Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Journalism (page 1 of 14)

Familiar territory

Recently in work I’ve been buried in 19th Century crime records. As has been obvious for the past while I’m now working with Findmypast, the online genealogy company. Since I started to research Kirwan I’ve spent so much time with historical records that working with them full-time seemed the logical progression.  I’m now their crime history expert and the past couple of months have been insanely busy as we were preparing for the launch of a major collection of court and crime related papers from The National Archives in London. I’ve recorded a couple of webinars showcasing the new records which you can find on the company’s YouTube channel is you’re interested.

As I posted a few weeks ago I was particularly excited to find Kirwan’s handwritten appeal among the records but I find the whole collection absolutely fascinating. After writing two works of true crime I know how tricky it can be to get hold of the actual paperwork. Unlike America, where you can request any document lodged in a public court, in Ireland getting hold of court documents is next to impossible. In fact when I was working on Devil the only garda statements I could lay my hands on where the ones that had formed part of the American case and so had been used as evidence in an American court. It used to be possible to get hold of the book of evidence if you had built up a good relationship with the gardai who had worked on the case or the barristers but these days it’s impossible. I’m used to hearing the exasperation and frustration from foreign journalists who want to research the case when they discover how little information is available here.

You can find out quite a bit from the judgements in appeals of cases which you can find on the Courts Service website but it’s not the same as the book of evidence. There’s also next to no chance of talking to prisoners here. I did get the chance to visit Essam Eid while he was in gaol in Dublin but that was a specific case. It’s rare otherwise.

That’s what I find so fascinating with the court records that you can find from the 19th century. With my Victorian subjects I can read their prison records, appeals and trial transcript. I might even find photographs. The amount of information I can get about a crime that was committed more than one hundred and sixty years ago is vast compared to what would be obtainable for a modern Irish case. I know how difficult it is because I’ve done it and because I still get regular contacts from reporters and researchers who are still doing it.  It’s thankless work, especially if you’re not able to get to the court for the trial itself.

I sat in the same room as the subjects of my books and was able to watch them and listen to all the evidence. I know as much about those cases as it’s possible to know for a writer. But I know more about Kirwan, who died a century before I was born. I know how tall he was, what colour eyes he had, how he spoke, how he signed his name. I know thirty years of his life and the lives of those around him. That’s one of the reasons why I love historical research so much. I know that if I dig hard enough, search thoroughly enough, I will find out more than I could find out sitting in the same room as someone.

When I was researching Devil, seven years ago exactly, I was excited by how much I could find out online. But the possibilities from the digitisation of historical material are awe inspiring. Most of the research I’ve done on Kirwan has been the good old fashioned legwork type. I’ve been in so many different libraries, my pencil case is bristling with readers’ tickets. But so many of the really exciting discoveries I’ve made have been through digitised material. I’m excited to see where things go from here. So many stories, so many connections, so many lives waiting to be discovered. I want to be on the front line of that. How could I not?

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.

Once Again Words are Not Enough

I’ve hesitated writing about the Tuam babies case. It’s not that I don’t feel strongly about it. It’s not that I’m afraid to write about it.  It’s just that I will simply be one voice in many and surely this is a case where words mean very little unless something can be done about the attitudes that bring us back here again and again and again.

If you’re not familiar with the story, and I’m sure there are plenty who still won’t be, it’s this. On May 24th the Irish Mail on Sunday broke the story. There followed the predictable social media outrage, the even more predictable empty words from those who allowed it to happen, the absolutely inevitable lack of action. Most things don’t happen here until the international press get the sniff of a story and sure enough, once thematter appeared in the Washington Post it really started being talked about.

So what happened? It’s a simple enough story. In Tuam, in County Galway, there used to be a home for Mothers and Babies. It stood on the site of an old workhouse and was run by the sistesr of the Bon Secours order. In this home, between the 1920s and the 1960s 800 babies and young children died. But that’s not it. It’s not that 800 dead over 40 or so years means an average of around 2 a month which might to the casual observer seem a wee bit on the high side. If that was all we would no doubt have already been mollified by those who would drag in every measles outbreak, every flu epidemic, every cholera, typhoid and diphtheria outbreak to cast a swathe through the Irish population in the last two centuries, to make the point that sometimes children die, sometimes a lot of children die. Life they would tell us,  is a fragile thing and you can blame germs, or poverty, or ignorance to tidy away the significant numbers of dead babies of times past.

But that’s not it.

