‘Joe said he’d kill Rachel if he got away with it’: The capture of an Irish murderer

TV: The Case I Can’t Forget calmly charts Joe O’Reilly’s arrest and trial for Rachel Callaly’s death

Murderer: Joe O’Reilly leaves court in 2008, after appealing his conviction for the murder of his wife, Rachel Callaly. Photograph: Courtpix

Murderer: Joe O’Reilly leaves court in 2008, after appealing his conviction for the murder of his wife, Rachel Callaly. Photograph: Courtpix

 

Just when you think the true-crime genre can’t turn any more crass or exploitative, along comes another 12-part Netflix series brimming with loopy conspiracy theories and filmed to resemble a Hollywood thriller.

The Case I Can’t Forget (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm) is different. Rather than seek to apply a noir sheen to unspeakable real-life events, it soberly sets out the facts each week of a high-profile criminal investigation. You could say it takes a forensic approach to true crime.

It has also often confined itself to more obscure crimes, so that the viewer is on tenterhooks as to the eventual outcome. But that obviously isn’t true in the case of the murder of Rachel Callaly (or Rachel O’Reilly as she was referred to in 2004).

Joe O’Reilly cajoled Rose Callaly into going on The Late Late Show to appeal for witnesses. She sat rigid with rage, suspecting her daughter’s husband had committed the murder. He seemed to be almost enjoying the attention

Callaly’s violent death, at her home in the Naul, in north Co Dublin, 17 years ago, shocked the nation. Featuring interviews with her parents, gardaí and journalists, this episode calmly chronicles the investigation that eventually led to the conviction and life imprisonment, for murder, of her husband, Joe O’Reilly.

It is a testament to dogged police work and to her family’s determination that their daughter receive justice. And, in contrast to many true-crime documentaries, there is never a sense of wallowing in anyone’s misery or of portraying the killer in a glamorous light.

In 2004, coercive control and gaslighting were not common concepts. So the public did not necessarily grasp to degree to which O’Reilly had tried to manipulate his wife by misleadingly telling social services she was an unfit mother. “Domestic violence is not a single act of violence,” says Sarah Benson of Women’s Aid. “What it is at its core is emotional abuse, economic abuse.”

Gaslighting: Joe O’Reilly tried to manipulate his wife by misleadingly telling social services she was an unfit mother
Gaslighting: Joe O’Reilly tried to manipulate his wife by misleadingly telling social services she was an unfit mother

Had Callaly been American or British she might very well have by now inspired a ghoulish true-crime series. The case certainly had all the ingredients of an outlandish thriller. The victim’s mother, Rose, recalls how O’Reilly invited her and her husband to the family home and then, surrounded by walls spattered with their daughter’s blood, re-enacted the killing.

O’Reilly had also, notoriously, cajoled Rose Callaly into going on The Late Late Show to appeal for witnesses. She sat rigid with rage, suspecting her daughter’s husband had committed the murder. He, meanwhile, gave a flippant interview and seemed to be almost enjoying the attention.

“I interviewed the staff – he was acting like a man who wasn’t in any way grieving,” says Pat Marry, the Balbriggan detective inspector who brought O’Reilly to justice. “Joe scoffed all the sandwiches, ate all the crisps, drank all the tea,” says Rachel’s father, Jim.

As the guilty verdict was read out, Rachel Callaly’s family wept. As did Det Insp Pat Marry. ‘I never witnessed anything like it,’ he says. ‘The whole court erupted in a cry of emotion. I burst out crying’

Marry’s suspicions had been prompted when O’Reilly admitted to an affair. Mobile-phone data then placed him in the vicinity of the family home at the time of his wife’s death. Later, a friend of O’Reilly’s mistress told the Garda that the suspect had openly talked about killing his wife: “Joe said he’d kill Rachel if he got away with it.”

Joe O’Reilly was convicted of his wife’s murder in July 2007. As the guilty verdict was read out, her family wept. As did Det Insp Marry and other gardaí. “I never witnessed anything like it,” he says. “The whole court erupted in a cry of emotion. I burst out crying.”

Rachel Callaly’s death could have easily been spun into another tawdry real-life whodunnit. But The Case I Can’t Forget resists that temptation. It both respects the victim’s memory and puts the focus on the family she left behind rather than on the man who killed her.

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