Tom Meagher: 'The thing with grief is you have to let it happen, you have to accept things are going to hurt . . . possibly forever'
Published 27/04/2014 | 02:30
TOM Meagher found out about White Ribbon at the funeral service in Australia for his murdered wife, Jill, where her brother had arranged to have the ribbons handed out. He discovered White Ribbon was an organisation aimed at enlightenment about violence against women and persuading society to make changes for the better.
Part of this campaign was to achieve changes to bail and parole legislation, after Jill's murderer turned out to be a violent rapist who should never have been allowed out of jail.
Now back living in Ireland, Tom has become passionate about the cause of White Ribbon and champions bringing enlightenment to universities – "universities have a terrible record of sexual violence so places like that are really important" – and to schools.
"I grew up in an education system where you were never even taught about what consent means. Most of us grew up and knew to be respectful, but not everyone does. It's important that we address this particularly to boys and men because overwhelmingly they're the ones who are going to perpetrate violence against women."
Last week he sat down and recalled the horrific events that have led him to this path.
Niamh Horan: Can you describe Jill – a lot of people have seen her picture and heard the story – but Jill as you knew her.
Tom Meagher: I met her in UCD in December 2001. She was a force of nature, she was really vivacious, she was just infectious; everyone wanted to be around her. She was great to be around, she was just so intelligent and so funny that she could pick you up on things in a second and just kind of destroy you, so you had to be careful. I couldn't believe that she went out with me, it was just one of those things.
She was always writing things down, creating characters, she was like super- creative. She always wanted to get into comedy and things like that, so I just think she'd want to be remembered as somebody who made people laugh, and who just made the world a better place, which she did. She was really young, just 20 I think, so we grew together, we did everything. She loved travelling, she had very itchy feet, she could never stay in the same place for a long time – different job, different country. I loved that about her. It was so refreshing.
Jill's parents lived in Australia. They were kind of moving around a bit. Jill didn't really mind where she'd go, she'd go where she wanted to go and I was happy to go anywhere with her.
I proposed to her in 2008 – I was 28 then, she was 26 or 27. That was in Barcelona. It was supposed to be very romantic, but Barcelona were playing Glasgow Rangers that weekend so it was full of drunk Scots, all the Scottish guys just parked out and drinking cans all over the grass. So the only place I could do it was in the hotel room, so I just did it there.
We were married in the Glen of the Downs. It was lovely. One of my happiest memories was waking up beside her the next day. It was just amazing – not just 'cause we had a huge bedroom' [he laughs], but it was just an incredible moment and that day going down and all our friends were there, that was an incredible moment. Then we went to Australia in 2009.
We lived in Brunswick in Melbourne for about a year and Jill talked a lot about buying a house, which was very unusual for her. But we began talking about family and home-ownership and stuff – things that are grown up.
We were happy where we were. We definitely loved Brunswick, the community there was brilliant, it was a real lively scene as well. We just loved where we were. There was no reason to be nervous about anything. Not that Jill was a nervous person at all. She was very independent. I can't even picture her being nervous. Her whole life was just about having fun and maximising how much fun she could have.
She was working as a staffer in an office [of a media company]. She was a unit co-ordinator. I think she looked after a lot of the finance and the administration side of things.
NH: Can you remember the last time you spoke to her?
TM: I do, yeah, I spoke to her that morning when I was leaving for work and she was just getting changed and she told me she'd be home around midnight. But we just had a very pleasant, usual sort of goodbye in the morning and then obviously when midnight came I wasn't necessarily panicking. Well, actually I'd fallen asleep but it wouldn't have even been a panic when I woke up. But obviously as time went on I started texting her – I think it was around 1.45am – I was kind of panicking then because it wasn't like her to not answer her phone so I just kept ringing and ringing, and I didn't know who she was out with either because she was relatively new in the job.
About four or five in the morning I started walking these empty streets with absolutely not one person around. It was just kind of really haunting, a strange feeling. At some point, you don't really want to, but you're kind of looking to see if she might be hurt or unconscious or something like that, so you're just kind of looking up these dark alleys.
When I got to where she had been socialising, there were two ways I could have gone, so I went one way – not the way Jill went – which meant I was about 400-500 metres away from where she was killed. But it is so expansive and every place is closed so you can't ask anyone anything, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack.
NH: And then the story about Jill missing started to really pick up back here in Ireland and in the UK, all over the world, through social media.
TM: I'd never seen anything catch quite so quickly. Before that I hadn't paid a lot of attention to the missing persons part of social media.
This was due to the work of so many people, like so many of Jill's friends getting posters done.
Everyone else was telling me: "Oh it'll be OK, she'll show up, she'll show up," but around that area I only knew one or two people who lived near us and I'd already contacted them and she wasn't there, so your brain's just wired and you're thinking of all these possibilities.
The police did explain to me that they had to look at me, the husband [as a suspect].
They said afterwards if they hadn't done that it would have been seized on by the defence team. But I was sitting in a police station for four hours thinking I'm kind of wasting my time here and they should be looking for my wife.
NH: And then the video footage emerged of Jill walking home.
TM: The police said they had this image and they showed it to me on a phone, before anyone else saw. I couldn't really speak after that. I was just numb at that stage. I watched that and I didn't know what to think.
