Friday 22 November 2019

Downfall of a dreamer

There wasn't a couple in the country who didn't, on some level, put themselves in the roles of Eamonn Lillis and and Celine Cawley, believes Jody Corcoran

I observed Eamonn Lillis at close quarters for the past fortnight, sometimes from within two to three feet. Most of the time he wrote on an A4 notepad with a black felt tip pen, a few paragraphs a day, so as to avoid making eye contact with anybody.

One morning, before proceedings got underway, I watched as he tried to mend his reading glasses. They had broken in two, at the bridge. He spent ages trying to stick them with tape.

It was clear that he wasn't much of a handyman. At one stage, he thought the job done and went to put them on. But the moment he handled them, they fell apart again.

Lillis did not show a hint of annoyance. Meticulously, he peeled away the used tape, rolled it and put it in his pocket. Then he started again, with fresh tape -- and failed again. This happened three times. Eventually, he succeeded.

Briefly, I imagined myself in his place in this insignificant cameo. I am not noted for patience, nor an ability to, say, change a lightbulb. So I found myself getting frustrated on his behalf.

Throughout the trial I have been trying to figure out Eamonn Lillis, what makes him tick, and to get a proper handle on his marriage to Celine Cawley. It was why I wanted to cover the case.

The evidence heard, of course, provides some detail: he is 52, originally from Terenure, is a television advertising director, had a wife, has a daughter and a comfortable lifestyle . . .

This tells us that he is middle-aged with an artistic bent, although no Scorsese. From the evidence we also learned -- and this is indisputable -- that his wife was what we might call the main breadwinner. "So what?" his lawyer, Brendan Grehan said when he took it upon himself to refer to the fact in his summing-up.

In doing so he subtly addressed a subplot in the case -- the dynamic in all marriages -- but, of course, even more subtly he ensured that the subplot was somewhere in the jury's mind anyway. Such is the way with barristers.

Celine Cawley set up a company which went on to be hugely successful, bringing in enough -- a declared €600,000 a year -- to finance the lifestyle during the good years.

Of that sum, €100,000 was marked in the books alongside the name of Eamonn Lillis, even though -- I believe this is also widely agreed -- he did not contribute hugely to the success of the company.

That is not to be unfair to Eamonn Lillis. A former work colleague of his gave evidence that more often he was taking care of things at home. He said that on the morning of his wife's killing he had intended to go into the office for a while, presumably not for the good of his health.

So perhaps he contributed more to the workplace than, generally, many people would now like to acknowledge. I found interesting, though, a comment in his direct evidence, to the effect that she did not appreciate the work he did around the house. Talk about role reversal. "I don't do bins," she is reputed to have replied.

The outline of his life in court also tells us, indisputably, as it should do, that Lillis loves his daughter: she lived with him in the

year between his killing of his wife and his trial. In fact, the only time he lifted his head to look at a witness was when his daughter appeared, via video link.

It has seeped into the public consciousness, also, that he is a gentle man, a kind man, a decent man.

In broad terms, then, that is all that most people know about Eamon Lillis.

When a man has his boxer shorts held aloft in a courtroom you might wonder what else there is to know. You might be right, of course, in so far as it goes.

He killed his wife. What more is there to know?

If you are interested only in the administration of justice, then there is no more.

But this case, as everybody feels, as was subtly acknowledged by Brendan Grehan, struck far more chords than the relative procedure of justice.

Neither had it just to do with the main breadwinner in a household, or who puts out the bins, or who feeds the birds; although, I would accept that the killing of Celine Cawley had, at some level, in the final moments, something to do with such household chores.

This case fascinated so many because, much as I had watched Eamonn Lillis mend his reading glasses, everybody who followed it, even at a remove, could not help but place themselves in the scenario of victim and accused.

There was little revulsion at the details of the case, even in court; and precious little public anger outside of it, notwithstanding everybody's genuine sympathy for the Cawley family in all of their dignity.

There was -- I hope it is not too early to say this -- a widespread understanding of what had happened to the couple, of what could happen between many couples.

The fascination was, almost voyeuristically, yes, peering at Eamon Lillis's shorts in court, at the empty Benecol pot he had at breakfast; it was also, effectively, to do with eavesdropping on a row, which we would all do given a chance -- the difference being that this fight had absolute tragic consequences.

I know of five people, separately, who are having an extra marital affair at the moment, three of them women. I suspect there are hundreds or thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, having such affairs, or under suspicion of so doing, throughout the country.

There was not a couple in the country, therefore, who did not, at some level, put themselves in the role of Eamonn Lillis and Celine Cawley, in the terrible situation they had found themselves.

Among my media colleagues at the trial -- 80 per cent of them women -- I think I may be alone in believing that the note found, not hidden, in his bedroom which concluded that time was running out had nothing to do with the killing of Celine Cawley; I believe entirely that it had to do with what he said it had, the basis of a short story, or a film script, or some such.

I believe this because I think Eamonn Lillis, in conclusion, is a fantasist. His mistress, Jean Treacy, described him as a "dreamer". The short story would never have been written, the film never made.

It follows, then, that I do not believe the killing of his wife had anything to do with him having a mistress -- not really, not as the prosecution sought to portray. I say this because I believe Lillis never had any intention of leaving his wife, not for his mistress or for anybody. He did not have the courage to do so.

