Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Death on the Hill (page 1 of 2)

Dark Tourism

Long_Hole-Ireland's_Eye

Tourists visit the Long Hole on Ireland’s Eye in the 19th century, the scene of a famous murder.

There’s always been a fascination for murder. You only have to walk into a bookshop or turn on your TV to see crime, both fact and fiction, is where it’s at. Any high profile trial will have it’s followers. I’ve seen crowds queuing to get into court whenever a case caught the public attention. During both the Joe O’Reilly trial and the Eamonn Lillis trial the crowds got so large they caused problems for the courts staff. During both case, proceedings had to be stopped for public safety reasons. To be honest, if it wasn’t for this hunger I wouldn’t have had a job for as long as I did down the courts.

I’ve been researching 19th century crime for long enough to know that this ghoulish rubber necking is nothing new. The case that I’m focused on, that of wife killer William Bourke Kirwan, was no exception. Murder was a fairly rare occurrence in Dublin back then and when the trial took place in Green Street courthouse in December 1852 the crowds blocked the street.

I’ve been fascinated while researching the wider story how much of a thing this dark tourism was. In January 1853, just days after Kirwan’s sentence was commuted to transportation, an ad appeared in the Freeman’s Journal for “Kirwan the Murderer”. Sadly the advertisement doesn’t go into much detail and was never repeated so I’ve no idea whether “Kirwan the Murderer” was a Penny Dreadful retelling of the case or even a play. I haven’t been able to find any other reference to it and it’s unlikely that any playbill or copy of the pamphlet have survived, though I’d love to see them if they have.

I was amused when I saw it because nothing’s really changed. Any high profile murder trial  in Dublin will be followed by the tabloid commemorative booklet and then a little later with the TV3 re-enactment. It’s always the final flourish of the story. Just as it was then.

What we don’t generally get these days though is the actual murder tourism. It’s still there but they don’t often advertise in the papers. In August 1853 a series of ads appeared in the Freeman’s Journal for boat trips to Ireland’s Eye, the scene of the famous murder. The Long Hole, where Maria Kirwan’s body had been found, was a popular jaunt.  The picture illustrating this piece is an, almost, contemporary sketch from a tourism book, published around 10 years after the murder. The so-called Murder Rock would have been round about where the man and woman are standing as far as I can tell. In September 1853 it was reported that there had been so many pilgrims to the site all seeking souvenirs of the tragic events that the rock had been quite chipped away.

Around the time this story was printed, the  Crown auctioned off all Kirwan’s belongings. The crowds for the viewings were massive, especially for the auction for one of Kirwan’s suits and his gold watch. I’ve always suspected that the National Library collection of Kirwan’s work was bought at one of these auctions. I wrote about my theory for their blog a couple of years ago.

Bidding was swift on all the lots according to newspaper accounts but one expected buyer did not turn up. The Freeman’s Journal noted, at the auction that included Kirwan’s suit, that it was a surprise that none of the bidders had come from a waxworks. Chambers of horror containing effigies of notorious killers were commonplace except, apparently in Dublin. The journalist noted this fact with some satisfaction. The crowd, as well, were less of a throng than one might expect.

Kirwan’s always been a good story. He caught my imagination and if you get the boat out to Ireland’s Eye even today, you’ll hear his story. I wonder will people still be telling the story of Joe O’Reilly in 160 years.

Art for art’s sake?

Female Addict No. 2 by Jason - The Training Room

Female Addict No. 2 by Jason

There was a lot of controversy just before Paddy’s Day when the news came out that Eamonn Lillis would be exhibiting two paintings in a public exhibition. The news, coming as it did shortly after the announcement that he had helped to organise a play in Wheatfield Prison that would be viewed by Irish President Michael D. Higgins, caused a bit of a debate on whether or not convicted felons should be preening for adulation from behind bars.

When it was reported, after the opening weekend of the exhibition in the museum at Kilmainham Gaol, that one of Lillis’s paintings had been vandalised, with the word “killer” scrawled on the frame, there was a certain amount of righteous clucking. Why should a man who had killed his wife get to show off in public? He was in prison as a punishment for his crime, and certainly shouldn’t be building a portfolio.

It’s taken me a while to get to the exhibition. I hadn’t wanted to comment until I’d seen what was there and I was curious about how the art work would be presented in a venue as iconic as Kilmainham Gaol.  But the sunshine this week was too much of a draw so I wandered across yesterday. I’d gone with certain preconceptions and my own views on the use of a notorious case like Lillis’s to sell the museum but when I got there my qualms were swept away.

While Lillis’s two rather insipid watercolours do greet you as you walk in the door The Crushed Bull exhibition actually has something genuine to offer.  For starters it’s not just the work of one headline grabbing killer, but that of prisoners scattered around the country’s prisons and those who went to two support centres after their release. There’s a range of styles and levels of talent on show but some of the pieces are genuinely arresting and thought provoking. It’s a varied collection. Paintings in a variety of mediums hang above sculptures in clay or stone.  There are mosaics, jewellery (mostly made by the women of the Dochas Prison – where Sharon Collins is serving her time) in all shapes and sizes.