The problem with these 800 babies is that there is a good chance some or all of them ended up disposed of with no care or reverence, thrown in a septic tank.  I’ll let that sink in for a moment. They were disposed of in a septic tank. Not buried in a euphemistically called “angel plot” for the unbaptised. Not placed gently in a little white coffin and honoured with flowers and favourite toys. These children were thrown where you would throw rubbish, in an empty concrete tank that had once held the workhouse’s sewage. There have been suggestions that many of the children who died were the sick, the weak and the disabled, left in what amounted to Dying Rooms to die a slow, sad death of malnutrition and avoidable illness. That these children were left because they were not as lucrative as the healthy children who could be sold to childless couples.

Already there have been those who have denied this. There are those who say that the only indication that there were bones in that septic tank were two small boys who investigated a crack in a concrete slab in the 60s and discovered a horror. There are those who are no doubt hoping that the bones turn out to belong to dogs or rats or sheep – if they are ever exhumed. If anyone bothers to try to find out what happened.

We need to focus on that septic tank because it doesn’t matter if there aren’t 800 babies there. If just one bone of one child is in there it tells us something we should never forget. It means that the body of at least one child was treated like rubbish, was denied the basic funerary rites that we have turned towards as a species since neanderthal times. It means that a child’s body was treated like a dead dog – and perhaps that dog would actually have had more care taken of it. It means that someone turned their back on the most basic human compassion, fought what is surely an instinctive need to treat the dead gently. If there is more than one child’s bone, if there are the dozen’s, hundreds, that have been described then that is an image from a scene of war. That is the piles of bodies in a concentration camp, the smoking piles of war dead. That is humanity lost.

Since the story broke the similar stories have come thick and fast. Just as when the first reports disclosed clerical sex abuse or the horrors of the Magdalen Laundries. There’s never a shortage of stories like that in Ireland. This country has a very, very dark past. Each time a story like this has been told it has caused outrage, anger and disgust. Each time there have been the harrowing first person narratives of what life was like in hell. Each time the Church has responded with platitudes and empty apologies that have never been followed up with action. Each time the apologists have gathered to sweep the dirt back under the now irredeemably bumpy rug. Each time, once a suitable period of chagrin has been observed the Church has sulked about anti-religious agendas and shut their doors yet again.

We don’t know what will happen yet with this. At this stage we don’t even know exactly what the situation is. Until things are clarified, and possibly even then, there will be those who ignore the absolute truth that has been staring us in the face for far too long. RTE journalist Philip Boucher Hayes has outlined what evidence is already available here and Catherine Corless, the local historian whose tireless work brought this story out into the open has put this summary of her findings on Facebook. These are both accounts that can be trusted. This is not a delusion, this is not an exaggeration. If one bone of one child found it’s way into that disused septic tank that is too much. This is not something we should look away from and this is not something we should allow to fade into the past.

The problem, the huge problem, with this is not simply that it is yet another account of a past full of unimaginable cruelty and heartlessness, it is because these attitudes have not been left in the past. The attitudes that allowed these things to happen that keep coming to light, that keep shocking us, the attitudes that dismissed life so absolutely are still here and they are all around us.

When a story like this breaks there are still those who deny it ever happened, who accuse the people who have brought the latest horror to light, of attacking the Church. The newspapers will still ask the local bishop what he thinks, will still listen to the response. The investigation will move slowly unless it gets indefinitely postponed while yet another inquiry creaks forward toothlessly. A lot of columnists will write elegant phrases about how hard the past was before moving on to the next outrage. Social media will get outraged for a while until the next thing turns up. Months down the road there will be a report or an investigation where more details come from the mouths of the victims. Outrage, disgust once again – until the next time.

Has the heart of the country really changed from the time when families were so soaked in catholic guilt that they would turn their back on their own? Isn’t it still a lot easier to listen to what those in power tell us to do than to stand up and demand change? Isn’t such deference hardwired into jaded souls so that certain views still have weight when they should have been resigned to the past.

It’s buried deep but there is still a checklist that weeds the good from the bad, a rigid code that places each of us in one pile or another. If you don’t check the right boxes you are bad, unsaveable, lost. In a mindset based on black and white, good and evil, ours and their,s that line is drawn deep. In my teens and early 20s I first noticed it. Because I was an “outsider” I could never be a good girl. I’ve seen what that does to the attitudes of the guys who were too sure in the discos we called nightclubs. I’ve seen it in the sneers from a certain type of dark-clad granny who would slowly look me up and down on the bus, making me blush and feel like dirt. That was what they meant to do. I was on the other side of the line. There would be no crossing over. I’m not comparing a few slights to what went on in the various homes but I recognise it.

Having a line like that is a dangerous thing as history never fails to show us. Lines like that destroy empathy. Lines like that cause genocide, brutality, slavery. We don’t even need to look to the world for proof of that. There’s ample evidence at home.

