Writer and Author

Category: Women (Page 4 of 4)

On Criticism…

Nobody’s going to like everything you write. It’s one of those basic facts that come as a kick to the system the first time you get shot down in flames for putting an opinion into print.  I still vividly remember the first time someone didn’t like something I’d written – it was many years ago on two weeks work experience for the Belfast Herald and Post.  My editor had asked me to write a review of a book of poetry that had come in and, in my youthful enthusiasm I slated it.  I think I used the word “pap”. These days I would never be so mean but back then I was just trying to make an impression.

Well I did make an impression.  The poet was an avid reader of the paper, the local free sheet attached to the Belfast Telegraph.  Within hours of the paper hitting people’s doormats he was on the phone.  My editor made me take the call.  The rest of the office burst out laughing as I turned puce and almost burst into tears because, to be honest, I had it coming.

These days I don’t do many reviews.  I write about people’s lives, and more often than not people’s deaths.  I try to be sensitive to the feelings of those I write about but I can’t do my job if I’m always pulling my punches. 

I’ve worked in the courts for a long time now and I’m used to being careful about what I write.  During a trial there are very clear reasons for doing this – it’s the law.  We do our job under strict rules about what can be reported and what can’t.  I must observe the accused’s presumption of innocence, make sure that any illicit googling from jury members doesn’t find anything prejudicial and I must respect the privacy of anyone under 18 or the accused or the victim of a sex crime.  I can write anything that has been said in front of the jury as long as it’s within these rules.  Until the verdict.

After the verdict – as long as it’s guilty- I can write with considerably more freedom.  I can write about what happened when the jury were sent out of the court and any prior nefarious dealings of the convicted, as long as I get my facts right.  I can also say what I think about the verdict or the trial.  This is where people sometimes get upset.

I can only write what I see and comment on my own observations.  I’ve sat through a great many trials over the years and watched an awful lot of men and women face the justice system.  I’ve seen psychopaths and sociopaths and bewildered innocents, people who made a monstrous mistake that no backtracking could make go away, people whose worlds had ended in a split second.  I’ve seen lovers and abusers, the dumped, the possessive, the controlling, those who acted in revenge, or defence, or rage.  Like most of my colleagues in the courts, I can usually get a sense of how a trial will go at an early stage, there’s always one verdict that feels right, that seems to finish the unfolding story.

I will generally comment on a verdict only if it’s unexpected but when something doesn’t sit right it should be pointed out.  The justice system is there for all of us and it has to work for people to have the necessary faith in it. 

In the case of Marcio da Silva it was the defence that didn’t sit right.  I’m not for a moment suggesting that da Silva’s legal team did anything but their job but the case they were putting forward was an uncomfortable one.  I’ve written many, many times before about the fact that the only person missing from a murder trial is the victim.  They are present as a collection of biological samples, a battered, fragile body – but everything that made them who they were in life is frozen in a frenzied, final moment, we hear other people’s memories, vested interests.  We have no idea what their final thoughts were, how they felt as life slipped away, regretful, frightened, alone?

The accused is always in front of you during the trial but the deceased is a only blurred snapshot.  They get some sort of voice during the victim impact statement, when their family have an opportunity to put the record straight and again on the steps of the court, with the flashguns blazing and the barrage of microphones.  It’s the way it has to be to ensure that those accused of a crime maintain their presumption of innocence.

When the accused was emotionally involved with the deceased their silence is even more total.  Women who have died at the hands of their partners are often portrayed in the negative.  Before her husband was convicted of her manslaughter, Celine Cawley was painted the domineering bully.  Josalita da Silva was the woman who manipulated men, used them to her own ends.  The accused has the opportunity to put their case forward, the deceased does not. 

So afterward, when the accused has been found guilty we can write about the deceased.  Josalita da Silva died from more than 40 stab wounds.  Marcio da Silva, her flat mate, had attacked her with no warning and no provocation other than her decision to spend the weekend elsewhere.  She was sitting down, at her computer.  He was standing at the kitchen counter by the knife stand.  She was dying before she hit the floor.

