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Murdered journalist Veronica Guerin's son: "I am just so proud of mum. Her legacy is the stories we share at home today"

The murder of Irish crime reporter Veronica Guerin by drug dealers she was courageously investigating sent shock waves around the world. Twenty years on, her son Cathal talks to Brendan O'Connor about his mum's professional and personal legacy.

Published 07/05/2016

Fearless: Veronica Guerin
Fearless: Veronica Guerin
Cate Blanchett and Colin Farrell in Veronica Guerin
Cathal at his mother’s funeral in 1996

Twenty years on, the six-year-old boy we saw at his mother Veronica Guerin's funeral is a big, open, friendly guy, with that easy charm that gets you ahead in the hospitality industry. And that's presumably one of the reasons he ended up here, running the huge McGettigan's Irish pub at the Dubai World Trade Centre. He is well settled here now, despite finding the climate a bit oppressive at times. He has a nice apartment downtown; his dad Graham loves it here, too, and the whole family visits a lot.

But we aren't here really to talk about the present. We are here to reflect on the events of 20 years ago and the legacy that Veronica left - in this case the personal legacy.

We all still remember that little boy burying his mum 20 years ago. Does Cathal Turley himself remember much about that time?

"Bits and bobs," he says. "Even though it was such a big part of my life and it was traumatic, I was still too young to understand what was going on, so I didn't really take it all in, you know. You remember the Mass, you really remember the emotion.

"You're standing there not knowing what's going on, and everyone around you is just bawling their eyes out. Family, friends, cousins, uncles, my father - they're all upset and you really don't know what is going on."

It's hard to see your dad cry when you're a small boy.

"It was, but that man is just a pillar of strength and even as I got older and sort of realised what was going on, and what happened, and the extent of how serious it was, he was always there - just a massive pillar of strength for me and for the whole family."

Cathal returns again and again to the strength of his dad and his whole family - his grandmother, the late Bernie, especially.

"There are not many words to describe Bernie Guerin, but she was an incredible woman and I think that's where my mum and her brothers and sisters got all their strength."

It is clear Cathal has that strength, too. Clearly the Guerins and the Turleys were determined not to be victims, not to let the people who did this ruin their lives forever. Maybe because that would be giving in.

As he grew up, Cathal obviously came to understand more and more about his mother's life and her death.

"You start to have an interest, especially when it's still such a big part of your life and Irish society at the time. When I was 10, court cases were still going on, it was still very frequent in the news. By the time I was 14 they were making movies about it. Every couple of years something would pop up and sort of force you to look into the past."

But despite all this, Cathal says he had a very normal childhood, for which he largely credits his mother. One of the last things Veronica did for Cathal before she died was to enrol him in St Michael's College in Ballsbridge, a suburb of Dublin. He stayed there until he was 18 in 2008, so, he says, he grew up with all the same faces and all the same people.

"They didn't know me as Cathal Turley, Veronica Guerin's son, they just knew me as Cathal. For some reason my mom chose that school and it was the most amazing thing that could have happened to me," he says.

But, of course, there were abnormal aspects to this normal upbringing. And not just losing a parent, but losing a parent who then became an icon.

Cathal tries not to think about the hurt, though, and more about the pride.

"So many people come up to me when they find out who I am and who my mother was and the first thing they say is: 'Thank you, your mother was a great woman.' And that fills me with pride, not fear or upset."

This brave icon was also his mum and, like anyone who grieves, he held on to precious memories of her as well.

"Anyone who knew my mother knew that she was the biggest Man United fan there was; she was loud, boisterous and funny. You remember those things, you remember football being on in the kitchen, her screaming around the place, me screaming, too, not knowing what was going on."

Cathal's fondest memories of his mother are of when she was working.

"When she was trying to get from A to B, juggling work and family life and seeing everyone. I'd be sitting in the back seat of her car and she would put the foot down and she would go vroom - if the penalty points system had been in around in '96 she would have been off the road easily within the first month ... like, traffic laws were not something she obeyed. But I remember sitting in the back of the car feeling 'this is unbelievable'. I loved it."

Not that Cathal understood why his mother was driving around in the car so frantically, or what this work she did was.

"I thought all mothers did that. She drove around in the car with her phone to her ear the whole time, writing down notes, knocking on doors."

Graham very much kept the memory of Veronica alive, too.

"Even though dad got remarried to the beautiful Suzanne, who I love massively, there are still photos of mum around the house from their wedding day, and us on holidays when I was five or six in France. Or from trips to New York when mum won awards. That was probably the most bizarre part of my childhood, getting into a tiny little tuxedo and going to awards ceremonies with your mother. I didn't like the dickie bow, I remember that."

Did he not get angry growing up as he realised the full extent of how and why Veronica died?

"I'd be lying if I didn't say I was upset or angry," he says. "And when you do learn about the pressure and fear she was put under, of course it upsets you. What son wouldn't be upset if someone threatened their mother? You'd be livid, and I was. But there's no need to take it out on the people around me. I came to that realisation early in my life."

And what about anger towards the guys who killed her?

"I try to stay at a distance from it. If I was to live with that hatred then I wouldn't be really living life at all, and I think my mother wouldn't be at all pleased with that - if she thought my life just solely revolved around her death, instead of her action.

"My mother never wanted to be a victim. Everything she did was for the benefit of the Irish people and she wanted better things for those people. She didn't want people to live in fear or to be enslaved by their addiction, and I don't think she went out to purposely go after specific people. I think if she was covering dodgy politicians she'd go after them just as hard as she went after gangland criminals.

"I think her goal was to help the Irish people or the people of Dublin and whether that be chasing criminals that were working in the banks or criminals selling drugs in the street, I think she would have done either."

Cathal will be home for the 20th anniversary of Veronica's death next month, which he says will be an occasion of pride and happiness. He says they will be celebrating Veronica's life rather than mourning her death.

He says the anniversary doesn't dredge up too much sadness, pointing out that "mum's always been in the media, every once in a while one of her articles pops up, people ask questions, there was a movie made about her ..."

That 2003 movie, starring Cate Blanchett, was a big hit. Was it strange to watch?

"Absolutely bizarre. That child looks nothing like me!" he laughs. "I'll be honest and I'll say I've only seen it once because it can get emotional. It sort of pulls at the heartstrings and takes you by surprise how emotional it can get when it's acted out in front of you."

He concedes that "it was a massive honour, too - to have your mum emulated by someone like Cate Blanchett is pretty incredible".

He's also touched by how his mum is honoured around Dublin, but he says: "Her real legacy is with the rest of the family - the stories we have sitting around the table."

You have to think that as much as Cathal is proud of his mother, she, too, would be proud of him. Before we go, there is one, final, important question: Is he a Man United fan?

"Absolutely. I would have been turfed out of the house if I wasn't. Man United supporter and an Eric Cantona fan, just like my mother."

Belfast Telegraph

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