Cavan Murders: No Excuses for Domestic Violence


(CW: physical, emotional, sexual, abuse/violence)

The story of the Cavan murders is one of male entitlement and violence, not mental illness.

We can all agree that the recent murders by a man in Co. Cavan, whereby he stabbed his wife and children to death before hanging himself, are horrific, disturbing, and tragic. But it's clear we can't all agree beyond that point.

At first I ignored this story because I didn't cop onto the political significance of it. I try to ignore what I see as senseless tragedies that don't have much broader significance, like plane crashes, regular oul' murders, natural disasters, because I see it as an unnecessary emotional burden. But when I saw people making excuses for this brutal attack, and others rightly pointing out what this all said about our society, I changed my tack.

It's about the power of framing a situation. There are people going around, in their homes, in the pub, in comment sections on the internet, humanising this murderer, and excusing his actions using the Mental Health magic wand we're used to having waved in front of our faces whenever a white man commits what in another instance (different melanin levels, country of origin, religion) would be denounced as the most clear-cut barbarism and terrorism.

But worse than that, some people, including a friend of the murderer quoted in the papers, are dispensing the same 'pillar of the community' platitudes we've seen applied to serial killers and rapists, abusive partners, and all sorts of disgusting transgressions, for what must be hundreds (or even thousands) of years, as if it was a meaningful thing to say.

I want to speak from personal experience, something that too many people will be able to relate to. If there's something I've learned from my time in this human society, it's that you can't trust whatever impression others have made on you, whether that's the perception that they're a good, decent, person, or that they're happy and not dying on the inside. We all trade on carefully constructed veneers, and people with something to hide are naturally more deliberate in constructing theirs.

The salient example of this for me is my own father - a sadistic abuser who emotionally tormented my nigh on saintly mother for nearly 3 decades. But as a master image-crafter he managed to create a situation where she was villified, and he got away with it, leveraging the same kind of 'pillar of the community' horseshit which most people (for understandable reasons) believe. Isn't he such a helpful neighbour, doesn't he have such lofty political opinions, isn't he so charming, isn't he such an involved father.

The same sick sexist story. For the record, these are all things that people thought about the serial killer Ted Bundy. The point being you have no idea what happens behind your back. Especially with the men that you know - that is a brutal fact of this society.

The mental health excuses are similarly hollow and demonstrative. The most spurious claim put forward by some is that the man murdered his wife and children because he had a psychotic episode.

This is presumably because these people cannot fathom the idea that a normal-seeming man (from the outside) could do such a thing. A man who is, of course, immediately assumed to be of good character, who isn't a black-clad ISIS militant screaming 'Allah hu akbar!' or a dirty sneering eye-patch wearing convicted criminal.

In any case, the murders were clearly very pre-meditated, the man having attached a note to the house's outside door warning visitors not to come in and to call 112. Another note was left inside, the contents of which have not been released. These are not the indicators of someone who suddenly snapped, lost their comprehension of ordinary reality, and succumbed to psychotic rage.

These are the indicators of someone who relatively soberly planned the execution of his family. It says something worrying about our society that so many people find it hard to believe this, and instantly reach for what is essentially a deus ex machina / magic explanation.

But let's look more generally at the mental illness excuse. Why is this murderer's mental illness a mitigating factor to the point where people actually have sympathy for him?

We have heard that he was depressed, he was stressed, his mortgage got him bogged down, work was getting to him - regardless of the truth of these statements they are ways to personalise rather than politicise this story, treating it as a kind of once-off freak accident hinging on one man's personality rather than as an event which reflects our damaged society.

The fact is that even if you're depressed, you have a choice in life. Maybe that sounds harsh, but it's true. Do I have enough fingers to count the people I hold dear who have been majorly depressed, stressed to the point of collapse, or wanted to kill themselves (including myself)? I don't think so. But we managed not to murder our loved ones.

The key point here is that these murders are not the tragic outcome of an illness, but of an ideology and culture. That ideology and culture is patriarchy and toxic masculinity. The critical fact here was that this man thought he owned his wife and children to the point that he felt entitled to kill them for his own reasons. They were HIS. No amount of depression can necessarily make you think you can decide whether other people live or die. That took a deeply sexist paternalistic attitude in this case.

I have seen people (almost entirely men) on the internet scoffing, becoming outraged, at the mention of domestic violence in relation to this tragedy - despite it literally being a case of a woman and her children being murdered in her home by her partner.

When I was chatting about this with my mother she said he was probably abusive, to be so possessive as to take ownership of their lives. Maybe the wife threatened to leave him. She knew these were just speculations, and we don't know, but why would these suggestions seem to outlandish to some, considering the man murdered his family, considering we live in a society where women are plagued by emotional and physical violence left, right, and centre. But instead of talking about these issues, the media, and others, are discussing the fine points of his supposed mental illness.

There's a general point of the highest importance here. When people do bad things, things that hurt others, that ignore their interests, they feel justified. That often includes a sense of being hard done by, down on your luck, feeling weak, having something missing. This is how people who are not comic-book villains do great harm regardless.

If we as a society accept these excuses and let people off the hook for their abuse, neglect, predation, and exploitation, we will reap a field of poison. It is imperative that, with a complementary understanding of external factors, we each firmly place responsibility for our actions with ourselves.

To be crystal clear, my aim is not to screech at troubled people carrying a heavy mental burden. If anything, I'm an advocate for people with mental illness. But this kind of black-and-white thinking doesn't help mentally ill people either - we don't benefit from an analysis that treats us as spellbound vessels without agency. The reality is more complex.

Lastly, what does this hand-waving do for the potential victims of similar violence? For the women and children at risk of being beaten up, or raped, or emotionally scarified, or killed, how do they benefit from perpetuating the myth of the 'model citizen' who could only do harm if possessed suddenly by evil spirits? Surely their only salvation can come by shattering these myths and having an open and tough discussion of the ubiquitous dangers of sexism and power.

My thoughts go out to the family and everyone affected. Every word here was written out of love and concern for the victims and everyone like them.

WORDS: Eamon Feeney