June 30, 2009

Genuflecting your way out of dodge.

I loiter in the park across the road from the church, plucking up the necessary courage.
Eventually, after a few minutes’ prevarication, I know I have no choice. I come out of the park, cross the road and walk slowly through the car park of St. Joseph’s, my heart pounding.
Normally I don’t have a problem doing high profile funerals. Like most reporters who cover them, I have my own way of doing things - a technique that has stood by me and got me out of there in safety for more than a decade.
Some reporters look completely conspicuous at funerals, walking into the church with their eyes wide open in fear, a notebook in one hand, a pen in the other. They stick out like a sore thumb, especially when they congregate together. Like sheep.
I usually dress down, maybe in a shirt and jeans, rather than a suit. I’m not trying to show any disrespect to anyone - it’s just that I don’t want to look like a reporter. Some of my colleague joke that my undercover outfit actually makes me look like a cop. All I need is a doughnut, but I’ve had too many of them so I’ll pass on that.
In the church, I try to hide in plain view. I ignore my colleagues, and they do the same to me. I walk in, trying not to show any hesitation. Without breaking my stride, I focus on one pew and head for it, as if I know the church really well.
Then I sit there, surrounded by other mourners for the duration of the funeral mass. I have a small digital Dictaphone in my hand, which I turn on just before I enter the church. It stays on until I leave the church, usually at communion. With luck, nobody even notices me. Job done.
But the funeral of Patrick Eugene Holland was no normal funeral. And I was extremely nervous as I opened the door of St. Joseph’s Church in Bonnybrook, Coolock, north Dublin at 10.40am on Monday.
There were two main reasons for my trepidation.
I like to think that I’m anonymous, that nobody knows me. I’m not one of these high profile reporters whose name and photographs are everywhere. I don’t really do television, so I always think that I can walk down any street and nobody would recognise me.
But I received a phone call a few minutes before the funeral was about to begin. It let me know there was a problem. Photographers Mick O’Neill and Jim Walpole had both been assigned to cover the funeral. They had taken up positions in different areas, ready to shoot anyone who went in to the church. As I stood in the park, getting ready to go into the church, Mick rang me. He told me that some men who I really did not want to be there had just walked into the church.
Each of them would recognise me and each of them would be far from happy when they saw me.
Then there was the rest of the mourners. We knew it was going to be a small funeral, but not that small. There were only around 50 mourners - the church could easily hold 400. I knew there would be nowhere for me to hide.
But I knew I couldn’t stay away. The story was too big and there were at least three other reporters inside. I couldn’t let them get the scoop and go back empty handed to the office. Fear is a great motivator and I’m more afraid of failure than than I am of most criminals.
So I entered the church.
It went wrong as soon as I got to the door. It opened well enough, but when I tried to let it close smoothly (and quietly) behind me, it became stuck. I then spent what felt like hours trying to pull it closed.
When I turned around and faced the congregation, several people were staring at me - including the men who did not want me there. I felt their eyes boring into me.
But I’d come too far to stop. I started walking, heading to my right where a sea of pews awaited me. Like before, I tried to show no hesitation. I told myself when I was going in to turn right and that’s just what I did. The only problem was that the aisle I picked was empty; I was literally the only person on that side of the church. I thought, briefly, of stopping and heading to the centre aisle where most mourner were sitting. But I immediately ruled that out: it would have been far too conspicuous.
I picked a pew, genuflected, and sat down, glancing down at the Dictaphone hidden in my hands to make sure the red recording light was glowing red.
Fr Kevin Moore delivered a fine sermon.
Dutchy Holland was someone whom I interviewed in the Rome apartment of his lawyer Giovanni Di Stefano in April 2007. He was an immensely personable, likeable even, man.



Me interviewing Dutchy Holland in Rome. Copyright Irish Daily Star

I had a good chat with him for about an hour and it was only at the end that I knew he was a killer. I asked him if he had, as gardai are satisfied, killed Veronica Guerin. He replied simply: “No. No way.” But I could tell he was lying. He hadn’t even managed to convince himself he was innocent. So he’ll be remembered as the man who shot dead an Irish crime reporter to most people.
But not to his family.
As Fr Kevin said, they remember a loving, caring uncle and granduncle.
“Patrick’s instincts were always to be helpful to others,” he said.
“He enjoyed swimming and in his younger days saved a person from drowning by jumping in to save him.
“They recall the person that they knew and the good home and background from which he came.
“The fondness that they always had for him will linger on.”
Dutchy was loved by some people.
Just as we sat down after a Hail Mary, I felt my mobile phone vibrate in my pocket.
Because I was at the funeral and was trying to keep my head down, I was not going to answer it. But something, perhaps a sixth sense, made me take it out of my jeans pocket.
I looked at the message and froze.
It was from another reporter in the church. It simply said: “X and X have clocked you and look angry.”
Oh shit.
I put the phone back in my pocket, considered things for a millisecond and got up. There's no point in being a hero. Anyway, I had gotten what I went there for, the priest's sermon. Time to get out of dodge.
I left the pew, genuflected and walked calmly, but quickly, out of the church.
I didn’t look back until I was out of the church grounds. Then I snatched a quick glance to see if anyone had followed me out. There was nobody there.
I had parked my car about 500 metres away and made sure no-one was following me before I got into it and drove off.
It was only when I was about a mile away that I finally relaxed.
I knew I was safe. Until next time.

June 7, 2009

“I’m sorry. I’m truly, deeply, sorry.”

