Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Category: Ireland (page 1 of 13)

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.

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.

O Brave New World

Tattered-Union-flag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering a monster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things to do on a Wet Afternoon…

Deserted warehouse by Chris Miller on Flicker reproduced under Creative Commons some rights reserved

Not the warehouse I was filming in but one that would probably make a good location for a true crime documentary. This one photographed by Chris Miller from Flickr reproduced under Creative Commons some rights reserved.

It’s always a deserted warehouse. Over the years I must have visited more of them than your average movie gangster. Sometimes they are the elephant’s graveyard of boomtime optimism, other times the faded corners of old Dublin. Today’s was a relic of 19th century industry, all small basement rooms, crumbling masonry and pigeon droppings. The perfect place to discuss a murder – that’s why movie gangsters spend so much time hanging out in them. That’s why I was there on a rainy Monday afternoon in a Dublin summer.

There always seems to be someone making a true crime show for Irish television. It seems the public has an insatiable appetite for death and disaster. That’s nothing new of course. Thomas de Quincey turned a satirical eye on the aesthetic appeal of murder in 1827, although he was quite seriously disturbed by the public’s fascination with the crime. George Orwell wrote with more affection on The Decline in the English Murder in 1946. Why should the 21st Century be any different? So around this time of year – ready for scheduling when the nights start drawing in and the time for stories round the fire comes round again, the filming starts. For all our social networked world we haven’t changed so very much. I’ve written on so many cases over the years that I often get the call. If the murder came before the courts between 2007 and 2010 I was probably there and there’s a good chance I’ve written about it here and elsewhere. My words have become part of the record, that first draft of history that journalism provides.

That might sound a little pompous but I certainly don’t mean it that way. That “first draft of history” phrase is one that often runs through my mind as I research 19th century newspapers and I’m so conscious of the fact that the court reports I read there were written by people like me. Just as in modern Ireland it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get hold of a transcript of a trial if you’re simply an observer or wish to tell the story of the case, so the official documentation of so many 19th century trials has been lost. Just as now what I have written and my journalistic colleagues continue to write, fills in the gaps in appeal judgements and provides the colour that gets lost as the public recollection fades, so the 19th century reports breath life into long forgotten cases that would have been forgotten decades ago.

Of course, the cases that generate the most newsprint are the ones that really capture the public imagination. The ones that get talked about in coffee breaks with co-workers, in the pub with friends, on doorsteps with neighbours. There comes a point when they blend into folk memory, become part of social history, inform a generation. Between 2006 and 2008 there seemed to be a mania for murder but that was simply the number of cases appearing before the court. After the press bonanza that was Joe O’Reilly the editors were always looking for the next big case and every month or so there seemed to be a new contender. It’s these cases that are the ones often revisited in warehouses on summer afternoons. Because if you’re going to talk about murder it should be in a suitable desolate setting. Odd perhaps, since the cases we remember are the ones that usually happen in comfortable suburbia with fitted carpets and mod cons. But it’s usually a warehouse, lit atmospherically even if the sun is shining. Perhaps we need that desolate setting to tell these tales. Would a comfortable setting, a living room or kitchen like so many actual murder scenes, be too real, too close.

We can only enjoy murder if it is at that remove. We don’t want to be confronted by the actual death of a person. We want to be told a story, a grim story perhaps, but one that has been told huddled around the fire since lions still had sabre teeth and deer were much, much bigger. If conflict is at the heart of any good story then murder is the perfect story if only we can come to terms with the blood of it, remove the smell of death. I’ve noticed that when I say I’ve written true crime, in some company, the reaction is dismissive, but if I mention historical true crime, or historical fiction the reception is far warmer. I’ve researched the cases as thoroughly, the details of the story might be echoes of each other but one subject has distance and the other doesn’t and that distance is increased as soon as I’m making it up. Because obviously it’s far healthier to be able to imagine the details of a perfect murder rather than simply recount someone else’s actions…

So that’s why I spent this afternoon in a disused warehouse. I was talking murder – just as I’ve often done in the past. It’s a bit of a culture shift talking about recent cases again but I’m sure some day when I’m talking about my 19th century murders I’ll end up doing it in another disused warehouse. It’s the obligatory setting. The expected scene. It wouldn’t be quite the same any other way. As for this afternoon’s effort I’ll give more detail when I have it.

A Moment of History

Una Mullally is hugged by Colm O'Gorman photo by Michael Stamp

Una Mullally is hugged by Colm O’Gorman photo by Michael Stamp

There aren’t many times in life when you can genuinely say you’ve watched history being made. Yesterday was a historic day, a happy day, a profound one. Today my muscles are sore from hours of standing, I’m a little sunburned and I feel 20 again. It feels as if all the cynicism has just melted away. I know this feeling won’t last but I’m holding onto it as long as I can because it feels magical. It feels like Christmas. It feels like a new dawn.

