Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

On Strikes, Teaching and Times Past.

Striking Victorian belles. Image by Dr Bob Nicholson @DigiVictorian

Image by Dr Bob Nicholson @DIgiVIctorian on Twitter

It’s been a year since I’ve posted here and a very busy year at that. I’ve had a little more time lately – although that is a relative term when there’s a thesis brewing – so here I am again. As the nights draw in it becomes a time for reflection and getting nostalgic. We’re almost at the end of the second universities strike in two years. Tomorrow is the last of 8 strike days in the UCU strike and I’ll be heading to the picket line again. I was brought up to respect unions and the power of collective action and bargaining. My mum was an actress.  Joining the union, Equity, meant that you could work. Getting your Equity card was your badge of professionalism, it meant you’d had at least five paying jobs. As a journalist, I applied for my NUJ card as soon as I started studying. It meant that I could blag my way into nightclubs but over the years I’ve been glad of my union membership. As a freelance journalist knowing that you have the support of a union behind you when you’re otherwise out on your own is a huge thing. There was a strike in the first journalism job I ever had, at BBC Northern Ireland in Belfast. I was freelancing but I wouldn’t cross the picket line. Solidarity is an important thing  – though on that occasion I did go into Broadcasting House when the picket went for lunch. I was too precarious not to.

Well, I’m still precarious. I love teaching but it does feel like being back in those early journalism days. My first cheque was for £30 if I remember rightly. I was dead chuffed (that was my rent back then). That’s the thing with now and gets down to why I’m striking. It might feel the same as those days hustling for a story but it’s not the same. Now I teach both history and journalism as a doctoral tutor and this is necessary because I’m doing my doctorate unfunded. It’s not how I planned it but funding is hard to get. That’s a subject for another day though. I rely on teaching around campus because fitting a doctorate around any other type of work is next to impossible.

I’m striking because I’m paid hourly and those hours aren’t the hours that I invoice for, those are the hours allotted. For each hour I teach I get paid three more. That sounds like a good deal but in those three extra hours, I’m supposed to give feedback to students, mark their work and, most importantly of all, prepare for my teaching. I am given one hour to prepare for teaching. This is actually a pretty good deal by academic standards. But I’m a latecomer to academia. I’ve worked in the private sector and the public sector. I’ve even designed material for the purposes of teaching others in those environments. I would have got balled out of it if I’d taken an hour to prep. If you don’t believe me take a look at the rates recommended here. Now OK, that’s corporate tech training but still, for Instructor-Led Training – which includes design, lesson plans, handouts and Powerpoint slides – the recommended rate is 34:1. That’s 34 hours to every one taught.  I’d love to know if anyone outside very, very high-end corporate actually manages to get that ratio but even in the basic stuff I used to do the rule of thumb was 7 hours prep for one presenting. That’s not the reality in academia.

I’m also striking because this term by term merry-go-round is probably it for the foreseeable future. Fixed-term, fractional contracts are the norm for post-doctorate jobs and quite a bit post-doc at that. I’m also striking because this situation is absolutely head wrecking for those of us reliant on it. It’s also not fair on the students who are paying over £9,000 a year for their education. I’m striking because something has to change, for everyone’s sake.

I’ve had cause to think about my own time at college over the past week as well. Last week I learned that one of my old lecturers had died. I have fond memories of Muiris Mac Ghongail. He taught me when I was doing my degree at the Dublin Institute of Journalism in the late 1990s. Muiris was never boring, always inspiring. His classes were always well attended. We’ve got a Whatsapp group at the moment because it’s 20 years since we graduated next year. The news was shared on there and all day my phone was beeping with memories of Muiris. I was heading to the picket line that day, listening to stories of teaching now, of workloads, of lack of contact with students. Every now and then I checked the Whatsapp messages. The same memories kept coming up – that he was a great dissertation mentor and also that he used to take us down to the pub on occasion and hold forth. Now I don’t oversee dissertations at the moment but I know that my students complain about contact hours with teaching staff. They want more than drop-in office hours and I sympathise. I’ve seen student suggestions on our uni student app that they would like to spend more time with teaching staff. The pub has been suggested. I remember going to the pub with Muiris. He was always entertaining and those were definitely memorable evenings but I’m not sure I would be happy to see a revival of what was fairly normal in the mid-90s. Muiris was very generous with his time but other teachers would only ask certain students. There was a lot of resentment about a certain boys club we female members of the class could see back then. It’s all water under the bridge now but it’s another reason I’m not sure I’d be in favour of a return to that kind of completely relaxed interaction. It’s too easy for lines to blur, for favouritism, for things to get messy. But looking back on those days, on days when I didn’t graduate with a debt, when we only had 30 to a class when we could just drop in on teachers. Something has definitely been lost with student numbers climbing and we can feel its loss and so can our students.

