Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Murder (page 1 of 4)

Even after death

I’ve often written about the case of William Burke Kirwan on this blog. His was the case that caused me to pursue a different path in life. Since 2010 I’ve been researching his murder of his wife and it’s lead me back to university and in directions I never dreamed of and there’s plenty more to do. So at this stage I’m a little bit proprietorial. My friends know this about me and tend to point out interesting nuggets about the case they stumble upon. In Dublin, after all, it’s a very well know case indeed. You can still argue about it if you take the boat out to Ireland’s Eye from Howth.

So when the Irish Times featured the case as part of their series of stories from their archives, quite a few Irish friends sent me the link and asked me what I thought. Now I’ll say again that this is a case that is very special to me so I’m apt to be a touch judgemental but in this case the article in question raised my hackles both as a historical scholar and as a court reporter.

It doesn’t help that one of my particular interests in this case is the newspaper coverage. I gave a paper on that subject at the Shared Histories conference at the National Library of Ireland this summer and indirectly it gave me the thesis for my doctorate. I’ve got hard drives full of PDFs of newspaper pages, not to mention filing cabinets full of photocopies gathered before digital newspaper archives were as big a thing as they are now. The Ireland’s Eye murder was one of the most notorious cases of it’s day, as big as any of the cases I’ve covered or written about as a journalist. There were a lot of column inches in a lot of newspapers and you can only get the full story if you look at them all.

So my first problem with the Irish Times article is that it only really looks at an Irish Times article from 1904, 52 years after the murder took place. Now, fair enough, the Irish Times wasn’t around to cover the Kirwan’s trial in December 1852 although they did cover Kirwan’s imprisonment from time to time over the years. The problem with their reporting though was, since they had no staff who had covered the case, knowledge of the finer points of it was sketchy and I’ve always discounted their 19th and early 20th century coverage as too removed from the actual case to be much use.

There are numerous factual errors in the piece in the Times, which I’m presuming is down to the 1904 coverage. According to the article the prosecution case was based on the supposition that Kirwan had used a needle like blade to commit the murder. There was certainly a lot of chatter about Kirwan’s supposed sword stick after Patrick Nangle, one of the boatmen, described Kirwan’s “tuck stick” but this was it’s first mention and a sword stick was never the basis of the prosecution case. According to the Crown’s expert Thomas Geoghegan, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, who advised the Crown case but did not give evidence during the trial, the most likely cause of death was suffocation. What the prosecution did suggest was that Kirwan had “burked” his wife, in other words smothered her by compressing her chest and covering her mouth and nose. According to the Freeman’s Journal coverage of the trial when Dr Hatchell, the police surgeon who had performed the post mortem examination was asked to give cause of death he said suffocation.

Freeman's Journal December 10 1852 Cause of death

A more basic error is that Kirwan’s barrister, Isaac Butt, was not yet a politician. The trial took place the week of the British budget and there were press reports after Kirwan was convicted that Butt had taken the mail boat over to England to be back in Westminster in time for the debate. The Freeman’s Journal on December 13 mentions a motion Butt had been bringing forward being postponed.

Freeman's Journal December 13 1852 Issac Butt MP in Westminster for Budget Debate

In fact two months after Kirwan had been convicted Butt used the case as the basis for a bill on second trials in criminal cases which he raised in Westminster. Even though the bill was unsuccessful it gave the Kirwan case a place in legal history as one of the first steps on the road to second trials.

Lastly the piece cites a letter from a Mr Dennis, speaking on behalf of the trial jury in which they expressed relief at the sentence commutation. Actually that’s not quite what the letter says. Dennis is writing to back up the verdict he and his fellow jury members came to in the face of increasing public scrutiny.

Saunders Newsletter January 10 1853 Letter from Mr Dennis, foreman of the jury copyright the British Newspaper Archive

He was writing within days of the news that Kirwan’s sentence had been commuted to transportation for life and mentions in passing that the saving of a life is something to be relieved about. Given that, in 1852 no-one was hung in Kilmainham Gaol where Kirwan was sent, and while it would be years before the death sentence was done away with, in the years after the Famine there was little appetite for execution and most sentences were commuted. Seasoned observers of the courts would have known this and expected the news to arrive. This would have been why the Dublin papers were so slow to print the wild theorising and speculation that appeared in the British press.

There are other minor inaccuracies but these are the ones that really stick out. This is a moment in history not a story. The facts are sacred and deserve to got right.

My second problem with the piece is that it plays into a stereotype that has dogged this case since it happened. It’s a reaction you’ll still see about modern cases. When the accused is a “respectable” man from an affluent background, there will always be a proportion of the reaction that refuses to accept any evidence because he was “our sort”. You can see this reaction most clearly in the Kirwan case. Within days of the verdict, long before the Irish press started commenting, the letters pages of the London Times and the London Evening Standard were full of middle class men expressing their disbelief that one of them could have committed such a heinous act. Because of the outcry from middle class, professional men who identified with the Dublin artist the case became something of a scandal. The great and good connected with the case in Dublin had to justify their actions, some, like the Deputy Governor of Kilmainham Gaol lost their positions (although I’ll go into more detail about that another time.

But most pernicious in my opinion is the way Kirwan has entered history with his character surprisingly unblemished. This was an abusive husband and few who sat in that courtroom had any doubt of his guilt. I’ve seen far more evidence than I will go into here but the evidence was there during the trial. Female witnesses were not particularly thoroughly examined or cross examined but there is a nugget from washerwoman Ann Hanna on day 2 of the trial.

Freeman's Journal December 10 1852 Ann Hanna's evidence copyright the British Newspaper Archive

But after a high profile trial like this everyone likes to be an amateur criminologist and very often it’s the victim who gets forgotten in this process. You might assume that the concept of victim blaming is a modern idea but in January 1853 the London weekly paper The Examiner was most outspoken.

The Examiner January 1 1853 copyright The British Newspaper Archive

Many British papers, who had often only carried part of the trial coverage, were quick to shout about Kirwan’s innocence. The London Evening Standard were particularly rabid when it came to fighting his corner. The whole thing had been a papist plot they hinted. On January 4 1853 they commented on a letter sent by Crown Solicitor William Kemmis, who had written in to argue for the impartiality of the judges and the jury. The Standard claimed, incorrectly as it turned out, that Kirwan was tried by a predominantly Catholic jury and didn’t have a chance as a Protestant convert.

