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The Past Under Our Feet

 

A child's body found on May Street Dublin

A child’s skeleton found on May Street in Dublin

When I was a child growing up in London I got a tremendous kick out of the fact that, in some people’s back gardens, you could dig down and find a layer of black soil.  That soil, perhaps a little richer, a little grittier than the loam above, down where only the deepest roots reached, was the scorched earth that was left when Boudicca, the Queen of the Iceni, attacked the Romans at Londinium.

When you live in a city that has stood in the same place for hundreds and hundreds of years you live on the past.  When you walk down the street you are walking on top of history.  In a city like London, or here in Dublin, that history can reach back hundreds if not thousands of years.  Most of the time we don’t pay attention.  We go about our lives in blissful ignorance.  But sometimes history breaks through.  Just as gardeners can dig down and find those ancient London cinders, so those who crack the modern surface can touch a more visceral time.

Yesterday workmen digging ditches for drainage pipes under cobbled streets near Smithfield made the grim discovery of a pair of legs.  The arms and the skull had been lost but what indications there were suggested that they were male legs.  Work on the drainage pipe stopped and the gardai were called.  It didn’t take long to work out that the shiny, heavily stained bones did not belong to a victim of recent violence and the investigation was passed to the archaeologists.

 

Franc Myles archeologist

Archeologist Franc Myles at the May Street dig

The area was fenced off and this morning a crowd of locals and tourists on their way to the Jameson Whiskey Distillery peered through the metal links at archaeologist Franc Myles hunkered down in front of a large gaping pipe, wielding a makeup brush.  Once the legs had been removed for further examination another even grimmer discovery had been made.  There in the clay, right in the path of the drainage pipe, was the skeleton of a child.  Impossible to tell the sex, all that can be known is that he or she had only lived till three or four and had lived it’s short life in the 1600s.

The skeleton of a child is so much more interesting than a pair of grownup legs and a torso (when foul play isn’t suspected).  Peering down into the shallow ditch were locals shocked at the thought that such small death had lain beneath their daily route for so long, children transfixed by a skeleton that somehow didn’t look remotely Halloween, tourists happily snapping away at a splendidly macabre addition to their tour.  Occasionally glancing up from his work Franc threw up facts when he was asked, or to stop the steady stream of intermittently hysterical speculation.  He didn’t mind working with the crowd, he said, the job had become so sanitised by health and safety regulations in recent years the public didn’t get the opportunity to see archaeology in the field much.

Lying half exposed, it’s little arms crossed demurely in front, the little skull cocked to the side in an accidental approximation of infant piety, the small skeleton was the centre of attention just as it would have been when it was laid to rest in the 17th Century.  It’s easy to imagine the pudgy hands grasping at a mothers hair in life, the grieving parents standing over the grave, which would have stood then within the graveyard.  The church, St Michan’s, is still there – it’s home to a celebrated crypt with a lanky crusader and fallen revolutionaries.  The graveyard though has shrunk over the years and forgotten bones it seems lie beneath the streets in the area.

It would have been so different in those days.  I’ve cut down May Lane so many times on my way to the Four Courts but they weren’t even built when the child was buried.  Ireland’s first Inn of Court was in an old Dominican priory near the spot where the Four Courts now stand back then.  In the 1600s the Inn’s gardens stood where the Four Courts are “with knottes and borders of sweet herbs, pot herbs, flowers, roses and fruit.” The scents from that garden would have been carried on a summer breeze to the graveyard so close behind, where the child’s grave lay.

These days, where the churchyard would once have stretched, the large glass King’s Inns building lies empty.  I’ve only ever seen someone in it once, when hurrying home to write up the day’s proceedings, I saw white suited swordsman fencing for a film crew in the cavernous ground floor.  The barriers that now surround the child’s resting place usually ring the empty building – god forbid rubbish should gather in it’s white elephant corners.

In another four hundred years what will be left of our world?  What relics will we leave under the roads of our descendents? The child will be gathered up and taken away for further study.  We’ll never know whether  boy or girl, what was its name, perhaps even why it died so young to end up under a busy side road.  It’s sad but it’s what it means to live in a city as ancient as this one.  We walk on what came before, we live on top of the lives of those who lived here before.  The life of a city is vertical. You rarely get the chance to see so except on days like today.  Sometimes history really feels all around us.

Rose and Crown

When I was little the Queen came to visit our school.  The teachers were ecstatic and the other pupils were pre-Christmas type excited. As the day got closer they jostled to be picked to be the one who would give the obligatory posy to her Majesty.  Even back then in those memory misted days I have no recollection of getting excited. 

