Just two months ago the HerNameWasClodagh hashtag was trending on social media after Clodagh Hawe was brutally killed, along with her three sons, by her husband. Nobody who knew the family saw this coming; their community was shocked and stunned. Her murderer was portrayed as a respected man who was as a teacher, a sports coach, a loving husband and father, an all-round good guy. What terrible suffering must he have been going through, people asked, that he would feel he had no option but to end it like this? Are there enough services out there for men who need a bit of help? For a week the front page of all the papers told us about his life and his tragic death.
Then came the funeral coverage. The loving family: father, mother and three boys, farewelled and buried together.
Then came the backlash. It was pointed out that almost all the media coverage was focused on the killer with Clodagh barely mentioned and then usually only as ‘his wife’. He was eulogised; she was ignored. They were buried together, with the consent of both families, because – well – surely they loved each other really, and that’s what you do. You keep families together.
Now, in the last week, it’s happened again. A 75-year-old man in County Mayo beat his 72-year-old wife to death and tried to do the same to his 37-year-old son before killing himself. The son survived.
The community is even more shocked and stunned this time because this couple had been pillars of the community for decades. They – jointly -have been described as ‘saint-like’. The killer was a former town councillor, was involved in local sports, worked as a painter with his son, was involved in the dramatic society and was a devout church-goer. His wife sang in the choir.
She died of blunt-instrument head wounds. Yesterday they were farewelled at a joint funeral and buried together.
We are so quick to forgive, aren’t we? Sure, he beat her to death, but he was such a great person and they’d been happily married for decades so we’ll overlook that one mistake and focus on all the positives. Of course she’d want to be buried with him. He’s her husband!
This disturbs me on several levels. Here’s one: do we really believe that someone who could beat his wife to death – deliberately end her life in a terrifying and painful way – had treated her only with love and gentleness up until then? Because I call bullshit on that. If he beat her to death that time, he’d beaten her before. Maybe for decades. Is it possible for a kind, gentle person who’s never hurt a living thing to suddenly snap and keep on beating as his wife cowers, screams, pleads, bleeds, dies? Yes, I’m sure it’s possible. Is it probable? Is it likely? Of course it’s not. Would I put money on the fact that he’d hit her before? Without a moment’s hesitation.
Here’s another: do we forgive all murderers, focusing on what a great soccer coach they were and how they did a fine job running the church jumble sale, skimming over that unfortunate part at the end where they viciously assaulted two people until one was dead and one almost, and assume that their victims would want to spend eternity buried with them? No. Just the ones who kill people who loved and trusted them.
I’m sure that both of these killers did good things in their lives. I’m sure they had good intentions towards their families over the years, at least some of the time. I’m sure they suffered unenviable mental turmoil in some way leading up to the end.
But let’s be clear and let’s be honest. If you love someone you do not beat them to death. If you are a good parent you do not put your child in intensive care. If you have done these things you are not ‘saint-like’ and ‘tragic’. You are a vicious killer.
I think we can assume fairly safely that both of these women were abused before they were killed and that they kept it secret for the reasons that domestic abuse victims usually do: shame, fear, love, hope that it will get better, reluctance to break up their family or upset anyone, fear of not being believed or taken seriously. And by farewelling and burying them together with their killers we are absolutely complicit in perpetuating the conditions which caused them to keep the secrets which ultimately killed them.
We are saying that the violence can be overlooked because it’s outweighed by all the good stuff. That the family should stay together because that’s what families do. That appearances are more important than truth and that not upsetting anyone is more important than someone’s life.
I’m sure that the families of the killers in these two cases are as devastated and grief-stricken as the families of the victims. In the case of the older couple most of the remaining relatives will be related to both killer and victim. And yes, facing the fact that your son/brother/uncle/father was a brutal killer is a horrific thing. But not facing it helps nobody.
I think these communities have reacted this way because we all want to believe the best of people. If we see a friendly man who’s active in the community and is always there to lend a helping hand to those in need and who’s in church every Sunday we want to believe that what you see is what you get. We want to believe that we can recognise a good person. We want to believe that we can identify a bad person, too. Surely they look dodgy, or kick kittens, or are mean to people, or…well…something.
So the idea that someone with the potential to beat a 72-year-old woman or a six-year-old child to death can live among us for years without ever giving a sign that they’re not the all-round good bloke they appear to be is deeply disturbing. And so it should be.
The truth is, we can’t know who has this potential. But somebody can. The spouse and children who spend every day with them, they are the ones who could recognise danger signals ahead of time if any are there to be seen. Quite possibly Clodagh Hawe and Kitty Fitzgerald did. But they never told anyone.
And until we stop farewelling brutal murderers as decent, good, loving fathers and husbands countless vulnerable men, women and children who find themselves in dangerous situations never will.