As long as that deference is there then so is the line. It goes deeper than prejudice, it’s the difference between black and white. It is hard wired into this country and it’s something that needs to be fought if  the ground is ever going to be kicked over and humanity restored. As long as that line is there people find it easier to assume that those who have been hurt will lie – as the Irish Times managed to point out when talking about the #YesAllWomen Twitter hashtag (which I’ll return to another time). As long as it’s there the voiceless will never have a voice and the sins of the past will never be truly repaired.

 

A Point that Really Shouldn’t Need to be Made

Late yesterday afternoon, at around the time thoughts were turning towards what to have for dinner, my phone rang. It was a wonderfully geeky friend who knows of my own (not so closet) geeky tendencies. Had we talked about Much Ado About Nothing she asked excitedly.

“Um no, not recently.”

I knew that Much Ado About Nothing was one of the most hotly anticipated screenings at this year’s Jameson Dublin Film Festival. In attendance would be the director of this new production, none other but Joss Whedon. I knew about the screening all right. I also knew it was sold out.

But my wonderful friend had a tip. A small number of tickets were being released in the final hours before the screening. Would I like to go with her.

“Hell yes!”

So at 6 o’ clock yesterday four of us, all women, excitedly met outside the Savoy Cinema. We weren’t the only women there. Why would we be? This is the man responsible for Buffy the vampire slayer, for the formidable Zoe Washburne in Firefly, I could go off into a long list of amazing female characters but I’m trying to keep the fangirlness to an absolute minimum. Let’s just agree that Joss Whedon is known for his strong female characters. It’s a fact so mind bogglingly obvious it really doesn’t need saying. You would think. There were a lot of women at last night’s screening, a substantial percentage of the enthusiastic crowd.

After last night’s screening there was a Q&A conducted by John Maguire of the Sunday Business Post. Eventually questions were thrown open to the floor. You can imagine the number of hands went up for those microphones. The first question went to a guy in the first row. What it was is unimportant. The second went to a guy in the row behind him. Then another bloke, and another. Eventually Joss Whedon had to point out that there were women in the room. Wasn’t it time to let one answer a question?

The next question went to another man. Much to the annoyance of the woman sitting next to him who had also had her hand up.

Now I’m not saying that the guys who got the mic didn’t have a right to ask their question. Everyone in that audience was there for the same reason. Tickets sold out so quickly because Mr Whedon has a hell of a lot of fans of both sexes.

But he is known for his strong female characters.

Afterwards in the crowd outside the cinema people were smiley and happy and chatty. Our little group of four got talking to other audience members. All of them women. Nothing surprising in that. It was just the way it worked out. But we all commented on the fact that so few women had got to answer questions.

Of the two women who did get to ask one of them identified herself as a theatre director and producer. She wanted to adapt the famous musical episode of Buffy for the stage she explained. She had written a letter. To the audience’s, and I’m sure her, delight, Whedon crossed to her seat and took the letter from her, tucking it in his jacket pocket.

That took balls, everyone outside was saying. How appropriate.

That failure to give the mic to the women in the audience was the only gripe in an otherwise great evening. I don’t think it was done maliciously, probably not even intentionally, but it was done and it was noticed and it was remarked upon by the guest of honour himself.

The truly depressing thing about the fact that it wasn’t malicious and it was probably wasn’t intentional is that that this kind of stuff happens all the time. It happens with such mind numbing regularity I frequently want to scream. It’s like the time in college when a big journalistic name came to speak to our class. There was a lively discussion that went right up to the end of the day. Afterwards this big journalistic name, who was an old friend of our lecturer, agreed to go for a pint. Invitations were carelessly given but somehow the only people who got them were they lads in the class. Once again it wasn’t intentional, once again I found myself outside with the women noticing the omission.

It’s like fact that you can turn on Irish radio station between breakfast at dinner time and only hear a male host. The fantastic advocacy group Women on Air was set up to combat this. Despite a long list of qualified female contributors out there, Irish journalists (and those elsewhere, this isn’t solely an Irish problem by a long chalk) will go for the same old male reliable. I could go on giving examples forever. I’m sure you could add them yourself.

It’s frustrating as a women to feel even now, in Western Europe in the 21st Century, that you don’t have the same voice as the other half of the population. Even though my generation of women are the first who can look on our freedom as a birthright there is so much still to do. The fact that this freedom, this equality, is so easily forgotten shows just how fragile it is. The worst thing is that sometimes the offenders really should know better. Members of the so called “liberal meeja” really should know better.