Rabbit By Peter - Wheatfield Prison

Rabbit By Peter – Wheatfield Prison

But even if you didn’t come to the exhibition hoping for a glimpse into the minds of some of the county’s worst, it’s almost impossible to forget that this isn’t an ordinary group show. It’s a point that’s rather clumsily underlined in the first room of the exhibition where the Lillis paintings hang beside a collection with a distinct prison bar motif and the painting of the tabby cat staring intently at a goldfish hangs across the disturbingly surrealist grouping on a small chest of drawers in an empty room. A pair of glowing eyes stare out of the drawer in the painting by Eric B. from Portlaoise Prison (notorious for it’s gangland inmates), who signs his work with a pentacle. On top of the chest of drawers in the painting is a pocket watch, an empty wine bottle, a gun and two severed fingers with red lacquered oval nails.  There’s a clay elephant across from that painting, which is right by the door into the exhibition. It’s wearing glasses and is next to a card proclaiming it The Elephant in the Room, by Anon from the Midlands Prison, home to the most notorious of them all, Joe O’Reilly. One thing that’s certain about this opening grouping is that the elephant is somewhat redundant – this exhibition is wearing it’s credentials firmly pinned to it’s chest.

It’s a shame though. You see, when you turn the corner and enter the exhibition proper, you begin to see a point beyond the voyeuristic.  There’s some real talent here and some genuine insight. Some of the work might be a little to obvious in their influences but the cubist Female Addict No. 2 by Jason, from the rehab centre The Training Unit, makes a real impact. That’s why I used the image at the top of this post.  There are some more aggressive pieces (though none as obvious as Erik with his severed fingers). Here and there there are skull motifs or devils but most of the landscapes are noticeably empty. Some of the most poignant works are from the remand prisoners in Cloverhil Prison, where many wait to be deported. A little girl beams up at an anonymous dad, a group work gives a patchwork of political protest. This isn’t really an insight into the criminal mind, just a glimpse at the attempted rehabilitation of men and women who made mistakes and are now paying for them.

I’ve covered the courts for long enough to see the number of people who’ve entered a life of crime because they didn’t have a hell of a lot of choice. Time and time again there are people who couldn’t escape from a hopeless existence, who wandered into a life of drink, drugs and violence because they couldn’t see another way. I’m not saying they were right. I’m not saying that those who commit crimes, especially violent ones, shouldn’t pay a price, but I do believe in second chances. If prison art classes or theatrical performances help to encourage people to go in a different direction, show them a better life, then shouldn’t they be applauded rather than condemned? Exhibitions like this one should never be about the freak show, they should be about redemption.

It’s unfortunate that the Crushed Bull was sold with one of the biggest circuses of recent years. Lillis isn’t the kind of person who can really benefit from this kind of initiative. He, like other middle class, headline grabbing criminals, doesn’t need to have his horizons opened – they should already be. People like Lillis threw away lives that many of those they now get to see on a daily basis could only dream of. That might make them attractive to news editors across the board but when it comes down to it, they should have known better. Lillis’s involvement in an initiative like this only muddies the water and distracts from the positive. Instead of talking about whether Lillis is having too much fun in prison the discussion should be about the value of the arts…except that’s a subject that doesn’t tend to make headlines in quite the same way.

The Flow of the Narrative

I was watching The Last Seduction with the Husband last night. It’s one of my favourite films.  Afterwards we were jokingly wondering if this might have been the film that gave Sharon Collins the idea for her ill-judged bit of online retail.  It’s doubtful. The similarities between fact and fiction are slim, to say the least, but it’s a joke we always make. After all, if Sharon had simply been one of my characters then she probably would have been influenced by one of my favourite films, I could have made her influenced by anything I wanted.

It might seem like an obvious distinction between fiction and non-fiction but it’s one that it’s all too easy to blur in the writing. Writing a book is completely different from writing a piece for a newspaper or a post for this blog about the trial while it’s going on. It’s an opportunity to stand back and look at how the story flows, to find the rhythm at it’s heart. It doesn’t feel any different telling a true story or making one up once I get down to writing. The research and planning stages might be different but once the story starts to pick up speed it’s always a question of following the narrative flow. It’s the same with characters. Whether I’m replaying in memory words and actions I know happened, that have been proved in front of a court of law, or allowing the characters to block out their own movements in the theatre of my imagination, it all comes out much the same.

I’ve remarked here before about how strange it feels seeing “characters” in the flesh when a case comes back to court. Something happens when you’ve spent weeks in front of the screen with a subject. In a way it becomes part of you, as do the dramatis personae.  You can get rather possessive. With recent cases the problem’s academic. They’re live stories that will continue to develop outside the scope of my book. But today I’m more concerned with the flow of the story itself.

