Writer and Author

Tag: Siobhan Kearney

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 few thoughts on International Women’s Day

I’ve been spending most of my time recently lost in the past. At the moment I’m researching crimes from so far back they’re in another world.  If you were accused of a crime back then there was no chance of a retrial and if you were convicted of murder then your fate dangled at the end of a rope, a ghoulish spectacle for day trippers.

Life was brutal, shorter, bleaker.  Cholera and typhoid swept Britain and Ireland and infant mortality was high.  I’m looking at a time when there was no such thing as universal suffrage, to vote in an election you had to have land, and be a man.  Women belonged to their husbands, on the day of their marriage everything they owned passed to him, they could not divorce their husbands if he was unfaithful and on divorce they could lose even the right to their own children.

It’s like looking into another world.  Now we can take for granted the right to vote and the position of the mother, given special protection in Article 41.2, is seen as so inalienable it can be to the detriment of the rights of the father.  In a few short generations, women’s lives have changed utterly.  We have more freedom, more of a voice, more opportunities than our grandmothers did, and even many more than our mothers’ generation.

But while there’s been incredible progress, the world we live in still has a very long way to go before there is true equality for the sexes.  I work in a job where most of my colleagues are women but only to a certain level.  Apart from one or two notable exceptions, the majority of judges in the courts, or editors in the newspapers are men.  Most of the senior barristers are men and most of the senior gardai are men.  It’s changing, of course, but for a large chunk of the rest of my working life that’s the way it’s going to be.

85% of the politicians who pass the laws that govern what goes on in the courts are men, which might possibly have something to do with the fact that sentences for sexual crimes are so pathetically low.  Domestic abuse is still rife and women still die all too often at the hands of their partners.  I still spend most of my time writing about this violence against women as it takes up so much of the courts’ time.

But this is the First World, the civilised bit.  The inequalities I see around me are miniscule compared with those that women have to face in other parts of the globe.  We’ve come a long way in a hundred years or so, but there’s a hell of a long way still to go.  There are plenty of places on earth where women would recognise the strange world I’m finding in my research as pretty close to their own reality.

Yet I meet so many young women who see feminism as a dirty word and would be embarrassed to apply it to themselves.  They see the race as won, the fight as fought, and simply accept the status quo as something that can’t be changed.  For a long time I was more reticent about saying what I thought, not wanting to appear strident, or even, god forbid, unattractive.  I’ve laughed along with sexist jokes for fear of being branded a kill joy.  I’ve fluttered my eyelashes and bitten my tongue, pretending to be one of the lads.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not got a problem with men.  This has nothing to do with which gender is better, it’s about equality.  And it’s important to say it.

It would be nice to live in a world where feminism was no longer necessary, where everyone played to their strengths and not their stereotypes.  It would be nice if everyone judged everyone else according to who they actually were, not what they seemed to be.  But that’s the foreign country and far more distant than my world of hangings, cholera and bridal chattels.  That’s why International Women’s Day is still important a hundred years after it was started and why I’ll keep banging on about rape sentencing and women who die at the hands of the men who claim to love them.

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.

Modern Feminism

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

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

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

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

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

A Whole New Way of Doing Things?

I was talking to a friend on Skype earlier today and the conversation turned to social networking…as it does.  I was trying to explain the concept of Twitter to her and persuade her to give it a try and the conversation turned to the whole social networking phenomenon and how much the business of writing and researching has changed since we both studied journalism in college.

Now granted, since I learnt the ropes things have moved on from quarter in reel to reel recorder (one of these…, through minidiscs on to hardrive recorders.  Elsewhere the revolution of being able to file copy from anywhere without having to use a copy taker or an ISDN line as long as you have access to an internet connection has made minute by minute breaking news achievable.

But apart from the tools we carry about with us to perform our daily business it’s the actual job that has changed almost beyond recognition over the year.  I graduated from college in 2000.  Back then learning how to use search engines was a fairly new part of the curriculum.  These days, if the Internet went bang in the morning I wonder how many of us would remember how to do things the old fashioned way.  There are so many routine inquiries that would have required several hours of judicial phone calls or knocks on doors that can now be answered by a few minutes Googling.

