Writer and Author

Tag: David Bourke

The Siren’s Song

Image by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

Pinned above my desk are the pictures of three women. One is a young bride staring into the face of the man she has just married. One is a little girl marking her place in her book as she pauses to indulge the most important man in her life. The last is the resigned lover, waiting patiently to put her clothes back on whenever he has finished that less than Titanic-romantic life sketch. They are all reacting to the same man. The man who would go on to wreck each of their lives.

I first made their acquaintance almost two years ago and it felt like kismet. I have notes of that first encounter, bristling with excited exclamation marks. The first time I saw their faces I felt a thrill of recognition as I picked out each one. I was familiar with their story but hadn’t yet listened to their voices.  Now they won’t shut up!

Two years ago I had no plans to write a novel. I’d just finished my second book Death on the Hill  and I was looking for another subject. I went into the National Library to look through old cases searching for material, casting the net wide. I searched the library catalogue, putting in random searches and seeing what came up but I knew as soon as I saw it that I’d found something special. If you approached an editor today with a murder case involving a philandering artist who’d bumped off the missus to spend more time with the mistress they’d explode with delight. It’s a story that’s so embedded in the history of Dublin that even for me, a blow-in, there was a flicker of recognition. It’s one of those cases that never stays forgotten for long. It’s been fodder for numerous true crime authors, been turned into a play and was  prominently featured in a rather legendary RTE series back in the 1990s.

It’s mostly known as the Ireland’s Eye murder. It took place 160 years ago this year on the famous island just off the coast of Howth here in Dublin. One evening in September a young woman, 28-year-old Maria Louisa Kirwan, was found dead on the island. The only other person there was her husband, the wealthy artist William Bourke Kirwan. It didn’t take long for suspicion to fall on him, despite Kirwan’s insistence that he had spent the time his wife was dying sketching the sunset. There was a thorough police investigation and a sensational trial. But Kirwan’s conviction didn’t stop the debate and there was so much media and political pressure that his death sentence was reduced to transportation for life.

I’ve covered a fair number of trials of men who’ve killed their partners. I’ve written about many of them on this blog. Men like Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, David Bourke, Anton Mulder, and yes, Eamonn Lillis as well. I’ve heard the excuses, watched the guilty wriggle in the stand. I’ve seen juries struggle to come to a verdict when the weight of taking away another’s liberty hangs heavy on them. I’ve watched the victim become nothing more than a disparate collection of evidence, watched their families try to redress the balance, trying to resuscitate a loved one scattered over a jumble of specimen jars. The first time I read Kirwan’s defence my gut told me he was guilty. The more I read the more he seemed just another spoilt, angry man trying to defend the indefensible and the more the women in his shadow fascinated me.

It soon became clear that to tell their stories I wouldn’t be able to write the book as straight nonfiction. Their history lies in the gaps in the documentary record. They appear as brides, little else. Despite the wealth of information that exists because this was such a very famous case in it’s day I found myself staring at a very narrow view. They were defined according to their relationship to a single event. There was no sense, as there was with all the men involved, that there was a life outside the crime, a full existence off-camera. These were women who lived in a time when to be female meant, for most, a life in the shadows of history, waiting at the corner of the scene, mute until they have to fight for their survival.The suffragettes were a generation away and Mary Wollstonecraft was within living memory. If I wanted to tell the story of the strong, lively, intelligent women staring out from these pictures I’d have to look into those shadows and step right to the edges of the scene.  So I embraced the gaps and started to write a novel.

I’ve written fiction before but after two factual books it’s a joy to take the breaks off. There’s still a lot of research to do, more now that I can look beyond the independently verifiable actually but  now that research is a framework I can hang from like a kid on a climbing frame.

William Bourke Kirwan put down his profession as an “anatomical draughtsman”. In other words he earned a living drawing anatomical illustrations for the medical profession. It was a lucrative profession but he also fancied himself as a miniaturist and portrait artist. He wasn’t actually very good. I know this because the three pictures pinned above my desk are actually his work. They belong to the collection of his work that’s in the National Library collection. It’s a rather odd collection of scraps and half finished doodles along with some rather unconvincing skeletal legs. If this book was nonfiction I’d be able to make educated guesses about what, if anything, was the significance of some of the pictures.

