Exploring femicide and the broader issue of violence against women in Ireland

Catherine Dunne on what inspired her novel about a man who kills his wife then himself

"The actual number of women who continue to live with domestic violence is unknown; the majority of women never report the violence or seek assistance"
The Lawlessness of the Home (Safe Ireland)

More than 25 years ago, on a bright, ordinary summer’s morning I came across a lengthy newspaper report about a then recent “murder-suicide”. As I read, I was shocked; not alone by the violence of the act, but by its planned, deliberate nature. I was also taken aback by the yoking together of the words murder and suicide as though they shared some kind of equality of victimhood.

A woman had just been murdered by a man. A man who then chose to take his own life. The woman in question had had no such choice.

Members of the public interviewed after the discovery of the crime expressed their disbelief that the kind, ordinary, quiet man they had come to know could be capable of such an act. A respectable man; a well-liked man; a pillar of their community. There was what felt like an extraordinary silence surrounding the woman he had murdered. Even in death, the focus was on the perpetrator – his state of mind; his motives; his character and reputation.


From that moment on, the novel that would become A Name for Himself was born. I was consumed by the need to understand, or at least to gain some insight, however imperfect, into what might drive a man to murder the woman he claimed to love, and then to take his own life.

I set about doing my research in order to breathe life into the imagined characters of Vincent Farrell and his wife, Grace Browne.


I began writing A Name for Himself in the summer of 1995 and it was first published in 1998. In the intervening years, Women’s Aid began recording the instances of femicide in Ireland.

In their 2020 factsheet, that organisation states: “We know that although men are much more likely to be victims of homicide in general at the hands of a wide range of perpetrators, women who are murdered are highly likely to have been murdered by an intimate partner, ex-intimate partner or family member”.

From 1996 to 2022, Women’s Aid established that 244 women have died violently in this state. Of these, 87 per cent (resolved cases) were killed by a man known to them. 152 (62 per cent) of these women “have died in their own homes’”.

Furthermore, in almost all “murder-suicide” cases (22 out of 23) the killer was the woman’s intimate partner. (In some instances, there were multiple victims: children as well as their mothers.) Women of all ages have been the victims of femicide. However, statistics reveal that 50 per cent of the women murdered were under 35.

We must be grateful for the work done by Women’s Aid in this area as, at the time of writing (February 2022), there are no official Irish government statistics available.


Recently, the increasing instances of violence – both public and private – against women have given rise to a more urgent national conversation in Ireland. During the Covid-19 restrictions of 2020 and 2021, reports of domestic violence rose dramatically.

“The number of protection and interim barring orders granted to victims of domestic violence in Dublin between July and September last year [2020] increased by 40 per cent from the same time in 2019.” This pattern was replicated in other parts of Ireland. Calls to Clonmel Women’s Refuge, for example, increased by 200 per cent.

Although the vast majority of victims of domestic violence are women, men too, suffer. Men’s Aid Ireland says it dealt with a 35 per cent spike in calls from men enduring abuse by a wife or intimate partner. The organisation had approximately 5,500 contacts during 2020, a figure that was projected to grow again to 9,000 in 2021.

And all of those figures are likely to be the tip of the partner-abuse iceberg.

In June 2021, the public became aware that more than 3,000 domestic violence 999 calls were, according to its own internal investigation, “cancelled” by the Garda. This means that “some victims, including vulnerable women and children, called the Garda for help but were ignored. And in many cases, crimes were not captured in official crime data and referrals about at-risk people were not made to agencies such as Tusla.”

Crying out for help is an act of extreme courage – and desperation. To have such a call wifully ignored in this way feels like abuse heaped upon abuse. International research shows that those who endure a regime of violence within the home – physical, sexual, psychological, emotional – refrain from reporting such abuse for many reasons.

Shame. Fear of reprisal. Terror of losing children, or access to children.

The current Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, has recently announced her commitment to implementing the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence (DSGBV).

It feels long overdue.

The worldwide escalation of violence against women in their own homes in the years 2020-2022 has been called “the shadow pandemic” in a recent article in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry.


Several years ago, I came across these lines, attributed to Margaret Atwood, a writer I have always admired: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them.”

This startling observation came about as a result of Atwood’s asking men and women, randomly, about what they feared most – a question that was later fundamental to a TV broadcast, almost 20 years ago in the US, about gender-based violence.

Men feared humiliation at the hands of women. Or they feared failure or being inadequate. Women feared rape, sexual assault, murder at the hands of men.

In a recent article, Orla Muldoon, professor of psychology at University of Limerick, observes that “Disproportionately, year on year, the pattern is clear nationally and internationally. Men kill women, men assault women, men harass women. Not all men, not even many men. But it is nearly always men, not women, who kill women.”

She goes on to make the point that such violence rarely appears out of the blue. Instead, it often starts with what she terms “entry-level violence” against women. The so-called “microagressions”. The street harassments women routinely suffer while out walking, or cycling or running. The jeering; the groping; the humiliations that go unchecked.

Have a sense of humour, women are often told. He was only joking. Sure, wasn’t he paying you a compliment?


In recent years, social media, under the cloak of anonymity, have become a constant source of verbal abuse and threat against women who dare to raise their heads above the parapet.

Late in 2011, the British columnist, Laurie Penny, wrote: “An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you.”