The problem is that sometimes,  when I say what I think,  people don’t agree with me.  That’s their prerogative of course but I draw the line when they question my professionalism or my integrity.  I’m a long way away from slagging people off because I want to make an impression.  I know I write about things that matter, life and death, I don’t do that casually.  My job is to tell a story and I will tell it as I see it.  I will take care to write within the law but I will not mince my words because they might offend. 

A Line in the Sand

This Thursday, November 25th, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  It marks the start of a global campaign of 16 Days of Action.  Here in Ireland the campaign is being spearheaded by Women’s Aid with events running around the country.

Working in the courts you see the grim effects of this violence on a daily basis.  Any regular readers of this blog will know my views on sentencing for sex crimes and on the men who murder the women they are supposed to love.  There has to be a proper line drawn in the sand to show that violence against women is utterly unacceptable.  As long as men like Anton Mulder think they can get away with killing their wives with nothing more than a slap on the wrist that message hasn’t got through.

So many of the trials I’ve covered have been of men accused of killing women.  Colleen Mulder, Karen Guinee, Rachel O’Reilly, Siobhan Kearney, Jean Gilbert, Celine Cawley and Sara Neligan all died at the hands of those who were supposed to love them.  But it’s not just loved ones that kill.  The list of victims can be added to, Melissa Mahon, Manuela Riedo, Mamie Walsh, Rebecca French; a litany of women killed by men.  There are countless other women who can’t be named.  Women who lived but who were subjected to such brutality that their lives have been shattered.

I’ve written a post over on The Anti-Room blog on the subject of sentencing for sex crimes.  It’s an important issue.  We need to draw that line in the sand and say it’s not acceptable if it’s ever going to stop.

A Menace to Society?

The first photographers arrived outside Arbour Hill Prison in Dublin at some point in the middle of yesterday afternoon.  Their numbers swelled as the afternoon and evening wore on as they were joined by their colleagues and crime reporters from the various media outlets.  By this morning there were around 30 eagerly awaiting the release of the man who is currently Public Enemy Number 1, convicted rapist Larry Murphy.

Shortly before 10.30 the doors of the prison opened and Murphy walked out, ignoring the press and the few assembled members of the public, to get into a waiting taxi and drive away into something that doesn’t remotely resemble obscurity.  Apparently he managed to lose the following press posse but he won’t avoid them for long.  According to reports on Twitter one of the Irish tabloids has posted his photograph all over his native Baltinglass asking for anyone seeing him to call the paper with the details.

Murphy’s release has been a national obsession for days now.  While the flames of media interest might have been somewhat fanned by the summer lull in newsworthy stories it’s a valid cause for concern.  Even if the crowd waiting outside Arbour Hill prison might have called to mind Chris Morris’s notorious Brass Eye Paedophilia Special (which featured material about a child molester disguised as a house and an angry crowd outside a prison tearing another paedophile to bloody pieces – in the name of satire rather than news coverage I hasten to add) Murphy’s release is a frightening prospect.

Let’s take a moment to go over why he served 10 and a half years in jail (and I’ll get to the length of time he served in a bit).  He abducted a woman he had never met, bundled her into the boot of his car, took her up to the Wicklow Mountains and raped her repeatedly.  When he was surprised by two huntsmen, who miraculously arrived and saved the woman, he was trying to suffocate his victim with a plastic bag. 

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but because of the clause in Irish law that allows any prisoner the particularly juicy carrot of between a quarter and a third off their sentence if they keep their nose clean in jail, he’s out after 10 and a half.  Murphy refused to take part in any kind of rehabilitation in jail but that wasn’t part of the deal.  So he’s out and the press are on his tail.

From now on he’ll have to tell gardai where he is and what he’s doing, but since there’s nothing like America’s Megan’s Law here in Ireland the general public won’t share that information.  Granted there’s a very good chance that if he so much as sneezes for the foreseeable future it’ll be on the front pages of the next days papers but that interest will wane as soon as the next story comes along.  He’ll make the front pages if he strikes again but that isn’t going to make any of us sleep better in our beds.