But this book isn’t nonfiction, it’s a novel. I can look at them and put myself in Kirwan’s head, decide what he was thinking when he painted each one, why he painted each one. I look at the faces and I see my characters. It’s their stories I want to tell.

The Dark Side of Love

Maybe it’s because I spend a large chunk of my working life writing about disastrous relationships but I’ve never been one for sugary romance. In fairness I was of a fairly cynical bent before I ever set foot in a courtroom but the last six years have not helped! The avalanche of cherubs, roses and all shades of pink that erupts so soon after Christmas these days just puts me in mind of the dentist. I listen to Jacques Brel singing Ne Me Quitte Pas and I think of barring orders and don’t get me started on the kind of stalking popularised by blokes of  a vampire persuasion (see Twilight or Buffy  for copious examples).

Perhaps this is why I’ve always liked films that look at the twisted side of love.  Last night I was watching the unusual Hammer thriller Straight on Till Morning.

Straight on Till Morning

Hammer’s Straight on Till Morning

Staring Rita Tushingham and Shane Briant it’s as dysfunctional a love story as you can get.  Brenda, who writes children’s stories in her spare time, leaves her home in Liverpool to go and get knocked up. Unfortunately the first bloke who gives this “ugly duckling” a second glance in swinging London happens to be a serial killer with a Peter Pan complex. He likes her coz she’s not that attractive. She likes him because he’s got a pulse. It’s not going to end well. Made in 1972, it was probably cashing in on previous successes in this very specific genre, but it’s an interesting film nonetheless, though rather stuck in its time. This isn’t Hammer’s usual fare. It really is a love story, although a twisted one and the frequent referencing of  J.M. Barrie’s book gives a literate shorthand to some psychological complexity.

Straight on Till Morning though, pales in comparison with earlier explorations of this kind of theme. Another of my favourites is the 1965 adaptation of John Fowles’ The Collector.

The Collector Poster

 

I read the book when I first moved away from home and it’s story of a lepidopterist stalker left me paranoid for weeks afterwards. The film, starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, is a damn good literary adaptation. I still think its one of the most unsettling accounts of obsession. Freddie Clegg has watched art student Miranda Grey for half her life and becomes convinced that if he could only get her attention she could fall in love with him.  When he comes into a large sum of money he decides to take action.

But to my mind the best of the bunch is the brilliant and unsettling Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell of Powell and Pressburger fame,

Peeping Tom

 

Made in 1960 this was the film that arguable brought Powell’s career to an end.  The story of quiet, monumentally screwed up cameraman Mark, played by Carl Boehm with Anna Massey as his lodger Helen, was too dark for critics and audiences alike. It is a brutal story, though relatively tame by modern standards, but it’s also a brilliant examination of the cinematographer’s gaze and the distance both filmmakers and cinema audiences have from the subject.  Once again, the central relationship at the heart of the film is a dark reflection of romantic love.

But it’s worth remembering that all three of these films are disturbing echoes of a reality that is all too common. I’ve seen way to many trials of men who killed their partner because she threatened to leave.  In reality I always struggle to understand the mind of someone who would want to possess another human being to that extent. In many ways obsession is far scarier than any monster or psychopath. But there seems to be a fine line between desirable romantic passion and the time to change your phone numbers and notify the gardai.  But then at this time of year I’m always the one pointing out that anonymous Valentines cards are really quite a creepy idea. But then, I don’t do sugary romance…

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.

Facts and Figures

The Courts Service today released their Annual Report for 2009.  As usual it’s always an interesting read for those of us who work down there.  Apart from seeing in black and white how busy it actually was it’s interesting to put things in some kind of context, to see the breakdown of what actually happened in cool columns of statistics rather than the blur of day to day reporting.

It came as no surprise that murders were at their highest level in eight years.  Last year was a pretty hectic one.  53 murders were sent to the Central Criminal Court in 2009 of which 49 were dealt with.  There were 15 guilty pleas leaving 31 cases to go to trial.  Of those 31, three defendants were found not guilty by reason of insanity, one was acquitted and the rest were convicted – which rather puts the lie to the assumption that the majority of murder trials end in acquittal, certainly not my experience.