Walking into town around lunchtime there was something palpable in the air, an excitement, a sense of revolution. A steady stream of people were heading for Dublin Castle, conscious there was only one place to be, one place where you could touch history. All around us were rainbow flags, , rainbow umbrellas, rainbow socks, rainbow skirts, rainbow hair. The cathedral quarter had become a sea of colour. The Castle seems like a logical place to go. It holds such an iconic place in Dublin’s history, it’s been the seat of power, a place where leaders have faced judgement – or investigation anyway. It’s a place where you go to see concerts or sand sculptures or Dracula’s garden. A place of power and spectacle.

There are many things I’ll remember about standing in that crowd, watching county after county turning green. Every few minutes the graphic on the large screen that was showing us the feed from the count centre would refresh. The crowd would cheer as the patches of green came back one by one. As the afternoon wore on those patches of green picked out the shape of Ireland. For a second they would hang against the white before the familiar grey template popped back into view. It looked as if Ireland was being made out of green in those moments. The crowd cheered and laughed.

When the Roscommon result came in the howls of genuine anger and betrayal rose in a wounded roar. That wasn’t how it was supposed to be. For the rest of the count Roscommon became the bleeding heart of Ireland but soon it was surrounded with green and the shape of Ireland became clearer with every screen refresh.

I’ll remember David Norris walking through the crowd and getting a standing ovation. The sound system wasn’t working so he held up his arms for quiet and the crowd, those thousands of ecstatic, excited people, were quiet. He had a forceful voice for speeches he told us, before telling those upturned faces that history had been made today, that our little country was a beacon to the rest of the world. We all cheered when he finished with the motto of another country “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”, because in that moment everyone understood what the 1798  revolutionaries hoped would be true, that those values are as much part of the Irish DNA as any other. That this was what we were made of.

I’ll remember the mix of people there. The young and optimistic and the older, jaded, disbelieving. Some I knew, some I recognised from many, many years ago. Yesterday we really are one city, one family and it was incredible. I met so many people yesterday. A teacher from the Netherlands who had left Ireland years ago because of the intolerance over his sexuality. As Ireland turned greener with each county vote he turned to me and said, Maybe in a while I’ll look at coming back here to teach. Or the American couple standing behind us that we explained each appearance on the stage. He was a sociology professor. She worked in civil liberties. We agreed that history could be grim viewing if you approached it from the left. Days like this mattered.

It was one of those crowds. One united by a common cause, where people talk and share. No one could get mobile coverage to check the results as they came in. History was obviously clogging up the airwaves. We were in the middle of the crowd and there were many Monty Python moments as we tried to work out what was going on up the front. “Blessed are the cheesemakers”, “That was Cavan” “No Kerry, are you blind?” It was all good-humoured. There must have been No voters somewhere in that crowd but nowhere near us. Yesterday it felt like they didn’t exist. That’s a rare feeling.

Because I know writing this that this feeling of euphoria won’t last. The feeling was overwhelming yesterday, it was love, it was pure solidarity, but it’s a rare and fragile thing. The familiarity of it made the tears come. I hadn’t felt it for a such a long time. It was a feeling of optimism, of common cause, a feeling of invincibility. I’m in  my 40s now. That bright, shining optimism has tarnished, corroded. Cynicism took its place. I mourn it’s loss but now suddenly it’s back. Like a reunion with an old friend I can see the world the way I could half a lifetime ago, when it was all worth fighting for, when we never doubted we could win.

The world can be a pretty bleak place if you’re generally left-leaning. So many of my generation are. We are the children on the 60s, the 70s. We grew up with parents fighting encroaching cynicism just like we are today. But we took the memories that matched our youthful optimism. Our pop culture references are invincible. We all have those iconic moment, times we know where we were when, when the world seemed as if it was understandable just then, where uncertainty wasn’t needed. Yesterday will be a moment like that for a new generation. Because that’s what we’ve done Ireland. We’ve given the world a fairytale to tell its children, to be whispered in the dark when  hope is lost. We’ve done a thing that proves that  people are not shits, that humanity is worth saving. We were that moment in the movie where the music swells and the audience cries. We were the happily ever after, the knight in shining armour.

Yesterday was a battle won, and I don’t hesitate to use the terms of war here. Because a war it is and it is yet to be won. Yesterday was about love but isn’t it always? When we fight these battles it’s always about love, respect and empathy. That’s where the battle lines were drawn. There’s always someone who refuses to show compassion because it will erode their values. For those of us who believe that people are more important than ideologies or things these days don’t happen often. But when they do my god they are amazing. This feeling will fade soon and it’ll be onto the next battle. But after yesterday I’m ready for the fight. Because people are not shits, they can be trusted to do the right thing. They’ve done it once and they will do it again. We know that now.

Voting for a better future

On May 7th in the UK and May 22nd in Ireland voters will get to make a momentous decision. In both cases the choice will be not simply one for a political party or even a Yes or No – the choice facing voters will be a fundamental one, what kind of world do you want to live in?