Murphy isn’t a unique case.  There are plenty of vicious rapists serving time in Irish prisons and some are even up for release soon.  Back in June one of them, Michael Murray, who raped four women over six days in 1995, actually went to the High Court complaining that he couldn’t lead a normal life because of the constant hounding by the press.  Murray had undergone counselling in prison but even his own counsel admitted he was an “abnormal menace” to the community.  Murray was unsuccessful in his action but you only have to look at the criticism that gets thrown at the press with every high profile trial, or even, as I’ve found out, any book about a high profile trial, to see that it’s by no means a given that any future case would get the same ruling.

Yes the press get excited about people like Murphy and Murray getting out of prison.  Yes sometimes the coverage can get a little over the top.  But ultimately the press are only doing their jobs.  Things that make people feel unsafe make good stories and sell newspapers and I’m sure over the next few weeks we’ll hear arguments for some of the more shameless red tops that a public service is being done. 

The problem is that it’s really not their job to keep an eye on dangers to society.  It’s something they’ll do but for very different reasons from the ones such a job should be undertaken for.  I’m a great believer in an ethical press and think that a strong media is necessary to protect society from corruption and injustice but I’m also a realist.  There will always be other reasons why something like this makes a good story.  A lot of those reasons have very little to do with altruism or ethics.  Do this job long enough and the cynicism comes naturally.

The people who should be keeping an eye on people like Murphy are not the press but the gardai.  The problem with that is that with the best will in the world, the gardai are unlikely to be up to that particular job.  They can’t shadow Murphy 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and they’re going to have to  rely on him to cooperate with them to keep tabs on him any other way.

The real problem with this mess is that this point has been reached so soon.  Ten and a half years is not a long time for such a brutal rape – but then rape sentences in this country are usually on the short side.  I’ve written here at length in the past on the subject of rape sentences and once again I’ll say they are too short.

Generally speaking it’s only the very brutal rapes that make the headlines.  While the media will be all over this case, where an Irishman has carried out a brutal attack on an Irish woman, they have been a lot less quick to cover equally nasty rapes involving an accused and a victim from outside Ireland.  I’ve covered enough rape trials for news agencies to know how depressing it can be to write copy about horrific events day after day and send them out to every newsroom only to have your work ignored time and time again. Unfortunately familiarity breeds contempt.  Newspapers want news and court cases tend to be too repetitive to give that newness.  As a reading public we won’t read the same stories over and over again so why should the papers publish them?

There’s also the issue of sensitivity of course.  The fact that rape trial reporting is a tricky business with the need to ensure anonymity of both accused and victim for the duration of the trial at least, doesn’t help matters.  Consequently it tends to be only the most brutal, the most scary and predatory attackers that make the headlines.  Only the most shocking cases.  There are a great many more trials that go on without a murmur and whose sentences are not remarked  upon.

When someone like Murphy gets out after ten years there’s an outcry, and there should be but this is a problem that is there all the time.  Rape sentences are frequently under ten years.  Life sentences are rarely given and when they are more often than not over turned on appeal.  That needs to change.  Someone who kidnapped a woman and threatened to  kill them should have been sentenced to a lot more than 15 years.  If someone’s a menace they should be taken off the streets until they are no longer a mess.

Instead we offer carrots to people who don’t deserve them, a light at the end of the tunnel for people who only deserve to see the light from an oncoming train.  I’m thinking in particular of Gerald Barry, sentenced to two life sentences last December for the rape of a French student less than two months before he went on to brutally murder Swiss student Manuela Riedo.  When he was handing out sentence Mr. Justice Paul Carney mentioned the quarter off saying that Barry was a perfect illustration of why it should be discretionary.

Surely it’s time we gave judges the power to set the upper limit of a sentence for serious crimes?  The Court of Criminal Appeal would always be there but why can’t trial judges decide, like their English counterparts, that someone convicted of rape or murder should serve a minimum amount of time behind bars.  You will never hear of someone being sent to prison for “at least 35 years” from an Irish court because the judges are not allowed to do that.  They pass their sentences according to very strict rules.  I can see why those rules are there but there has to be more flexibility to punish those guilty of the worst crimes this society has seen.  There would still be the freedom to decide on a case by case basis.  If someone is found guilty of an inconceivably horrific crime the courts should be able to ensure they never see freedom again.

