Making a killing out of murder?

Cregg Wood is where counties Clare, Tipperary and Galway meet. A dense forest, mainly pine but with scattered plantings of limes and horse-chestnuts, it is the site of a triple murder eight years ago that Ireland is still unable to forget.

A new novel by Edna O’Brien, who grew up nearby, will make that even harder. In the Forest barely troubles to change many of the details of the murder of Dublin artist Imelda Riney, her young son Liam, and a local parish priest.

It’s gross insensitivity, say her critics, cashing in on tragedy. So intrusive, says Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times, that it’s not even worth discussing the book’s merits or failings.

In a recent interview, O’Brien defended herself. "Is someone going to say Picasso should not have painted Guernica?" she asked. "I have written a book to commemorate and perpetuate the story of this almost Greek tragedy which took place in a forest I happened to know."

What makes this spat between writers of such interest is that the murders took place so recently and that they were so gratuitous. By 1994, Ireland had become used to politically motivated violence and, as in every other country, there were occasional domestic killings. But this was different.

Imelda Riney, 29, a beautiful young artist and her curly-headed three-year-old son Liam were snatched away from their lakeside cottage near Whitegate in East Clare one Friday morning, so abruptly that a kettle was left boiling on the stove. They seemed to have vanished into thin air. A few days later Father Joe Walsh, 37, from the rural parish of Eyrecourt not far away, was also reported missing. After a young man called Brendan O’Donnell was arrested by the police, having abducted a young girl, the bodies of the priest and of Imelda and Liam Riney were found close to each other in Cregg Wood, a mile from Whitegate. All three had been shot.

Eight years ago we followed the events during those sunny spring days with growing disbelief and horror. The murderer was only 20, which somehow seemed to make it worse. Two years later he was convicted of the killings after a 53-day court case, the longest murder trial in Irish history, with only two of the 12 jurors favouring a finding of guilty but insane. The young man we saw being escorted into court looked bloated and much older than 22. In his evidence he said that he shot Imelda Riney because she was "the Devil’s daughter" and her son because, "I didn’t want to leave Liam without his mother like I was. I wanted them to be together." He claimed to have heard the Devil’s voice saying, "Kill Fr Joe, he’s trying to christen the Devil’s baby son."

Just over a year after his conviction, O’Donnell was dead himself from, according to the Dublin Coroner’s Court, "heart failure following a reaction to medication he had been receiving in prison".

Described by his former school principal as "the most disturbed child I would have had in 22 years of teaching", O’Donnell had been in trouble from childhood. When his mother, to whom he was very attached, died when he was nine, he started going to sleep on her grave. He began to steal cars and guns when he was about 12, and was sent to various institutions. Shortly before the murders he had returned to his home area from England, where he had been on remand, and was living rough in the woods.

After his death Tony Muggivan, who had given O’Donnell refuge when he was 14 and on the run from Trinity House, an institution for young offenders from which he had tried to have him released, spoke out angrily in a radio interview. "I am disgusted, really disgusted," he said. "There was ample opportunity over the years to help him and it wasn’t done."

His words echoed disquiet felt by some that a tragedy such as this could have been averted. Is this what Edna O’Brien means when she claims that the killings had "a wider social significance"? Certainly the murders did raise questions at the time about how disturbed young people were treated.

East Clare is a beautiful area of rugged hills and picturesque valleys, where visitors come to enjoy walking in its woodlands or to fish its rivers and lakes. Although only a short drive from Limerick, and from the county town of Ennis, it is a region that seems a world away from the bustle of commerce. Imelda Riney was an artist from Dublin. Visiting the area, you can understand why she would have come to live here with her small sons - Liam and his older brother Oisin, then six.

Whitegate is a tiny village on the road that meanders along the shore of Lough Derg, and few would have heard of it until April 1994 when journalists gathered there to report on the unfolding events. What made the murders particularly horrific for those living in the area was not just the senseless gunning down of a mother, a toddler and a priest, but also learning that the killer was a young man many of them knew.

On the day I visit, children from the local National School are practising with their class teacher for their First Confession and Communion in St Flannan’s church. Like children anywhere in rural Ireland, they are naturally friendly, greeting me with smiles and hellos. They giggle as they enter the confessional, and it’s hard not to think about little Liam who now would have been a couple of classes ahead of them.

Although equally friendly, the grown-up locals won’t give their names when asked about their reaction to O’Brien’s book. "Most people want to forget about what happened," one man says, before correcting himself. "Not forget about it, just leave it alone."

