21 November 2011

More Questions

A long time ago, in the early days of this blog -- posts predating September 2007 have been adopted from my old blog into the prehistory of this one -- I wrote about how I'd learned something of the truth about a story I'd once assumed was an urban myth, a kind of local ghost story.

One of my childhood friends used to tell me a story, heard from his older brothers, of how years earlier a little boy who lived up near the church in Palmerstown had been murdered by his teenage next-door neighbour, crucified in an attic as a Satanic ritual. I believed this as a child, and dismissed it in my teens, and then in my late teens discovered that the story had basically been true. A few years ago, a brief window of access to the Irish Times archive enabled me to find out how the story had been reported at the time: how little John Horgan’s death had initially been reported as accidental, and how hardly any details were revealed in the court reports, with the murderer's name – Lorcan Bale – being withheld, and the facts of the case not being reported.

I was watching Criminal Minds one day last week -- yes, I know, but there was a brief novelty value in the telly suddenly working and having an abundance of channels -- with the gang investigating what appeared to be a Satanist murder, when it was pointed out that despite popular belief there have never been any Satanic murders in America. This got me thinking, of course, and so I went a-googling, as I do about once a year on the subject in the vain hope that I'll discover something.

This time was different. A book had just come out on the subject, and there were articles scattered here and there, and the names of both victim and murderer were everywhere, and if you're inclined to listen to Joe Duffy, well, there was a show just for you.

Ghoulish though the subject is, and broke though I surely was, years of curiosity won out over poverty and propriety and moments had scarcely passed before I'd ordered the book, with it arriving a couple of days later. In a nowadays atypically efficient burst of reading I ploughed through the whole book on Friday, before falling ill the following morning. I've been pondering it since.

If I had to sum up my thoughts, though, I'd just say it's not very good. It's not wholly worthless, as some information is better than no information, but it's certainly not worth shelling out on.

The Devil's in the Details
There's a section in his Histories where Polybius, the second-century BC Greek historian of the rise of Rome, discusses other historians and says something which offers a fine principle for evaluating any books which claim to be factual.
'As the proverb tells us that a single drop from the largest vessel suffices to tell us the nature of the whole contents, so we should regard the subject under discussion. When we find one or two false statements in a book and they prove to be deliberate ones, it is evident that not a word written by such an author is any longer certain and reliable.' (12.25a.1-2)
I think this works in a broader sense: it's not just that we should be wary of authors who get things wrong deliberately, but that we should watch those who make sloppy little errors. Those who are not to be trusted in little things are not entitled to our trust when it comes to big things.

The first indication for me that something wasn't right with the book came with a little bit of creative writing in the first chapter.
'A highly educated Irish speaker from Kerry, Father O'Keefe was well-respected, and known for his pulpit oratory, but his was no liberal message of live and let live -- his voice thundered on the dangers of sin, the fires of hell, and the temptations of the devil; for the believer, he spoke of the path to redemption. This was unusual for a Catholic priest; such fire-and-brimstone messages are more characteristic of the low churches, and evangelical Protestantism.
That late spring morning, as he passed the shrine to the Virgin Mary overlooking the murky fish-pond, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The priest unlocked the front door and entered the porch. The vials of holy water were untouched, as were the notices advocating the conservative group for laity, the Legion of Mary. And yet the cleric sensed immediately that something was wrong.'
He wasn't the only one. As he passed the shrine to the Virgin Mary? In 1973? The shrine that wasn't constructed until at least the late 1980s? That one? I had to check this with my brother, as I thought maybe I was remembering things wrong, but no, the shrine definitely wasn't there in the 1970s. Sure, doesn't it block the route that he and his mates used to use when running through the church grounds to go and play in the quarry full of rusting machinery? The priest back in the day used to chase kids off to stop them running there, and he'd hardly have needed to do so if the shrine had been there to block their way.

