When true crime fans hear the term missing and murdered women our thoughts are likely to turn the Canada’s Highway of Tears, or the Mexican border town of Jurez. They are less likely to turn to Ireland.
This is exactly where Claire McGowan, who more often writes fiction, turns her attention. There is and area called The Vanishing Triangle a stretch of land between Dundalk at it’s apex near the border with Northern Ireland and Wexford in the south covering a large swath of the east coast. It then stretches out to almost the centre of Ireland near Tullimore. It is in this area that over the course of the 90s eight women dissapeared. Some were later found dead, others have never been found and leave a behind them the constant painful reminder of their absence.
As expected most people’s thoughts first go to a serial killer, it appears after all the most grusomly glamours explination, one where we can easily point at someone and call them a monster so as to not have to do anything about the underlying and everyday issues which impacted the eight’s last days, and their families search for justice.
McGowan, feels like the right person to have written this book. It is true as a fiction writer she doesn’t have the investigative experience of a journalist or former detective, nor the sharp academic skill of a criminologist or sociologist, but what makes her perfect is that she herself grew up in the triangle and was a young woman at the time of the dissaperances and murders.
McGowan doesn’t just know the geography, she knows the people. She can map attitudes to sex, divorce, abortion, women, mental health and rape in the way others might construct a time line, it’s an autopsy of the prevailing mindsets in a country quickly shifting and changing into something new – showing how opinions that may be someone’s “right” to hold, can perilously endanger women and hamper the search for justice. McGowan can find no minotaur at the centre of the labrynth, no easy monster to other and blame, but instead cultural attitudes that have formed over centuries, as well as the depressing fact which we also see in the Highway of Tears and Juarez, that poor, non-existant, unreliable and badly regulated public transport has very real consequences for the saftey of women’s lives.
While McGowan can show us the wider culture and the impact of the troubles she also has a talent for homing in on the mundane, the everyday in a way that eclipses everything but the humanity involved. It is small details, like one women recording a video of a tv show, and then putting a new lable on the tape, and writing the show’s name on it – something I have not done for decades, that bring these women, the time, the place, their personhood all into sharp focus.
For most of us a tour of the of Ireland would be a tick list of steriotypes and tourist tat, but McGowan shows us something much more real, more urgent, more ordinary and more terrible than the Hollywood films with their blarney schtick, and “oh, isn’t it quaint-ness,” will ever reveal.
Perhaps this is where we can understand Ireland. A real place to some, and to more a mythical homeland which can give them comfort from the hardship and dispaire in their own. Little do they realise, hardship and dispaire are everywhere, if only we chose to see it. For the women of the vanishing triangle people have been seeing no evil, hearing no evil and speaking no evil for too long.