Graffiti on the Wychbury obelisk (photo by David Buttery)
‘Tis the season for all things spooky and one of my all-time favourite scary films is Jacque Torneur’s 1957 masterpiece Night of the Demon. Based on the M.R. James story Casting the Runes it’s still a genuinely unsettling watch. But did you know that this film might have a link to a real crime?
Back in 2015, I started a series of posts looking at the true cases that inspired various films. One of the first I explored was the strange goings on in Lower Quinton and the unanswered question of who put Bella in the Wychelm. It’s a series I’d like to start up again so by way of a reintroduction here’s the story of strange goings on in Hagley Wood through original news reports at the time.
So Ireland has voted to #keepthepoet and take blasphemy out of the constitution. Miggeldy will have another seven years in the Aras. For any non-Irish readers I should explain, Miggeldy is the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. Miggeldy is an affectionate pet name for this president used widely by Irish people after a child’s school essay misspelling his name went viral some years ago. The name is a joke on how the president has been referred to for years, especially in the West of Ireland, as a popular left-leaning politician and minister. Back then he was universally known as Michael D. rather than as Minister or Deputy Higgins. It’s fitting for someone who has spent his entire career arguing for equality and fairness. Michael D. was the politician everyone would stop on the street to say hello to. Miggedly is the president who loves his dogs and is immortalised in a popular tea cosy. He’s also the president who had a pleasingly humanistic inauguration ceremony the first time round and who’s official speeches have made me repeatedly proud of one of my countries on a regular basis over the past seven years.
Since Mary Robinson took the job back in 1990 the Irish presidency has become a very aspirational role. The presidency was where the Irish people could try out new ideas for size. There have been two female presidents but no female Taoiseach for example. Seven years ago Ireland could have had their first openly gay president in the shape of Senator David Norris but instead voted for their first humanist president, someone who’s further left than the majority of TDs. Michael D. was elected before Ireland’s historic referendum votes in favour of marriage equality and to remove the 8th amendment banning abortion. The winds of change might have already been blowing but once again, it was the presidency that tried out the idea to look for a fit. I’ve often thought that in recent years the presidency has become the face Ireland wants to show the world, a “good room” in human form to be brought out for visitors and kept under plastic covers the rest of the time – and we’re almost back to tea cosies.
This election campaign has been a bit extreme though. Coming so soon after the abortion vote it was always going to be. That vote revealed a lie that had been told to liberal Ireland for a generation – there are more of us than you. That vote proved the lie and gave a breakdown. Of course there are complexities in any vote result, a variety of reasons why people may vote this way or that, but the abortion vote, like marriage equality before it, showed the breakdown to be somewhere in the region of a 60/40 split. You see Ireland, like many other countries has always had two faces. There is conservative, Catholic Ireland – the country of greys and blacks, right wing, dogmatic tendencies and an ultra Catholic tone – and there’s liberal Ireland – the land of saints and scholars, dark cynical humour, dazzling discoveries. These two countries have always existed in theory. In practice Ireland as she really is is a balance of the two. The question is always what is the balance. It’s the balance we glimpse in referendum results. Divorce in 1992 told us it was 50/50. Since marriage equality we know it’s shifted a bit but you can never be certain.
So when it was announced that Miggeldy was in fact going to seek a second term (he had always said he would only do the one) they all came out of the woodwork. That’s how there were early stories about famine theme parks and anti-vaxxers and Dragons Den. Actually it all got very odd. In the end there was only one other contender. Peter Casey managed to garner around a third of the vote by dog whistling anti traveller sentiments and being generally reactionary. The last 24 hours have seen a flurry of articles explaining that Casey is not the Irish Trump. He’s not – but his comments about travellers did appeal very neatly to that section of Irish society who are reeling from discovering that they don’t have 50 % of the vote anymore, that they are now in the minority. They didn’t vote for Miggeldy the first time round, they didn’t vote for marriage equality and they didn’t vote to repeal the 8th. That lot have always been there, they just can’t say they’re in the majority anymore. It isn’t that long ago when Casey may well have won. This isn’t a sign that Ireland has a growing rump of right wing sentiment, it’s just an indication of where they are.
Which brings me to blasphemy. As well as the presidential election there was also a referendum on whether or not to remove “blasphemous” from the statement “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.” This hadn’t been a major problem until 2009 when a clause on blasphemy was added to the Defamation Act, thus defining it in law. Now it might have been a pretty useless law that was ultimately unprosecutable but it was still put in there. It seems to have just been there to catch out comics with Tommy Tiernan inadvertently triggering the damn thing in the first place and Stephen Fry falling foul of it and ultimately setting the ball rolling to get rid of it. Well kind of. Most of the coverage of this blasphemy referendum has referred to the Irish people voting to remove the law on blasphemy. They’re not. The law will still stand but at least now politicians can no longer argue it’s a gap that needs filling and hopefully speedily remove the clause from the Defamation Act.
So having Miggeldy for another seven years is a good thing. Having further confirmation that liberal Ireland is still in the majority is a good thing – even if there is still a third of the population who would vote hard right conservatism. Given Ireland’s history this is actually a pretty good figure. There’s still a very long way to go but at least Ireland has decided to put a progressive face to the world.
On May 25th 2018, Ireland will vote on whether or not to repeal the 8th amendment to the Constitution, which gives an equal right to life to both the mother and the unborn. Like the Brexit referendum in the UK and the last US Presidential election, this is a vote that goes deep to the heart of a country. But, while it is true that the Irish vote has split the population along harsh lines of conservative populism and a more optimistic progressiveness, this is a very different fight.