The school was cleaned from roof to basement and we were handed little plastic union jacks to wave on the day.  I remember they had a hollow black stick with a red pointy button on top that was quite good for poking people in the back with.  I quite liked the plastic flag too. You could see the sky through it and the colours swirled with if you pulled at the plastic enough.  As a symbol of patriotism it meant little or nothing to my five year old sensibilities.  My mum had found  me a Welsh flag to wave instead, the flag of the land of her birth.  It had a wooden handle and was made of a strange shiny fabric that frayed nicely at the end – and it had a dragon on it. There was no comparison.

I remember getting told off when I brought my Welsh dragon into school.  It wasn’t the prescribed Union Jack, which was discarded in a messy corner of my bedroom, it’s red and blue pulled almost white and no longer capable of any satisfactory waving.  There was almost a row over that discarded Union Jack but in the end time was too short and young children had to be wrangled into lines on the side of the road to wave at the royal car.  I ended up standing at the front and waved my dragon like mad as the car drove down the road.  As it neared me it slowed down and a smiling grey haired lady looked out of the open window.  She caught sight of my dragon and waved right at me.  That was the last time I got excited about royalty.

I remember the silver jubilee.  We had a street party and I wore the Welsh national costume (Wales being a bit of a recurring theme in my childhood).  At one stage there was a fancy dress competition and once again I was dressed in my red check skirt and stove pipe hat.  I came second and was momentarily offended at being called a Welsh witch. 

These aren’t particularly unique memories if you grew up in England like I did and when I did.  Most people of my age and geographical upbringing would be able to tell you something similar.  It comes of growing up in a constitutional monarchy. Like most other people we gathered around the family TV set to watch Diana Spencer marry Prince Charles.  It was just another shared point of reference, a marker in the course of our lives.  But we were never particularly royalists.  I remember being taught how to curtsey (possibly for that school visit before the flag debacle) but could never do it without falling over.  There may have been the odd commemorative mug around but shoved in the back of cupboards rather than on display anywhere.

I’m writing this as background because today Queen Elizabeth II came to Ireland.  It’s a historic visit, the first in the history of the state.  There have been protests (small but noisy), a heightened garda presence (big, very big, but on the whole rather quiet) and more metal barriers than you could shake a St Patricks parade at.  There was a wreath laying and a visit to the Book of Kells and the Queen changed her outfit several times.  It’s all very portentous and historic.

This time round I wasn’t waving a Welsh dragon, I didn’t even have a stovepipe hat.  I spent most of the day wandering around a Dublin that looked like the set of a post apocalyptic British film made as a comment on Margaret Thatcher.  Yellow vested gardai were everywhere, as were disgruntled Dubs.  The royal cortege sped down a deserted O’Connell Street while the citizens of Dublin were kept at a very long arms length, at a sufficient distance so that projectiles couldn’t be lobbed, or anti monarchist chants heard, let alone republican banners read from a speeding car.

I’ve no sympathy for the idiots who staged a sit down outside the Conways pub on Parnell Street or the muppets attempting to burn flags down the road in Dorset Street.  They were the kind of rabble that come out of the woodwork any time something like this happens and they’re not representative of the prevailing attitude in Dublin.  I’ve seen enough of the trials that came out of the Love Ulster riots (which were sparked by an Orange March down O’Connell St – which was always going to  be a rather daft idea).  Most of the people charged weren’t republicans at all but unfortunates with no fixed abode who’d come across the placard waving protestors and seized the opportunity to sack and pillage the nearby sports shops.  There’ll probably be something similar over the next day or so.  That’s the way things tend to go in this city.  We have a highly excitable underclass.

What surprises me is how many closet royalists I’ve met in the last few weeks.  There’s been a genuine excitement about this visit that went beyond building bridges, and don’t get me started on the royal wedding hysteria we’ve only just got over.  I’m not expecting everyone to start singing A Nation Once Again but somewhere at the back of my mind was the assumption that the citizens of a republic would be less impressed by a family who gained their status through nothing more than an accident of birth, a life of privilege through a fluke of genetics.  When the Queen visited Trinity College this afternoon she was greeted with a labyrinthine line of people waiting to be presented to her.  It’ll be the same for those invited to the gala concert later this week. I’ve seen people with invites congratulated already on Twitter but I just don’t really get it.  She didn’t do anything to get to be queen.  What is the big deal about shaking her hand?  She can’t actually cure scrofula you know!