If someone is going to remain a serious threat to society they should not be allowed back into it, even if that means holding them in continuing custody “just in case”.  I’m well aware of the human rights side of this, and the fact that our prisons are already overcrowded and our courts are working more efficiently than ever, but beside all of this there has to be justice.  There are certain crimes where the punishment should be life and there should be the freedom to ensure that life does mean life.  As it is we will see the same circus as we have today the next time someone particularly nasty walks free while still in the prime of life.  It’s not up to the press to shout about the unfairness of it all, it’s something that needs to be changed as a matter of policy, not a kneejerk reaction or vote catching sop.  Until then there will be too many victims who feel that justice wasn’t served and too many women afraid of real bogeymen.

Modern Feminism

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

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

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

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

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

A Depressing Reminder of the Status Quo

Today’s papers are all reporting the sentencing of Kerry bouncer Danny Foley yesterday.  What’s newsworthy isn’t the seven years he got (with the final two suspended) or even the brutal facts of the case.  The thing that has people’s blood boiling this morning is the amount of support Foley had in court yesterday, with a procession of well wishers queuing to shake his shake his hand as the court filled for the sentencing.

The case has been discussed on radio, tweeted about on Twitter and will undoubtedly be the subject of a lot of comment over the next few days.  But there’s one thing most people seem to be forgetting.  This isn’t unusual.  People convicted of crimes have friends and families just like anyone else.  In a lot of cases those friends & family will strenuously support their loved ones. People have a tremendous capacity to believe the best in someone if the alternative makes the world into a dark and scary place.

I’ve been working in the courts for three years and counting.  I used to cover the sex trials a lot more than I do now.  I’ve seen incest cases where the victim sat alone with someone from Victim Support while the rest of their family sat smiling and waving at her abuser.  This support isn’t just limited to rape cases.  In murder trials the accused will usually have their own cheer squad.  It’s more unusual for this support to continue past conviction but it’s definitely not unique.

The victim in yesterday’s Listowel case said, in her victim impact statement, that she had felt judged in the small town.  Even though her name had never been reported, everyone knew who she was and she had even been approached and asked if she was sorry to have pursued the case.

Shocking though this is to hear, it also is a long way from being a unique occurrence.  It’s one of the things that the victims of these crimes have to consider when they report an assault to gardai.  Earlier this month the Rape Crisis Centre launched the study “Rape & Justice in Ireland”.  They found that only 1 in 10 cases of suspected rape reach court giving us one of the lowest prosecution levels in court.  Unfortunately though, Ireland is still a country that clings to conservative values.  We support priests who’ve been caught abusing children and frequently find it easier to assume that a woman who’s raped, in some way had it coming.

Attitudes are changing, slowly, there are still swathes of Ireland that will bow to the respectable male pillar of society and trample over their victim to greet them.  The women and children who are the victims in these cases are nothing more than dangerous, malicious outcasts whose clamour threatens to rock the boat. 

My first reaction when I read about the Listowel case this morning was one of irritation.  It was no different from the over excited stringer who proudly reports that the judge in a murder trial refused leave to appeal (as they always do) and another reason why every journalism student should cut their teeth in the courts.  But that’s not it. 

Working in the Four Courts I’m used to seeing things that really should make my blood boil.  Things that I wouldn’t even comment on any more because they happen so often.  The media rarely pick up on rape cases.  The anonymity of both victim and accused doesn’t make for particularly strong copy and there are just so many of them that they simply don’t make news any more. Until you get a case like this.

I’ve commented before here that on any one day the majority of the crimes passing through the Central Criminal Court will probably be against women or children.  A colleague from New Zealand once told me that there are so many wife killings in New Zealand the papers similarly don’t cover them.  It’s the old chestnut of familiarity breeding contempt and apathy.

