Catherine McCartney: "We're Not the Bravest Women in Ireland. That's Just Media Stuff. the Only Way to Restore the Value of a Life Is through Justice"

By Thornton, Christopher | New Statesman (1996), April 4, 2005 | Go to article overview

Catherine McCartney: "We're Not the Bravest Women in Ireland. That's Just Media Stuff. the Only Way to Restore the Value of a Life Is through Justice"


Thornton, Christopher, New Statesman (1996)


The Irish way of death is normally short and intense. Waking the dead lasts three days and nights, closed by the funeral, a meal and an embrace. Then the family is left with its private grief. Yet, eight weeks after Robert McCartney was murdered by members of the IRA, long after he was buried, his sister Paula's home in Belfast still fells like a wake house. Visitors speak in low tones; the kitchen has been turned into a production line for tea. Paula's two-year-old son is constantly hushed and moved out from under adult feet.

A longer look shows differences between this wake house and other billets of grief. Stacked inside the cramped glass porch are wooden placards reading "Murdered--who's next?". Many of the visitors are not friends, but members of the media. And there is no weeping, only anger at a death that brings no finality.

Catherine McCartney comes here every day from her home in Castlewellan, a mountainside village 30 miles south of the city, that looks out towards the Irish Sea.

At 36, she is the sister who was just above Robert in the family of seven. She says she has hardly seen her own four children in the past few weeks. She says she's become sick of hearing her own name on television.

"The most difficult thing is losing Robert: we haven't even started to deal with it yet. But the fact of having to do this"--she waves her hand at a tape recorder, a waiting photographer, the room where Paula is speaking to a French reporter--"I find absolutely a disgrace, a disgrace to republicanism.

"If they had been ordinary members of the public who'd murdered Robert that night, the police would have had them all. They would have been up in court. The witnesses would have talked and we wouldn't have had to go through this."

By now, Robert McCartney's death has reverberated across much of the world. On 30 January, the 33-year-old father of two wound up on the wrong end of a bar fight and was stabbed to death. Because his killers were members of the IRA, they were able to orchestrate an effective cover-up.

They did not count on McCartney's sisters. Since burying their brother, the five women--a nurse, a student, a lecturer, a caterer and a teacher's aide--have thwarted every republican attempt to make the murder go away. Catherine knows, however, that they have thus far failed in their primary objective: seeing Robert's killers in a court of law.

So, the sisters continue to eschew attention directed at them, the stories that have dubbed them "the bravest women in Ireland". Concerned about distractions, they talk sparingly about their own lives, but ceaselessly about Robert's death.

"We've had some media pundits who have tried to focus on us as women, which should be dispelled," says Catherine, who is a politics and history lecturer.

"I mean, sometimes I feel that talks down to men. Is it saying that men wouldn't have been able to do this or men wouldn't have done this, wouldn't have had the capability to do this?

"This idea of being women, and being brave women--it's nothing to do with anything like that. Women helped clean the bar that night. So you can have women who believe very much in human rights and others who can very callously clean up the scene of a crime and not come forward to help a family get justice.

"They were women also, so gender is irrelevant in it. It's just people's human morals and integrity. We're not the bravest women in Ireland. That's the media, a lot of old tabloid stuff. Anybody who's lost somebody in these circumstances will tell you that the only thing that you have left, the only way that you can restore the value of their life, is through justice. I mean, they take the person away from you as if he meant nothing and the only way you can restore the value of that human life to yourself and to your community is by getting justice. Because human life and society become irrelevant if you can [commit] murder and walk away. …

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