I’ve nothing particularly against the British royal family I just don’t really see the point of them.  I certainly don’t see the point of living in a temporary police state for four days while the glitterati of Dublin play high society with an elderly couple who lucked into figure head status across the Irish Sea.  Today’s wreath laying at the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Square may have been a significant moment in reconciliation between the two countries but the next three days are simply a junket that most of us don’t get to participate in.  There’ll be a lot written about how the acceptance of this visit shows a new maturity for the Irish people.  But wouldn’t it be even more mature to just take it all in our stride and not make such a fuss.  There’ve already been four bomb scares today.  The lockdown of the city is a reaction to a genuine threat from a few bigoted individuals.   Couldn’t these grand gestures have been made in a shorter visit?  One that wouldn’t require the city to be in a constant state of high alert for the best part of a week?  Do we really need to give the monarch of another country such a prolonged junket?  Can’t we just go back to appreciating our new found maturity in peace?

Welcome to the Asylum

I’m going to step away from my normal subject matter for once today.  You’d have to have been living in a hole on the dark side of an utterly deserted island to have missed the fact that Ireland is, not to put too fine a point on it, financially up the creek.

Photo by Michael Stamp

It’s hard to avoid the news that the IMF have hit town and are not even going to lay a wreath on the grave of the Celtic Tiger.  We’ve had the boom times and are now facing the bust.

I don’t write about the economy.  The only stories I cover tend to be the ones that are sparked by the money running out.  Even though both my books are about millionaires, when you’re writing about murder, even a farcical quasi attempt at one, money is never anything more than set dressing.  Death is the same whether it takes place in leafy suburbia or in a squat. It’s egalitarian that way.

But it’s hard to ignore what’s going on in Ireland at the moment.  Ireland’s party is over and the hangover has hit.  We’re left with a shambles of a government and a lot of lessons still to be learnt.  Ireland is the teenager with Europe, caught running up the phone bill and about to be denied car privileges for the foreseeable future.  The recession we’re in the middle of has hit the world but it’s knocked us for six.  Suddenly we discover that when the money was there the bills weren’t paid and the debt collectors are knocking on the door.

But what brought us to this point after so many years of prosperity? Why were the health and education systems left to fall into disrepair while the population bought holiday homes in far flung places and patio heaters bristled in every back yard?  When I think about the situation this beautiful country has got itself into my heart bleeds.  The situation we’ve found ourselves in has a feeling of inevitability and that’s not just because the party went on too long and we all succumbed to a national orgy of excess.  The problems have been there for almost as long as the republic.

Right from the start the writing was perhaps on the wall.  A health service funded by an illegal gambling operation for example.  The Irish Hospital Sweepstakes were famous for a flutter across the world and Ireland ended up with an enviable network of hospitals across the country.  Now those hospitals are closing or scaled down one by one.  The Sweepstakes themselves ended up in a sad little scandal as it was discovered that even when the cause was a noble one corruption wasn’t far behind.

I remember listening to an episode of the old BBC radio comedy show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again.  The show starred John Cleese and The Goodies, Bill Oddie, Graham Garden and Tim Brooke Taylor. In an episode from the 60s which involved a skit about a trip to Ireland they made a crack about finding the Irish Government sitting in a woodland glade with brown paper bags full of money.  Now before all my Irish readers jump on me for referencing an Irish joke by a British show I’ll point out that it’s the subject matter of the joke I’m interested in here. The brown paper envelopes in the 60s…so reminiscent of the one businessman Ben Dunne handed former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, eliciting the now immortal response “Thanks a million big fella” back in 1991.

Then there’s the offshore gas deposits that would provide enough money to give Ireland a very nice little nest egg indeed.  But they were sold off to Shell by Minister Ray Burke (who’s since been jailed for corruption in other, unrelated, matters) in the late 1980s.

A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the government (who for most of the independence of the State have comprised of Fianna Fail, with or without a minor coalition partner) have plundered the country for every cent they could get while investing as little as possible of the country’s money into the services that make a functioning economy.  The observer could very well have a mental image of a robbery interrupted.  As the lights come on in a bare wood panelled room the black clad robbers are stuffing as much loot into their pockets as they can before the cops arrive.  There’s a filing cabinet overflowing with rifled papers, some of which are smouldering in the empty grate.  When the cops do arrive our robbers fall back on tried and tested denials.  “It wasn’t me Gov, no one saw me do it.  You can’t prove nothing.”

Of course I’m not the casual observer.  I live here and work here.  It’s hard to build a fantasy scenario when you’re afraid of how much the looming budget is going to dig into your pay packet.  Something really fundamental’s going to have to change here if things are going to get better and stay better.  Ireland is a wonderful country, and don’t let anyone tell you different.  But it’s been run into the ground by a load of people who shouldn’t have been let near a business let alone a whole country. For a republic that was born out of so much idealism it’s heartbreaking to see it brought so low.  Greed and ineptitude has won out and now all that’s left is to pick up the shattered pieces.  Let’s hope something better rises out of the wreckage and Ireland can learn from past mistakes.

