Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Scarier than the IMF

Jeff Wayne was the guy who composed the famous 1970s Gordon's Gin ad jingle that was sampled by the Human League so often (recognise this?). He also happens to be the guy who composed the iconic musical interpretation of HG Wells's War of the Worlds into a double album in 1978. I got to meet him when he was in Dublin in March of this year - today's Indo carries my interview with him as he prepares to bring the War of the Worlds to the 02 on November 29. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

UNHEAVENLY CREATURES: Why the War of the Worlds still frightens the bejaysus out of us.

A RACE of terrifying creatures with “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” are set to invade Dublin next week. Relax. It’s not a second batch of IMF officials coming to town - just some deadly 35ft-high Martian killing machines.
They are part of the War of the Worlds stage show, inspired by the 1898 HG Wells novel of alien invasion and the iconic soundtrack recorded by composer Jeff Wayne exactly 80 years later. Wayne’s concept album, full of terrifying Martian war cries, synthesizers and hit singles, sold 13 million copies and stayed 235 weeks in the UK charts after its release in 1978.
A colleague mentions how he was left alone in the sitting room as a child in the early ’80s with the album playing. His mother returned 20 minutes later to find him hiding behind the couch, sobbing that the Martians were coming. Audiences should be afraid, very afraid.
War of the Worlds and its central premise in which Martians attack an Earth powerless to defend itself has inspired films, artworks, video games, TV series and at least one very powerful radio play (see panel). Wayne, 67, who still conducts the stage show himself, says there are reasons why War of the Worlds still resonates.
“HG Wells was a very young man when he wrote this story in 1897, created these Martians with extendible tentacles,” says Wayne. “What he was doing was taking a pop at the ever-expanding British empire, these tentacles of power.
“Power, even if it’s used by your own nation, if it’s wrongly used, then it’s just wrong. It’s relevant today: Look at the world we live in. It’s about territorial expansion and one faith against the other.”
It also has some resonance in Wayne’s personal story. His father Jerry was an actor and singer of some note in the States in the 1950s. “In his heyday in America, he was a pop star,” says Wayne. “I’ve a poster in my studio of a No1 he had and in order of billing: he is above Frank Sinatra.”
Unfortunately for Jerry, he was blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities Committee for performing at a benefit concert for another victim of the Committee, singer Paul Robeson. He went to England to play Sky Masterson in the original West End production of Guys and Dolls and brought Jeff with him for a few years. His father introduced Jeff to music production, and he became business partner with him on the War of the Worlds album. He had been the one to hand Jeff the Wells book to read for inspiration.
“He knew as a writer and a composer that I wanted a challenge that would go beyond my career.”
Wayne had to that point made a lot of money from composing advertising jingles – “I did about 3,000 in one 10-year period” – and theme tunes to TV shows like BBC’s 60 Minutes, The World of Sport and Good Morning Britain.
War of the Worlds was a different, well, world. In the 1970s, he had to literally invent sounds to bring Wells’ novel to musical life. “I was there, looking for ways to make the sound of a snowflake!” laughs Wayne. Gongs submerged in a tank of water, a saucepan rattled against a toilet bowl, electronic voiceboxes – all were used to generate the unsettling soundtrack that sent my colleague diving behind his mother’s sofa.

Now it is the stage show breaking new techy boundaries – a 35ft Martian that shoots death rays at the audience, CGI graphics from an animated feature version of the story that Wayne still hopes to make, pyrotechnics, a 3-D hologram of Richard Burton. Burton is 26 years dead but the miracle of modern geekery has him return to the role he voiced as The Journalist on Wayne’s 1978 album.
The Artilleryman, originally played by David Essex, is filled by Jason Donovan. Thin Lizzy’s Irish frontman Phil Lynott played the original Parson Nathaniel, a clergyman sent crazed by the invasion.
“He just had it in his voice and character to play this mad Parson,” says Wayne, “Phil Lynott had that something singular about him.”
So who could possibly replace him? For this show, it’s X-Factor Welsh signer Rhydian with a dark dye job. There truly are greater things on heaven and earth to fear than the IMF.
• Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds is at the 02 next Monday, November 29. Tickets from Ticketmaster.

A WORLD AHEAD: Influence of Wells’ novel through the years…
• HG Wells’ novel War of the Worlds in 1898 was a metaphor for imperialism, religious mania and Darwinism: it also played on the Victorian fear of ‘fin de siecle’, a superstition that the apocalypse would arrive at midnight on December 31, 1899. It didn’t.
• Robert H Goddard was 16 when Wells’ book was published. It inspired him to invent rockets: the Apollo moon landings were the culmination of research he began.
• Orson Welles recorded an infamous 1938 radio broadcast of the War of the Worlds, reading it as a series of news bulletins set in contemporary America. Many listeners believed a real alien invasion was in progress. Adolf Hitler would claim that the public panic the radio play had caused was “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy”.
• At least six ‘faithful’ movie adaptations have been made of the novel, including Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version with Tom Cruise. Spielberg kept the screenplay secret from the actors, only emailing the bits of it that were relevant to them on any given day.
• Spoof films like Scary Movie 4 and Mars Attacks have had a field day with WotW. Jeff Wayne says that even Independence Day, “in its way, is a send-up of War of the Worlds”.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ann and Rachel: A tale of two sisters

Sometimes you meet a character so outstanding, courageous and powerful that they make you breathless with humility.

One such person is Rose Callaly, the mother of murdered Rachel O'Reilly. Her other daughter Ann - so often seen propping her family up during the subsequent murder trial of Rachel's husband Joe in 2007 - died of cancer in late September this year. Two days after she buried her lovely Ann, Rose gave me this interview. No-one was more qualified to make the tribute to Rachel and Ann than their wonderful, inspiring mum.

(From the Irish Independent on September 25 last)

JUST before murder victim Rachel O’Reilly was laid to rest in October 2004, Ann Callaly carried out the ultimate sisterly act. She went into Dublin city centre and shopped for clothes in which to bury her darling sister.

Rachel’s own clothes were trapped in the crime scene of her bedroom in The Naul, Co Dublin where she had been brutally murdered by her husband Joe on October 4. She would be laid out in the clothes Ann painstakingly chose for her and was buried on October 11, a day after she should have celebrated her 31st birthday.

It was a horrible reversal of twelve months earlier, when the sisters had celebrated Rachel’s milestone 30th birthday with a girls’ day out. They trawled the shops on Grafton Street with their mother Rose, went for lunch, had fun. They popped into Brown Thomas and Marks and Spencers. Rachel treated herself to some items in Wallis and A-Wear.

They couldn’t have known then that Ann, born four years after Rachel, was destined to pass the age at which her sister is forever frozen in her family’s memory, but only for a tragically short time. Last Monday, 32-year-old Ann Callaly was laid to rest beside her sister in Balgriffin cemetery. She had fought a cancerous tumour behind the eye for over two and a half years.

“It is a comfort that they are together,” says mum Rose Callaly in the family home in Collins Avenue. In a way, Rose feels that Ann never felt far from her late sister.

“I remember that for well over a year before she died, these little hearts used to follow Ann around,” she says. “It started off when I remember she had a cup of coffee and there was a perfect little heart in the froth. That started happening on a regular basis. She would see little hearts on the ground, maybe a piece of paper shaped like one. Another time there was a deformed leaf on the ground in front of us as we were walking and she picked it up; it was a perfect heart shape.

“It was continuous and she said: ‘That’s Rachel’. I have no doubt that they are together.”

All the Callaly siblings are close. Rose and Jim’s youngest son Tony still lives at home; Declan and Paul, the eldest two boys, live nearby with their wives and children, Rose’s “little rays of sunshine”. She says: “The boys never left Ann’s side. Her brothers, God love them, absolutely loved her.”

The five children were all adopted by Rose and Jim as babies but their different biological roots did not separate them. They were bound instead by the upbringing they were given, the adventures they had along the way. When Rachel was 13 and Ann 9, the whole family decamped to Australia for a year. They took the scenic route home to Ireland, swimming at the Great Barrier Reef, spending a week in Hawaii, visiting LA and Disneyland, hiking in Yosemite National Park, taking in the bright lights of Las Vegas.

“We all have amazing memories of that once-in-a-lifetime holiday when we were all together,” Rose noted in the memoir she published last year, Remembering Rachel.
That trip sowed the seed in the sisters of their love of travel. Rachel returned to Australia to visit old friends and her aunt Lucy before her marriage to Joe O’Reilly at the age of 23. When the newlyweds went to Kenya for their honeymoon, an excited Ann met them at the airport on their return, eager to hear their tales.

“Ann was absolutely mad about travel,” says Rose. “We had this long trip planned and up to the very end, she talked about going. She’ll be able to go on all her trips now, but I couldn’t imagine going on this one without her.”

At a vigil for Rachel outside the house in The Naul two years after she was killed, Ann spoke warmly of the childhood they had shared, playing together in Glasnevin Park.

“She was not just a name in the newspaper,” she said in her tribute to her slain sister. “She was vivacious, and larger than life. She was like a gust of wind, her presence filled everywhere she went… She was never shy, and was the life and soul of the party. She had a charisma that grew with her into adulthood.”

By contrast, Ann was a “private person” says Rose, although she was also someone who left an impression on all those who met her. Old colleagues from DCU, where she had worked in her early twenties, kept in contact. In the weeks before Ann died at home on Friday, September 17, her girlfriends had brought her an album of photographs of their nights out, with captions written beneath each one.

“It’s absolutely beautiful to look back and see all the happy times,” says a grateful Rose. “Every photograph she’s in, and every one we have of her, that big smile is there and the eyes lighting.” That too was true of Rachel although her bright smile and open, wide blue eyes were to become tragically iconic to everyone who saw them after her death, in a newspaper or blown up on the TV screen.

Both were outdoorsy girls, athletic and full of energy. Rachel played softball and hockey, Ann was a member of the Aer Lingus badminton club. This year, Ann had started to learn to play golf at Carton House.

“I’ve no doubt that she would have picked it up had she lived to carry on with it,” says Rose. “She didn’t want to leave life, she really didn’t. Until the very last breath that she took, she really thought there would be a miracle. She didn’t even look on it as a miracle, she just thought, ‘This is going to be cured’. I just find it so sad.

“She was just so driven. It’s extraordinary when I look back; Rachel would have been always on the go. I often think is there something in their psyche that lets them know they won’t be here to do it all.”

The cruel full stop to Rachel’s life came first, in the most brutal fashion possible. Her husband Joe, who was having an affair at the time, bludgeoned her to death in their bedroom while their two children were at crèche and school. He engineered the situation so that Rose would be the first to find her daughter’s battered body.

