Sunday 24 September 2017

Pride and prejudice: The public trial of Annie Murphy

She was tough, she was unrepentant and she fought her corner hard. Damian Corless reflects on the woman who had a child with a bishop, and who delivered Middle Ireland of the early 1990s a devastating shock to its system

Measured: Annie Murphy on the Late Late Show in 1993
Measured: Annie Murphy on the Late Late Show in 1993
Annie Murphy at home in a trailer park in Riverside, California
Annie Murphy with her partner artist Thaddeus Heinchon
Bishop Eamonn Casey in 1981

There's one soundbite that invariably gets trotted out whenever the Bishop Eamonn Casey affair resurfaces. It's from an infamous Late Late Show of April 1993 when Casey's former lover Annie Murphy was subjected to a relentless Spanish Inquisition by the studio audience and the host, Gay Byrne.

Attempting to close a harsh interrogation on a fluffy note, Gaybo put it to his wearied guest: "If your son is half as good a man as is his father, he won't be doing too bad."

"I'm not so bad either, Mr Byrne," she countered with an icy glare, before walking off the set.

That's the bit everyone remembers, but minutes earlier there was another exchange which revealed even more about where Catholic Ireland's head was at as the secular world threatened to swallow it up.

Annie Murphy at home in a trailer park in Riverside, California
Annie Murphy at home in a trailer park in Riverside, California

As her Late Late ordeal ground on, Murphy had been accused of spinning a web of mistruths by friends and supporters of the popular Bishop Casey, a fun-loving Flash Harry who was the living embodiment of a people person.

The long-estranged mother of his adult son Peter came across as anything but a people person, and towards the end of a mostly hostile cross-examination by Gay and the audience, she had become understandably surly. When a contributor stated that Murphy's account of one liaison was contradicted by diocesan records, she pointed out that the written records could easily be "doctored". The very suggestion drew gasps of indignation.

Some of the more outlandish criticisms reflected a desperate grasping at straws. One contributor remarked: "You did wash your hair a lot." Another had gone to the trouble of checking Met Éireann's records to establish that there had not been a full moon on a particular night some 20 years earlier, when Murphy's new tell-all book said there had been. Fighting her corner, Murphy reminded her inquisitors that "every man has a dark side". She told them: "Don't forget, Eamonn harangued me and bothered me" to give up her child for adoption.

Letting his duty to play Devil's Advocate get the better of his obligations as moderator, Gay responded: "He would say he was doing that, Murphy, because he didn't have faith in your capacity to look after the child. That's what he would say."

Bishop Eamonn Casey in 1981
Bishop Eamonn Casey in 1981

"And so I should never have another child?" she replied evenly.

"I'm only telling you what he would say."

"And how do you know that?"

"I just know that."

Momentarily wrong-footed, Gay then asked the defining question of the entire shooting gallery.

"Is he Eamonn's child?"

It was an incredible thing to even think of asking, given that almost a year earlier, after the scandal first broke in May 1992, Casey had admitted that Peter was his son, together with the fact that he'd siphoned off some $100,000 of church funds to pay for Peter's upkeep and education.

The truth was that Gaybo - following his famed intuition for tapping into the mood of his audience - was reflecting a conservative Catholic Middle Ireland in crisis and in deep denial.

Annie Murphy with her partner artist Thaddeus Heinchon
Annie Murphy with her partner artist Thaddeus Heinchon

The early 1990s were an in-between time. We all know how that decade turned into arguably the most magical, progressive and fun-filled period in all of Irish history. But a quarter-century ago, the Celtic Tiger was just one possible (and highly unlikely) future that had yet to be written.

The signs were there, however. From the outside, it really did look as if Ireland was finally taking its place amongst the mature and modern nations of the earth. U2 were our pride and joy, straddling the globe as the biggest band in the world. That roving carnival known as Jack's Army were the toast of Europe, making new friends everywhere as the best goodwill ambassadors money couldn't buy. All across the land, urban district councillors were falling over themselves to propose the freedom of their cities, towns and hamlets for Bono, Jack Charlton, Roddy Doyle or our with-it President Mary Robinson.

But that was only half the picture. Buoyed by resounding victories in the abortion and divorce referenda of the previous decade, Catholic Ireland was beginning to feel that while it had won two notable battles, it was in danger of losing the war of attrition with the forces of liberalism. Through a matter of timing, and her own determination to stand up for herself, Annie Murphy found herself cast as the bête noire of Catholic Middle Ireland.

Weeks before the Casey scandal exploded, traditionalists were knocked back by the X Case, when the Supreme Court rolled back part of the absolute ban on abortion which had seemed locked down by the referendum of 1983. The court ruled that an underage rape victim could travel to England to have an abortion, overturning a High Court ruling that the girl must be detained in Ireland until the birth of her child. For many conservatives, this was the thin edge of the wedge, and the ruling brought rival groups onto the streets.

Vowing to turn back the liberal tide, a new hardline group styling themselves Youth Defence made name-calling and scuffling a regular feature of Saturday afternoons in Dublin's city centre in the year between Murphy's shock revelation and her Late Late appearance. Despite the vigorous and often shrill protests of Youth Defence, the Society For The Protection Of Unborn Children (SPUC) and the short-lived Christian Principles Party, new acts decriminalising homosexuality and liberalising condom sales would pass into law during Murphy's time in the spotlight.

The little victories for the traditionalists became ever smaller. There was some satisfaction when, after In Dublin magazine ran a feature on the pubs and nightclubs with condom vending machines, every single machine was ripped out in garda raids, but with the new law soon in place, the machines multiplied tenfold.

It wasn't just in Ireland that Murphy became a hate figure. A torrid reception on The Phil Donahue Show sparked a campaign of vilification across Catholic Irish-America. There, as here, she kicked down the façade of a spotless Church. She was by her own admission a crazy mixed-up fortysomething driven by anger, but she had a strong sense of what she was doing. She even admitted later that she'd hoped her tell-all book would have sold much better than it did. She was also acting, at least partly, under the influence of a second strong-minded lover, Arthur Pennell, who pushed her to chase Casey for money and to write her story.

Whatever the outside influences, it's clear from her conduct at the time and her later reflections, that Murphy did what she did to be truthful to herself. Just months after the American drove a stake into the heart of Church immunity, Sinéad O'Connor racked things up several notches by ripping up a photo of the Pope on US TV and laying grave allegations of clerical child abuse cover-ups. It's a sign of those times that Rolling Stone rounded on the singer for "insulting the beliefs of her audience", while an interviewer from Time dismissed her allegations of clerical abuse and moved swiftly on to the next topic.

Despised by some, admired by others, Murphy delivered a shock to the system from which it would never recover.

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