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Though the Sky Fall

Ronan Sheehan

In 1975 I received a BA degree in English and Latin from University College Dublin. My father asked me to work with him. I was pleased to accept the invitation, as much to experience the city from a law office as from a desire to become a solicitor per se. So I became apprenticed to my father, in the mediaeval tradition of the profession which still persists to some degree in Dublin, and perhaps elsewhere.

One day in October that year I walked with him from our office in Georgian Clare Street across the city to the eighteenth century neoclassical Four Courts to attend in the Supreme Court the ceremony which marks the opening of the Michaelmas law term and the start of a new legal year. The clerk sits beneath the Chief Justice; beneath the clerk sit the solicitors, their backs to the judge, facing the court. Many of the oldest and most senior barristers were in court for the occasion, wearing their wigs and black gowns. We were facing them. Some saluted my father. All of them together could have been employed as extras in Fellini’s Roma, which was released at about that time.

Behind the Four Courts there is a less prestigious building, the Bridewell, where prisoners are held overnight pending their appearance in the adjacent District Court. A granite stone above the door bears the motto: Fiat Justitia, Ruat Coelum. Let justice be done, though the sky fall. For many years I believed this motto came from Juvenal’s sixth satire, which I had read at university. It is a brilliant, pithy legal phrase, a challenge really, which has the satitist’s bite to it – like sed quis custodiet custodes ipsos? Who will guard the guards themselves (Sat 6)? Or Prima est haec ultio, quod se iudice nemo nocens absolvitur. The chief punishment is this: that no guilty man is acquitted in his own judgement (Sat 13). The motto above the Bridewell in Dublin is of ancient provenance, but obscure origin.

Fiat justitia, pereat mundus was the motto of Ferdinand of Germany. Jeremy Taylor, the seventeenth century English moralist, believed Saint Augustine had said it. I now think it was carved over the Bridewell when it was built in 1901 because the great Lord Mansfield said it in 1768 when he reversed the sentence of outlawry passed upon John Wilkes for publication of The North Briton: “We must not regard political consequences, how formidable soever they might be: if rebellion was the certain consequence, we are bound to say ‘iusticia fiat, ruat coelum’.”

Juvenal’s sixth satire is often described as a satire upon women. That is not quite accurate. Nevertheless, the satire informs my view of the life and death of Veronica Guerin. Juvenal sees the city as being under threat on account of the actions of a significant number of women. Specifically threatened is the institution of marriage, integral to society. Juvenal offers himself as a defender of the city’s essential values. His response is to make a series of denunciations of individuals, naming names, detailing activities and offering a moral response, saeva indignatio. Juvenal offers the view that the day-to-day administration of law is quite inadequate to the situation. His motivation is twofold: love of the city, of society ‑ as it should be, inspired by the virtues of an heroic age long gone but not forgotten – and fear, of chaos and social collapse.

He begins the poem by staging a confrontation with Postumus. Are you going to marry? You used to be sane! He offers a parade of sick Roman wives: Aelia, who falls for a camp actor. Eppia,a senator’s wife, who runs off with a gladiator. Lycisca, the wolf-girl, a prostitute who, by day, is wife of the emperor Claudius. Bibula, divorced, who grabs most of her husband's property. Maura and Tullia use the altar of chastity as a toilet. They turn the sacred mysteries of the Bona Dea into an orgy where Saufeia and Medullina compete with professionals. And then there are the women who wish to assume the roles of male athletes ...

On June 26th, 1996, Veronica Guerin was shot dead in her car on the Naas Road outside Dublin. Her entry in the Irish Dictionary of National Biography claims that she was commemorated internationally for her fearless pursuit of the truth as an investigative journalist and her refusal to be intimidated. She became the subject of several American television documentaries and biographies and inspired two films: Veronica Guerin, directed by Joel Schumacher with Cate Blanchett in the title role, and another directed by Mike Hodges in which a character based on Veronica Guerin was played by Joan Allen. This was Though The Sky Fall, a production to which I acted as consultant and persuaded the producers to employ as title the motto from above the Bridewell door, partly on the grounds that it was from Juvenal.

In 1982 I was working with my brother on a different street, Thomas Street, the street of Robert Emmett, patriot of 1803. I walked down to the courts to meet my clients, take instructions from them, before going to represent them in court. Two girls and one fellow aged nineteen. I could scarcely get them to sit still long enough to enable me to write down their names and addresses. They didn’t remember anything about the shoplifting incident from which the charges that brought them to court arose. They didn’t know whether they wanted to plead guilty or not guilty. They giggled, told jokes, sang snatches of songs. They weren’t interested in me or in what was going to happen in court. I’d never experienced this before. I didn’t realise what it was. They were high, on heroin. Almost thirty years later, I can see them. Walking beneath the Latin words of the Bridewell.

She was born in 1958 in Dublin, one of five children of an accountant. She was educated by the Holy Faith nuns and later got a diploma in marketing management from the Dublin Institute of Technology. She played basketball, soccer and camogie – women’s hurling ‑ and was a voluntary worker in various youth projects in her area. This was her way of expressing love of the city and its people, especially its youth. She worked with her father in his accountancy practice. Her family were supporters of the Fianna Fáil party. Its leader, Charles Haughey, prime minister, appointed her to the National Institute for Higher Education. In 1985 she married Graham Turley, a party member and construction engineer. Their son Cathal was born in 1990. After working for Fianna Fáil in the New Ireland Forum she founded a public relations business which was not successful. Then a vegetable shop. Then she worked as a PR consultant in the travel sector. This brought her into professional journalism. In the early 1990s her career prospered. She worked for Dublin’s leading newspapers and magazines, sometimes attracting her colleagues’ praise, sometimes their envy. In 1994 she transferred to the commercially successful Sunday Independent. She wrote on a variety of subjects ‑ the IRA, business, clerical sex scandals ‑ but mainly she wrote about crime. Her words began to touch the consciousness of the Irish people, especially the people of Dublin.

