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Will we ever know what motivated a seemingly stable schoolteacher and father to kill his entire family and then himself?

Published 03/09/2016

Alan Hawe with his wife, Clodagh, and their children Liam (13), Niall (11) and six-year-old Ryan. Photo: Hawes/Coll families/PA Wire
Alan Hawe with his wife, Clodagh, and their children Liam (13), Niall (11) and six-year-old Ryan. Photo: Hawes/Coll families/PA Wire
Professor Siobhan O'Neill

The tragedy that befell the Hawes this week in Co Cavan has left a nation numb and desperate to understand why. But expect more questions than answers in the coming days and weeks, writes Deirdre Reynolds.

As black hearses wound slowly through the streets of Ballyjamesduff this week, just one question hung in the air - why? The Hawe family will be laid to rest in Castlerahan today after a week that shook the Cavan townland to its core.

Schoolteachers Alan and Clodagh Hawe, and their sons, Liam (13), Niall (11) and six-year-old Ryan all perished in the latest murder-suicide to blight rural Ireland last Sunday.

Investigators believe "all the answers" lie within the ordinary family bungalow where dad Alan - who was deputy principal at his local national school - is believed to have pinned a note to the back door warning visitors to "Call the gardai" before he took his own life.

Speaking to the Irish Independent in the wake of the tragedy, one local mum seemed to speak for the entire community when she asked: "How could he kill those poor boys?"

As the contents of a second note found on the kitchen table of the family home were this week examined by forensic officers, one suicide expert warned that there may be more questions than answers in the days and weeks to come.

"There's no idea or no understanding that makes the tragedy of murder-suicide or suicide completely palatable," says Dr Eoin Galavan, a senior clinical psychologist with the HSE and CAMS (Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality).

"It's a tragedy no matter what way you think about it.

"(But) there are a couple of (ways of) understanding that I think can help people process the experience of it.

"One of the things is that you have some sense of the kind of motivation people have when they enact self-injury or a murder-suicide.

"For example, if you look at the notes that people leave behind when a murder-suicide takes place, sometimes they will say things like, 'We didn't want to leave them in this terrible life', so in a way, the virtue is trying to save their children from what they perceive to be unmanageable pain.

"Of course, that's a distortion of that virtue, and we're not saying that that's a valid way to try and address that problem, but that's often reflective of what's often in the minds of people when they enact something of this nature."

Although just 2% of suicides are murder-suicides, according to the most reliable data on the subject from the US, familicide has become an all too familiar headline here in recent years.

Two years ago this month, nine- year-old twins Paddy and Thomas O'Driscoll were stabbed to death in their Charleville home by older brother Jonathan (21), whose body was later found by the banks of the nearby Awbeg River.

In July, Marco Velocci (28) and his toddler son Alex died when the car Marco was driving was involved in a head-on collision with an articulated lorry on the Limerick to Tipperary road. Amid tears and tea, as neighbours rallied to comfort family, friends and each other whatever way possible, Castlerahan - and indeed Oristown in Meath where mum Clodagh was also a primary school teacher - was this week the latest parish tragically brought closer by the unthinkable. "We have a concept called post-traumatic growth that is evident after tragedy," explains Siobhan O'Neill, a professor of mental health sciences at the University of Ulster and director of the Irish Association of Suicidology.

"We see that people become more connected, there can be increased social awareness, the community may become kinder, in a way, and these are all the positives that we can draw from a horrendous situation.

"But that's not to take away from the intense grief and sadness and trauma that a community collectively can experience after such a tragedy too, so it's important that is acknowledged.

"In small connected communities like that, these things aren't supposed to happen, and they're certainly not supposed to happen in family contexts.

"It shakes our faith in human nature and that can be quite destabilising.

"Often people turn to the Church in a way that they haven't before at times of tragedy like this, so the Church can have a really positive influence.

"But there are all sorts of other community leaders and community groups that can be important in drawing people together in trying to restore that sense of trust and stability that has been shaken when these tragedies happen.

