Clarissa: A life stolen
In 2013, Rebecca Saunders' husband Martin drowned their 3 year old little girl and then himself. In a haze of grief, she allowed Clarissa to be buried in Martin’s arms in a lonely West Cork graveyard. Eight years after her daughter’s tragic death, Rebecca tells their story.
icon The following content is sensitive in nature and some readers may find it distressing.
Little ceramic angels peer down on a weathered wooden plaque in a west Cork graveyard, a small physical reminder of a harrowing killing that rocked and still divides a community.
Clarissa McCarthy was just three-years-old when her father Martin, 50, drowned the friendly, playful little girl on March 5, 2013, before taking his own life at Audley Cove near their home outside Ballydehob.
Shocked and traumatised by the horror of her precious daughter’s death, her mum Rebecca, then 26, allowed Clarissa to be buried in her father’s arms.
The image of Clarissa buried in her father’s arms and of a distraught mother ‘insisting’ that they do so was a striking feature of media reports from the time.
But Rebecca, now 33, has regretted that decision ever since and hopes to exhume the bodies one day to bring Clarissa back home with her to America.
The grave in Cork where Clarissa is currently buried along with her father, Martin
“Pretty much since the coffin closed, I regretted allowing Clarissa to be buried with Martin. And I would be very, very thankful if I could undo that,” Rebecca said, speaking publicly for the first time since the tragedy.
"It’s very, very hard to think that my little girl is in his arms forever."
“The grave and the headstone still cause me quite a bit of stress. I don’t want anything put on there that glorifies a 'murderer'.”
Having Clarissa’s body back would be an emotional salve, knowing that she’s nearby.
It would also finally give Rebecca a chance to make her voice heard, after it was silenced first by what she alleges was her "controlling" late husband and then by others who "took his side" after the deaths.
Despite losing everything the day Martin killed his “joyful, loving” daughter and then himself, some people blamed his young wife, the traumatised victim, for the deaths, even spitting at her on the street, a sign of the ugly tribalism and misogyny still festering below the surface in Irish society.
That misdirected anger also pointed to the sometimes impossible task of allowing yourself to believe that a man you thought you knew, a man you grew up with, a man you loved, could do something so monstrous.
Rebecca was just 16 when she met Martin. He was 42. She says he treated her “as his chattel” before destroying what she loved most in this world - her daughter.
The murder-suicide was punishment, she believes, for asking for a divorce after suffering through years of an unhappy marriage.
Rebecca spent that last day with Clarissa, shopping in Skibbereen and bringing her to the library.
That evening, Rebecca planned to attend a free legal aid night in Bantry to find out how she could divorce Martin.
The day Clarissa went missing
Rebecca told Martin that she was meeting a friend for dinner and gave Clarissa and Martin their dinner before telling Clarissa that she’d be back home to put her to bed.
“I made bacon and cabbage for Martin and Clarissa. I put it on the table for them. Martin wasn’t home, I called him to ask where he was. He snapped at me and said I could wait.
“He came in later, went straight to the table and started eating dinner.
“I told Clarissa that I was going out but I’d be back in time to put her to bed. And she said that she wanted daddy to put her to bed.
“Then I kissed her and she kissed me, and she said ‘have a nice dinner’ when I told her to have a nice dinner.”
Rebecca left for Bantry but Martin called her back, looking for the flashlight in her car and she returned to give it to him.
“He didn’t say anything when he took it.
“I drove to Bantry, met with someone from legal aid and asked my questions.
“When I got home at about 8.30pm the house was completely empty which was really strange but wasn’t completely unheard of, I thought maybe they were out checking on the cows.
“After about 10 minutes I got worried that no one was coming home. I looked for a flashlight to check the fields to the east of the house and started looking in the cattle houses and the outhouse.”
Rebecca started contacting friends and family, asking had they seen Clarissa and Martin.
While standing outside the kitchen, incessantly calling his phone, she saw a light flashing in the nearby jeep. In it, she found his phone, which Martin always had on him, and some of his clothes.
“I remember getting in my car and driving down to the beach and up to the fields, saying ‘this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening.’
"When I got back to the house his sister and a bunch of friends arrived.
“All of them had lamps, and they went out into the fields looking for Martin and Clarissa.
“It felt as if this unbelievable nightmare was starting to play out.
“I wanted to ring the guards but I was told not to ring them yet.
