Monday 18 June 2018

My mother and me: Alan Shatter on the devastating secret he kept to himself for 50 years

On December 21, 1964, Alan Shatter's mother Elaine died in tragic circumstances. Just 14 years of age, Alan came home from a Christmas lunch to find his mother's body on the kitchen floor. Her head was on a pillow beside the oven door with a coat over her. Elaine had gassed herself. Alan Shatter tells the story for the first time to Barry Egan

Alan Shatter and his mother Elaine
Alan Shatter and his mother Elaine
Alan Shatter with his parents
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

The future Minister for Justice had a mercifully brief brush with crime as a child. Alan Shatter's mother Elaine had a passionate love of flowers but, alas, no actual garden per se to grow any in. Their next door neighbour in Oaklands Crescent in Rathgar, Desmond Kerr, something of a gardener, had a fancy array of tulips and daffodils growing in a small garden at the back of the Shatters' house, however.

So, six-year-old Alan hatched a plan. One spring afternoon, he slipped nimbly into Desmond's garden. Significantly, he also had a pair of scissors in his hands. Five minutes later, the future Minister for Justice "presented Mum with a beautiful bouquet of freshly cut yellow and red flowers that Interflora would have been proud to deliver", Alan recalls all these years later.

Upon being quizzed by his mother as to where he got these beautiful fresh flowers, he told her it was a secret. The secret, it transpired, was out 20 minutes later when Desmond arrived at the door of the Shatter house - having twigged that "all of his tulips and daffodils had done an unexpected runner".

Desmond had also come to the conclusion who the culprit was.

Alan Shatter
Alan Shatter

"Mum warned me of a terrible punishment should I ever steal someone's flowers," the culprit says now, "but did so struggling to suppress a smile and with a familiar twinkle in her eyes.

"When she informed Dad over dinner that evening of my criminal activity, he broke down laughing and told me that the next time I wanted to give Mum flowers I was to buy them with my pocket money."

It wasn't that long after The Great Flower Heist that the twinkle in his mother's eyes began to disappear completely. And with it, the laughter and joy in the Shatter house.

In particular, Alan says that the laughter that was once the mainstay of his home-life "gradually evaporated" in the years preceding his bar mitzvah at 13 years of age. By the time his bar mitzvah was finished, "the laughter had stopped". Elaine and Reuben created "a happy and secure home", Alan recalls of his parents who got married in September, 1947.

Alan recalls home (the Shatters had moved by this stage to a three-bedroom semi-detached house in Crannagh Park in Rathfarnham) as a "sad, sombre place" in 1964. The downward cycle had begun some years earlier. His mother (born Elaine Presburg in Liverpool in 1925; Reuben was born in February, 1916 in London) started having health issues around the time of Alan's 10th birthday.

Being 10, as he says himself, he wasn't exactly privy to the inner workings of his mother's daily life or indeed her mind. He did sense that his mother's personality had changed. She had lost her "infectious exuberance".

Alan also recalls his mother visiting the psychiatric wing in St James's Hospital. She was "in and out" of hospitals. And when his mother - who was variously "quiet and distracted" or "delusional and angry" either because of her illness or because of the side effects of her medication - was at home, Alan remembers that she "rarely" left the house and would spend her days in bed, and that his father would have to make sure she took the cocktails the doctors had prescribed for her as she couldn't be relied on to take them herself in the right quantity, or if she did, in the right order.

In the end, Reuben, a clothes designer, hired a housekeeper on weekdays to cook and clean "and ensure Mum did not overdose on tablets at lunchtime when I was at school and Dad was in town". (Preceding the arrival of the housekeeper, there was at least one occasion when Elaine was taken to hospital in an ambulance after taking an overdose.)

Reuben and Elaine Shatter
Reuben and Elaine Shatter

Elaine was by this stage "incredibly thin", and was fed intravenously sometimes during her ever-more-frequent hospital stays. She would "pick at but largely leave" her food when at home. It was a miserable existence for his mother.

At Christmas in 1964, Elaine wasn't well enough to visit their next door neighbour Vera Delaney to bring the Christmas present with Alan and Reuben. (The Shatters were Jewish but they always exchanged Christmas presents.) When Alan and Reuben got back to the house with a piece of Christmas cake for Elaine, the cake, Alan remembers, was left untouched.