When you’re interviewing someone who is known particularly for writing strong female characters then the issue should surely be at the front of your mind.

I’ll leave the final word to Joss Whedon himself. My miraculous ticket fairy also pointed me towards this clip of him accepting an award from the Equality Now movement. Says it all really.

We Need to Talk

Any regular readers of this blog might have notice there’s not been much to read lately. It’s been well over a year since I’ve blogged a trial and I’ve not really been writing much about general court matters either. I think the time has come to actually set down why this has been the case and why I’m not likely to be writing on either of those subjects any time soon.

I started this blog nearly five years ago, about three months or so before my first book came out. I started writing about the trials I was covering in the day job, since the book had come directly out of that work it seemed the natural thing to do. By the time the Lillis trial came up in 2010 things seemed to hit a critical mass. I was blogging the trial at the end of every day’s evidence, as well as live tweeting from court as things happened. I was also writing things up for the Sunday Independent. A book about the case seemed an obvious next step so that’s what I did. The media circus was one of the things that interested me most. There have been certain cases in the past decade that have been newspaper catnip. Editors like nothing better than a good looking corpse. You only have to look at the front pages of certain newspapers today, the ones that have shown the bikini clad image of Reeva Steenkamp, the law graduate, campaigner on behalf of rape campaigners and former model that Olympian Oscar Pistorius is accused of killing. In the case of Celine Crawley the majority of the pieces written about the case carried a picture of her as she was more than twenty years ago, when she was a model who had once had a small part in a Bond film. The woman she had grown into, the successful businesswoman, was often only trotted out when using the “mouse that roared” version of events, that of a henpecked husband who had finally snapped. The Lillis trial was the pinnacle of a trend that had been all too obvious in media coverage of the courts for several years.

Trials that don’t fit into very narrow criteria tend to get ignored. There are plenty of stories that deserve to get covered but won’t be because they concern ordinary people, or people who aren’t Irish, or don’t live in a nice house. And we just accept this because that’s the way it is. So we end up with a skewed version of what’s really out there, the freak shows, the shock values. We stick to this narrow view of life that feeds the net curtain-twitching gossips but the stories that are sordid, or tragic, or depressing just don’t cut it. We want stories we can giggle at over coffee, to ooh and ah at in the pub. The stories that might actually tell us something about the world we live in, a world where life can sometime be depressingly cheap, are ignored.

It’s something that’s been bugging me increasingly for a number of years. The little details that stick with you mount up; foxes gnawing bones, fishes nibbling on flesh, lives snuffed out for no good reason. All the lives ruined, the pointless violence, the sheer stupidity and petulance of too many murderers.  Since my mum died this feeling has grown and stretched until it’s become impassable. There’s just been too much death.

So I’ve made a decision. After almost twenty years I’m getting out of journalism. Years ago, when I was planning on following in my parents’ footsteps and becoming an actor, I eventually decided against it because I knew the pitfalls all too well. There was no idealistic cushion against the hard times I knew damn well would come. I’ve reached that stage with journalism. I’ve always been a news journalist but I’ve been letting my objectivity slip for a while now. I don’t think there’s any getting it back. I thought I’d be a hack till the day I died but not anymore. I find myself dreaming of a job outside the media, away from newsrooms, away from filing copy. I just don’t love it any more and that’s probably the point to say goodbye.

So the long and the short of it is that I won’t be writing about any more trials. I had considered taking down the ones up till now and starting afresh but I’m not going to do that. I’ll also be avoiding commenting on murders that are in the news. I’ll still be blogging, in fact I’ll probably be blogging a lot more from now on, but the focus will shift. I’ll still be working on my latest book as well. Even though I came to the subject through a murder trial the story has most definitely become about the living not the dead. Besides, I’ve no intention of stopping writing – I don’t think I could if I tried. I want to take time to consider what’s next.  I’ve been court reporting for almost seven years, it’ll take time to shift gears. So bear with me and hopefully this’ll be the start of something new.

Back on the Women’s Pages

 

The-Newsroom-poster-HBO

I’ve a definite soft spot for journalism movies. Give me a story about a heroic hack (or a not so heroic one for that matter) and I’ll make the popcorn. The same goes for books and TV and has done since I studied journalism in college. So when it was announced that Aaron Sorkin was writing a new series set in a TV newsroom I got rather excited. I’d devoured the West Wings liberal bed time stories and even loved the short lived Studio 60. The Newsroom was bound to be good.

I should probably point out here that I don’t require my journalism movies to be madly realistic. The more gung ho and idealistic the better – I’m looking for entertainment not realism – but it does need to be recognisable. So I progressed from Lois & Clark to Drop the Dead Donkey via the short-lived Harry, starring Michael Elphick as a washed up Fleet Street hack running a news agency up north.  There was political intrigue in House of Cards,  not to mention Paul Abbott’s genius State of Play and more recently The Hour and that’s just the TV.