London Evening Standard January 4 1853 Religious makeup of the jury copyright British Newspaper Archive

It didn’t seem to bother them that their jury analysis was wrong, a fact pointed out by Mr Dennis the jury foreman (in fact there were at least 4 protestants on the jury, one of whom knew Kirwan socially but still convicted). Together with the London Times they championed the Kirwan case as a great miscarriage of justice. At the same time more liberal papers like the Examiner and the Morning Post were more trusting of the evidence and the reporting of the Irish press. But as is so often the case, even now, it’s the loud entitled voices of the right who drown out the truth and all to often it’s a garbled version of the truth that gets passed down. It’s worth noting that the Dublin press, who had all sent staff to cover the trial, were pretty unanimous in believing in Kirwan’s guilt. The  Irish Times in 1904 obviously didn’t bother looking for accurate contemporary reports – a mistake repeated in 2016. I’ve been researching this case a long time and I’ve come up against this miscarriage of justice nonsense at every turn. But each time this lazy mistake is made it’s another disservice to the victim, Maria Louise Kirwan. I also wrote the Ireland’s Eye murder for the Irish Times a few years ago by the way – and made some of the points in this piece then. If you want to read in more detail about the trial I covered it here, here and here and there are other posts if you look under the tag. This is the case that changed the course of my life and I will keep writing about it as long as there is material and people keep getting it wrong!

Remembering a monster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scared out of his wits

Annex - Chaney Sr., Lon (London After Midnight)_02

Lon Chaney as the master detective Edward C. Burke in the film London After Midnight, which allegedly frightened a man to commit murder. Image thanks to Doctor Macro.

It’s been a while since I’ve told the story of a trial. Hardly surprising since that’s not what I do anymore but I haven’t moved very far away from that line of work really. I still spend far too much time immersed in the details of murders and murderers so I’ll continue to share their stories.

When I was growing up Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange was notorious. We all knew it was banned, and unlike the so-called video nasties that were our favourite loans from the video store, it had been withdrawn by it’s  director after being linked to violence.

But 50 years before Clockwork Orange was linked to violence a sad little case came before the courts in London that had a similar link to Hollywood. It went largely unreported by the London papers, unsurprisingly since the case had that familiar ring that even now made it unlikely to generate many column inches. A woman killed by her partner.  I’ve covered so many down through the years and written about them here. But what this case extraordinary was the defence – that the accused man had been so terrified by a film he’d recently seen, London After Midnight starring Lon Chaney, that he had lost his mind, albeit temporarily.

On October 25th 1928 the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette announced the “Hyde Park Tragedy”.

Hyde Park tragedy Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 25101928

The following day the Dundee Evening Telegraph carried a report from the inquest. An unnamed constable described finding the young Irish woman. She was lying huddled, face down with her left hand on her throat. Her glove was saturated with blood.

Patrick Mangan, her brother, told the inquest that his sister had been seeing Williams for three weeks. He had once had to throw him out of her place for being drunk.

Williams was expected to be discharged from hospital in about 10 days time. A picture was beginning to form. The inquest was adjourned until he could be questioned.

In November the case came before the Marlborough Street Police Court. This was the first time details of the case had been heard in public. The Nottingham Evening Post informed it’s readers that 21-year-old Julia had been employed as a worked as a house-maid in a house on Stanhope Gardens in South Kensington.

The police doctor said that considerable violence must have been used to cause the wound in her neck. A policeman who had gone to charge Williams in hospital told the court that before he could caution him Williams had told him “I did it, she had been teasing me.”

A couple of months later the case came for trial in the Old Bailey. The Central Criminal Court after trial calendars show that Williams was charged on two counts. One of murder, the other of suicide.

CRIM9 Robert Williams listed in the After trial calendars

I can’t tell how widely reported the case was. I haven’t been able to find a single reference in the London papers, although this is probably down to the late (for digital archive sources) date, but there was quite a bit of coverage north of Watford, as my mum used to say.

The Hartlepool Mail on December 20th 1928 carried a report from the Central Criminal Court, Williams was being tested to see if he was fit to stand trial. He was indicted on the charge of murder and pleaded not guilty but a key medical witness was not available to back up his insanity defence. Williams took the stand and told the court that he had known Julia Mangan for around a month. He had wanted to kill himself three days before he had killed Julia, on October 23rd. He had put a cut throat razor in his pocket. He had not intended to hurt Julia, they were friends. He had wanted to marry her, although he had told her a false name when they first met.

There had been no quarrel he said. “I felt as though my head were going to burst and that steam was coming out of both sides. All sorts of things came to my mind. I thought a man had me in a corner and was pulling faces at me. He threatened and shouted at me that he had me where he wanted me.” The man, it appears, was Lon Chaney as he had appeared in London After Midnight, a film Williams had seen several months before.

The defence put forward their case. A local chaplain from Williams’ home town of Caernarvon told the court he knew of five separate incidences of insanity in Williams’ family. A London doctor said that while he had treated Williams for neurasthenia and would have considered him “abnormal” he would not have certified him insane.

Dr James Cowan Woods, described as a lecturer on mental diseases, suggested that Williams had been suffering from an epileptic mental attack, “epileptic automatism”, much to the consternation of the judge. “You have said that many people of high intelligence are going about their work, although they are suffering from epilepsy. Are you suggesting that they might commit murder tomorrow?”

But by the time Williams stood trial in January there was still some confusion about whether he suffered from epilepsy at all. No firm diagnosis was given during the trial according to the available reports. The Western Daily Press  was more focused on the Hollywood angle, as it appeared was the trial judge, Mr Justice Humphries, when he was summing up to the jury.

“I do not know whether you have been to see any film in which Mr Lon Chaney acted. One of them, we are told is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and another London After Midnight. If any of your members of the jury have seen the later, or even the advertisements of what Mr Lon Chaney looks like when he is acting in that film you may agree it is enough to terrify anyone.”

"London After Midnight Poster 1927 MGM" by MGM - ha.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The film in question, directed by legendary director Tod Browning best known for his later films Dracula (1931) and the infamous Freaks (1934). It is known as the director’s first exploration of the vampire theme and is one of the most famous lost films – the last known copy was destroyed in a fire at MGM studios in 1967. Chaney plays a detective intent on discovering who killed Sir Roger Balfour. It was based on a short story written by Browning, The Hypnotist. Chaney, was already famous for his skills of makeup and one of the selling points of the film was that the audience got to see the master at work as the detective dons various elaborate disguises – including the famous one shown in the poster and the still at the top of this piece – with sharpened teeth and special wire fittings like monocles to give him that special hypnotist stare. The film was rather a flop.

However, during Judge Humphries obviously wasn’t a fan of such popular entertainment and was only going by what had been said in court.