When his murder trial finally began in 2007, Ann was a constant by her mother’s side. Her quiet, stoic presence, her graceful poise and beautiful, sombre face drew the eye in photographs of the family emerging from court, their arms linked.

But hearing the hurts visited on Rachel by her husband, both physical and emotional, drained Ann. In contrast to Joe O’Reilly’s robotic performance in the courtroom, Ann understandably struggled for composure. When Professor Marie Cassidy spent 15 minutes enumerating the injuries to Rachel, Ann sobbed and doubled over, feeling viscerally the final terrible moments of her sister’s life.

When O’Reilly tried to tear Rachel’s reputation as a loving mother and wife apart in a series of hateful emails to his own sister Ann O’Reilly, Ann and Rose clung to each other in tears.

“Life can hurt you along the way and Ann did have her hurts,” adds Rose. “I suppose when her sister died, the stress of that and then all the things around that for a couple of years after, when we went through tremendous stress, I’m sure that contributed to it.”

Ann had looked up to Rachel as her older sister. When she married Joe O’Reilly, Ann had remarked to her mother that she only hoped she would look half as beautiful a bride when it came to be her turn to marry. “She would have loved to have married and had children,” says Rose. “She never really aspired to anything out of the ordinary: she would have just loved to meet someone.”

Poignantly, both Rachel and Ann had ambitions for a future which involved making children happy. Rachel was devoted to her two young sons, just 6 and 4, when she died. After years working in computers with the National Council for the Blind, Ann had secured a place to train as a primary teacher in St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra but had to defer when her cancer returned early this year.

“She was always studying something or other,” says Rose. “She would have loved to do teaching and she didn’t have an honour in Irish so she went back to college and got it. Until the very last, she intended to live and planned and was out and about.

“I think anybody normal would have been in bed three months before with the illness but I think the sheer willpower kept her going. She was always like that but I suppose she threw herself into keeping busy after Rachel died.”

It was a remarkable attitude, considering the despair that Ann herself voiced to Pat Kenny on the Late Late Show in 2006, two years after a brazen-faced Joe O’Reilly had appeared on the show alongside Rose to appeal for Rachel’s killer to come forward.

“Sometime I just don’t enjoy anything anymore,” she had said. “You wake up and think: Is it ever going to get any better? Other times you forget that your family has been torn apart and wake up thinking she’s alive.”

Now it is for Rose, Jim and their sons to face life without either of their girls. “They were our life,” says Rose simply. “Six years might sound a lot to people but it’s not. It’s still very raw. And now with Ann, it’s like a candle that can never be lit again.”

Whatever happened to....?

What happens when an ordinary person gets caught up in the whirlwind of a national news story? With news available from so many different sources these days, perhaps don't stories just don't hang around as long as they used to.
I looked at a number of stories that were huge in Ireland in the 1980s onwards and asked some of the people at the centre of them how it felt to be in the spotlight.

CELEBRITY these days is very often a construction. Wannabe fame monsters – with or without talent – knock on the door of shows like X-Factor in the hope of achieving their 15 minutes of fame.

Lady Gaga told an interviewer: “How wonderfully memorable 30 years from now, when they say: ‘Do you remember Gaga and her bubbles?’” The popstar has turned self-publicity into an artform and made celebrity a goal in itself.

Even in the realm of serious news, some people catch our eye not simply because they were in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time. It is three years since little Madeleine McCann was snatched from a holiday resort on the Algarve but there are few people who wouldn’t recognise the tear-shaped mark in the pupil of her right eye.

There are reasons for this outside the obvious tragedy of her abduction and it is largely to the credit of the sustained media and publicity campaign conducted by her parents Kate and Gerry. Understandably, they have gone to every length possible to never let the world forget about their daughter.

Even as recently as two decades ago, this kind of global saturation of a news story wasn’t as easy to achieve. In Ireland especially, news was a slow drip-feed of largely local stories. The internet was in its infancy and 24-hour news stations were not on our airwaves. When a story caught our imagination, it wasn’t wiped out by the next trending topic on Twitter. If it caught hold of the public imagination, it stayed there. Try watching an episode of RTE’s Reeling In The Years nostalgia-fest and see if your eyes don’t mist up at some point or other.

The irony was that most of those at the centre of such iconic stories were incidental celebrities. They were men, women and children whose face became as well known to us as that of our own family – but they didn’t necessarily ask for it.

As a first-time mum just hours after giving birth, Veronica Cassidy was in a vulnerable position when she was thrust into the spotlight. She had given birth to Ireland’s only set of quintuplets and she and husband Kevin were trying to cope with
their instant large family.

“The attention was dreadful,” says Veronica from her home in Bridgetown, Co Wexford. It is a rare quiet hour before the five – Conor, Dearbhail, Amy, Cian and Rory – come home from school. They are now fine, boisterous nine years olds but when they were born in Dublin’s Rotunda in August 2001, Veronica was terribly worried about them.

“They were so small and people just seemed to have gotten my number and were constantly ringing, looking for information and it was just horrible. And because you’d never been in that situation, you didn’t know how to deal with it. I remember Dr Peter McKenna organised a PR for us to help us out with the situation and who advised us loads.”

And yet Veronica understood that the attention from the public themselves was well-intentioned and that there was “upsides” to the media focus too.

“Without that media attention we wouldn’t have got the sponsorship that we got and we would have found it more difficult financially,” she acknowledges.

As the Cassidys discovered, stories relating to children tend to stick in the mind.

“The picture of a child can capture the imagination,” says Stephen O’Leary, whose company O’Leary Analytics profiles the attention particular news stories get across the media. “People feel involved in the stories of children as they feed into the perception of good and evil. We see the angelic, innocent child that reminds us of our own childhood or children, if we have them ourselves. These stories pull on the heartstrings really.”

The image of Colin McStay’s huge brown eyes and gorgeous smile certainly captured the hearts of the nation when he appeared on the Late, Late Show in 1984. He was an 18-month-old with a rare liver disorder and his mother Margaret McStay had written to Gay Byrne to appeal for his help in raising funds to send Colin to America for a life-saving liver transplant.

The public, touched to the core by Colin’s plight, sent donations flooding in and the target was reached and exceeded within weeks. However, the wait for a new liver for Colin was a long one. By the time Colin finally got his operation, he was over two, very weak and Margaret and dad Leonard were finding the attention on the family almost an extra cross to bear.

The op was successful and today the family have tried to retreat hugely from the limelight. “The whole object of it (the McStay’s fundraising appeal) was to give him a normal life and that’s his life now,” says Margaret from the family home in Rathmines, Dublin.

Colin doesn’t like to give interviews about his past although the family are contacted about three times a year for one. The response to Colin as a tot was so enormous that the nation began to feel that he was, partly, everybody’s child. It is only by his retreat into anonymity that he feels he can make his life his own.

Ironically, Colin went on to study journalism and is now, says Margaret, freelancing and trying to build his CV of published work.

“What’s difficult for him is if he rings someone to ask them about something from another perspective, people basically start saying, ‘Are you him?’” says Margaret. “So you know if you’re going to be in that field, you really have to put away your own story so that it’s the other person’s story that is interesting.

“We’re back into private life and that’s where we’d like to stay. I don’t like saying ‘No’ but it just seems all round better for all of us. It’s been that way for a long while now.”

Brian Keenan would understand how hard it is to not let one period of your life define the rest of your days. When the author and former teacher released from over four years of being held hostage in Beirut in August 1990, he took himself off to the wilds of the Irish countryside for three years. He had to come to terms with both the trauma and torture he had endured in captivity – but also to get away from the intense scrutiny that was a result of the huge campaign to get him out.

Obviously, given his isolation in Beirut, it had all come as a shock to him. In 1999, he spoke of how he had even had to leave his sisters Elaine and Brenda, who had campaigned so tirelessly on his behalf.

“I left them after three days,” he said then, explaining that “It seemed like rejection, but it wasn’t in my nature to let them nursemaid me.” He now sees them regularly, as he does former hostage John McCarthy.

Our image of Keenan might be frozen to that moment when he emerged, hollow-cheeked but smiling, at the top of a set of airplane stairs on an August night 20 years ago – but his life has moved on. He is married now to physiotherapist Audrey and they have two young sons, Jack and Cal. “My children,” he said last year as he published a memoir of his childhood in Belfast, “are among the few people in the world who don’t think of me as an ex-hostage”.

On a different but no less important level, Veronica Cassidy has found that while the public may sometimes wonder, ‘Where are they now?’, her children’s lives have also progressed from our last photographs of them on their first day at school.

“The last big thing really was when they started school and that was it basically,” she says. “There would have been a lot of attention on them on their birthdays up until they were five. But we had Communion this year and there wasn’t a thing about it and that was great.”

Being adored by the nation didn’t really hurt the children though. “They did behind it all feel a bit special, and they did enjoy it,” says Veronica. When sextuplets were born to a couple in Belfast last year, one of her boys was even heard to remark, ‘We’re not famous anymore now!’. “That’s right – he was a bit starstruck by it all for a while,” laughs Veronica.

These stories, at least, had joyous endings. Others that remain with us do so because of a deep sense of poignancy that never quite goes away. Philip Cairns, the 13-year-old Dublin schoolboy who went missing in 1986, is obviously never far from the minds of his family. He disappeared on the way to school in Rathfarnham one bright October morning. His schoolbag, found in a nearby laneway days after he went missing, dry despite hours of heavy rain so evidently planted there by somebody, was the only trace ever found of Philip.

His brother Eoin made a renewed appeal on the 21st anniversary of Philip’s disappearance for new information but the family generally prefer to observe their grief privately. Det Sgt Tom Doyle, who heads up the investigation on Philip’s still-open case, has said that whenever mention is made of Philip in the news, it sparks off another rush of phonecalls.

“Every time there has been a major story about him in the papers or on the television, there has been a huge upsurge in the number of people contacting us,” he said. “My attitude would be that it's important to keep his name out there. Some member of the public has the answer to this riddle. We need to find that person.”

There are plenty of shocking international stories breaking on a daily basis these days – perhaps domestic stories won’t stick with us in the future now that we no longer worry just about what is in our own backyard. Would the revelation that a Bishop had had an affair with an adult woman and fathered a child cause as big a scandal now as it did when Annie Murphy revealed she had had a son, Peter, by Bishop Eamon Casey on the Late, Late Show in 1992?

“I think in some ways we are bombarded with news now,” says news analyst Stephen O’Leary. “Because we’re getting so much so quickly, I think that a lot of it is getting diluted. An image that might have stood out so much in the 1980s, like Colin McStay or Philip Cairns or Annie Murphy, they would have been isolated big news stories.

“News stories are far more easily replaced now. Even some of those celebrity stories involving John Terry or Tiger Woods, which got huge, intense coverage this year, get replaced by another story quite quickly.”