He had listened to Edna O’Brien’s radio interview. "Why didn’t she write a well-researched book about it instead of making it a novel?" he says. "I won’t be buying it, although I’ve heard that a lot of others around here have been going to get it in Ennis or Limerick." At Ennis Book Shop - the nearest one to the murder scene - an assistant tells me they have already had to place a third bulk order for the novel.

A woman living in Whitegate, who had also listened to O’Brien’s interview, says she won’t be buying it and tells me they were very cross at some of the stories which appeared in newspapers after the murders. Another says she had heard that the novel had sold out in Limerick, and points out a relation of O’Donnell entering the post office.

This is an area Edna O’Brien knew well in her youth. She was born 70 years ago just down the road in Tuamgraney, where she grew up in Drewsboro, a large house , and attended the local school before going to a convent boarding school in neighbouring Galway. She used her early experiences in her first novel, The Country Girls (1960), which was famously burned by the parish priest in Tuamgraney and, like the other two books in her trilogy, banned in her native country.

Her controversial latest novel is dedicated to the victims, although the priest’s surname has gained an "e". She changes the character’s names - Imelda Riney is Eily Ryan, Liam is called Maddie, and the priest is Fr John; the murderer is Michen O’Kane and Cregg Wood has become Cloosh. It’s a disturbing read, and it is understandable that anyone close to the people involved could be upset. While she sticks to some facts, she changes others - and the police and some of the locals are not seen in a favourable light.

Strangely, while O’Brien claims to have chosen to write about the murders because she knows the forest in which they took place, the novel gives no sense of place. Some critics have said they do not recognise the Ireland she depicts, that it’s the country of her youth.

In the Forest’s best passages come when the novelist uses her imaginative skill, writing from the point of view of the disturbed killer, especially in the book’s early chapters. The section dealing with the murders of the young woman and son is also sensitively done and almost unbearable to read. Writers are entitled to find inspiration wherever they can. The question is, why did O’Brien not avoid drawing attention to the factual basis of her latest work but, on the contrary, court it?

There are plenty of precedents for writers being inspired by actual murders or novels which explore the impulse behind killing. In The Butcher Boy, Patrick McCabe wrote of someone not unlike O’Donnell, but without basing his character on a recognisable young man. John Banville drew on real murders in his Book of Evidence without causing offence. Pat Barker was inspired by the Yorkshire Ripper murders to write Blow Your House Down, but did so by distancing the events of her novel from the actual happenings. Is it wrong to expect an artist to be more sensitive than others?

O’Brien clearly knew how people would react. In an interview in the Washington Post before the novel’s publication, she anticipated it. "Oh, there will be considerable rumpus and castigation of me for this one," she said. "They will say I have cheapened and exploited a terrible tragedy. I say: Read it before you judge me."

Having done so, I feel that she shouldn’t have written the book. It’s not a good novel, and it adds nothing to our understanding of what happened, yet the attention paid to it means that it will probably be a bestseller.

"Grown men have come back from there in tears," a local woman tells me, when I stop to ask directions to the site where the bodies were found in early May eight years ago. "You mind yourself, there’s a strange feeling there."

She repeats her warning as we part. Perhaps that’s why I feel so uneasy in Cregg Wood. Perhaps it is those rumours - unproven but persistent - that O’Donnell didn’t act alone. Either way, although I am not usually nervous and love wandering in the country, I look over my shoulder at the slightest noise behind me.

Despite detailed directions, I fail to find the spot where friends of the victims erected a simple memorial three years after the tragedy. In some places the trees are growing so closely together that there is darkness; in others the sun illuminates fresh growth. I spend quite some time walking up and down the woodland paths, all the while feeling unnerved.

Cregg Wood is only a mile from Whitegate, yet once you leave the road you could be miles from civilisation. Away from the narrow access roads, the paths are wet underfoot from recent heavy rain, and there is a smell of moist vegetation. Sometimes you hear birdsong, but otherwise the only sound is the sighing of wind through branches. How must they have felt, his adult victims, suspecting what was to happen?

Newspaper photographs taken just after the bodies of Imelda Riney and their little son Liam were found show her desolate former partner Val Balance seated in a forest clearing, his head in his hands. The beauty of the spot seemed to cry out against the horror of what happened there.

Imelda, Liam and Father Joe Walsh are buried elsewhere. Many people in Ireland feel they deserve to be left in peace.

Back to the top of the page