So we strike and try to slay the neoliberal beast. It’s only taken 10 years to get to this, the removal of the cap on student numbers and the speeding up of the marketisation of education under Cameron and Gove. People have a choice in this election for change or more of the same with bells on.

 

A Ghost Story for Christmas – the real murder hidden in Dead of Night

UK Poster for Dead of Night (1945)

I don’t know about you, but Christmas is the time of year when there is nothing better but curling up warm and reading ghost stories. We have a tradition in our house of watching the Amicus compendium horror films written by Milton Sabotsky and directed by Freddie Francis starting with Tales from the Crypt (1972) – well, it’s practically a Christmas movie judging by the Joan Collins story. However, great as they are Milton Sobotsky’s brand of compendium won’t do for this kind of blog post as none of the stories are based on real-life crimes – at least I hope they aren’t.

So to keep in the spirit of my intermittent series of real-life crimes behind famous films I’m going back to the compendium film that started the sub-genre – the 1945 film Dead of NightA rare example of horror from the first half of the 20th century, Dead of Night is about a group of strangers who find themselves together in a country house. One of the group, architect Walter Craig confesses that he has had a recurring dream of them all gathered together and the group start telling the stories of their own brushes with the supernatural. Now for the purposes of this blog post, I’m not interested in the most famous segments, including the ventriloquist’s dummy story with Michael Redgrave which scares me to this day. The section I’m interested in is the actual Christmas ghost story that makes up the second segment. This story is linked to a very famous real-life crime and that’s what I’m going to look at in this post.

The murder of little Francis Saville Kent at his father’s house in Road in Wiltshire was a sensation in its day. The gruesomeness of the crime – the child was found stuffed down the privy with his throat cut – the middle-class status of the family, and the succession of suspects with a sensational reveal of a teenage killer after many years guaranteed column inches at the time and it was a case that stuck in the memory. We don’t know why writer Angus McPhail picked the case for his Dead of Night segment. McPhail was a frequent scriptwriter for Ealing films and also worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Spellbound (also 1945) and The Wrong Man (1956) as well as the classic Whisky Galore! (1949). His segment Christmas Party involves a little boy who is afraid of his older sister because she wants to kill him. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Road murder is being referenced as there are name checks and a lot of biographical details are given. The fact that it’s a real murder though is completely incidental, it just gives an extra dimension to the horror and this may well have been the intention in including the details.

The Road murder has been well explored in recent times thanks to Kate Summerscale’s incredibly successful The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2009) so I won’t go into too much detail about the ins and outs of the case. On Sunday 8th July 1860 Lloyds Weekly Newspaper quoted the Bath Chronicle to give its readers’ the terrible details of the case. They were baffled by the mystery.

Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, July 8th 1860

It wasn’t long before a suspect emerged. Inspector Jonathan Whicher, who had been investigating the case was convinced from fairly early on that the murder had been committed by Saville’s half-sister Constance. On Monday July 23rd 1860 The Standard reported on Constance’s appearances in court with Inspector Whicher setting out the case against her.

The London Evening Standard, Monday July 23rd.

But Whicher’s suspicions against Constance proved difficult to prove. Then someone else confessed to the crime. On Thursday, August 16th the London Daily News reported on the court appearance of a John Edmond Gagg who claimed he had killed the child. However, it soon became apparent that Gagg had not even been in the vicinity at the time of the murder and could not have committed the murder. The Daily News was not impressed.

London Daily News August 16th 1860Constance finally confessed to the murder in 1865. The London Daily News carried the story as did many other papers. The Road Hill House murder had certainly captured the public imagination.

London Daily News April 27 1865

The story of little Francis Saville Kent and his sister Constance still has a draw today and I would recommend a read of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher for the full details. But for a Christmas ghost story take a look at Dead of Night – be scared by the ventriloquist’s dummy but remember the sad, sordid tale behind that innocuously creepy Christmas party segment.

All newspaper snippets copyright The British Newspaper Archive.

The real story at the root of MR James adaptation Night of the Demon

By David Buttery (<a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Loganberry&action=edit&redlink=1" class="new" title="User:Loganberry (page does not exist)">Loganberry</a> (<a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User_talk:Loganberry" title="User talk:Loganberry">Talk</a>)) - <span class="int-own-work" lang="en">Own work</span>, Public Domain, <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2010201">Link</a>

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.

Poetry and profanity–a couple of thoughts on Miggeldy and blasphemy

Michael D. at Arbour Hill

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.

A Once in a Generation Vote: Why Ireland Should Repeal the 8th

Pro-choice marchers in Dublin.

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.

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!

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