“I finally rang Bantry Garda station because I couldn’t take it anymore.
“I always wonder if we had called the guards earlier could we have saved Clarissa? No one knows when Martin did what he did because the coldness of the day that it was, the temperature of the water is going to skew any accurate time of death.
Minutes after the guards arrived after 11pm, Martin’s suicide note was found, addressed to Rebecca, which told her that it was the final goodbye” and “by the time you read this letter, I and Clarissa will be in heaven”.
“What he said in the letter made it quite clear that he was going to murder Clarissa,” Rebecca said.
“Everything started shaking, my whole vision started shaking. The shock and the panic became so severe.
“I asked them if the coast guard was going to come.
“The Garda said that the coastguard would be called in the morning. I lost it. The night was a little bit misty and he said the weather wasn’t right. I said, ‘there’s no gale blowing, my child is missing somewhere, possibly in that beach, she’s in danger and you’re telling me I have to wait until morning?’”
Then, Schull Fire Brigade, and Goleen coastguard and inshore rescue came.
“I went to the beach and at this stage there was so much commotion. There were lights set up, the fire truck was there, boats in the water, there was so, so much going on.
"I remember going over to this little place on Audley cove where Clarissa had this little pile of rocks. There was one rock there that she loved, she called it her little ginger rock. I took it in my hand and squeezed it.
They took her into the ambulance and shut the doors. Then the doctor came out and told me that Clarissa was dead.
“We just watched the water. Not too long after that, there were three guys from the coastguard, they rushed down to the western side where the tide was coming up, and there she was,” Rebecca said, her voice breaking.
“She was face-down in the water and she still had her hat on.
“I remember trying to run to her,” Rebecca said through tears, “and my neighbour pulling me back, saying not to interfere while they tried to save her.
“He was just holding me back while they tried to give her CPR. They tried so many times.
“This ambulance showed up and paramedics rushed out and they ripped open her clothes and stuck a needle, I’m assuming of adrenaline, into her little leg.
“Everything was going fuzzy and I was beginning to faint.
“They took her into the ambulance and shut the doors. Then the doctor came out and told me that Clarissa was dead.
"I remember being allowed to go into the ambulance and seeing her little body there, I lay my head down on top of her and cried.
“She was pale and her eyes were bloodshot.
“Her lips were blue, her lips were very, very blue. There was sand on her skin.
“She was soaking wet and her clothes were ripped at that stage. And she was missing one of her wellies.
“I remember feeling that it seemed like time was standing still, not being able to comprehend all that had happened, and feeling that there had to be something wrong, that this wasn’t real, that it was some nightmare.
“Then the paramedics said that they had to go and take her in the ambulance to the autopsy and that I couldn’t come.
“I remember trying to insist on coming but they said I had to go.
“I left the ambulance and the guards told me they had found Martin. She asked me if I wanted to see him and I said no.
"The ambulance left the beach, the fire truck left the beach and I walked back up to the house and I can’t remember anything else that happened that night.”
Michael O'Regan recalls the night
Micheal O’Regan, the officer in charge of Goleen Coastguard, pulled Clarissa’s blue little body from the water that night.
She was wearing the same colourful clothes he had seen her smiling in when he spoke to the seemingly happy family at Sunday Mass just days earlier.
Despite having retrieved some 80 bodies during his 50-year service with the coastguard, nothing hit him as hard as finding Clarissa that dark, misty night on Audley Cove.
“We saw something bobbing on the water. At first it looked like a rag doll. But we ran out and picked it up. Unfortunately it was a child.
“There was a silence there that night that you couldn’t describe. Rebecca was standing so close to us when we brought her baby ashore. To see the look on her face, that’s something you’ll never forget.
“It was unbelievable. I was 50 years in the coastguard and never came across anything like it. There’s nothing worse than a child.... Until the day I die I’ll never forget it.
“It nearly finished me. For six months I woke up every night of the week holding the child in my arms, as I thought.”
Mr O’Regan had met Clarissa, Rebecca and Martin just days before the tragedy at Sunday Mass in Schull.
“They were very outgoing people. He had the little child up on his shoulders and we were talking to them. She was smiling.
“She was a smiley, happy child. They hadn’t a care in the world. But you never know what life brings.
“She [Clarissa] was dressed in beautiful coloured clothes.
“What hit me the hardest was the night we picked her body from the water she was wearing the same clothes.”
