network of “co-workers” so they didn’t end up talking to their characters – a problem that can be an occupational hazard whether you write fiction or non-fiction. I’m taking every opportunity I can to meet fellow PhD students because there are certain things you just need to talk with peers about. Working alone you lose track of what is a neurotic tic and what is normal behaviour – for a bit of perspective you need a meeting of your peers. But to meet them takes a lot of planning. I’m extraordinarily lucky that I have a job that allows me the flexibility to work from college on days when I have meetings or seminars. To be honest, I don’t know how I’d manage this without that flexibility. I know some people do manage to do a PhD completely unrelated to their demanding day job but this is as full throttle as I can manage.

So getting back to the purpose of this post. I’ve been pondering what on earth I’m going to do with this blog now I’ve an academic profile to build.  I’ve built so many profiles on here in the past. But it occurs to me that actually, when you boil it all down, I’ve always stuck to the same thing. I have always written about my work, my research and the issues that I feel passionate about. Since my thesis looks at 19th-century court reporters in Ireland it’s unlikely regular readers will notice much difference. I’ll still be talking about journalism, writing and murder, but I will now be discussing matters that took place up to over a century ago. All I can do is share my experience. I’ll write about some of the cases I’m exploring and the way the papers covered them, I’ll also discuss wider issues like violence against women and social issues.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

 

Even after death

I’ve often written about the case of William Burke Kirwan on this blog. His was the case that caused me to pursue a different path in life. Since 2010 I’ve been researching his murder of his wife and it’s lead me back to university and in directions I never dreamed of and there’s plenty more to do. So at this stage I’m a little bit proprietorial. My friends know this about me and tend to point out interesting nuggets about the case they stumble upon. In Dublin, after all, it’s a very well know case indeed. You can still argue about it if you take the boat out to Ireland’s Eye from Howth.

So when the Irish Times featured the case as part of their series of stories from their archives, quite a few Irish friends sent me the link and asked me what I thought. Now I’ll say again that this is a case that is very special to me so I’m apt to be a touch judgemental but in this case the article in question raised my hackles both as a historical scholar and as a court reporter.

It doesn’t help that one of my particular interests in this case is the newspaper coverage. I gave a paper on that subject at the Shared Histories conference at the National Library of Ireland this summer and indirectly it gave me the thesis for my doctorate. I’ve got hard drives full of PDFs of newspaper pages, not to mention filing cabinets full of photocopies gathered before digital newspaper archives were as big a thing as they are now. The Ireland’s Eye murder was one of the most notorious cases of it’s day, as big as any of the cases I’ve covered or written about as a journalist. There were a lot of column inches in a lot of newspapers and you can only get the full story if you look at them all.

So my first problem with the Irish Times article is that it only really looks at an Irish Times article from 1904, 52 years after the murder took place. Now, fair enough, the Irish Times wasn’t around to cover the Kirwan’s trial in December 1852 although they did cover Kirwan’s imprisonment from time to time over the years. The problem with their reporting though was, since they had no staff who had covered the case, knowledge of the finer points of it was sketchy and I’ve always discounted their 19th and early 20th century coverage as too removed from the actual case to be much use.

There are numerous factual errors in the piece in the Times, which I’m presuming is down to the 1904 coverage. According to the article the prosecution case was based on the supposition that Kirwan had used a needle like blade to commit the murder. There was certainly a lot of chatter about Kirwan’s supposed sword stick after Patrick Nangle, one of the boatmen, described Kirwan’s “tuck stick” but this was it’s first mention and a sword stick was never the basis of the prosecution case. According to the Crown’s expert Thomas Geoghegan, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, who advised the Crown case but did not give evidence during the trial, the most likely cause of death was suffocation. What the prosecution did suggest was that Kirwan had “burked” his wife, in other words smothered her by compressing her chest and covering her mouth and nose. According to the Freeman’s Journal coverage of the trial when Dr Hatchell, the police surgeon who had performed the post mortem examination was asked to give cause of death he said suffocation.

Freeman's Journal December 10 1852 Cause of death

A more basic error is that Kirwan’s barrister, Isaac Butt, was not yet a politician. The trial took place the week of the British budget and there were press reports after Kirwan was convicted that Butt had taken the mail boat over to England to be back in Westminster in time for the debate. The Freeman’s Journal on December 13 mentions a motion Butt had been bringing forward being postponed.

Freeman's Journal December 13 1852 Issac Butt MP in Westminster for Budget Debate

In fact two months after Kirwan had been convicted Butt used the case as the basis for a bill on second trials in criminal cases which he raised in Westminster. Even though the bill was unsuccessful it gave the Kirwan case a place in legal history as one of the first steps on the road to second trials.