By contrast, whenever mention is made of Malcolm MacArthur – the man jailed for life for the murder of nurse Bridie Gargan in the Phoenix Park in 1982 and who also killed farmer Donal Dunne three days later - possibly coming up for probation, it is easy to recall the waves of revulsion and fear felt by the public. MacArthur was on the run for two weeks before being arrested in the home of the then Attorney General Patrick Connolly, who had no idea what MacArthur had done. The scandal even earned a new acronym – GUBU – after Charlie Haughey described it “grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented”.

The same horror surrounded the shooting dead of criminal Martin ‘The General’ Cahill on a quiet suburban road in Rathgar in 1994. These kind of things didn’t happen on our doorstep – the sense that fledgling gangland Ireland was spilling over into the lives of ordinary, decent citizens was terrifying.

On the other hand, the good news stories had a firmer grip on us too. Many of the residents of Ballinspittle in Co Cork, for example, still feel fondly about their time in the sun. In the summer of 1985, one Mrs Cathy O’Mahony, a neighbour and their children, believed they saw a statue of Our Lady swaying in the village grotto. TV cameras, news reporters and busloads of the faithful flocked to the tiny village to check out the “moving statue” for themselves. Mrs O’Mahony died early this year but never for a moment in the intervening 25 years doubted what she saw was real.

“You’d still get a good turnout on August 15 every year at the grotto,” says local councillor Alan Coleman. “But it’s not in the consciousness like it was back then. People are delighted that it put the village on the map. It was the dreary 1980s, we had a recession and had two very bad summers so it was very welcome. There was nothing negative as far as they were concerned.

“In fact, I remember a famous character in the area, a Cllr O’Reilly. He was old-world, old-style and when the statue was attacked with a hammer one night, he set up road blocks straight away to try and catch the fella! Everyone rallied round.”

Local postmaster Anto Hegarty was 10 when the phenomenon kicked off and he remembers it as an “unbelievable summer”. He concedes that if he mentions to someone that he is from Ballinspittle now, they will have a little joke with him – but just as quickly ask for details on what happened. “Visitors are still a bit fascinated by it all.”

Then there are stories that just stick with us because, like Peig, that nemesis of the Irish language student would say, we’ll never see their like again. This would seem to apply to the adventure of a 10-year-old called Keith Byrne and a 13-year-old Noel Murray that same summer of moving statues and Live Aid, 1985. The two pals from Dublin got a whim one day to take a trip on the relatively new DART train. They hopped on one to Dun Laoghaire, then stowed away on a ferry to Holyhead. From there, they got a train to London and, telling airport security men that their mother was behind them with passport and boarding cards, got on a flight to New York.

The two voyagers were finally discovered in JFK airport, asking a policeman for directions to Manhattan, or “town” as they put it. They were returned to Ireland by an astonished NYPD and greeted at home by two very worried families. They both now live quietly in the east of the country but don’t tend to reminisce too much about their extraordinary trip.

Paul Russell, who made a radio documentary with RTE producer Ronan Kelly about the boys’ big adventure called Don’t Go Far…Your Dinner’s Nearly Ready (available to listen to on the RTE website), says the story immediately caught his eye when he worked as a news sub-editor on the Evening Herald at the time.

“It was something that you wished you had done yourself or you admired someone else for doing it,” he remembers. “It was something that was planted at the back of my head and literally stayed there for the last 25 years.

“People didn’t really do exotic things in Ireland in the ’80s. I suppose the most uplifting thing that happened for Ireland that summer had only happened a few weeks before, and that was U2 at Live Aid. Suddenly there was this Irish sense of importance on a world stage.

“It’s interesting to look at the newspapers of that era and look at the context in which these stories appeared: They are few and far between. You did have a lot of desperation - there were certain ministers advising young people to leave the country because they were better off emigrating, so it was depressing. So these stories do help raise the spirit.”

Apart from the historical context, there are just some stories that stay in our hearts because they are unlikely to happen again. Certainly with the evolution of global security measures, the boys couldn’t slip through airport barriers today as easily as they did then.

“It might sound a bit cynical,” laughs Paul, “But also, kids these days, if they are looking for adventure, they’ll probably try to hack into someone’s website rather than leave their garden in the first place.”


With news and information coming at us from all angles 24/7, our focus can be divided and news stories can be overshadowed in an instant. There are, however, a few newsmakers who are likely to make a show like Reeling In The Years in decades to come…

Madeleine McCann: The image of the little girl who went missing from a holiday apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal in May 2007 has become unforgettable, mostly because of her parents’ sustained publicity campaign to keep her picture in the public eye. Her story also had a hugely emotional element for parents who recognised her disappearance as their worst nightmare.

Jade Goody: Reality television will probably still be a constant with us in 20 years’ time – but will we still remember Jade Goody, one of the first celebrities entirely made from her appearances on reality shows? The fact that her last days were documented by TV cameras make her a tragic distinction in a world where celebs are created – and forgotten – every 15 minutes.

The Obamas: We still know who JFK is, right? Although Kennedy’s presidency became particularly notorious because of his assassination, Barack Obama has made history on his own account by becoming the first black President of the United States. The pictures of him with wife Michelle on inauguration night caused some to dub the new era in the White House, Obamelot.

Osama bin Laden: If innocence has a face, it is probably Maddie McCanns. If evil could be personified, many would probably plump for bin Laden. There are a number of reasons for why he should be so instantly recognizable over so many other human rights violators. There is his association with a defining moment in western history of course – 9/11 – and with the feared al’Qaeda. Also, in this era of constant image bombardment, the fact that pictures of him are so scarce has made the clearest and last-known one almost iconic.

Harry Potter: Not a real live person, perhaps, but the Harry Potter phenomenon has infiltrated so many countries (translated into 67 languages at last count) and been such a commercial success (400 million books sold, never mind the films and merchandise) that his influence will be felt long after He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named disappears in a puff of smoke.

Britney Spears: Young female pop stars are for the most part interchangeable but Britney Spears will somehow survive both as a cautionary tale of the new cult of celebrity and the original breakout teenybopper of the 1990s and Noughties.

Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman; Sara Payne:
Like the case of Philip Cairns here in the 1980s, the idea of children going missing in broad daylight struck a terrible chord with the public. What makes these cases different was that we could watch them unfold via Sky News bulletins every hour, on the hour, heightening the sense of personal involvement right until their tragic denouments.

Sara Payne was snatched from a field where she was playing with her brothers and killed by paedophile Roy Whiting. In the most bizarre twist of all, Ian Huntley was interviewed on camera by an unwitting news team before he was discovered to be the killer of Wells and Chapman in the little village of Soham.

Fleeting fame is a cheap commodity on the small screen these days. With digital TV pumping out thousands of images on multiple channels every minute, it’s harder for any one face to stick out. But back when Ireland was still a two-channel land, certain homegrown telly ads created characters who are still remembered fondly by the public.

Sally O’Brien – and the way she might look at you:
An Irish ex-pat working in some sweltering exotic part of the world dreams of all the things he misses about home. A cool pint of Harp, naturally, but also a night in the local pub, with the aforementioned Sally O’Brien making eyes at him. So attached were we to this model of Irish femininity that there was public outrage when it emerged that Sally was actually played by an English actress, Vicki Michelle who would go on to star in TV comedy series ’Allo ’Allo. It turned out that the ex-pat himself was also played by an English actor.

The prodigal son:
There is no welcome like the welcome home of an Irish mammy to her son after he’s been away gallivanting in an unspecified but farflung place. The ESB ad which showed a young man being driven home from the train station by his father, as his mother rushed around preparing the house for his arrival. With the soundtrack of Dusty Springfield’s Goin’ Home, it again tugged at the heartstrings of a nation beset by 1980s emigration. The returning son was played by a baby-faced Alan Hughes, who went on to present a game show for RTE and is now a firm fixture on TV3.

Dancing king:
He never said a word but actor Joe McKinney sparked a dancing craze when he performed a restless jig waiting for his pint of Guinness to settle in the 1994 ad, Anticipation. McKinney spent the next two years of his life promoting Guinness around the world but found it a heady lifestyle. He gave up drinking 13 years ago, and is still an actor. He appeared in Glenroe and has had regular small parts in films from King Arthur to the upcoming Camelot.

Buttering him up:
You can keep your Nescafe Gold Blend ads – Kerrygold had the sexiest TV ads in the 1980s, all simmering repressed sexuality and saucy-tongued Irish women. Two Frenchmen return from a fishing trip to their Irish lodgings. The good-looking one asks if “zere is somezing I can ’elp”. There comes the loaded reply: “You can put a bit of butter on the spuds, Andre.” A later ad came with a role reversal; a sexy French woman flirting with actor Enda Oates (who played Reverend George in Glenroe) as his son asks “Dad, who’s taking the horse to France?”

• Mother of the holy trinity of biscuits:

Kimberly, Mikado and Coconut Creams are such quintessentially Irish biscuits that only a quintessentially Irish personality would do to advertise them. Panto queen Maureen Potter became the face of the Jacobs’ trio in the 1970s and kickstarted the timeless slogan, ‘Someone you love would love some (Mum)’ as she handed them out to Kimberly the cowboy, Mikado the comedy Chinese figure – no PC police in the 1970s, then – and Coconut Cream, a little girl.


Read all about it!

Hello! It's been a while since I posted my goings-on - partly because there have been so many goings-on.

You might like to look at an exciting new website I'm involved in called - a one-stop shop for the day's main news, business, international, sport and off-the-wall news.

It gives me a chance to take a slightly skewed view of the day's hot topics like this, this or even this.

Keep an eye on the site for more stories from me (I'm in there about twice a week).

A really popular feature is the 9 before 9 - nine stories to set you up for the day - and Take 5, which gets you all caught up on breaking news just before you punch out for the day.

Now that's what I call service.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Witch or woman ahead of her time?

My Twitter handle is 'Biddy Early' - I chose it because I wasn't sure what exactly Twitter was when I joined and wanted to depersonalise my account. And I've always thought Biddy Early - a local 'witch' whose name was often invoked to send children scurrying to their beds when I was growing up in Munster - might have been more misunderstood than 'evil'.
Here's a little piece I put together for the Irish Independent on the myth of Biddy Early... and a stab at the truth behind the legend.

Harry Potter and his merry magic-makers have given witchcraft and wizardry a positive makeover. A few short centuries ago, being called a witch was far from desirable. In fact it could sign your death warrant. At least 50,000 Europeans, mostly women, were killed in a period between the 15th and 18th centuries on suspicion of practising “the dark arts”.

Historians now understand that religious mania, repressive social mores and other factors conspired to send these women to the hangman or the bonfire. Some were condemned on the accusing word of a jealous neighbour or, cruelly, because they may have had a mental or physical disability.

