CERTAIN unsolved crimes echo in Ireland’s consciousness over decades, with names like Philip Cairns, Raonaid Murray and Trevor Deely still recognisable long after their deaths or disappearances.
What happens when a crime goes unsolved for far too long is the theme of Rachael English’s new novel, The Night of the Party, set in Clare during the heavy snow of 1982.
In her fictional village of Kilmitten, parish priest Fr Galvin is killed, and the crime remains still unsolved a generation later.
“Even though it starts with a crime, I wouldn’t really call it a crime novel. You could probably call it a mystery in the old-fashioned way. It’s not a modern thriller, with fingerprints and DNA and serial killers,” says the author and RTÉ presenter, who hails from Shannon.
The story shows how being close to a terrible event, but not talking about it, can reverberate through a life, with one of the main characters carrying a dark secret from childhood to middle age.
Rachael explains, “Virtually the entire village is at the party. There are 50-something people there and I really pictured this make-believe East Clare village as a really small place indeed, called Kilmitten.
“In the shed at the back of the house, there are four young people, three of them are 13, one is 12. In the way that kids of that age do, the son of the house where the party is taking place, Tom, has stolen a bottle of beer and a couple of cigarettes. They see this as their opportunity to have a bit of fun for themselves.
“There’s two lads, Tom and Conor, and the two girls they’re trying to impress, as you do when you’re in first year of secondary school, Neena and Tess. Tom goes back to the house as the snow is falling to see if he can sneak out another bottle of beer. He sees something, but he never says anything.”
The character’s reasons for not giving up his information change, but the silence persists and persists.
Rachael continues, “At the start, he’s scared to say anything because he thinks he’ll get into trouble for being out the back. Then, he convinces himself he’s doing the right thing and it’s best to say nothing.
“The years go on and on and it’s really about the four young people and how their lives are affected by what happened that night. Even though their lives go off in different directions, because the book takes place over 35 years, they always have that connection, that they were there on this night.”
Tom places the events of the night at the back of his mind for years, and throws himself into his community. “In his 40s, he becomes a politician through a haphazard series of events. As he says himself, he didn’t spend his youth reading manifestos or putting up posters and going to political rallies. He’s involved in the community and people decide that he would be the man. He’s charming and presentable and everything.
“There’s a newspaper article about him in the book and it’s called The Accidental Minister. It’s almost as if all of the work he’s done in the community and everything, it’s a bit like he’s trying to make up for the fact that he’s still carrying this knowledge around. He’s here and he’s there and he’s helping this one and that one.”
However, when his old friend Conor, who is now a garda, starts resurrecting a very cold case, it is back in his life once more.
“The story is as much about the four young people and the village in which they grow up, as it is about trying to solve the crime. It’s all about their friendship and their families; there’s an awful lot of connection between them. But, to the extent there is a mystery, you only find out at the end what happened to Fr Galvin,” she says.
Sometimes, writers of fiction have to spend long spells carrying out research but, when writing this novel, Rachael says she consciously avoided looking at unsolved killings. “I would hate, even unwittingly, to steal something. I wanted it to be complete fiction, but the basic spark behind it was just this notion of what’s it like when a crime goes unsolved for a long time. And what’s it like to be the person who knows something and says nothing. How do you live with that?”
There must be quite a few people around Ireland who have information that they know could help solve a long-running mystery. Just in the last couple of years, people have contacted gardaí with nuggets about Trevor Deely and Philip Cairns, although their disappearances are still unexplained.
As a journalist, Rachael has reported on matters surrounding really puzzling disappearances and deaths. She says there is often “the sense that if just one person chose to say what they knew, they mightn’t have the whole picture but they might have enough to put everything else in place and a door might be opened”.
While families might pray for new information that can be substantiated, the public as a whole often settles for what it believes to be informed gossip around some of the major mysteries, which is another theme of The Night of the Party.
“Everybody in the county knows about them and half the country seems to have a theory about what actually happened. You’ll always meet the fella who says ‘oh sure, you know what happened there’. ”
In the novel the snow of 1982 is one of the reasons the murder is well remembered an Rachael had to try and imagaine what being in an isolated Clare village would be like during such extreme weather.
“I only have a vague memory of it and I was trying to imagine what it was like to be stuck in the middle of a blizzard. No sooner had I the thing finished and edited and what did we get? A blizzard! I wanted to go back and rewrite it because, all of a sudden, I knew what it was like to be surrounded by snow. But, of course, it was too late then!”
By Owen Ryan