Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Colin Ireland

The Story

If Colin Ireland is a lust-murderer, then we are talking about a different sort of lust. In other cases, the men who have killed have done so for sexual pleasure. The victim, dead or alive, has been the killer's sexual partner, and the violence used was necessary to provoke sexual satisfaction. But if Colin Ireland is to be believed — and there was no direct evidence to the contrary — the act of murder was not sexually motivated for him, and was unaccompanied by sexual excitement. Though it is clear that Ireland was targeting victims on the basis of sexual criteria — homosexuals with sado-masochistic tastes — this does not necessarily imply that they were also objects of desire. Indeed, according to Ireland, the reverse was true: they were objects of disgust. He regarded himself as ridding the world of vermin. He saw himself, in this perverse crusading sense, as cleansing society from sources of contagion. As his stepfather said after his son's trial:

"Colin wanted to rid the world of those sick perverts. He was sickened by what they get up to behind closed doors and decided that it was his mission to wipe them out. He did what he did and makes no apologies for it. It is the sado-masochists, the really sick ones, he cannot stand."

There is a line of thought, beloved of Freudians and other students of the unconscious, that believes that a hatred as intense as Ireland's (given that he was never actually abused) is so irrational, that it is, in itself, a symptom in need of interpretation.

The answer sometimes suggested is that the hatred is so intense because it involves a strategy of denial: I hate these people, therefore I am not like them. Might it not be that Ireland felt in himself impulses similar to theirs and that he was so deeply ashamed of them that he could not admit them even to himself? Thus they would lie in a state of profound repression, consciously denied, but possessing a dark power that was always likely to be dangerous. Could it be that Ireland had to kill in order to confirm and to reconfirm to himself that he was not a homosexual? What he was killing, therefore, was symbolically a part and a version of himself, but so repressed as to be invisible to him. Thus the rage one feels against one's own dirtiness is turned against others rather than oneself.

It is a coherent line of thought, and one to which Robert Ressler subscribes: "I thought it likely that, despite his denials, Ireland was a homosexual or bisexual... and that he had committed his crimes after having fantasized about similar ones for many years." Yet it is hard to know how to verify such a claim. Ireland reports — I think sincerely — that he has neither homosexual experience nor fantasies. His sexual history, though, shows the kind of anger and hostility towards his partners that suggests that he was, at the least, ambivalent about women as objects of desire.

A hatred of homosexuals is not uncommon in working class culture, and is easy enough to observe in pubs and factories, where gays are often subjects of discrimination and the objects of distaste. Just as feminism has produced a backlash of resistance to the gradual emancipation of women, so has the gay right's movement concentrated the intensity of anti-homosexual feeling. And it is nonsense to suppose that every man who intensely dislikes gays is unconsciously homosexual, just as it would be stupid to suppose that those who hate Jews are latently Jewish.

As a young adult, Ireland was an avid reader of Nazi and fascist literature and propaganda that would have given him an exposure to this culture of hatred, and to the easy line of thought that distinguishes between a master race and an underclass of degenerates (homosexuals, Jews, blacks, gypsies and so on) who need to be cleansed in order to purify the master strain. To be a killer is thus to be an eradicator, a purifier, a preserver of what is good and worthwhile. For a poor, disenfranchised man, without self-esteem but full of fantasy, the conclusion is easy and inviting — one can find identity, and power, by identifying with this presumed master class.

It isn't a very far step from this kind of sad rationalisation until we produce the figure of the serial killer as hero, if only to himself. One of the features that distinguishes all serial killers is the aura of grandiosity that they generate and project: only they understand how important they are, while their detractors are fools or weaklings.

The lust-murderer needs to kill because it gives him sexual pleasure and power, so he becomes a killer until he is caught. He does not want to be caught, because he is, fundamentally, enjoying himself, pursuing satisfaction at the unacceptable boundaries of the pleasure principle. But Colin Ireland, as we have seen, does not quite fit this picture. With him, the pattern is reversed: he kills because he wants to be identified as a serial killer: the murders are the product of desire, not for sexual satisfaction, but for recognition as a superior kind of person. He kills because it will make him noticed, and the murders are sources of regret to him in a way that they are not for, say, Robert Black.

So, after committing enough murders to 'qualify' him as a serial killer, Colin Ireland really wished to be caught. He had done enough to acquire that perverse shadow celebrity for which he had yearned. In an era where the figure of the serial killer is so discussed, and such a source of fascination, we are left with a sense that Ireland is a product of that process. As Dostoyevsky said a century ago, the typical crime of the future would not be the common criminal killing for gain of a material nature, but to stake a claim to an identity. At last Colin Ireland's name would be known, however darkly. He was somebody, after all.