Judge's comments reported in Western Daily Press, January 11 1829

Williams was found guilty and sentenced to death. Judge Humphries instructed that further inquiries were made by the Home Office to try to get to the bottom of that epilepsy diagnosis. I never did find out if he was executed or not.

So the case became part of the legend of a legendary film. Personally, having gone through all the newspaper reports while I was researching this I’d have my doubts about Williams’ story. The story at the heart has too many similarities with cases I’ve covered in the past. There’s Williams’ hospital statement, that he killed her because she made fun of him. Had he proposed and been turned down? Had she broken things off? These would be far more likely scenarios in cases where women are killed by their intimate partner. I’ve also covered cases where the medical evidence was in no doubt, where the accused could not be found guilty by reason of insanity. Those cases are so often marked out by the degree of violence. While the evidence is there that the wound to Julia Mangan’s neck was done with violent force there isn’t the overkill that so often goes with a psychotic break – and I’m not even getting into the whole epileptics as killers undercurrent to the evidence…that seems more like common prejudice than anything that would be born out by modern medicine.

References:

  • Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 25 October 1928, page 8 of 8
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph, 26 October 1928, page 6 of 12
  • Derby Daily Telegraph, 13 November 1928, page 7 of 12
  • Hartlepool Mail, 20 December 1928, page 10 of 10
  • Western Daily Press, 11 January 1929,page 11 of 12
  • Central Criminal Court: after-trial calendars of prisoners (TNA Ref: CRIM 9)

All sources found on Findmypast

The Trouble with Jack

Detail-of-Jack-the-Ripper-coverage-from-Illustrated-Police-News-1888

Detail of a contemporary illustration from the Illustrated Police News showing the face of Jack the Ripper as described by witnesses, 1888. Copyright British Newspaper Archive.

Jack the Ripper is a phantom, a bogeyman, a shadow in the night.  At the height of the terror the Illustrated Police News printed this picture, a mere artist’s impression based on the most recent witness statements. We know that someone committed those murders, that police suspected the deaths of five women, killed brutally in a three month window in the Whitechapel area, were killed by the same assailant. They assumed it was a man, they never caught him. “Jack the Ripper” flirted with the press for a while then faded away. He’s become one of our greatest bogeymen, the archetypal killer, a stock character in film, TV and books. There are countless theories about who he was, countless websites. For a man with no face he’s got a hell of a profile.

Then there were the victims. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly. Very often they don’t even get a name check, they are simply victims one to five, just pieces of the puzzle that is Jack. Their dead faces are familiar, you can find them easily online (I’m not linking to them myself but if you want to find them go ahead).  They give nothing away in those grainy post mortem photographs. Death has brought them a kind of unity, a flat sameness similar perhaps to the way the hardness of their lives would have ground them down in life. These were working class women, whose poverty had dragged them into a precarious existence on the streets. As so many with no other choice they sold their bodies for pennies. These were the women the wealthy would pass by without a glance, unless they wanted to buy. These were the most vulnerable women, the kind that leave no mark on history apart from the odd arrest for soliciting or by meeting an extravagantly grotesque death. There are many like them who died nameless deaths. Take Mary Ann Nichols, whose sad, hopeless life was described by historian Fern Riddell on Twitter last year and in this Storify.

Even today the victim is all too often the missing piece of the puzzle. They existence during the trial of their killer is reduced to mere evidence, a collection of test tubes trying to confirm guilt. All too often the victim is a woman and the killer is a man. I’ve written about it so many times; the families outside the court describing the person they felt was missing from the proceedings. The families of Jean Gilbert and Celine Cawley both felt the need to go to the papers to give them a voice. They had the opportunity. How many women die in Ireland and elsewhere whose murder doesn’t cause headlines, doesn’t sell papers. Certainly in Whitechapel in the 1880s attacks on women were so commonplace that there has always been a debate about cases that could have been connected to the Ripper. As this timeline shows the 1880s were not a good time to be a vulnerable woman. And then, thirty years before, when William Kirwan killed his wife Maria, many of the papers didn’t even bother to get her name right. She often appears in the contemporary press as Louisa and these days she turns up as Sarah, Louisa or Maria or even sometimes Mary. It took a lot of digging to find Maria but you’ll hear her husband talked about on the boat over to Ireland’s Eye to this day.

That’s why the story of London’s Ripper Museum is in such appalling taste. The Evening Standard and several other London papers carried the news that a new museum opening on Cable Street in the East End will not be a celebration of East End women and the suffragette movement as the owners had suggested in their planning application but instead a museum dedicated to Jack the Ripper. At first they claimed that this was the way to humanise the victims but their Facebook page, as it stands this evening, makes no attempt to even pay lip service to anything but the public’s lust for a good murder “Jack the Ripper Museum, situated in a historic Victorian house in the heart of Whitechapel, tells the full story of the Jack the Ripper murders. Step back in time to the London of 1888, the greatest city in the world, where the greatest unsolved crimes of all time took place. As you explore the museum, you will discover everything there is to know about the lives of the victims, the main suspects in the murders, the police investigation and the daily life of those living in the east end of London in 1888. Once you have all the clues, will you be able to solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper?”

Now don’t get me wrong. I get why a Jack the Ripper museum would get visitors. I get why it’s a good commercial prospect. I made my living from the public appetite to murder. I’d be a hypocrite if I condemned it outright. But Dark Tourism needs to be respectful – and it certainly needs to be historically accurate. The frontage shown in the newspaper coverage looks more like a Disney Pirates exhibit and, as many of the angry local residents quoted in the Standard piece pointed out, Cable Street wasn’t the site of any Ripper murders. The area has it’s own proud history and that’s what should have been celebrated. What makes the story even worse, or at least adds a particular piquancy to it, is that the man behind the rather dodgy scheme, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, was formerly Google’s head of diversity and inclusion…he told the Standard today “We did plan to do a museum about social history of women but as the project developed we decided a more interesting angle was from the perspective of the victims of Jack the Ripper.” Because obviously a brutalised life gruesomely cut short is so much more inspiring than say, for instance, Sylvia Pankhurst. Local paper The East London Advertiser says that the planning document submitted by the architects cited the closure of the much lamented Women’s Library in the area that “the “Museum of Women’s History”, as it calls the project, would be “the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history””.

A museum of women’s history would be a great thing. It would be somewhere to teach our children and to educate ourselves. A celebration of murder will not do that. No matter how much detail they give about the women who died. The focus is on the phantom in opera cloak and top hat clutching a doctor’s bag. A cliche who will will teach nothing, inform nothing, provide nothing but cheap thrills and feed base instincts. Judging by the story so far this is a ghoul hunting expedition not a celebration of the resilience of East End women. If they’d done what they said the press they would have got would have been over-whelmingly positive. They would have been championed across the planet as an example of how we are moving forward. Instead the social media carrion crows are circling looking for blood. I wonder if the owners think they’ve made a mistake.