That's bad enough, but then just a couple of pages later we read:
'John Horgan would have been excited leaving Mount Sackville Convent School in nearby Clondalkin that Thursday afternoon.'
Now, you might argue about whether Mount Sackville, only about a mile across the Liffey as the crow flies from John Horgan's house, should be regarded as being in Chapelizod or Castleknock, but you certainly can't say it's in Clondalkin, three miles south.

It’s hard to believe, reading this, that the book’s author, David Malone, was born in Dublin and lives there now. The book gets even sloppier, really, with the second chapter opening with a description of local geography that makes it seem as though the local bank is on the same street as several other shops, as opposed to sitting isolated on another street -- what was once the main road to Galway -- a couple of hundred metres away. It’s as though Malone didn’t get to know the area at all, something that seems to be supported by things I’ve heard from people from that part of Palmerstown about him getting loads of things wrong. Certainly, he missed a trick in his summary of Palmerstown’s history by not mention how Lord Palmerston, the nineteenth-century British Prime Minister and political realist par excellence, took his title from this otherwise obscure west Dublin village; the Temples were Irish peers, though I don’t think Palmerston himself ever set foot in the place.

And then there are Bigger Problems...
If little errors and omissions such as these would cause one to approach the meat of the text with care, more substantial matters don’t inspire more confidence. Malone offers two wholly incompatible accounts of how John Horgan’s body was found, one coming from the then Detective Sergeant Jim Noonan and one from another Garda, a Seán O’Laughlin: Noonan describes how he’d worked out that something was amiss with the teenage Lorcan Bale’s story and how he and two other Guards had told the murderer they’d search the house from top to bottom, such that he cracked and admitted John’s body was in the attic. O’Laughlin, on the other hand, describes how he’d spotted broken plasterboard pieces in the bottom of Lorcan’s otherwise empty wardrobe, looked up, seen the secret hatch into the attic, and then entered the attic the conventional way, only to see the little boy’s body tied spread-eagled to the rafters; both men claimed that on finding John’s body they checked him for signs of life.

It’s pretty obvious from reading the two accounts, a convenient fifty or so pages apart, that Noonan’s account is by far the more likely to reflect what happened: it’s a team effort, less dramatic than O’Laughlin’s, rooted in sensible steady policework, and is corroborated by other people. 

O’Laughlin’s, on the other hand, looks patently false: all the work appears to have been his own, for starters, without any cooperation with anybody else, and he seems to have been sparked in his thoughts by hearing from the victim’s father that ‘that weird bastard next door’ had a Ouija Board. It seems unlikely that this would have been known and that the teenager wouldn’t have been a speedy object of suspicion – although Malone returns to the statement later to speculate on whether Lorcan Bale’s father had also been aware of this.

O’Laughlin describes the teenage Bale getting nervous in response to questions and glancing upstairs, and then says O'Laughlin asked Bale’s father whether he could go into the boy’s locked bedroom; where Lorcan himself was when this conversation took place isn’t clear, and nothing’s said of his reactions, which seems odd as according to this story he was clearly present when O’Laughlin searched his room.

Even the description of the cupboard is odd; elsewhere in the book the tidiness of the bedroom Lorcan Bale shared with his brother is noted, but according to O’Laughlin there were broken bits of plasterboard all over the base of the otherwise empty built-in wardrobe, the chippings scattered there from the hatch above – an elaborate hatch with a rope and pulley system that had been made months earlier. Is it really likely that Lorcan Bale wouldn’t have made some effort to clean away his handiwork, to hide it from the brother with whom he shared his room?

Indeed, is it even plausible that a built-in wardrobe in a shared room in a family home would have been entirely empty, or that Lorcan wouldn't have relied upon the wardrobe being full to hide his secret route to the attic? His old school friend Lorcan Conroy, one of Malone's main sources, told Malone that there were indeed clothes in the wardrobe, and that they needed to be pushed back on their rail in order to afford access to the attic hatches.