Why does it seem amusing that Sharon Collins might have been influenced by The Last Seduction? Because it works with the story. It underlines her mixed attempts to be a real life femme fatale by contrasting with a great fictional example.  When I was writing Devil in the Red Dress I used to listen to the Last Seduction soundtrack (a great noirish jazz affair) and my movie viewing tended to revolve around Bogart and Bacall or the Coen Brothers. While I couldn’t do anything with the facts of the case or the words of the witnesses, the underlying beat to that one was most definitely Hollywood Noir with a rather comic edge.

I’m not one of those writers who has to work in silence. I’ve been a journalist for too long for surrounding babble to worry me that much but given the choice I’d rather have my choice of music than Sky News and radio bulletins. So far each book has had it’s own mp3 playlist on my laptop. Devil was smoky jazz, Death on the Hill was written to an accompaniment of mainly French pop and this new one appears to be insisting on passionate instrumentals of Irish or Russian origin. When I was working on my novel I had a different playlist for each character – it helped to keep them solid while I was still working them out.  Whatever it’s content though the playlists all serve the same purpose. They’re a shortcut to the narrative flow. A way of getting to where I need to go.

At the moment, because I’m at an early stage of writing, I’m still feeling for that rhythm but I know it’s there. I think that narrative flows through life like an underground stream. We all instinctively know what works and what doesn’t, based on the facts before us and our knowledge of our fellow man. It’s that same knowledge that can lead a jury to a verdict or make a novel feel like it isn’t working. It’s that gut feeling that creates archetypes and truisms.  There’s a rhythm that undercuts everything and any story has to fall into step or at least be damn good at syncopation.  I’m not talking about the simple stuff that we’d always like to be true – boy gets girl, good always triumphs and evil gets it’s just deserts. It’s just real life. They’re basic rules that always affect the story no matter what you write – true crime or crime fiction, chick lit or fantasy.

At the moment I’m working on something where hearing that rhythm feels more important than ever. I don’t have the benefit of observing my characters and I can’t make them up. If I get them wrong I’m doing a disservice to a story that has, after all, already unfolded.  It’s rather different from anything I’ve ever done.  But I think I’ve found the melody at last, enough for me to follow until the narrative flow catches me and the story takes hold.

Father against Daughter

A year ago I wrote about the fact that Celine Cawley’s brother and sister, on behalf of the her daughter have taken a case against Eamonn Lillis for his part of his wife’s estate.  The case was adjourned back in November but it’s back in the news again as it has emerged that the court has agreed to Lillis’s daughter becoming part of the proceedings against her father.

18-year-old Georgia Lillis has said that she wants to address comments of her father’s in his submission fighting the case. 

Eamonn Lillis has argued that he should keep his share in the couple’s three houses as he will have nothing when he leaves prison.  He has also suggested that his daughter, who has already inherited her mother’s half of the properties, will get his half when he dies in normal succession. He has said that there is still a relationship between him and his daughter.

Once again, it’s impossible not to feel deeply sorry for his young daughter. This is the first time I’ve named her in print.  It was legally barred until she reached the age of 18, as the child of someone accused of a serious crime. Once the clock chimes midnight on the eve of her 18th birthday though that protection is removed.

It seems an arbitrary moment to turn a child into an adult but for Georgia Lillis that moment probably came a lot earlier.  When all this began. She said, during her father’s trial, that she found it difficult to forgive her father for lying about her mother’s death but during the week he had between verdict and sentence they spent the time at the family home together. It’s hard to comprehend how a relationship can survive such a horrific event but as an only child who can blame her for clinging to the only parent she has left.

That relationship was in the spotlight during the trial.  It will be again when the civil case is heard in the new court year.   It’s never good when family relationships end up picked over in the courts but when the full glare of the media spotlight is pointed at them what then?

By all accounts Georgia has a lot of support from her mother’s family but this will be the second time she has faced lawyers representing her father in court. She won’t be the first child to face a parent in court and she certainly won’t be the last but it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

The case has been adjourned till the end of the summer court term but there won’t be any movement on it until after the summer recess.  This is a story that will keep running.

Sad news…

I don’t remember a time I didn’t want to write for a living.  When I was a kid I wrote tiny books – inspired by a Blue Peter Special Edition about the Brontes’ and not having learnt yet how to carry a story over more than a couple of hundred words.  I still have one of those little books.  It’s made up of four or five “folios” folded as small as I could make them from a sheet of typewriter paper (as it was in those days before home printing), stitched together and sewn into a cardboard cover.  I even stole a scrap of leather from the art room in school and attempted to make a binding. It was the closest I got, in those far off days, to being published.