Despite all her earth-shattering grief, Rebecca arrived at Goleen Coastguard centre one night after the tragedy to thank the team that tried so hard to save her daughter.
“She came in while we were training one night, gave us 15 minutes, thanking people. After all she went through to think of doing that, that shows the kind of person she is,” Mr O’Regan said.
Why didn't I see this coming
audley Cove is a pretty inlet in Foilnamuck across the bay from the eye-catching castle owned by Jeremy Irons, and is near where Saoirse Ronan recently bought a house. It had been Clarissa’s special place.
Rebecca took her there whenever the weather permitted it.
“Clarissa loved it. She loved to collect the rocks and stick her feet in the water, she wasn’t crazy about the idea of going swimming yet but she loved to have her boots in a low tide," Rebecca said.
Rebecca has turned the memories of those last few weeks over and over in her head, looking for signs that could have shown her what Martin planned for Clarissa.
“You ask yourself, ‘why didn’t I see this coming?’ But the reality is that in your wildest imagination, in your most horrible nightmare, your mind just can’t comprehend the act of murdering your daughter and killing yourself,” she said.
“You don’t think any person is capable of doing that to your own child, to someone so small who idolises you, who has so much trust and faith in you.
“When we had marriage problems previously he expressed suicidal tendencies then, saying that he wanted to end his life if I left him at that stage.
“But he never brought that up to me in the time leading up to Clarissa’s passing.”
It was something that on the surface most people who knew him wouldn’t have noticed. He did a good job of hiding it.
Martin was well-known locally as a hard-working farmer, an assistant to the local vet and a loyal Fine Gael political activist. He played Santa at the community’s annual Christmas party and regularly played cards in Ballydehob village.
But, at home, Martin had long shown signs of egotism, possessiveness and narcissism, Rebecca said, symptoms of which were his relentless legal battles.
These legal fights for land or against perceived wrongs were one of the reasons Rebecca wanted to leave him, as he devoted more time to these than to his young family, she said.
“There was an abnormal amount of energy he put into trying to make himself feel that he was right and the world had wronged him,” she said. “And if he could not have his way then life should be horrendous for everyone else involved.
“It was something that on the surface most people who knew him wouldn’t have noticed. He did a good job of hiding it.
“I think that is what drove him to ultimately carry out the acts that he did when he killed Clarissa and himself. That was the ultimate form of egotism and entitlement. ‘You can’t have this little girl.’ It was about 'have'. Not that Clarissa was her own individual person who had a life ahead of her. She was his and so could be disposed of as he saw fit.”
Disenchanted with life
rebecca first came to Ireland as a teen on a study abroad programme. She was disenchanted with life in her hometown Los Angeles and chose rural Ireland as a place that seemed almost diametrically opposite.
She attended Schull Community College and happened to stay with Martin’s neighbours. Interested in farming, she asked Martin if she could work there for a school project.
He was 42 and she was still a child but he allowed a romantic relationship to develop anyway. When her parents found out that their teenage daughter was involved with a much older man, they banned her from seeing him. But once Rebecca turned 18, young, naive and in love, she flew back to Ireland to live with Martin.
The first few years were lonely for Rebecca, Martin was usually either working on his farm or pursuing a legal battle, she says.
And once Rebecca found that farming “wasn't for her”, Martin’s attitude towards her changed and the relationship soured, she said, as she no longer fit the farm-loving wife ideal he had imagined for himself.
“He had been a bachelor for so long, he was so used to pleasing himself.
“He was very set in his ways … I think there were a lot of cultural differences between us. There were different expectations that were never voiced and that silence was toxic from the beginning.”
Despite being on birth control, Rebecca became pregnant.
She was hospitalized with soaring blood pressure for 11 days before Clarissa was born at just 32 weeks by emergency caesarean section. Martin only arrived to the hospital that evening. Rebecca waited, alone and petrified, to go into theatre for some seven hours.
But once Clarissa arrived, Rebecca’s life took on a whole new colour.
“She was so, so small. Just 4lbs1oz. But she was just a little fighter from the beginning. She only stayed in neonatal for three weeks, she learned to breast feed very quickly,” Rebecca explains.
“She was very high-spirited, she always seemed to have a smile on her face. She could make something fun out of any experience that she was in.
“She was very excited about her cows and her dogs, very happy to just be a part of the world.
“I envisioned her having a good relationship with her family in America and her family in Ireland, being brought up in Ireland closer to nature than some people are.