All in all, it didn’t do to be different. Women who stood out in society were to be feared. Such was the fate of the Co Clare woman Biddy Early, known to some as a talented herbalist and healer – and to others, Ireland’s most famous witch.

Even though she died over 130 years ago, the name Biddy Early still sends a frisson through certain of the older generations who grew up with tales of her spells and hexes. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only child in Munster to have scuttled off to bed with the threat of Biddy Early, rather than the bogeyman, coming to snatch any child found staying up too late.

Historian Meda Ryan writes in her biography, Biddy Early: The Wise Woman of Clare: “During my period of research for this book, I constantly came up against wide-eyed amazement: ‘Do you think you should? Do you think it’s alright? How well you’re not afraid!’ were some of the reactions.”

Legend would have it that Biddy was an entity worth fearing. She had four husbands
and outlived them all. She was said to converse with the fairy folk. She had a magic glass bottle that she used to foretell deaths and disasters. Her fury could freeze a horse in its tracks; in a good mood, she could save you or your prized livestock from death’s door.

Most notoriously of all, to her fellow county folk anyway, she allegedly put a curse on the Clare hurling team that stopped them winning the All-Ireland for over 80 years.

Perhaps it’s time for Biddy Early to get a makeover of her own. She was a flesh and blood person, born in Faha, near Feakle in east Clare, in 1798 to poor smallholders Tom and Ellen Connors. Ellen’s maiden name was Early, which Biddy apparently inherited – along with her mother’s talent for concocting herbal remedies for common ailments.

Folklorists collecting oral histories in the area from the late 1800s onwards were told that even as a young child, Biddy was marked out by her bright red hair. There were various superstitions about foxy-headded ladies. It was bad luck to meet a red-haired woman in the morning; the unannounced arrival of one in your dairy could stop your butter from churning properly. (The prejudice is thought to have come from the fact that red hair was introduced to the Irish gene pool by invading Vikings).

Biddy was also said to be in regular conversation with the fairy folk. Whether the little people were Biddy’s imaginary friends or not, at this time rural Ireland was awash in superstition and fear generated by turbulent social and political conditions.

Biddy had been born into the year when British Crown forces violently quashed a rebellion of the United Irishmen, killing up to 30,000 Irish people. Like most tenants existing on a small patch of land, the Connors made an insecure living and feared being evicted by their landlord. When Ellen died at 16 – legend later had it that Biddy asked her mother one day if she was not feeling well, and Ellen fell critically ill that very night – and Tom died six months later, Biddy was alone in a very inhospitable world for a young, uneducated Catholic girl.

She could no longer pay the rent and went to relatives in north Clare. That didn’t work out as apparently they didn’t take too kindly to Biddy’s reputation of being “away with the fairies”. The teenage Biddy ended up on the roads, turning up at one point as a domestic servant on the Clare estate of a Limerick landlord called Sheehy. At another time, her name went on the books in the workhouse in Ennis known euphemistically as the House of Industry. If Biddy later garnered a reputation for being a tough cookie, it’s not entirely surprising given the harsh nature of her early life.

Sheehy was a hard taskmaster and Biddy would have worked long hours at menial tasks but it was here that she was taught to read and write by another worker whose father had been a hedge school teacher. She also began to become known locally for her herbal cures, receiving visitors to her cottage who were looking for cures for various ailments.

The winter of 1916 brought more hardship for the then 18-year-old Biddy. After joining with other hard-pressed tenants of Sheehy to petition him to stop raising the rent to unsustainable levels, she was evicted for her insolence. That night, three of the other evicted tenants murdered Sheehy and burned his body. Although she was not mentioned in the subsequent trial for Sheehy’s murder at Limerick court, it became part of her growing notoriety that Biddy Early had warned Sheehy of his impending doom as he threw her out of her cottage.

The next time Biddy pops up in official records is in her early 20s when she marries a much older widower called Pat Malley, a farmer from near her native Feakle. Settled at last, she built up a solid reputation as a herbalist among her neighbours and also gave birth to at least one son, Paddy. Malley died when she was 25 and she went on to marry his son – her stepson – John.

The issue of Biddy’s husbands is one of those that marked her out as outside the pale of ‘normal’ society. John was also to die at a young age, and Biddy married twice more. Scandalously the last of these was a man in his 30s, while Biddy was 71. All four died while married to Biddy, something that obviously aroused suspicion in certain parts.

Biddy’s biographer Meda Ryan points out that there was probably a very banal and understandable connection between the deaths of John Malley and his father Pat. It was certified that John died of a “liver ailment”, and both father and son been known to be fond of the drink that Biddy’s wellwishers brought as presents. Healers traditionally didn’t accept money as payment for their remedies, believing that to charge for their talents would lead to their healing powers being taken away from them.

While Margaret Murphy, a woman whose father was a regular caller to Biddy Early’s house, told folklorists that “people were always bringing items like batches of bread, flour, home-made butter, as well as the drink”, the alcohol was generally low-grade whiskey and lethal poteen.

“Unfortunately, he drank more than was good for him,” writes Ryan of Pat, “because the house was never without bottles of poteen which people brought as gifts for cures.”

Biddy’s subsequent husbands, Tom Flannery and Thomas Meaney, also died after short illnesses but in their cases, it seems it was the age gap between them and the much older Biddy that caused consternation.

The Limerick Chronicle newspaper carried a fairly salacious report about her final marriage on July 29, 1869: “We understand that a marriage of an extraordinary kind was celebrated this week in Limerick by one of the parish priests, that of an old woman known as ‘Biddy Early’ who resides near Tulla, and who, among the peasantry, has the reputation of a witch or sorceress, who could cure all kinds of diseases, and such was her fascinating power over a fine young man… that she succeeded in inducing him to become her fourth husband.”

An openly sexual woman and Ireland’s first ‘cougar’ at that? She was clearly in league with the devil.

“I always think of Biddy as a very intelligent woman,” says Jane O’Brien, who recounts the tale of Biddy Early on her historical walking tours of Ennis. “She apparently made a very good living out of what she did.

“The police didn’t like her and the church didn’t like her – I always think she was a bit of a rebel. For a woman at that time especially, she went her own way. She used to drink and smoke and had four husbands so clearly she was a bit of a character.”

The connections with drink and general ‘high’ spirits continues today. There are Irish-themed pubs named after Biddy Early in far-flung cities from New York to Stuttgart and an, ahem, herbal plant called ‘Biddy Early’ won second prize at the High Times Cannabis Cup in 2003.

Far from being a devil-worshipper, Biddy was said to be quite spiritual and many believe she was psychic. Legend grew up around a famed blue bottle that she carried with her and which the fairies were supposed to given her son Paddy after he won a hurling match for them. She apparently used the bottle as a sort of crystal ball to predict future events – politician Daniel O’Connell famously visited her in 1828 to ask her advice on seeking election in Clare that year.

The bottle was thrown by a local priest into Kilbarron lake behind Biddy’s cottage on her death (although ‘authentic’ blue Biddy Early bottles pop up for sale on the eBay auction website from time to time).

With or without her bottle, her powers of healing - or at least the following and fame she had attracted because of her reputation as such - alarmed the Catholic Church. She was denounced from the pulpit and, understandably, stopped attending Mass. A Limerick doctor questioned her methods and in 1865, she was brought before a court in Ennis charged under the 1586 Witchcraft Statute. The case was dismissed “due to lack of sufficient evidence against the accused” because the prosecution couldn’t find a witness to speak out against her.

The interesting thing about the woman is that although she lived an extraordinary life in context of her social status and gender, she never really courted personal fame in the way the clergy suggested she did. When two separate men named racehorses after her for luck, she apparently visited them to ask that they not do so. Of course, the legend has it that when they refused, the horses came to a terrible end.

The Anglo-Irish folklore enthusiast Lady Gregory also had a hand in stirring up the legend by travelling to Feakle just 20 years after Biddy died to collect locals’ tales about her exploits. WB Yeats was said to be obsessed by her legend, and he references her in his Celtic Twilight poem first published in 1893, nineteen years after she died of natural, age-related, causes. The Catholic Church, too, had realigned themselves with her, her local parish priest Fr Andrew Connellan anointing her on the death bed. Fr Connellan was the man who supposedly chucked the ‘magic’ bottle away too – clearly, they were taking no chances.

The ruins of the cottage in which Biddy died are still standing in a field outside Feakle but they are overgrown and untended, somewhat like the real facts of her life. Evil sorceress or a New Age healer pilloried for her unconventional lifestyle?

A good reputation is not easily restored although some have tried. An Ennis man
called Bill Loughnane wrote this letter defending her honour to a newspaper after Clare ‘broke’ her curse on them by winning the 1995 All-Ireland hurling championship.

“Biddy Early is fondly remembered in Co Clare as an extraordinary woman who devoted her time to comforting and healing the sick. She is not known ever to have cursed anyone. She experienced some difficulty with one local clergyman of the day who, for reasons of his own, would have her labelled a ‘witch’… Biddy Early died in 1875 before the foundation of the GAA and long before there was any inter-county competition!”

• Biddy Early: The Wise Woman of Clare by Meda Ryan is available at

Witches or wise women?
BRIDGET CLEARY: Bridget was a young farmer’s wife outside Clonmel, Co Tipperary, apparently considered uppity by her neighbours for her independent spirit – she designed her own clothes and wore an ostrich in her hat when other local women would be clad in their traditional black shawls. She and her husband Michael were childless after eight years of marriage and in 1895, believing her to be inhabited by an evil spirit, he tortured and burned her death in the hearth of their home with the aid of family and neighbours. Michael Cleary alleged she had disappeared “with the fairies” but was charged with her murder. He was found guilty of manslaughter and jailed for 15 years.

ANNE BOYLEN: Although officially executed for adultery against the English King Henry VIII, at that time a treasonable offence, in 1536, the whispering campaign against her had included accusations that she was a witch. It was alleged that she had supernaturally made Henry go impotent, had charmed her brother into committing incest with her and had miscarried a “monstrous” foetus.

THE SALEM WITCH TRIALS: The infamous witch hunts in Salem, Massachussetts, America in 1692 led to the deaths of over 30 people and the imprisonment of 150. Now seen as a cautionary tale against religious extremism and mass hysteria, the evidence against the supposed ‘witches’ at the time rested on the rather incredible testimony of two young cousins, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams. Arthur Miller revived the awful events in his play The Crucible, using it as an allegory for the metaphorical witchhunts for Communists of 1950s McCarthyism.

ANNA GOLDI: The Swiss woman was the last person convicted and executed in Europe under witchcraft legislation. She was beheaded with a sword in 1782, 90 years after Salem. She was a live-in maid for rich Swiss families all her life and when she accused one employer of making sexual advances on her, he retaliated by saying she had cursed his daughter, causing her to become ill and spit up 100 needles.