How does Malone resolve these difficulties? In practice he doesn’t; he divides Noonan’s account into two parts, so that the breakthrough is described early in the book and the aftermath is described much later, after O’Laughlin’s account, which Malone refers to when he wants to discuss details later on. Malone seems hardly troubled by the Noonan's and O'Laughlin's accounts being at odds with each other:
‘Other records of the events of that day differ very slightly in the detail, but the substance of the search and subsequent discovery of the body remains consistent. A slightly differing version, which I’ve recounted in detail in Chapter One, is Detective Sergeant Noonan’s account, supplemented by other witnesses. [...] The discrepancies between the two policemen’s accounts can easily be explained away by the passage of time. But common to both is seeing the body and immediately checking for any signs of life.’
This, of course, is nonsense. Nobody’s disputing that the boy was killed, or that he was found, or that the policeman who found him immediately checked to see if he was alive. The two stories don’t just differ slightly: they differ in serious and profound ways, and it’s surely the case that anybody on hearing and thinking through these stories should have thought to doubt O’Laughlin’s version of events. It's pretty clear, really, that O'Laughlin was just spinning Malone a yarn, but unfortunately, rather than doing his job as a journalist and trying to get his facts right, Malone just throws out every bit of data he's got and leaves it up to us to decide. 

The reality is that he hasn’t got a lot else to use, and has to include every trivial claim and counter-claim he’s ever heard on the subject simply to fill the book out. Tangents and speculation are an irritating feature of the book, padding out what is, in truth, an insubstantial piece of work. Much of this has to do with Malone’s lack of data: Lorcan Bale, long freed from custody and settled in society, wouldn’t tell him anything, the Horgans wouldn’t deal with him and didn’t welcome the book being written at all, and crucial information was simply inaccessible, hidden away by the demands of doctor-patient confidentiality. Malone’s been forced to bulk up what could, in itself, be a very good magazine feature in the right kind of magazine. It’s not a book, not as it stands.

Little Virtues
It’s not all bad, of course. There’s useful and interesting information there, and it was a strange relief to hear that John Horgan’s death was swift, rather than the agonised torture I’d always assumed: he wasn’t crucified, but was clubbed to death in the field behind his home, before being smuggled upstairs and into the attic, there to lashed to the rafters in Lorcan Bale’s black mass. Malone raises interesting questions about how Bale had ever got involved in Satanism, and wonders about the possibility of there having been a coven of some sort in Meath, but though he raises questions, he can offer no answers. 

Malone makes a real effort to get across a sense of place in the book, and he doesn’t wholly fail in this, in that I recognise his descriptions of the Palmerstown of 1973 as a lot closer to the Palmerstown of my childhood than to the Palmerstown of today. It was far smaller, for starters, with perhaps less than half the population, and mostly fields, cliche though that is. It’s a huge shame he doesn’t include maps showing how it’s changed, and photographs from Palmerstown back then, as there must be some around.

Now and Then, more or less

Although some names have been changed it’s oddly chilling to see familiar names cropping up, whether of people I’ve known such as the parish priest Father Kevin Daly, the local builder – and publican – Frank Towey, and Dr T.B. Sherry, or prominent national figures such as Maureen Gaffney. All this, and the fact that I know intimately all the places mentioned in the book makes reading it a disturbing experience. There’s something horrifying in reading of something so terrible taking place somewhere so ordinary, so familiar.

At the same time, though, the places where we grow up are never just mundane, are they? They’re invested with a profound – almost a mythic – sense of reality, where bushes and pillars stand as markers of stories we’ve heard and things we’ve done, monuments to a world which to an outsider is insignificant, but which means everything to those who live there. I made the Iliad from such a local row, wrote Patrick Kavanagh back in the day.

In Short...
These, however, are the book’s very few virtues, and more than anything it comes across as a missed opportunity. It offered a chance to say important things about Ireland in the 1970s – and it does at least hint at one thing, which was that back then Irish people simply didn’t share knowledge of bad things they’d heard of, such that wicked things might have been heard of but just weren’t discussed – but rather than delving into them, nothing is dealt with in anything more than a superficial level.