Both votes are divisive ones. In the UK, this General Election is likely to result in a second consecutive coalition government. With a historically fragmented electorate the choice for voters is far broader than usual. Do they swing to the left or the right. In Ireland the choice, ultimately is the same.  The Marriage Equality referendum which offers a democratically sanctioned equality for same sex marriage has been fought on the old ideological currents that run beneath the fragile veneer of modern Ireland. Ireland is familiar with referenda but it’s been a long time since there was a vote on a subject that went so close to the still beating heart of Holy Catholic Ireland. While it might appear on first glance that the two votes have nothing to do with one another, don’t be fooled. This month voters in both countries are being asked to vote for one of two futures – in very broad terms we are being asked to choose Star Trek or the Hunger Games.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. If we vote Star Trek in either May vote, we are not suddenly going to discover life on other planets. If we vote the Hunger Games we will not suddenly be divided into zones and forced to fight to the death but if you look behind all the campaign posters and the political point scoring the choice is equally stark. In both votes one result will bring positive change. It will say to a marginalised quarter of society that they are included, they are of value and they will not be left behind. It is saying that principles like equality and compassion are central to society and that the people themselves recognise the need to step forward together into a brighter, fairer future.

Or in either vote the choice could go the opposite way. In both cases a retrograde step. In both cases a closing of ranks, a lowering of heads and a clear message to those on the outside that they are not wanted, they are not cared about, they are not “one of us”.

This is a choice about the future you want for your children. Do you want to look forward or back? Democracy is not something that we can passively expect to happen, it is something we must push forward ourselves. This May we have a chance to make a difference. Don’t vote out of fear, vote to include. At least connect.

Those twitching net curtains again

“Because they should know better…”

That’s what I was told when, as a young journalist, I asked why it was always bigger news when a crime was committed by someone in a white collar job. I never liked that answer. Let’s leave aside the fact that it assumes that anyone from a less privileged position in society doesn’t or can’t know that committing a crime is wrong, I just don’t think it’s the whole story.

Human beings as a species are naturally nosy. Maybe it grew up as a survival strategy, maybe it’s just one of our baser instincts, whatever the reason, there is a slightly sinful enjoyment to be had from peering into someone else’s life. Look at the success of reality television. Social media means we can stalk our nearest and dearest, not to mention people we haven’t seen since school or who we met briefly once long ago, like never before. But for proper Grade-A snooping, with added moral vindication, you really can’t beat the criminal courts.

When you’re reporting a trial there is a checklist you follow to find that perfect case. A perfect case, especially if you are a freelancer, is a story that will get you “above the fold”. A story that will have good enough quotes that they will appear as a “standfirst” in larger type at the top of your piece. A story with a strong enough hook that you’ll get a nice large headline and maybe a picture byline. A story that lends itself to pictures. A trial with a white collar criminal or a murder with a beautiful or heartbreakingly pathetic corpse tends to tick all the boxes. Add a sexual element, in murder at least, and you can guarantee the press benches will be full and it’ll be standing room only in the courtroom.

I’ve written about these kinds of trials for almost half my career. I wrote two books because the public appetite for these cases meant there was a market for them. I earned my living out from knowing which trials would generate the column inches, noting details when a death was announced, keeping an ear out for court dates, having the research ready. A big trial would mean more money, would mean the camaraderie of a large press posse following every move, could even lead to a book deal or a movie deal. A big trial would be a pay out.

But at the same time you tend to see the worst of people during a big trial. The rubber neckers who turn up every day, rubbing their hands with glee at the juicier evidence. The neighbours who’d grab you for the gruesome details. The callous jokes you hear yourself cracking at lunchtime with colleagues. Even though it was how I made my living, even though I shared the interest, the lack of empathy bothered me and became something I didn’t want to feed any more.

When we look at a white collar accused we do so with smugness. They should have known better than to be there, therefore we can freely judge them. They have transgressed, have let the side down – we are absolved from pity.  All too often this condemnation is extended to the victim. If the victim can also be seen to have failed morally in some way, then the way is clear to enjoy the gory details without being hampered by compassion. I can only imagine how the family of Elaine O’Hara are feeling this week as architect Graham Dwyer is on trial for her murder in a trial that is generating daily headlines about bondage and sadomasochism. Reading the headlines it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s on trial. Whatever the verdict at the end of the trial, Elaine O’Hara will be remembered by many because of her supposed sexual preferences rather than because of the facts, such as they are known, of her death.

I’m currently researching middle class crime in the 19th century for an academic paper – looking at the very early days of court reporting. I knew from researching the Ireland’s Eye murder that some things never change when it comes to the kind of trials that make the headlines but it’s fascinating to see how court reporting evolved in the early 19th century. Newspapers have never been free of the commercial need to draw in more readers. They’ve always had to “tickle the public”. There was never a time when sex didn’t sell, even when it couldn’t be mentioned.  The trials that are remembered today, that inspired songs and plays back then – like the murder of Maria Marten by William Corder, the famous Red Barn murder of 1827 – would still make headlines. Some things never change.

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