In films there’s Mel Gibson before we learned about his unfortunate religious views in The Year of Living Dangerously, All the President’s Men, Good Night and Good Luck, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Up Close and Personal, His Girl Friday and To Die For to name but a few. And of course Paddy Chayefsky’s utterly brilliant Network. I never cared whether I was watching male or female hacks the hook that always caught me was the drive, the hunger for the story, the determination to get the truth out there. This was something I was sure Aaron Sorkin would provide in bucket loads and so settled down to add The Newsroom to the list.

But there’s a problem.

Several episodes in and I’m still waiting for a female character I can relate to. Actually I’m still waiting for a female character I didn’t want to slap. It’s never really been an issue before. There was never anything in the films and series that I’ve mentioned above that told me as a woman I wasn’t capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with any of the male journalists and chasing that story just the same. In the same way that I wouldn’t assume I was any less capable than any of my male colleagues. There might be differences between the sexes but they don’t tend to extend to news sense and ambition.

So why do I feel when I’m watching the Newsroom that the person talking to me thinks women should be making the tea and writing the women’s pages? It could have something to do with this interview with Sorkin that came out just before The Newsroom launched. But it’s a lot more to do with the character that every female character seems to be a neurotic incompetent who brings her personal life into work and gets distracted by sparkles unless there’s a nice strong dependable bloke to keep her focused.

I’ve been a journalist for more than a decade. I’ve had a lot of female colleagues. I can’t think of one of them that wouldn’t have taken any of the Newsroom drips to one side to tell her to cop the fuck on. It’s a shame because in pretty much every other respect The Newsroom ticks the boxes. It’s nowhere near as sharp as Network, even though I gather Aaron Sorkin is also a fan, but its right-on outrage at the state of journalism is more heartening bedtime story stuff. It’s what he does.

But that’s what makes the Sorkin women so hard to take. Where are the strong female role models, a Martha Gelhorn for every Ed Murrow? Surely in this perfect journalistic world the exceptional women should be standing up with the exceptional men? I would have thought it was a given.

I’ll probably keep watching The Newsroom, for the rest of the first series at least, but it’s not going to be going on my journalist list. I wouldn’t recommend it to any girls or women wanting to follow a career in journalism. They should be told the sky’s the limit, not to wait until a man comes to sort it out. It’s hard enough out there. We don’t need this crap.

Which Box Do You Tick?

So France is doing away with the mademoiselle, officially at least. It begs the question should we in the English speaking world follow suit. Of course, for the French there’s no middle ground. They don’t have that truncated, rather weighted alternative “Ms”. Women who do not warrant a Dr or similarly specific honorific are stuck with describing themselves by which side of the matrimonial fence they happen to occupy.  It’s not a position men ever have to clarify – even historically, when there may have been a world of difference between the Masters, Misters and Esquires in the room, you wouldn’t have been able to tell by whether there was a doting wife waiting for them at home simply by a formal introduction. It’s funny how some things linger.

Of course, back then, it all came down to worth, how much respect the person you were addressing was due. A man who was addressed as Esquire, for example, was generally a man of means, landed but not titled. By the same logic, since a woman gained a firmer footing in society once she had been passed from her father to her husband, it made sense to distinguish between those who’d hooked their ticket out and those still waiting on the shelf. The omission of that identifying middle letter was a radical step – assuming a woman’s worth was not simply dependent on her husbands. It took a while to catch on.

I’ve always assumed that “Ms” was a construct of the feminist movement in the 60s or 70s and certainly it wasn’t until then that those radical little letters got some traction. I’m neither a philologist nor a linguist so I’m not getting into etymology here but it seems logical that “Ms” was a compromise that occurred to several forward thinking minds over the years, certainly this New York Times article from 2009 places it as far back as 1901. Given the meaning of the word, it’s hardly surprising it’s gathered a bit of baggage knocking around for over a century.

I was very small when I first heard the word Ms and even then I knew it was quite a powerful little word, certainly a lot more combustible than “Mr”. It was a word you didn’t call someone unless invited and when a woman described herself using it then you knew she was doing it for a reason. I formed the idea that a Ms was a independent, strong, glamorous creature in a whole different league to the fluffy Misses and frumpy Mrses. Now I was making these assumptions in London in the 70s and 80s, and the women I was making them about were all actresses or journalists or writers so my views could have been a little slanted. But early assumptions tend to stick and it never occurred to me, once I reached form-filling age, to use any other honorific but “Ms”. I also might have been a little influenced in my career choice.