Walking Amongst the Dead

 

A decapitated lion in the Dead Zoo

Escaping from yet another Dublin shower today I found myself in the Dead Zoo.  I’ve fond memories of the Natural History Museum here, a museum of a museum with it’s moth eaten specimens leering out of wooden case after wooden case but it’s been closed for the last couple of years.  A tour of teachers, being shown the academic potential of somewhere that has never been anything other than educational, almost came a cropper when a back staircase collapsed under the weight of years.

It was closed immediately and remained so for years while it was made safe for a modern, and more litigious, public.  It finally reopened in April of this year, although the upper floors, with their cases of bugs and fishes will remain closed until someone can work out how to install wheelchair access to the Victorian building and deal with the problem of railings that are far too low for today’s obviously lemming like masses.

Natural history museums of their nature tend to hark back to an earlier age of discovery.  The golden age of entomological specimen gathering was in a time when people didn’t worry about endangered species and cut a murderous swathe through most of the animal population of the globe.  Bats with desiccated wings like onion skins, baby birds frozen in moth-eaten anticipation of food that never came and elephants with visible stitches fixing a premature disembowelling don’t fit easily with our queasy modern sensibilities.  Death imitating life can be a bizarre and macabre sight with fatal bullet wounds and sword marks carefully patched for display and family groups made up of animals that were born in different corners of the globe.

Dead Zoo zebra

Zebra foal

You won’t find multi media exhibits in the Dead Zoo or interpretive exhibitions aimed at progressive education, Dublin’s Natural History Museum is frozen in time … and all the better for it.

There are few places you can go today where you are effectively stepping back into time, into a different way of thinking, another age.  The museum was set up in 1857 to house the Royal Dublin Society’s growing collection of entomological specimens.   Dr Livingstone himself spoke at it’s inauguration.  The cases of international species on the first floor record, not just a search for knowledge but also the growth of an Empire.  As the British flag crossed more of the globe so the carcasses started to arrive from more far flung places.

I’ve been researching my family tree recently.  My dad’s family were in India before the British Raj working for the East India Company.  Looking into the glass eyes of an Indian deer today I realised it had been alive, had been running away from the hunter across a parched landscape when my grandfather was a small boy somewhere on the same subcontinent.  For a second it was a window into my own history.  Just for a second.  The Indian deer was straddling a stuffed fawn that had made the move from the living zoo to the dead one some time at the turn of the 20th Century.

Elsewhere the Victorian zeal for categorization is exemplified in a wall of glass frames housing the  impressive collection of R.M. Barrington.  Mr Barrington, whose picture sits on the wall beside his life’s work was the author of the snappily titled The Migration of Birds as observed at Irish Lighthouses and Lightships.

 

Dead Zoo dead chicksIt was a wonder there were any birds left to migrate after Mr Barrington’s thorough investigation.  The cards inside each case read like the shipping forecast.

On the back wall the skeletons of man and his closest relatives quietly proclaimed it’s faith in evolution while a nearby display showed our ascent through a parade of skulls passing through several million years of history.  Incongruously between them was the case of Pepper’s Ghost, a giant fish caught in 1861.  It was thought to be the largest trout ever caught until it was denounced by the Department of Fisheries a century later as an oddly marked salmon.  Pepper’s Ghost was relegated to a corner of the first floor, it’s usurper getting pride of place in the Irish collection of the floor below.

There are very few places like the Dead Zoo left.  Most have moved into the new century with interactive displays for children and the whole multi media experience.  Here in Dublin the most you’ll get are a couple of cabinets with drawers you can pull out, but if you’re looking for video presentations and a cafe you’re in the wrong place.  This is a museum of a different time and it’s a credit to the National Museum that the place has been left as such.  Where else can we step back in time and see things as our grandparents saw them?

When Children Kill

One of the most shocking things about the Drimnagh murder trial was the youth of the person accused of a savage, brutal attack that left two innocent men dead in seconds.  David Curran was only 17 when he murdered Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos, too young to be named in the initial reports of his arrest.

He young enough to still be a young man when he’s released from his life sentence and when that verdict was handed down, as I’ve already mentioned here, he looked a lot younger than his now 19 years.  When I first started to cover the trial, in the second week, I initially thought, just based on the faces of the two accused sitting in front of me, that Curran was the one accused of the lesser crime of joint enterprise. 

I’ve sat near a fair number of killers over the past few years and it’s still surprising how ordinary those convicted of killing another human being tend to look but when the killer is still little more than a child it’s all the more shocking.