In Britain and America, the results of those two votes could be described as reflecting a nostalgic wish for a rosy past that never existed, pushed by elites. In Ireland, the conservatives do have a rosy tinted view of the past, but they are remembering something that happened. They are seeking a return to a grey theocracy where women are demonised and moral transgressions are punished in dark and sinister ways. This is an Ireland that had Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Child homes, where being different was viewed with suspicion, where judgement was everywhere.
I moved to Ireland in the middle of the 1980s, a couple of years after the 8th amendment entered the constitution. Living in the rural north-west was a huge culture shock after a childhood spent in a leafy London suburb. I learned quickly that, as the Protestant English girl, my morals were immediately viewed as slightly dodgy. I was seen as a bad influence on school friends. I was asked if I had prayers in my religion.
But this post isn’t about that, I’m just giving a bit of context. I was in my teens when we moved. Old enough to be talking about stuff and understanding the subtext in overheard conversations. After leaving home, the 8th amendment was never far away. As my friends and I got used to young adulthood, trying to find a mate, making the occasional mistake, it hung over all our lives like a black cloud. It meant that every time a period was late there would be late night conversations about money, because having all the options to make a decision, even before one needed to be made involved working out how to leave the country if needs be.
I mentioned that earlier bit of context because being the English girl lead to several conversations that have been rolling around in my head since this referendum was called. I was assumed to be non judgemental and more open minded so sometimes people came to me for help. I was never a font of all knowledge but I always tried to be a sympathetic ear although I didn’t always have an answer. That cultural gap that I had felt so keenly meant that I was probably privy to more people’s decision processes in stressful circumstances than I would have been under normal circumstances. I’m not virtue signalling in any way here, I’m just giving context.
I remember the knock on my door when a casual friend came to ask if any of the herbs I grew on my windowsill could get rid of a baby. I remember the discussions of which spirit would be best to drink and how hot the bath should be to bring on a late period (even though the pregnancy test had already shown positive). I remember calculating the costs to Liverpool for a friend of a friend who needed to travel. I remember sitting with male friends whose partners had gone to England without telling them. These were not unique conversations by any means, in fact they were pretty ordinary in their way.
We weren’t a wild crowd, not particularly hedonistic, all just wanted to find out where the hell we were headed and preferably with who. This was in the early 90s when the availability or not of contraception was very much in the news. I remember asking my GP if I could go on the pill. I told him it was because my periods were heavy and painful. He smirked as he handed me the prescription. Back then condoms could still only be bought from the chemist. The chemist back home in the northwest wanted my parent’s permission. I was 22. It wasn’t surprising when people got caught. Hell, some of my friends practised the withdrawal method. Once again, this was the 1990s, not the social upheaval of the 60s or the permissive society of the 70s. This was post AIDs. We knew the facts of life and we were careful, even when it was excruciatingly embarrassing to get the means to be so.
But sometimes things went wrong and someone would get caught. I’m talking about a wide extended group of friends here, friends of friends, people we knew. In those circumstances abortion was always on the table. It has always been a decision that needed to be made, an option that had to be ruled out or chosen. Adoption is always mooted as an alternative to abortion. But adoption in Ireland carries a lot of stigma to the extent that domestic adoption in the country exists mainly between close family and most couples wishing to adopt do so from abroad but that’s a whole other matter. Choosing to have the baby, especially if the father was not going to be in the picture was also a difficult choice. Despite what one might have heard recently from the No lobby in the current referendum campaign, single mothers have not, as a rule, been particularly cherished in Ireland. When it came to making a decision about whether or not to have an unplanned baby, abortion was only one difficult option to choose. Over the years I’ve had friends who’ve thought they were pregnant and those who were, I’ve had friends who kept the baby and those who didn’t. I’ve had friends who adopted and those who were adopted. I’ve had friends who’ve wanted a baby and those who didn’t. Just like anyone else would. The 8th amendment, I would pretty confidently say, did not really affect any of these decisions, not really. What it did do was complicate.
The 8th amendment politicised me. In 1992 I read about the 14-year-old girl who had been raped and wanted an abortion but was being stopped from travelling for one by the Attorney General. The X case marches in February and March 1992 were the first political marches I ever went on. 20 years later I stood outside the Dail trying not to get candle grease on my gloves at a vigil for Savita Halappanavar who had died in a hospital in Galway not long before. In the intervening years, there were many rallies, vigils and marches when a case came along which denied logic and humanity. These two demonstrations frame a period during which I met my husband, got married, tried for a family, tried to adopt. Anything that touches the consecrated unit of family in Ireland is problematic. Even the definition of family in the constitution (in the clause right after the one into which 8th amendment was inserted) does not recognise the messiness of human life with its insistence that this fundamental unit must be based upon marriage to be recognised and that the mother alone is named as having duties in the home.
Because this vote is about something much bigger than a line in the constitution. It’s about the division between the simple, pure but ultimately unrealistic view of life reflected by the No campaign and the current Irish constitution and the reality as it always has been and always will be – messy, unpredictable, joyous and tragic as it is. The 8th has never been fit for purpose but as long as it continues to exist, a shining trophy of conservatism, there is always an argument that this mythical Ireland, where no one has sex outside marriage and families are always solid and secure, is a viable option. So that monolithic view needs to go. Maybe then we can start caring for the fallible, the vulnerable and the unlucky. Maybe then we can start building an inclusive, caring future that accepts the complexities of life.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.