Friday 30 September 2016

Brighid McLaughlin: 'There are women like Siobhan trying to convince their families they're fine'

It's 10 years since my sister died at the hands of a controlling man, writes Brighid McLaughlin. My mother feels duty-bound to help prevent this happening to anyone else

Brighid McLaughlin

Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30

HAPPIER TIMES: Siobhan Kearney holds her mum’s hand
HAPPIER TIMES: Siobhan Kearney holds her mum’s hand
The family (from L-R) Niamh, Brighid, Caroline, Ann Marie, Owen (father), Deirdre (mother), sisters
Siobhan Kearney with her son Daniel and sisters Brighid and Aisling

Out in a square of light, in the foyer of Fitzpatrick's Hotel, Killiney, I saw mum standing. She pressed my hand. "Nobody realises the damage this has done to us," she says. "It may be 10 years since Siobhan died, but it is like yesterday. That is why I want you to write an article about her and how this savagery can happen to any woman. I know you don't want to write it, it's too painful, but we are duty-bound to help prevent this happening to someone else. I don't want anyone to die like she did. Ever. I just have to do something positive," she says by way of apology.

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"There are women like Siobhan all over Ireland, who right now are trying to convince their extended families that they are fine with the controlling men in their lives but know instinctively that they and their children are not safe. They should never stay in a frightening situation for the sake of their children. They should get out as fast as they can. If one woman reads this and takes action, I will be happy."

I order two lattes and we sit down by the fire. "Look," says mum, showing me the new lining of her old navy coat, a coat Siobhan bought for her in Arnotts shortly before she died. "A lovely lady in Dalkey, a seamstress, re-lined it and basically reconstructed the whole coat for me," she says. "I can't part with it." I look at my mother. Ten years later and she is still in bits. Unlike the navy coat, she cannot be repaired.

"Every day is horrendous," she says, "after 10 years we are all suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. We have flashbacks that are horrific. (My father is too traumatised to speak about what happened.) I agree with mum. We are constantly bombarded with images of her horrific death. Insensitive, ghoulish TV programmes like 24 Hours to Kill, are replayed incessantly. The personal sense of intrusion, the endless sensationalism simply breaks our hearts.

"Wednesday was particularly bad," says mum. "It was an ordinary day. I was standing outside the front door, waiting for an electrician to fix a light-fitting. The sun was bearing down on me. I expected to see her at the door with a huge bunch of daffodils, carrying her homemade Simnel cake, still warm from the oven."

"She loved Easter. She would come into the house with freshly baked cheddar, scallion and potato scones, Easter eggs, sample packets of skin creams, wine. She was always so affectionate, full of hugs and kisses. I see her all the time, the long legs like a gazelle, her huge almond shaped eyes, her gorgeous smile and those snow-white teeth. She was my Easter bunny rabbit. My little pet.

"Now this is all I have left," she says, opening her handbag. I stare at mum's little album of photographs. The cover is worn. There are pictures of Siobhan barefoot water-skiing in Terryglass, Co Tipperary, Siobhan cooking in Hotel Salvia, Majorca, Siobhan showing Dan how to use a pasta machine, Siobhan sitting on a huge black horse in muddy jodhpurs.

"I remember herself and Deirdre (my younger sister) going horse riding in the Phoenix Park," says mum. "I stood in the yard as this massive stallion came out. I was terrified, yet Siobhan, this tiny miniature figure, mounted him, she was as cool as a cucumber and herself and Deirdre galloped off through the park. Even when they were children, growing up in The Ward, (Co Dublin) they were excellent riders and loved the horses. Siobhan had an unusual mixture of fear and strength. Despite being fragile, she was ironically brave."

In one photograph Siobhan is dancing on a stage, her leg kicked high into the air. "She was a fantastic dancer, a comedienne, a chatterbox, I remember her telling me a hilarious story on Church Road in Dalkey. I said, "Stop, Siobhan," but she kept on going. I was doubled up laughing and had to hold on to a gate for support. I never saw her sit down in my life, she was constantly busy, constantly on the move."

Mum's hazel eyes are burning with pain. "Our only physical and emotional connection to Siobhan is Dan (Siobhan's son). Thank God he is with us. We all adore him."

What word best describes Siobhan? I ask.

'Winsome', she says, "there was something winsome, fragile about her."

"Is winsome the right word? Check it on your phone Biddy."

I read her out the meanings;

'Winsome;' an adjective. Attractive or appealing in a fresh, innocent way, 'winsome smile.' Synonyms: appealing, engaging, charming, winning, attractive, pretty, sweet, endearing, darling, dear, loveable, lovely, delightful, enchanting, captivating, fetching.

"That is her," said mum. "She was all those things."

"I don't know how we are still standing, how we are actually breathing. The murder trial gobbled up her life, her privacy and ours. She became a statistic. So did we.