So when we’re confronted with these attitudes, when the unpalatable status quo suddenly hits us in the face,we get upset.  But a couple of days outrage are unlikely to make a difference.  Something far more fundamental needs to change.  Only then will scenes like those at Danny Foley’s sentencing become truly shocking, because they go against the grain of the Irish psyche.  At the moment, sadly, that just simply isn’t the case.

A Fair and Swift Verdict

The jury only took half an hour to return their verdict on whether Ann Burke, who hit her husband Pat 23 times over the head with a hammer while he slept, was guilty of murder or manslaughter.

The verdict, when it came was the expected one.  Both prosecution and defence were in agreement on the facts of the case and the psychiatrists both sides had produced to give evidence were agreed that Ann Burke was suffering from a mental disorder at the time of the killing.  The verdict of not guilty by reason of diminished responsibility was a logical one, given the evidence in the trial.

The jury were at liberty to come to a range of verdicts from acquittal right through to murder but even the defence informed them that there was no doubt this was an unlawful killing and as such should result in some form of guilty verdict.

The trial was a brief one, only one garda gave evidence, rather than the endless procession you will usually find in a murder trial.  Even the post mortem evidence was simply read into the record since there was no debate about it’s findings.  The only other kind of murder trial that generally moves this quickly is one where the verdict is not guilty by reason of insanity.

In this case, both sides were careful to tell the jury, insanity was not an issue.  Ann Burke had suffered from a severe depressive illness at the time of the killing but this was not counted as insanity.  But in both sorts of trials, when both side agree on the medical diagnosis, the jury is instructed more than usual.

In a standard murder trial a jury is free to weigh up the evidence put before them and come to any one of the available verdicts.  These will usually be acquittal, manslaughter or murder.  Frequently it’s difficult to tell what the outcome will be, the evidence must be weighed carefully and the line between the options isn’t always clear cut.

But in cases where there’s a solid psychiatric diagnosis like this one, the verdict is almost a foregone conclusion.  The jury must be the one’s to make the final decision.  There’s only one situation where the judge will tell them to sign the issue paper a certain way and that’s when, for various reasons, the prosecution case has a serious undeniable flaw and the judge decides the only option is an acquittal.  If the verdict is to be a guilty one then the accused still has a right to be judged by a jury of their peers.

Ann Burke will get to spend Christmas with her family before she is sentenced on January 25th.  In the meantime a psychiatric report will be prepared and victim impact statements made by her family.

A Childhood in the Shadow of Violence

Linda Burke’s earliest memory was standing in her pyjamas with her older brother at the top of the stairs looking down at her father.  He was holding a loaded shotgun and shouting that he would blow their heads off.  She would have been three or four at the time.

Her mother Ann is on trial in the Central Criminal Court, charged with murdering the man whose abuse was catalogued for the jury today.  Linda described sitting in school on a Tuesday, the day her father was paid his dole when she was a child.  Those days her mind was not on her lessons as she worried about what row would meet her when she went home.

When she was six her father taught her to tell the time.  When she got the little and big hands mixed up he hit her across the face.  When she cried in the face of the stinging pain he hit her to shut up and when she couldn’t he picked her up and threw her across the room.

Her father and mother were always fighting, she told the court.  When she was thirteen her father hit her mother over the head with a sweeping brush, splitting her forehead open.  He wouldn’t let Linda call for an ambulance forcing her to treat her mother herself as best she could.

Ann Burke had also had a childhood marred by violence.  Her father, a carpenter, would hit the pub every Sunday, arriving home to batter his wife and children and throw the dinner on the floor.  She told psychiatrists after the killing about lying in bed waiting for her father to come home drunk on a Sunday night.

Her mother eventually took a stand when she was diagnosed with cancer.  Ann’s eldest brother was still living at home, a quiet man who had never married and who was completely unable to stand up to his father.  Their mother got a barring order against their father banning from the family home but by then the damage had already been done and Ann, the baby of the family, was already destined to follow in her footsteps.

She left school at thirteen to follow her siblings into a knitwear factory.  She met Pat Burke when she was 18 or 19.

