Wednesday 28 September 2016

A moment of madness that ruined everything

It's hard not to read the story of Matthew Sheridan being set on fire without thinking, 'there but for the grace of God go I'

Published 12/07/2015 | 02:30

Matthew Sheridan
Matthew Sheridan
Brian Keane apparently did not make eye contact with Matthew when he was being addressed by him. Photo:Andrew Downes : XPOSURE

A moment of madness. That is the phrase that people keep using about the appalling case of Matthew Sheridan. Matthew was the victim of someone else's moment of madness. And it was a moment of madness and stupidity that no one will ever be able to take back, one that stole from Matthew his health, his peace of mind, his job, his hobbies, his fitness. "You stole them all from me," Matthew said to his assailant Brian Keane in court last week, as he delivered a victim impact statement that moved the whole country.

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The moment of madness was three years ago. Matthew Sheridan was a second year medical student. It was Halloween and Matthew had improvised a costume by sticking cotton wool to his trousers and top. Brian Keane, a law student in a Batman costume, came up behind Matthew in a nightclub and set him alight. For no good reason, the court heard. As if there could be a good reason. It was obviously just an incredibly stupid thing, a moment of madness. Some kind of dumb prank, if you can even call it a prank.

It could have just given Matthew Sheridan a fright. He could have just leapt and had to brush off a bit of singed cotton wool. It still would have been a dumb thing to do, but it needn't have changed everyone's life. But, in the event, Matthew Sheridan went up in flames, flames that were aided by the glue he had used to stick on the cotton wool. People used water and their jumpers to try and put the flames out.

Matthew was taken to hospital, wrapped in cling film, screaming in pain. He was put in an induced coma. He had up to 75pc burns on his body and he was in danger of dying or serious disfigurement. He has had extensive surgery, spent months in a burns clinic in France. He has had extensive skin grafts and will need more. He has metal rods in his fingers, two of which fused, necessitating partial amputation. Matthew seems to have rebuilt his life and is now back studying medicine after a year out of college receiving treatment. But nothing will ever be the same again. He will probably never be the paediatric surgeon he dreamt of being.

Matthew's story touched everybody, not just because of how horrific it was, but also because it was one of those things that was too close for comfort; that hit home with everyone. Most of us who are here and still standing are here because we were lucky. It's not that we have been lucky enough to avoid moments of madness. We have all experienced them. Our own and other people's. We have just been lucky enough that we got through them unscathed.

I would say that my whole four years in college and a year or two after that was one long moment of madness. Though I am probably naturally fairly cautious, I routinely took risks, big and small, that could have ended catastrophically for me and other people. More importantly, people around me had moments of madness and I survived their madness.

Talking to people about Matthew's story over the last few days, everyone ended up telling their own tales of moments of madness. As they spoke, there would be disbelief in their voices. As if saying these things out loud made them realise what stupid things they had done, and what a miracle it was they didn't get hurt or hurt anyone else. It has to be said that a lot of the things people recalled were done with drink or under the influence of drugs. The kind of crazy, impulsive, youthful things that seem like good ideas at the time, in the moment. Then people would recall things other people had done. Shoving off walls, grabbing steering wheels, playing chicken and indeed setting things on fire. You could start thinking it's a miracle that any of us survived being young.

Matthew Sheridan doesn't even have himself to blame for the ruination of his young life. He just had the bad luck to be in the vicinity of someone else's moment of madness. He just happened to catch the eye of a guy having a lunatic moment and everything changed.

"You snuck up behind me in a dark room and then left me to burn to death," Matthew said when he confronted his attacker in court. He asked Brian Keane why he couldn't have just hit him or kicked him or broken a glass over his head or shot him or stabbed him. He talked about how he thought he was dying, as the stench of burning flesh overwhelmed him. He thought he had gone blind. He begged to be put out of his pain. "I was out celebrating finishing my exams," he said. "I had plans, but you found me. Who are you to jeopardise my plans?"

Brian Keane apparently did not make eye contact with Matthew when he was being addressed by him. Matthew pointed out that Keane had never apologised to him or offered compensation. Keane's counsel said that his client was given legal advice not to write a letter of apology. A letter of apology from Keane was read to the court last week in which he expressed remorse. It talked about how Keane did not foresee the consequences of his actions. He said his hurt and shame were beyond words.

There is no question but that Keane is getting away lightly here next to his victim. And there is no question where our sympathies lie in this case. But any of us who were ever young and drunk couldn't help but feel that there were two lives ruined here. Certainly Brian Keane still has his health and has been walking around and continuing his education over the last three years since the incident happened. He did his LLB at UCC and did a Master's in Trinity.

But presumably none of that will be much good to him now as he faces a sentence of five years with 18 months suspended. After his few years in jail, Brian Keane's life will never be the same again. His dreams are presumably gone too. It is probably doubtful he will ever work in the law, certainly not at any kind of a high level. He, too, will be haunted by his moment of madness, by a reckless act, where his crime was that he did something stupid and didn't think through the consequences, and then ran.

He has to pay the price, and he will pay the price in prison and for the rest of his life, but I find it hard not to feel some small sympathy for him. I often didn't think through the consequences of things when I was young. I often did reckless things when I was drunk. There are hundreds of things I did that could have ruined my life and stained me forever if they had gone one degree a different way. I made huge errors of judgment on an almost daily basis. I had no sense back then that I would ever grow up, and the future was something I never thought of. The future didn't matter much back then, apart from the fact that, with the invincibility of youth, I took for granted that everything would work out some day and that I would put behind me the madness of my youth.

And most of us get to do that. We get to close the door on that madness, with no lasting damage done, and move on to the adult world. The next phase of our lives is not ruined by stupid things done when we were half-formed kids. 'Nobody died', is the phrase we often use to describe something where bad things happened but no lasting harm is done. Nobody died here either, but Brian Keane did the next worse thing to killing someone. He shattered someone's life, and he will have to live with that and pay the price. Obviously our sympathy is overwhelmingly with Matthew Sheridan and his family. But Brian Keane and his family were damn unlucky too. Most of us get lucky and get away with it. Brian Keane didn't. And there but for the grace of God go I and most of the imperfect youths I knew.

Sunday Independent

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