I had started to write my first novel when I was 11.  I still have the first handwritten draft – half a page of fullscap paper written in blotting biro with every other word crossed out.  There’s a typewritten draft somewhere in my mum’s house, running to 10 whole pages with three chapters!  Over the years I’d go back to that story and it grew up with with me.  Even when I’d left home and realised that it was necessary to make some money at this writing lark in order to keep a roof over your typewriter I kept nibbling away at the story, changing it, stretching it, fiddling with it.

I’ve long lost count of the hours I spent sitting at a typewriter, then an ancient computer that took half an hour to boot, and finally this snazzy red netbook I’m sitting at now, working on that plot, those characters, friends now whose futures I worry about.  I never wrote out of anything other than love but as the years passed and the business of writing became a thing of inverted pyramids and word counts, I began to lose hope of it ever seeing the light of day. 

Back in 2008 my first book was published.  A million miles away from the story that had been started on that fullscap page it told the story of Sharon Collins and Essam Eid and the trial I had sat through for eight weeks that summer.  Written mainly through the two month summer court recess writing it was a totally different experience to the casual obsession that had sustained my story through all it’s permutations.  Devil in the Red Dress  is now available as a ebook and might even make it onto the big screen.  But all I cared about in the winter of 2008 when the book came out was that I was finally the thing I had always dreamed of being – an author.  I had written a real life book which was now available from real life book shops and even in the library.

I had begun to think of myself more as a journalist than a writer (I know they both involve the written word but trust me – there’s a difference) but now I suddenly had that dream again.  I had always worried that once I had written one book the ideas would dry up but it turned out the opposite was true.  The ideas bubbled to the surface in a never ending stream.  I remembered this had always been the dream, the writing life.  I decided to try and get an agent.  That’s when I contacted Ita O’Driscoll of the Font Literary Agency.

I had some idea of trying to find representation for a continuing media career but Ita pointed out I’d been doing that myself for years.  She persuaded me to show her “the story” and saw something in it even after all those years of pulling and stretching.  I had resigned myself to a life in non fiction but Ita suggested that I had something else that could work.  When the courts broke for the summer in 2009 I started to work seriously on the novel.  It was Ita’s faith in me that made me look again at those characters, born so many years ago in Wimbledon.  After three months of major surgery I’ve now got a novel that I’m proud of and one day I’m really hoping I get to write the sequel.

Even before we actually signed an author agent agreement Ita would spend ages on the phone discussing the book and my hopes and ideas for the future.  She gave me invaluable advice and made the future seem so exciting, even to someone jaded by years of media pessimism.  I’ve never had any illusions about this business.  I know times are tough and the future uncertain but writing is what I am.  I’m not going to stop just because things are changing. Even so the value of having someone in my corner who believed in my ideas as much as I do (who wasn’t married to me) was incalculable.

Ita advised me throughout the negotiations for my third book Death on the Hill.  I had always said I wanted to find new and bigger challenges with each new book but when I started covering the trial of Eamonn Lillis last January, it quickly became clear that this was another story that deserved more time in the telling than newsprint would allow.

Once Death on the Hill was on the shelves and the publicity trail had been trailed it was time to look to the future again.  Once again Ita was always willing to talk through the options and lend her support.  I decided to take a risk and try something bigger for my next non fiction book.  I talked through the possibilities for hours with Ita.  She encouraged me to believe in my idea and to take the leap to try something more ambitious than I’ve ever attempted before, something that will really test my skill as a writer.  I kept her regularly updated – I was excited about this new departure – I still am.  She encouraged me at every step of the way, giving me feedback and advice that helped to shape the idea as it was still forming. 

She called me on Friday and I thought it was just a usual call with news or lack of it.  But instead there was a bomb shell.  After careful consideration Ita has decided to retire as an agent.  I don’t blame her in the slightest.  I know her reasons and totally respect them but I can’t help but be upset.  Even though I know we will keep in touch it feels like I’m losing a friend, an ally.  I’ll miss having her on my team, miss the long chats when we checked in with each other.  I realise this post reads like a eulogy but I suppose it is in a way.  Ita put her faith in me and that made a massive difference when things were tough and perhaps didn’t work out the way they were supposed to.  The world of publishing seems a lot more daunting without her at the end of a phone.  It’s a little bit scary being an author at the moment.  Having a supportive agent certainly makes everything feel a little bit more manageable.  I’ll miss Ita as an agent but I really do wish her every good luck with this next stage in her life.  I’m not looking forward to trying to find someone else who has that much faith in me.

Responsible Parenting?

Almost two years ago Eamonn Lillis killed his wife.  He hit her over the head with a brick and then ran upstairs to fake a robbery to explain her wounds, while his wife, former model Celine Cawley lay dying on the frozen decking outside the kitchen.