Lastly the piece cites a letter from a Mr Dennis, speaking on behalf of the trial jury in which they expressed relief at the sentence commutation. Actually that’s not quite what the letter says. Dennis is writing to back up the verdict he and his fellow jury members came to in the face of increasing public scrutiny.

Saunders Newsletter January 10 1853 Letter from Mr Dennis, foreman of the jury copyright the British Newspaper Archive

He was writing within days of the news that Kirwan’s sentence had been commuted to transportation for life and mentions in passing that the saving of a life is something to be relieved about. Given that, in 1852 no-one was hung in Kilmainham Gaol where Kirwan was sent, and while it would be years before the death sentence was done away with, in the years after the Famine there was little appetite for execution and most sentences were commuted. Seasoned observers of the courts would have known this and expected the news to arrive. This would have been why the Dublin papers were so slow to print the wild theorising and speculation that appeared in the British press.

There are other minor inaccuracies but these are the ones that really stick out. This is a moment in history not a story. The facts are sacred and deserve to got right.

My second problem with the piece is that it plays into a stereotype that has dogged this case since it happened. It’s a reaction you’ll still see about modern cases. When the accused is a “respectable” man from an affluent background, there will always be a proportion of the reaction that refuses to accept any evidence because he was “our sort”. You can see this reaction most clearly in the Kirwan case. Within days of the verdict, long before the Irish press started commenting, the letters pages of the London Times and the London Evening Standard were full of middle class men expressing their disbelief that one of them could have committed such a heinous act. Because of the outcry from middle class, professional men who identified with the Dublin artist the case became something of a scandal. The great and good connected with the case in Dublin had to justify their actions, some, like the Deputy Governor of Kilmainham Gaol lost their positions (although I’ll go into more detail about that another time.

But most pernicious in my opinion is the way Kirwan has entered history with his character surprisingly unblemished. This was an abusive husband and few who sat in that courtroom had any doubt of his guilt. I’ve seen far more evidence than I will go into here but the evidence was there during the trial. Female witnesses were not particularly thoroughly examined or cross examined but there is a nugget from washerwoman Ann Hanna on day 2 of the trial.

Freeman's Journal December 10 1852 Ann Hanna's evidence copyright the British Newspaper Archive

But after a high profile trial like this everyone likes to be an amateur criminologist and very often it’s the victim who gets forgotten in this process. You might assume that the concept of victim blaming is a modern idea but in January 1853 the London weekly paper The Examiner was most outspoken.

The Examiner January 1 1853 copyright The British Newspaper Archive

Many British papers, who had often only carried part of the trial coverage, were quick to shout about Kirwan’s innocence. The London Evening Standard were particularly rabid when it came to fighting his corner. The whole thing had been a papist plot they hinted. On January 4 1853 they commented on a letter sent by Crown Solicitor William Kemmis, who had written in to argue for the impartiality of the judges and the jury. The Standard claimed, incorrectly as it turned out, that Kirwan was tried by a predominantly Catholic jury and didn’t have a chance as a Protestant convert.

London Evening Standard January 4 1853 Religious makeup of the jury copyright British Newspaper Archive

It didn’t seem to bother them that their jury analysis was wrong, a fact pointed out by Mr Dennis the jury foreman (in fact there were at least 4 protestants on the jury, one of whom knew Kirwan socially but still convicted). Together with the London Times they championed the Kirwan case as a great miscarriage of justice. At the same time more liberal papers like the Examiner and the Morning Post were more trusting of the evidence and the reporting of the Irish press. But as is so often the case, even now, it’s the loud entitled voices of the right who drown out the truth and all to often it’s a garbled version of the truth that gets passed down. It’s worth noting that the Dublin press, who had all sent staff to cover the trial, were pretty unanimous in believing in Kirwan’s guilt. The  Irish Times in 1904 obviously didn’t bother looking for accurate contemporary reports – a mistake repeated in 2016. I’ve been researching this case a long time and I’ve come up against this miscarriage of justice nonsense at every turn. But each time this lazy mistake is made it’s another disservice to the victim, Maria Louise Kirwan. I also wrote the Ireland’s Eye murder for the Irish Times a few years ago by the way – and made some of the points in this piece then. If you want to read in more detail about the trial I covered it here, here and here and there are other posts if you look under the tag. This is the case that changed the course of my life and I will keep writing about it as long as there is material and people keep getting it wrong!