See us, not the DS

Olympians, political activists and TV reporters -- people with Down Syndrome are living their dreams
The condition was recently highlighted when journalist Brendan O'Connor wrote so movingly about his new baby daughter Mary. Here Susan Daly talks to those who have grown up with it, but refuse to be defined by it.
From Irish Independent, Wednesday September 22 2010

When Declan Murphy moved away from his home in Waterford to go to Trinity College in Dublin, he knew his mum was worried about him. Declan (33) has Down Syndrome, but that may not have been the entire root of mum's concern.

"Well, I am the youngest of the family," says Declan. "I think she missed me."

Declan is part of an independent-minded, articulate generation of Irish people who have grown up with Down Syndrome but are refusing to be defined by it.

"Big into politics," he is one of a group of young adults with Down Syndrome who have been lobbying politicians as part of their 'My Opinion, My Vote' campaign to reform national policies that would help people with DS to attain their work, life and educational goals.

"I asked them for easy-to-read information in simple language and large fonts so we can learn about our rights," says Declan. "We are Irish citizens, yet we aren't able to get the same rights as everyone else."

May Gannon, counsellor and drama-therapist with Down Syndrome Ireland, says that when Declan and other members of the group put their views to politicians from every party in Dublin last March, the legislators were "blown away" by their presentation.

"What they had were people with Down Syndrome telling them that when they opened the door to politicians canvassing, the politicians would say 'Is your mum and dad in?' rather than looking for their vote."

Orla Hannon, a 23-year-old woman with Down Syndrome from Sixmilebridge in Co Clare, says she felt "strong and confident" when she gave the same presentation in Budapest and in Rome.

"We want to empower people with disability to participate in the political process," she says. "We want the right to get proper education, and get jobs."

Orla is devoted to books -- she reads every night -- and would like to work in a library. Her international political canvassing has given her a taste for travel. "I wouldn't mind going to Denmark," she says.

In essence, these are adults with dreams, ambitions and opinions. May Gannon's son Michael, for example, says that although his outgoing personality means he feels people see beyond his Down Syndrome, that equality must become the norm.

"People need to look at the person, not the disability," he says.

When journalist and broadcaster Brendan O'Connor wrote movingly about the birth of his new baby daughter Mary -- who has Down Syndrome -- in the Sunday Independent more than a week ago, he made special note of a piece of advice given to himself and his wife Sarah to "remember always that Mary is our baby, one half of each of us, and not a member of some tribe of Down's people, a membership that sets her apart from us".

This is absolutely vital for everyone to understand -- not just those close to someone with DS, says May.

"People with Down Syndrome are as different from each other as the families they come from," she says. "As to their ability level -- they sometimes live up or down to the expectations of people around them."

Pat Dorgan has more than lived up to the expectations of his family. The 46-year-old from Cork won two medals for Ireland in table tennis at the 2007 Special Olympics World Games in China and subsequently featured in a national poster campaign for the sport. His brother, the poet Theo Dorgan, composed a poem called My Brother for a pre-Games gala.

His sister Angela calls Pat "the glue that holds the family together". Pat and those high-achieving adults like him are changing the perception of what a person with Down Syndrome can do. It's a welcome progression, says Angela, from the condescension of old.

"A phrase that used to drive us mad as kids was, 'Ah sure, God help us'," she recalls. "People would ask us if he took sugar in his tea. We'd say: 'Why don't you ask him?'"

Similarly, 19-year-old Roisin de Burca from Connemara attracted positive attention last year when she became one of the few people with Down Syndrome to complete a full Leaving Certificate -- and she did all her subjects through Irish. She then completed a FETAC course in Business Administration at Galway IT.

"I felt proud of myself, something I can accomplish in life, something that belongs to me alone instead of the family," Roisin said last June after she won Bank of Scotland student of the year.

"We have moved from a time when people considered that a person with Down Syndrome was ineducable," says May.

"Research tells us that there is nothing that can be delivered in a special school that can't be considered in a mainstream school, given the proper supports."

Getting access to this support -- special-needs assistants, access to visual learning materials, speech therapy etc -- is a cause of worry, however.

Just this month, Andrew Boyle, whose daughter Zoe (7) has Down Syndrome, challenged Education Minister Mary Coughlan on the withdrawal of Zoe's special-needs assistance hours from 25 to five a week.

Pat Clarke, CEO of Down Syndrome Ireland, says that most of the charity's monies comes from fundraising initiatives like next month's Honey Days.

As better medical care ensures that the average life expectancy of a person with Down Syndrome has increased dramatically, it has thrown up new long-term challenges in relation to accommodation, employment and living.

"Our expectations and the expectations of our children have moved on," says Pat, whose son David (29) has Down Syndrome. "David's out there in the community, he's an excellent swimmer and has won a couple of medals for Ireland, he's at Dundalk IT three days a week and works at Tesco. He has a blue belt in Taekwondo. He could live independently. We're in the process of organising a housing association in our local area in Drogheda to do it."

The fact that the one in every 600 babies born in Ireland with Down Syndrome can now expect an average life expectancy of anything between 55 to 65/70 years can be cheering and sobering at the same time.

Peter Gaw, founder of the Down Syndrome Centre, says: "You get the initial shock of the diagnosis and within hours you're already thinking, 'What's going to happen when I'm not there?'"

Peter's two youngest children, daughter Tara (11) and son Harrison (9), were both born with Down Syndrome. It is important, he thinks, that parents of children with Down Syndrome are given hope and told that "it's not all doom and gloom".

"You try to get back to as normal a life as you can," says Peter. "My older two children are really good with the two young ones. We wouldn't change our family."

The Down Syndrome Centre now funds the country's first Down Syndrome liaison nurse, who works out of the National Children's Hospital in Tallaght. She reassures and informs parents when their baby is born with the condition, helping them get through what Sheila Campbell, Chief Executive of the centre, calls the "miasma" of confusion and hurt.

Beyond that, integration into mainstream schools is crucial, says May Gannon: "We might never have known a person with Down Syndrome growing up, whereas now the younger generation will tell you about Mary or Joe 'who is in my class in school and loves A, B and C'."

Down Syndrome Ireland ( has 24 branches across the country. Their Boyne Valley Honey Days Campaign for October has pots of honey for sale for €2. is a wonderful resource for people with DS and their families. They have also launched the first online charity dress shop with

OUR STORY: Michael Gannon (30) has been a reporter for RTE's Afternoon Show and is a member of pantomime and drama groups in his home town of Newbridge, Co Kildare, but there was a time when his mother May feared he wouldn't learn to speak at all.

"I never thought I would see the day when I would say 'Would you for God's sake shut up!'" she laughs. "Which happened. In the early days, you can't imagine that happening. You can't really picture your own child as an adult."

As reading is a huge tool in the development of language for people with Down Syndrome, May introduced Michael to reading very early. "And I labelled doors, chairs, ordinary, everyday things," she says.

"My other children would say that if you stood still long enough in our house, you were labelled!"

It paid off for Michael. An articulate interview on Ireland AM on TV3 got him spotted by a producer in RTE. He went on to interview the likes of Kilkenny hurling manager Brian Cody and rugby stars Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell.

"I wasn't nervous," says Michael. "I am very natural with people and used to talking to them. In the school I went to in Newbridge I was always treated as an equal -- they saw the person I am."

Michael continues to astound his family.

"We couldn't have imagined he'd be sitting in a television studio as calm as he does," says May.

"Michael gives people hope that there is a future."


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nightwatch: When it comes to hens, I'm chicken

Call me old-fashioned, but a hen party's not a hen party without a good selection of Willies. Oh, unshield thine eyes. It wasn't THAT kind of evening. For one thing, the hen didn't want to be called a hen.

There were to be no L-plates, no presents of edible underwear, no undie-cover stripper policemen, no banana splits topped off with provocative balls of strawberry ice-cream. I'm with the hen who wouldn't be called a hen on this. Ritual humiliation is so over-rated.

But, as mentioned, a hen night without Willies is taking the mickey. So she was given a special envelope containing pictures of famous Willies to take home and enjoy at her leisure. There were Willies of all shapes and sizes in there ... Willie O'Dea, Willy Wonka, William Shakespeare, Liam Neeson. Just their faces, mind. We wouldn't do that to the girl.

And really, that was enough smut for me. I have to admit I hate the traditional hen night where everyone is expected to act like an extra from a Carry On movie.

Someone hired a stripper for me at an occasion once -- totally, deeply, inappropriately out of context at the time -- and I don't think I've recovered from the trauma yet.

I suffer Memento-style flashbacks whenever Right Said Fred pops up on the radio. For the most part, I seem to have blanked it out. All I really remember is smiling manically at the poor guy and saying, "Er thanks very much, that's grand now, really, that's fine, thanks." It must have been like performing for your nana.

I also take issue with the notion that wearing a plastic booby bib is 'traditional'. And if by chance it is written into the Domesday Book that, lo, a bride-to-be shall drink from a penis-shaped straw on the eve of her nuptials, does that mean it's right?

There used to be a wedding tradition in Anglo-Saxon culture for the bride to pass her shoes to her husband who would then tap her on the head with them. (Short translation: I'm in charge here now, woman.) If we can do without that charming bit of Anglo-Saxon legacy, we can probably do without emulating their ancestors -- a hen party from Newcastle trawling Temple Bar's finest 'nite' spots.

At least the trend for forcing your ladies-in-waiting -- sorry, female friends -- to spend a few hundred euro on a weekend away to celebrate your fantasticness before they 'lose' you to marriage seems to have bitten the bullet. One woman I know was asked to attend a week-long hen party masquerading as a girls-only holiday. There was nothing relaxing about the rigorous schedule of spa appointments, lavish dinners and long-haul travel demanded by the bride-to-be.

By contrast, my friend's sister recently had an afternoon tea party with some close gal pals and relatives. There were cupcakes, there were Rice Crispie buns and there were a whole lot of women breathing a sigh of relief.

Do men have this problem? I've heard a few male friends groan at the prospect of yet another weekend of being shot in the face with paintballs. Enforced fun is no fun at all.

Back to the hen that wasn't a hen. Lack of edible knickers aside, there was another noticeable break with tradition. Everyone seemed to actually like one another. This isn't always a prerequisite for hens. In cases where the poor bridesmaid ends up inviting everyone the bride has ever had contact with, for fear of being glared at on the wedding day by some distant cousin, it can be a dangerous mishmash of personalities.

I had the (mis)fortune to attend one such a gathering a few years back. The work crowd didn't like the old school friends. The rowdy old school friends irritated the relatives. Someone wasn't drinking and sent back the second bottle of red ordered for her end of the table because she decided they'd already had 'enough'. Another insisted that as she didn't have a dessert, she wanted her share of the bill deducted.

