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Wednesday 3 September 2014

No end to grieving mother's pain

Following the inquest into drowning tragedy, Rebecca McCarthy faces court battle over will

Ralph Riegel

Published 23/02/2014 | 02:30

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Rebecca McCarthy (centre) with her mother and aunt at the inquest in Bantry, Co Cork
Martin McCarthy and wife Rebecca and daughter Clarissa
Martin McCarthy with wife Rebecca and daughter Clarissa

HEARTBROKEN mother Rebecca McCarthy fought back the tears as she struggled to cope. The young American had hoped to build an idyllic life in rural Ireland together with her husband, Martin, 50, and three-year-old daughter, Clarissa.

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It was a radically different life choice from her home outside the urban sprawl of her native Los Angeles.

Her husband was 24 years her senior; the couple met when she was just 16 and a transition year student at Schull Community College in west Cork.

Martin's Foilnamuck farm was as isolated as it was scenic, sited on the shores of Audley Cove outside Ballydehob.

But in Bantry Courthouse last week, at the inquests into the tragic deaths of her husband and daughter, Rebecca, 26, found the trauma almost too much to bear.

It was an experience that left the young Californian woman so distraught she briefly had to flee the hearing as friends of Martin McCarthy and her family clashed over the precise circumstances in which her little girl died.

Desperately clutching a tissue in her right hand, Rebecca fought for composure as she endured a traumatic day that one west Cork friend admitted she had been dreading for over a year.

But the conclusion of the inquest isn't the end of the pain for Rebecca, who now finds herself embroiled in a legal battle over the will her husband changed just one week before his death.

Martin effectively excluded Rebecca from inheriting any major assets at the Foilnamuck farm.

Less than a week after changing the will, he waited until Rebecca had left the farm to go on an errand on March 5 last year before writing a suicide note, placing it in the milking parlour, putting Clarissa's pink wellingtons on the child, and offering her a yoghurt before walking her in the darkness down to the icy waters of Audley Cove which adjoins his farm.

Martin had a blood alcohol concentration of 204mg, almost four times the legal driving limit.

Both the father and daughter drowned with their bodies being found about 200m apart, Clarissa's in shallow water close to Audley Cove and Martin's just around the headland.

Assistant State Pathologist Dr Margaret Bolster found no sign of trauma on either body.

Martin's death by drowning was further hastened by the fact he had advanced coronary artery disease.

When Rebecca arrived back at the farm at 8pm that dark March evening, she had no inkling of the horror that was about to engulf her.

She found the gate to the farm closed, which she said was unusual.

"The Jeep was parked near the house. In the house, the dinner plates were still on the table."

Rebecca noticed that Clarissa's shoes were also on the floor.

"I didn't hear anyone in the house. I checked all the rooms and couldn't see anyone. I opened a window and looked outside but couldn't see anyone," Rebecca said.

A few minutes later, she decided to try her husband's mobile, being puzzled by their absence. "I rang Martin's phone and it just went to voicemail. It was just ringing out," she said.

A short time later, while searching the yard, she tried the phone again. "There was something ringing in the Jeep ... the phone was in the Jeep." Rebecca started to worry and rang Martin's family, friends and neighbours as well as her own friends and family.

The Hurley brothers, Alan and Daniel, were amongst the first on the scene. Alan had worked for Martin and was best man at the couple's wedding. Martin's sister, Hester O'Brien, also arrived at the farm. Alan said he knew something was wrong because Martin was available on his mobile "24/7".

A search of the farm buildings and surrounding fields commenced. The Hurleys found the note Martin had left which was simply marked 'Rebecca'.

"(We) found an envelope with 'Rebecca' written on it. Daniel opened it and we both read it," Alan said.

The note, which was in the farmer's handwriting, was shown to Martin's sister, Hester O'Brien, and then to the gardai who had arrived at Foilnamuck.

Everyone who read the note became upset and deeply worried about the safety of Martin and Clarissa.

The note was not read out at the inquests.

