Meave Sheehan on Hawe tragedy: 'Ultimately we are in the haunting presence of the inexplicable'
Teacher sank into a psychosis that led to the slaughter of his family - yet no one noticed, writes Maeve Sheehan
Alan Hawe exchanged hundreds of text messages with his wife, Clodagh, in the months before he slaughtered his family. The texts contained the humdrum stuff of daily family life, such as the kids' activities and household chores, according to those familiar with the case.
Here was a man said to be on the verge of a severe psychotic episode that would compel him to wipe out his family and then take his own life.
Yet his texts betrayed no hint of the savagery he would unleash on Clodagh and their three boys, Liam (13), Niall (11) and Ryan (6), at the family home in Oakdene Downs, near Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan, on the last day of their summer holidays from school, the children asleep in bed, Clodagh in her pyjamas and dressing gown on the sofa in the living room downstairs. He came at her with an axe that was usually kept in the shed outside, striking her three times on the head, and on her arm, when she raised it to defend herself. He stabbed her with a steak knife, and left both near her body.
He had a second knife, a Kitchen Devil, when he moved upstairs to the children's rooms. Liam and Niall were under their duvets in their single beds, both pushed against the same wall. He stabbed Liam first in the throat, and then his brother, in the same spot, also rendering them speechless by severing their windpipes. Both boys had raised their arms, to try to defend themselves. Then to Ryan's bedroom. After he had finished, he left the bloodied Kitchen Devil knife on the little boy's pillow.
Garda witnesses later told the inquest how the children's bedclothes and the walls of their bedrooms were heavily bloodstained.
Murders accomplished, he arranged his affairs. He stacked Clodagh's jewellery boxes neatly on the bed in the master bedroom. He wrote at least one note after the murders and left it on the kitchen table, along with a letter, written on both sides of A4 sheets, in a sealed envelope.
He taped a third note to the window on the back door, warning off callers from entering.
He gathered financial records and insurance documents and left them where they would be seen. Clodagh's mother, Mary Coll, has said that one of his last acts was to log on to a computer, access their bank accounts and transfer funds from their joint account to his. He took his own life in the hall.
Verdicts of unlawful killing of Clodagh, Liam, Niall and Ryan were delivered by a trembling jury foreman last Tuesday, after two days of brutally graphic evidence at the inquest at Cavan Court House. Unlawful killing - the legal term - seemed inadequate for scale of the slaughter that had occurred at the Hawe family home on August 29 last year.
Dr Michael Curtis, the deputy state pathologist, said he found it "very hard to believe" that the severing of the boys' windpipes, which "rendered all three of them unable to make a sound", was coincidental. His impression was that Hawe worked "on the basis that by dispatching Clodagh and the older boy fast, he would have rendered the possibility of a physical challenge less likely".
Inquests are not concerned with the why, but with the how, when and where. The "why" is the most difficult question to address.
Professor Harry Kennedy, clinical director of the Central Mental Hospital, concluded from examination of Hawe's medical and counselling records and suicide notes, that he had long-term mental health issues that worsened into a severe depressive episode with psychotic symptoms.
No one knew Clodagh Hawe better than her mother, Mary Coll, and sister, Jacqueline Connolly. They believe Hawe planned the murders of his family. A statement read out after the inquest said: "It is clear from the evidence presented that Clodagh and the boys were killed in a sequence that ensured that the eldest, and most likely to provide effective resistance, were killed first, and that they were executed in a manner which rendered them unable to cry out for help." He was concerned about his "position as 'a pillar of the community' and we are aware that he was concerned at his imminent fall from that position and the breakdown of his marriage".
Hawe was vice-principal in Castlerahan primary school near their home and Clodagh was a teacher at Oristown primary school. They had been student sweethearts. In the aftermath of the murders, shocked local people spoke about him as a pillar of the community, who was always eager to please.
A darker picture has emerged from the inquest, and since, from the Garda's investigation for the coroner.
Hawe's difficulties emerged earlier last year when it came to light that he had been viewing pornography, according to those familiar with the case. It was an issue that threatened his marriage. Clodagh urged Hawe to go to counselling, and he attended his first appointment in March 2016.