I’ve written at length here about Finn Colclough, who was 17 when he fatally stabbed 18-year-old Sean Nolan while Sean was out celebrating the end of secondary school.  Colclough was convicted of manslaughter not murder and earlier this year the Court of Criminal Appeal reduced his 10 year sentence by suspending the last two years of it.  It was a trial that provoked a vocal reaction from those who observed it.  There was, and I think still is, a perception that justice was not served in some way because Colclough came from a well off family and lived on the exclusive Waterloo Road in Dublin 4.

I’ve always said that manslaughter was the correct verdict in that trial and I haven’t changed my mind.  But after the Drimnagh trial I can’t help comparing Finn Colclough and David Curran.  Both had been mixing their drinks and both had smoked cannabis.  Both could perhaps have done with considerably more parental supervision and both took an action in the heat of the moment that resulted in an innocent man’s death.

There are, of course, several key differences that go a long way to explaining the different sentences.  Sean Nolan died from two stab wounds that, according the the pathologist, were consistent with the knives still being held while Colclough tried to push Sean away from him in a struggle.  Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos died from almost identical wounds to the temple, caused by a screwdriver wielded at head height.  Curran’s attack showed a devastating aggression that obviously left the jury in no doubt that his actions were murder not manslaughter.

But you can’t help playing “What If” with the two cases.  What if Curran had come from Waterloo Road not Drimnagh.  It’s unlikely he would have spent his days robbing and getting out of his head on benzodiazepines but what’s to say he wouldn’t have still been binge drinking and getting stoned on joints.  He might not have left school so abruptly at the age of 15. 

Colclough had managed to stay in school, despite crippling OCD and ADHD when he was younger, because of the intervention of his parents.  If Colclough had been born in Drimnagh rather than the Waterloo Road would his crime still have been manslaughter?  Would he have acted the same and would the jury have reacted the same?

I’ve commented before on the similarities between cases but I suppose this time I’m more interested in the differences.  Both were 17 when they took a life and both looked startlingly young and vulnerable in court.  But Colclough faced his trial with his parents sitting with him in the court while Curran faced the verdict alone.  Curran did a horrible, grotesque and brutal thing and took two lives for no reason but because of where he’s from, the life he was living, we assume he is a feral monster, a simmering time bomb waiting to provide a cautionary tale of youth gone wild.  If he had been born into more affluent surroundings I wonder would the jury have found his defence teams explanation of the mind warping effects of benzodiazepines and alcohol more palatable.

The verdicts were what they were and the facts of the two cases stand but it’s interesting to compare the two trials. I’ve received a lot of criticism on this blog for showing any compassion for Colclough but I notice that hasn’t been the case so far with Curran.  Considering he is guilty of the worse crime I think that’s interesting.  I’m not coming to any conclusions on this just asking some question that might not even have answers.  But I know that whenever I cover the trial of someone so young I start to wonder…what if.

Sometimes Even the Guilty Deserve a Moment of Pity

David Curran sat beside his co accused, his eyes darting around the rapidly filling courtroom.  It was shortly before 3 o’clock and the jury had a verdict.  Beside him, Sean Keogh got hugs from his mother and his grandmother, but Curran could not find a friendly face.

We had been told, when the jury went out after lunch with the news that they could now come to a majority verdict, that Judge Liam McKechnie was not intending to call them back until at least 4.30.  Curran’s supporters, few though they were, had gone off secure in the knowledge that justice would be a long time  coming.  It was already the second day of waiting.

But, as so often happens when a jury is given the option of a majority verdict, the knock wasn’t long in coming.  A little over half an hour later the news came and people poured back into the courtroom.  The Keogh family filed into their seats, faces rigid with anticipation.  The sister of one of the two slain men at the centre of the trial took her seat at the side of the court with her brother’s former boss beside her.  She looked ahead grimly, waiting for whatever was to come.  But Curran’s supporters didn’t show.  His eyes kept their darting looking for the familiar face that didn’t arrive as his nervous rocking got faster.  By the time the jury took their seats he had given up.  Staring straight ahead, his hands clasped in front of his mouth.

At 19 years of age, he was alone when he was told that the jury had unanimously found him guilty of the murder of Polish mechanic Pawel Kalite and also of the murder of Marius Szwajkos by a majority of 11 to 1.

He stared straight ahead as Keogh beside him grinned at the news he had been acquitted on both counts.  He will be sentenced for the assault of Mr Kalite later in the month.  His family burst into unanimous tears as the verdicts were read out. Across the room Pawel’s sister glanced over coldly.  She will have to wait until tomorrow to make her feelings known when victim impact statements will be read to the court as Curran is given the mandatory life sentences.

He has been convicted of two of the most shocking murders in recent years.  Pawel Kalite & Marius Szwajkos died when they were stabbed in the head with a Philips screwdriver that Curran had taken from a stolen motorbike.