A Missing Piece of the Puzzle

I’m extraordinarily lucky to have a job that I love. I’m even luckier that this job allows me to indulge in old obsessions and follow them in new directions. Lately I’ve been happily stuck up to my eyes in crime records, the UK National Archives newest records release to be exact. It’s been like revisiting old friends but I’ve been particularly excited to find the missing piece in a puzzle I’ve been grappling with for years. Regular readers will know that I’ve been working on the case of 19th Century murderer William Bourke Kirwan for years now. He’s brought me in a whole new direction professionally, not least this change of job and this long, long in the writing book (which is still long in the writing but I’m getting there).

It’s been a while since I’ve written about the case so here are the basics. In September 1852 Kirwan and his wife Maria went out to Ireland’s Eye. They’d been staying in Howth for some weeks and often spent the days out on the Eye where he would sketch and she would read or swim. Maria was a strong swimmer. She loved the water. But that night when the boat came to pick them up Kirwan was standing on the foreshore alone. He hadn’t seen his wife for hours, he said. He’d looked a bit and called but she hadn’t answered. What to do? Where could she be? There was a search as the night drew in and eventually they found her. She was lying half in in the water in a place on the island known as the Long Hole. She was dead. The trial was a bit of a shambles. Kirwan’s mistress, a key witness, did not appear when she was called in evidence. Proof that Maria had lately discovered the existence of the mistress and a second family mere weeks before her death was never produced and the defence called medical evidence that no murder had been committed. One of the most eminent medico-legal experts of the day told the court that Maria had gone swimming too soon after her lunch. It was indigestion that killed her, not her husband. I’ve written an account of the full trial here, here and here by the way, if you want more detail.

Despite all the digging I’ve done on Kirwan and his women there have always been gaps in the story. It’s hardly surprising – this case is more than 160 years old. Although I’ve more documentation for this case than I’ve had for the more recent cases I’ve written about. One piece of the story was illusive though. I’d always known that Kirwan had been as determined as Joe O’Reilly to clear his name but hunt as I might I could not find any of his petitions. I’d presumed that they hadn’t survived despite tantalising breadcrumbs that I’d found along the way. So imagine my excitement when I idly keyed in his name in work and hit “Return”. I’d expected to find documentation about his journey through the prison system. If nothing else, 19th Century British bureaucracy was comprehensive to say the least. What I did not expect to find was his words. They had been lost. I knew that.

But there it was – his petition. Again, even though I was excited to find it, I expected to find departmental correspondence, rather than Kirwan’s own words, his own handwriting. I work daily with copies of three of Kirwan’s sketches pinned to the wall. He was a moderately successful artist, although the examples of his work I’ve seen suggest a rather naive talent at best. I’ve written about the collection of his paintings held in the National Library of Ireland on their blog here. I’ve always suspected that they say more about the public fascination in the murder rather than his artistic reputation. But I know those paintings very well by now. I know that there are some I’d doubt were by him at all. I know there are some that I’ve no doubt were by him. I photographed those sketches from every angle, I’ve shots of each and every signature, every doodle on the back of random pages. I’ve studied them as if they could let me see into the mind of the man who made them. That’s one this this case is missing after all those years in the courts. I can’t see Kirwan in the dock. I can read accounts from the hacks who were there and I can read the words of his evidence but it’s not the same. I can’t see him in the in-between moments, the moments at rest, unobserved. I can’t watch him sneaking a cigarette or talking to his family. I can’t watch him arrive. The pictures are the closest thing I have to that. I’d say they were something similar to whoever bought them, whoever was the reason that they ended up in the National Library collection.

I’m so used to deciphering his doodles that I’ve grown rather familiar with his hand. I know the pressure he put on the paper when he wrote, the way he looped the W and K in his name, even when writing his initials. Flicking through the results in the National Archive results I saw those same loops. Here it was, after years of searching, here was the murderer’s appeal. When I was working in the courts it used to be a standing joke that the prisons were always full of the innocent. You will seldom get a killer who admits what he has done. Once they’ve plead not guilty why would they? So it’s hardly surprising that Kirwan harks back to the “insubstantial” evidence of his case. I’d found rumours over the years that Kirwan had capitalised on his previous life as an anatomical draughtsman, familiar with doctors and death, by finding work with the prison doctor. Sure enough in his appeal Kirwan claims leniency in recognition of his work during the Yellow Fever outbreak at the Bermuda penal colony where he was being held.

Kirwan petition clip 1

He had also, wisely, not argued for the right to rejoin his mistress but instead pleaded to go to his children. In fairness to the man, he does seem to have been a doting father. I’ve a sketch over my desk I’m pretty sure is one of his daughters and it stands out among the pictures in the collection, to an extent that it’s easy to read affection into the precision that captures the tilt of the head.

Kirwan petition clip 2

I’ve stared at so many examples of 19th century handwriting over the past few years but Kirwan’s hand is unmistakable. He writes with speed and flourish. You could almost read an impatience there, perhaps an arrogance. Certainly his appearance in court was with a swagger that marks him out among wife killers. There aren’t many who would argue their case so fluidly and articulately – although I’d still very much doubt that he argued then as an innocent man. His petition is full of the same swagger, especially in his signature –

Kirwan petition clip 3

It appears that despite his fluency and flourish Kirwan wasn’t at all successful in his appeal. The rest of the correspondence suggests that the Irish authorities would have been happier if he had been discretely disposed of when the Bermuda camp was broken up. It would have been better if he had been “lost at sea” rather than returned to Ireland. It’s apparent that Kirwan did return though. Various accounts within living memory of the case describe his life at Spike Island prison in Cork. Apparently he painted murals on the walls of his cell. It was years before he got his wish in the end. This petition was written in 1862, ten years after the murder. It would be another 15 before he would see release. Contemporary accounts describe a broken, elderly man who paid one last visit to Ireland’s Eye before leaving for America (and presumably his children). How did they receive him? That’s a story for another day.

Excerpts courtesy of The National Archives from the Crime, Prisons and Punishment collection on www.findmypast.ie

A Dark Reputation

Angel

It’s that time of year again. The anniversary of a murder that happened long before I was born but that somehow managed to change the course of my life. William Kirwan haunts me, as do the women whose lives he destroyed – three off whom are looking at me as I write. I’ve written about the Ireland’s Eye murder many times – it’s the case behind the book that I’m working on, that I’m still working on. It’s rather taken over my life.

