While most of us would run a mile from the work of a forensic pathologist, it seems like a contradiction that Irish people are so preoccupied with death and murder. Dr Marie Cassidy, recently retired State Pathologist, has been the subject of a recent RTÉ mini-series, is the author of a best-selling memoir of her life in Ireland, and is in constant demand for press and radio interviews.
The Irish obsession with death was one of the early surprises she encountered on leaving Glasgow to become, at first, assistant to the then chief pathologist, Dr Jack Harbison. In Scotland, she remarked, the public have little interest in pathologists or their work; in Ireland, the fascination with death translates into press and media coverage that makes the pathologist a public figure.
In her book, ‘Beyond the Tape’, Dr Cassidy says that she felt uneasy at this intrusion into her privacy. Her reaction was in contrast with Jack Harbison, who enjoyed the publicity and who, it was said, was given to flashes of black humour even as he went about his duties.
The recent TV series, ‘Dr Cassidy’s Casebook’, had for its viewers the quality of a horror movie, we could look in from a safe distance at the gruesome work, and still sleep soundly in our beds at night. True too that her line of work contrasted with the cheery, bubbly diminutive lady whose life seemed to be always on call to journey to some horrific event in some far-flung corner of the country.
Forensic pathologists, as she explained, carry out post-mortems to establish the cause of death, even if at first glance it appears to be blatantly obvious. But nothing can ever be taken at face value, and what looks like an accidental death can turn out to be a failed attempt to conceal what was, in fact, a murder.
Forensic pathologists are suspicious by nature, she contends, and look beyond the obvious when seeking the cause of death. When a young mother and her children were found dead in their burned out, isolated home in Co Kilkenny on a Christmas morning, it looked like death from smoke inhalation. But Dr Cassidy revealed that the mother had been strangled before the house had been set alight by her murderer.
But one of the most horrific crimes of her career was the rape and murder of a young Swiss student in Galway in 2007. Manuelo Riedo was a 17-year-old only child from a small village near Berne; it was her first time abroad on her own; she had come to Galway to learn English. And it was her misfortune to encounter an evil brute called Gerald Barry when, on a bright evening two days into her visit, she took a short cut from Renmore over waste ground on her way to meet up with her friends at Eyre Square.
Barry, out on bail on a charge of domestic violence and, as it turned out, who had raped a French student ten days earlier, took Manuelo Riedo’s life and dumped her in the undergrowth. Later, her distraught parents presented Dr Cassidy with a figurine of an angel by way of thanks for her kindness to them during the harrowing trial.
The woman who, as she says, has spent 40 years living with the dead believes in keeping both feet firmly on the ground.
“I might not have been the sharpest scalpel in the box,” she says, “but I have plenty of common sense, a very under rated attribute.”