He would later say in court, the highest profile murder trial this year, that he had acted like this to protect his daughter.  He didn’t know his wife was so gravely injured, he said, and after a marital row had turned to violence both their first thoughts were for their daughter.  They wanted to explain the marks from the fight on both their faces and so jointly decided to concoct a fictitious burglar.

Whatever went on that frosty morning just before Christmas 2008 we will never know for certain.  We only have the word of the man now serving a six year sentence for killing his wife, who clung to the story of the masked bandit for far longer than good sense would dictate.

Now Lillis’s parenting is hitting the headlines again.  It’s the latest stage in a an action started back in June by Celine’s brother and sister, Chris and Susanna Cawley.  Under Irish law Lillis is not allowed to profit from killing his wife so loses his right to inherit her share of any jointly owned property.  The Cawley’s are trying to ensure that he loses the right of his own share in that property, with the whole lot reverting to the couple’s daughter when she turns 18 later this month.

My heart goes out to that girl.  This should be an exciting time for her, a milestone. But instead she has to watch her relationship with her only surviving parent raked over by the media and the general public.

This week the Cawley case took another step forward and was met by Lillis’s rebuttal.  Chris and Susanna Cawley want Lillis declared legally dead so that his half of any shared assets will go directly to his daughter.  But Lillis is fighting back.  In an affidavit sent from prison he said he had discussed with his daughter what would happen when he got out of prison and that he had no intention of selling the family home of Rowan Hill, on Windgap Road in Howth. 

“However the intention of my wife and I in placing the property in joint names as a joint tenancy was that our daughter would succeed to the property on the death of both of her parents. This is what I believe should happen.”

He added that she had been visiting him in prison and he intended to continue providing for her.  “I want to return to the family home as her parent not as a sort of tenant at will or a co-owner sharing a jointly owned property with her.”

Providing for his daughter would be difficult he noted, since his manslaughter conviction rendered him virtually unemployable.  "Many of my friends and acquaintances have distanced themselves from me. My reputation has been destroyed. My livelihood has been destroyed."

Because of this, he explained, he would also need the rental income from another house the couple had jointly owned in Sutton.  Which, when added to half the proceeds from the sale of Toytown Films, the production company set up by Celine, should provide a sufficient income to allow him to keep parenting in the manner to which he has become accustomed.

Lillis insisted that losing his assets would be a punishment too far and that he had suffered enough.  “Prison is a very difficult and alien world for me. However the greatest punishment is the geographical distance between myself and my daughter and the diminution in our relationship.”

It’s hard not to read Lillis’s words fighting for his assets without wondering whether his concern is for his daughter or his lifestyle.  There was no indication during the trial that he and his wife were anything other than devoted parents to their only child.  But she would be able to provide for herself once she hits 18.  She already has her mother’s half of everything.  She also has a very loving family behind her who will stop at nothing to protect her interests.  Losing your money, when it’s taken away from you, doesn’t make you a bad parent, but this seems to be what label-conscious Lillis feels.

Anyway, the case is still ongoing.  There’s been a three week adjournment but it will be back in the headlines before long. This is one story that will never really go away, sadly for all concerned.

A Question of Taste

I’ve spent a large proportion of my time over the past fortnight talking about the dead.  This is nothing unusual, I’ve worked in the courts for over four years now and tend to be seen as the oracle on all that’s gory for family and friends.  You would not believe the number of people who want to hear about what poisons cause heart failure or the finer details of any of a dozen high profile murders. 

There’s a fascination in this country for the macabre.  We’re fascinated by death, the more violent or tragic the better.  That doesn’t make us a nation of ghouls though, just one with an interest in our fellow man.  It’s normal to be interested in your neighbours – who doesn’t take the opportunity to look into a curtainless window as you walk down the street?  In a  country where the rituals of birth and death still hold such a social resonance we all know that it’s at those moments you see people at their most unguarded – there’s a light on as well as the curtains being open.

For the past fortnight though I haven’t been talking about death in general, it’s been one death in particular.  Not the death of someone I ever met in the flesh, or one that left a hole in my own life but one that I know the tiniest details of nonetheless.

That’s what happens when you cover a murder trial, you get the details – all the details.  That’s why people have always and will always be fascinated in them.  You watch a trial like that and you will find out details that you might not know about your spouse.  The post mortem will tell you each mole and childhood scar, you might not know what that person was like to go for a pint with, say, but you will have more idea of a personality that you could have had in several casual meetings.

It’s a clinical kind of knowledge though, removed, academic.  You will even go away knowing that most private moment that comes to us all, the moment, the ultimate instance of death, the last breath.  A moment that loved ones might have missed will be examined in minute detail in front of strangers.  That’s the reality of the trial process and that’s part of the attraction of this kind of trial.

Of course not all trials attract the same kind of scrutiny and people like me don’t end up writing books about them.  I spent several years working for Ireland International News Agency. It was my job, and is still the job for those who still work there, to provide agency copy for the print and broadcast media on every murder and manslaughter trial before the courts.  Starting off you don’t cover the big trials. 