There were 18 convictions of murder and 22 convictions for other offences, including manslaughter. If those figures don’t seem to add up that would be because the not guilty by reason of insanity verdicts would still result in some form of detention, usually to the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum.

The 18 murder convictions all received the mandatory life sentence as did one of the manslaughter verdicts (Ronald Dunbar, who was convicted of the killing of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon – his appeal is due to be heard soon.) There were another ten sentences of ten years or more.

Looking over the trials I covered last year those figures mean a lot of trials that went under the radar.  For every David Bourke, Ronnie Dunbar or Gerald Barry there many more trials that didn’t peak the media attention and were heard without the fanfare that the high profile trials get.  I’ve written before about the trials that go uncommented. I know there’s been a lot of criticism in recent years of the level of press attention that turns certain murder trials into cause celebres but the flip side of that is that those that lose their lives get their stories told.  I couldn’t list off the names of the defendants in the trials I didn’t cover, let alone the victims.

The only type of criminal trial that was down in numbers was rape down 37% from the 2008 figure of 78.  Before you get excited that’s not as positive as it sounds.  There were still 52 cases in front of the courts.  18 ended with guilty pleas but 25 went forward to trial.  Of the 21 sentences imposed there were 3 life sentences, 5 over 12 years and the rest between 5 and 12 years.

I’ve written at length here in the past about the low sentencing for sex crimes in this country and these figures bear that out.  Rape isn’t an offence that has an inbuilt lesser charge like the majority of murder trials.  You are either guilty or you’re not.  To give someone convicted of rape a mere five years is ridiculously lenient.  I’ve covered a lot of rape trials in the past and I’m well aware that there are different degrees of aggression involved but rape is rape.

Of the life sentences given last year, two of them were to the same person, Gerald Barry.  He had already been convicted of the brutal murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo in Galway and was later sentenced on two counts of rape for his hauntingly similar attack on a French student only a few short weeks before he killed Manuela.  I was at that sentencing in Galway.  Judge Paul Carney told Barry that he had no hesitation giving him life sentences on both counts and expressed the view that for someone like him the carrot of the automatic quarter off his sentence that every prisoner receives was a waste of time.

But this means that only one other rapist was given a life sentence, the maximum any of the others received was 12 years.  Life is the maximum sentence that can be given for rape but based on these figures you’d pretty much have to go on to kill to be given it.  But I digress.

In the Circuit Court the bulk of the cases were theft and robbery.  Up by 28% since 2008, there were over 1500 dealt with.  The next largest category was assault, up 5% to 1100, followed by drugs offences, approaching the 1000 mark and up by a depressing 23%.  The most shocking jump is the rise in child abuse and child trafficking offences, up from 10 in 2008 to 397 last year, although this leap was due to just two cases each involving over 180 individual offences. However it was only earlier this month that an international report slammed Ireland for it’s record combating child trafficking.

Apart from the crime figures, the main focus of press attention on the report has been concerning the massive increase in debt matters.  Bankruptcies were up by over 100% at 17 and there were almost 70% more orders to have businesses wound up – 128 in total.  This section of the report makes depressing but rather unsurprising reading for anyone who’s picked up a paper over the past twelve months or so.  Numbers in every area have risen except for new businesses – rather unsurprisingly there weren’t as many people looking to take out restaurant or hotel licenses last year.

The grim economic climate has even made itself felt on matters of the heart.  Divorce, separations and annulments are all down on 2008 as are applications for quickie marriages.  Domestic violence applications are down as well though you can’t help wondering how representative those figures really are.

The Court Service Annual Report always gives an interesting reflection of the state of the country.  It might be a reflection of a moment in time some distance away, given the time things take to get to court but it’s an overview of life that’s difficult to see anywhere else.  The courts reflect the darker sides of society, the rotting underbelly that’s frequently hidden from our gaze. Looking at these figures might give us a slightly twisted view of the world we live in but it’s an accurate one nonetheless and says a lot about where we are, or at least have been, as a country.

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!