“She was so determined - anything she set her mind to, she could have accomplished. I saw her growing up to be the smart little girl that she was, taking her intelligence and making this huge life for herself. You always think that your kids are going to go on and do better things than you have. I wanted her to have a greater life than I did."
She was a very energetic, talkative, loving little girl. She loved to meet new people, she loved to ask them as many questions as she could get out of her mouth.
Rebecca remembers her beautiful energetic, always happy daughter
Rebecca's husband, Martin
Despite his horrifying actions, Rebecca believes that Martin did love them both.
“I think that as best as that man knew how to love, he did [love Clarissa].
“While I think he saw both Clarissa and myself as his dogs, his possessions, just like his cattle, just like his car - we were his chattel - I do think that he loved us, that he loved her.
“But he did not love her enough to see her as her own little person with her whole life ahead of her and her own choices to make.
“I think that his last actions were more done out of his vendetta for me and his need to hurt me and punish me and Clarissa was, unfortunately, collateral damage,” Rebecca said, her voice breaking.
“I don’t think that I was so aware of that [possessiveness] and just how much of an issue that was in our marriage until after he had done what he had done.
“I had felt like I was Martin’s personal belonging and if I didn’t go along with what he wanted I would have to deal with his anger. That was pretty scary to me. I felt that I couldn’t really have my own voice.
“I never felt as if I could go to Martin for emotional support. Every time I tried to do something healthy for myself like exercise or diet after pregnancy, he would ridicule me.
“I wasn’t taken seriously by him. He would rarely call me by name, in conversations with other people, it was always ‘the wife’. I didn’t notice at first that there was that level of possessiveness in him. That level of ‘You are mine and you give up your individuality to be my wife. Because that’s what you are at the end of the day, you are not your own person, you are my wife, the wife of Martin McCarthy.'
“I tried to protect myself with silence because silence was safer than voicing my opinions or desires. That was quite a difficult thing to overcome.”
Martin told Rebecca that he was changing his will in February, just weeks before he murdered Clarissa. But she believed he was telling her in an attempt to control her - to make her feel sorry for him as he had recently had a heart attack and to make her rethink the divorce.
“I thought changing the will was a slap in the face to me, him saying ‘everyone’s telling me I could die, I need to get my house in order."
But Martin’s will change wrote Rebecca out of most of the estate, valued at approximately €1m at the time, with the majority bequeathed to friends and relatives instead.
The will, seen by the Irish Examiner, even provided for what would happen to his assets should his three-year-old, healthy daughter die young. The will did not mention what should happen to the inheritance of anyone else, all of whom were much older, should they die.
“I was left destitute. He took Clarissa away, he made sure he left me in a position of desperation,” Rebecca said.
“In any kind of marriage, you think there is this 50/50 division of everything. I went into Martin’s farm with the intent of spending my life with him.
“Absolutely nothing was in my name. I was working as well to the betterment of the farm, the upkeep of the house, and working outside the house bringing money in. But everything was in his name.
“After he murdered Clarissa and killed himself I had to fight very hard for what I thought was mine. It was made very clear that what I considered ours, our home, was not.
“It makes you feel like our marriage was never a partnership, it wasn’t a coming together of equals. It always seemed like Martin had the upper hand.”
A painful legal battle with Martin’s family and friends ensued.
“They didn’t see why they shouldn’t get what Martin bequeathed them.
“They all had houses and healthy families and I was a young woman who had everything taken from her.
“I don’t understand why they still chose to follow out his wishes. But I do understand that it is very, very hard to imagine that your brother, your friend, could have carried out something like Martin did, it’s easier to make someone else, who you’re not a blood relative of or have a long history with, to be the bad guy. I don’t like it and I don’t agree with it but I do understand it.”
After years of legal battles, Rebecca eventually took a settlement from Martin’s estate. A number of members of Martin’s family were contacted for this article, but declined to comment.
Rebecca, flanked by her aunt, left, and her mother, Linda Jean, right, at the inquest in 2014 . Picture: Larry Cummins
The deaths had a huge impact on the west Cork community, according to Michael O’Regan. “The whole community was in an awful way. They knew the whole family. I knew Martin, not very well, but … you’d meet him on the roads several times a week.
“I would have thought he was an ordinary person, he’d salute you on the road and if you met him he’d talk to you.