"It's (about) giving everybody an opportunity to express the grief and to acknowledge the different forms of grief."

Facing up to the new school year beside the empty seats of three pals, without two beloved teachers, nowhere is that grief likely to be more evident than the classrooms of Cavan and Meath, among the counties' youngest residents touched by the nightmare.

For mums and dads in the area, the greatest lesson this term won't be learned from a book, according to Helen Culhane of the Children's Grief Project, a Limerick-based support service for school-aged children affected by loss through death, separation or divorce.

"Most adults think that children don't grieve and that it goes over their heads and if we tell them the little white lie, they'll have forgotten," she says.

"But I know in my work, if the grief isn't addressed it will erupt - usually at about the age of 10 because 10 is now the new teenage.

"If someone dies from natural causes or (an illness such as) cancer, there is a preparation and they're going in to see the person.

"Murder adds an additional pressure because now children are going to wonder, 'How could my teacher, who I loved, do this?' Or 'Will my dad murder me?'

"Their world becomes unsafe (and they may think), 'Who can I trust if I can't trust my mum or dad?'

"Sometimes we haven't got all the answers and usually we say things like, 'We don't know why this man did what he did, but as a mum and dad, we love you'.

"What you tell a 14-year-old and what you tell a four-year-old (will be different), but you still have to be truthful.

"We can start saying we need to send in the psychologists and the art therapists and the play therapists. (But) from my experience, what the children will need (most) is that there (is) someone there to listen. The most important people would be their parents."

Ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day next Saturday, some questions are even more pertinent.

"One of the great tragedies of suicide is in the aftermath you're looking backward thinking, 'Where was the evidence?'" argues Dr Galavan, who will host a workshop for parents on Understanding Youth Suicide at Connolly Counselling Centre in Dublin to mark the awareness day on September 10.

"(Some) of the main things that people go through on their way towards a suicide attempt - things like hopelessness, feeling like you're a burden - can occur completely privately.

"In other words, there isn't always going to be a 'We should have seen it coming' moment because for a lot of people there isn't.

"About 70% of people who die by suicide talk about it before they do, so when people do talk about suicide we should take it seriously even if it is incongruent with what we think looks like a totally fine life.

"Isolation is a good friend of suicide and the opposite of that is also true," he adds. "A community is actually a very potent prevention strategy (against suicide), so is connectedness, togetherness.

"A great way that communities can consider prevention a kind of a bedrock would be: Is there an air of inclusiveness in the community - do people feel that they can talk to each other?"

In the meantime, Castlerahan - like the 27 other communities across the country devastated by murder-suicide since 2000 - must not become synonymous with the tragedy visited upon it, urged Professor O'Neill.

"Suicide is stigmatised and murder-suicide is horrendously stigmatised," she explains.

"We need to be so careful about how this is discussed and manage that in a way that acknowledges the complexity of it and the fact that it is quite, quite rare. We can get negative stigmas around particular communities that have been (affected). I'm thinking of Dunblane in Scotland (where 16 school children and their teacher were killed in a murder-suicide in 1996).

"Even to hear Dunblane portrayed in a positive light is quite unusual and challenging, so those associations that we have with these events and particular communities can be damaging and destructive.

"But communities can also pull through that -it just requires a bit of structure."

For now, books of condolence, memorials and even tweets may go some way towards helping loved ones and strangers alike process the unprocessable loss of the lives of Clodagh, Liam, Ryan and Niall, as well the man who killed them.

"Anything that gives people the opportunity of being able to say how they feel, whether it be on social media or whether it's talking to a friend, is hugely important," believes consultant psychologist Owen Connolly of Connolly Counselling Centre.

"I think the big thing we need to be getting across to everybody is please, please if something is eating you (up), talk to somebody - don't keep it inside.

"Pretending it didn't happen, not expressing your real concern about the situation, doesn't allow you to give comfort as well.

"What the community needs is to feel comforted and also the community needs to feel that the nation is with them - that whatever happens to any one of them, happens to all of us."

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