Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

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

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.

Where there’s a Will…

It’s been reported in the papers today that Celine Cawley’s family are suing her husband Eamonn Lillis for a greater share of his wife’s estate.  Lillis was convicted back in February of killing his wife – he hit her over the head three times but the jury decided that the prosecution had failed to prove that he intended to kill her.  Under Irish succession laws he loses the right to inherit his wife’s half of the estate after being convicted of her manslaughter but he will still inherit his half of any property and assets the couple owned together.

The reports today say that Celine’s brother and sister Chris and Susanne Cawley are suing Lillis to ensure that his daughter with Celine will inherit a larger share of the couple’s €4 million fortune.  The girl, who’s 17, is living with her mother’s family since her father was sent to jail.  She will turn 18 in November and will come into her inheritance.  She will also lose the anonymity guaranteed her as a minor so closely linked to a criminal trial.  At Lillis’s sentencing, in a heartfelt victim impact statement Susanne Cawley spoke about the families concerns for the girl.  It’s unsurprising therefore that they want to make sure she has the resources to protect herself from any unwanted attention.

Her parents owned three properties.  Rowan Hill on Howth Head, where the family lived at the time of her mother’s death, a dream holiday home in France and an earlier home in Sutton.  As things stand at the moment, Lillis could veto any property sales his daughter may choose to make.  Her mother’s family wish to change this.

It’s not the first time that Celine Cawley’s will has hit the headlines.  Soon after the trial, while I was working on the book of her tragic death and the subsequent legal proceedings, I wrote here about Lillis’s stepping down as executor of his wife’s will.  I commented at the time about the curious politeness that has followed these horrific events.  It appears now that the gloves have come off.

Publication Day!

Today Death on the Hill is officially published.  You probably won’t find it in the shops just yet – it usually takes a couple of days for book stocks to move from warehouse to shop floor.  Which makes a publication day rather peculiar.

I’ve had my author copies of Death on the Hill for a while now.  They’re sitting in a neat row in our front room and every now and then I go and take a look at them – I still get a kick out of seeing my name on the spine of a real, live book with pages and everything. I’m excited about seeing copies in bookshops but publication day itself is a marker in time that’s even more confusing than a mid life birthday.

You wake up and the morning is the same as the one before. When I was a child dreaming of being a writer I thought there would at least be streamers.   The appearance of a book in print with your name on it would signify an end to the normal daily grind and an emergence into the artistic realm like a butterfly emerging from it’s chrysalis.  I was a rather romantic child.

The reality is generally rather more prosaic.  Today I got up at the usual time and headed off to court.  There’s a new murder trial starting this week and there were several cases in the Monday list that I wanted to keep an eye on.  Then I went grocery shopping.  Life goes on.

In the days and weeks to come things will get busy.  There’ll be interviews to do, publicity.  I’ll start haunting book shops and counting their stock and fretting about sales figures.  I’ll be pestering everyone I know to buy, or read, or review and shouting about the book from every available rooftop.  This evening though it’s my publication day.  A moment in time where the one thing that matters is that the book is written.  It’s real and will very, very soon be coming to book shops all over Ireland.  That’s something to be pleased about.

Death on the Hill 1

Modern Feminism

It’ll be no surprise to anyone who’s a regular reader of this blog that feminism is something I care about.  I’ve written time and time again here about the violence against women I cover on a  day to day basis down at the courts and on occasion delved into the subject on a broader basis.

I was delighted to see the Dublin Writers’ Festival hosting an event with Susan McKay ( former journalist, writer and currently director of the National Womens’ Council) and Natasha Walters (broadcaster,writer & critic and author of  The New Feminism  as well as the recent  Living Dolls)  were in conversation with Irish Times journalist Anthea McTiernan.  The main thrust of the talk was the return of sexism highlighted by Natasha’s book  Living Dolls  but the conversation soon moved into other areas.

It’s great to see an event like that packed out.  There’s still a very pressing need for feminism, some battles may have been won and I’m grateful for how much easier my life and my career have been compared to my mother’s generation but there’s still a lot more to be done.  When I first started working in the Four Courts I was shocked by how many trials concerned violence against women.  These days when the Monday list contains four rapes and two murders trials with men accused of killing their partners I don’t even blink.

I don’t cover as many rapes these days but the one’s I did cover I will never forget.  Stories of violence, manipulation and betrayal that strip away any veneer of civilisation and show how bestial our society can sometimes be. Even now, covering murder trials, it’s no better.  There’s been a succession of men in the dock over the past three years charged with killing their partners.   So many strong, independent, loving women, women like Siobhan Kearney, Rachel O’Reilly, Karen Guiney, Colleen Mulder, Meg Walsh or Jean Gilbert, all brutally killed.  In all except the case of Meg Walsh it was the partner who was guilty of their death.