O Brave New World

Tattered-Union-flag

Nothing happens in a vacuum. My words are shaped by the experiences I’ve lived through. Everything has a cause and effect. Some events resonate so strongly within their own context that the echoes can be heard for years.

I moved back to England 5 months ago yesterday. My return was shaped by my departure many years before. I knew that the European Referendum would be the defining story of my first year. I was a journalist for a long time. I still think in stories. My own view of Europe is coloured by my experiences. While I was in college I produced and presented a European news show on community radio. I considered myself European, as a blow-in in a country of race memory it was the most comfortable choice. Europe was everywhere, the little blue plaques on public buildings, the awarding body for any funding. I visited Brussels on a press trip for local journalists, we all knew that the European funding for radio documentaries was so much easier to get than the Irish alternative and often more generous. In college I got the opportunity to mix with journalism students  from the Netherlands and and spent a semester in France with European funding. I studied French as part of my course, the better to read European documents and legislation. There’s an innate understanding in bi-lingual Ireland that translation can be a slippery thing and the devil’s in the detail.

Europe was labyrinthine, a gestalt entity built on centuries old rivalries and jealousies. A squabbling family that will stand together when it matters. I’ve watched that relationship grow tense and strained and the dream to falter but you can’t choose your family. You can refuse to attend a family Christmas but the ties and the shared history are still there. We’re shaped by our history and so much of that history is shared. That’s just the way it is.

Nationality is a funny thing. I chose to define myself as European for most of my adult life because the choice was either to be the member of a club that had the blood of half the globe on its hands or one that constantly told me I didn’t belong. I spent years viewing Ireland through a English lens and now I’m in England I view it through an Irish lens. At this point I don’t know where one nationality begins and the other ends. Being transplanted does funny things to the sense of self. I know my father spent many years without a nationality. An accident of birth. I have a form in a family file to apply for British citizenship when it’s not automatically given. My dad was born in India. A generation earlier my grandfather fought in the 1st World War in the Indian Army Medical Corps. He didn’t get his medals automatically like every other British subject. He had to apply more than a decade later. I never questioned those medals when I saw that multicoloured ribbon as a child. As a researcher looking at the documentary evidence from the National Archives I wondered, as I had wondered when I saw my great uncle, his brother, describe himself in various American documents as Indian, Irish or British as the occasion suggested. Nationality is a curious thing.

Given my experiences, a lifetime of noticed things and lessons learned, I cannot imagine voting anything other than Remain on Thursday. It saddens me but I understand why so many others will vote Leave. It’s a fairly safe bet that when Thomas Mair gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” in court, he views the world through a very darkened lens. That case is live now so that’s all I’m going to say but those views don’t grow in a vacuum either and only time will tell what shaped them, if it’s possible to tell.

One thing I’ve noticed since I moved back to England is how many people take the whole “Island Nation” thing very literally indeed. I’ve spent the largest part of my life on a smaller island but Ireland has always looked beyond it’s rocky borders. For hundreds of years the Irish have been populating the globe – or at least making sure that there’s an Irish bar in every town, village and urban conurbation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain that Dublin is not in the UK. Given that this is a country that appears on the weather map I’m still a little shocked at the lack of understanding of the next door neighbour but perhaps that’s the crux of it. I’m also discomforted by the all the little jumps to the right in everyday life. The fact it is now seen as normal to be vetted at almost every stage of setting up a life because everybody knows that people are inherently untrustworthy and they’re all just out to scam you so you might as well scam them first. So estate agents charge exorbitant fees for opening a Word document and credit checks have become so ubiquitous they have become a growth industry.  When you assume ordinary people are only on the make it’s easy to assume that anyone from outside is at least ten times worse. We’re seeing the results in the Leave camp of prejudices left unchallenged. If no one is correcting long held false beliefs then it’s easy for the cynical and power hungry to use half truths and fantasy to stoke a fire. This is something that is beyond newspaper columnists to fix, it needs to be addressed on a societal level through education and investment. I wouldn’t trust the current UK government to do any such thing so here’s hoping that European funding will still be available in the future.

Living in Ireland you get used to the fact that Europe is the voice of reason when all else fails. If it wasn’t for a European Court of Human Rights ruling many years ago Ireland would not have got as far as a referendum on marriage equality. For years it’s been Europe piling on the pressure to reform abortion law in Ireland. And that’s the one thing this referendum campaign has reminded me of through my Irish lens – it’s as divisive and poisonous as an Irish referendum on the family.