Tony Gregory, the independent deputy who represented the north inner city, said that heroin had been introduced into “the most impoverished and demoralised areas of Dublin in a very deliberate way in the early1980s”. His view was supported by the Medico-Social Research Board, which in 1983 made a survey in an area of Dublin which found a greater incidence of heroin abuse among some groups of young people than that found in Bedford Stuyvesant, one of the poorest black ghettoes in Brooklyn, in 1970, a year the US authorities regarded as a particularly bad one for heroin abuse. The response of the Irish authorities was feeble. A group of women attending keep-fit classes in Saint Teresa's Gardens launched the movement known as Concerned Parents Against Drugs. Their first meeting sent a delegation to the various drug pushers with the message “stop pushing or get out”. Indignation, denunciation, confrontation. The response of the media, and indeed the government, to this movement was to treat it as a front for the IRA because some Sinn Féin members were involved. Although it did not make heroin disappear, the Concerned Parents movement did manage for periods to stabilise the situation in those areas in which it was active through protests, evictions and other types of street actions. But it was not enough. Not by a long way. By the time Veronica Guerin came to be crime correspondent for the Sunday Independent heroin had been in the city for fifteen years. There were now eight thousand addicts out of a population of roughly a million. Gregory and others had throughout been pleading with a succession of ministers for justice to take drastic measures.

The government did take some action ‑ longer jail sentences for drug dealers, the setting up of treatment centres ‑ without making much impression on the situation. The police took some action, like the removal of the notorious Dunne family, high-profile armed robbers of the 70s turned drug-dealers in the 80s. Throughout the decade, a trail of pushers had been sentenced to jail but the prisons were brimming with drug-users. While the media duly reported these matters, no element of it amounted to a sustained engagement with the issues.  By the early90s, heroin’s grip appeared stronger than ever. The death rate steadily climbed.

On reflection, I would translate society’s impotence into a metaphor of dumbness or inarticulacy. Dublin, the city of words, had nothing to say, had lost its voice. The media, constricted by the laws of libel and other concerns, was not saying anything. The police were not persuading witnesses to give evidence against significant drug-dealers; parliament wasn’t passing legislation to meet the needs of the situation; the lawyers were only as good as the evidence they had in their briefs; the community groups, in addition to protests and vigilantism, operated their own ad hoc court system, to which the authorities were deaf. So the heroin train chugged on amid tacit general acceptance that it would continue.

This was the context in which Veronica Guerin operated. How did she respond? First, she turned the role of the crime reporter ‑ traditionally a tame mouth-piece using police-sourced information ‑ into a genuinely investigative one where she compiled stories from a variety of sources including the criminal underworld itself, effectively outing certain individuals as serious criminals. In other words, denunciation. Her critics objected that it was the job of the police and the courts, not journalists, to bring charges against suspects and try them. But she herself went further than that. She confronted individuals, face to face. She denounced them, face to face.

Her j’accuse had been welling up in the psyche of the city for a decade. While some of the circumstances of her death may remain a matter of conjecture, it was essentially for the witness she bore that she died. On October 7th, 1994 shots were fired into her house. On January 30th 1995 she was shot in the leg at her house. From her hospital bed she declared that she would not be intimidated. She asked that a police escort be withdrawn because it stopped her interviewing criminals. On September 14th, 1995 she visited the home of John Gilligan, whom she had attempted to interview many times. She asked him to explain the source of his income, which was later revealed to derive from a large scale network for smuggling and distributing marijuana. She was beaten up and threats were made against her son. She later brought charges against Gilligan.

Six months or so later she was gunned down in a carefully planned attack, the assassin pulling up alongside her car on the motorway following a court appearance. Her death was an integral part of her witness because, to adopt Aristotle’s definition that “tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude” that completion of her action communicated to society at large in a manner which no other drug-linked death had achieved. All of a sudden, everyone rushed to pick up the standard she had had raised. The legislature galvanised itself into action. Several inferior journalists tried to step into her shoes. The police seized the initiative and mounted a fierce campaign against the criminals. No one was convicted of her murder, but citizens threw flowers onto the street at places around the city associated with her.

They understood that she had died because of love of them, that she was a kind of saint. About a year before her death I was in a small script development company. We made a contract with Veronica with a view to developing a script about crime in Dublin. Her murder shocked us and for some time threw us into confusion. In the following year, as I tried to put my thoughts in order, I found that my imagination called up Juvenal. What I remembered – or what my memory selected ‑ from twenty years before. And the words on the wall of the Bridewell which I thought were his. The city in chaos. The indignation. The demand for justice, no matter what the cost. The urge to speak in a city gone deaf and dumb. When the legal forms of the polis are impotent, to assume the brand of justice through denunciation. This, more or less, was Juvenal's way in Satire 6. And this, more or less, was Veronica Guerin’s way. It gets the message across. It does not count the cost. The way of the gladiator.

15/07/2013

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