The Men Who Kill Their Wives

It’s been a couple of day since Eamonn Lillis was convicted.  Even though I’ve written on the trial here, on Twitter and in both the Sunday Independent and Hot Press I’ve been glued to the papers over the past few days like everyone else.

With a high profile trial like this, the evidence tends to pass in something of a blur.  The packed courtroom, massive press presence and all the attendant pressures of covering a high profile trial tends to mean that you are fixated with your own copy and nothing else.  It’s only once the verdict is in you can really sit back and see what your colleagues made of the whole thing.

Eamonn Lillis is the latest mild mannered, butter wouldn’t melt man to be sentenced for killing their wives.  He joins the likes of Brian Kearney and David Bourke as a man who others thought to be meek and sweet yet still managed to brutally kill their wives when the marriage didn’t work out.  Granted Lillis does stand apart in this comparison as having been convicted of the lesser crime of manslaughter, even though the jury dismissed the options of self defence or provocation in their verdict.

I sat and watched Lillis every day of his trial, just as I had watched, Kearney and Bourke before him, as the brutal death of his wife was laid in front of the court.  I listened to the lies he told gardai, and very possibly the lies he told the court – his story of a slapstick death worthy of silent movie comedy in which he was utterly blameless obviously failed to win over the jury who convicted him of manslaughter after 9 and a half hours of deliberation. 

There’s been a lot of discussion about the significance of the jury’s verdict in this case, the fact the six man and six women arrived at the majority verdict of manslaughter because the prosecution failed to prove the intent necessary for murder.  They had not found him guilty of murder.  They had rejected an acquittal.  They had also been very particular in their choice of manslaughter.  This was a complicated case.  They had a total of six options open to them but they picked that one.  They didn’t think he had been over enthusiastic in his self defence, they didn’t think he had been provoked and they didn’t think he had taken the passive option of copping the extent of his wife’s injuries but leaving her callously to die.

The option the jury chose was essentially “not proven”.  There’s an option open to Scottish juries of “not proven”.  It means that the person walks free but the jury are not totally convinced of his or her innocence.  The prosecution failed to prove their case.  That’s essentially what happened here. The jury in the Eamonn Lillis case decided the prosecution failed to prove the legal definition of murder, that intent must be present.

It would have been difficult to find intent without taking a leap of faith since there was no reliable account of Celine Cawley’s death.  Her husband had lied from beginning to end and even his account from the witness box failed to convince the jury (or they would have acquitted him as acting in pure, justifiable self defence.) 

Yet there are those who are acting as if Lillis was in some way a victim of all this.  Despite the fact he is the latest Dublin wife killer and has been convicted in a court of law, there are those who whisper that maybe he was poorly treated.  This man, who couldn’t stop dropping the designer names when answering garda questions about his wife’s death, who had entered into a sordid affair with a younger woman, who was responsible for his wife’s death and then tried to frame an innocent man for murder is a victim?

What about his wife?

She died at the age of 46, a brutal, sudden death on an ordinary Monday morning.  Then during the trial she was subjected to another attack as her character was savaged by both sides in court.  Celine Cawley was a strong woman, a formidable business woman and undoubtedly wore the trousers in her marriage to a much weaker man but that really doesn’t make her a bad person.  She didn’t kill anyone, she was simply successful in business and had a dominant personality.  There were a lot of different descriptions of Celine in the weekend papers but enough to suggest a human being with different sides.

Just because someone is strong willed does not mean in any way they deserve to die.  Eamonn Lillis was not a worm that turned, but rather a lap dog buoyed up by the lust of a younger woman who fatally bit the hand that fed him.  I might be using a rather provocative turn of phrase here but I’ve seen other men who came across as meek and mild who’ve nevertheless managed to kill.  Eamonn Lillis isn’t the victim here.  He killed someone and has been convicted in a court of law.  If his marriage was unhappy he could always have walked.  Violence is never, ever the answer.

The saddest thing about this trial is that Eamonn Lillis won’t be the last meek wife killer to pass through the Irish courts.  And with cases like this the victim of their aggression is often in some way portrayed as the aggressor, or at the very least the catalyst.  There are hundreds upon thousands of mild mannered men who manage not to kill their bossy, over bearing partners.  Those who do kill deserve to pay.

