On Sunday evening, 28 August 2016, in their home near the small rural town of Ballyjamesduff in County Cavan, Alan Hawe put a knife through the throat of his wife Clodagh before going upstairs to strangle and stab to death his three sons, Liam, Niall and Ryan. The three boys’ beds were distributed between two upstairs rooms, which means two of the boys were sharing: the children were discovered in their bedclothes and early reports, more in hope than with any kind of verifiable accuracy, insisted they would have been sleeping when the attacks took place. The implication, in an attempt to soothe our gut-level instincts otherwise, is that the boys did not suffer, or did not suffer much, or extensively. Certainly Clodagh did – she tried to fight him off – but Hawe was armed and intent. ‘Alan was meticulous in everything he did,’ says an unnamed neighbour interviewed in the Daily Mirror the following Wednesday, ‘what he started, he finished.’ And it must indeed take a gruelling physical and mental conviction, a blazing adherence to your own ferocity, to overpower and kill four human beings – even if they were only a woman, even if they were only children – in such quick and unceasing succession. Hawe then went back downstairs and, permitting himself the one relatively lenient fate amid this paroxysm of physical atrocity, put a rope around his neck and let gravity do the rest.
The first newspaper reports referred to the event as a ‘family tragedy’, a euphemism that concealed as much as it revealed, and one that prefigured the national media’s subsequent selectivity when it came to what aspects of the story it would deem fit to speculate upon and what perspectives it would pass over in silence. To the authorities it was immediately obvious what had happened. No other suspects were or would be sought. Very quickly, the compound term ‘murder-suicide’ began to be invoked by the media. While ‘murder-suicide’ is a technically accurate term, there is something unsettling, something subliminally repugnant, about the way each noun is given equivalent weight by the connecting hyphen. Language, in its quest to be accurate and as concise as possible, can be callous, and the hyphen in the term ‘murder-suicide’ is a violent coupling, a forcing together into a state of symbiotic equivalence two things that are not, of course, symbiotic or equivalent at all. The hyphen welding ‘murder’ to ‘suicide’ implies that each state is as bad, or as tragic, as the other. That the murderer who then commits suicide is, on some level, as much a victim as those he murdered, is paying a commensurate price within a larger, indivisible spectrum of suffering signified by that conjoining hyphen. But what happened to the Hawe family was not only a ‘murder-suicide’. It was, first and foremost, a multiple murder committed by a man who then committed suicide.
As various unnamed friends of the murderer, newspaper columnists, even members of the clergy have been quick to assure us, we cannot possibly know what was going through Hawe’s mind when he committed these killings. We can infer that he showed some degree of premeditation (the prepared weapons of knife and hatchet, the rope for himself, waiting until the boys were in bed – his victims segregated – before beginning), a sustained commitment to his actions once he began upon them, and an awareness that there would then be consequences to these actions. We know this because he took steps to mitigate how those actions would be subsequently perceived. He wrote two notes. One was merely functional, an instruction pinned to the front door that whoever found it should not come inside, but alert the Gardai. The second piece of correspondence, a more ‘detailed note’, was addressed to his family. What explanatory or self-justifying details that note might contain are as yet unknown, but at the least, the existences of the first, but especially the second note, attest to sufficient cognizance on the part of Hawe that some kind of explanation would be required.
The Irish press, in their earliest reports, have emphasized how respected a member of the community Alan Hawe was. He was the head of a church-going family, was the well-liked and dedicated vice principal of a local national school, a GAA enthusiast and former teenage handball champion. He was ‘the most normal man you could meet’, ‘a brilliant dad’ and a ‘kind and decent person with an overriding need to look after those around him.’ The quotes go on and on, a lavishly detailed assemblage of testimonials to the rectitude of Alan Hawe’s character. The horrifying incongruity between this benevolent image of a caring, ostensibly well-oriented family man and the man guilty of such murderous brutality has naturally led to much speculation about his mental state.