The point I’m trying to make is that just as I could no more be on the Leave side than sacrifice my first born child to a snake god, so a lot of people here are shaped by the world they live in. And when that world is shaped by papers who go out of their way to demonise the poor and the different, when ordinary people are vetted as naturally untrustworthy just to go through life. The world does feel just a little less fair, a little more brutal. An unjust, brutal world shapes the people who live in it. Not everyone will respond by looking beyond. Some will lash out. Some will kill.

This isn’t just a British problem it’s everywhere. It’s polarising people to the left and the right. The vote on Thursday worries me but I’m more worried about the world that we’ll be living in next week. It’s the same world we live in today and it’s a terrifying one.

Remembering a monster

Over the past few days this post has been getting a lot of traffic. Written back in 2009, it was my musing on how “Captain” Eamon Cooke, pirate radio legend and notorious paedophile, was still allowed his legendary status by some in the radio industry. Over the years the post has gathered quite a few comments, including from some of those who worked at Radio Dublin and others closely connected with Cooke himself. It’s hardly surprising given Cooke’s death last week and the astonishing news that he may well have been responsible for one of the most famous child disappearances in Dublin, that of 13-year-old Philip Cairns in October 1986.

But perhaps astonishing is the wrong word to use here. When I first read the initial RTE report on Saturday my gut instinct was that the story was credible, though unlikely to be ever proven. Cooke’s 2007 trial was one of the first sex cases I covered in the Dublin courts and gave me an opportunity to watch the monster at close quarters. It was not the first time Cooke had been on trial. He was convicted of a string of sexual offences against 4 victims in 2003 and sentenced to 10 years in jail but was released 3 years later in 2006 on a legal technicality. Cooke was one of those who benefitted from the existing Irish law on statutory rape being ruled unconstitutional as it did not allow for a defence of honest mistake about the victim’s age. The 2007 went ahead with 2 of the original complainants and should have only lasted a week or two.

Cooke grandstanded the whole way through the trial. It took place in one of the smaller courtrooms upstairs in the Four Courts, a tiny, airless room, especially on a warm summer’s day. Everyone found it airless but Cooke played up the elderly infirm little old man. He insisted on having one of the prison staff bring him a jug of water, while one of his victim’s took the stand. Evidence that should have taken a day or less to give was dragged out over days as he insisted on regular breaks. A trial that should, on the evidence, have taken no more than two weeks, dragged on for a month. I would see the two women who were the chief prosecution victims in the pub across the road from the courthouse at lunchtime every day. I found it more difficult than I ever have to keep a journalistic objectivity as I had my own reasons to identify with the evidence they gave. The same reasons that eventually made me stop covering those kinds of trials (nothing to do with Cooke – but one shrivelled, manipulative psychopath is much like another).

Sentencing Cooke, Ms Justice Maureen Clark, expressed a wish to make all his sentences consecutive rather than concurrent, as she had to under Irish law. Cooke was found guilty on 42 counts which would all have . If the sentences had run consecutively he would have faced a sentence of decades rather than the 10 years he received. With someone like Cooke, who it would be no exaggeration to describe as Ireland’s Jimmy Savile, such a sentence would have surely represented justice – but simply wasn’t possible under Irish law.

I had wanted to cover the trial though – call it curiosity. Anyone who’d worked in Irish radio knew about Captain Cooke. Back in the days of the pirate radio stations, before commercial licences were finally awarded in the late 80s, Radio Dublin was one of the first and one of the biggest. Cooke was a larger than life character but one that there were always stories about. A lot of people, judging by the stories you’d hear in radio circles when I started in the 90s, knew that there was something predatory about Cooke. It was well known that he had a nasty violent streak.

I’ve seen comments on social media the past few days about the need for caution with a case like this. We all know Cooke was a monster but surely he’s too convenient a hook to hang this on? What if the real culprit is still out there? But my feeling is that it’s a neat fit because it’s the right one. The gardai were obviously convinced by what they’d been told and Cooke was that much of a monster.

I’m not just basing that on the evidence I heard or a few weeks in an overly stuffy courtroom. Before I started working in the courts I had come across Cooke in another capacity. I had taken a break from journalism to focus on writing and was doing contract jobs in the meantime. I spent several months working for the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution who’s job it was to take submissions to decide where the Constitution needed updating or revising. I was there while they were examining the portion of the constitution that concerns the family – so we were looking at fathers’ rights, the place of the woman in the home, adoptive rights, gay marriage and the definition of the family – all things guaranteed to get a spirited response from the various sides. It was a major part of my job to go through the submissions received each day, copy and file them and write up a summary for the committee. I would flag major submissions on both sides and the best reasoned individual submissions were brought to notice.

