Saturday 25 May 2019

Why did four women kill themselves by starvation?

A Channel Four documentary has shone new light on the mysterious story of four women who starved themselves to death in a Leixlip house. Stephen Dodd talks to the film's director, Liz Dobson

BRIGID Ruth was the second to die. At first, she was as wedded to her fate as the others, but as pain moved towards agony and death's true face appeared, she changed.

"We are 36 days not eating," she wrote in a letter which she later tore into strips and hid beneath her sleeping bag. "Our stomachs are devouring themselves . . . Please, please listen, none of us fore saw it could be this cruel and slow."

In a suburban Leixlip house, behind a barricade of piled furniture and the veil of planned secrecy, Brigid Ruth, her aunt and two of her sisters starved themselves to death. Their act was designed to leave no trace, but fragments remained - there were letters, receipts, scraps of paper that hinted at the countdown to a fatal odyssey.

"This will be my last letter to you, John," Brigid Ruth began, in a message written but never mailed to an acquaintance long since abandoned. Another read: "This is my last letter, it is not, however, goodbye . . . I know that we will meet up again in spirit."

Two years ago, when a Leixlip landlord forced open a tenant's home and found four women dead behind makeshift barricades, the discovery triggered an inevitable wave of stereotypes. The four were members of a cult; they were religious zealots, locked in a suicide pact. When inquest verdicts ruled out talk of gas leaks and found the women had indeed killed themselves, the generalisation remained. Frances Mulrooney, 83, and her three nieces (Josephine, 46, and 51-year-old twins Brigid Ruth and Catherine) were duly labelled and stored: eccentric, unsocial oddballs who disappeared from public view for 20 years; misfits who could not cope.

The truth, as the directors of a remarkable Channel Four documentary screened last week discovered, both compounded and defied the myth.

"In photos you could see them being incredibly happy," says Liz Dobson, director of The Pact. "They weren't sitting in their house being miserable. They seemed to enjoy their life."

It is now, of course, impossible to know why the four women died, yet it remains instructive to conjecture. Across two decades, Frances and her nieces effectively erased their story. They cut themselves off from friends and, eventually, from their closest relatives. In effect, they slipped from view, not from others' neglect or from their own, but simply through choice. The world, our world, pained them. So they left.

"There can never be real justice here, John," wrote Brigid Ruth as she lay dying. "I believe we, all of us, every single soul, has a karmic debt to pay off, me very much included, an individual cross to carry. There is no happiness here in what we call earth; everything is transient."

A haphazard story began solidly enough, in a small house atop Feeney's hardware store in south Dublin where Frances' three nieces were brought up with their two sisters. There was never time for much besides school and home chores, and the three girls became attached to their inward-looking life, and to Frances, the aunt who had arrived to help with a birth, and stayed to raise the children as her own.

The three girls, who later changed their surname to match their aunt, were well liked at school. Brigid Ruth was a particular favourite; lively, alert, attractive. "She was the pretty one," a school friend recalled, "gracious in manner, always plenty of chat."

For whatever reason Brigid Ruth once enigmatically confided it had "taken her 15 years to forgive" her father the three girls grew into women in their aunt's emotional custody, and moved with Frances in 1978 to a house in Sandymount. There they stayed for 20 years, making little impression on their neighbours. What was learned of them came in scraps; the daily trip to church in Dublin, a snatch of country music coming from an open window one summer day.

A year before they died, the women were evicted for non-payment of rent. Neighbours say Brigid Ruth in particular was devastated at the forced displacement.

The women were undeniably reclusive, but Liz Dobson's research has convinced her they were strong individuals, far from easy to stereotype.

"I was most affected by Brigid Ruth," the director told me. "That was the memory that will stay with me most of all. She seemed to me to be an incredibly vibrant woman. What happened was a tragedy, but with her it seems like such an incredible waste."

Brigid Ruth, Liz Dobson discovered, was a highly intelligent woman. In her 20s she wrote "brilliant" letters to newspapers, presenting structured polemic on church theology. It was through Brigid Ruth's last letters, too, that the ragged story of the four women's fate emerges. With it comes fresh heartbreak; Brigid Ruth, at first alone among her last companions, came to feel that what they were doing was wrong.

It is not known exactly when the four women died, but pathological evidence suggests their deaths were spaced across several weeks, and that Frances died first, two days before Brigid Ruth. Five weeks into their fast at Leixlip, Brigid Ruth wrote of changing feelings, and her desperation is evident.

"It is lovely to think of us ascending into heaven but we four could deteriorate slowly into very excruciating and painful death before then," she wrote. "Is this fair on the four of us, especially Auntie? ... Let's think of exiting our souls humanely."

A few days later, and within a week of her approaching death, Brigid Ruth concluded: "We are almost 40 days not eating. The hunger strikers in H-block died terrible deaths."

It is likely, experts feel, that Catherine was the last sister to die. Her body was found in the kitchen, collapsed onto black dustbin bags that held the scraps of their lives, papers and documents the women had shredded and pulped. Investigating garda Det Sgt Maurice Heffernan suggests she may have been trying to escape.

"She made her way out of the living room into the kitchen where she collapsed and died," he told the documentary. "I believe she may well have been going to get the key which was actually in a canister in a cupboard in the kitchen. I believe she was looking to get out of the house."

It is all, as Liz Dobson readily admits, a story with no conclusion. The director says she spoke to psychologists, experts who have studied suicide pacts, but decided to avoid analysis in the programme and let the jigsaw of known facts speak for itself.

In a deliberately low-key link to the past, Brigid Ruth's letters are read aloud in the film by her cousin Franchine, an actress in Galway. The link is not mentioned in the programme itself, and the name is merely flagged in the credits at the end. Franchine, Liz Dobson explains, was a link between the documentary makers and the family of the four women.

"It was an idea we came up with together," the director says. "There was something organic, just right about pursuing it. To my mind, she is the heart of the film."

If anything, the sole thing that jars about the exhaustively researched and assembled film is its title. The Pact suggests a deal struck, a moment's culmination, yet everything about the four women's lives suggests a more gradual move towards their painful endgame. Cut off from the outside world, withdrawn from the stimulus of society, they turned more towards each other, and towards their clear love of their strange, secluded family.

Evolution seems the probable force, a drift towards collective death, with the point of no return crossed without recognition.

We will never know the whole truth, of course, but Liz Dobson believes we can learn something from the story.

"We begin to think about how we treat people who are a little different from ourselves," the director says. "The main thing to get across, I think, is compassion."

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