The sun was shining today. Here in Dublin that’s no means a guarantee at this time of year, even on Midsummer’s Day. Sitting in the Criminal Courts of Justice you can see the lucid blue of the sky, see the sun on the backs of the birds that flew past and on the motes of dust that hung over the judge’s wig.
But what we were listening to this afternoon conjured images that jarred with the serenity of that blue outside the squares of glass. In a quiet, hesitant voice, touching her hand frequently to her face or lacing her fingers nervously together, Veronica McGrath described how she had watched her mother and fiancé brutally assault her father.
I’ve not been back to court since the Drimnagh screwdriver trial and recently I’ve been somewhat preoccupied with the launch of the new book, Death on the Hill. Today though the day to day business of the courts ground on despite the sun, regardless of any distractions or outside concerns.
It’s the second day of this trial. A cold case from 1987. Bernard Brian McGrath is the deceased and his wife Vera and former son-in-law Colin Pinder are accused of his murder.
His eldest daughter, another Vera, today gave her account of his death. She described how she and Pinder were due to marry in April 1987. They had moved back from England, where they had met and had been living together sometime in February or March and were living in a caravan beside the family home as they prepared for the wedding. She was 18 years old, Pinder a few years older.
But from their little love nest they could hear the nightly rows that marked her parents unhappy marriage. When a neighbour visited with a hitch on his car they took the opportunity to move the caravan to a field beside another neighbour.
She had no real problem with her father she insisted, despite the constant pressing from her mother’s counsel Patrick Gageby SC. She had no memory of complaining of his violence towards her to her local GP although she did remember visits from the doctor, the local priest and the gardai at various times during her childhood. She could also remember going to stay, with her mother and three younger brothers in a women’s refuge on the Howth Road in Dublin.
However, when her mother visited one evening, some time in March or April, and said she wished her father dead, Veronica didn’t think anything of it. It was a common sentiment, she told the court. Nothing to worry about. She heard her mother tell her fiancé that he was not man enough to kill Mr McGrath and she heard her fiancé answer that he had just the thing to carry out the dead. A heavy spanner, perhaps a torque wrench.
She and Pinder accompanied her parents back to the “home place” later that night, just for a cup of tea and a chat. The back door was locked so her mother climbed in through a bedroom window and opened the door. During the original investigation she told detectives that her father had refused to do the gallant thing when he was asked, telling her mother to do it herself, if she was so fit.
Then it all happened so fast. Pinder produced the hammer and brought it down on her father’s head. She said she heard her dog, tied up in the back field, barking unhappily so she went to calm it. She didn’t see what happened next but when she came back down her father was lying face down.
He wasn’t dead though. Veronica told the jury that her mother went into the house and came out with additional weapons, a lump hammer and a slash hook. She gave them to Pinder. Veronica said her father managed to get up and made a run for the small boreen, a narrow road, little more than a lane, that ran beside the house. Pinder slashed him in the thigh with the slash hook as he ran. She went and sat down the garden. She thought she had her teddy bear with her.
Her father ran to the ditch that ran along the side of the boreen where the trees hung down low. Pinder was hitting the bank of the ditch with the slash hook but wasn’t making contact with her father. She jumped down into the ditch and her father said to her that his eyes were stinging, he couldn’t see.
He pleaded for his life, asked for mercy, asked for his car keys and promised to drive out of their lives and leave them the house. The attack moved back the house. Veronica said it was there her mother hit her father with the lump hammer. She didn’t know where she had hit, but said her mother and her fiancé had laughed at the blow.
Her father was lying face down at the back of the house, near the garage. She could hear him making a gurgling noise. Her mother told her that was the “death rattle”. Later when he was dead, her mother and fiancé carried him up to the back field wrapped in a grey blanket. They buried him in a shallow grave.
She didn’t remember going to sleep but must have. The next morning her mother shook her awake where she was sitting in a kitchen chair and told her there was cleaning to be done. The ground outside was covered with blood and mucus and her three young brothers were still asleep upstairs. She helped her mother clean up the blood and, at her mother’s instigation daubed tar on the wall where the porous stone had sucked up too much blood.
Shortly afterwards she and Pinder got married in a registry office in nearby Mullingar. After the wedding her mother took her three brothers to England for a couple of months and she stayed in the home place with her husband. When her mother returned the body was revisited. The shallow grave was not sufficient, Veronica said. Her mother and husband dug up her father’s body and lit a fire. The body burned over several days. The smell on the first day was horrible. Visiting the field during that time she saw her father’s rib cage in the embers.
Eventually the fire went out. Her husband raked through the ashes with a shovel and brought fragments of bone back to the house in a biscuit tin. Some went in the range in the kitchen, some went in the septic tank.
The marriage did not last. The following year, when her son was still new born, Pinder went back to his native Liverpool. She did not see him again. Some time later she, as well as her mother and three brothers, moved back to England.
Six years later she couldn’t live with the secret any longer. She told a social worker what had happened and was put in touch with the police who contacted the gardai. A search of her parents house discovered the remnants of the fire and bone fragments missed in the charred ashes.
It wasn’t until 2008 that the bones could be formally indentified and her mother and former husband were charged. She’ll continue her evidence tomorrow as the sun continues to shine. The wheels of justice don’t stop turning for a spell of good weather.