There were tears in the Chardonnay and at least two storm-outs before the night was through. At least it bode well for the marriage staying together: I'm not sure the bride would ever want to go through another hen night.

Celebs self-helping themselves

By Susan Daly
Wednesday Sep 15 2010

Even the wealthy, the beautiful and the famous need a hand to be happy from time to time. Religion, after all, is not only the opiate of the masses.

Tom Cruise gets his jollies from Scientology, Richard Gere found peace with Buddhism and Madonna has embraced Kabbalah.

As for those who believe that God helps those who help themselves, the self-help industry is booming.

Julia Roberts is pounding red carpets all over the world right now to bring her movie version of Elizabeth Gilbert's self-discovery memoir Eat, Pray, Love to the masses. The Power, the follow-up to bestseller The Secret, is flying off the shelves.

The self-improvement biz is worth billions and self-help books sell in their millions. Some celebrities have decided they know so much about success that they are qualified to write their own.

Two recent additions to the genre come from Sex and the City's Kim Cattrall who wrote Being a Girl: Navigating the Ups and Downs of Teen Life, and pop singer Jessica Simpson who penned I Do: Achieving Your Dream Wedding. Because you want your teenage daughter to take tips from Samantha Jones, and you really want wedding advice from a woman who put her newlywed life on reality TV and then got divorced.

Some celebrities wisely stick to being believers. Demi Moore is a big fan of spiritual guru Deepak Chopra and Naomi Campbell has applauded the work of I Can Make You Thin hypnotist Paul McKenna.

What better endorsement can a self-help book have than to be photographed under the arm of a celebrity?

We take a look at what star has been spotted carrying which self-help book -- and whether they seem to be learning anything from them ...

THE BOOK: Toxic Friends -- The Antidote For Women Stuck In Complicated Relationships, by Susan Shapiro Barash

THE CELEB: Lindsay Lohan.

Spotted with the book in July, a week before entering jail for violating her probation.

DID IT WORK? The book helps the reader to identify 10 types of 'toxic' female friends that need dumping.

These include The Trophy Friend, The Doormat and The Misery Lover, who only likes you when you're down.

Ah, that explains it. Li-Lo's troubles were because she had the wrong people around her. Problem solved.

THE BOOK: Living In The Moment by Gary Null

A natural health guru advises how to have a "blissful" existence by freeing yourself from consumerism and slowing down your life.

THE CELEB: Paris Hilton.

She displayed the book on walkabout in front of the paparazzi after a break-up with a boyfriend in 2008.

DID IT WORK? Null believes in freeing oneself from the traps of materialism. In July, Hilton spent €3,000 on 12 pairs of sunglasses while on holiday in St Tropez.

In August, she was charged with cocaine possession. It is possible Hilton misread the subtitle of Living In The Moment: A Prescription For The Soul for self-medication of an entirely less spiritual type.

THE BOOK: The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

Former depressive Tolle discovers that the ego, with all its emotional baggage of memories, stands in the way of spiritual awakening.

THE CELEB: Jim Carrey.

The actor opened a lecture for Tolle last year saying he now understood "how thought was just an illusory thing and how thought is responsible for some, if not, all the suffering we experienced".

DID IT WORK? Some would argue that with a man who built his success on Dumb and Dumber is already a convert to not thinking too much.

Saying that, a Time magazine interviewer to whom he recommended Tolle's work in 2007 said that Carrey "wasn't at all annoying. Yes, he's a little too happy, but he seems very comfortable and mellow and unguarded and unpretentious."

THE BOOK: The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

Every positive thinking message spouted in the past 80 years repackaged as an ancient guide to having it all.

THE CELEB: Oprah Winfrey.

The queen of book endorsements. She dedicated two of her 2007 shows to The Secret.

DID IT WORK? The Secret claims you can have the perfect life if you just wish hard enough for it.

Oprah is certainly worth a bundle but with her ever-fluctuating body weight, we wonder what she thinks of The Secret's advice to weight watchers: "If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it." That's right. Only look at Oprah when she's down to a size 12-14.

THE BOOK: The Rules by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider

Two dating coaches teach women how to snag a husband by responding to one out of every four emails from a guy and not having sex until the third date at the earliest.

THE CELEB: Beyoncé.

The Rules gals quote B on their website as telling US Weekly that although "there are certain things in there that are unrealistic, it [The Rules] has worked for me".

DID IT WORK? Well she's married, ain't she?

She dated rapper Jay-Z for six years before they wed. That's in direct contravention of Fein and Schneider's rule that if he likes it, then he should put a ring on it after no more than two years.

Nor is it easy to picture her taking on this top 10 tip from the ladies: "Take care of yourself, take a bubble bath and build up your soul with positive slogans like, 'I am a beautiful woman. I am enough'."

THE BOOK: Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin

"A no-nonsense, tough-love guide for savvy girls who want to stop eating crap and look fabulous."

THE CELEB: Victoria Beckham.

The former Spice girl was papped taking the book down from a shelf in an LA boutique in 2007.

DID IT WORK? Surely the question should be, 'Did she need it?'

Posh Spice was already thin as a rake when she brandished the diet book. It is possible that she was having a laugh at her own expense and at critics of her pin-thin figure by waving it at the paparazzi.

The book's straight-talking advice sounds pretty suited to Victoria's rigid body control though -- the authors tell readers "you are a total moron if you think the Atkins Diet will make you thin" and that "soda is liquid Satan".

THE BOOK: Collected Poems of Derek Walcott, 1948-1984

Not quite a self-help manual but Walcott, who emerged from the isolation of an ex-British colony in the West Indies to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, is probably an inspiration to the self-made man.

THE CELEB: Barack Obama.

Not quite a celebrity, but definitely rather famous, Obama was spotted carrying it while leaving his daughters to school the morning after winning the US Presidential election in 2008.

DID IT WORK? One of Walcott's most famous works is his 1973 autobiographical epic poem Another Life in which he tells the reader: "You want to hear my history? Ask the sea."

Obama could adopt it as the perfect talk-to-the-hand response to the 'birthers' who claim that he is not an American citizen because he was born in Hawaii.

That should keep them guessing.


The girls are back in town

Again, this is a post-dated, er, post. This was printed on September 8 as the fourth series of Mad Men began on BBC4. Looking forward to it coming to RTE in the new year.

By Susan Daly
Wednesday Sep 8 2010

Rolling Stone magazine likes its sexy covers and the current issue is very hot off the presses. It features the three lead female actors from TV series Mad Men -- January Jones (Betty), Christina Hendricks (Joan), Elisabeth Moss (Peggy) -- sitting pretty in the back seat of a car with co-star Jon Hamm, who plays the enigmatic Don Draper.

As one paper put it when the mag hit the newsstands, that's quite a Hamm sandwich. Then again, no one's really looking at the filling. While the male of the species think they call the shots in Mad Men's early 1960s world of casual sexism, the female characters are the fascination.

The first few series revolved around the question: 'Who is Don Draper?' The fourth series, which begins tonight on BBC4 and will be aired on RTE2 early next year, is more likely to ask 'What would Joan do?'

It opens in 1964, against the still male-dominated backdrop of Madison Avenue's advertising agencies. Real men keep mistresses in the city and a wife in the suburbs, close deals over lunchtime martinis and flirt with their secretaries when they swagger back to the office.

Even so, the times, they are a-changin'. The year 1963 saw the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, the book that ignited the women's movement and criticised the notion that the perfect woman was a Stepford housewife. (A fate that Don's wife Betty has clearly become discontented with.)

For another thing, Don and his colleagues at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are starting to have to consider the desires of women on at least a business level because at that point in America's history, women were becoming the ones to make most of the buying decisions in households.

It's a neat reversal of the first series when Don poses the question: "What do women want?" and to which his then boss Roger replies: "Who the hell cares?"

Well, you'd better get to caring, mister, and fast. The women of Mad Men are beginning to make their desires very clear indeed.

Peggy, formerly Don's secretary, has always worn her career ambitions on her sleeve. It didn't take her long to go from fear of operating a typewriter -- "It looks complicated"; Joan, then head of the secretarial pool, reassured, "But the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use" -- to nabbing a job as a copywriter, a job no woman had had in the office since World War II and there was a shortage of men.

Peggy has had a remarkable evolution from innocent ingénue to getting her own office with her name on the door. She's earned some respect from her male colleagues, a hard-won battle after her first clever piece of copywriting had one remark bemusedly: "It's like watching a dog play the piano."

But nothing ever comes easy in Mad Men and Peggy operates in a sort of no-woman's land.

She has had to give up her baby by office smarmpot Pete. She struggles with a social life in Manhattan, pretending to be an air-headed party girl so as not to scare off potential flatmates and telling a one-night stand that she is a secretary so that he won't be intimidated by her job.

When we last saw her, she was having a queasy sexual fling with a former colleague called Duck. In a way, she's the female Don Draper, reinventing herself but not quite able to escape her past but we still hold out hope that she's going to be the one to Have It All.

Cool-eyed WASP princess Betty was also on her way to escaping her gilded cage when we last saw her.

Bred to be the perfect social hostess, with her perfect children in her perfect split-level house in Winchester, Betty was the poster girl for what women were supposed to want in the 1950s.

Her decision to divorce Don at the end of series three reflects the general social upheaval of the 1960s (although not entirely understanding what shape her freedom should come in, she already has husband No 2 lined up).

She's not an easy character to like. She's spiteful, she's childish and she's a pretty terrible mother whose idea of discipline is to tell her kids to go watch television or lock them in the cupboard. And that's what's so delicious about Betty's character to the modern viewer: she blows the myth of perfect womanhood out of the water.

Of course, you can't mention the word perfect without mentioning Joan Holloway. Her Amazonian curves, or rather those of the actress Christina Hendricks, have made her part of the Mad Men iconography. Joan knows she has a body to die for, and she's not afraid to use it, gliding around the Sterling Cooper offices like a battleship with a particularly magnificent prow.

Yet she too has proven to be more than the sum of her considerable parts.

She might conform to what men want but she's fiercely independent, razor-sharp and worldly-wise which is why her submission to her horrible new husband has been so heart-breaking. In her soul, Joan is a warrior but in society, she's a woman past the age of 30 who must be married or be damned.

With her return to work at the new ad agency at the end of the last series -- and hubby's possible shipping off to Vietnam now that he's joined the army as a medic -- Joan is thankfully showing signs of rising from the ashes of her bad marriage.

It's all so intriguing because in season two of Mad Men, the creatives at Sterling Cooper decided during a campaign for Playtex bras that all women could be divided into two camps, sexpot or wife, Marilyn or Jackie.

Clearly, the Peggys, the Bettys and the Joans are too busy making their own moulds to fit into either.