This year I want to share some of the secondary stories that surround the case. In 1852 the Kirwan case was a cause celebre. Even though the case itself was a fairly simple, tragic case of spousal murder – very like many I’ve covered in the past – the rumours and embellishments that have twisted around it over the years are impressive. William Bourke Kirwan was accused of multiple murders and all kinds of wrong doing. I’ve dug, and dug and dug, believe me. While I’ve absolutely no doubt that Kirwan was a nasty piece of work I really don’t think he was a serial killer. A wife beater and philanderer, of course, but was he guilty of the other crimes he was accused of? Almost certainly not.

I’ve written about the case before, quite a few times actually, but I’ll recap the basics. On September 6th William Bourke Kirwan and his wife Maria went out to Ireland’s Eye, a small island off the coast of Howth in north county Dublin. He was an artist and was planning on sketching some new scenes. She was a keen swimmer and was looking forward to the challenging swimming around the island. At some point that evening, before the boat came to take them back to Howth harbour, William Kirwan killed his wife. Some have said that it was a miscarriage of justice and she simply drowned, but I’ve seen evidence that shows he was a very abusive husband, an all too familiar scenario with a too inevitable outcome. This evidence wasn’t produced at Kirwan’s subsequent trial though, so to many it seemed a motiveless act of unfathomable evil. The fact that he was widely known to have had a second family, with a mistress and no fewer than seven children, cemented his reputation. The rumour mill ground into action until Kirwan was blamed for any inconvenient death.

Among the papers of Thomas Larcom, former under secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland is a note that suggests even the great and good were not immune. Larcom had been in charge of the Ordinance Survey of Ireland and when one of his surveyors was killed in suspicious circumstances a few years before Kirwan was convicted he took a personal interest in the case. A newspaper report of the inquest notes that the dead man’s brother, who had run up considerable gambling debts, had argued with his brother when he refused to lend him money. When questioned at the inquest the brother broke down and the reporter noted how his sobs could be heard throughout the room for the rest of the inquest. Despite the fact that it would seem pretty clear that this had all the hallmarks of a very private tragedy, Larcom’s note is definite that the death was at the hand of “the murderer Kirwan”, in an early, undiscovered atrocity. Larcom might actually have known Kirwan who had a lucrative sideline in colouring the Ordnance maps. Business was so good in that area that he had hired several young apprentices to meet the commissions.

Kirwan certainly seems to have made rather a habit of antagonising people. He might well have got away with killing his wife if it hadn’t been for those with hefty axes to grind. In the month after Maria’s death that rumour mill was being cranked by a very determined woman. Maria Byrne had lived a few doors away from the Kirwans when they lived on Lower Merrion Street before moving to the grander houses on the Upper street. She was a seamstress and had known Kirwan since before his marriage. She obviously felt she knew him well enough to get his measure. She didn’t rest until the Dublin Metropolitan Police had agreed to examine the case. Now Maria Byrne obviously was obviously carrying a grudge. She told police that Kirwan had stolen work from her husband, who shared Kirwan’s other business  of anatomical draughtsman. In this heyday of anatomical demonstration the draughtsmen were much in demand to drew sketches of autopsies and medical specimens. Kirwan had done very well in this line as well. Some of his work is still in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons here in Dublin and several sketches of syphilitic pustules are among the curious collection of sketches in the National Library of Ireland. Mrs Byrne was under no doubt that Kirwan’s success had driven her husband to an early grave. She also told police that he had tried to poison his wife on two separate occasions and as well as her husband, he had also killed his brother-in-law. Maria’s younger brother James had gone to America, and according to Mrs Byrne, was never heard of again.

But the darkest accusation had the most tragic outcome. There was one person who had more of a grudge against Kirwan than anyone else, whose resentment and anger went back long before his marriage and who would not be able to live with her accusations failing to strike their target.

Anne Downes Bowyer was the wife of Kirwan’s painting teacher. She came forward in January 1853 once it became clear that Kirwan was not going to hang. She wanted to make sure he got away with nothing. Her story went back to 1837, three years before Kirwan married Maria. She had carried a burning grudge since then and ultimately it would kill her. Hers is one of the most haunting interconnected stories in this case. She was a very lonely, very tragic character.

Anne Gaffney married the artist Richard Downes Bowyer on Halloween 1819. She was considerably younger than him but I’ve always thought it must have been a love match, a thing of passion. They got special permission to skip their last marriage bann. It may have been because she was pregnant, although the couple never had any children. Whatever happened, Anne turned into a very troubled woman. In or around 1824 she was admitted to Dr Gregory’s private Bellevue asylum in Finglas. She was subsequently released but the marriage did not survive. By around October 1836 she and Richard separated. Richard went to stay with Kirwan and his father. He wouldn’t tell Anne where he was going.

Some time later Kirwan went with Downes Bowyer to collect his things from the house on Mountjoy Street. Anne would later say that she was tied to a chair as her husband, Kirwan and several other young men ransacked her house. She took her husband and Kirwan to court in 1837 accusing them of theft. Her husband countersued and threatened to have her committed again. The judge ruled in Anne’s favour. He told her husband that she was entitled to a living of £40 a year for the rest of her life.

Anne obviously wouldn’t let things go. Her husband moved away from Dublin to Killeshandra in County Cavan, Kirwan’s sister went with him to keep house for the old man. Before he went Richard signed over family lands in Rhine, or Rinn in County Longford on the understanding that Kirwan would continue to pay Anne’s stipend of £40 a year. After Richard died in 1841, Anne became convinced that the Kirwan family had contrived to kill her husband. She couldn’t let the idea go and in January 1853 she went to the police with her accusation.

The Dublin Metropolitan police took Anne Downes Bowyer seriously. They even excavated the garden of the house on Parnell Place where Kirwan and his father had lived. Since Downes Bowyer had died in Killeshandra they found nothing to support Anne’s claims but they did uncover a small coffin much to the excitement of the press. The police duly examined the little coffin and found it to contain the bones of a young child. It was long dead and they couldn’t find out it’s story. It didn’t help Anne.