“There he is Jim! There.”
“Where? Where?” Jim Walpole replies, looking in two directions at the same time as he instinctively brings his camera up, ready to shoot.
“He’s standing directly opposite us, on the other side of the road,” I say, nodding as subtly as I can towards our target, Martin Kirwan. Up until a few months ago, he was one of the senior commanders of the Irish Civil Defence; a real pillar of society. Today, however, he is up in front of Judge Patrick Clyne in court 46 of Dublin District Court at the Bridewell, beside the Four Courts complex. He is up on charges of indecently assaulting a young boy 20 years ago.
We really need his photograph. We’ve been waiting at the entrance to the court for almost an hour: now he’s in our sights. We have to get him.
I need not worry: the ever dependable Jim has him. “Okay. I see him. Don’t move. Stay there and don’t move an inch – I’m going to get him from here.” For once, my bulk comes in useful as Jim snaps Kirwan over my shoulder. The target didn’t see a thing: he’s too busy hugging three women, either friends or family, who are standing by him. Kirwan then walks towards us and Jim steps out of my shadow to hose him down. Kirwan doesn’t even break his stride. He keeps walking, ignoring Jim as he fires off shot after shot from just a few feet away.
We satisfy ourselves that the man we photographed is Kirwan. Jim’s work is done: mine is just about to begin.
I follow him into the court complex. I turn into the joint entrance to two courts, go up the stairs and turn right into 46. As soon as I walk in, I scan the body of the court for Kirwan. I quickly spot him, sitting on the second bench back, with his female supporters. A few moments later, Judge Clyne enters and it begins.
Kirwan was the first person on the list and his case is called quickly. But the acoustics inside court 46 are appalling and I struggle to hear what the judge is saying. As this is an indecent assault case, I’m expecting it to be held in camera. In this case, it means the public will be told to leave and only people directly connected to the hearing will be allowed to stay – and bona fide journalists. I hear the judge mention the phrase and get ready to show my press pass to prove I’m a working reporter.
But, rather than ordering the court to be cleared, the judge gets up and walks out, telling the court he should be back in five minutes. About 10 people walk after him, heading through a door to the right of the bench.
I quickly realise this is going to pose me a problem: the judge is going to hear the case in his chambers, rather than clearing a packed court. But how the hell am I going to get in? You can’t just walk into a judge’s private room...
As my panic mounts that I’m going to miss the whole thing, the Garda sergeant who accompanied the judge out of the court comes back in. I approach him and ask if I can cover the case. He goes back to the judge and, a few moments later, returns and asks me and another reporter for our ID. Once he’s happy, he leads us into the judge’s chamber.
I was thankful for two things: firstly that the judge let us in and, secondly, that I was there to witness one of the most moving and dignified and uplifting, but heartbreaking court cases that I’ve ever attended.
There were around 12 people in the small room. As soon as we walked in, the injured party said he was happy for the case to be covered and that he wanted Kirwan named in the media – but he wanted nothing printed that could identify him. I had to say a few words to the Judge, to assure him that we would abide by that. (I get nervous when a judge addresses me: the last time was about four years ago when my mobile phone went off in court. That was fun.) Once Judge Clyne was satisfied, the proceedings began.
Kirwan had pleaded guilty in a previous hearing to several counts of indecent assault on the then boy in 1988 and 1989.
Now it was the victim’s turn to talk.
He stood opposite the judge, dignified and proud in an immaculate suit. His wife stood right beside him, on his left, gently consoling him, being there for him. His mother sat down a few feet away from him, a family friend comforting her, braced for what she was about to hear.
The victim, now in his late 30s, tried not to cry as he described the devastating effect Kirwan’s abuse has had on him for the last 20 years. He tried to keep the tears at bay, but he simply couldn’t. The more he spoke, the more upset he got. He spoke of the trust that he felt for Kirwan as a child; how he felt privileged because Kirwan treated him as an adults; how Kirwan’s abuse led to him suffering depression for more than a decade.
All the time his mother was sitting, in tears, close by. It was hard enough to look at the victim, but almost impossible to look at his mother. What, I kept wondering, must she be thinking during this victim impact statement? How hard must it be for her to sit there and listen to her beloved son talking about how this man had abused him, not once, but several times. You can only imagine the pain she has felt and will continue to feel because of the actions of Kirwan, previously a highly regarded member of the community in Dunboyne, Co Meath, where the abuse took place.
Then Kirwan opened his mouth and said something that it looked like the victim and his family had been waiting more than two decades to hear: sorry.
“I’m truly, deeply sorry,” he said as the victim held his gaze.
He offered €3,000 in compensation – but the victim said he didn’t want his money, so it was split between One in Four and the ISPCC. He’ll be sentenced in November.
I think the victim got something much more important than money that day: validation.
I’ve spoken to loads of victims of abuse over the year and they are always eager for the abuser to be named – and perhaps shamed - in the media. Looking at this case, it suddenly hit me why. The abuse that children suffer is always in secret, hidden away so that only the victim and the perpetrator know about it: one is either to afraid or ashamed to talk about it, the other is not going to tell anybody what he is doing.
So the abuser’s reputation is untrammelled: they are often pillars of society, like Kirwan. Only the victims know the truth. All the time the victim is being abused, or suffering the horrendous after effects of the abuse, the abuser is well regarded in his community. That’s why the victims oftentimes seek the abuser to be named. They want the world to know what they – and only they – have known for so long: that the person who abused them was not the saint that everyone thought.