For every trial that sets editor’s pulses racing there will be a dozen that don’t. Those are the trials that the media don’t bother about, that appear as a side bar on page 11 or 12 of a paper.  The acts of random violence, the young men from disadvantaged backgrounds who settle a disagreement a knife.  The drunken rows, the senseless attacks, the depressing monotony of lives that were blighted before they were properly begun.  These aren’t the trials you gossip about at the water cooler, these are the depressing meat of the criminal justice system, the ones that pass unnoticed.

The public don’t bother going to those trials, the papers don’t bother to cover them.  Life after life is lost in obscurity, amounting to nothing but a violent sordid death.  If the agency reporter doesn’t sit quietly for every day of the trial, filing copy that no one will use unless it’s a really quiet news day, no one will hear the details of that life and death except those directly involved and the lawyers.

No one cares about those trials happening in public. They are a depressing reminder of how cheap life can be and a side of humanity no one wants to hold a mirror before.  But with the big trials it’s different.  There’s something about the story that’s being told that raises it above the ordinary, a whiff of celebrity, a kink of weirdness, a view into a life in some way surprising.

The media cover these trials because the public want to know about them.  It’s these stories I get asked about by friends, family and neighbours.  The one’s that in some way rise up out of the norm and become the stuff of thrillers instead of a grim reminder of the briefness of existence.  The protagonists are often rich, or if not rich at least possessed of some quality that separates them from the hot headed boys who get tanked up and stab their mates.  It’s that factor that provides a distance so we can look at the sordid details as a story, a plot, rather than another human being meeting death before their time.

In recent years the refrain has been that these unusual trials are cropping up too frequently, that the public interest is being pumped by the hungry media and they are being led astray.  I know a lot of people would think that I am also guilty of fanning that particular forest fire with this book, throwing my cap in the ring and exploiting the grief of the bereaved.

Anyone who thinks that is of course entitled to their opinion but it’s one I will take exception to if it’s put to me.  I don’t consider what I do to be voyeuristic and I don’t consider my colleagues to be doing anything other than satisfying a public demand, which is the way newspapers have always worked and always will.  When I write about a trial I’m not doing it to be ghoulish I’m doing it because it’s what I do. 

I’ve always felt that it’s important that trials are written about, that in some way I’m helping with the whole constitutional imperative that justice be done in public, disseminating what goes on in the courtroom, bringing an informed reading to proceedings couched in arcane methodology and convoluted terminology and giving a voice in a way to those that can’t speak for themselves.  I think that the media have a place within the courts and one that should be recognised and respected without accusing us of voyeurism and bad taste.

When I write about a trial I will try to show respect for everyone involved.  For the dead who cannot speak and also those on trial, for the families of both and the witnesses who have to relive the traumatic past.  Everyone I work with does the same.  We might have a feel for a story that sells but that’s part of the business and part of our jobs and it’s not incompatible with respect and compassion.

Of course sometimes, when push comes to shove that balance gets skewed.  There are times when the media scrum seethes forward and shoves us all into an unflattering spotlight.  There are times when the excitement about a story gets out of control and enthusiasm for the job can seem like callousness and poor taste.  It’s hard to explain news sense to someone who’s never had to find a story but it’s ingrained in most journos and can sometimes make us lose the head a bit but does not make us bad human beings.

Even in the heel of the hunt we don’t forget that we are dealing with death, that there are grieving family members and traumatised witnesses.  It’s just that our job is not to wrap them in cotton wool – it’s to tell the story as it unfolds.  All I can do when I talk about the deaths I’ve seen dissected is to talk about them with compassion, it’s got nothing to do with taste. 

A Matter of Convention

I’m still whizzing round on the publicity merry-go-round for the new book this week.  Today started off with back to back interviews and a reminder that even when you’ve a few interviews under your belt at a time like this you can still get that curve ball thrown at you when you least expect it.

My second interview of the morning was with Declan Meade on the Morning Show on East Coast FM.  I’d been in to talk to Declan when Devil came out so it was nice to be back.  at the end of the interview he asked me a question that had honestly never occurred to me before (an achievement since I’ve been eating, breathing and sleeping this book since the trial in January). Why, he asked me, had I referred in the book to Celine Cawley as “Celine” while referring to Eamonn Lillis as “Lillis”.

When you write a true crime book there are a lot of things to take into consideration.  Quite apart from the fact you have to make sure you get the legal end of things absolutely right and double, and triple check all the factual details there are other, more subtle considerations.  The language you use must be evocative but you’re not writing a work of fiction, it’s a record of an event, a tragic event that has traumatised all those touched by it and that has to be taken into account.