Even when I got married I didn’t drop the Ms. I didn’t change my name either but that’s a whole different post. It just never seemed relevant.  I love my husband but he doesn’t define me. I don’t consider my worth any different because he’s around. I’m me and that’s all there is to it. I’m always surprised when anyone suggests the word has negative connotations – I just assume we’ve moved past all that. Of course the very fact that I’m writing this post and asking this question goes to prove that we haven’t but what can I say? I’m an optimist. I’m also happy to describe myself as a feminist and don’t qualify my use of the term by specifying whether the first letter is upper or lower case. But I know there are plenty who disagree.

I’ve been corrected on several occasions when I’ve automatically used Ms when naming a witness in a trial. In each case they would have preferred “Mrs” and have tended to be of an older generation but when I could I’ve always made the change. I use “Ms” when I’m writing to be neutral, but ultimately it’s up to each of us how we choose to be addressed.

So what does “Ms” conjure up for for you? Do you picture boiler-suited man haters or dour killjoys? Does it matter? Is officialdom so out of touch anyway that it doesn’t matter a damn what bleeding box you tick? Do you revel in “Miss” or “Mrs”? Do you care?

On Contempt and Scandal…

One of the first things you’re taught as a journalist in terms of court reporting is how to avoid landing yourself in contempt of court.  There’s a very good reason for this.  There are limited workplaces where putting a foot wrong can land you in a cell but it can be a hazard of the job if you work in the courts.

The thing with contempt of court is that it’s perilously easy to land yourself in it, whoever you are.  At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious contempt of court could be broadly described as anything that breaks the rules of the court.  It could be a witness contacting a juror directly or, as happened in a recent case in the UK a juror contacting the accused. For a journalist it could be printing something prejudicial to the defence during a trial or printing matters said in the absence of the jury, even turning on a recording device in court. Some of these things are easy to avoid if you know the job – though mistakes do happen – but other forms of contempt are harder to duck.

There are many reasons not to comply with a court order.  It could be journalists refusing to reveal their sources, as happened to Colm Keena of the Irish Times some years ago or a case like that of Offaly pensioner Teresa Treacy who was jailed for contempt for not allowing the ESB onto her land to cut down her trees. 

But not all contempt is as easy to spot.  There’s a type of contempt known as “scandalising the court”.  This is the rule that, broadly speaking, means that a judge can throw anyone in his court into a cell for not showing sufficient respect.  That might call to mind Soviet dictatorships or the Wild West but thems the rules.  I’ve heard gardai threatened with contempt for gum chewing and an accused threatened for not sitting up straight.  Last week in Bray District Court a barrister ended up on the wrong side of a contempt charge for not sitting down when he was told.  Apparently the judge in that case,  Judge Murrough Connellan has a bit of a name for running a strict courtroom.  Back in 2006 he jailed a punk father for wearing a Sex Pistols t-shirt in court.

Judgements like the Bray one and Teresa Treacy’s incarceration might raise considerable comment but it’s the nature of things.  The judge is in charge of the courtroom and some wield that authority heavier than others.  There aren’t many judges now that would throw contempt at someone who’d arrived in court in jeans, or the wrong t-shirt for that matter, but it’s usually a good idea to dress neatly – just in case.   

 

 

In a totally unrelated matter, I’ve been writing elsewhere this week.  The National Library of Ireland asked me to write a post on my specialist subject ahead of their Thrillers and Chillers season of Library Late talks.  I’ve been spending a lot of time there recently, researching far more lawless times than these so I wrote a post on our fascination with murder and how some things never change – with examples from the 1850s.

The Sinister Life of The Ciotog

I sprained my thumb recently.  After a couple of weeks with it immobilised I’ve gained a new appreciation of the opposable thumb.  I’ve also been thinking a lot about left handedness.  The injured thumb is firmly attached to my left hand and suddenly I’m back to the level of awkwardness I remember all too well from childhood when I was first learning how to negotiate a world that had been built for the right handed.

Like many left handed people I’m so used to the fact that life is the wrong way round to the extent that I’ve developed a degree of ambidextrosity.  I can use right handed scissors, corkscrews and tin openers with my right hand – even if it will always feel a little bit “wrong”.  But my left hand will always be the dominant one so it’s been a frustrating couple of weeks.  Not being able to hold a pen is head wrecking and my poor little Esterbrook SJs have been sitting on the shelf drying out.  Holding a book and turning the pages became a ridiculous struggle and even using the remote control for the TV meant the bloody thing kept leaping out of my hand onto the floor – much to the Husband’s amusement.  Even the things I’m used to doing with my right hand seemed more awkward without the left hand to steady everything. 

