Ailbhe Griffith stars in a new film on her own real-life experience about arranging a meeting with the man who had assaulted her, writes Esther McCarthy
Many survivors of serious crime would be frightened and overwhelmed at the prospect of meeting their attacker, but for one woman, doing so felt important and essential.
And so, nine years after she was attacked, violently sexually assaulted and left fearing for her life, Ailbhe Griffith sat across a table in a modest meeting room from the man who so brutally harmed her, supported by mediators for both sides, seeking answers and closure.
Though the man had been successfully convicted and served a lengthy sentence for his crime, Ailbhe felt she would have much to gain from the process, known as restorative justice.
“I suppose there were a couple of things I really wanted to get out of the meeting,” she tells me. “There were elements around forgiveness. I wanted to encounter the person that I knew he intellectually was, and to basically be able to see something human in him in order to be able to forgive him. That was all about being able to let go of my own feelings of anger and negativity that I’d carried on.
“Even from the point that this process kicked off, that he was informed that I wanted to meet him, that most definitely started to enable me to feel somewhat empowered again, because I knew that he knew that I was prepared to meet him. Even from the initial contact it was helpful in that way.
“But once I came out of that meeting it was entirely transformative, because not only was I able to genuinely let go of the anger, because I could see the person, but it was also deeply, deeply empowering. I was able to get exactly what I wanted on that basis.”
Ailbhe was returning home from work on the evening that she was attacked, on a walk from the bus stop to her home that takes just four minutes. As well as her significant injuries, she suffered severe trauma as she endeavoured to move forward with her life.
“It was the initial years that were obviously the most impacted. For the first two years or so I would have had post-traumatic stress, would have been in a depressive state, struggled with eating disorders.”
“Then as time went on I kind of managed to in some way piece my life back together and really just try to move forward as best I could. But definitely there were still bouts where those things would come back to me. I would either feel the anger again, or the sadness, and to be honest they were probably two sides of the same coin in some ways.”
As the years went on, she felt a building, nagging requirement to meet the man who harmed her.
“I continued to struggle. It wasn’t probably as transparent externally, but I knew it was still there, because I knew I kept thinking about confronting him when these situations would come up for me. I had moved away for a period and then I moved back to Ireland, and as soon as I came back, it was clear it was all still there waiting for me.
When her assailant was released from prison years later, Ailbhe set about exploring the idea of meeting him. It was her sister who first told her about Dr Marie Keenan of UCD, who carried out work in the area of restorative justice.
“Periodically I would discuss these feelings of wanting to meet this individual with people close to me. It was one day that I was speaking to my sister, and she just happened to mention that she’d attended a course of Marie Keenan’s. She saw a documentary on a woman who had engaged in the process. Within the first meeting with Marie we had decided to pursue that course of action.”
In an extraordinary move, Ailbhe is now starring in a drama called The Meeting, in which she takes on her first acting role. She plays a woman who meets the man who attacked her in Alan Gilsenan’s powerful film, which plays out in ‘real time’ and is closely inspired by Ailbhe’s own experiences.
Gilsenan, who had met Ailbhe several times in researching the film, had considered other actors to play her before asking her whether she would be interested in taking on the role.
Irish actor Terry O’Neill plays the male lead in what is a truly unique drama from the director of Meetings With Ivor.
“When he originally asked me, I took a day or two to confirm,” she says. “But I suppose my own gut instinct on the matter was, I felt what I could contribute was, that I could definitely make it as authentic as it could possibly be, it being a piece of drama but at the same time, us wanting to really bring the power of restorative justice home.
“I felt that if I could bring that authenticity to what’s being said, and avoid stereotypes and people making assumptions about how a person would be in that scenario, that I could do restorative justice a service.”
Filming took place over a one-week period in Ardmore Studios, and Ailbhe said she enjoyed and was fascinated by the experience of the filmmaking process.
Her great hope is that it will create awareness of restorative justice and how the process can benefit some people.
She still vividly remembers the feelings of happiness and liberation she experienced after her real-life meeting took place.
“Once I walked out of that room I immediately felt physically lighter. I also was smiling a lot, I couldn’t stop smiling, and for me it was like a dark cloud having lifted. I felt at a very core place, very deeply healed. And also, not afraid, empowered again. For me it was that dramatic. I know other people have different levels of experience with such a process but for me it was that transformative.”
The Meeting is now in cinemas. A special screening will take place in Gate Cork tonight (Tuesday October 2) at 7pm with Q&A afterwards with director Alan Gilsenan and cast members Ailbhe Griffith and Kevin McCormack.