Transcript of speech given by Dr. Bartley Sheehan, Dublin County Coroner, at the opening of Coroner Regrets, Temple Bar Gallery August 31, 1999
(tape inaudible)… because on inquest days I wear a sombre suit, white shirt and a sombre tie, because being a Coroner is a sombre business. So it’s a pleasure to be in a place where people are smoking, drinking and smiling and happy even if we are touching on very sombre subjects, and subjects which have serious political overtones and undertones in our modern culture. Most of you, of course won’t come, hopefully will never come in contact with a Coroner and very few people in fact do. Those who do, find the whole experience, hopefully maybe not of the Coroner, but the whole business that brings them in contact with a Coroner to be a very serious and shaping experience in their lives.
So I’m a Coroner. I’ve been a Coroner for the last twenty five, twenty six years, and my district is everywhere that isn’t the city of Dublin within County Dublin. So three administrative districts of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, South County Dublin and Fingal. So places like Howth and Skerries and Balbriggan and Blanchardstown and Mullhuddart and Tallagh and Dun Laoghaire and Rathfarnham, places like that are all in my district. It’s a heavily populated district and it generates, sadly a great deal of coronorial work. When I was appointed it was very much a part-time function which I undertook. It fitted in with my business being a general practicioner and I took this on as a part time activity which has gradually grown, and now I am a full time Coroner. Most of Amanda’s experience of this has come from her sittting in the Dublin City Coroner’s Court, my colleague Dr. Brian Farrell who has facilities which I don’t enjoy. He has physical facilities of a courthouse, and appropriate offices, and a substantial staff and has greater opportunity, maybe to look into some matters, that is available to me in the county, as I have to borrow court space all over the place.
Now I’m not a judge. A Coroner isn’t a judge, but he is what is called in law a quasi-judicial figure. A quasi-judicial appointee, is a person who looks into a particularly narrow range of human activities. What gets a Coroner going is when he’s informed that somebody is lying dead within his area of juristriction. There are about seven hundred thousand people, I think live in my area, so unexpected death is a fairly common occurance. Coroners are informed about all these unexpected deaths and are making various enquiries and having various things done, come to the view that most of those are natural and occurred in the course of some natural happening. An inquest, which is the Coroner’s public enquiry, is held when the Coroner comes to the view that the death ocurred in circumstances which are unnatural. About 10% of the fifteen hundred cases that I’m informed about every year turn out to be such cases and these are the cases that arrive in the court and are the subject of Amanda’s exhibition and audio visual presentation here. It’s tempting to think, Amanda has used imagery there, very cleverly used imagery I think, imagery of the Liffey at various tidal states; the Liffey full and the Liffey largely empty and those of you who have stopped to look at it will see in it a lifebelt floating on the water in the one where the tide is in and the river is full. One might imagine that this was a lifebelt waiting for somebody to grab it and then in the other pictures the lifebelt is lying uselessly on the mud beside some skeletal remains, or some sort of remains, the visual detritus you see in a river when the tide is out.
Sadly Coroner’s come in touch quite a lot, in our business, with that sort of experience, with things that people maybe turn their eyes away from and things that people don’t want to see and maybe don’t want to know about. It’s the underside of a city and underside of a particular area that a Coroner comes in touch with, and some of it is ugly, and some of it is very unpleasant, it’s all very sad, and it’s all very upsetting and distressing for those involved. There has in recent times been a lot of publicity, a significant amount of publicity about the nature of Coroner’s enquiries and the pain occasioned to families and to others near and dear to the deceased with this public courtroom type of business and Coroners have tussled a lot with this. A Coroner really, when you think about it, acts in the public interest, he doesn’t act in the interest of families. He’s not there certainly to hurt or increase the pain to families, but he acts in the interest of all of us. He acts in the interest of the whole of society and he conducts his enquiries for all of society. And if we take it, and we don’t often think about this but because of this experience (…inaudible) I’ve thought about it a bit, that every person, every one of us constitute part of society, and if something unnatural happens to one of us, if we die as a consequence of something untoward, be it an accident, or any other sort of violence, or something like that it is only proper if we are precious to society, that society should enquire as to how we came to our death, and maybe remedy if there is something to be remedied.
So a Coroner enquires about four things in essence. He enquires who died, so he goes to some lengths to establish the identity of the person who died, he wants to know when and where they died, what was the cause of their death, by which is meant what was the medical cause, did they have a fracture of their skull, brain injuries, or whatever, in what circumstances did that cause arise and that’s the final thing and that probably is the most important part; what are the circumstances surrounding that led to this sort of thing happening, and that is the area that is most fertile in producing ultimately a recommendation which a Coroner, sometimes assisted with a jury, sometimes on his own, can produce some sort of recommendation which he forwards to the appropriate state, or other bodies that are deemed to have some influence on these things with a view to preventing a recurrence of this happening. So he produces recommendations at the end of a case appropriate, and the recommendations have to be of a general character, designed to protect you and me hopefully from coming to our end in this way.
