16 years since Kirsty MacColl was killed

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | December 18, 2016 0



It is 16 years ago today that Kirsty MacColl was lost to music, to her family and to the world. She was killed by a speedboat owned by one of Mexico’s richest men, Guillermo González Nova. What has happened since shows that the corrupt State of Mexico is simply not to be trusted, not by its own people, not by visitors.

The committee which  led the fight to achieve justice for Kirsty MacColl agreed to cease campaigning in 2009. It disbanded and stopped collecting money. The remaining funds were distributed to charities of which Kirsty would have approved. So it once more seems in the hugely corrupt kleptocracy which is modern Mexico money not only talks but it makes Justice fall silent. I had taken an interest in the case as I had once met Kirsty and knew her vicariously. She was signed to the famous “Stiff Records” part owned by Dave Robinson who was married to a daughter of a first generation Irish family from Clapham, Rosemary O’Connor; she is credited on backing vocals on Kirsty’s records as Rosemary Robinson. I knew her sister who lived in Dublin and had been in their house in London on occasion. Later she moved to Polydor as Stiff Records self destructed. Kirsty was a feisty and original talent, a powerful singer with a talent for observant bittersweet lyrics, “I put you on a pedestal, you put me on the pill.” From Billy Bragg’s “New England” is an example. My own favourite Kirsty song is “They don’t know”, as fine an exposition in song of teenage angst and love as you’ll find in popular music. kirstyChristmas

The Justice for Kirsty Campaign


The Justice for Kirsty Campaign received news that the Mexican government have closed their case file on Kirsty’s death, and regard this as the end of the matter. They said they had exhausted all avenues of investigation and taken statements and affidavits from many witnesses. None of these had led to further information as to who may have been implicated, apart from the boat hand Cen Yam, who had already been convicted of causing the accident. Another factor may well be that Kirsty’s mother was 85 in 2009. Kirsty1

Kirsty MacColl was killed by a power boat at the age of 41 whilst scuba diving with her sons in a restricted diving area off Cozumel, México on 18th December 2000. A boat came tearing in right towards her and her son. She pushed her son out of its path and got hit and killed instantly. All these years later, no-one has been made accountable to the satisfaction of her family and friends. Her mother Jean has for many years sought justice for Kirsty’s tragic and untimely death.

Twelve miles off the Yucatan peninsula, the island of Cozumel, part of the state of Quintana Roo, is known as Mexico’s crown jewel. Its spectacular coral reef chain, the second largest in the world, forms the core of one of the most richly diverse ecosystems on the planet. It is ranked among the world’s top five diving destinations, attracting thousands of visitors annually. Among these was Kirsty MacColl, who, like many celebrities, enjoyed the island’s laid back atmosphere.

kirsty3In December 2000, after 18 months of uninterrupted work, Kirsty MacColl needed a break. Passionate about water sports, she chose Cozumel. This trip, her third, would be especially enjoyable since she planned to introduce her sons, Jamie, 15, and Louis, 13, to scuba diving. On Sunday December 10, the evening before their departure, Kirsty MacColl’s mother, Jean Newlove, a choreographer and teacher, dropped by for supper. They had to make plans for Christmas, which the family would, as usual, spend with friends at MacColl’s house.

“She made out a list of groceries for me to buy. There were mince pies to make, presents to wrap, the tree to put up,” Newlove recalls. Later MacColl dropped her mother home. “We hugged goodbye. I said, ‘I love you,’ as she walked away, and without looking back she called, ‘And I love you.’” That was the last time Jean Newlove spoke to her daughter. On the night of Monday December 18, two days before MacColl was due to return, Newlove had just arrived home from the Old Vic and was making tea when the telephone rang. It was MacColl’s partner, the musician James Knight, who had also gone on the trip to Mexico. At first he was incapable of speech; after a long pause he choked out the words, “Jean, there’s been an accident. Kirsty is dead.”

The death of Kirsty MacColl at 41 made world headlines. She was at a peak in her career, following the release of an acclaimed new album, and tributes poured in from show business colleagues, friends and fans; obituaries stressed not only her unusually wide-ranging gifts as a singer and lyricist, but also her warm, unpretentious, outspoken nature, which made her a controversial and much-loved figure in the music business.

Kirsty was born in 1959 and grew up in Croydon, London. Performance ran in her bloodlines. Her mother, Jean (Newlove) MacColl, was a prominent theatre choreographer. But it was father, Ewan MacColl (1915-89), who would be her primary career influence. Born James Miller to Scottish parents, Ewan MacColl began as an actor but during the 1950s became one of Britain’s most prominent folksinger-songwriters. His best-known song, the Grammy-winning torch ballad, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, would be a hit in 1972 for Roberta Flack (and much later, for Celine Dion and Johnny Cash). On his own, MacColl made dozens of acoustic folk albums and his song about his hometown of Salford “Dirty Old Town” is another classic. After a divorce from Jean, he married folksinger Peggy Seeger, half-sister of Pete Seeger, making for a formidable musical partnership. Kirsty married top producer Steve Lillywhite in August 1984 and had two children: Jamie was born on the 20 Feb 1985 and Louis was born on the 3rd Sept 1987. She split up with Steve in 1994 but they remained friends. In her latter days Kirsty was happily in a relationship with another musician, James Knight, who met her while teaching Louis to play saxophone.

Ewan and Kirsty MacColl

Ewan and Kirsty MacColl

Kirsty was killed by a power boat whilst scuba diving with her sons in a restricted diving area off Cozumel, México. The powerboat (belonging to a the chairman of a large Méxican company) had apparently been travelling too fast in a National Park which bans such boats. An inexperienced boathand (Cen Yam) was charged with causing her death and found guilty of negligent homicide (subject to confirmation by a judge), which carries a sentence of up to seven years.

When it comes to corrupt institutions, the Mexican government is almost in a league by itself. All too often, it protects criminals who have the money and power (in Mexico they are the same thing) to buy justice. Apparently, that holds true for a Mexican businessman who, in a just world, would have been found guilty of manslaughter of Kirsty MacColl. Kirsty-and-The-Pogues2

The owner, Guillermo González Nova, and his family were on board, and claimed it was the boathand, Cen Yam, at the controls, and that they were outside the restricted area travelling at no more than one knot. Witnesses said the boat was moving at high speed inside the National Park, its bow riding clear of the water. Kirsty would have died instantly. Jamie was struck on the head and side, without suffering serious injury.

Sr. Cen Yam was a maintenance hand, not the owner of the powerful 31-foot-long Percalito, with a top speed of more than 30 knots. Unlicensed to drive any boat, much less a powerful yacht, the functionally illiterate Cen Yam claimed to have taken a seaman’s course, yet when asked simple navigation-related questions, he was clueless.

Kirsty with her sons Louis and Jamie

Kirsty with her sons Louis and Jamie

Who, then, was the boat’s owner? Meet Guillermo Gonzalez Nova, chairman of Controladora Comercial Mexicana, which owns about 250 retail chain stores and supermarkets in Mexico. The crown-jewel asset of the publicly-traded company is a 50 percent stake in Costco’s operations in that country. The secretive Nova, now in his early 70s, recently was ranked among the seven wealthiest men in Mexico. He comes from a powerful Mexico City-based clan with strong ties to Cozumel Island. As it turns out, he was on board at the time of the accident, accompanied by two sons, a daughter-in-law and an infant granddaughter.

Port authority investigators found the dive boat had been flying a flag, but it did not conform to international regulations. It should also have had another crew member on board, and should have put out a marker buoy. However the ruling was that the powerboat had been in the prohibited area, the pilot had been negligent and violated navigation laws and the owner should not have let him take the controls.

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger

The conclusion is virtually unavoidable: The Gonzalez Nova family paid Jose Cen Yam to be their fall guy. It’s too bad he’s not around to talk. Jean MacColl—she uses her former married name for all activities related to her quest for justice —told reporter Vicky Allan of Scotland’s The Sunday Herald (August 22, 2004):

“We do know that a witness saw Cen Yam a day or so after the accident. He had got very drunk in the pub and was celebrating, and he said that his boss had asked him to take responsibility for the accident and if he did he would give him a good lot of money. So he was going to buy himself a new house. I don’t know if he’s bought a new house because I can’t find him.” 


If anyone at this point needs convincing this was a cover-up, here’s the coup de grace. The MacColl family had attempted to serve Guillermo Gonzalez Nova and his daughter-in-law, Norma Haggas, with subpoenas. The Mexican federal police’s eventual reply was that the pair “could not be found”. The head of one of the richest families in all of Mexico conveniently disappears with a son’s wife – just long enough for police to drop the case, which they did. Justice Mexican style? But, but no Justice for Kirsty MacColl and her family and no accountability for her tragic death caused by a rich man’s plaything at the age of 41?

Kirsty sang in her prescient “Soho Square”

“One day you’ll be waiting there, no empty bench in Soho Square
And we’ll dance around like we don’t care
And I’ll be much too old to cry
And you’ll kiss me quick in case I die before my birthday”

So it is apt that she is now commemorated on a bench in Soho Square;

kirstyEmpty_bench_close-upKirsty MacColl left the world a dazzling legacy of music. Fairytale of New York was recorded in 1987 and lives to this day as one of the most moving Christmas songs of all time. Following its release Kirsty toured extensively with The Pogues which provided the inspiration to start writing again.

Kirsty Anna MacColl  – Musician, Songwriter, Mother

10 October 1959 – 18 December 2000


And here is her self penned “They Don’t Know” (1979) which later became a hit for Tracey Ullmann.



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