A few months after this Anne was dead. At her inquest, in July 1853, her sister told the coroner that Anne had been living quietly outside Dublin. The family were worried about her and visited her regularly but on July 7th her sister arrived down from Dublin to find the little cottage empty. A search eventually led to a local quarry, where there was a deep pool. Anne’s shoes and shawl were neatly placed beside the black water. The inquest ruled that Anne had died at her own hand but this is one death that I do think should be laid at Kirwan’s door, all be it indirectly.  It might of course be a complete coincidence but that week’s issue of the Nation newspaper carried a caustic article on Kirwan arguing that there was one law for the rich and another for the poor. Kirwan was still in Ireland at this point. His sentence to hang had been commuted on New Year’s Eve but he had still not been transported that summer. As the Nation noted, poorer men with less celebrity would undoubtedly have been hauled off in chains months since. I can only imagine Anne’s reaction if she had read it or had it read to her. Surely enough to take away the last of her hope.

I have always thought that Anne Downes Bowyer was as much a victim of Kirwan as Maria was. He might not have been guilty of the imaginative carnage those who didn’t know him well accused him of but he was a toxic man who saw two women dead. There were other casualties of this case but they are still my subjects so I’m keeping them close to my chest for the moment. William Bourke Kirwan undoubtedly earned his dark reputation.

Methinks They do Protest Too Much

I’ve been having a bit of a contentious time on Twitter lately. It can be like that sometimes and mostly lately I’ve been steering clear. I’m tired of having the same argument. It’s the argument that pops up with depressing regularity whenever someone raises the issue of violence against women. It usually comes when someone has said that this violence is a serious societal problem that we all need to do something about. Yesterday it came up because of this piece in the Irish Times. In it Una Mullally made the point that perhaps we shouldn’t be telling women not to get themselves raped and murdered, perhaps we should be telling men not to be harming women.

Well it didn’t take long for the howling and gnashing of teeth to begin. First they started in the comments below the article, then the row took to Twitter, as these things tend to do. One after another men came forward with their chests puffed out, declaiming that this was a gross generalisation. All men were not rapists and murderers. Sexism! Misandry! What about the Menz!

It’s about the third time this week something like this has kicked off. As I said, on Twitter things kick off which the regularity of an explosions in a fireworks factory made of sawdust. Take your eye off the ball for a moment and Whoosh! I’m tired of hearing the same arguments, receiving the same barrage of hectoring points from some bloke who wants to show me the error of my ways for believing in this divisive nonsense. I’ve had enough.

It’s getting increasingly hard to avoid that hectoring response. If ,as a woman, you identify yourself online as a feminist or are definite in your views there will be invariably be someone waiting in the wings who wants to tell you how wrong you are. While I’m all in favour of freedom of speech and while I’ve no problem with lively debate I am sick and tired of trying to make my point to someone who is only interested in getting the last word. This is why I usually lurk Twitter late at night talking about 70s TV. The discussions can get heated there as well but no one tries to shout you down.

There’s a particular type of arguing here that really sets my teeth on edge. It’s not restricted to gender politics either, I’ve encountered the same response when talking about other types of discrimination. The attitude that will invariably be shouted loudest is the one telling me to shut up, telling me that I’m exaggerating the problem, telling me I’ve got it wrong.

Normally I try to calmly reason with them. I try to make them see my point and to demonstrate that their argument is built on a principal of denial. I’m all right Jack. But we come back to the beginning again and again and I really don’t think anyone learns anything.

No if you’re reading this and your fingers are already itching to jump in there to tell me I’m generalising wildly, all men are not like that and I’m just another one of those ranty feminists, let me stop you right here. Chances are we’re not going to agree. Here’s why.

We all look at the world through the lens of our experience. If you go through life and don’t see any of the sharp edges then well done, congratulations, you are charmed. But I’ll tell you now, we’re not looking at the same world. The very glass that makes up the lenses through which we see is fused from different elements. I can’t not see the corners. But I can point them out.

Firstly let’s start with the very, very basics. I’m not a feminist because I hate men. I’m not a feminist because I just want to be argumentative. I’m a feminist because when I look at the world we live in today and see women like me denied education, denied freedom, denied a voice, it makes me very, very angry. Sure, as a white, middle class woman living in Western Europe I’ve got it easy. I come from a culture where I can choose the man I marry, where I can continue my education and where I can vote for a say in how my country is run. I am not forced to sell my body and by and large I’m not marginalised. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see how much easier it is for men to get on in this fine country of ours.

When I worked in radio I often heard that my female voice was just going to irritate listeners. On Irish radio in general two thirds of the voices you will hear belong to men. Women, who lets not forget make up around 50% of the global population, make up only 13% of our elected representative. As a writer I know that my work is likely to be under reviewed and that my book will be more likely to get a softly feminine cover regardless of it’s subject matter because of my gender. I know that while education was never an issue for me it’s not that long since a third level degree was an impossible dream for women. I worked in the criminal courts for over six years and when you’re there on a daily basis you realise that the majority of crimes that pass through the Central Criminal Court are crimes against women. So many sex crimes pass through the courts in Dublin that the papers cover only a fraction. Those crimes, I’m sad to say, tend to be picked for their sensationalism, a pretty victim, a particularly brutal accused. I’ve written about so many of them on this blog. Click on any of the women’s names in the tag cloud and chances are you will find a woman killed by the man who was supposed to love her.

And when I get angry about all this, when I say this is ridiculous and must stop if we are ever going to move forward as a people there will always be those who tell me I am wrong. They will be men. I’ve never had this reaction from a woman.

The problem is that it’s all getting worse. When I was a child in the 70s it was fashionable to give little girls tool sets and little boys dolls. Granted this might have been a vogue in our own leafy suburb but back then I never questioned it. I used to laugh at the boys I played with when they told me I couldn’t play Scalectrix or Meccano because I was a girl. It never for a moment occured to me they had a point. That would be utterly bonkers. No if you go to a toy shop you can tell the aisle that’s meant for girls. While the boys are presented with a kaleidoscope of colours the girls have one option. Pink. Let me get this straight. All little girls do not want to be princesses. I always wanted to be the Prince. He got a horse and a sword and got to do stuff. All the Princess did was lounge around and look pretty.

I could go on and on and on with the examples of how this world is still trying to tell women to stay in the background, to shut up, to look pretty. It might seem like I’m off the point here but it’s all part of the same thing. Good girls are still pretty and mute and passive. Good girls need to be protected. Good girls need to be told when they have worried their pretty little heads about something unnecessary.

Because that’s the crux of it. These men who bristle when a point is made, who are so secure in the fact that they are nice men so we shouldn’t be telling them not to rape, who think that we just misunderstand or didn’t do our research, these men need to stop and listen. It doesn’t matter that you are a nice guy and would never harm a woman. That doesn’t mean that others of your sex would. For time immemorial, women have been told to beware, to watch out for the big bad wolf. We’ve been told to watch what we wear, watch how we speak, watch where we look. We are have the population of the planet but we hold a fraction of the power. It’s not an equal playing field. If your fingers are still itching to butt in just ask yourself why? Is it because you are so unsure of your own position that you can’t see the difference between yourself and the bad men? Is it because you started getting irritated by my words because they were written by a woman who really shouldn’t be this forthright? Is it because you need to look at your own attitudes before getting at mine?