Mary Beard, the British classical scholar, was the victim of similar abuse on Twitter when she dared to express an opinion that ran counter to the views of an ill-informed, prejudiced and “entitled” male audience.

Both women decided to make public the threats they had received, and the response showed that their experience was far from unique – dozens of women began to share their own stories of harassment, intimidation and stalking.


In her 2011 book, Murder-Suicides That Haunt Ireland, Nicola Tallant explores the ultimate crimes perpetrated against women and children that have taken place in towns and villages across Ireland. Small, quiet, rural towns and villages.

Castledaly, Co Westmeath; Callan, Co Kilkenny; Monageer, Co Wexford.

Almost six years ago, in August 2016, this entire country was convulsed by news of the murders of Clodagh Hawe and her three children, who died violently at the hands of a husband and father – a man I will not name – who was an apparent pillar of the community in Castlerahan, Co Cavan. He subsequently took his own life.

In the media reporting afterwards, Ms Hawe remained unnamed for some time, such was the shock and disbelief that her husband, a vice-principal at their children’s primary school, could be capable of such an act. Once again, the focus was on the perpetrator, a highly respected man.

“He was ‘the most normal man you could meet’, ‘a brilliant dad’ and a ‘kind and decent person with an overriding need to look after those around him.’”

Women’s Aid recommends that “Efforts [by the media] should be made to represent the victim and the legacy of her life rather than focussing on the graphic manner of her death, her relationship with the killer, reasons for the perpetrator’s actions, victim-blaming of the woman or the socio-economic or ethnic background of the woman and the perpetrator…The prevalence of femicide should be recognised and linked to the broader issue of violence against women in Ireland.”


Rebecca Solnit, in her book Men Explain Things to Me (2014) wonders why the “war on terror” was continuing in her native country: but she asks why nobody had as yet declared war on this particular terror. She writes that in the United States, the number of women killed in the space of three years – that’s every three years – by intimate partners, outnumbers the combined casualties of 9/11.

Every three years, the numbers repeated again and again and again. Solnit notes that “spouses are also the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the United States”.


Coercive control is the “beating heart of domestic violence”, according to Sarah Benson of Women’s Aid, although perpetrators use a wide variety of tactics in the exercise of such control.

Some are subtle. Some are more overt, such as videos to follow women’s movements. Trackers on their cars. Control of family money. Isolation of the woman from friends and family and colleagues. The controller sees his partner, and the family, as part of his possessions.

Don Hennessy, the director of the National Domestic Violence Intervention Agency and author of several books on the issue of intimate partner violence, outlines the predatory nature of those men who feel entitled to be “king of their own worlds’”.

The man intent on controlling his partner will seek out a woman who is “kind and loyal”, he says. He will seek someone “truthful and dedicated to him”. Her job, it is clear, is to make the relationship work. Often, he will elicit her sympathy, because of having experienced a “rough childhood”. Individual men act in different ways, but Hennessy makes it clear that “the impact on the woman is the same”.

Her sense of self gradually becomes eroded. She lives in fear, and in increasing isolation. She grows to believe that this is all she deserves: that if she were only to understand how to behave differently, the relationship would be better. This state of fear and anxiety is often achieved by the controlling partner without any threat of physical violence. Where there is physical violence, women are routinely assaulted in excess of 30 times before they seek help.

Any failures and difficulties within the intimate relationship become the woman’s responsibility, and hers alone. Even in the case of violent, physical assault: “Look at what you’ve made me do.”

Sometimes, the woman manages to summon up the courage to leave the relationship. Research in this area shows that the most dangerous time of all is the moment she tries to do just that: to leave. At that point, her life may well be in danger.

“Abusers repeatedly go to extremes to prevent the victim from leaving. In fact, leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence... In interviews with men who have killed their wives...either threats of separation by their partner or actual separations were most often the precipitating events that led to the murder.”

Those who ask “Why doesn’t she leave?” are asking the wrong question.


When I was writing A Name for Himself, the concept of coercive control was not in common currency the way it is now. Our understanding of domestic violence, more than a quarter of a century ago, was more limited. It centred on those who were physically assaulted by their partners. And I remember little or no discussion about men as the victims of abusive relationships.


In this novel, I gave Farrell a violent, deprived childhood, a history of abandonment, a lonely life that he sees being transformed by the love of a kind, gentle, loyal woman from a different class. As their relationship develops, he becomes obsessed by the threat of losing her.

But I also gave him a choice. A choice to seek help, to articulate his fears; a choice to change being over-enmeshed in his relationship; to take the opportunity to explore the healthy psychological and emotional boundaries that need to exist between the self and others.

The “threat of loss” in so many abusive relationships becomes transformed into the longing for ultimate control. The act of murder becomes the final abuse of power: I have the right to decide whether you live or die.

With Farrell’s killing of his fictional wife, Grace, such a violent act is, to his distorted way of thinking, a way of claiming her as his forever.

Works of fiction deal with truth – not necessarily with fact, but with truth. I believe that fiction helps us access the darker corners of our psyche: it helps us to say the unsayable.

Novels have a role to play in exploring the texture of our daily lives in a way that can help us to understand ourselves and others better.
Arlen House reissued five titles under the banner Arlen Classic Literature: Pray for the Wanderer by Kate O'Brien; Carmen Cavanagh by Annie Smithson; A Life of No Great Toil by Marie-Thérèse Keyes; Another Alice by Lia Mills; and A Name for Himself by Catherine Dunne