"I don't want to be a happy person in a wheelchair"

I wrote this piece on September 6 to coincide with the television premiere on RTE1 of Blind Man Walking, a documentary by Ross Whitaker about adventure athlete Mark Pollock becoming the first blind man to reach the South Pole on foot. Events in Mark's life took a tragic turn after the filming of the documentary and this interview was conducted over the phone with him as he lay in his hospital bed. Anyone who wishes to keep up-to-date on his condition should visit Mark's blog at

By Susan Daly

Monday September 06 2010

On a good day, Mark Pollock considers himself a lucky man. He's alive and he shouldn't be, having split open his skull and ruptured an aorta, filling his chest with blood, when he fell from a second-floor window two months ago.

On other days, when the spirit is low, the adventure athlete allows himself to feel that he has been hellishly unlucky. In the fall Mark also broke his back in three places and he has still not regained any feeling in his legs.

It would be a terrible trial for anyone, but the sense of tragedy is compounded by the fact that just over a decade ago, Mark had to overcome another immense physical hurdle.

Twelve years ago, at the age of 22, Mark went suddenly and completely blind.

"I'm trying to think back to when I went blind," says Mark. "I'm only two months into this (breaking his back) and I'm not comfortable with it or probably not particularly dealing with it. Two months into going blind, was I thinking like this?"

Mark had been born with weak retinas and lost the sight in one eye at the age of five. The retina in his other 'good' eye detached as he was finishing a degree in Trinity College Dublin.

Over the next decade, Mark learned to rebuild his life, got a job, girlfriends, and won two Commonwealth medals in rowing. He became a motivational speaker, wrote an inspirational book called Making It Happen and competed in adventure races all over the world.

In 2003, he ran six marathons in seven days across the Gobi Desert, raising funds for Sightsavers International. He became an Ironman triathlete. He competed against legendary explorer Ranulph Fiennes who called him "truly inspiring".

For the tenth anniversary of his going blind, Mark decided to set himself a new challenge, more daring than any he had attempted before. He decided to compete against the likes of Olympic medallist James Cracknell and his team-mate Ben Fogle in the first race to the South Pole in a century. If he completed the 800km race, he would become the first blind man to reach the Pole on foot.

The harsh training regime he set himself, the financial headaches and his gruelling experience in the race itself are portrayed in a powerful and moving documentary being shown on RTE1 tonight called Blind Man Walking.

"I felt I had become a bit stale with the races and talks I had been doing," explains Mark. "I wasn't sure I was bringing any fresh insights to my talks and I wanted to really go and put myself on the line."

The South Pole race was more than putting himself on the line; it was potentially putting himself at death's door. It involved two months of non-stop trekking in temperatures as low as -48 degrees, pulling a 200lb sled of provisions behind him.

It was a 12-hours-a-day slog, head-down, battling the elements, trying not to starve, freeze, or fall into a crevasse in the ice. But for Mark, completing the race would prove once and for all that he was truly an adventure athlete.

"Any sporting thing I'd done before, there was always the element of 'Sure that's great, 'cos Mark's blind'," he says. "I really felt that when I was talking to people about this race they were fascinated with Antarctica and the South Pole and it wasn't about the blindness. It just felt like the adventure was a true adventure -- and it took me away from my blindness."

You'll have to tune in tonight to discover the outcome of the race. Suffice to say, Mark came back in one piece in February of last year, with a fresh perspective on life. He was making plans to get into radio and other media, and to expand his motivational business. He followed the South Pole race with other physical challenges -- including becoming the first blind man to co-skipper a boat in the 1,400-mile Round-Ireland Yacht Race in June of this year.

He had also made a very personal decision while at the South Pole: to propose to his girlfriend Simone. His Norwegian team-mate Inge had warned all the competitors to not act immediately on any major vows they made to themselves during the mentally-challenging conditions of the race.

"So I waited until November to ask Simone. I phoned Inge to tell him then and he said, 'Jeez, I was only talking about a couple of weeks to calm down, I didn't mean nine months!'"

The couple had been due to marry on this August Bank Holiday weekend, something Mark says has been "postponed, not cancelled".

Three weeks before, on July 2, Mark was attending the Royal Rowing Regatta in Henley, England, when he fell from a second-storey window in the house where he was staying. It is not yet clear if he was sleepwalking or disoriented as he made his way to a bathroom that night: all he remembers is being on the ground below.

"Apparently I was trying to get up and I remember hearing Brendan Smyth, the rower I did the Commonwealth Games with, saying, 'It'll be alright, it'll be alright, just stay lying down'."

His parents and Simone were at his bedside the day after the accident and have been there since as he moved from weeks of morphine-hazed consciousness to delicate surgery to stabilise his back.

He is now rehabilitating in Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire, a centre for spinal injuries in the UK. His doctors have no long-term prognosis on whether he will walk again and Mark is undergoing exhausting physiotherapy sessions, trying to build up his strength to be able to sit in a wheelchair for more than an hour or two at a time.

"At times I do feel unlucky," he says. "Then I think I really could have died in the first couple of weeks after the accident.

"We met a guy last night who is two years down the line from getting a wheelchair. He used to be a professional moto-cross rider and he's back out working, he's a mechanic, and doing all sorts of sports and living his life independently. On one hand, you think, 'Well, that's great, one small step at a time', and I can be happy and positive.

"But then you start thinking, 'I don't want to be a happy person in a wheelchair'."

One consolation to him is that TV viewers will be able to see him at his finest in tonight's documentary.

He didn't want his accident to change anything about the film -- especially not the title, Blind Man Walking, which he came up with for director Ross Whitaker, and which now seems particularly poignant.

'I didn't want to change it because of this accident," he says. "The great thing about the film is that it captures a time when I was feeling very content and had buried the demons of my blindness after going to the South Pole. Trusting Ross to tell the real story has allowed me to have a record of one of the most positive times of my life.

"It didn't feel like a short-term champagne-popping experience: achieving the South Pole gave me a long-lasting contentment."

Sunday, September 19, 2010

What drives a mother to kill?

This is the cover story I wrote for the Irish Independent's Weekend magazine of September 4 last. Hard to report on, but not half as harrowing as being a relative of any of the parties involved in these cases.

MOST parents’ idea of a nightmare would be to outlive their children. No wonder then that when a child dies at the hands of a parent, it provokes outrage and disbelief. When that parent is a mother, it seems the most heinous act of all: a mockery of the primal human instinct of maternal love.

No-one knows if these were Ruth Murphy’s final thoughts a fortnight ago when she tied two plastic bags around her head and slowly suffocated to death on the floor of her cell in the Dochas women’s prison in Mountjoy. Murphy was serving a life sentence for murdering her seven-year-old son Karl in June 2001. Karl too had spent his last moments struggling for precious gasps of air, his head held firmly under water at Greystones beach by his mother as she drowned him.

Although she was found crying and incoherent on the shore near where Karl’s body lay in shallow water, Ruth Murphy did not admit killing him until shortly before her trial was to begin in 2004. It would have been very difficult to explain away the six dark fingermarks on his neck which proved the lie to her original story that he had accidentally drowned. The traumatic nature of his death, and his mother’s part in it, shocked the nation.

“There’s nothing in our culture, our literature, our day-to-day experience that would suggest that women are more dangerous than men where children are concerned so when you have a situation where a woman harms a child, it’s bound to come as a terrible shock,” says Fergus Finlay, CEO of children’s charity Barnardos.

Ruth Murphy had been an alcoholic and was estranged from Karl’s father, who had custody of their son. She was attending a psychiatrist, was drinking heavily and was on anti-anxiety drugs when she snatched Karl during one of her court-restricted visits to him at the home of a couple who babysat him in Glenealy, Co Wicklow. She drove him to Greystones beach and – in an act so poignantly in contrast to what was to follow - gave him sandwiches, Coke and crisps shortly before she ended his life.

In her seven years in jail, Murphy never explained why she had killed her son although her alcoholism and fragile mental state clearly played a part. As she didn’t leave a suicide note, neither will her family ever know exactly why she put an end to her own life. Dochas staff say that she had been in the grip of a depressive phase in the weeks before she died – but had she also reached a point at which she could no longer live with what she had done?

The incomprehensible nature of maternal filicide – mothers who kill their own children – is perhaps the hardest cross to bear for those left behind. Eddie Reddy, whose sister Sharon Grace drowned herself and her two little daughters on Kaat’s Strand in Co Wexford in April 2005, says his family will never know if anything could have been done to prevent her desperate actions.

“That question will always be there,” Eddie told Weekend. “Who knows? You can’t get hung up on the question or it will eat away at you. It happened, you can’t change the past, the only thing you can change is the future.”

Sharon had become depressed after separating from her husband Barry, father to Mikhala, four, and Abby, three, the previous Christmas. On the evening of the tragedy, she had called to Ely Hospital in Wexford, pleading to speak with a social worker. She was told there was nobody to speak with her and no out-of-hours emergency number she could call. The three bodies of Sharon and her little girls were found floating in three feet of water on Kaat’s Strand the following morning. She left behind an 11-year-old daughter Amy from a previous relationship, who is now in the care of Sharon’s sister Lillian.

“As far as I know, the situation (regarding the provision of out-of-hours social services) hasn’t changed,” says Eddie. He is now 29, the same age Sharon was when she died. “The way I look at things is that the country had loads and loads of money and it didn’t invest in mental health back then. They’re not going to do it now there is no money.”

Eddie has instead channelled his grief into fundraising for the suicide charity Console. He dedicated a 160km sponsored cycle last January to his lost sister and nieces, and organises other fundraising events through the website His efforts have helped Console to set up a drop-in suicide awareness and prevention centre, Console House, in Wexford town.

“It’s always inside of you, but you have to let it go and try to get some good to come from something that was so bad,” says Eddie. “It was such a high-profile case that it would be terrible to let it go without trying to get some good out of it.”
He says that he and his family can’t afford to live in the past: “You can only change what’s in front of you”. He does, however, think that recognising and speaking about what might seem an unspeakable act is a way forward in preventing further murder-suicides like his sister’s.

“Five years ago, it wasn’t talked about. People have become more open, realised that people have problems and they need to talk to each other. Problems you have in your head can seem so big, and to share it with others could make you think it’s not so big after all. It’s hard going but all you can do is learn from the past.”

As in the case of Sharon Grace, many mothers who kill their children frequently take their own lives too. This, of course, makes it impossible to question their motivation in the aftermath. There are a few tragedies that quickly emerge to be the direct result of severe psychiatric illnesses. Forensic psychologist Dr Brian McCaffrey testified at the 2002 murder trial of Jacqueline Costello, who strangled and suffocated her eight-year-old son Robert in 2000 at their home in Mullinavat, Co Kilkenny. She had been released that very morning from Waterford General Hospital where she had been treated for depression.

