Thursday 19 October 2017

‘Gone to heaven’: the words that foretold tragedy

The heartbreaking deaths that still have rural west Cork locked in a numb silence - and which now involves a disagreement over the subsequent will - comes before the Coroner's Court soon. Ralph Riegel reports

Rebecca holds a toy at the funeral of Martin and Clarissa.
Rebecca holds a toy at the funeral of Martin and Clarissa.

It was a romance that defied both age and cultural backgrounds. He was a middle-aged, hard-working Irish farmer who many presumed was destined to be a lifelong bachelor. She was a bright, pretty American teenager who came to study in Ireland and, despite an urban background, had a fascination for all aspects of rural life.

But Martin McCarthy's marriage to Rebecca Bailey-Cejnar after a whirlwind romance would ultimately end in a double-tragedy claiming the life of McCarthy and that of his three-year-old daughter, Clarissa.

The tragedy has left two families devastated and a tightknit Irish community astounded after it emerged McCarthy had changed his will in the days before his death.

The couple married in 2006 when Rebecca was 19, with their daughter Clarissa being born four years ago.

There was a 24-year age gap between the couple who had first met when Rebecca, as part of a secondary school project, had visited Martin's farm.

They immediately struck up a friendship and maintained a correspondence, which led, in time, to what one local described as an old-fashioned courtship.

Within the next six weeks, a Cork coroner will hold an inquest into the deaths of Shock: A garda at the scene in west Cork. Left: Martin McCarthy with Rebecca and Clarissa. MICHAEL MAC SWEENEY outside Ballydehob in west Cork on March 5 last.

Mr McCarthy and his daughter drowned in the sea off Audley Cove, within sight of his isolated farm in a suspected murder-suicide.

The bodies were found after a major search was triggered when Rebecca called at the family's Filemuck farm to collect Clarissa, who had been spending the day with her father.

The young mother found no trace of her husband and daughter in the house -- and was shocked to discover a note left in the farm's milking parlour, which simply read: 'Gone to Heaven.'

The note shocked the young mother and she immediately contacted gardai. Within hours of a huge search operation being launched by gardai, Irish Coastguard and the RNLI, both bodies were found a short distance off the coast of Audley Cove.

The subsequent four days represented a nightmare for Rebecca McCarthy and the entire Ballydehob community. Such was the scale of the tragedy that it attracted enormous media attention with reporters and photographers descending on the west Cork village.

Martin McCarthy was a popular figure in Ballydehob and Schull, best known for his interest in local politics and his hard work in various farm enterprises.

He was also active in community groups and every Christmas would help out with the Santa presents at the local old folks' party. Most locals knew him from regular games of cards in both Ballydehob and Schull.

Rebecca, in a gesture of compassion, asked that her husband and daughter be buried in the same casket.

Members of the Bailey-Cejnar and McCarthy families entered St Mary's Church in Schull side-by-side for the Requiem Mass on March 8 in a gesture of solidarity.

Mr McCarthy's sister, Hester, carried a framed photo of her brother out of the church while Clarissa's favourite toys adorned the coffin.

Rebecca, tightly gripping one of Clarissa's favourite toys, was hugged by her mother as the cortege moved off on its final journey to the cemetery. Three times during the Requiem Mass, Rebecca cried out aloud as if the pain was simply too much to bear.

The young mother and members of her family had also maintained a vigil in her husband's isolated farmhouse for the three days of funeral proceedings.

Locals increasingly refused to make any public comment, fearing it would merely add to the grief of the two families. Friends and neighbours believed that only time would heal the terrible wounds inflicted by the double tragedy.

However, just weeks later, a bombshell erupted with the discovery that Martin McCarthy had changed his will to effectively exclude his young wife from inheriting any major assets.

In May, Rebecca learned of her husband's new will, which bequeathed most of his assets to family, friends and neighbours. She was left nothing.

After informal talks and legal consultations, Rebecca launched legal proceedings on July 2 in a bid to set aside her husband's new will.

Strenuous efforts to broker a legal settlement continued throughout July and August between all parties. In late August and early September, it appeared that a compromise agreement might be reached.

However, that tentative settlement proposal ultimately fell apart.

Papers were then submitted to the High Court and the controversy over the will became public when the Irish Independent/Sunday Independent revealed the legal dispute on September 15.

While efforts to agree a compromise settlement still continue, the matter will proceed to hearing later this year if an agreement is not hammered out.

Rebecca is represented by Martin Harvey & Co Solicitors in Cork city.

In tandem with her action over her entitlement to the family home and a share in her husband's estate, she is also taking an action for compensation for trauma and distress over the loss of her little girl.

Two of the defendant parties are represented by Wolfe & Co Solicitors in Skibbereen.

Neither legal firm had any comment to make on the proceedings.

Rebecca remained in west Cork for several months after the tragedy in an attempt to rebuild her life and deal with the loss of her husband and daughter. Friends admitted it was a desperately difficult time for the young woman.

"It was absolutely heartbreaking. Rebecca felt she had to stay but no matter where she went there were reminders of what she had lost. It was terrible for her," one friend said.

She decided to travel back to California in September to stay with her family. Friends say that Rebecca is now doing well with the support of her family while living in California.

She has taken up a job and is working hard to get her life back on track. However, she is determined to travel back to Cork for the coroner's inquest on February 20.

That inquest can only proceed now that the garda file on the double tragedy has been submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions and, as expected, no further action was signalled. Post-mortem examinations indicated that both the father and daughter died from drowning.

The parties to the civil action are now eager for an agreement to be reached before the coroner's inquest takes place.

In Ballydehob, memories of the tragic events of March 5 are still raw and painful. "This is a very tightknit community. Everyone down here knows everyone else. People don't want to talk about it in case it upsets anyone," one local explained.

Rebecca's sister, Jessica, who works in the US, admitted at the time that her entire family were badly shaken by the tragedy. "I am very close with my sister and have visited west Cork a few times. We are all pretty shaken up over this," she said.

Irish Independent

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