I’ve been fighting my corner for a very long time. I’ll continue to do so for as long as it takes. I do not believe that I am any less capable, any less wise, any less worthy of respect because I was born a particular sex. But most of all I don’t see why as a woman I should have to take all the responsibility. Culturally we persist in assuming that men are at the mercy of animal urges. Surely it’s time they shared a little bit of responsibility and showed a bit of respect and a bit of empathy? I’m also confident that any of the lovely blokes that I’ve met, known and loved over the years will read this and not feel victimised. Because those men know that there is a problem and it’s one that we all need to do something about. I can rant until I’m blue in the face but even if every woman on the planet agreed with me we’d only be 50% and an underrepresented 50% at that. We all need to decide that this crap is unacceptable. We need to stop arguing about the bloody details.

In Memoriam

 

Blog-grave-image-2

One hundred and sixty years ago today a woman called Maria Louisa Kirwan died on an island. She died at the hands of the man she feared, who she had thought had tried to kill her in the past, the man she was planning to leave. She was 28.

Maria is nothing to me. We share no DNA. In the years since I started this blog I’ve written of many abused, frightened women like her, who like her, met their death by the one who they should be able to trust the most. Her story’s no different from any of theirs, no greater tragedy. But for me this one’s different. It’s personal.

Every morning when I sit down at my desk she’s one of the muses staring back at me, those three photographs from the Kirwan collection I wrote about a week or so ago. When I’m stuck for a word I look up and she meets my glance, the calm gaze of an infatuated 16 year old watching the man she loves sketch her. Twelve years later, give or take, he will kill her. I stare at that hopeful young face each day as I write her, mapping out her brief future. She grows into adulthood in that horrible marriage, makes do because there’s no way out, asks for help but is ultimately ignored. As I write her story I’m with her every step of the way but I’ll also be with him, when the time comes, choking the life out of her. That’s what’s different with this story. I’m not just telling what I see, this time I’m the puppet master. I’ll make her into a real girl but I’ll also kill her.

When you’re writing nonfiction there’s always a line you can’t cross, like a pane of glass through which you can see a life you write about but you can’t touch it. With fiction there’s no pane of glass. You can get right in there and have have a root around. You have to know your characters before you write them, but that always tends to make me feel rather protective.

So on September 6th I remember her, and by proxy all my other characters who lived but aren’t attached to such a conveniently fixed point in time. I might put flowers on her grave, this year I’m planning something a little further afield. It might sound morbid or a bit obsessive but it’s a way of keeping that concrete link with the past. I know that when she died Maria didn’t have much support. Her only brother was over seas, her father dead and her mother and many of her friends jumped to support her husband. She doesn’t even have a gravestone.

So this year, Maria gets the spotlight. A couple of days ago I wrote an Irishwoman’s Diary for the Irish Times about the time Maria met her husband’s mistress. Today there’s a post
on the National Library of Ireland blog about that picture of Maria that sits over my desk (along with the rest of the William Bourke Kirwan paintings in their collection). You might have to wait a while to read my book though as Maria’s story is part of a far longer tale and it’s still being written. But if you’re so inclined today, spare a thought for Maria Kirwan who was killed by her husband on Ireland’s Eye one hundred and sixty years ago today.

Another Fine Mess

I’m sure I’m not the only journalist glued to the whole cataclysmic mess that is the UK phone hacking scandal.  It’s a proper toe-curling political and social scandal on the scale of Watergate and at its heart is the press itself…and whatever else we might or might not get up to we do love reading about ourselves.

The dust is very far from settling on that that story and it’ll be a while before everyone knows just how far the toxic fallout has settled but even at this stage one thing is certain.  This is a story that will be talked about and written about not just for the coming months but for years to come.  It’ll be picked over and analysed and agonised over while many breasts are beaten in hollow mea culpas and many other shoulders shrugged.

So I’m getting in relatively early.  I’m not getting into the rights and the wrongs of phone hacking and whatever else is lying in wait to come out next. There’ll be plenty written in other places than here.  This is simply a personal view.

Journalistic ethics are in the spotlight at the moment and the general consensus is finding them absent at best, if not festeringly rotten.  In a survey commissioned by the Irish Medical Council earlier this year only 37% of Irish people trusted journalists to tell the truth. We came in above politicians but given this was before the last general election that really isn’t much of an achievement.  But it’s not a recent slide.  I know the guarded look that comes across peoples faces when I tell them what I do and I know the reaction of some of my actor parents’ friends when they learned my chosen profession. It’s not just that people are worried at ending up in the story it’s that they expect me to twist their words if they end up there. What’s really crazy is that a lot of them relax when they find out I write fiction as well – even though the odds are far greater of them ending up there, unless they kill someone.

I’m not wringing my hands and whining that no-one likes me because I’m a hack. I know that by writing true crime I’m skating on the edge of what’s considered respectable to write about.  Once again I would probably get less flack if I wrote crime fiction – because then I’d only be dreaming up interesting ways to kill people instead of writing about peoples’ actual attempts. The fact that I cover the trial rather than doing the death knocks and chasing grieving families doesn’t count for much when I’ve written not one but two books picking over every bloody detail of stories that might have faded away as the public looked to the next big thing…or so some may think.

But that doesn’t make me unethical.  It just means I’m doing my job.  On the back page of it’s final edition the News of the World quoted George Orwell.  The essay they quoted is called The Decline of the English Murder  and in it Orwell examines the public fascination for a good murder.  He talks, tongue in cheek, of the “golden age” when murders harked back to a sense of melodrama that chimed with the public consciousness.  Modern murder happened too easily, he argued, to stick in the consciousness of a nation numbed by war.  Orwell’s modern murder happened in the mid 1940s…but his point still stands.  There’s still an appetite for death, one that is part of human nature, but as life  has been cheapened with an increase in thoughtless deaths so that appetite is increasingly seen as a guilty thing, one of our baser instincts that has no place in a civilised society.

The ongoing revelations of the hacking of murder victims phones and the rest feed into a perception that’s been there for a long time.  The dodgy journalist is a stock character anywhere from Harry Potter to Coronation Street.  I suppose it goes hand in hand with the fact that part of a journalist’s job is asking questions that people don’t want asked and on occasion snooping where some would rather you didn’t go.  But if journalists didn’t have this instinct how many injustices would have gone unremarked? How many scandals would have gone uncovered?