One of the most basic things that you have to decide on are what to refer to the principal characters as.  In a court report of an ongoing trial there are conventions that you tend to stick to.  Witnesses, the deceased and the accused are all referred to by their surname with the appropriate title before hand.  Sometimes, to avoid confusion, say if numerous members of the same family are giving evidence you might resort to first names for clarity but for the most part its the formal title followed by surname.

When you’re writing a book or even a more fluid kind of article this form of address doesn’t always work.  It can sound clunky and artificial.  So you’re left with a choice.  Do you use first names or surnames.  Forenames can sound overly familiar but can feel like a natural choice when you’re talking about the victim, someone to be viewed with sympathy and compassion whose place in the story is to have a tragic ending.

For the convicted however it’s the flip side.  Once they’re marked a killer by the decision of a jury they often lose their title, to be referred to ever after by their surname only.  Referring to them by their first name just wouldn’t sound right, so they become the surname with an extra dose of ignominy.

It’s not a hard and fast rule of course.  It can depend on the house style of the publisher or publication you’re writing for, sometimes everyone gets the surname approach although it’s generally not the other way around.

When I was asked the question I wondered briefly was I actually calling Celine Cawley by her first name because she was a woman. I know that when I was writing Devil and when I’ve written about both cases on this blog it’s been first names all the way.  I don’t think it’s as simple as that though.  I frequently refer to people who’ve played principal parts in the trials I’ve covered by their first names, mainly because I write in a more informal style here and it just sounds better.

There might be an element as well of the fact that when I’m writing about a case in depth it’s very hard not to develop a distance from the subject as you chisel the words into shape.  I know when I’ve written true crime I think about the people and situations I’m describing in much the same way I would think about characters and plots when I write fiction.  I’m aware that I’m talking about real events but to shape them into book form I need to treat them in the same way I would the raw material for any other kind of book.

It was a question that really got me thinking – always great when that happens.  I’d love to hear what you think on the subject, weigh in with your own thoughts please – I’m perhaps too close to the subject by now and can’t see the wood from the trees.

In the Spotlight

Death on the Hill hit the shops this week.  To coincide with this I’ve been hitting the publicity trail.  The last week has passed in a blur of corridors and studios and next week promises to be no different.  It’s a necessary part of bringing out a book but it’s one of the more surreal parts of the job.

As a journalist I’ve been in a fair few studios over the years.  I started out working in radio and it’s great to get the chance to be sitting in front of a mic again albeit on the other side of the desk.  It’s strange to be answering questions rather than asking them and being an item on the running order, a part of the story.

It’s very different from the daily business of court reporting.  Taking notes, checking facts, always on watch to catch the smallest detail that will make the picture that you paint at the end of the day all the more vivid.  It’s quite a passive line of work, an observer not a contributor.  Definitely not a position that tends to land in the spotlight.

Of course when you write a book it’s a different matter entirely.  You’re no longer simply a story in the paper, waiting for tomorrow’s chips.  You’ve pinned your colours to the mast and embarked on a project that involves, of necessity, some hard sell.  Suddenly you’re flashing a smile and plugging away and getting ever more removed from the violent facts that you’re recounting.

Covering murder is an odd business.  When you do the job for any length of time you develop armour so that the gory details slide off you like drops off an umbrella.  You become flippant when faced with brutality, treating each tragedy lightly because it’ll only be followed by another.  That’s not that you don’t have compassion, just that it get’s rationed, metered in the face of relentless details that bleed into one another as trial follows trial follows trial.

The details of each successive trial settle on each other until your brain is clogged by the fallen details of dozens of deaths, dozens of post mortems.  You learn to leave the job at the end of the day and put aside the details and the pain of the victims and their families but your sense of humour gets a blackened edge and gallows laugh.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job – well love is probably the wrong term, but it’s what I do and the work suits me. But when you’re selling a book it tends to come home that while you are happy to have a book with your name on it you’re also constantly retelling somebody else’s personal tragedy with each bright and breezy interview.  It’s more than a little surreal.

All you can do is try to keep the balance.  A balance between the book I’ve written, telling a story as a writer and a journalist, and the dark, tragic truth at the centre of it.  It’s the nature of this kind of book.  Most of the time I don’t navel gaze but when I find myself sitting in another corridor waiting to go on air to do another interview it can get a little introspective.  Tomorrow starts with two such corridors.  You have been warned.

Blood & Mucus on A Midsummer’s Day

The sun was shining today.  Here in Dublin that’s no means a guarantee at this time of year, even on Midsummer’s Day.  Sitting in the Criminal Courts of Justice you can see the lucid blue of the sky, see the sun on the backs of the birds that flew past and on the motes of dust that hung over the judge’s wig.

But what we were listening to this afternoon conjured images that jarred with the serenity of that blue outside the squares of glass.  In a quiet, hesitant voice, touching her hand frequently to her face or lacing her fingers nervously together, Veronica McGrath described how she had watched her mother and fiancé brutally assault her father.