One day a submission came in from Eamon Cooke. I recognised the name at once as I’d been following his 2003 trial, and noted that the letter was posted from prison (either Arbour Hill or Wheatfield I think, but I forget). Cooke argued passionately for the rights of fathers to have access to their children. He spoke of his own situation and how, since he had gone to prison, he was finding it difficult to see his children (I know he had 11 children aged between 4 and 18 at his 2007 trial). He argued for the rights of fathers in prison. He talked about custody issues. He neglected to mention the fact that the reason he was in prison was for sexually abusing children. One of my colleagues read the submission as well and not recognising the sender, wanted to make sure the politicians saw it. I made sure the submission had a note on it about Cooke’s conviction and the inadvisability of using it as grounds for any findings. If I had recognised the name, any other journalist would have done the same. I was shocked by how brazen Cooke was but it really fits with everything else I’ve learnt about him over the years. It would also fit with the kind of psyche who would hide a murder for 30 years and refuse to say where the body was even on his death bed.

I presume that submission is still in a file somewhere, but since the Committee was disbanded long ago goodness knows where you’d find it. I was told at the time, when I asked about access to the submissions in the future, that once the report was published the submissions were a matter of public record. This isn’t my field anymore, but given the recent revelations I thought I’d add this.

Cooke was a monster. He was uncovered as a monster many years ago but as with any prolific, narcissistic predator, there were many silent, ignored victims. Knowing a dark truth about someone who puts a carefully crafted face to the world can be a very lonely place to be. There’s no way of knowing, until that truth comes out, if you are alone or one of many – and men like that guard their reputations. In 2009, when Cooke appealed his 2007 sentence he complained that the allegations against him were simply to harm his reputation. When Radio Dublin staff walked out in 1978 and left the station off air while Cooke was in Spain (according to evidence given during his 2007 trial, with the winner of the competition for the holiday, a 15 or 16-year-old girl) he took to the airwaves on his return to refute allegations of child abuse. If you’ve a strong stomach you can hear part of that broadcast in this clip which someone uploaded to Youtube after that trial.

I hope that for Philip Cairns’ family and Cooke’s many victims there is some peace but men like Cooke don’t leave peace in their wake, they leave shattered lives. A truly evil man has died and, if it is true about Philip Cairns, he kept his power to the end. That sort always do.

A Wound that Never Heals

Daddy-and-Lenin

My father, Colin Rieley, being only mildly disrespectful to Lenin.

On December 8th 1973 my dad was heading home from work. He was a teacher at a prep school that fed children into the elite public school system and well loved by his pupils. Every year he would supervise the school skiing trip to Switzerland as he had a gift for languages and could speak French, German and even passable Italian. My mum went with him one year and never forgot the welcome the local people gave him.

My dad was an inspiring teacher who specialised in English and drama. He was a writer himself and had met my mum when he was working as a stage director in rep companies during the school holidays. In his younger days he had acted himself, including a spell in the Brian Brookes Company in South Africa. He had been working on a novel and it had been accepted by a publisher.,,but he never finished it. He had to pay back his advance.

He had gone back to college. He needed further qualifications to teach. He was studying to teach special needs students.

That spring my mum and dad, my great aunt and me went on a cruise on a Russian ship. It was the cheapest option. There were pictures of Lenin all over the ship and everyone commented that my dad was a dead ringer. One night my mum and dad snuck down to the corridor to take the picture at the top of this post. This was the only version of the shot on the roll that wasn’t blurred from my mum’s laughter. Every night they sat at the Captain’s table. He enjoyed my dad’s company.

Exactly 42 years ago tonight, my dad stopped off to buy a bottle of wine. At home my mum was writing Christmas cards. It was to be their first Christmas at home as a family. I was upstairs asleep in my cot. My dad stepped off the pavement to cross the road and that’s when everything changed. That’s the moment that clever, funny, kind man went away. All that possibility stopped.

A coach driver wasn’t looking where he was going. He swung into the road just as my dad was crossing. It couldn’t end any other way.

My dad was 42 years old.

My mum always hated writing Christmas cards after that. She was writing them when the doorbell rang. She told me she knew as soon as she heard it there was something wrong. There were two policemen there, a man and a woman. There are always two for things like this. I know the details of that night by heart, even though I was a sleeping baby. I used to have a recurring dream that the doorbell rang and my dad was standing there. Until I learnt he never would. Even so I still dream it sometimes, he’s tanned as if he’s been away. I’m not angry he’s been gone so long just happy he’s back. My tears usually wake me up.

