Entertainment Books

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Sex, money and intrigue: the case that had it all

Death on the Hill: The Killing of Celine Cawley Abigail Rieley (O'Brien Press €11.99)

Abigail Rieley covered the Celine Cawley case as a court reporter and she was there every day during the trial of Cawley's husband Eamonn Lillis who is now serving his sentence for her manslaughter.

As well as being a scrupulous reporter Rieley is also a gifted writer, and her new book Death on the Hill recreates the case and the lives of those involved in great detail. There's nothing really new in it but it's a masterful retelling of the whole sad, sometimes slightly sordid, business.

But as well as her forensic examination of the killing and of exactly what happened before and during the trial, there is another aspect of this book which makes it particularly interesting. That is Rieley's observations on why the killing prompted such intense media coverage right from the beginning, coverage which at times during the trial turned into a media frenzy.

Why did this happen? "Domestic murder cases are common in Ireland," Rieley says.

"Women die at the hands of their partners on an all-too-frequent basis. In one way this case should have been no different."

But it was different. And Rieley's book explores all of the factors that made it so different from the usual domestic killing. There was, of course, the Folks Who Live on the Hill factor -- a natural curiosity about people who lived privileged lives on Windgate Road on the Hill of Howth, one of the most desirable places in the country. "Addresses don't get much more exclusive," Rieley says in the book.

And there were several additional factors that made the case even more special and made it mushroom into the most high-profile trial we have seen in recent years. Among these were:

  • Celine Cawley was the dominant partner in the business, earning five times what her husband did and effectively being his boss.

  • She was a strong, dynamic personality; he was quiet and retiring, an employee who tended to fade into the background. The imbalance in their professional lives was reflected occasionally in their personal lives and at times she spoke curtly to him and appeared to lose patience with him.

  • Her appearance as a 'Bond girl' and her later connection with some famous names.

  • Lillis' story -- increasingly unbelievable as time went on -- about a balaclava-wearing burglar made the case intriguing to a sceptical public from the beginning.

  • The details of his affair with the local beauty, salon masseuse Jean Treacy, added spice to the story, including sex in car parks in his wife's luxury car.

  • The shielding of Jean Treacy from the media by Gardai during the trial and her disappearance from view.

  • The distress of Celine Cawley's family and their dignity when faced with the media onslaught evoked huge public sympathy.

  • "I think it's very much a case of some underlying traits in our national psyche coming through," says Rieley. "The case had the seductive whiff of sex, money and intrigue.

    "I think it's partly to do with our national obsession with celebrity. Not every domestic murder case has mentions of Roger Moore, James Bond, Vogue magazine, Jack Charlton and John McEnroe.

    "Secondly, coverage of the case highlighted an underlying attitude about dynamics in a marriage: there was a huge amount of media attention given to the fact that Eamonn Lillis was earning less than his wife and this was somehow interpreted as showing that he did not 'wear the trousers' in the marriage.

    "But people marry for lots of different reasons. A potentially supportive partner who allows a person to develop their career is an attractive idea," Rieley says.

    "So it seems to me there is still something in our society that attaches a stigma to the idea of a woman earning more than her husband. At times it seemed like Celine Cawley was on trial."

    Rieley says the intense media and public interest in the case tells us more about ourselves and our attitudes than it does about the individuals involved. She is fascinated by the gender factors in the case, the various social and sexual stereotypes that were challenged.

    In addition, she believes there may have been an element of schadenfreude, particularly of a couple who had done well during the boom times -- a trait she thinks we may have developed in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.

    The most distinguishing aspect of the case, however, remains the intensity of the media coverage it attracted. The book describes the scrum outside the court every day, how Jean Treacy fled to her brother's house in the North to avoid the cameras, and how the interest even intensified when Lillis was out on bail and signing on as he waited to be sentenced.

    When sentencing Lillis, the judge commented on the media coverage: "This case has attracted considerable media interest and public attention. I am conscious that on your release from prison you will still or are likely to be still of interest to the media, and I am taking that into account in imposing sentence on you."

    On that note he announced that he was reducing the sentence by three years, to one of seven years.

    Rieley also quotes Justice White's other remarks about the media coverage: "In considering the victim impact reports . . . it seems to me the media have little or no respect for the privacy or dignity of the Cawley family.

    "It is also clear to me from watching news bulletins that there has been a constant media scrum whenever you entered or left this building. I consider that to be an affront to human dignity."

    Buy 'Death on the hill: The killing of Celine Cawley' from Eason

    Irish Independent

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