"I got very upset ... they (gardai) explained to me that it was a note and that it might not be acted upon," Rebecca added. "I rang my mother (in the US) and told her about the note and what it said."

By 11pm a major search operation was unfolding though the Irish Coastguard couldn't dispatch their Waterford or Shannon-based Sikorsky search helicopters because of thick fog.

But local Irish Coastguard units were deployed, led by Michael O'Regan and supported by Goleen volunteers and Baltimore RNLI.

Dozens of neighbours also joined the search along with gardai.

After the grim discovery of the note, the search immediately focussed on the nearby sea and shoreline. Rebecca ran down to Audley Cove and took comfort from her daughter's favourite spot on the beach.

"I squeezed it (Clarissa's favourite rock) ... and then I heard that they had found Clarissa," she said.

"I tried to run over (to the body) but they pulled me back. I (had to) just stand there watching. Then they put something over her little legs and they put her in the ambulance. I got in beside her ... I thought I was going to faint," Rebecca told the inquest.

Clarissa was found in shallow water at 1.50am on March 6. Michael O'Regan broke down as he described the shocking discovery of the little girl's body floating in the waves just a few metres from the shoreline.

Mr McCarthy's body was found less than 200m away at 2.15am.

Both were pronounced dead at the scene by a GP before they could be transferred to hospital.

At Rebecca's insistence, Clarissa was later buried in a single coffin with her father, cradled carefully in Martin's arms.

However, the distraught mother was visibly shocked when friends of her late husband interjected at the inquest when Coroner Frank O'Connell proposed a verdict that Martin had restrained or held his daughter in the water.

The coroner ruled that Martin had taken his own life by "drowning. . . self caused."

"There are no eye-witnesses to what happened. But people can have their suspicions. There was a very explicit letter left by Martin McCarthy. I have to take that into consideration," he said.

But when the coroner last week outlined a proposed verdict for Clarissa indicating that her father had held or restrained her in the sea, a number of Martin's friends loudly voiced their objections.

Neighbour Josephine O'Driscoll, whose son was Clarissa's godfather, insisted Martin would never hurt his daughter because "he absolutely idolised her".

Ms O'Driscoll told the coroner: "I would like to think they entered the water together. . . he took her in this wrap-around that he had her in all the time. I could not see him doing any harm to Clarissa.

"There was no way he could be parted from that child. He felt if that happened the child would be at the loss of it."

The Hurley brothers insisted that the pathology evidence did not support any suggestion that Clarissa was held or restrained in the water.

"He (Martin) wouldn't hurt an animal let alone a person," Alan said. Daniel suggested that, given Martin's coronary problems, he might even have died before his daughter in the sea.

Another friend theorised that the father and daughter fell off a small incline into the sea, suggesting the tragedy might have been an accident.

The loud objections clearly shocked Rebecca, who, after shaking her head, got up and walked out of the hearing fighting back tears.

She returned a few minutes later and went directly to confer with her solicitor, Martin Harvey.

Rebecca's family were visibly incensed at what had happened. "He killed her," one relative insisted, staring directly at those who had interrupted. Another warned: "If he were still alive he would be charged with murder."

Throughout the heated exchanges, Martin's sister, Hester, maintained a dignified, if heartbroken, silence.

At one point, Rebecca's mother placed her arm around the young woman's shoulder in a gesture of support.

After the interruptions ended, the coroner insisted that Martin's note simply had to be taken into account. He recorded a verdict that Martin McCarthy drowned with his death being "self-caused".

In the case of Clarissa, Mr O'Connell recorded a verdict of: "death was. . . as a result of drowning where the deceased, a three-year-old child, was taken into the water where she became unconscious and drowned."

Rebecca now faces the prospect of a protracted High Court battle over her late husband's estate. She signalled legal action on July 2 after attempts to broker a settlement between the various parties failed.

Renewed attempts to hammer out a compromise agreement in September and October also failed.

Rebecca now lives in California after she found it impossible to continue living in west Cork without her husband and child.

Sunday Independent

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