My mum was a poet as well as an actress. She wrote about that night. She didn’t show me the poem until I was grown. I’ll share it here now.

Accident

1.

That your dear head should let out all your life

Seemed blasphemy.

Could so much given to such good purpose

Be wasted in one foolish streaming night?

What timeless disbelief

Between first knowledge and your final leaving

Could all that life have given

Be appraised and mourned in such brief stunned hours?

2.

When at last they let me see you

Your abstracted stillness

Made me conscious of intrusion.

I feared the worst but could not think it.

I remembered conversations on the privacy of death

You believed it was already beyond mortal love:

That each man must make his own death,

With his particular God,

Suffering no distraction.

Unable to accept

I willed you back to us

But you continued in your great silence

I lay that night

With my palm outstretched, laid upwards;

Unable to believe

That your warm grasp was loosed forever.

poem by Tani Bentis (all rights reserved)

December 8th has had other associations for years but it will always be the day my father died. Every year my mum would ring me around this time, just wanting to talk about him. This pain never goes away. I don’t remember my father but I still feel his loss, even after all this time.

That’s what careless driving does. Whether you drink and drive or you just don’t take care please think. Please take care. Don’t do this to someone.

Who’s Afraid of the Dark?

A suitably blasted heath - or rainy cemetary

A suitably blasted heath – or rainy cemetary

I’ve always loved reading ghost stories at this time of year. Nothing else seems to hit quite the same spot the wind is roaring like a lost soul outside and the rain is battering against the windows in truly biblical fashion. As the nights draw in there’s always that primeval part of us that draws closer to the fire but is mindful of the fury outside. This is something that writers have always understood and those writing before homes were lit with the flick of a switch understood it by far the best. My favourite ghost stories always seem to date from the mid-19th to early 20th century, when the gothic imagination was at its height. I grew up reading M.R. James and E.F. Benson, first discovered in the volumes that made up part of my dad’s Everyman Library – hundreds of uniform cloth covered books with matching paper jackets that lived in special glass fronted bookcases in the dining room.

It was in those bookcases I discovered the Brontes and Dickens, Tacitus and Gidden’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Everyman mission was always to provide a world class library of classics accessible to the ordinary men and women. The Everyman collection taught me about the gothic imagination and it was from there I first discovered the pleasure of reading to be scared. There were other horror compendiums around the house, one Welsh Tales of Terror compiled by the great Chetwynd Hayes left a particular impression with a story of man eating rats, but there was something about the heft of the Everyman books that was special.

Back then, happy in my reading nook, I never really noticed that all the stories I read were written by men. When I started to collect my own horror compilations I found a few female writers – Edith Nesbitt and Edith Wharton for example – but I suppose I just assumed it was a genre that women didn’t write – even though, as a little girl who would grow up into a writer, I devoured horror stories and tales with a twist in the tale more voraciously than almost any other genre. As I grew up I kept an eye out for female writers in this area, and particularly in my favourite period. It was only last year when I really started to make headway, largely thanks to my husband’s discovery that Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural, included several volumes of stories by female writers. Some are well known names, others should be and I’m going to run through some of them, in case you have been on a similar quest.

Marjorie Bowen

For me, the stand out discovery. I’m only sorry that it’s taken me so long to discover her. I’d heard her name before as a novelist but had no idea about her ghost stories. She’s a fascinating character. A writer from necessity, she supported her family, including her absolute liability of a mother who was an aspiring writer herself. Bowen received no formal education but taught herself French, Italian and a little Latin. She wrote under a variety of pseudonyms – in fact Marjorie Bowen was one of them, her real name was Gabrielle Campbell – many of them male. Her writing style is fluid and lyrical and her stories should be among the best known in the genre. My favourite of her stories is the extraordinary Florence Flannery, a wonderfully dark Wandering Jew type story. The collection I have is The Bishop of Hell & Other Stories  and Florence is in that in all her glory.

Edith Nesbit

I grew up reading E. Nesbit’s children’s stories but it was only as an adult I discovered her ghost stories, again in the Wordsworth edition. It’s well worth reading the introduction to that edition actually. It gives a great insight into Edith’s unconventional life, her unusual home life and founding membership of the Fabian Society. The story that really stayed with me was From the Dead , a tragic story of love, betrayal and forgiveness, but I don’t want to say any more, I don’t want to spoil the story. Nesbit’s stories are good, old fashioned shockers. She uses physical horror particularly effectively, her stories are told more bluntly than Bowen’s, though that doesn’t limit their effectiveness. Track them down – the collection is called The Power of Darkness.