“There was no indication. It was very hard to believe that someone could be thinking that way.
“It was very hard to believe it. Even now.”
He said that Rebecca suffered a horrendous trauma that night followed by months of fresh pain as some people bizarrely blamed her for Martin’s actions.
“She took all that pain really on her own,” Mr O’Regan said.
“She was a great person to put up with it.
Click/tap to read the Irish Examiner article reporting on the inquest on 21/02/2014
“A lot of people half blamed her for what happened. I saw it myself at the coroner’s court. They challenged the coroner, shouted and roared at him.”
The atmosphere was so volatile that Mr O’Regan was too afraid to answer the Coroner's question about whether Martin took Clarissa into the water that night.
“I didn’t answer because I was afraid to answer. He asked me my direct opinion, did I think that she was dead before him. Did she just walk into the water and drown. I didn’t answer and he didn’t push me. You couldn’t. They were screaming and roaring and we still have to live in the community.”
Martin’s supporters shouted and screamed that he was innocent, despite the State pathologist’s report that he had walked into the water and drowned the child.
The inquest also heard that Martin was well over the legal alcohol limit that night, with 204mg of alcohol in his blood and 124mg in his urine.
Coroner Frank O'Connell eventually recorded a verdict of drowning in both deaths, with that death self-caused in Martin’s case, while Clarissa was “taken into the water where she became unconscious and drowned."
“The inquest was an awful, dreadful ordeal to have to go through after everything,” Rebecca said.
“Martin’s friends were shouting that he probably slipped and it was an accident.
“It seemed like him [Martin] getting what he wanted, him being vindicated again.
“I don’t think that his actions were condemned as they should have been in the coroners that day.”
Coping with the loss
Grief-stricken and shocked, Rebecca went back to America.
“It felt like being in limbo, it felt like being thrown out of a plane and not knowing what to do next,” she said.
“I still felt the sting every single day of not having Clarissa anymore. Not feeling like a mother anymore because my child wasn’t there.
"I used to say to myself that if I could just turn back time I’d change what happened. But I realise I can’t do that so I had to heal from the fact that nothing I could do would make her little body take another breath. That’s a very bitter pill to swallow.
“But when I finally began to accept that, that’s when things started to open up and I started to realise that it’s OK to find joy again.
“It’s OK not to wallow in grief and depression every day because you lost this beautiful little girl.
“She would want you to celebrate the days that she can’t.”
Over time, Rebecca studied pastry, baking and oenology, married a man who supports and loves her and had two daughters with him. She also set up her own cinnamon bun business.
But despite her successes in life and her gratitude for her family and friends and all the good things that she can now enjoy, every day is still tinged with the pain of Clarissa’s loss.
Nobody can take her memories away from me. No one can take away the joy that she gave me
“You look around and you think, ‘how did I get here?’ A lot of it is bittersweet and always will be bittersweet.
“There’s no getting around that greyness that colours many beautiful things.
“There’s no moment that Clarissa’s loss is not in the back of my heart.
“When you lose a child a piece of your heart is just gone forever.
“I’m very, very blessed to be married to my best friend now.”
As her daughters grow up, she sees Clarissa in them.
“But I look at them and wonder how I am going to explain their sister to them. I want them to know about their sister, there are pictures of her in the house and in their room. I want them to know that she is still part of their lives, even though they will never get a chance to meet her.”
Rebecca still gets nightmares about the horror of that night.
“It’s something I try to not to think about too much, to distance myself from, but the nightmares never stop.
“I’m lucky because I do have people that I can talk to if they really upset me but I’ve lived through the worst and I know that the mind can only process so much. And nightmares, dreams, they’re going to keep on happening, so it’s about not letting them affect me to the best of my ability.
“I’m not going to let Martin break me. I’m not going to let what he did ruin me.
“I can still celebrate Clarissa every day because I was so fortunate to spend that short amount of time with her. Three years and 10 months. I got three years and 10 months with a wonderful little child.
“While it’s still hard every day that she’s not here I can still lead a good life, a happy life in her memory.
"Nobody can take her memories away from me. No one can take away the joy that she gave me.
“She has made me realise that nothing is certain and that life is short and fragile. We only get so many precious moments and they need to be enjoyed for the delicacies that they are with the people you love.”
Segment of audio from the Irish Examiner podcast 'Clarissa: A life stolen'Listen to the full podcast here
Irish Examiner Longread
© Irish Examiner