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Above Water: Celebration of human spirit shines through in frank account of abuse

Trish Kearney’s memoir of the torment she suffered at the hands of swimming coach George Gibney is a difficult but essential read, writes John Meagher

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Double life: Former swimming coach George Gibney, pictured in 1989, presented an image of himself as a loving husband and father

Double life: Former swimming coach George Gibney, pictured in 1989, presented an image of himself as a loving husband and father

Double life: Former swimming coach George Gibney, pictured in 1989, presented an image of himself as a loving husband and father

There is a line early on in Trish Kearney’s devastating memoir of the abuse she suffered at the hands of swimming coach George Gibney that sends a horrible chill down the spine.

It is 1980, she is 13 and has recently joined Trojan, one of the best youth swimming clubs in Ireland. Gibney stands by her side at the pool and says: “I’m going to bed with you this weekend.” He grins. Trish is confused — she has no idea what this adult means. Very soon, she will find out.

Above Water is not an easy read, but it is an essential one. It is a no-holds-barred account of a childhood ruined by an outwardly charming and charismatic man hailed as the best swimming teacher in the business. Gibney was a serial abuser who wrecked the lives of dozens of children — and, in what must be one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Irish legal history, he got away with it.

One can sense Kearney’s incalculable pain as she recalls the events that made her teenage years a living hell, but by telling her story as honestly as she does in these pages, she wrests back control of her own life and conveys Gibney’s monstrous deception — and, let there be no doubt about it, George Gibney was a monster.

Not only was he happy to sexually abuse Trish and others for years, but he tried to take control over every aspect of his victims’ lives. She documents just how completely he inveigled his way into her teen year. She felt forced to give up her friendship with future Olympian Gary O’Toole. Journeys to and from school were fraught with anxiety in case he would show up. Even in her own home there was no escape: he had a technique where he would ring the house phone for a second and she would have to call him back, irrespective of the time of day or night.

Gibney was a master of making his victims appear isolated. For years, Trish assumed she was the only person who was receiving his ‘special’ attention. In reality, there were many children robbed of their innocence before her and there would be several after her — and his catalogue of sexual and emotional abuse would happen at the same time he presented an image of himself to the world as a gifted coach, a loving husband and a dedicated father.

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Trish Kearney. Photo by Rob Lamb

Trish Kearney. Photo by Rob Lamb

Trish Kearney. Photo by Rob Lamb

Kearney finally felt she was able to speak out about what he had done after Gary O’Toole sent her a letter out of the blue. By that stage she was married to Eamonn and had a child, Aoife. The letter’s arrival was, as she describes here, a “bombshell”.

Another great swimming prospect, Francis ‘Chalkie’ White, had confided in O’Toole about the years of abuse he had been subjected to by Gibney, and he suspected there were many more victims. O’Toole wondered if Trish had pushed their friendship away all those years before because Gibney had got to her too.

She decided to make an official statement to the gardaí. It looked as though her testimony would be enough to see justice served. But he was spared conviction in court. The allegations of abuse were not enough: it was ruled that too much time had elapsed between the offences and his victims coming forward.

Kearney was left to watch, horrified, as he walked away a free man and, leaving Ireland almost immediately, he was able to build a new life for himself in America. Twenty-seven years on, he still resides there, content in the knowledge that most of those who know him now — sometimes under an assumed name — have no idea about his evil crimes back home.

The media could not report his name, but that changed in 1995 with an exposé by Johnny Watterson in the Sunday Tribune. Kearney was one of the people who told her story anonymously and, for the first time, the public could see who the real George Gibney was.

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Above Water is not just a book about being the victim of child sexual abuse and an attempt to reclaim life as an adult, it’s about a burning desire to see justice done, even at this late stage. The book would not have happened were it not for the Where Is George Gibney? podcast for BBC radio, first aired late last year. Mark Horgan, of the popular Second Captains podcast, and producer Ciarán Cassidy were determined to tell the stories of Gibney’s victims and Trish was among those to shed light on the darkness. Horgan managed to confront the former coach in his adopted home in Florida, but Gibney — shocked he had been identified — turned on his heels and would not utter a word.

With yet more of his victims coming forward, there is a sense that justice may yet be served. Either way, Gibney is likely to be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life. Trish Kearney, by contrast, has been liberated. Her story is out there. She has the support of a loving family and friends, including Gary O’Toole.

She has written an important book that celebrates the power of the human spirit. Despite years of suffering, she was not broken. And, in her candid reminiscences about how child abusers like Gibney operated, her words urge all of us to be mindful of the threats around us and how effectively an arch-manipulator can groom children — often, distressingly, in plain sight.

Memoir: Above Water: A Survivor’s Story by Trish Kearney
Hachette Ireland, 272 pages, hardcover €14.99; e-book £9.99

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