So Coroner’s don’t enquire in essence into normal deaths, but in the course of their enquiries into natural deaths they have to exclude unnatural causes in many naturally caused deaths. Now it is the public interest that is represented at an inquest and that is the reason that an inquest is held in public, and it doesn’t take this era of tribunals and enquiries of all sorts, it doesn’t stretch the imagination too much, that there would always be interests whose interests could be served by keeping matters quiet and private and all the rest of it. So a Coroner is caught in this thing as to what is appropriate, and what is in the public interest to enquire into, to bring to public attention, and what is properly private and should remain in the private sphere. Many of you may have read recently of the death of Michael Hutchinson in Australia, and the circumstances surrounding his death where a Coroner found that he had committed suicide, and Paula Yates disputes that and she says that from her knowledge of this death that it was something that occurred in an accidental way in the course of some auto erotic or other experimentation that he was doing.
Families, of course, are greviously upset very often, of having to come to Coroner’s Courts. They are already devasted by the loss of someone near and dear to them, they have not come to terms with this, they find it very often inexplicable, they are often angry and hurt. They find this whole washing of family private linen in public very upsetting and distasteful. Now I can only say that Coroners, and I know that my 48 other colleagues in the country, there are 49 of us in all, are very sensitive to criticism about this, and are very eager to ensure that no family is hurt beyond the necessary hurt that occurs in the course of having the enquiry in the first place, and hopefully one has a sense that sometimes an inquest acts as a closure, it sometimes does explain some things that weren’t evident to anybody, when the whole story is told, and when somebody can attempt to stand back from it. Then of course, we have all experienced deaths in our own families and the terrible sense of loss associated with a natural death, even though we may have anticipated it, but the sense of loss, the sense of devastation associated with deaths that are unnatural, that we deem to have been unnecessary is an immense burden for families to bear, and they quite naturally, I think, shy away sometimes from having this brought to attention, or brought to public notice. It is one of the most difficult parts in conducting an inquest being aware that families are so hurt.
Tomorrow morning I’m conducting an inquest in respect of a boy who hanged himself, at the age of 20, on the coat hook on the back of the door in his bedroom with the cord of his dressing gown. It is inexplicable. There is one witness who doesn’t wish to be present, a girl of 17 who broke up a relationship with this boy on the same day, and who doesn’t wish to come to say that. Now if that is not said it will never be understood why this boy did this. It has to be said, regrettable and all as it is, and distasteful and painful and all as it is, for her and for his family to hear this, it has to be said that young men do kill themselves in these sorts of circumstances. I’ll get on to a little more about that in a minute.
The pain of any loss, the death produces an irreparable loss for all of us, where any one of our families or our friends who die, leave a gap in our social experience that can not be filled. The best that can happen is that a scar can be made but there is always this mark, or this absence. At inquests one frequently comes across a great deal of anger at the persons who are there, anger at the deceased for dying maybe, anger at the various persons who are around about it, at doctors or police or somebody else for doing or not doing something, anger at society at large for being constructed the way it is. One frequently hears a great deal of anger expressed about the affluence of our society now, that somehow some people are being left behind and there’s a lot of anger being expressed towards that.
My particular interest has been, it’s forced upon me of course this interest, is in the area of sucide. Over the last 25 years I have dealt with two or three thousand suicide deaths and sadly in the last ten years an extraordinary upsurge of these in younger people. An upsurge overall, but an upsurge overall particularly (…inaudible) And last year I held 62 inquests in respect of young people who took their own lives. Now whatever about other forms of deaths, if I was run over by a bus, or if I had some terrible accident, or fall off a cliff, or something falls on top of you, or you’re in an airplane or something like that, you had somebody else to blame, families and others have someone else to blame. A suicide is quite different, because a suicide is an indictment really about the social circle, social group within which the individual lived their lives. Or it is experienced by them (…inaudible) and by those near and dear (…inaudible) The boy whose inquest I’ll be holding tomorrow, I have little doubt that his girlfriend, she was 17, hopefully she’ll be able to make and break relationships, that seems appropriate behaviour for a 17 year old, but somehow she got into a relationship with a boy who wasn’t able to cope with that. And one has to ask questions how do people fail to cope. What are the circumstances which lead them to fail to cope with the ups and downs of ordinary social life that most of us, I suspect, have been through. Certainly I’ve been through a good number of girls in my time who have turned me down. Fortunately I’m here to tell the tale. Though if one says it one may recognise that one was heartbroken at the time, and presumably we were able to share that with somebody and we were able to have somebody comfort us (…inaudible) Some other person, though not very highly qualified, there was some shoulder we could cry on who understood the nature of our distress and how devestated we felt in the absence of this person, and possibly saved us from doing something terrible to ourselves. And that may have been a religious person, or (...inaudible) the current absence of religious beliefs is considered by many to be a contributary factor to this, the isolation of many people away from close family and friends, the break-up of families, which have left young people with no definite place they can go to be comforted and consoled and encouraged to continue living. All of those do seem to be factors that emerge inquest after inquest. And though they are maybe a bit glib and all that, to suggest that it does seem to me, that we need to pay, as a society more attention to the experience of young people in the earliest years of their lives in ensuring that they feel safe in coming to tell somebody of being heartbroken with someone.