Dr McCaffrey says: “In the Costello case, she was schizophrenic, she definitely had a psychotic illness.” He told her murder trial that he believed her schizophrenia was misdiagnosed as post-natal depression. Jacqueline’s mother had also been a schizophrenic and Jacqueline had previously raised her concerns about the mental health legacy she had inherited. She was found guilty but insane of Robert’s murder.

The Costello trial judge Mr Justice Paul Butler criticised the criminal insanity law which allowed a mentally ill person to be branded guilty as “not only grotesque but obscene”. The law changed in 2006 to create the new verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity – and 47-year-old psychiatrist Lynn Hutchinson became the second person ever to be returned this verdict after she drowned her 16-year-old daughter Ciara Gibbs in a bathtub.

That tragedy made headline news: here was a highly educated woman who had raised her academic, beautiful daughter and younger son in a loving, stable home with her husband Gerard Gibbs, a fellow psychiatrist.

The day of the tragedy, Lynn and Ciara had gone shopping in Dublin while her son and husband were visiting family overnight. That evening, back home in Kilkenny after their day trip, Lynn Hutchinson ended her daughter’s life. Her trial concluded that she had been suffering from a severe mental disorder at the time and had also spiralled out of control when she realised that Ciara had begun suffering from symptoms of anorexia, something Lynn had experienced herself as a young woman.

“I personally can’t conceive of any situation where somebody would intellectualise in a sane and rational way the thought that I must kill my child in my child’s interest – and give vent to it,” says Fergus Finlay. “I think something has have had to gone seriously, psychiatrically wrong for the thought to be translated into action.

“In the situation where the psychiatrist drowned her daughter it concerned with the mental health of the woman. And the only possible prevention is one which addresses the mental health of the mother early. As often or not, that’s only going to happen out of luck unless the mother is actively seeking help.”

There are other cases that are even harder to get a handle on. Norah Gibbons, a leading children’s advocate who is currently compiling the report for the Government on children’s deaths while in State care, makes the point that there is “not always an underlying psychiatric illness”.

As adults, we may feel that our children ‘belong’ to us. “Possessiveness, in its positive slant, it can lead us to protect and identify with the child,” says Gibbons. “But then clearly when it gets distorted, a possessive love, whether between adults or adults to children, it turns into a type of total ownership of the person which is completely unhealthy. When that possessive and destructive love is challenged, the child can be killed rather than let the child go to develop as all children must.”

Neighbours and relatives of mother Mary Keegan were stunned and devastated when she stabbed her sons Glen, 10, and Andrew, six, in the kitchen of their comfortable family home in Firhouse, Dublin in February 2006 and then slashed her own neck and wrist. At their inquests, her husband Brian, who had been away on business at the time of the deaths, said that he had not known that his wife was depressed.

“I am proud to have known and married Mary,” he said. “She was the most loving and generous person I ever met and an inspiration to me and our beautiful children. There is no anger in my heart towards her as her actions were borne out of a will to protect our children from the harshness she perceived in this world.”

This would seem to illustrate cases Fergus Finlay relates in which he says that because of the difficulties a mother has had to face, or the difficulties they perceive their child might have to face in the future, “they have come to the intellectual conclusion that if they weren’t there, their child would be better off being with them”.

The family of Galway woman Catherine Palmer found an indication of the turmoil she was in when she drove herself and her two daughters Jennifer, nine, and Louisa, six, off the pier at Kinvara in March 1999. A piece of notepaper found in Catherine’s pocket had “this is hell” written nine times on one side. The words, “a disgusting waste of two beautiful girls, two human beings”, and the words “waste” and “destroy” were written on the other side. She had told her husband Geoffrey that she was bringing the girls swimming at the Leisureplex in Galway.

Cases of murder-suicide at the hands of a parent are mercifully rare, says Dr John Connolly of the Irish Association of Suicidology. “But they get big coverage when they do happen,” he says. “What we’re always worried about when you’re reporting things like this, and the high profile they get, is copycat suicides or murder-suicides.” However, he said that at one point he noted that provincial papers didn’t report suicides, while nationals did. “It’s hard to know which is right. Maybe not to report it is stigmatising it as much.”

Of particular heartbreak were a trio of tragedies that took place in a period of nine months from May 2007 to January 2008. The first concerned Caitriona Innes, a single mum who had just broken up with her boyfriend days before she suffocated her seven-year-old daughter Caitlin at their Letterkenny home in Co Donegal. Caitlin had just received her First Communion that day.

Two months later, in July 2007, the bodies of Nollaig Owen and her baby son Tadhg were recovered from the River Araglin in Co Cork. Nollaig was believed to have been suffering from post-natal depression and a jury returned an open verdict on their deaths although the inquest heard that Nollaig had attempted suicide four days earlier.

Then in January 2008, young mum Eileen Murphy fell from the Cliffs of Moher with her four-year-old son Evan in her arms. The details of how Eileen had travelled from her home near Mallow, Co Cork with Evan, booked into a hotel in Galway the night before their deaths and then bought bus tickets to the Cliffs of Moher were chilling. Her inquest heard that Eileen got off the bus and headed up to the cliff edge so quickly that the driver warned her to be careful. Her family said they were disturbed by inaccurate reports that Eileen had thrown Evan from the cliff first, and then jumped after him.

“Every single one of those cases do require to be seriously looked at,” says Norah Gibbons. “The untimely death of any child needs to be examined because we need to learn from it. I know the Ombudsman for Children recommended to the Government about how the deaths of children should be dealt with in making sure that the learning is picked up.

“They are all absolute tragedies, for the children whose lives have been ended in an untimely manner, and when parents do it it’s an absolute double tragedy.”

• The Samaritans can be contacted 24 hours a day at 1850 609090

This 46-year-old French woman has two daughters now in their 20s but admitted last month to killing eight of her newborn infants and has since been charged with murder. Bodies of two babies were discovered by occupants of a house in which Cottrez and her husband once lived in Villers-au-Tetre. Family and neighbours maintained they had never noticed her pregnancies because she was an overweight woman.
A lawyer for her husband released a statement saying that the couple were still together: “There is no rejection and they are very united.” Sabine Hilschenz of Germany was convicted in 2006 of also killing eight of her newborns.

When Angela Gordon’s seven-year-old daughter Khyra Ishaq died in May 2008, she weighed just three stone. She had starved to death following months of neglect and possibly years of physical abuse at their Birmingham home. Gordon and her partner were convicted of manslaughter this year.
What shocked observers was that Khyra and her five siblings had been previously noted to be at-risk children but according to a report into her death, some State agencies “lost sight of the child and focused instead upon the rights of the adults, the adults' behaviour and the potential impact for themselves as professionals”.

When Irish-American Andrea Yates, 36, drowned her five young children – ranging in age from Noah, seven, to baby Mary, six months - in a bathtub on June 20, 2001, the news again rocked Houston, Texas. The ensuing murder trial also made waves worldwide because it put a spotlight on the legal test for sanity called the M’Naghten Rules. Her defence team claimed her murderous actions were a direct result of Yates suffering years of post-natal depression and psychosis.
Yates was convicted of capital murder but in 2006 this was overturned and she was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She is now in a low-security state mental hospital.

In October 1994, Susan Smith drowned her two young sons, buckling them into their car seats as they slept and pushing the car into a lake in South Carolina. Smith became the focus of public anger for sending police on a false manhunt for a non-existent black man who she said had hijacked her car with the children in it, and for her apparently attention-seeking appearances in the media begging for the boys’ return. She confessed nine days later to killing Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months and is serving life in prison for the double murder. She had a court appeal rejected in March of this year.

Tinning was considered a very unfortunate mother when she lost nine of her children over a period of 13 years from 1972. Most of the children – including an adopted child - died suddenly when they were babies. Tinning became a well-known visitor to the A&E centres of Schenectady, New York for running in with one of her babies cradled in her arms, either dead or near dead.
When she was finally charged with the murder of her last baby, four-month-old Tami Lynne, in 1985 Tinning admitted smothering three of her children. She was convicted of murder in the second degree in Tami Lynne’s case but there was not felt to be sufficient evidence in the deaths of the other children to take further action. Much coverage of her case has focused on why no social worker, doctor or family member voiced suspicion over the children’s deaths. Tinning, now 67, is still in jail – she was denied parole last year.


While the murder of children by their mothers receives huge attention when it happens, infanticide – the killing of babies under the age of 12 months – has been a common occurrence throughout history. In ancient times it was sometimes the result of child sacrifice to ‘appease’ the gods, as in Incan and Babylonian culture.

Superstition sometimes played a part – twins were thought to be a harbringer of evil in some cultures and murdered at birth. In others, infanticide was used as a socially accepted method of keeping population numbers down, and girl babies were often most at risk. That practice, though illegal, is thought to still happen in certain parts of densely-populated India and China.

In Irish law, if a woman is charged with killing her baby when it is under one year old, the charging judge can decide to have her tried for infanticide rather than murder. The Infanticide Act says that it is a specific crime that is “tried and punished as for manslaughter”. This is to allow for the fact that the mother may have harmed her baby while suffering negative hormonal effects from childbirth or “lactation”. As such, the penalty for an infanticide conviction would be much lower than if a murder charge had been brought against the mother.


It is difficult for us to understand the killing of children in our modern society. From Victorian times until the mid-20th century here, however, social and religious factors appeared to have played a big part in the decision of mothers to take their babies’ lives.

In Ireland in the 1940s, for example, there was a spike in infanticides because the Emergency Powers Act during World War II prevented pregnant Irish women from travelling to England to have abortions or to give their babies up for adoption as they had prior to this time.

A study of mothers sent to the Central Mental Hospital in Dublin from 1850 onwards after being charged with infanticide or child murder showed that most of these were admitted in Victorian times. There was evidence in most cases of psychological disturbance, such as in the case of Mrs F, a 31-year-old ballerina who was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude in 1888 for the manslaughter of her baby. Mrs F claimed her cell was haunted and also that she was a capmaker to the British Queen and “could hear speeches from a London via a telephone that ran directly from her cell to the chambers of parliament”.

Poignantly, the study also outlines the sad cases of Miss G, a 20-year-old single servant girl found guilty but insane in 1883 of the murder of her baby and of Miss C, an 18-year-old single woman from Dublin who was admitted in 1888 to the Central Mental Hospital as unfit to plead to the manslaughter of her child.

It appears that Miss C may have been suffering from mental illness but also have had a mental age much younger than her 18 years. She is described, in the rather un-PC words of the time, as “a congenital idiot becoming very excited and violent at each menstrual period”.

Miss G, on the other hand was described as an “unfortunate young woman” who did not appear to be insane at the time of her admission to the hospital. The admitting officer notes sadly that her story was “the usual tale, seduction, desertion and infanticide”.