Ann Burke didn’t consider it odd when her new husband beat her.  It was all she had ever known.  But the abusive life eventually took it’s toll.  She started drinking because it was the only way she had enough courage to stand up to her husband’s drunken rages.  She had tried to leave but always went back to him.  The barring order she eventually took out in 2004 was short lived.  Pat Burke simply refused to go.

By the time August 2007 arrived she was suffering from a severe depressive illness.  Her self confidence was destroyed, she felt worthless and thought that her children’s lives would be better if she took her own life, sparing them the constant rows.  She told the psychiatrists she spoke to that her husband had taken to raping her when she refused him sex and she could not see any way out of her situation.

On August 19th 2007, after her husband had arrived home in the small hours of the morning drunk and abusive yet again, she picked up the hammer that was lying in the bedroom and hit him over the head around 23 times, shattering his skull and irreparably damaging his brain.  Pat Burke would have died quickly from his injuries.  Ann Burke wanted to follow him.

Psychiatrists for both the Defence and the Prosecution agreed that she acted with diminished responsibility as a result of the mental illness she was suffering from.  They told the jury the depression existed even when she wasn’t drinking and alcohol, while present, was not the driving force between the attack.  Her feelings of desperation had driven her to the violent and tragic act.

The case is expected to finish tomorrow.  The speeches won’t be long.  Then it’s up to the jury.

Portrait of a Miserable Marriage

Ann Burke told gardai that she didn’t think there was anything wrong when her new husband beat her up on their wedding night in 1975.  It wasn’t the first time and even his mother had asked her why she wanted to marry him.

After 32 years of marriage the now alcoholic 56-year-old took a hammer and used it to hit her husband over the head around 23 times before trying to kill herself.

Mrs Burke’s four children sat around her while the prosecution read out the transcripts of the interviews she had with gardai.  A litany of abuse ranging from casual cruelty to more serious threats against her life.

She told gardai that she and her husband had been arguing constantly since she had spent a couple of days in the psychiatric wing of Portlaoise General Hospital the week before his death in August 2007.  She said he had told her that if she didn’t leave without treatment she needn’t bother coming home at all.  She said that when she did return, on the Wednesday of that week, he told her he was ashamed of her for having spent time in the psychiatric wing.

Mrs Burke cried, dabbing her red eyes with a tissue handed to her by one of her daughters, as Garda Pat Lynn confirmed the voluntary statements she made when gardai accompanied her to hospital after her husband’s death on the Sunday of that same week.

She was heavily intoxicated and repeatedly told doctors and gardai that she knew what she had done and that her life was over.  Her concern was mainly for her youngest son, still living at home, and for her inability to kill herself.  Over and over she said that she wanted to die but couldn’t “do it right”.

In an interview with gardai a week after the events of August 19th she explained what had happened.  The atmosphere had been tense since she had come home from hospital the previous week, she said.  At around 7.30 on the Saturday her husband Pat went into Portlaoise to go drinking.  She went to bed but at some time after 3am he rang her to tell her about phonecalls he had received from another woman.

A little before 6am he arrived home.  She told gardai that she let him in when he hammered on the door.  He had his own keys but always banged on the door for her to let him in – she said she always did so because otherwise he would try to break down the door.

He was drunk and as soon as he came in the argument started.  It quickly degenerated into a shoving match and her daughter, Linda, who was back home for the weekend, came downstairs to separate them as she had done many times before.  The row raged on and on until eventually her husband went to bed at around 9am.

Mrs Burke told gardai that she had had enough.  She went out to a local shop to get a bottle of wine and the Sunday papers then at around 4.30 she took a hammer she said was already in the room from fixing curtains a few days previously.  Then she beat her husband about the head.  She told gardai she didn’t know why, couldn’t even remember the blows.  It was as if it was all in a haze.

He fell off the bed and lay on the floor, dead.  She wrote yet another suicide note apologising to her children and leaving instructions on how to use the electricity metre and what to do with the house.  She wrote that she could not live with what she had done and was now sitting near her husband touching his cooling face.  He had always said he would come back and haunt her, she wrote, but it hadn’t happened yet.