A Busy Year…

It’s the last day of the year and the end of the decade to boot.  Time to take stock and look back over the last twelve months with mixed feelings…whatever else 2009 has been it’s seldom been boring.  There have been opportunities and set backs but on the whole I think we’re going out with a bang.  It may have been used as a curse in the past but I’d rather live in Interesting Times than dull ones!

In terms of the courts it’s been a very interesting year.  In terms of both trials, and legislation that will affect both how I do my job and what happens in the trials I cover, there’s been a lot fitted into the past 12 months.  I’ll try at touch the main points but feel free to comment if I’ve missed anything.  I’ve linked back to my posts on the subject where they exist.  With the longer trials the name of both the victim and the accused should be prominent in the tag cloud to the right.

The year started off quietly enough.  In January Brian McBarron pleaded guilty to the murder of his girlfriend, nurse Sara Neligan, daughter of the prominent former consultant surgeon, Mr Maurice Neligan.  Sara had planned to leave him so he stabbed her.  He told gardai “she belonged to me.”

The same month serial child rapist Philip Sullivan had his life sentence overturned by the Court of Criminal Appeal.

In February, a familiar face, Kathleen Mulhall, mother of the infamous Scissor Sisters, pleaded guilty to concealing evidence about her daughters gruesome murder of their mother’s Kenyan boyfriend, Farah Swelah Noor.  She was sentenced in May to five years in prison.

March began with the passing into law of the Legal Services Ombudsman Act 2009 setting up the office of Legal Services Ombudsman to oversee complaints by and about members of the legal profession.  The office will also be responsible for making the public aware of what complaint procedures are available against solicitors and barristers.

In the Central Criminal Court a run of high profile murder trials began in March with that of Gerald Barry, the brutal killer and rapist who would be sentenced to life for the murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo.

The Barry trial was swiftly followed by that of wife killer David Bourke.  Bourke had murdered his wife, Jean Gilbert, when she left him for an old flame.

In April we entered the strange world of Ronnie Dunbar, the man on trial for the murder of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon.  Melissa herself was a waif like figure throughout the trial as we heard about her infatuation with Dunbar, also known as McManus.  We heard how her short unhappy life spiralled out of control in a few months in 2006.  Dunbar was eventually found guilty of her manslaughter and later sentenced to a life term.

After that run of trials things got a lot quieter in the courts.  During the summer break I was working on my first novel and a world away from murder.  During July though a rash of legal legislation was written into law that will definitely have an impact on the day job.

First up was the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act which controversially allows for covert surveillance to be used in prosecutions.  This kind of evidence will undoubtedly become a major part of any gangland trials that come to court from now on.

A couple of weeks later the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act introduced new laws governing the owning and use of guns.  Aimed at tackling violent crimes it also introduced new laws on knives and gave gardai greater search powers.

Hot on it’s heels came two highly discussed Acts.  The Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act allowed for gangland trials to take place without a jury in the Special Criminal Court (previously used only for paramilitary trials).  The three Criminal Justice Acts will all have an effect on how gangland trials are conducted…it’ll be interesting.

Passing into law the same day as the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act was the long awaited Defamation Act. I’m not going to go into a full analysis of the new Act, which replaces the 1961 Act but there are a few points of difference.  Slander and libel are no more, they’ve been replaced by the cover all term of defamation – which’ll make life easier for anyone studying law as part of a journalism course in the future.  The act also allows a judge to direct a jury on the amount of damages they can award and allows the defendant to make submissions to mitigate damages.

But where the Defamation Act really hit the headlines was the controversial clause that makes blasphemy a criminal offence for the first time in Ireland.  We’ll just have to wait and see if that clause has any practical implications but many people felt that simply writing in what is essentially a religious law in the 21st Century was a dangerous step backwards.

The biggest development of year, court reporting wise was probably the completion of the place where I will be working from now on.  The Criminal Courts of Justice are now finished and they’ve been given a test run and we’ll all be moving in once the new term starts in a little more than a week.

New Criminal Courts of Justice photo by Michael Stamp all rights reserved.