Investigating Gardai quickly determined that Hawe had no clinical history of mental issues, had never been referred to, or sought of his own volition, access to mental health services. In the days leading up to the murders, locals, too, saw no clue indicating any alteration or degradation in Hawe’s mental state, mood or behaviour. Of course this lack of corroborating evidence doesn’t mean he wasn’t in the grip of a very real psychological anguish: many people with mental illnesses suffer, sometimes for a long time, in silence, and much of the immediate discussion of the case in Ireland has concerned how we as a society deal with, and talk about, mental health issues, male mental health issues in particular.
An opinion piece in the Irish Mirror, entitled ‘Will Cavan Tragedy Finally Break the Stigma Around Mental Health?’ was one of a slew of speculative articles written out of the premise that Hawe was mentally unwell and that this led him to do what he did. That he had no prior history of mental illness, no record of underlying psychological issues, only confirms that Hawe was stoically suffering in a silence that eventually became unendurable: as the Mirror commentator puts it, ‘we can safely assume . . . some deep emotional torment was at the heart of this case.’ Again, quoting an unnamed neighbour: ‘I feel so bad for Clodagh and the boys, but for Alan too. What was he going through?’ What emotional torments may have been visited upon his wife and children before he slaughtered them – what they were going through? – has yet to be deemed a question worth asking. The narrative has remained firmly focused upon Alan Hawe and his putatively imperilled mental state.
However sympathetic such a stance is intended to be, and no matter how couched it comes in compassionate qualifiers such as ‘what happened was an enigma’ and ‘we may never truly understand what drove him to this’, the premature ascription of Hawe’s crimes to an unarticulated mental illness rests upon another ugly, Victorianly anachronistic prejudice, which is that it is only the ‘mentally ill’ that are truly capable of such violence. This, despite the plethora of studies that show people who suffer from mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of violence rather than its perpetrators. Disguised as compassionate advocacy, articles such as these actually serve to reinforce the very stigmas they claim to want to ‘break’ when they unsubstantiatedly tie mental illness into a multiple murder.
The salient thing here is the media’s focus on propounding the theory that Hawe was mentally unwell, the victim of a ‘deep emotional torment’. The discourse thus generated – a discourse concerning mental unwellness and urgent public enjoinments for men and fathers to reach out and talk to someone about their secret suffering – may be sincere, but it is also, if only inadvertently, a strategy of rhetorical foreclosing that prevents another, urgently important discussion that needs to happen, and this concerns domestic abuse.
‘Prior Domestic Abuse is by far the number-one risk factor in these cases,’ writes Dr Jacquelyn Campbell of John Hopkins University, a national leader in the field of domestic violence and IPV (intimate partner violence) in the States. In a twelve city study of 408 domestic familial murder-suicides in the US, 91% were committed by men, and ‘intimate partner violence’ had occurred in 70% of them – though only one in four of these abusers had an arrest record for abuse at the time of the murder-suicide. Most of the time, when a man commits familial ‘murder-suicide’, it is the terminal act in a pre-existing pattern of domestic abuse.
One of the most pernicious aspects of domestic abuse, of course, is its insidiousness. It is a notoriously hidden crime: though research by Women’s Aid in Ireland shows that one in five women here will suffer domestic abuse at some time in their lives, Safe Ireland’s Domestic Violence Statistics Report of 2014 estimates that only 8-12% of women suffering domestic abuse attempt to access a domestic violence service, an underreporting trend reflected worldwide. While the Hawe case, in terms of the sheer savagery and scope of the killings, is shockingly exceptional and relatively rare, one component of it is depressingly mundane: in Ireland, more than one in two women who are murdered die by the hand of their current or ex-partner.
In Ireland, it is a great social sin to speak ill of the dead. In Ireland, you can impugn a dead man’s reputation – even a dead man who premeditatedly murdered his wife and children still has a reputation to impugn. The mainstream media, while content to hypothesize about the mental state of that man, are much more reticent (as far as I can see, completely silent) about the issue of domestic abuse.