I knew (Adrian Bayley) had done something to her. There was no kind of question in my mind. Either he has her or he's killed her. These were the only two options available to me. It's horrible because you're thinking either she's dead or she's being kept against her will, and you're kind of rooting for the latter, you just want her to be alive and get her.
NH: When Jill first went missing, what was the hardest, the lowest point for you?
TM: I think it was when the public saw the police coming out of my apartment with these bags. Straight away, some were thinking: "Oh he must have done it."
Jill had then been missing for three days so you just feel like the walls were closing in on you. But I had so many brilliant friends and family around, they sort of protected me a lot, but the media were outside the house and I couldn't leave the apartment without getting sort of mobbed.
Not that I went out much. Nor did I sleep. I just kind of lay there. I might doze off for 10 minutes, but then I'd wake up and Jill's not in the bed beside me, it's just a kick in the teeth. Everything comes back straight away. So you're scared to go asleep.
NH: And when you first heard they had arrested Bayley, what was your reaction?
TM: I forgot his name as soon as it was said to me. When I was told what happened I was with Jill's brother. We couldn't really process it, we were just absolutely silent. We didn't cry at the time, that came later. After about 10 to 15 minutes it was overwhelming.
I was just standing there in this apartment the police had moved us to to get us away from the media. I don't even know what I was thinking, it was a kind of silent numbness.
Then I was just pacing and being silent, and trying to breathe, but when I thought about what happened to her my whole body just seized up. But that was the first night I slept so I guess knowing, even though it was awful, knowing must have been some sort of relief. I just collapsed and didn't wake up for 12 hours.
Later I read Bayley's 2002 court reports and I literally vomited. What he did to the prostitutes in 2002 and before ... it was so degrading and humiliating, it was almost attempted murder, it was really brutal and I can't figure out how someone can read that and not give him the full sentence for rape; and there's also 16 counts of rape in that, he'd raped before.
NH: Do you feel hatred towards Adrian Bayley?
TM: Yeah, for him absolutely. That's very personal. He's one of the worst people I can think of. Considering what he did to Jill, yeah absolutely, of course I hate him. I think it would be obtuse of me to say that I didn't. I went through a period of wanting to talk to him. I wanted to hurt him, but it didn't really do me any good and I suppose it's a natural response as well. For about a year I just wanted to get him, shout at him, be violent towards him. But I've never even been in a fight so maybe being violent towards him would be a pretty bad idea. Now I don't know what I would get out of talking to him.
Even if he said, "Yeah I'm sorry," I don't know what I'd do with that so I don't see the point of it. I don't want him to be a part of my life. He's obviously pushed himself into my life by being violent and murdering my wife, but I don't want him to be connected to me in any way. I want to sever those ties as much as I possibly can rather than make them stronger.
The police gave me everything, all the details of what happened on the night. It's all written down. But I don't think I'm ready to read through it yet. I might in the future – but it's about what he did to Jill, so I don't know if I'll ever be ready for it.
NH: How did you feel when you heard that he attempted suicide?
TM: I was delighted actually. I was at that stage, so soon after it happened, that I was hoping he'd die, because, well, there's lots of reasons. If he died we wouldn't have to go through any of the court nonsense and it would really help Jill's family maybe.
Now in retrospect I'm kind of glad he didn't (die). But then in another way I don't care, if you know what I mean. I don't care what happens to him as long as it's not good.
NH: When you heard him crying and saying "I'm not crying for me, I'm crying for Jill," how did that make you feel?
TM: I just thought it was so disingenuous given the fact that he had done what he had done, then he never gave himself up to the police. It took ages to get a confession out of him, and also he'd seen people saying that I might have done it. So I don't buy it at all.
I never got to say goodbye to Jill, even after she died. Jill's parents went, I wasn't able. The funeral director described certain kinds of things she had after the attack and I just wasn't able to go and see her after that.
So it's just such a gradual progression to let go.
But there's things you can do. Like when I started this White Ribbon thing it really focused me and I thought this might hurt a lot because it's close to what happened, but it's actually really focusing me. It's given me a lot of energy to focus on what we're doing and trying to help people. It's really important to push for legislation but also to recognise the limits of the law.
People do care and I think if we as a society decide this is unacceptable, and we make it very, very clear, then we can make a change. The demand for change will create change. I mean there's been domestic law here for years but it doesn't stop domestic violence. But what it does is create a culture where it's seen as unacceptable. The vast majority of us (men) abhor this behaviour. We just hate it.
NH: What difference has coming back to Ireland made?
TM: I think it's been great coming back to Ireland because first of all not as many people know who I am over here, or if they do they kind of are a bit cooler about it. I think it's just easier to be around people who either don't know or sort of look beyond it. I'm not saying it didn't happen in Australia. Of course it did, but it was just because it was so raw and everyone seemed to care about it so much that people did treat me differently over there.
My own friends definitely didn't change the way they are towards me. They can still give me an awful slagging.
But people were coming up to me in the street which is lovely and all that. But sometimes you don't know who's going to approach you and who's not; it's very scary almost. I was sort of hyper vigilant for a while. I'd be very nervous about going out and doing anything but I'm not as much anymore.
I still do (feel) a lot of anxiety and stuff. It's a lot of things. It's just the idea that you know your future is massively uncertain. It went from where daily you know where you were going to be tomorrow, to not having any certainty at all. But the biggest thing is Jill's not here and you know, I miss her every day. So that's the most upsetting thing.
You know, your favourite person is just gone and never coming back.