To go with the new courts a new piece of legislation, the Courts and Court Officers Act was brought in in November, to make changes to bail for those on trial and also to make provisions for those in custody in the same circumstances.  A final bit of t-crossing and i-dotting before the big move.

So that’s a round up of the trials and legislation that shaped my year.  2010 is getting off to a lively start with the trial of Eamonn Lillis, accused of the murder of his wife, former Bond girl Celine Cawley.  It’ll be the first big trial in the new courts so it looks like there will be more interesting times ahead.

I’ll be back tomorrow looking forward instead of back.  Until then, a very happy new year to all my readers.  I hope 2010 brings you everything you’re looking for.


Dangerous Mammy’s Boys?

I’m used to sitting beside people accused of murder.  When you work in a courtroom that doesn’t have a press bench you have to sit wherever you can.  An Irish courtroom doesn’t have a dock so the two roomy benches facing the jury tend to be a favourite perch for both the media and the accused.   OK the accused is usually less than happy to be seated there, but for us it has it all – space, somewhere to rest a laptop, a good vantage point.

Being left handed, I’m usually the one sitting furthest on the left, closest to the accused.  I’ve sat beside the Colcloughs, Dane Pearse and Gerald Barry (who we were warned had a tendency to bite).  Most recently I sat beside David Bourke when he told the court how he killed his wife.  I was close enough to feel the bench shudder as he sobbed into his hands when he sat back down.  I was close enough to see how he crossed his ankles, white socks with black shoes, while he listened to the evidence stack up against him.

It’s hard to be absolutely objective when you’re sitting in an emotionally charged courtroom all week.  All you can do is make sure partiality doesn’t creep into your copy but outside of that every one of us will have an opinion on the guilt or innocence of the accused.  When it’s a case that falls into a category, say wife killers or gangland or fratricide, there are a whole lot of extra preconceptions garnered from sitting through far too many of these cases to begin with.

Bourke was of course firmly in the wife killer camp.  He might have differed in some ways from those who had gone before; Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, Anton Mulder, but you can’t help but compare.

One thing I’ve noticed about the rash of wife killers who’ve passed through the courts over the past couple of years is how many of them are the same basic generation with similar quirks and weaknesses.  Very often, for example, you will see an extremely close relationship with the female members of their own family.  We frequently have to share the long bench not only with the accused but also with droves of the extended family there to offer their support.  It’s often the case that it’s the women who give us the hardest time, who look at us as if they just scraped us off their shoes and tut as notebook pages are turned.

Joe O’Reilly’s mother has always been one of his most trenchant supporters, his sister was the one he emailed joking about her beating up his wife Rachel.  Brian Kearney’s sister spent much of his trial stroking his back when he got stressed.  It’s a common pattern. Bourke seemed to fit the bill in this respect as well.

I’m not for one moment saying these women had anything to do with their male relation’s murderous tendencies but sitting looking at them during their trials it was commented on that these were men who came from a generation when men in a female dominated family could be treated like little tin gods.  Picked up after, fed, made to feel they were the centre of the universe.  I’ve met men like that over the years.  They had a difficulty encountering a strong minded woman.

These men also show childish impulses.  O’Reilly had a room dedicated to Star Wars memorabilia.  The way Bourke cried on cue smacked of a kid used to stamping his foot and turning on the waterworks to get what he wanted.

I’m not making a hard and fast rule here.  There have been plenty of men on trial who were simply bullies and abusive thugs but the highest profile killers, the one’s branded middle class and media fodder, these were the ones who tend to fit the bill.  The cossetted princes of their own little fiefdom who simply couldn’t understand how the woman they had deigned to allow to step in to look after them should want her own way.

It’s staggering how often you hear stories from the witness stands about how the accused would niggle and bitch when he didn’t get his way, would throw a tantrum when things didn’t happen the way he liked it.  After you’ve seen the same story played out half a dozen times you can’t help wondering what the hell has the Irish mammy bred?

Was it this cosseting, this deference, that made them the time bombs that suddenly went off in their wives’s faces?  It’s a horrible thought.  Because if it did happen to be true how many more will there be?