May Sinclair

Another formidable woman as well as an excellent writer. May Sinclair, or Mary Amelia St Clair, was an active member of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League (now there’s an organisation to resurrect). She also wrote a fine line in chillers with a distinctively Freudian edge. The Flaw in the Crystal  is more of a novella than a short story, telling the story of a female telepath who must live with the consequences of her benevolently meant actions, while Where Their Fire is not Quenched  is a deceptively simple tale of lovers locked in an endlessly repeating, ever unfulfilling affair. Sinclair is writing a bit later than Nesbit and Bowen so her stories inhabit a less obviously gothic world. She is firmly 20th Century in her writing and her subject matter. The collection I have is Uncanny Stories and you will find both stories I’ve mentioned in there.

D.K. Broster

Dorothy Broster was a best-selling historical novelist, like Marjorie Bowen. She was a nurse during the First World War and afterwards worked as secretary for the Regius Professor of History at Oxford, where she had studied herself. Her stories are also somewhat later than the first two examples but Couching at the Door which gives the collection I have it’s name, is as good a creeping menace story as any devised by M.R. James. I can’t help but note that it says a lot that Broster, despite her literary success, was a mere secretary, while James was famously a career academic. Would more doors be open to her these days? It’s hard to know if she would have ventured through though, since she was a very private individual and little is known about her – although I’d be happy to be corrected on that, if you know of anything, let me know in the comments.

Lucy M. Boston

Another favourite author from childhood, I only discovered that Lucy M. Boston wrote ghost stories in the last couple of years. I loved the Green Knowe books, and you can see a lot of the same author in her stories Curfew and The Tiger Skinned Rug, possibly because both these stories feature young protagonists and indeed, both appeared in children’s anthologies. While I’ll let you track down copies of the other collections yourself, Wordsworth editions are relatively easy to track down in bricks and mortar bookshops as well as online, I’ll link to the stunning edition of Curfew and Other Eerie Stories  from Dublin based Swan River Press, as it might be more difficult to track down. Boston is the latest of the writers I’m writing about today, and one of the things I love about her story is that she was a late starter. Her first book was published in her 60s which gives hope to anyone out there still trying to make it as a writer. She wrote ghost stories throughout her life and it’s obvious from reading those published that like me, she was someone who had always loved the genre and had grown up reading M.R. James and the rest. You can see echoes of these in her stories but they more than stand up on their own.

One thing that’s struck me, reading all these female writers take on the ghost story is that there is a difference from the stories I read growing up. I hesitate to say there’s a male type of writer and a female type as we all know where that kind of thinking can lead (pink covers anyone) but on a very personal level I’ve noticed that these writers tend to give their characters more depth. Maybe it’s because I’m reading them as an adult, and as a writer myself, whereas I would have read all the others from childhood but I don’t remember feeling that before. The stories I remember tend to have very few female characters. Protagonists are invariably male and women only appear as wives, sisters or mothers. Now a lot of that could be because I’m thinking particularly of M.R. James who wrote the world he knew and consequently writes a lot about solitary, male academics. In the stories written by women the protagonists are often female, or children, but even when the story revolves around a man they tend to be less secure, more aware of the world and the relationships around them.

Most of male protagonists I remember reading about growing up were academics, or ex army or naval men. They work in the city or meet someone on a journey. I suppose that’s because that is the male experience. Just as female writers are sometimes criticised for focusing too much on the domestic, so male writers take their protagonists out into the impersonal world. Since so many of these uncanny stories focus on something that disrupts the ordinary, that disruption is going to occur in vary different places depending on the life experience of the writer. Personally I can’t help feeling that the stereotypical male life in this context, with it’s day to day work in an office of some kind, the home, a distant beacon rather than a natural focus, can put the horror at a remove. It doesn’t make me love these stories any less but when you read stories that bring that horror right into the home, into the safest of safe harbours, then that gives the story a totally different impact. I wonder if the female experience actually opens up the world more. Maybe we should be looking at all those male writers as the limited ones…

But that’s just an idea I’ve been playing with, not one I’ve any major thesis about. I hope these suggestions give you some ideas if you’re on the lookout for something spooky this Halloween. I’m planning another round coming up to Christmas, because that to my mind is an even better time for ghost stories. Do let me know what you think in the comments.

It’s in the trees…it’s coming…

Nightofthedemonposter

I thought it was time for another look at real cases that have their echoes in classic films. Last time I wrote about lost Lon Chaney film London After Midnight  and it’s connection to the rather tragic case of Julia Mangan, killed by the obviously disturbed Robert Williams. This time we’re sticking with a horror film but the story has more than a whiff of the supernatural – the link might be quite rather tenuous but I’m going with it. It’s a great film and the cases that echo through the story are fascinating ones.