I’ve not been back to court since the Drimnagh screwdriver trial and recently I’ve been somewhat preoccupied with the launch of the new book, Death on the Hill.  Today though the day to day business of the courts ground on despite the sun, regardless of any distractions or outside concerns.

It’s the second day of this trial.  A cold case from 1987.  Bernard Brian McGrath is the deceased and his wife Vera and former son-in-law Colin Pinder are accused of his murder.

His eldest daughter, another Vera, today gave her account of his death.  She described how she and Pinder were due to marry in April 1987.  They had moved back from England, where they had met and had been living together sometime in February or March and were living in a caravan beside the family home as they prepared for the wedding.  She was 18 years old, Pinder a few years older.

But from their little love nest they could hear the nightly rows that marked her parents unhappy marriage.  When a neighbour visited with a hitch on his car they took the opportunity to move the caravan to a field beside another neighbour.

She had no real problem with her father she insisted, despite the constant pressing from her mother’s counsel Patrick Gageby SC.  She had no memory of complaining of his violence towards her to her local GP although she did remember visits from the doctor, the local priest and the gardai at various times during her childhood.  She could also remember going to stay, with her mother and three younger brothers in a women’s refuge on the Howth Road in Dublin.

However, when her mother visited one evening, some time in March or April, and said she wished her father dead, Veronica didn’t think anything of it.  It was a common sentiment, she told the court.  Nothing to worry about.  She heard her mother tell her fiancé that he was not man enough to kill Mr McGrath and she heard her fiancé answer that he had just the thing to carry out the dead.  A heavy spanner, perhaps a torque wrench.

She and Pinder accompanied her parents back to the “home place” later that night, just for a cup of tea and a chat.  The back door was locked so her mother climbed in through a bedroom window and opened the door.  During the original investigation she told detectives that her father had refused to do the gallant thing when he was asked, telling her mother to do it herself, if she was so fit.

Then it all happened so fast.  Pinder produced the hammer and brought it down on her father’s head.  She said she heard her dog, tied up in the back field, barking unhappily so she went to calm it.  She didn’t see what happened next but when she came back down her father was lying face down.

He wasn’t dead though.  Veronica told the jury that her mother went into the house and came out with additional weapons, a lump hammer and a slash hook.  She gave them to Pinder.  Veronica said her father managed to get up and made a run for the small boreen, a narrow road, little more than a lane, that ran beside the house.  Pinder slashed him in the thigh with the slash hook as he ran.  She went and sat down the garden.  She thought she had her teddy bear with her.

Her father ran to the ditch that ran along the side of the boreen where the trees hung down low.  Pinder was hitting the bank of the ditch with the slash hook but wasn’t making contact with her father.  She jumped down into the ditch and her father said to her that his eyes were stinging, he couldn’t see.

He pleaded for his life, asked for mercy, asked for his car keys and promised to drive out of their lives and leave them the house.  The attack moved back the house.  Veronica said it was there her mother hit her father with the lump hammer.  She didn’t know where she had hit, but said her mother and her fiancé had laughed at the blow.

Her father was lying face down at the back of the house, near the garage.  She could hear him making a gurgling noise.  Her mother told her that was the “death rattle”.  Later when he was dead, her mother and fiancé carried him up to the back field wrapped in a grey blanket.  They buried him in a shallow grave.

She didn’t remember going to sleep but must have.  The next morning her mother shook her awake where she was sitting in a kitchen chair and told her there was cleaning to be done.  The ground outside was covered with blood and mucus and her three young brothers were still asleep upstairs.  She helped her mother clean up the blood and, at her mother’s instigation daubed tar on the wall where the porous stone had sucked up too much blood.

Shortly afterwards she and Pinder got married in a registry office in nearby Mullingar.  After the wedding her mother took her three brothers to England for a couple of months and she stayed in the home place with her husband.  When her mother returned the body was revisited.  The shallow grave was not sufficient, Veronica said.  Her mother and husband dug up her father’s body and lit a fire.  The body burned over several days.  The smell on the first day was horrible.  Visiting the field during that time she saw her father’s rib cage in the embers.

Eventually the fire went out.  Her husband raked through the ashes with a shovel and brought fragments of bone back to the house in a biscuit tin.  Some went in the range in the kitchen, some went in the septic tank.

The marriage did not last.  The following year, when her son was still new born, Pinder went back to his native Liverpool.  She did not see him again.  Some time later she, as well as her mother and three brothers, moved back to England.

Six years later she couldn’t live with the secret any longer.  She told a social worker what had happened and was put in touch with the police who contacted the gardai.  A search of her parents house discovered the remnants of the fire and bone fragments missed in the charred ashes.

It wasn’t until 2008 that the bones could be formally indentified and her mother and former husband were charged.  She’ll continue her evidence tomorrow as the sun continues to shine.  The wheels of justice don’t stop turning for a spell of good weather.

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