It’s something that we all take for granted yet still on occassion becomes something to marvel at.  I’ve lost count of the number of times the press room in the Four Courts has been agog over a piece of video or audio that would have previously meant a search of the archives back at base that you might only have seen when it went to air.  During the Joe O’Reilly trial, for example the footage of his appearance on the Late, Late Show in the company of his obviously uncomfortable mother-in-law three weeks after he had murdered his wife got an almost daily showing.

Similarly the video that Siobhan Kearney shot to publicise the guest house she and her husband Brian Kearney had run in Spain was played again and again in the media room during his trial for her murder.

These are the kinds of archive material that have always been obtainable but never quite as readily as they are now.  These days colour writers wanting to describe an earlier event in vivid technicolour can call up their subject in a Google search rather than rely on rusty memories.

Even basic newsgathering is changing according to the advances in technology.  Journalists can now look at someone’s Myspace or Facebook page.  Incereasingly this is the first place to look in the case of murder victims.  A Bebo memorial page set up in their honour is a source of photographs not just of them but of the friends and family who attend the court each day, a way of putting names to faces without intruding.  In the recent trial of Finn Colclough, which I’ve written about at some length, journalists quickly found the Bebo page set up for victim Sean Nolan with the outpouring of grief from his devoted friends which still continues to this day.

We live in a technological world and it is at their peril that a journalist doesn’t move with the times.  YouTube is the source for the kind of eye witness footage captured by increasingly high resolution mobile phones that news editors could have only dreamed of in the past.  Twitter has become the new buzz word for a second by second stream of information from any major news event.  You only have to look at the number of articles and courses springing up on electronic news gathering to see the impact it’s having.

As I discovered researching the book it’s now possible to gather information from the other side of the road simply sitting at your desk.  I’m a great fan of the idea of VOIP (quite apart from the fact it allows me to chat with people who have decided to move back to Sweden and are no longer eligable to be my Call a Friend for Free!)  I get very excited about the fact that I can Google someone or somewhere, go to their website then simply click on a phone number somewhere in that page of text and within seconds talk to them through Skype (using the Firefox Skype plugin).

As a writer too the advent of Web 2.0 has totally changed the reality of life.  The fact that you have become some grungy creature who hasn’t change dout of your pajamas and who lives in a small pool of light over  you cluttered desk and overheating laptop is no longer a barrier to you networking with editors or agents in any of the major cities.

Living in Ireland and not having access to a lot of writing festivals or author appearances where publishers and agents would be in attendance it’s fantastic.  I can be as cheeky as I like in approaching people through Twitter or blogs (although it remains to be seen how successful my networking is – to date I’ve probably got most of my most concrete contacts the old fashioned way but I’m optimistic for the future).

I’m constantly in awe of all these changes.  I love technology but I’m not young enough to be born to it.  I remember what life was like in the dark Luddite days and I like the way things have changed.  Personnally I think the reality is that this is simply a new way of doing something we’ve always done.  I’m fascinated with the opportunities to self publicise that the Internet provides (obviously I’m aware of the blogging one) and the idea of virtual book tours and being able to reach a global audience is too exciting to pass up.

The Internet has allowed us to go back to the kind of old fashioned communities and intensive networking that were bog standard a century or more ago.  These days we may hang out on Twitter, in the 18th Century coffee shops were all the rage.  Thanks to Google I’m now in touch with a community gardening initiative that happens not five minutes from my front door.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if everything went bang (it’s a thought that feels natural with the ongoing economic doom and gloom) but I can’t help thinking we’d probably carry on much as we are now.  We’d just have to get out more.  As long as Armageddon isn’t coming any time soon, I’m happy enough with the way things are.  We’ve come a long way, even if the communities we’re building hark back to earlier times and I for one am more than happy to embrace tweeting and blogging and exploring the big wide world from the comfort of my desk!

 

 

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