‘He Had His Reasons’: Colin Barrett’s essay on the Hawe family tragedy for Granta.com

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On Sunday evening, 28 August 2016, in their home near the small rural town of Ballyjamesduff in County Cavan, Alan Hawe put a knife through the throat of his wife Clodagh before going upstairs to strangle and stab to death his three sons, Liam, Niall and Ryan. The three boys’ beds were distributed between two upstairs rooms, which means two of the boys were sharing: the children were discovered in their bedclothes and early reports, more in hope than with any kind of verifiable accuracy, insisted they would have been sleeping when the attacks took place. The implication, in an attempt to soothe our gut-level instincts otherwise, is that the boys did not suffer, or did not suffer much, or extensively. Certainly Clodagh did – she tried to fight him off – but Hawe was armed and intent. ‘Alan was meticulous in everything he did,’ says an unnamed neighbour interviewed in the Daily Mirror the following Wednesday, ‘what he started, he finished.’ And it must indeed take a gruelling physical and mental conviction, a blazing adherence to your own ferocity, to overpower and kill four human beings – even if they were only a woman, even if they were only children – in such quick and unceasing succession. Hawe then went back downstairs and, permitting himself the one relatively lenient fate amid this paroxysm of physical atrocity, put a rope around his neck and let gravity do the rest.

The first newspaper reports referred to the event as a ‘family tragedy’, a euphemism that concealed as much as it revealed, and one that prefigured the national media’s subsequent selectivity when it came to what aspects of the story it would deem fit to speculate upon and what perspectives it would pass over in silence. To the authorities it was immediately obvious what had happened. No other suspects were or would be sought. Very quickly, the compound term ‘murder-suicide’ began to be invoked by the media. While ‘murder-suicide’ is a technically accurate term, there is something unsettling, something subliminally repugnant, about the way each noun is given equivalent weight by the connecting hyphen. Language, in its quest to be accurate and as concise as possible, can be callous, and the hyphen in the term ‘murder-suicide’ is a violent coupling, a forcing together into a state of symbiotic equivalence two things that are not, of course, symbiotic or equivalent at all. The hyphen welding ‘murder’ to ‘suicide’ implies that each state is as bad, or as tragic, as the other. That the murderer who then commits suicide is, on some level, as much a victim as those he murdered, is paying a commensurate price within a larger, indivisible spectrum of suffering signified by that conjoining hyphen. But what happened to the Hawe family was not only a ‘murder-suicide’. It was, first and foremost, a multiple murder committed by a man who then committed suicide.

Read the rest of the essay on granta.com here

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