A couple of years back one of my oldest friends asked whether I’d be interested in doing the work on this myself, on finding out just what had happened, knowing my interest in this. I paused, and said no. Doing so, I thought, would be intrusive. It’s obvious that the two families wanted to leave the past behind them, and they should be left in peace. Sure, people would be interested to learn of this, but did they need to know about it?

Having read Malone’s work, I’m far from convinced that this story needed to be told. It may have satisfied my curiosity, to some degree, but I could have lived without that. More than anything it felt like an exercise in voyeurism.


Anonymous said...

As a close neighbour of both the Bales and the Horgans, I felt that the book rightly brought to light a lot more than we knew. It was almost like an urban legend as I grew up. I think the public has a right to know who dwells amongst us.I assumed that Bale was still incarcerated until I talked with the author. I was absolutely disgusted to know he spent less time in jail than John actually lived.

Lynda said...

I thought it was wholly wrong of Joe Duffy to orchestrate a whole Live Line programme about this terrible crime, with the Garda who found the young boy giving way too much information than the public interest could call for. The truly amazing part of the story was the forgiveness and awesome faith of that innocent little boy's parents. Good surely overcame evil in the end - the devil did not hold sway.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

That's very peculiar that you had thought Bale was still incarcerated. Certainly, that'd been known a while: when I talked about it years ago to neighbours of the two boys - aged between them, and at least one obviously interviewed for the book - they both said he'd been released years earlier. Indeed, in the ghost story versions of it I heard as a child, it was regularly said that he had been released, as indeed he had.

I was troubled by how little time Bale had spent locked away, but at I was unhappy by the extent to which the book basically gave away his details, such that anybody who wanted to could track him down now. I'm not sure that a man's actions from when he was a dangerously screwed-up kid forty years earlier should be held against him now.

As for the book bringing to light stuff, yes, it does that, but how do you know what to trust? Given the elementary errors Malone makes, and his willingness to cite clearly fanciful yarns as at least semi-credible accounts, I'm not sure it's helped at all.

FrB said...

The thing that struck me about the book was its carelessness in discussing religious matters. Both in its misuse of Catholic terminology and its analysis of the phenomenon, it was clear that the journalist was out of his depth and didn't bother to have someone knowledgeable check what he had written.
His analysis of 1970s Ireland reminded me of one of those Primetime pieces that show pictures of rosary beads and holy water fonts with an ominous soundtrack.
I'm not at all surprised that you're finding similar flaws based on your knowledge of the local area. So much about this book didn't ring true.

It could have been an important book with a lot to say about the murder itself and about Irish society. I suspect that the author himself thought he was writing something insightful, but fell well short.

skinlough said...

I agree that the book and the truth will never give us what we need to know. However,has anybody mentioned if Lorcan was sick/mental problems etc ?. Malone did not do his job as a writer with the facts.

G2e said...

i was delighted to find and read your article as you covered nearly all the points and problems i had with the book though why he never delved deeper into the fact that a child murderer got out of prison every two months for a slap up meal with his family i will never understand,the book is shoddy and a terrible piece of journalism,shocking to be honest the author was either got at or he is stupid which i doubt but i cant belive you think people dont have a right to know why he only served 7 years and was let out regularly for meals in a posh hotel,the general cover up,lack of media attention,no death certificate the more than likely ifluence of others never brought to account,if its beyond you to find out just say so dont hide behind respect for two families one of which has no right to suppres the truth !!!

Anonymous said...

I have read a lot about this poor boy and his awful death. Most of the articles I have read need to be stitched together to make any sense of the case. That includes this one which is more hearsay. I was gobsmacked by the author of the books lack of knowledge of the occult. A lot of research would have helped him understand what he was witnessing.The only person who can shed light on the murder and the black mass is the murderer however I believe that he had given himself to darkness via the ritual.