Night of the Demon  was Jacques Tourneur’s version of the classic M.R. James short story Casting the Runes. Released in 1957 it tells the story of the sceptical psychologist played by Dana Andrews who comes up against the charismatically devilish Niall MacGinnis. It’s a tremendously creepy film that has all of James’ hallmarks – intellectual arrogance coming a cropper against older, darker forces – but for the contemporary audience it was a story that carried a particularly plausible shiver thanks to a couple of strange war time murders. Even though there’s no direct link, there’s a very good chance that screenwriters Charles Bennett and Hal. E. Chester were influenced by what they read about these cases when they were updating James’s earlier story.

In 1943 four small boys were poaching in Hagley Woods near the village of Stourbridge in Worcestershire. They came across a large Wych Elm near Wychbury Hill and it was there they made a shocking discovery. Looking for birds nests they climbed the trunk and peered into the hollow. Below them was a human skull still with traces of hair attached.

Local papers appealed for information about the identity of the deceased – a woman believed to be aged between 35 and 40.

Gloucestershire Echo 24 April 1943

Gloucestershire Echo, 24 April 1943

No one came forward to claim her. But someone didn’t want her to be forgotten. As the first anniversary of the discovery approached, the Sunday Mirror took up the story.

Sunday_Mirror_02041944

Sunday Mirror, April 2 1944

The piece explained that shortly before Christmas the previous year the words “Who put Luebella down the wych elm?” were written in chalk on the wall of a house on Hayden Hill Road, Old Hill. The following week the words appeared again on the wall of an empty premises in Upper Dean Street, Birmingham. A few days later, the mysterious writer was obviously getting frustrated that no one was answering them so the words “Hagley Wood Bella” appeared several times near by. Bella has never been formally identified. One theory said she was part of a war time spy ring. The file remains open.

The following year a gruesome murder in nearby Warwickshire dredged up old suspicions and paranoia. On Valentines’ Day, 74-year-old hedge cutter Charles Walton was slashed to death near the village of Lower Quinton with a pitchfork and a slash hook. Initial reports such as this one from the Gloucestershire Citizen the following day made no mention of any supernatural link but that would soon change.

Gloucester_Citizen_15_February_1945

Gloucester Citizen, February 15, 1945

However the case soon became synonymous with witchcraft, largely thanks to the later accounts of the famous Chief Inspector Robert Fabian, who arrived from Scotland Yard to investigate. In his 1950 memoir, Fabian of the Yard, he would write.

“One of my most memorable murder cases was at the village of Lower Quinton, near the stone Druid circle of the Whispering Knights. There a man had been killed in a reproduction of a Druidical ceremony on St Valentines’ Eve”

Fabian suggested that the case had marked similarities with a murder that had happened nearby a generation ago, a murder where witchcraft actually had been a very real part of the story. It’s rather unlikely that the Walton case had anything to do with the occult even if it did make one hell of a good story. The earlier case on the other hand really did seem to arise from good old fashioned superstitious paranoia.

In December 1875, the the trial of James Haywood at the Warwickshire Assizes was covered by the Warwickshire Journal. All the witnesses described Haywood’s preoccupation with witches, leading to a brutal attack on elderly Ann Tennant, who he had attacked with a pitchfork and killed in the village of Long Compton.

Haywood had apparently said that there were 15 or 16 witches in the village and that they were making it impossible for him to work. He said that he would kill them one by one. When the victim’s daughter took the stand, he got agitated in court.

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_1

Worcestershire Journal, 18 December 1875

According to the superintendent of the county lunatic asylum Haywood was insane.

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_2

Haywood was found not guilty by reason of insanity and would spend the rest of his life in the asylum. However it is worth noting the words of an earlier witness, local farmer James Taylor…

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_3

It’s impossible to know how much influence these cases had on the writers of Night of the Demon but it is very reasonable to assume that they were were in the mix somewhere. Fabian’s memoires were adapted by the BBC in the 50s and  the Lower Quinton case in particular was a notorious one. The film is a quintessentially English horror firmly rooted in a world where belief in witchcraft had never fully died out. In fact, in the 50s it was rather a fashionable subject. The founder of modern witchcraft, Gerald Gardiner, had published his book Witchcraft Today in 1954 and Hammer Films were helping horror films back into the spotlight after the war. These three cases undoubtedly formed part of the national psyche and have not lost their resonance today.

All newspapers available on Findmypast.co.uk

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