It all goes back to ethics and journalistic ethics are something that perhaps have been increasingly overlooked over the past couple of decades.  When there’s an increasing pressure to sell newspapers in a market that’s changing so quickly and shrinking even faster then the urge to satisfy public curiosity with gory details and juicy revelations will grow and can in some cases leave taste and ethics languishing in its wake.  When I studied journalism in the mid 1990s, in a four year course that covered everything from languages to philosophy to film theory, there was no dedicated strand of the course that covered ethics.  We were made aware of the NUJ Code of Conduct but a dedicated class, where ethical issues could be debated and fully understood, was lacking.  How can you trust that young journalists will have a sufficiently strong moral compass to negotiate frequently complex ethical issues if you don’t give them the training to recognise these issues when they arise?

The exclusive has become the be all and end all and “human interest” has become a driving force.  Everyone who covers murder trials knows that even that formulaic process has it’s money shots.  The tears of the victim’s mother, the stoney face of the accused when he’s sentenced.  We write according to narrative rules that are embedded in instinct.  In order to sell a trial you have to draw out the emotion and spoon feed it to a public numbed by constant repetition.  We fit the characters in a trial into the same roles that they have occupied since the popular press came into existence, the dramatis personae of a melodrama with a fixed outcome and set pieces.  It really is nothing new…even Jack the Ripper himself, it’s been suggested, had help from the press – the infamous letters with their bloody signature that gave a monster such a memorable name may even have been hoaxes written by newspaper men to drum up more readers.

I write about murder trials because that structure fascinates me.  I’m interested in what drives someone to kill, on how easy it can be to take that decision to break one of the deepest taboos and end a human life.  It’s an interest that hasn’t just been limited to the so-called gutter press.  Charles Dickens covered many a murder and Truman Capote’s greatest work was not the tale of Holly Golightly but the examination of the brutal murder of a family that rocked a small town.  But I know that in the eyes of some people out there I might as as well be rooting through people’s bins and papping celebrities.

I’ve always cared about ethics.  It’s not enough to observe the law, there is a moral responsibility there as well.  It’s important to be fair, not just because I’m afraid of influencing a jury, but because it matters.  The press have always been known as the Fourth Estate and with that comes a duty.  We are allowed in the courts to make sure that justice does not take place behind closed doors.  It’s the press who keep an eye on the politicians to ensure that they have the public’s best  interests at heart.  That’s the way it should be and that’s still often the way it is.  In the face of all these recent revelations those sentences might sound trite and insincere but if the fall-out of the hacking scandal results in a hamstrung press that cannot shine a light on bad men and corruption society as a whole will be all the poorer for it.

There will always be a grey area here, a blurred line between public interest and what the public is interested in but without strong ethics  journalism, and investigative journalism in particular, will suffer.  The subject will be done to death in the weeks and months to come but somehow that trust will have to be rebuilt.  As long as the press is attacking itself and there’s ammunition for it to do so, other stories are being ignored.  Even by making that distinction between the “gutter” and the “quality” press journalism isn’t being served.  There are plenty of ethical journalists out there but it’s too easy to tar us all with the same brush.  This is a massive subject and far too big for a single post.  By the time the dust has finally settled in this almighty mess I just hope that journalism doesn’t take too big a hit.  I don’t know how this is going to fixed but I hope someone out there does.  I became a journalist because I wanted to make a difference not because I wanted to rake muck.  There should still be a place for making a difference when the last shots have been fired.

A few thoughts on International Women’s Day

I’ve been spending most of my time recently lost in the past. At the moment I’m researching crimes from so far back they’re in another world.  If you were accused of a crime back then there was no chance of a retrial and if you were convicted of murder then your fate dangled at the end of a rope, a ghoulish spectacle for day trippers.

Life was brutal, shorter, bleaker.  Cholera and typhoid swept Britain and Ireland and infant mortality was high.  I’m looking at a time when there was no such thing as universal suffrage, to vote in an election you had to have land, and be a man.  Women belonged to their husbands, on the day of their marriage everything they owned passed to him, they could not divorce their husbands if he was unfaithful and on divorce they could lose even the right to their own children.

It’s like looking into another world.  Now we can take for granted the right to vote and the position of the mother, given special protection in Article 41.2, is seen as so inalienable it can be to the detriment of the rights of the father.  In a few short generations, women’s lives have changed utterly.  We have more freedom, more of a voice, more opportunities than our grandmothers did, and even many more than our mothers’ generation.

But while there’s been incredible progress, the world we live in still has a very long way to go before there is true equality for the sexes.  I work in a job where most of my colleagues are women but only to a certain level.  Apart from one or two notable exceptions, the majority of judges in the courts, or editors in the newspapers are men.  Most of the senior barristers are men and most of the senior gardai are men.  It’s changing, of course, but for a large chunk of the rest of my working life that’s the way it’s going to be.

85% of the politicians who pass the laws that govern what goes on in the courts are men, which might possibly have something to do with the fact that sentences for sexual crimes are so pathetically low.  Domestic abuse is still rife and women still die all too often at the hands of their partners.  I still spend most of my time writing about this violence against women as it takes up so much of the courts’ time.

But this is the First World, the civilised bit.  The inequalities I see around me are miniscule compared with those that women have to face in other parts of the globe.  We’ve come a long way in a hundred years or so, but there’s a hell of a long way still to go.  There are plenty of places on earth where women would recognise the strange world I’m finding in my research as pretty close to their own reality.

Yet I meet so many young women who see feminism as a dirty word and would be embarrassed to apply it to themselves.  They see the race as won, the fight as fought, and simply accept the status quo as something that can’t be changed.  For a long time I was more reticent about saying what I thought, not wanting to appear strident, or even, god forbid, unattractive.  I’ve laughed along with sexist jokes for fear of being branded a kill joy.  I’ve fluttered my eyelashes and bitten my tongue, pretending to be one of the lads.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not got a problem with men.  This has nothing to do with which gender is better, it’s about equality.  And it’s important to say it.

It would be nice to live in a world where feminism was no longer necessary, where everyone played to their strengths and not their stereotypes.  It would be nice if everyone judged everyone else according to who they actually were, not what they seemed to be.  But that’s the foreign country and far more distant than my world of hangings, cholera and bridal chattels.  That’s why International Women’s Day is still important a hundred years after it was started and why I’ll keep banging on about rape sentencing and women who die at the hands of the men who claim to love them.

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