Today’s evidence painted a grim picture of a marriage.  Tomorrow the story will be fleshed out as further witnesses add their input to the prosecution case.  The trial isn’t expected to last long and to conclude by the end of the week.

A National Shame


Thousands of people took to the streets of Dublin today to show their outrage at the abuse meted out by the Catholic Church in institutions over the years.  Once the crowds had assembled outside Leinster House where the politicians were arguing about the worth of the Government, stories were told of how the abuse wrecked lives and calls were made for belated justice.

I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t with the marchers.  The husband was, that’s his photograph at the top of this post.  I was working on editing the book, sitting in a favourite hideaway where I can work in the centre of town in peace and quite.  This afternoon there was another sound that drowned out the buzzing of the bees, from Kildare Street a good ten minutes walk away I could hear the speakers at the march.  Their voices carried through megaphones, bounced between buildings, came through the air in a strange ebbing echo, fragments of their stories reaching me on the wind while the shouts of the massive crowd were only a murmur.  This is as it should be.  Their stories should ring out across town and the whole country should hang their heads in shame at the hurt and harm that so many children and pregnant women had to undergo at the hands of a too powerful church.

The first time I personally became aware of the scale of the abuse was when my mother was cast as the head nun in Louis Lentin’s 1996 documentary Dear Daughter.  She was staying with me while the series was filmed and told me about visiting the old Golden Bridge orphanage with some of the women who had suffered so horrifically there.  One of them, Christine Buckley, whose story Dear Daughter followed, is in the photograph above, in the front row of protesters.

My mother told me about the first day of filming, when she was in her nun’s costume for the first time.  She got ready for her entrance at the top of a flight of stairs.  The women who had once been inmates of that grim place were standing in the hall below watching the shot.  She told me that as she came down the stairs as Sister Xavieria, the woman who had been in charge of Goldenbridge in the 1950s, the women all gasped and became visibly upset.  The similarity was far too great, the memories too vivid.

Dear Daughter came three years before the infamous States of Fear series which detailed the abuse suffered by the children who had been sent to the infamous industrial schools.  It told of horrendous abuse perpetrated by the Sisters of Mercy nuns on the children in their care.

But now 13 years later we are still being shocked at the details of that abuse.  Every time there is another report further details of the cruel, sick, inhumane treatment suffered by some of the most vulnerable citizens of this country, come out and the people react with horror, as they should.  But in those thirteen years very little progress has been made.  The story just keep getting bigger and bigger, with more and more victims hurt by a church that should never have been allowed to have such a stranglehold on the country as a whole.

When the Ferns Report was published, detailing more than 100 allegations of child abuse in a single diocese, the same noises were made and the same outrage expressed.  Now we have the Ryan Report which goes into institutional abuse across the whole country but still there is a lack of decisive action on the part of the Government.  How many abusers are still walking free and how many victims still waiting for closure and justice?

The fact that one organisation, the Catholic church, was so twisted and corrupt as to allow and condone such wholesale abuse of the people in their care, is horrifying.  The fact that the State still seems to show deference to the religious rather than ordering them to face up fully to what they have done, is even worse.  There is something very, very wrong with a country in which a slavish subservience to those in power means blind eyes will be turned to whatever abuses the powerful ones choose to get up to.  Whether you are talking about the religious orders who had care of the countries children or the likes of Dr Michael Shine, struck off last year for abusing youngsters, there are those who will gather round them protectively, looking up to the priest or the doctor in adoration and hearing no ill.

Surely it’s time that justice was finally doles out?  There is no excuse, no mitigation to what these people did.  The laws of the land still apply.  But instead of being cast out, the religious are treated as a special case.  They were handed a ludicrously sweet deal when it came to compensating their victims and the news that they are to cough up more is greeted as if they are doing the country some kind of favour.

It can only be hoped that the voices raised this afternoon were heard and a change in attitude takes place.  But going on past evidence it’s going to take a lot more marches before anything changes.

Newer posts »

© 2024 Abigail Rieley

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