Now men are at a particular disadvantage in this regard. Women, we allow women to cry, you know she’s a woman and she cries, and men don’t really understand that, but they do understand that it is a great relief to a woman to cry, and that her pals comfort her and give her a hug or listen to the story and all that. That isn’t the case for men. Men have been trained I think from an early point in time to believe that the thing is to shrug it off and pretend it doesn’t hurt and to go down to the pub and to get involved about Manchester United and singing songs and drinking pints, and they won’t feel anything. And they do feel a lot, and alcohol is hopeless, it’s present in nearly all of these suicides, all these young men have taken a significant amount of drink at the point in time when they feel very low and they impulsively go out and hang themselves in a tree or do something terrible, jump under the DART, or jump into the Liffey or do something awful. So we need to be a much more caring society I believe, particularly to men, to extend some sort of helping hand to men if we recognise that they are upset or disturbed by something.
Can I just say that suicide in our culture, we have had for many years a cultural sort of secrecy. Up till 1993, suicide was a crime in Ireland and a Coroner is prohibited from enquiring into a crime, so there was the curious situation where the poor chap hanged himself in Mountjoy jail, the Department of Justice issued a statement saying we can not say anything about this because the Coroner is investigating it but the Act said that the Coroner mustn’t investigage it. The Coroner was only to sit there and let this pass in front of him. He couldn’t comment on it and he couldn’t even find that this man had hanged himself. So we had a hypocritical society. Fortunately now since Mr. Gorbachev’s time in Russia and the emergence of an open and apparently transparent and accountable society, we are beginning to look at some of these distastful things. It was a crime anyway up to 1993 to kill yourself. When you think of it such a nonesense because the criminal has departed the scene by the time the crime is committed and can not be brought to book. It is still a sin, though I think there is a significant modification in the attitude of the dominant religious group in this country in this matter. Still it is, when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, considered by many people to be a sin.
To get out of this dilemma of the poor chap who committed a crime, who committed a mortal sin, we have devised a third escape hatch that gets us out of the nasty label of all of those, we say he’s mad, he’s got a mental illness. And that gets us out of everything, because it wasn’t his fault, he didn’t know what he was doing when he committed this crime, and when he committed this sin he was mentally ill at the time. Mental illness is the great escape hatch that there exists in our culture to dismiss somebody who says something or behaves in some way that we don’t care for, we dismiss it as being evidence of mental illness. In the former Soviet Union they had a very high incidence of forms of scitzophrenia and they had the highest incidence in the world of scitzophrenia. And when you looked into what the basis for what this scitzophrenia was, they had all sorts of funny categories of scitzophrenia. They had bread scitzophrenics, and underground railway scitzophrenics, and housing problem scitzophrenics, and what it boiled down to in the end, was that these people said the quality of this bread was awful, the chap said you must be scitophrenic, “well he said my house is terrible” – “you must be scitzophrenic”. That’s what it meant, people who object to the current system as being in some way mad. I’ve been in our psyciatric hospitals and out psyciatric services are full of such people who are objecting to something that they know to be wrong and they’re labeled as mad.
These are some of the things that struck me. The other thing, Amanda’s very evocative sort of presentation of this river filing brings to mind our sort of affluent society with all this affluence concealing all sorts of other oddities underneath it and things that are out of sight. But Amanda’s pictures as well, deal with what might be called or bring to mind the effluent society. That society which has more to do with sewerage and unpleasant things that we don’t want to look at. The skeletons that you see there represented in the river bed, the old broken bicycles that you can see, and dead dogs and things, if you look down at the lower reaches of the Liffey, you can see all those. We don’t like looking at that, we’d much prefer to see the river full and we’re much more taken up with the affluence of our society than with the effluence of our society.
Now I want to say just one final thing. A thing I feel strongly about. All of you are going to be touched by a suicide sometime. Every one of you will know someone who took their own life. Each of you will, in the privacy of your own hearts, will sometime wonder if I’d said something different, if I’d said to that guy would you like a cup of coffee, if I said I’ll take a few more minutes instead of saying I’ve got to catch the bus, or I’ve got to be here, or there. You will all come across that sometime, “would things have been different?” So you‘re all going to be touched by a suicide and you’ll go away and wonder, would you have made some difference, and the likelihood is that you might have. And I am saying that suicide, and these very sad deaths that we have to enquire into are the unpleasant shitty side of the human condition. They are the awful shittiness that exists in every culture. But the interesting thing about shit is that it is a fantastic fertiliser. And you know it’s a really interesting thing when you talk to people like that and they say “Oh my God, it’s terrible” and they tell you a terrible story and you agree it’s a terrible story, and you say “that’s a terrible story, it’s a heap of shit”. Now if you take the label off that and instead of a heap of shit, put on another label that says it’s a heap of fertiliser … (rest of tape inaudible)
© Dr Bartley Sheehan (1934-2000)