A Family Ripped Apart

David Bourke has been found guilty of murdering his wife, Jean Gilbert.  He stabbed her four times in front of their three children, one morning after making the kids’ breakfast.  It took the seven men and five women in the jury a little over seven and a half hours to come to their decision and when it came it was with one dissenter, a majority verdict.

We’d all been expecting a majority, even a hung jury.  As the trial unfolded over a week even the judge made it abundantly clear that this was a clear case of manslaughter through provocation.  Jean Gilbert had been in love with another man and had made no secret of the fact.  She was planning to leave her husband and her children and run away with a former lover, a musician who shared her Buddhist beliefs.

The phrase Judge Barry White used repeatedly in his summing up to the evidence and his charging of the jury was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.  The question the jury had been asked to consider was whether this previously mild mannered, devoted husband and father had encountered this straw and “snapped” or whether he had petulantly murdered the woman he professed to love because she was no longer his.

The two possible verdicts polarised people.  Over the past week I’ve heard particularly dogmatic opinions on either side.  The judge even asked the prosecution (in the absence of the jury) to find out who decided Bourke would face a murder charge rather than manslaughter.  I think in the end what it boiled down to was the verdict that was perhaps technically correct, manslaughter by dint of provocation, to the one that seemed morally correct, that is murder.  The jury went with their hearts.  I’m glad they did.

Bourke was undoubtedly under tremendous stress in the days and weeks leading up to his wife’s death.  She had told him she did not love him, had never loved him.  He read letters and emails written to and from her lover.  The family that he held so dear, that he talked about to anyone who would listen, was being torn apart, a bolt out of the blue that he had never seen coming, a tragedy of the domestic kind.

But did that justify his actions?  The jury certainly didn’t think so.  They obviously asked themselves the question, is it ever justifiable to kill the person you love?  Is a crime of passion a lesser crime than a spur of the moment attack against a stranger? They decided it wasn’t.

It can sound strange when you hear closing arguments to hear the defence of provocation argued.  That being, really, really pissed off because of someone’s actions is an actual defence to murder.  It calls to mind cases of neighbour playing boy bands at full volume in the middle of the night, every night.  Undoubtedly there are times when people are goaded into violent action, unfortunate taste in music doesn’t have to feature.  The law allows for this kind of loss of control and it was this defence that David Bourke was using.

He said in evidence that he had wanted to hurt his wife the way she had hurt him, when he went into the living room brandishing a knife.  He said she looked smug, satisfied and happy, having just returned from an early morning tryst with the man she would leave him for.  He had never raised a hand to her before.  Was this the straw that broke the camel’s back and if so did that make it all right?

David Bourke was a very different man to the wife killers who’ve sat on that bench facing the jury over the past few years.  He didn’t claim a phantom intruder had killed his wife, as Joe O’Reilly and Brian Kearney did before him.  He didn’t deny dealing the fatal blow.  His wife wasn’t threatening to take away the children, only herself.

When the verdict was read out he sat very still.  His face reddened but he stayed composed.  Only when the judge left the court to allow for discussion about his wife’s family’s victim impact statement did he show any emotion.  As people milled around him and the journalists behind chattered excitedly and compared their notes he sat down heavily as his family closed in.  He was quickly surrounded and hidden from view.  He looked in shock, disbelieving.

Jean Gilbert’s family eventually gave their victim impact statement.  Her brother Robert spoke about the sister with infectious laugh and dazzling smile, who brought passion to everything she did. The women who was proud of having created the first jelly bear sweet with no artificial colourings or flavours.

But it was the quoted words of the three children who had watched their mother die that hit hardest. Bourke nodded very slightly as his daughter was quoted “I will never forget my mum.  She was the best, so nice.  I loved you and miss you so much.”  He swallowed as his son’s words were read to the court.  “I just really miss her.  I want my mum.  I want to go home to my mum.”

Speaking outside the courts the family were brief.  They decided to draw a veil over whatever had gone on within that family.  Whatever hurt the parents inflicted on one another it is the children who will have to come to terms with the loss of any normal family.

The more obvious verdict from a legal point of view might have been manslaughter but that verdict never did sit quite right.  It would have meant a jury saying that it’s OK to kill your wife if she pisses you off enough.  They obviously didn’t agree.

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