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”.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tales from the frontline

During the economic boom, private industry seemed to be the place to earn the big bucks.

Now that the Celtic Tiger has slunk away, a pensionable job in the traditional public service sector seems an attractive prospect once again.

But has the job of Garda, teacher or nurse really been a steady ship throughout the years of boom and bust?

We asked three workers who have been on the frontline of their professions for 30 years how their jobs have been affected by changes in the social, political and economic landscape.

Brendan Broderick has been a full-time secondary school teacher since 1984, and teaches science, physics and biology in Templeogue College in Dublin.

"The status of the teacher has almost come full circle since I started teaching. There was an air in the Celtic Tiger years that you were 'only' a teacher, but now that's changed to being seen as privileged -- at least you have a job.

"I think of teaching as having three stages: first, you're their big brother, when they try you out; then you become like their father, and then like their grandfather. The easiest part is when you are the father figure. But the policy is to get teachers to stay in the classroom for longer and the truth is it's no job for an older person. That's a recipe for an early grave.

"The curriculum has changed significantly over the years. When I started it was narrower and more theoretical. Now it is more rooted in learning by investigation. It makes subjects more relevant and interesting and more enjoyable, as they are now engaged in hands-on practical work.

"But the issue of resources has always been a problem. The Government wants to encourage the uptake of science, but the grants are far more limited than people think. I remember when the new physics syllabus came out, I was at an in-service day and there was a module on electronics. When someone pointed out that there weren't computers to teach on in schools, the instructor suggested getting eggboxes, sticking them together and putting numbers and keys on them. This was the attitude.

"Society has changed so much over the past 25 years and I believe changes in society are always reflected in the classroom. One big change over the years has been the earlier initiation of kids into adult roles. They are more sexually aware at a younger age and, I suspect, more sexually active. And when I started teaching, few if any 5th or 6th year students would be working. Now they hold on to summer jobs during term-time and it interferes with their studies.

"In a sense, they were exploited in the Celtic Tiger years and had no down-time for themselves. Some made up for it by over-indulging at the weekend. It used to be unheard of for a student to come in smelling of drink. There isn't a school in Ireland now that doesn't have some experience of drug issues.

"What hasn't changed is that we are in loco parentis for students. Kids can be very open and come up to you after class about problems. You're kind of there as an amateur psychologist. The way I approach this is to think, 'If this was my child, what would I do?'

"The thing that keeps me in the job is that most students are amenable, and altruistic and decent people."

Clinical Nurse Specialist Paul Ahern entered nursing in 1978. He now runs St John's Men's Health Unit in the Mercy Hospital in Cork city.

"After my general training, I went to the Mater to specialise in theatre. The world of theatre nursing has changed hugely over time. It is much more technological now and the nurses took all those advances on board.

"In the early days, the consultant was God but from the late-'90s onwards, the nurse became more autonomous. I think the status of the nurse has changed in that respect. It's a degree-level qualification.

"I would think the relationship between nurses and doctors has also changed. Especially in UCC, where they amalgamated the nursing school and medical school, so that the student nurses and doctors are on the same campus.

"The nurse was once sort of seen as the handmaiden of the doctor. You might occasionally see a few young doctors come in and go, 'I'm the doctor, you're the nurse,' but they are whipped into shape very quickly.

"The resources issue for hospitals has been here for years. As far as the HSE is concerned, in my view, the patients are a hindrance to running hospitals. It is all about keeping within budgets. It's up to us (nurses) to keep the patient to the fore. I tell doctors when they arrive as interns to remember that the patient is the punter in the bed paying your salary to do a job for them. I tell them to treat every patient as if they were their own mother or father.

"I took this post 10 years ago and since this unit opened in June 2009, I have loved dealing with the patients. Rewarding is the right word. Because the Mercy is the main urology hospital in Cork, it gets lots of referrals. We remove patients from the Outpatients department, so it hugely speeds up the process.

"I end up being a centrepoint in the patients' treatment; their advocate and their follow-up. They know they have a contact in the system.

"I was diagnosed with prostate cancer myself two years ago: I can tell the patients that I know how they're feeling. The unit brings together my personal and professional experience.

"That gives me great hunger for the job."

Garda Sergeant Trevor Laffan joined the Garda Siochana in 1979. He is now Sergeant in charge of Community Policing at Anglesea Street station in Cork City.

"When I trained, it was six months at Templemore and then a two-year probation that was like an apprenticeship. Back then, we used to go out on the beat on our own and you didn't have any great fear.

"Our communication system was archaic enough: we didn't have enough radios to go round. I remember one time telling this to the sergeant and he told me to 'stick near a phone box'.

"We are still very lucky as a police force because we have the general support of the community. But there wouldn't be the same regard for the uniform as there was. Serious criminality has taken violence to an extreme level with firearms involved, but even on the street the nature of violence has changed.

"At one time, a simple argument between two guys would end with a punch and one guy going to the ground.

"Now you'll have three guys kicking him until his head is twice the size it was. I don't know whether it's to do with what people see in movies or video games, or the rise in drug culture, but there seems to be less regard for the consequences.

"In a way, my role as sergeant of community policing is to try to bring the role of the garda to what it was 30 years ago, where you could identify your local guard and he knew you. Over the years, as cities got busier, we tended to lose that contact.

"Community policing has now got a national model and there are resources being put into it. Commissioner Fachtna Murphy launched it last year. No one agency can solve all the ills of society, so we work closely with the health service, with local councils, with support groups for immigrants and so on. It's a holistic approach.

"I don't ever remember thinking this job wasn't for me. It's the ordinary, mundane encounters you remember. There was a family one time in which the father left home coming up to Christmas, leaving the mother and three kids. The mother had a nervous breakdown.

"Between the district nurse, myself and the St Vincent de Paul, we called up to the house and kept the show on the road, so to speak. We organised Santa and Christmas dinner for the kids in the house and they were looked after until the mum came back out of hospital.

"Years later, that woman came into the station looking for a passport for the youngest child and I didn't recognise her until she introduced me to the child.

"She said, 'You have no idea what you did for my family'."