Have you been listening to Serial and the other podcasts following the murder case of Adnan Syed? Are you shocked by police corruption?
Bear with me.
Even if you haven’t been following the case, and hearing the competing stories being spun by the US State Attorney and by the young man accused of killing his nineteen-year-old girlfriend in Baltimore, you probably think police corruption is something going on far away from the Emerald Isle…
These are the cliffs over Bunmahon. In 1930, a number of the freshly-uniformed Free State Gardai drove to the coast with a labourer called Tommy Corbett. Corbett’s standing in the village was low: he had married his wife when she was already pregnant and the couple lived on a farm owned by a bachelor farmer who had befriended him. It was a stormy night; moon and stars concealed by heavy cloud. The Gardai held Corbett over the cliffs in the driving rain, gripped him by the collar and put a revolver in his mouth. They told him that if he didn’t testify as they wanted him to, he’d find out how cold and wild the waves beneath were.
Elizabeth Connor was twenty years old. She was in a relationship with local doctor, Joe Walsh, and no doubt heard much about the court case accusing ten locals (including the school master, publican and his wife, at least two Gardai) of murdering and hiding the body of postman Larry Griffin. Larry was seen numerous times that Christmas Day, and is widely believed to have been drinking heavily, as he did his rounds delivering Christmas post. His bicycle was found sometime later, abandoned on the road to Kilmacthomas. Everybody agrees it was left there by the killer. Much of the overgrowth on both sides of the road was burnt away by the postman’s family, in the hopes of finding any trace of him. It took months for the scorched earth to return to normal.
Corbett did testify as they wanted; although he was was later compensated for his mistreatment by the Courts and the Gardai involved were moved (hell was Letterkenny, apparently!) or dismissed. But the villagers stayed quiet; nobody has ever said how Larry was killed or where his body was disposed of.
From the time of his death, local fury was aimed at the killer: he (or she) was despised for not calling a priest before burying the body. They were less bothered about his (or her) not calling the police.
Connor’s writings, her novels and her plays, came out of this soil.
If you’ve been listening to Serial, you know all about the place where the body was found: Leakin Park. Or, as I’ve thought of it ever since I started listening to the podcast: Lincoln Park. They’re pronounced the same on the radio, you see. And when I realised this week that I’ve created an entirely new park in my head, I started thinking about how I’ve mapped my imaginary version of Baltimore (and the geography is crucial to the legal case) onto the real Baltimore, and/or onto the Google Map’s version of Baltimore. Then there’s The Wire, which uses the same landscape for fictional drama on crime in Baltimore. Where do the boundaries between real and imaginary space stand? And where do they break down?
Do we all do this all the time? Or is it just writers?
This is a map of the crime scene from a great book about Larry Griffin’s disappearance by TG4 journalist Fachtna O’Drisceoil.
It is also a sketch of the Waterford area, and could easily be re-configured to include Connor’s imaginative village of Doon. I’ve doctored it to show the vital places in my imaginary Waterford. Where do you think it fits? Answers on a postcard please…
I got to see more of Doon this week.
Doon sits somewhere Bunmahon, Tankardstown and the cliffs of Cornwall.
When Connor’s novel We Are Seven was adapted for the screen as She Didn’t Say No in 1958, Connor received joint screen-writing credit.
(The script was based on another true-crime story from the Waterford area. The clue is in the ironic title. I’m not going to go there, yet.)
Other sources show that Connor visited Cornwall during the filming, which had Irish actors such as Joan O’Hara and Ray McAnally alongside big-name film stars of the time.
The film was re-mastered in 2005 and shown last year in vivid technicolor in the Irish Film Institute as part of their Archives series . It’s a cracker; if they show it again, do go along. There are few better ways to spend a cold afternoon than wrapped up, watching Gate Theatre director Hilton Edwards play a director … (It’s all getting very ‘meta’.)
In Mount Prospect the village is called Bridgetown, but it’s much the same landscape as Doon. While the play never strays from the front room, in the novel Mary and Rex visit the cliffs and take to the hilly roads in the speedy motorcar. Mrs Kennefick also visits the miners’ cottages. She pays a visit to some of them when she’s seeking funds for the Legion of Mary raffle. Mrs Kennefick can’t wait to get away from the dirt and the poor, after she’s taken a few previous pounds off them for the ‘more deserving’.
I love theatre, but there are times when the front room setting is just not enough, when you wish the stage could take you through the streets of Bridgetown or Doon, like the Google street view, and provide a sweeping vision of all that was going on.
Connor describes the inside of Mount Prospect, the Kennefick’s home, as being ‘fogged with emotion’. Outside, only some years since the Civil War, small-town Ireland was fogged with suspicion and mistrust in the new governing forces. While she was watching events in the village from a comfortable distance, her fiancée had experience of the cottages and farm houses where men nursed wounds from brawls and interrogations and nuns in the convent concealed others at risk of violence.
Bunmahon is now a pretty seaside village. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was full of dark, abandoned mine shafts, wild waves on the shore, bog under thick underbrush, and illegal lock-ins that had the guardians of the peace on the inside, rather than the outside, of the public house. In the 1930s, Connor created Bridgetown, which mapped closely to the real place.
Fictional space layered onto historical space layered onto real space. Is the truth to be found underneath or is it also in the layering?
Bridgetown is like a portal, or a trapdoor to another time. Or maybe just a Google Street View that hasn’t been updated.