A gang attack that changed our family forever

Writer Susan Stairs details the harrowing real events that inspired her latest book

 

The idea for One Good Reason took hold when I was about two thirds of the way through writing my second novel The Boy Between. This is usually the way of it. Months and months of adding to my word count, asking myself “are we there yet?” and suddenly I can see my destination up ahead and the thrill of uncertainty disappears.

Uncertainty is what keeps me going. I like not knowing where my writing journey is taking me. Once I figure out the ending, my mind starts searching for another story-puzzle to solve. It conjures up a character, a shadowy someone who’s just there. Or maybe it’s a thing: a letter, a house, a tree. Or, sometimes, an idea: an untimely death, a confession, a lifelong secret. It’s there when I allow my mind to wander from my work-in-progress and it’s there when I close my eyes to sleep. It’s not always pleasant. Or welcome. It can be downright annoying. It rocks up, uninvited, and takes root in my brain, popping up again and again, refusing to disappear. It’s like a mental game of whack-a-mole: pretty futile.

So there I am, on the home stretch, and it starts again. Only this time, it’s somewhat different. A little too … close to home. I say No. Absolutely not. This is something I definitely don’t want to think about, let alone write about. If I take this on, I’ll have to immerse myself in it for a year, maybe more (considerably more, as it turns out) and I’ve already spent a long time trying to forget about it. Not that forgetting about it was ever going to be a possibility. Unless, perhaps, I lost my memory. That might have been handy in some ways. If that were to happen, I’d never have to think about it again.

An 18th birthday

I need to explain. This thing I don’t want to think or write about, well, it starts off as a happy event. One of those occasions where, as a parent, you’re entitled to feel proud. November 2011 and it’s our daughter’s 18th birthday. She has two siblings who have already passed this milestone, and another who will reach it in a year and a half. She wants to mark the event with friends as well as family, conscious that, as she’s now in sixth year, her school days are almost behind her. So, a party is planned. We decide it will be safest to have it at home and the days before are spent preparing. We borrow a marquee and erect it in the garden. We hang decorations and balloons, string the trees with fairy lights. I make and ice 64 cupcakes complete with silver stars and edible glitter.

When the night comes and the first guests arrive, my daughter comes downstairs, stunning in her royal blue dress. These are the details that should remain uppermost in my memories of that night and though they are there, in my head, they’ve attained a certain poignancy – almost a pointlessness – after what happened.

They are waiting. Hanging around. I know this because, afterwards, people remember seeing them outside the local shop. A gang. Even today, we don’t know how many, but possibly up to eight. I’m lifting a tray of food from the oven when a crowd of girls bursts into the kitchen, screaming, terrified. I can’t understand what they’re saying but it’s clear that something bad is outside. I have to shove my way past them as even more of them surge in, trying to get away from whatever it is that has them so afraid.

They used hurleys and sharpened sticks as their weapons of choice, I soon learn

In the garden, I see my daughter clutching her arm, tears running down her face. I see my eldest son, his mouth a bloody mess, his lips torn and mangled. Is this a dream? A nightmare? I see several of my daughter’s friends, eyes frozen in shock, hands on injured shoulders and heads. Blood is splattered over the paving slabs, and the heavy wooden gates leading to the lane behind our house have been wrenched from their hinges and lie flat on the ground. What had, only minutes before, been a scene of happiness and celebration is now one of devastation. They’d used hurleys and sharpened sticks as their weapons of choice, I soon learn. A premeditated attack that changed my family forever.

Let down

I can’t fault the Garda. Statements, forensics, CCTV – they did their utmost. We were, they said, extremely lucky that no one had been killed. Three members of the gang were subsequently identified and charged. Two of those pleaded guilty but, despite this, and the savage nature of the crime, one escaped any conviction and the other got only some community service and a small fine. Charges against the third accused were subsequently dropped. We weren’t told why.

I will never understand how the justice system let us down. We still carry the scars – physical and mental – even now, six years on. How is it that people who make a conscious decision to cause serious harm can get away with barely a rap on the knuckles? How can they be allowed to walk around as free and unencumbered as people who don’t break the law? We teach our children about right and wrong and then they’re on the street one day, looking into the face of someone who assaulted a member of their family and got away with it. What message does that send out, to the victim as well as the perpetrator? My family are the ones who ended up paying a price for this crime, rather than those who caused the harm. Would we feel differently if there had been proper punishments for those involved? Yes. It wouldn’t have lessened the pain but I’m certain it would have helped us to get through it.

I didn’t want to write about what happened to us but, as I’ve come to realise, what you don’t want to write about is sometimes exactly what you need to write about. The plot of One Good Reason concerns a family who experience a violent break-in for which no one is punished. They are not my family and theirs is not our story. I’m a writer, after all; I make things up. This time though, the process has been lengthy and difficult. One Good Reason is a work of fiction but the events that inspired it are all too real.

One Good Reason by Susan Stairs is published by Hachette Books Ireland

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