"His goal was for family life to get back to the way it was," David McConnell, his counsellor, later told the inquest. "Throughout our sessions it was clear that Alan had placed a very high value on family life, on being a good husband and being a good father," he said.
He said Hawe had a "fear of shame" of being seen as less than perfect.
At what was to be his final session on June 21, he "arrived stressed". He wept during the session, and said: "People think of me as being a pillar of the community - if only they knew."
On the same day as his counselling session, Hawe went to his GP, Dr Paula McKevitt. His ailment was one that would later strike clinical psychiatrist Professor Harry Kennedy as "odd". He presented with an abnormality on his big toenail, which Dr McKevitt said she tended to by taking samples and prescribing a fungicide. She examined his feet, because he told her he washed them in Domestos. She urged him to apply Savlon instead. He told her he was run-down, hadn't been sleeping, had had a sore throat and mouth ulcers.
He said he was "stressed" by "a conflict that had arisen with a colleague" and was feeling isolated. She prescribed sleeping tablets, and asked if he had discussed his concerns with Clodagh. He said he had.
Dr McKevitt said he showed no signs of delusion or agitation, and he was looking forward to a family holiday in Italy. She did not know that he was seeing a counsellor. "He didn't disclose any of his deep thoughts to me," Dr McKevitt told the coroner.
According to Professor Kennedy, however, Hawe was mentally ill. He reached this opinion after studying the medical records, counselling notes and suicide note, at the request of the Cavan County Coroner, Dr Mary Flanagan. Hawe's counselling notes showed he was "troubled", while his medical records revealed he held "unfounded" anxieties about his body.
Over time, these appear to have developed into "severe preoccupations" that were "blown out of proportion" and were the symptoms of a "worsening depressive illness".
Hawe did not see his counsellor or his GP again. The school holidays began and, according to Professor Kennedy's analysis, Hawe was on his apparently unnoticeable descent into psychosis.
Clodagh's mother, Mary Coll, has said that had Clodagh felt she or the boys were in danger, she would have walked out. Garda investigators would later trawl through the mobile phones, computers and documents and interviewed more than 150 people, searching for possible motives. They examined his finances and investigated allegations that he had been in a relationship with a teenager. Neither stacked up. The pornography, that he expressed such fears about, was not hardcore criminal material.
They uncovered no evidence that he had planned or researched the murders. They suspect he used a private browser.
Hawe offered his own reasons in his suicide notes, displaying clearly the distorted thinking identified by Professor Kennedy. His words displayed shame, guilt, anger and blowing apparently insignificant events out of proportion. For instance, he mentioned incidents from his childhood - "horseplay" with a relative and an encounter with a girl - which he said affected him. Gardai interviewed both the relative and the woman he named, and discounted the incidents as normal childhood stuff.
He agonised over school, how the pupils and teachers perceived him, how people didn't know "the real me".
He wrote that he wanted to kill himself for a long time but "could not bear the thought of leaving my mess and the anger and rejection" that Clodagh and the boys would have to live with.
With the blood of his wife and children on his hands, he portrayed himself as a loving husband and father: "I'm sorry for how I murdered them all but I had no other way. I had to do this.. I can't leave the boys orphans. I couldn't just up and leave them," he wrote.
Clodagh's bereft family have, with inexplicable bravery and dignity, attempted to rescue some shred of goodness from the evil. They are establishing a women's shelter in memory of Clodagh and the boys.
They have spoken out against the secret, controlling nature of domestic violence. Familicide remains almost beyond the comprehension of most of us. The phenomenon is rare and in Ireland research is scant. It would seem impossible to predict.
In the US, Neil Websdale, professor of criminology at North Arizona University, has extracted common patterns and themes from his studies of hundreds of cases that tell us more about the perpetrators.
They are overwhelmingly men. Most are what he calls "livid coercive" killers - or violent abusers. A smaller number are "civil reputable" offenders, who believe they are about to fall from grace, feel deep shame, and are "extraordinarily secretive and repressed".
Even experts struggle to understand the "why".
"Ultimately we are dealing with the haunting presence of the inexplicable," said Professor Websdale, echoing Mrs Coll's simple but profound observation about her son-in-law at the inquest: "I knew him, but I didn't know him."
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