His defence was that he had thought one of them had stabbed his father but the jury did not accept that version of events.  They agreed with the prosecution, that Curran had reacted to an earlier incident in which a young relation was in a tussle with Mr Kalite.  The teenagers involved in that earlier row had called Curran, who arrived with Keogh and dealt out swift and fatal retribution.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for someone guilty of such a brutal crime but as he sat there surrounded by his legal team as the court emptied, tears running down his cheeks, it was difficult to not to feel a pang of basic empathy.  He suddenly looked extremely young and the full weight of what he had done and the punishment he was facing had obviously just hit.

I’ve had criticism here in the past for showing too much sympathy for the accused in various trials but when you’re telling a story it’s sometimes a by product.  I’ve worked in the courts for four years now.  I’ve covered a lot of trials.  I’ve sat and watched people accused of absolutely unpalatable cruelty to other human beings.  But I’ll always try to view everyone with compassion.  It’s not always possible. I’m certainly a lot more cynical since I started working here but sometimes, like today you see something that makes you forget for a moment the details on the charge sheet and look on the accused as just another human being.

I think Curran deserved the guilty verdicts.  His crime was a terrible one, sudden and shocking in a way that’s not often seen.  This case sparked outrage when it happened, there were candlelit vigils in Drimnagh at the scene. It’s the kind of case that makes you feel uncomfortable from the safety of your comfortable middle class life.  A story of teens out of control, lives wasted before they had even properly begun, two men who had come to this country to make a better life slain after one of them stood up to the wrong kids.  It doesn’t get any less terrible because the killer was upset but when the harsh veneer of feral adolescence is stripped away to show a flash of a frightened, vulnerable kid, the horror, if anything is worse.

Certainly as we all waited for the lift to the ground floor in the standard hanging around that follows a verdict in the hope of a useable quote, Curran’s sudden vulnerability was noted.  The sight of him being comforted had left a slightly unpleasant after taste. It made him look so young to have done something so horrible.

Tomorrow we’ll gather again to hear the victim impact statements from the families of the two Polish men as Curran is handed his two life sentences.  We’ll hear about the men who died in those few frenzied seconds on that Saturday evening and the effect their loss has had on their grieving families.  There’ll be no sympathy for Curran then, and this now is only a moment of thought before I settle down to write my final wrap up of the trial for the Sunday Independent.  But no matter how cynical I may become doing this job I never want to forget that everyone who enters that courtroom is a human being and all deserve some basic human compassion now and then.

RIP Gerry Ryan

I was sitting in court yesterday listening to the closing speeches in the trial of Sean Keogh and David Curran, which I’m covering for the Sunday Independent. The press bench was fairly full, it usually is as a trial comes to an end and the verdict approaches.

Shortly before 3 o’clock a ripple went through the gathered journalists.  Suddenly people weren’t taking down the particulars of the speeches but instead holding whispered conversations and poring over laptops and mobile phones with feverish intensity.  The barristers continued in full flow to the jury as one by one the journalists got up and left hurriedly.

The speed with which people left their posts was different from the more unhurried reaction when a verdict in another court has come through.  There was an urgency usually reserved for terrorist acts or the deaths of heads of state. Whatever was causing the mass exodus was something of national importance.

What had happened of course was that the news of Gerry Ryan’s death had started filtering through to newsrooms around the capital and those newsrooms were suddenly scrambling every available staff member.  The news first broke on Twitter, I’m not going into the pros and cons of whether those using the social networking site should have broken the news when RTE, Ryan’s employers were holding off to allow for all his family to be notified.  Twitter is the kind of place where it’s impossible to keep a secret, especially one this shocking.

If you’re not familiar with Irish broadcasting, Gerry Ryan was one the genuine stars.  His show on RTE’s 2FM had been one of the biggest shows on Irish radio for over 20 years.  I’d say there are very few people in this country who can honestly say they have never listened to his morning show, whether they tuned in regularly or not.  He was a broadcaster everyone had an opinion of, be it good or bad, but there is no denying the fact that he was well loved by his colleagues and his legion of fans.

Whether you liked his style or not if you’ve ever worked in Irish broadcasting he was one of the ever present big names.  News of his sudden death of a heart attack at the age of 53 was genuinely shocking, His passing leaves a sizeable hole in the 2FM schedule that will be extremely difficult to fill. 

I was lucky enough to go on his show just before my book Devil was released in 2008.  In one of the more bizarre twists of the trial, Gerry Ryan and his producer were both called by Sharon Collins’ defence team to be witnesses in the trial.

