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'It cast a long shadow': Louise O'Neill on West Cork, an unsolved murder and her new novel

The author’s latest novel After The Silence is published today.

Image: Clare Keogh

SO OFTEN, AUTHOR Louise O’Neill says, our thoughts turn to the wives of men accused of terrible crimes – and why they choose to stay. 

The Clonakilty native’s fifth novel, After The Silence, may centre on a murder plot, but at the heart of this psychological thriller is a character study in emotional abuse. 

Who killed Nessa Crowley, a young woman murdered at a party on Inisrún, a fictional West Cork island, in the middle of a storm? 

Ten years after her death, O’Neill’s novel follows an Australia film crew who arrive to make a documentary about the infamous murder of “the Crowley girl”.  

The chief suspect is a rich and handsome Englishman, Henry Kinsella, who settled on his mother’s native Inishrún and set up an artists’ retreat. After Nessa’s murder, Kinsella’s retreat is burnt down. Henry and his wife, Keelin, have since become outcasts on the island. 

For O’Neill, the subplot of the Kinsella’s marriage is key, she told TheJournal.ie. Keelin, subtly controlled by her husband, is a character study in emotional abuse. “For me, that was the interesting part, that’s what I wanted to explore. That was the seed.”

‘We Never Locked Our Doors’

Like many people in Ireland in February 2018, O’Neill was absorbed in a new podcast tracing the 1996 murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, and its aftermath. 

In West Cork – co-hosted by Jennifer Forde and Sam Bungey – the listener follows the story from the weeks prior to Sophie’s death, her murder, the subsequent botched investigation, unreliable witnesses and a local community suspicious of “blow-ins”. 

“I remember it was all anyone could talk about,” says O’Neill, who was 11 at the time of du Plantier’s murder and grew up in West Cork. 

“When you live in an area like this crime is not something that you worried about, we never locked our doors and as a child I was given tremendous freedom,” she says. 

Yet, she says, du Plantier’s murder “cast a long shadow” over West Cork, which remains to this day. ”It’s never had any sort of real resolution,” says O’Neill. 

After The Silence, inspired by West Cork, explores similar themes 10 years after the murder of Nessa Crowley: isolation, secrets and domestic abuse. 

As the documentary crew begin gathering testimony, Inishrún natives tell their version of events. Henry Kinsella, fueled by narcissism and a media frenzy following the documentary’s airing, willingly participates. 

‘Why These Women Stay’

Meanwhile, Keelin – whose first husband viciously beat her – finds herself in another abusive relationship, despite her training as a counsellor and having worked in a women’s refuge. 

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“I started thinking about how often we talk about the wives of men who’ve been accused of crimes, of murder or rape,” says O’Neill, of before she began writing After The Silence. “So often our focus turns to their wives or partners and we ask why these women stay.”

O’Neill has been writing about issues of consent, victim-blaming and abuse since her debut novel Only Ever Yours in 2014. 

Her 2015 breakthrough Asking For It raised questions around consent and sexual abuse. It lead to an RTÉ documentary and a play, which wrapped up shortly before Covid-19 lockdown. 

O’Neill spent lockdown at her parents’ house in her native Clonakilty, surrounded by a landscape at once idyllic and hostile. 

That setting, she says, has been formative. “If you grow up in that landscape a part of you always craves it. There’s a reason why people return to places like West Cork.”

Post-promotion, O’Neill says she plans to retreat. “I’ve a couple of weeks now…and then I’m gone,” she laughs. 

After The Silence by Louise O’Neill is published today. 

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