I went to Kilmainham Gaol last week and it got me thinking. There was one particular fact gleaned from the tour and a wander round the museum that stuck in my head. It was presented casually, in passing, intending to give an impression of what the prison was like in the dark days before prison reform, when the Famine had filled it’s walls to bursting point, a statistic to underline a point.
The fact was this, that in the mid 1800s 40% of prisoners at the gaol were women, compared to less than a quarter in gaols in England. The placidly informative board put this down to the fact that women in those days had less opportunities than their English counterparts, coming from a mainly rural society with less job prospects, with all the eligible men on the nearest boat away from the ravages of the Famine that had decimated the population in the 1840s. The only option for a lot of these impoverished, single women finding themselves on the mean streets of Dublin, was a life in prostitution.
The court cases reported at the time told a sad tale of degradation and extreme poverty. Infanticides were common among women who couldn’t see any other option. Those stories were dealt with quickly, written about without fuss, in maybe half a column of newsprint, sordid tragedies that didn’t really register on the public. Familiarity really does breed contempt, or at least a growing lack on interest.
That much hasn’t changed. While killing a child would guarantee headlines in these less desperate times there are other crimes that happen too often to guarantee many column inches. The bulk of the cases that pass through the Central Criminal Court, for example, would be rapes of some form or another. But you won’t see that reflected in your morning, or for that matter evening, paper. Rape cases are difficult to write up, strict laws to protect the privacy of both the victim and the accused are in place until a verdict, and in the case of incest, where identifying the accused would identify the victim, after it as well. Copy doesn’t read well when it’s peppered with indefinite articles and, no matter how skilled the writer, there really isn’t any other way of doing it.
So there are a lot of cases that are tried and convicted without any comment. It takes a crime of particular brutality, notoriety or sickness before the press bench will approach full capacity. It happens the most with the sex cases. When I was working for the agencies that send court stories out to all the newspapers the sheer torrent of similarities was one of the most shocking things about covering a rape case. The details in the opening speech of the latest child abuse case had a horribly familiar ring. The vulnerable child, singled out at and violated. The age the assaults would begin would often be similar, even the details of the molester’s patter and approach, and of course the devastation that would follow, the weight of a dirty secret, the sleepless nights – all the same, or similar.
In the end it was the familiarity that became most sickening – and so you won’t read about these cases with your morning coffee. It’s the same with murder. There have been headlines about the knife crime epidemic for the past couple of years but once again it’s the similarities between the cases that follow each other head to toe through the courts all year, that hit home. The waste of young lives, brought to an end so thoughtlessly when drink and drugs and sharp implements became a fatally volatile mix.
Walking round the museum in Kilmainham Gaol I was struck by how familiar it seemed. We’ve come a long way in the last 150 years but not far enough. There are still people who are desperate, who live lives that they feel have no real value, who will try to survive by whatever means they can when they struggle to keep their heads above water.
I was reminded in particular of Joselita da Silva. She was a victim rather than a culprit but at the trial of the man who stabbed her to death last month, an old story was hung out for the jury to peruse. They didn’t pay any attention and convicted Marcio Goncalves da Silva (no relation) of her murder.
The case didn’t get as much publicity as it might. It was around the time when the government crashed and burned so attention was elsewhere, but it may have been a story whose familiarity would have brought yawns from editors on all but the quietest news day. Joselita was Brazilian. She and her husband had moved to Ireland at the height of the boom, hoping to make enough money to go home and make a new life for themselves and the three children they had left behind.
But the Celtic Tiger didn’t treat Joselita very well. Her marriage had broken down soon after she arrived in the country and she soon found herself struggling to survive in the gold tinted wonderland that was Ireland before the bust. She found work doing various cleaning jobs, or working in fast food shops but the work wasn’t regular and it was hard to make ends meet.
Joselita was a bubbly, outgoing woman. She got on well with everyone but there were those who whispered that she was maybe too friendly with certain men. During da Silva’s trial the court heard about the married man whose wife had tried to have Joselita deported, or the local man, many years her senior, who had showered her with expensive gifts, a laptop, tickets home to Brazil, the subtext being that he had also bought Joselita, the old transaction, understood the world over. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what she did. She didn’t break any laws and was perfectly entitled to live her life how ever she chose. But her family were subjected to this tarnished picture of her, presented by the defence in an attempt to justify to some extent, da Silva’s actions, when he stabbed the woman he said he loved more than 40 times.
The defence always maintained that Marcio da Silva had not killed Joselita in a jealous rage, but it took the jury a few short hours to find him guilty of murder. But the image that stayed behind when the trial was finished was of an Ireland that hadn’t moved on as much as we would like to think. A land where all the glittering gold was really brass and the veneer of a kinder, more civilised society was paper thin. Sadly there are some things that will probably never really change. Until then the museum in Kilmainham Gaol will tell stories that trigger that horrible familiarity, rather than being a dead relic of a more brutal time.