It was a year when Ireland seemed a more dangerous place to be a woman

 

IT was a year when Ireland seemed a more dangerous place to be a woman. It began with the discovery of Marilyn Rynn's naked, raped and strangled body, horribly decomposed after lying for 16 days in undergrowth a few minutes from her Blanchardstown home. It ended with the killing of 42 year old Geraldine Diver, a mother of two, found pinioned to the front seat of her car with the necktie used to strangle her. During the months in between, 14 more women were to die violently, with one month in particular marking itself out for special distinction.

In just four days in May, three women were strangled, shot or stabbed to death in Limerick, Laois and Dublin. In June, the brutally casual, daylight killing of Veronica Guerin, wife, mother and crusading journalist, plunged the nation into paroxysms of grief, rage and self questioning.

Sixteen women in all. But it wasn't, said the gardai, an unusually high figure. Compared to what?

In 1995, the figure was five. In 1994, it was eight. It's hardly any wonder that the same feisty, independent women who as recently as 1989 had linked arms and marched for the right to reclaim the night drew deeper into their domestic burrows during 1996 and reassessed their lifestyles.

Not all the bad news about crimes against women related to events that took place in 1996. The year began with memories of Declan Lee fresh in the mind. In the dying days of 1995, he was convicted of the murder of his fiancee, Bernadette O'Neill. He shot her dead because he feared she was leaving him and "lost control". Then in May, Gerard Mullane got life for the murder of his girlfriend, Valerie Linehan. He stabbed and strangled her after an argument during which she taunted him about his sexual prowess.

Frank McCann got a double life sentence in August for burning to death his wife Esther and baby Jessica. He wanted to avoid telling Esther that their application to adopt Jessica had been refused on the grounds that he had already fathered a child with another young woman.

Imelda Riney also knew her killer; she had showed kindness to Brendan O'Donnell. This year, he was convicted this year of her murder, and that of her small son and Fr Joe Walsh.

Random killings of women are rare, says Roisin McDermott of Women's Aid. They have commissioned the studies, compiled the statistics. In a national survey unrelated to any of this year's killings, 18 per cent of women reported that they had been subjected to some kind of cruelty - mental, physical and sexual.

"We know that the amount of violence has always been high", she says, "but what, we're seeing now are more serious injuries and the ultimate consequence of male violence - death."

And the abusers, she says, are becoming more devious.

"The Gardai have more powers of arrest now but if a man holds a woman's head under water for three minutes as we know happened last week ... well, there will be no bruising and so no evidence".

So no surprises then for Women's Aid in the fact that after the implementation of the 1996 Domestic Violence Act in March, applications for barring orders shot up from an average of 74 a week to 122.

It takes courage to apply for a barring order; statistics around the world show that the most dangerous time for a woman is in the lead up to or aftermath of separation. And even when she gets the barring order, it is only as effective as the ability to police it - if the woman has no telephone for example or no strong protector in the house at all times.

AS we head into a New Year, organisations like Women's Aid and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre continue to struggle for survival. The question frequently asked by BOTH men and women, sighs Roisin McDermot, is why do women stay in violent homes. But there was nothing hazy about the answers given by such women in the 1995 survey: 88 per cent said they stayed because they had nowhere else to go and because of the lack of affordable accommodation; 77 per cent cited economic dependency.

A rare bright spot in the year was the coming together, finally, of an inter departmental committee to simplify the State's response to women and children urgently in need of shelter, protection and sustenance.

In its pre Budget submission, Women's Aid is seeking funding for the establishment of a Domestic Violence Resource Unit, which it considers vital to look at a long term response to tackling violence against women and children. The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre will be nailing its New Year colours to a campaign for separate legal representation for rape victims.

A glance back through 1996 and the profile of the average female murder victim should surely loosen the grip of those who hold the Government purse strings.

Meanwhile, let us remember some of the women who died violently this year.

In nearly every case, a person has been charged or a file sent to the DPP. Back in January, amid public outrage about attacks, on the rural elderly and the murder of Marilyn Rynn, Joyce Quinn, "a woman with a broad, warm smile for everyone" - was found seminaked and stabbed to death near Milltown, Co Kildare.

She was a woman who took no chances; she carried a mobile phone and a can of mace - an anti assault aerosol. A 22 year old local man was charged with the murder.

In March, the body of 35 year old Sandra Tobin, the mother of a seven year old from Waterford city, was found semi naked in her own home with a hold all bag covering her head. A 29 year old man of no fixed abode was charged with the murder.

Noeleen Cawley had often threatened to get a barring order against her husband but never did. In April, Mrs Cawley, the mother of five children aged from 17 to two, was stabbed to death in front of three of them at her home in Sligo. Her estranged husband later killed himself.

That same month, Anne Marie Duffin, a 39 year old Dutch national, was stabbed to death at her home in broad daylight. She was the mother of two teenage schoolboys, one of whom found her body. A 15 year old local youth was later charged.

Also in April, the year's youngest murder victim, 13 year old Alison White was found dead with extensive head injuries, in scrubland a mile from her home in Bundoran. A local man has been charged with the murder. May began with the stabbing to death of Martina Halligan. Her estranged husband was later charged with her murder.

She was the first of four women to be murdered in that month alone. Within days, Angela Collins, from Ballingarry, Co. Limerick, was found strangled at her home. She had been married for only a year. Her husband, an unemployed blocklayer, was subsequently charged.

In the same week, Patti Bainbridge too was found dead at her home in Co Laois where she ran a bed and breakfast business with her husband. He was outside in the garden when she was shot with a legally held .22 rifle. Her 28 year old son, Nigel, was charged with her murder.

The body count continued to rise, when at the end of May, 34 year old Patricia Murphy, "a friendly, outgoing, soft spoken woman" and mother of four small children, the youngest only a few months old, wad found beside a skip in Glasnevin. She had been strangled and thrown there in her underwear. To date, her murder remains unsolved.

The carnage continued in August with the death of 43 year old, Tralee woman, Margaret O'Sullivan, who was found with neck and back wounds in a pool of blood, by her 12 year old son who had called to wish her a happy birthday. A 35 year old local man was charged.

That same month, Maura McKinney died in St James Hospital more than a week after suffering first degree burns to 35 per cent of her body, possibly inflicted with caustic soda. She was semi conscious when found in a pool of blood by her daughter in the hallway of her Finglas home. A file has been sent to the DPP.

As Joyce Quinn was laid to rest back in January, Josephine Dullard had been missing for 11 weeks. No trace of her has been found although her relatives continue to press for a more intensive search of farm land in the Kildare/Wicklow area.

In mid March, the spectre of a serial killer or killers arose in relation to her disappearance, following reports that two young men had tried to abduct another young woman near Newcastle, Co Dublin. She was able to struggle free as one of the men tried to pull her into the car.

And meanwhile, gardai were continuing with the search for the killer of Marilyn Rynn. After carrying out DNA profiling on more than 100 men with records of sexual assaults (including one who raped and strangled a girl in west Dublin in the early, 1980s), they arrested a 32 year old married man from Marilyn's own area in Blanchardstown.

And with the year not yet over but the season of overindulgence getting into full swing, the body of another woman is found in Schull, Co Cork. A French woman in her 30s. Extensive head injuries. Murder detectives begin another investigation.