The day they were called there was excitement in court as we all arrived in to take our seats, passing by the familiar figure in a huddle with the barristers on the far side of the Round Hall.  His evidence, when it came, was brief and somewhat underwhelming.  It concerned one of the most salacious bits of evidence in the trial. An email found on Sharon Collins’ computer, addressed to the show, had detailed accusations of all kinds of sexual kinkiness from an unnamed partner.  The email was being used by the prosecution as proof of intent but the defence were saying it was just a writing exercise that had never been sent.  Gerry Ryan was called to back this up and confirm that he had never read the steamy contents of that email.

He took the stand and answered a few brief questions and the court sat in rapt attention before he and his producer disappeared to catch a plane to wherever they were due to do the show from the following day.  He gave the trial a little sparkle that day and yet another bizarre twist in one of the oddest trials to have passed through the court.

When Collins and her co accused Essam Eid were sentenced in November 2008, just days before the book was due out, I got a call from the Gerry Ryan Show asking me to come on and talk about the trial.  I was over the moon but it was by far the largest audience I’ve ever spoken to, even with a radio background.

I needn’t have worried. He was a brilliant interviewer. The time flew past and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much talking about a Central Criminal Court trial.  He was happy to talk about his own involvement and it was one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done.

It’s not much of a connection, a brief 15 minutes or so of shared air time, but it’s what came into my head when I heard he’d died.  Irish broadcasting has lost one of it’s most larger than life characters and a consummate pro.  I can only send my condolences to his family and friends and the colleagues who will also feel his loss acutely.  RIP.

Revisiting a Familiar Case

Finn Colclough will get out of jail two years sooner than he was expecting after today.  He had appealed his ten year sentence for the manslaughter of Sean Nolan just before Christmas.  Today he learned he had been successful.  The three judge Court of Criminal Appeal ruled that Judge Paul Carney should have taken into the account that Finn would have willingly pleaded guilty to manslaughter when deciding on sentence.

Out of all the trials I’ve covered in my time down in the Criminal Courts the Colclough trial was one of the most tragic.  Finn had been celebrating the end of the school term, out with his family for a 21st birthday part.  He was only 17.

Sean Nolan was celebrating the end of secondary school. out with friends.  He was searching for a girl he knew Sara, in the Waterloo Road area of Dublin 4 when he bumped into Finn and 2 friends.  It was around 4 in the morning.

There was a misunderstanding, Sean and his friends were looking for a corkscrew to open the bottle of wine they had bought on the way.  Finn and his friends got scared when the older boys shouted from the road in their quest.

Finn came running out with 2 knives. Sean stepped forward.  They struggled.  Sean was fatally stabbed.  It was a case of almost breathtaking tragedy.  One that had no sense to it, no logic.

I’ve written at length on the case here in the past so I’m not going to revisit now.  I will say that in light of other manslaughter sentences Finn Colclough’s was on the long side.  The fact that ten years doesn’t seem long for taking someone’s like doesn’t come into it, these are the sentences the court hands down for manslaughter.  I’m not surprised that the CCA decided as they did and I shall be interested to read their ruling at a later date.

Speaking outside the new courthouse today Sean’s mother Charlotte Nolan said that she was happy the legal process was over and that the ten year sentence still stood.

She also called for urgent changes in legislation to tackle what she referred to as the “epidemic of knife crime”.  She’s not alone in this.  I’ve heard several judges including Paul Carney speak out about the prevalence of knife crime primarily among the young men in our society.  It’s a subject that we will hear of again, probably the next time a young life is tragically lost after a night of drinking. You may hear about, you may not.  Unfortunately there are so many cases like that going through the courts and not all of them have the handy hook of an exclusive address.

In Memory of a Sister Lost

Eamonn Lillis sat staring ahead, his finger crooked under his nose, rocking gently backwards and forwards as the sentence hearing got underway.  As he had done throughout his trial he showed no emotion as the facts of the case were read out.  He didn’t flinch as his lies were once again catalogued for judge, Mr Justice Barry White. 

When the victim impact statement written by his sister-in-law was read to the court he sat impassively.  Susanna Coonan said that the “good humoured, roguish, fun and compassionate” sister she had known had been “entirely deleted” from her mind and replaced by the image of her sister’s shaven head and the scared woman “slipping in blood and frost and fighting for her life on the patio of the house of her dreams.”

She said that one of the hardest things was the realisation that she would probably never know the truth about Celine’s final moments.  “Was she in pain? was she conscious?  Did she think about [her daughter]? Did she know she was dying?”  She said that she had been with both her mother and sister when they had died from cancer and due to the care of the nursing staff their deaths were a “triumph over illness”.  “For Celine and those of us who mourn her deeply, we were utterly deprived of any dignity, spirituality or peace”. 

Ms Coonan said that Celine’s daughter and her 80-year-old father deserved to know the truth about her death.  She said Lillis’s remorse was hard to credit.  He had 13 months to “at least apologise to {his daughter} and my father.  No such apology was forthcoming.”