Lillis probably enjoyed a good enough marriage, good enough by most standards. After nearly 20 years, the vast majority of marriages are sexless, perhaps to come around again in later years, a sort of genuine companionship having developed; many couples in the middle years sleep in separate bedrooms. There should be no surprise at this.

Eamonn Lillis had a wife who provided for a comfortable, even a luxurious existence. He had a mistress, who provided more than sex. What was there for him to worry about?

Brendan Grehan put it well in his summing-up, when he said for the benefit of the jury, most of whom are presumably married, that even the strongest, most fulfilled marriage could be rocked.

The Lillis and Cawley marriage was not fulfilled, sexually, in the way that Hollywood might tell us it should be; but it was strong enough to stand for 18 years. Anybody who is married a while will understand the merit of that.

"A beautiful young woman," Grehan said, "has the capacity to roll back the years in your life". Here, then, we are getting to the nub of it.

Lillis was 20 years older than his mistress. "Who would not be flattered," asked Grehan, "if his hand was put on a pulse he caused to race?"; or as Mr Justice White, bless him, might say, Goodness Gracious Me.

"I'm not suggesting," Grehan said, "that it was anything other than a fling".

I do not totally agree with the lawyer on this. Yes, it was a fling, because Lillis would never have left his wife; but for him, his affair with Jean Treacy, his "doomed love affair", in his head, in the moment, was anything but a fling.

The greatest insight I had into Lillis came in his first five minutes in the witness box. He told of how he and Celine met and married and had a child, virtually within a year or so.

Lillis, therefore, is a romantic, drawn to the intensity of a great love affair, as he initially had with his wife; and a doomed one with his mistress, the "doom", the hopelessness of it all being its appeal.

I would wager, though, that Celine Cawley led the initial courtship, much like Jean Treacy led the affair. Ms Treacy knew him two years before she finally placed his hand on her pulse.

If she had waited, I imagine, she'd be waiting still.

I am friendly with someone who was born and reared where Lillis was brought up -- Wainsfort Park in Terenure. His father was an army captain; he was, I am informed, what you might call a controlling, or a domineering father. As a child, Lillis was aloof from other children in the neighbourhood. This is not to even try to elicit sympathy for the man. But it is telling.

His sisters, who were beside him in court this past fortnight, emigrated to England when of age.

"But conceivably," Grehan added, coming to the kernel of the thing, speaking of the Lillis affair, "he might have responded differently to how he might have in a row with his wife otherwise".

By this he meant, as I believe, Lillis's affair with Ms Treacy was the catalyst to this entire tragedy; she was the catalyst, yes, but not the motive, as the prosecution sought to imply.

To say that she was the motive is too simplistic, way too much so. This was not a film noir plot to be investigated by some gumshoe; although, at times -- in fact, all of the time -- that was how it was portrayed.

The complications in Eamonn Lillis, and in his relationship with his wife, are more deserving of at least cursory analysis than they were afforded in court, than necessarily they could have been in such a forum, its raison d'etre to administer justice as required.

Middle age is a difficult time for men, and women, when an urge to revive a long-latent sex drive can become acute, desperately so, in a long-standing marriage where romance and excitement have inevitably wilted.

Many men simply never get the opportunity, others are adept at handling infidelity. Eamon Lillis, by virtue of his privileged lifestyle, was handed the perfect opportunity on a plate.

Years of sublimating his sexual appetite, however, possibly of his dreaming of other harmless erotic pursuits, had numbed his ability to handle the inevitable powerful emotions when they presented themselves.

Jean Treacy, the catalyst in the slow disintegration of his marriage, was tailor-made for the role. She was a restless young woman, whose eclectic work history and hesitancy about her impending marriage betrayed a fickle streak.

She was relatively cold-blooded, too, in her approach to the affair with Lillis. It is telling that in the almost obsessive telephonic communication between them, two-thirds came from Lillis.

The inherent passiveness of his nature probably ensured that he left it up to his wife to do most of the work in the erotic area of their life together, much as he had left it up to Ms Treacy to make the initial running in their relationship.

Celine Cawley, in her own right, appears to have replaced sexual pleasure with the rush of business success; this might explain the weight gain and the reputed aggression towards her husband.

Ultimately, a growing lack of allure over the years, added to an increasing tension in their business relationship -- she wondered why he wasn't out drumming up work in a recession -- would be sure to sound the death knell on their sexual life.

So what happened? Well, this much anyway, as an investigating detective said, he "flipped". But not so much, as had been put to Lillis, that he had beaten in his wife's head with a concrete block.

He didn't. Her skull was not fractured, her brain was undamaged: "moderate force" was used, the pathologist said; the prosecution did not prove its case, the jury said. Yes, yes, of course, that is of little comfort to the family of Celine Cawley.

Resentment, then, and frustration and personal disappointment had been building up over the years; all of it fermented during those years of nights in separate bedrooms on different floors of a trophy house, which was itself a monument to success but, equally, to unfulfillment.

I tried to put myself in the head of Eamonn Lillis. When he told of exchanges during the row, his jaw line whitened, clenching, when he recounted how Celine had said on the decking that he did not "care" for their daughter.

I told you earlier of how the only time he looked up from his notepad was when his daughter was giving evidence; it was the only time he smiled too, in a fortnight when grim reality was rolled out slowly.

So maybe it was this, the unintended barb, the un-meant and untrue sting, which finally made him flip; or maybe I am reading too much into it.

I do not know. I do not pretend to understand the darkest recesses of the mind.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss