Career Tips from State Pathologist Marie Cassidy

Over lunch at Chapter One, State Pathologist MARIE CASSIDY reveals the secret to remaining sane in a tough role…

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Professor Marie Cassidy and I have one thing in common. Each of our mothers wanted us to marry a rich doctor. Cassidy subverted this by becoming a doctor herself – my own rebellion didn’t involve that kind of hard work.

It’s hard to imagine Marie Cassidy as the wife of a rich Scottish doctor. For the last 17 years, as State Pathologist, she has belonged to the Irish public who watch her emerge from unspeakable scenes – cool, striking and as unreadable as a Hitchcock heroine. Sadly, that lady is about to vanish.

Marrying a rich man crops up a bit over our Chapter One lunch. Not what you’d expect in a conversation between two older, bolder women, warriors of a post-feminist world. But flinty realism, not feminism, is Cassidy’s stock in trade.

“Where I came from, you either worked hard,” she says, “or you married a rich man.” She still resents those women who studied medicine as a means to a rich doctor. “What appalled me was that they took up the places of people who really wanted to be doctors.”

They didn’t get Cassidy’s place at Glasgow University, nor her grant – that was expropriated by her mother. Her father was dead, her mother was an insurance agent and helping her collect the insurance money was part of Cassidy’s hard schooling. She studied at Glasgow, but emphasises her Lanarkshire roots. “You can understand the Lanarkshire accent,” she explains.

Ah, the accent. It is those sculpted syllables along with the innate glamour that feeds the illusion that Cassidy is all the female forensicists, all the fair cops we have ever seen on television. I tell her how, shortly before Christmas a colleague and I, watching her depart a crime scene, are convinced we see her wipe away a tear. “There is no room for emotion in my job. The first thing I tell my students is ‘Toughen up. If you think this is awful, it’s going to get a lot worse.’ My job is not to moan but to assist where I can.”

Nobody told me when I was a student that people would die. If I was looking after a patient and I came in and the bed was empty, I would wonder was it something I did. So I took myself off to the lab

Toughened up or emotionally closed down? Clearly there is a line between the two. And the complexities were evident from the beginning. Could there be any greater paradox than the fact that, finding the reality of death unbearable, she walked straight towards it. “Nobody told me when I was a student that people would die. If I was looking after a patient and I came in and the bed was empty, I would wonder was it something I did. So I took myself off to the lab.” It turned out to be a brilliant career move: aged 30, she became the first female full-time forensic pathologist in the UK.

Any impression she is as cold as a cadaver is quickly dispelled. “It can be overwhelming sometimes,” she admits. “Particularly the family murder/suicides involving children.” We have no insight into suicide, she feels. “It’s so sad. So little is known about it. Why would they do it.” On homicide she is brisker. There are no more homicides in Ireland now than a century ago, apparently. “It’s the violence which has changed. There is a huge copycat element.”

At this point I notice something of an emotional shutdown in myself as this grim conversation hasn’t put me – or her – off our artichoke starters or fish mains.

So much crime is spur of the moment. They didn’t leave the house intending to commit a crime. I see them sitting in court. Bewildered. They don’t know how they got there.

She is on call – repeating information on the mobile she is unfailingly polite. “I believe in treating everybody well. It costs nothing. I am appalled at some people’s rudeness.”

But manners and murderers? How is that squared? “So much crime is spur of the moment. They didn’t leave the house intending to commit a crime. I see them sitting in court. Bewildered. They don’t know how they got there.”

Here is a heart which has definitely not grown brutal, which makes it all the more difficult to understand how she survives the horrors she sees. “As long as you have a smile on your face you can get through anything,” she says. 

Politeness, positivity – I am beginning to suss the Cassidy Credo. It is of the “Keep calm and carry on” wartime variety.  Why should that surprise?

“Always turn yourself out well,” was another of her mother’s mantras. “My clothes have to stand up to public scrutiny,” she says. Happily, this is no hardship – love of clothes is in her lineage (her daughter has just become a buyer for River Island). I recognised this early on when I saw her in what I thought was a John Galliano wasp-waisted ‘New Look’ number. Turns out she never heard of him. “I probably bought it in New Look,” she laughs.

She is equally blithe about her face. Botox and filler-free (“I’d be afraid something would go wrong”) it has the subtle patina of a life well lived, but no real sign of age. Which is why I was truly shocked to hear she is touching 60 and will be retiring soon.

Currently well advanced in training her deputy, she reveals an immediate retirement plan that consists of enjoying life (as well as teaching). But what exactly will she be imparting to her successor? Perhaps Scottish pragmatism helps explain the secret of survival in a world where only darkness is visible.

But I don’t believe you can train anyone to be an unreadable Hitchcock heroine.

THE RECKONING:

Spiced Pumpkin Soup

Violet Artichokes en Barigoule

Haddock with Crushed Jersualem Artichoke

Plaice with Purple Sprouting Broccoli

Set lunch for two 60

Two bottles mineral water 11.60

Total: 71.60

Chapter One, 18-19 Parnell Square, Dublin 1

Anne Harris

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