The coverage of the Hawe incident, which focuses on him and marginalizes his victims, perpetuates two prejudices. The first is about mental illness: as I mentioned above, even though we understand that mental illness is not the sufferer’s ‘fault’, that it is not due to some frangibility of character but chemical imbalances that are sometimes exacerbated by environmental stressors and sometimes completely arbitrary, we are still susceptible to the idea that you have to be mentally ill to carry out atrocities. This prejudice, like all prejudices, is tautologous: only someone who is mentally disturbed could unmotivatedly murder their wife and children, because, well, you would have to be mentally disturbed in order to unmotivatedly murder your wife and children.
The other prejudice has to do with class and gender: Alan Hawe was a respectable middle class bastion of his community – a model patriarch in a patriarchal society – and we are predisposed to believe that a man like this could not possibly have been an abuser. Remarkably enough, the fact that this man premeditatedly murdered his wife and children does not, in itself, seem grounds enough for his position in society to be publicly challenged in the mainstream media.
The recurring cognitive dissonance in the reporting of the murders thus far is the way in which the media simultaneously acknowledges the visceral particulars, yet also promote an unblemished portrait of Hawe as a family man and venerated community fixture. But there is no contradiction: as long as you take as a given that Alan Hawe was himself the victim of a hidden mental illness, then the sanctity of the image of the patriarch can remain untainted, can actually be celebrated, even as the abhorrent details of the crime itself are repeated ad nauseam.
Another manifestation of these prejudices is the systemic marginalization of Clodagh Hawe within the narrative. By the Wednesday evening following the killings, the hashtag #HerNameWasClodagh was trending on Irish twitter. Contributors to the thread collated all the headlines in which Clodagh was either not mentioned or referred to only as the ‘wife’ of Alan Hawe, and the accompanying pictures of the ‘tragic family’ – the smiling father and his boys – in which Clodagh was not included. In order to evade the question of domestic abuse, the perspective of the woman and her children cannot be explicitly countenanced, and so the story of the multiple murder of a woman and her children is subsumed within the story of one man’s putative mental illness and suicide. The actual physical suffering of Clodagh Hawe and her sons Liam, Niall and Ryan, is subordinated to the hypothetical mental suffering of Alan Hawe, their brutal demises repurposed as tragic collateral in the master narrative of Hawe’s interior dissolution.
This narrative is invidious not just because of the selective hypocrisies around what it deems worthy of public interest (mental issues) and what it ignores (domestic abuse), but because of the message the focus on Hawe sends out to other men contemplating a similar terrible course of action. To them it says: we will remember the good things you did, we will acknowledge that you, too, were a victim, we will assume that you were in a terrible state of mind and that your suffering mattered, that even though we may never understand them, you surely had your reasons. To the thousands of women and children of Ireland living under the invisible tyranny of domestic abuse, who fear that the man they are living with might one day be capable of such an action, the mainstream Irish media offers nothing. It will not even consider their perspective: as the Irish writer Sally Rooney noted on Twitter, every article about the Cavan murders in the Irish Independent was followed by the number for the Samaritans – the suicide helpline – for those ‘affected’ by the article: ‘as if suicide is the only “affecting” aspect of the crimes. they don’t provide any contact numbers for domestic abuse services.’ As Rooney concludes, ‘the assumed point of the view of the reader is to identify with the story’s protagonist, i.e. the murderer, and not his victims’.
Since 2004, there have been at least twenty-four similar cases of familial murder-suicide in Ireland. All but one were carried out by the father/partner of the family unit. In the week following the murders, Professor Ella Arensman, Director of Research at the National Suicide Research Foundation, has appealed to the State stakeholders – the HSE and Garda among them – to set up an independent research body to review these cases. No such apparatus currently exists. To the women and children who will sooner or later die by the hand of their partner and father, the message from the State, as from the media, is the same: suffer in silence.
Photograph © Jonathan Cohen