In the first positive picture of Celine Cawley in her husband’s trial her sister described the devoted aunt and godmother, the “big kid” who got as much of a kick out of the remote control tractors and fluffy puppies as the children did.  She spoke of the “stamp” Celine left on people’s lives.  That on the second day of the trial her old maths teacher had been in court and never a day had gone by without old school friends and devoted colleagues attending proceedings.

Even prosecuting counsel Mary Ellen Ring seemed to have a catch in her throat as she read Ms Coonan’s closing words. “Our lives are enriched from knowing you”, then a quote from the Take That song “Rule the World”  “All the stars are coming out tonight.  They’re lighting up the sky tonight for you.”

Lillis was supported, as he had been throughout the trial by two old college friends.  Gerry Kennedy told Mr Justice White that he would consider Eamonn Lillis one of his closest friends.  He said he was a “gentle man, kind, considerate and a very, very good listener.” He said Lillis was “almost the last person in the world” he would have expected to be involved in such awful events.

Siobhan Cassidy had also gone to college with the convicted man.  She told the judge she knew him as someone who had a great interest in English literature, the human spirit, film and poetry.  She said he was mild mannered and courteous and she had never known him to be confrontational.  “Quite the opposite.”  She told the court this had been her opinion for the past 34 years and still was.

Speaking on behalf of his client, defence counsel Brendan Grehan told the court Lillis had loved his wife and would do so for the rest of his life.  He still spoke of her in the present tense.  He said Lillis was extremely sorry for the extreme hurt caused in particular for the lies told to the Cawley family.  Mr Grehan said Lillis was keen to point out that his wife had been neither a bully nor a tyrant and was a loving wife and mother and a strong business woman.

Mr Justice White will consider the victim impact statements from both Ms Coonan and Mr Lillis’s daughter as well as the evidence of the case and submissions from both sides before he delivers his verdict in the morning.

Failure to Prove Intent

The camera men shoved forward towards the front door of the Criminal Courts of Justice this evening.  Eamonn Lillis had just been found guilty of the manslaughter of his wife Celine Cawley.  The press had gathered outside the door in the hope that the Cawley family would say a few words but the convicted man was first on the scene.

As he came out of the doors the scrum pushed forward and the barrage of flashguns was blinding.  He pushed through, as he had through the crowds of onlookers every day of his trial, his head lowered and his hands stuffed into his pockets.  But he was now a guilty man, who will learn his punishment next Thursday, and the snappers were not going to let him get away.  As he disappeared down the road they ran after him and his footsteps could not be heard over the snapping of the shutters.

The verdict had come at 6.25 after the jury had been deliberating for almost nine and a half hours.  There had been a lot of false starts in the day, as the jury manager appeared with a request for a smoke break or a point of clarification but when he appeared at around ten past 6 the whole room could tell this was it.

The room filled quickly and the tension heightened.  The families took their seats and Mr Lillis sat into the small box that looks suspiciously like a dock in the new courtrooms.  He looked visibly nervous and was biting his lip as he waited for the judge.  A couple of rows behind the jury box his family were also showing the stress of the three week trial.

Eventually Mr Justice Barry White took his seat and the jury came out.  They looked tired after their three days of deliberation.  The registrar asked the foreman if they had reached a decision on which at least ten of them were agreed.  He said yes and handed over the issue paper.

There was a moment of bated breath as the registrar turned and unfolded the paper, reading it through for a moment before reading out the verdict.  Mr Lillis was guilty of manslaughter.  The foreman had also noted down which of the four possible reasons they had decided on for this result…that the prosecution had proved that the death of Celine Cawley was an unlawful killing but not that Mr Lillis had intended to kill her or to cause her harm.

Mr Lillis barely flinched as the verdict was read out.  He sat, his head cocked, as he had for the majority of the more damning evidence in the trial.  His family took the news with a slight look of relief…it could after all have been so much worse.

In the bench at the back of the courtroom where the Cawley family had sat throughout the trial, Celine’s niece wept openly beside her grandfather.  Celine’s sister Susanne’s emotion only showed as they left the courtroom, the tears welling up as they headed to the offices of the Courts Service Victim Support.

They stayed hidden from sight until they finally came to be confronted by the wall of photographers.  It was announced that no statement would be made until after the sentence had been handed out then posed with quiet dignity for the photograph.  The press parted with minimum fuss as they headed towards the steps and they were left to leave unobstructed.

We will all gather at the courts next week to find out what will happen next.  Until then Eamonn Lillis will sign on twice daily as he puts his affairs in order.   He is now, as Judge White pointed out, a convict, even on bail.

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