So I’ve spent a lot of time dropping things, complaining and pondering the plight of the left handed.  In fairness the left handed thing isn’t a new preoccupation.  It’s a fact of life that comes up on an almost daily basis.  When I’m working in the courts for example, being the only regular left handed court reporter for a long time meant that I was always the one who would get to sit next to the accused when we reporters used to share a bench with them in the Four Courts.  If I didn’t sit on the left end of the row I’d always end up getting elbowed as I tried to take my notes. Then if the case took place in one of the smaller courts on the upper floors, with their cursed seats with the fold out table…I really hate those little flaps, if it’s not me twisting into knots to get my notebook on them and try to write, it was the one beside me grazing my elbow every time I lifted my pen.

The only time being left handed was a positive advantage was when I used to fence.  Sparring with right handed people I had a slight edge as it was harder for them to block me across the body while at the same time I was naturally better covered.  It doesn’t help much when whoever you’re fencing is better than you granted and it’s damned confusing when you come up against another lefty but on the whole it was a plus. 

Statistically left handed people are more likely to be accident prone (I can definitely attest to that one) and we even have a shorter life expectancy than the right handed.  We’re not the ones to ask for directions either as a lot of us have difficulty telling right from left after years of confusion. I could go on ad nauseum but I’ll leave other examples to this excellent site from Dr M.K. Holder of Indiana University.

An estimated 10% of the population are left handed and it can be hard for everyone else to understand what the fuss is about.  We don’t think about the hand we pick things up with or the hand we use to button our clothes.  It’s one of those things that we do instinctively and that’s what makes it so awkward to be programmed to go the other way.  Even social greetings slip easily into farce when the majority lean one way for that air kiss and you dip in the opposite direction.

It’s awkward and all too often the left handed lack of right handed coordination is dismissed as clumsiness, stupidity or even something darker.  The word “sinister” for example means left on the one hand, on the other it’s all Halloween.  The Irish word “ciotóg” meaning left handed person, is all too similar to the Irish word “ciotach” meaning clumsy, but also has echoes of something far wilder – the strange one, touched, perhaps, by the Devil himself.  Certainly when someone calls you a “ciotóg” (pronounced kitogue) it certainly doesn’t sound like a compliment.

Evil spirits were supposed to loiter behind the left shoulder – which is why salt is supposed to be thrown in that direction when it’s spilt and the French believed that witches greeted the Devil with their left hand. Even wearing the wedding ring on the left hand comes from the Greek and Roman practice of wearing rings on that finger to ward off evil spirits.  And it’s not just Europe.  Apparently in Kenya the Meru people believe that the left hand of their holy man is so evil he must keep it hidden.  There’s a lot more in that vein here, from the UK site of Anything Left Handed, who used to have a magical shop in Soho, in London that was my first introduction to things like left handed scissors.

I was lucky though.  At least I was left to be left handed.  So many people, in so many countries were forced to learn to write with their right hand.  Many were left mentally scarred, with speech and even with learning difficulties because of it.  Left handed people were for a long time believed to be rules by the right side of the brain – the intuitive side that’s good at the lateral, creative stuff.  It’s since been found that it’s not quite that simple but there do seem to be quite a few left handed people in the arts – based on my own completely un scientific observations.

I’ve learnt to negotiate the world just fine but the very fact that it’s always my left side that gets injured probably puts the lie to that. Over the years I’ve had a broken arm, broken ankle, sprained wrist, sprained shoulder and the most recent sprained thumb – always on the left. It’s just an extra level of annoyance in day to day life.  Walking down the street with a right handed person there’s always that introductory waltz as I try to walk on their left while they would prefer me on their right for  easy conversation.  Even my all consuming stationary fixation is necessarily tempered by practicality – school years spent with ink stains all up the side of my hand have left me with a preoccupation about quick drying inks and flat opening notebooks.  It’s such a pervasive kink it’s impossible to ignore – even if it’s something I rarely discuss because for 90% of the population these things just aren’t a problem.  That’s just the way it is.

But before I stop I’d like to mention a new entrant to the world of the sinister.  Irish company On the Other Hand have recently launched an Irish left handed shop so if you’re based here in Ireland you can still buy Irish and get left handed scissors and tin openers galore – and the rest.  I’m not connected to them in any way but it’s always nice to see people who understand how irritating the right orientation can be – even if you’re used to it and deal with it just as you’ve always done.