My latest book, Death on the Hill, due out later this month is about about another of these cases.  Eamonn Lillis was convicted in February of killing his wife Celine Cawley.  During the trial Celine, as a successful businesswoman, was branded a domineering harpy.  The newspapers happily snapped up the story put forward by the court.  But it was online, on the gossipy forums and various blogs that the real vitriol came out.  I came across one football forum while I was researching the book where the thread on the trial consisted of men posting pictures of Celine as a young model and joking about how much she had let herself go according to later pictures.  They were vile comments in a very public forum.  There were times when it seemed Celine was the one on trial.  That case really brought gender politics out into the light and we have a very long way to go!

An Issue of Privacy

The big legal story of the day is definitely the action being taken by convicted serial rapist Michael Murray to safeguard his privacy.

49-year-old Murray, who raped four women in a six day period in 1995, says he has been hounded by the press since his release from prison last year.  He says he can’t take part in any meaningful rehabilitation programme when there are snappers hiding in the bushes wherever he goes and can’t even stay living in the same place.  They say the public has the right to know where a serial sex offender is living.

Today was only the first day of the case so there’ll be a long wait to see what the court rules.  It’ll be a judgement that anyone who covers the courts or crime will be watching with interest.  Crime stories are big news in Ireland.  Covering the big trials over the past few years I’ve grown used to seeing scrums outside the court after a verdict that would rival those usually reserved for Hollywood stars.  Certainly a lot of the more paparazzi shots that appear in the papers are to do with crime lords rather than movie stars. 

I’d be out of work if that interest wasn’t there but when it comes to privacy there’s a whole different can of worms.  When photographers chase musicians or actresses they’re chasing people who signed up for the chase.  Sudden celebrity might come as a shock but if you do something that requires you to perform in front of (hopefully) large crowds it kind of goes with the territory.

Those who commit crimes don’t tend to do it for an audience.  They might crave some form of notoriety through their actions but it’s not really the same thing.  Yet once they’ve been identified and especially once they’ve been caught and tried, they become a rather magnetic news story.  This newsworthiness isn’t something that will fade with their looks.  Once they’re convicted they are indelibly linked to their crime.  If the crime was awful, tragic or extravagant then public interest in it will remain and so will journalistic interest.

Take Wayne O’Donoghue for example.  Convicted in 2006 to four years for the manslaughter of his 11-year-old neighbour Robert Holohan, O’Donoghue was released from prison in February 2008 after serving three years.  It had been a trial that hit all the front pages and passed into legal history when his mother Majella made certain allegations in her victim impact statement. Because of these comments this is a trial that tends to be raised any time there’s a discussion about victim impact statements and it remains fresh in the public mind.

Wayne O’Donoghue left the country after his release but as recently as this January the Sunday World ran a story about his new girlfriend.  Joe O’Reilly’s girlfriend Nicki Pelley has been a regular tabloid fixture, photographed every now and then because she stuck by the man who was convicted of the brutal murder of his wife Rachel.

As long as the names of those convicted sell papers when they appear on the front page the press will keep their interest.  That’s how newspapers work.  When Sharon Collins, the subject of my first book Devil in the Red Dress, is released from jail the photographers will be waiting to see if her proposed victim PJ Howard is waiting to whisk her off to some Spanish villa.  When Eamonn Lillis (subject of the latest book) has served his time there’ll be those wanting to see what he does next.  There’ll probably also be those who are curious to see whether his former mistress Jean Treacy gets the Italian wedding she was planning while she was cheating on her fiancé with Lillis.  The list goes on and on.

This is the nature of news.  If something’s a story it’s a story.  It might not be pleasant for those caught in the crosshairs but that’s the way it works.  It may seem sordid or even rather repellent but these stories have been filling newspapers as long as there have been newspapers.  But however you feel about the examples I’ve given what about those who have committed the really, really bad stuff…like Michael Murray, who raped four women in less than a week and whose own counsel describes as an “abnormal risk to the community”? 

He served time for his crimes, his debt to society as decided by the courts.  Is he entitled to privacy?  A quick Google throws up some of the stories that obviously caused offence, stories of day trips to Bray, security alerts.  When you look at the results Google throws up it certain gives the impression that he has had very little time since his release when he wasn’t being watched by a press posse.  He’s not the first to receive this treatment but depending on the outcome of this case he could be one of the last. 

These are the stories that lead to calls for a sex offenders register, for the public to have more, not less information about who lives close to them.  But privacy is the right of every individual and that causes a problem.  It’s going to be very interesting indeed to see how the Michael Murray case works out.  I’m sure it won’t be the last time I post on the subject.

A New Book

It’s an extraordinary feeling to hold your own book in your hands, that moment when it goes from being a string of insubstantial computer text to a real, proper book with a cover and pages and photographs and everything.

It’s even better when you see more than one of it.  That’s the moment when the penny drops that there is absolutely no going back, that this is the real thing and that the thing you spent weeks or months working on now has a life of its own.  It’s the sudden realisation that with this box load of author copies there is the reality of thousands of other copies that will soon sit on bookshop shelves around the country.

It’ll be a few more weeks before my latest book, Death on the Hill, hits the shelves but today the postman brought my author copies.

Death on the Hill stack

For the moment I can just sit and look at them in all their multiple beauty.  Have a moment of self engrossed anticipation before the reality of launching a book and the selling that must come.  Not tonight though.  Tonight I’m just happy to have written another book.

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