A killing 40 years ago that still echoes though a family

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

RADIO:A documentary on the kidnapping of Thomas Niedermayer shows the tragic legacy left behind

It ran counter to the cathartic mood engendered by the week’s emotional apologies for the sins of the past, but the most remarkable radio of the past seven days was Documentary on One: A Knock on the Door (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday). Ciaran Cassidy’s documentary was a sombre reminder that for those affected by horrific wrongs, history can be the proverbial nightmare from which it is impossible to awake.

Narrated by Joe Duffy, the programme looked at the fatally botched IRA kidnapping of the German industrialist Thomas Niedermayer through the prism of his bereft family. Duffy recounted how, having mentioned the abduction on air, he received a letter urging him to search out Niedermayer’s surviving relatives. In tracking down Thomas’s granddaughters Tanya and Rachel, Duffy learned how “a crime like that can reverberate for generations”.

Over Christmas 1973, with his wife, Ingeborg, sick in hospital, Niedermayer was at his Belfast home with his teenage daughters Gabriella and Renate when they heard the eponymous rap on the door. Outside were two men who coaxed him from the house and forced him into a car.

What happened next remains murky – the ransom demands were never revealed but were rejected, and Niedermayer may have been pistol-whipped to death unintentionally – which meant his family did not know his fate until his body was discovered in an illegal dump, seven years later. At the time, Ingeborg, who had remained in Belfast, placed a newspaper ad stating the hope that “the past is behind us”.

It was not to be. Though never told the circumstances of their grandfather’s death, the two granddaughters had to live with the catastrophic impact of what Rachel described as “the blame and repercussions and guilt that fractured the whole family”.

Having eventually moved back to Germany, Ingeborg returned to Ireland in 1990, booked into a hotel in Bray, Co Wicklow, and walked into the sea.

Renate, who lived alone in South Africa, killed herself soon after, though her relatives did not know the details, including the date of death. In 1994, Gabriella, “a wonderful but fragile” woman – “I think that came from her father being taken so cruelly,” said Tanya – also died by suicide.

Four years later, her depressed husband took his own life.

Considering this carnage, Niedermayer’s granddaughters were philosophical, even sanguine, their outlook buoyed by their own young daughters. “I don’t think people know the ripple effect that tragedy can have on others,” said Rachel, displaying a commendable gift for understatement.

Similarly, the documentary took a calmly expositional approach, with Duffy eschewing mawkishness or outrage as the dreadful facts of the story unfolded. Prefabricated poignancy was also rationed, making the archive recording of a teenage Gabriella wistfully lamenting that “we were a close family” all the more effective. Rarely have the far-reaching consequences of one shattering act been more devastatingly illustrated.

The long-term costs of a more recent calamity came under the spotlight on The Ray D’Arcy Show (Today FM, weekdays), when the Independent TD Stephen Donnelly discussed the bank-debt deal with his host. Donnelly explained why he deeply disagreed with the Government’s strategy on the crisis – Ireland had to fight for the debt to be repudiated, he argued – while conceding that those in power believed they were doing the best for the country.

“They’re not doing what’s good for us,” said D’Arcy. “My children will be paying debt off a bank that [insert past tense of vernacular verb for procreation here] up the country.”

It was a lively encounter, D’Arcy agreeing with the TD’s scepticism about the Irish political system while dismissing his deeper idealism. “The beauty of democracy is that the choice is with us as citizens,” said Donnelly. “That’s arse,” replied D’Arcy.

D’Arcy also showed that sorrow and bitterness are not the only emotions that resonate down the decades. Love, or at least infatuation, can do so too, in the most unlikely guises. The crusty broadcaster George Hook, not everyone’s idea of a hopeless romantic, had previously been on the show on St Valentine’s Day, talking about the teenage crush he’d had on a Dublin girl named Francess. On Monday, D’Arcy went further and manufactured an on-air reunion between Francess and her one-time suitor.

Hook sounded genuinely overwhelmed at hearing his old flame again, describing Francess as “the most beautiful thing in my life”. Francess, in turn, asked him to have lunch with herself and her husband, taking to care to invite Hook’s wife along, too. With Hook turning on the twinkle-eyed charm, this was probably a wise move.

Even so, it was an unexpectedly sweet item, peppered with intimations of mortality: when Hook recalled a mutual friend named Henry, Francess informed him that “poor Henry is dead now”.

But D’Arcy seemed less interested in autumnal affections than in the adolescent fumblings of the past, details of which eventually surfaced. “She was the first girl I saw who had a see-through blouse,” Hook recalled, dispelling any dewy-eyed nostalgia. Talk about the ripple effect.

Moment of the week Pat, kettle, black

Discussing the renegotiation of the Croke Park deal with Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael, Pat Kenny (Today with Pat Kenny, RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) spoke of a division between frontline public servants and those with more regular hours. Kenny felt that reducing shift allowances would hurt frontline workers more than asking other public servants to work extra hours. “For a lot of people, that’s just longer coffee breaks,” said Kenny. Given that he earns far more from public funds than any such worker, this was hugely arrogant. People in glass houses . . .

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