"What none of us knew at the time was that 1964 would be her last Christmas," writes Alan in his extraordinary new book, Life Is a Funny Business: A Very Personal Story.

The school holidays for young Alan began on December 17. A few days prior to this on the Saturday, Alan recalls, Dr Berber had paid a visit to see Elaine because she was going through a difficult time. "There was talk of depression and her returning to hospital after Christmas," writes Alan, adding that after Dr Berber had left the house he overheard his parents' conversation. His mother told his father that she "never wanted to go back to another hospital".

How did it make him feel to overhear his mother say this?

"At the time it seemed as if she had developed some insight into her demons and was intent on positively resolving them," he answers. "As a child I did not initially perceive that statement as a threat to take her own life if again hospitalised. Today I do."

Alan knew that his mother had said this before, that she never wanted to go back to another hospital, and put it to the back of his mind. What's more, the day after, on the Sunday, Elaine appeared "to buck up" remembers Alan. For the next couple of days, everything in the Shatter home was "normal".

Alan Shatter
Alan Shatter

Until it wasn't.

December 21 - the Tuesday - Alan, who had been out playing on the road with his pals for the morning, had come back to the house for a short while before getting the 16 bus at 1pm to meet his dad in town for lunch. His mother, who was in, he remembers, "a cheerful humour", had offered to drive him into the city for the lunch at Switzer's on Grafton Street, "but as usual she chose to stay at home". This was to prove significant.

After a lovely lunch with his dad, Alan went to see his Auntie Gertie in Grafton Jewellers before pottering around a nearby bookshop to look at Christmas annuals (he remembered flicking through a football annual with an article on his precious team, Tottenham Hotspur FC).

The lights of Grafton Street twinkling with the magic of the Christmas season, Alan started for home at roughly 3pm. It was a "dry, cold, sunny afternoon", so Alan ran the two miles home rather than take the packed 16 bus again. He was looking forward to seeing his mother because she had been in good form when he left at 1pm.

He had a surprise for her, too. There was a bread strike in Dublin's shops and supermarkets in December, 1964. Aware that the local bakeries were still making bread, Alan ran to the bakery beside Leonard's Corner in Harold's Cross and bought his beloved mum a bread stick - "her favourite" - and ran on towards home.

Just as he reached Terenure village, the 16 bus swept pass. In hindsight, Alan says now that had he got the bus he would be home to his mother "about five minutes earlier".

When young Alan walked up the driveway at 14 Crannagh Park, he remembers that before he even "reached the front door there was a strong smell of gas".

The smell, he says, was even stronger when he opened the door. "Running into our breakfast room," Alan writes in Life Is a Funny Business, "I found the kitchen door locked. Bizarrely, what was happening resembled a nightmare I had awoken from just a few nights earlier."

Alan "instantly" knew his mother was in the kitchen. He climbed out of the breakfast room window and found a rock in the garden with which he broke the kitchen window in order to let the gas out.

Climbing back into the breakfast room, he dialled 999, his fingers barely able to form the digits such were the giant waves of emotion rushing through him. Ambulance called for, his beloved mother pitifully prostrate on the floor, Alan then ran next door to knock on Vera Delaney's door, telling her that he needed help.

"Going through her house, I ran to the end of her garden to where I could easily climb over her wall and get back into our garden," he writes.

"Opening our side door, which I had mistakenly believed to be locked, I let Vera in. Vera held our dustbin as I stood on it to reach the ledge of the kitchen window. I then put my arm through the broken pane of glass, flicked up the window catch and climbed through the window into the kitchen," he writes.

What were his feelings when you climbed through the window?

"A sense of urgency to rescue her from herself," he says. "But it was too late. Because of my nightmare (Alan had a nightmare a few days earlier about his mother dying by suicide) there was also a strange sense it had all previously happened. Very difficult to explain and still to fully understand. I do my best to portray what occurred in the book."

What Alan found in the kitchen no young boy should ever have to see.

He found his poor mother "lying still". She was "curled up in a ball" on the kitchen floor - "her head on a pillow beside the oven door with a coat over her". Alan found all the taps on the cooker and oven were open - and, recalls Alan 50 years later, "the smell of gas was overwhelming". Holding his breath, Alan "instantly" turned off the gas. He opened the windows and the doors, and with it Vera and a local gardener, Michael, ran into the kitchen. Alan and Vera "moved Mum away from the oven door and stretched her out on the floor. She didn't react and there was no sign of life".