"As her mother, I always see her in blue jeans and a white shirt, that song, Forever in Blue Jeans, reminds me of her. I dream of her as a girl, not a woman. Her spirit has never left me. Every morning, the minute my feet hit the ground, I say, 'This day is another day without my darling Siobhan, help me get through it. Thank you, God'.

"Now it's time to help other women, Biddy!" Then she kissed me goodbye and left.

For me the saddest thing about Siobhan is that we could not save her. It was only in the month before her death that she finally let her guard down. Only then did we know how controlling Brian Kearney was.

There were early warning signs. He insisted they get married in the Caribbean and refused to have our family present. This was devastating for us. On her wedding day, Siobhan rang me from Spice Island. She was crying. Lonely. The year before she died, I received a telephone call, my first ever from him, telling me that he was worried about her, he suggested she needed help. I told him Siobhan was as happy as a bumble bee looking after Dan. I put the phone down. The call was weird and unsettling.

When I told Siobhan about it, she laughed, and then threw up her hands in mock terror. She did not want us to worry about her. We always assumed she was in control. Sadly, this was not the case.

Brian Kearney was already in full planning mode. He started small. He refused to let her set up a baby room for Dan. He told her in no uncertain terms that she could not redecorate his Eighties-style sitting room. He was in charge and his god was money. The signs were subtle and Kearney was cunning.

I once asked Siobhan what she saw in Brian Kearney. "I know he is boring, Biddy, but he isn't a womaniser, he doesn't smoke, and rarely drinks, he's safe."

That he was not.

Because of the nature of Kearney's 'control' of Siobhan's life and her death, I shall endeavour to help any woman (or man) who feels any of the following to reassess, take action. Siobhan would want me to. I must add that I am not an expert, that 95pc of men are good, sound, decent human beings. I must also say that women can abuse men too and the signs of danger I mention are ones I personally have witnessed.

It is vital to know these signs. If these are familiar, persistent patterns, my advice is to get away from the bastards who behave this way.

Only this week, a Cork woman was thrown down the stairs by her husband, described in court as a 'perfectionist'. Why? She cooked his pork chops in the oven instead of the frying pan. As well as suffering serious fractures, bruising, laceration of the liver, she also had a stroke.

In Ireland, domestic abuse is still not regarded as a crime.

Sometimes the signs are so subtle you may barely notice them.

The easiest way to know if you are been abused by someone is if you feel weak or stressed around them.

Do you get a sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach at the thought of him being in the house with you?

Do you feel hounded by his incessant phone calls?

Is he possessive, even scary?

Do you feel so wrecked from arguing with him that you just give in?

Does he belittle you or laugh at you regarding your religious or political views?

Do you feel diminished, 'small,' in his company?

Does he ever 'listen' to your point of view?

Does he tell you that your family or friends are 'crazy'?

Does he call you 'fat, ugly'?

Does he compare you with your prettier friends?

Does he tell you not to go for a promotion because it might tire you, while secretly resenting your success?

Does he make you dependent on him financially, so you feel that there is no way out?

Does he indulge your children materially in order to make you feel useless, even poor?

Is he manipulating your children to isolate you as a mother?

Are you the target of his sarcastic comments?

Does he dictate and lecture you and tell you everything is your fault?

If Siobhan was here now she would ask you, 'Are you safe? Are your children safe?'

Siobhan was giver, a helper, a sweetheart. She was my best friend, my confidante, and my chef. To every one of my sisters and my brother she was their best friend and confidant. To my parents she was a beacon of joy and good humour. How easily forgotten things come back when we least expect them.

I remember watching her in the garden off Hotel Salvia. She was sitting under the bougainvillea, so very beautiful herself, with so many things to do, consoling a young widow who was a guest.

She helped people from all walks of life. She listened to their ailments, problems and crises. Often, she made them laugh.

No matter what trouble arose, advice was always given. She brought solutions, practical closures to everything and there was joy in doing it.

She made everyone feel better about themselves, about life. She knew what it was like to be alone, especially in Spain.

For me a tragic sadness for Siobhan was that she never knew what it was like to be 'loved' by a man - a real man. Men loved her wit, her beauty and kindness. Yet, she was afraid to love someone in case it wouldn't be returned.

A delightful Italian from Lake Como, wanted to marry her. We wish she had. One day Siobhan and I were having coffee in Idlewilde, Dalkey when her little brown suede bag fell on to the floor. As I picked up her bits and pieces I found 'A prayer to St Joseph, to protect against a violent death.' In the end, even he couldn't help her.

Helplines; 'Do or Die Foundation.' (Siobhan's friend, Priscilla Grainger, is one of the co-founders of the 'Do or Die' Foundation in Ireland). If you want to seek help you can contact Priscilla: tel: (085) 163-4219 or Safe Ireland tel: 090 647-9078

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