The thumb is now almost better and I’m sure I’ll be back to normal in a couple of days but I’m not going to stop being left handed. We all move through life in our own groove – I’m just more likely to bump into others because I will invariably go the wrong way!

Taking Stock

It’s been almost three years since I started this blog.  I started it to help publicise my first book The Devil in the Red Dress, which was due to be come out that November.  The idea was to write about the process of being published for the first time as well as to talk about the case that Devil centred on and others that I covered day to day in the courts.

Since then I’ve written two other books and covered many other cases.  All the while I’ve written about what I was up to on here.  For the past few months though I haven’t been posting much.  It’s been a long time since I’ve written a daily post and even longer since I followed an unfolding story over successive posts as I used to with the trials I covered.  I’ve felt increasingly tongue tied when I went to post and have recently been considering stopping the blog altogether.

But this isn’t goodbye – just a bit of a change in gears.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this year.  Back in May my agent retired and I was faced with the prospect of having to sell myself from scratch again.  I may have a better CV these days but any new agent is going to have to believe in me and in my ability to have a long and hopefully lucrative career.  But selling yourself when you’re having doubts about the product yourself isn’t the easiest thing in the world.

I fell into court reporting almost by accident but once I started I grew to love it.  I loved the almost academic ritual of the courts and the drama of each individual trial.  I’ve written many times here about the stories that can be found in the most brutal cases.  The administration of justice fascinates me as a writer – it’s pure human conflict – the raw material of stories since the dawn of time.  As long as I could sit quietly in the bench behind the barristers with my notebook and my pens cataloguing what went on before me I was never short of something to write and some of the stories that unfolded in those panelled courtrooms played out as dramatically as any fiction I could dream up at my desk.

I had thought that I had found my niche, somewhere I was happy to work for years to come but there’s the rub…for the past year or so it’s dawned on me that perhaps it wasn’t where I wanted to serve out the rest of my time.  It’s an odd thing working as a reporter in an Irish court.  I firmly believe that it’s vital that journalists cover the courts.  Justice must be done in public and the press bring justice out of the courts and onto the breakfast table where it can be openly discussed by all.  That’s not always the way it feels though.  The press are viewed as irritants at best, at worst an infestation that in an ideal world would be eradicated just like rats or cockroaches.  It’s an attitude you find amongst the legal professions, the gardai and the public.  I’m not saying it’s held by everyone but it’s widespread enough to get a bit wearing on a daily basis.  There’s a perception that the only reason the courts are covered is to titillate the baser instincts of the masses, a freak show that makes a circus out of the august institution of the Law…and having seen some of the scrums after particularly high profile trials I can see how that perception could have come about.

As a freelancer I’m limited in the kind of trial I can cover.  I can’t afford to sit in court for weeks on end when it’s a story I can’t sell.  Against the backdrop of the smoking embers of the Irish economy only the sensational trial will stand out with a suitably photogenic cast.  Unfortunately for me but fortunately for Ireland these trials are extremely thin on the ground.  It might sound cynical but that’s the name of the freelance game and it’s not one I have any chance of changing.

This year the one thing I keep coming back to is that I’m tired.  I’m tired of justifying what I do.  I’m tired of explaining the difference between a court reporter and a crime reporter (we cover the trials – they cover the crimes).  I’m tired of arguing about my right to do my job and I’m tired of people taking exception to me describing things as I see them.  I’m tired of the shocked looks when I describe my day in work – especially when it’s a day we’ve heard post mortem results.  Most of all I’m tired of people thinking I’m a one-trick pony who only does one thing.  I’ll have been working as a court reporter for six years come October and I’m ready for a change.

Now I know it’s not something I can just step away from.  I’m the author of two books on memorable trials that still manage to make headlines. I’ve contributed to a couple of shows on true crime that still find their way into late night schedules.  I still know what trials are coming up in the new law term and which ones will probably draw me back to court but there’s so much else.  For the past three years I’ve written about murder trials here and in the Sunday Independent, on Facebook and on Twitter and jealously guarded the brand I was trying to build.  But increasingly that’s not enough.  I love the conversations I’ve had late at night on Twitter about 70s British sci-fi and horror films.  I’m a total geek when it comes to fountain pens and old Russian cameras and I love French music.  I’m currently obsessed with the idea of finding natural alternatives for the various potions I find myself slapping on my face far more earnestly than I did in my 20s and I’m resurrecting my ancient 1913 Singer sewing machine.  I’m toying with the idea of starting a blog for fiction where I can post short stories and maybe start to outline another novel.  It might mean confusing the Google bots who come to catalogue my daily ramblings but I want to give murder and prisons and social unrest a break for a while and talk about anything and everything else.

After all there’s so much more to life than death!

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