Elaine was taken by ambulance to the Meath Hospital in Heytesbury Street. Completely distraught, Alan rang his father to tell him that his mother "had tried to gas herself". Alan also rang Dr Berber. He told Alan that by ringing the ambulance so quickly he might have saved his mother's life.

"He was wrong," writes Alan in his profoundly honest memoir.

"She had no pulse in the ambulance journey and after arriving in the hospital Dad was told she had been dead for some time."

As Reuben was beyond distressed, Uncle Jack formally identified Elaine's body in the hospital mortuary. The rest of the day is a hazy blur of unimaginable emotion, heart-rending pain and stinging tears for Alan Shatter.

The 14-year-old personified Voltaire's famous words - that tears are the silent language of grief.

Alan and his father hugged and cried until they could hug and cry no more. Alan has no idea of what was said between them. He recalls that he slept with his father in his bed that night. Understandably, neither of them wanted to sleep alone. They talked about Elaine and her illness until they fell into an uneasy and exhausted sleep. ("A few weeks would pass before I again slept alone in my own bedroom," he writes in Life Is a Funny Business.)

On the Wednesday at midday, Alan and Reuben gave statements to two gardai from Rathfarnham Garda Station who called to the house. On the Thursday, her funeral took place in the Jewish cemetery at Dolphin's Barn. Alan walked behind the coffin after having seen his mother's body laid out in it in a room for the last time. He also has memories of the funeral and the week-long mourning period that followed (known as Shiva for members of the Orthodox Jewish Community).

On January 21, Alan and Reuben were in the Dublin Coroner's court for an inquest into the death of their beloved Elaine. Her death was pronounced due to "carbon monoxide poisoning" inhaled at home "at a time when she was of unsound mind". Alan says that the word "suicide" was not mentioned to him.

"As a fourteen-year-old," he writes in Life Is a Funny Business, "I simply understood that Mum was unwell when she died and that she had committed suicide."

He was 14 when his mother died.

How does he look back on her now as a grown man in his sixties?

"With affection," he says, "and of course regret that what was troubling her was at that time not fully understood and successfully resolved. She was too young to die".

I ask Alan does he believe his mother was in good humour that morning before he left to go to meet his dad for lunch because she had made up her mind about her suicide?

"I cannot answer that," he says. "When a person suffers from mental health issues it can be very difficult to know what they are thinking and to understand their actions. Retrospective rationalisation has little value. No one could with certainty understand how she perceived the world that day and how her perceptions evolved."

Alan who married Carol Danker in September, 1973 - they have two grown-up children, Kelly and Dylan - recently visited the National Archive and examined the coroner's file on his mother, chief among them the autopsy and the medical reports, which he found disturbing.

According to what Alan found in the reports, his beloved mother had been diagnosed before her suicide; and, according to the pathologist, his mother at the time of her death was "an emaciated adult female who appeared to be older than her stated age". Elaine was 40.

"I have no doubt that she was suffering from anorexia but in those days the complexity of this serious eating disorder was neither acknowledged nor understood."

What did it bring up in Alan when he read that his mother - according to the pathologist - at the time of her death was "an emaciated adult female who appeared to be older than her stated age", and that your mother had been diagnosed with depression before her suicide?

"Sadness" is his answer. "It also confirmed my childhood understanding of it all," he continues.

"The pathologist's analytical and cold factual description of my mum was particularly stressful and of course leaves questions unanswered as to how she could have physically so deteriorated. "But I do recollect my father pleading with her to eat more and her refusing to do so. As I write I do not believe anorexia was fully understood or recognised in those days. It is today, but remains a very difficult condition to treat."

Alan Shatter adds that his mother's suicide was "a terrible waste of a good life blighted by an illness that nobody fully understood".

Life Is a Funny Business is published by Poolbeg, €16.99


  • If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Pieta House on 1800 247 247 or the Samaritans on 116 123 (ROI).
  • Teenline is available for teens aged between 13-19-years-old and is open between 8-11pm 7 days a week1800833634

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