Monday 24 October 2016

2015 in review: the good, the bad and the ugly moments of the year

From terrorism to shock deaths, sporting victories and a win for equality, the last 12 months had it all, writes Liam Collins

Published 27/12/2015 | 02:30

Panti Bliss after the referendum vote. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Panti Bliss after the referendum vote. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Gorse Hill
Tributes to the victims of the Carrickmines fire
Conor McGregor
The Charlie Hebdo attacks
Ireland celebrates after Shane Long's goal against Germany

When two gunmen barrelled into the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and started shooting indiscriminately, they were in a savage way setting the tone for 2015.

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The year would begin and end with Isil and other Islamic fundamentalist inspired terror as the promise of the Arab Spring died on the beaches of Europe with hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees flooding from the wreckage of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern states, through Turkey and Libya in search of the promised land.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo's office in central Paris was carried out by Said and Cherif Kouachi, who were alleged to have shouted "we have avenged Prophet Muhammad" as they ran from the building after the massacre which resulted in the killing of the editor of the magazine, cartoonists, an office worker and two policemen, 12 in all.

The two assailants were cornered in a disused warehouse in a town outside Paris and after a nine-hour siege rushed from the building, guns blazing. Both died in a hail of police fire on January 7.

The following Sunday more than two million people walked through Paris in a march of "national unity", but even that show of support would not save the city from further indiscriminate slaughter in November.

In the months between these two attacks the trickle of refugees from war-torn swathes of the Middle-East turned to a torrent as migrants flooded into Turkey, Lebanon and Libya and across the Mediterranean Sea, until they washed up in Europe.

Hungary and Macedonia built walls to keep them out but the Austrians and Serbs put on special trains and buses to truck the refugees in their thousands, mainly to Germany.

One of those who had slipped through was the ringleader when Paris was once again the scene of terror. The city was hit by a series of coordinated attacks on the evening of November 13, by suicide bombers blowing themselves up, people shot indiscriminately as they sat outside bars and restaurants and hostages randomly killed at a concert in the Bataclan theatre.

In all, 130 people were killed, including 89 hostage at the concert by the Eagles of Death Metal. Seven attackers were killed and the search continues across Europe for accomplices.

The millionaires' Gorse Hill farce

Gorse Hill, an impressive detached mansion with all the trappings of a millionaire pad perched on the hillside looking out over Bono's rooftop and the magnificence of Killiney Bay, added a touch of tragic comedy to 2015.

Owned by former Dublin solicitor Brian O'Donnell and his psychiatrist wife Mary Pat, who had moved to London to live, it was home to their aptly named adult children Bruce, Blaise, Blake and Alexandra.

Gorse Hill became the subject of a long-running and dramatic stand-off when agents from Bank of Ireland - which was owed €75m by Brian O'Donnell - tried to evict the family and take possession of the house which was once valued at €30m, but is now believed to be worth closer to €7m.

For anyone to lose their home is a tragedy, but the comic turn of events came in the support the O'Donnell's got from Jerry Beades and the New Land League and the rolling news footage from outside the Killiney Hill gates which chronicled every twist and turn from the O'Donnells' rearguard action in the courts to the attempts to breach the perimeter and gain admittance to the trophy home.

It all came to a head on April 28 when Brian O'Donnell lost his last piece of litigation, before the Supreme Court, attempting to stall the eviction. It was, said the one-time successful solicitor turned property developer, a "statistical impossibility" that he took 82 legal cases, and lost all 82.

O'Donnell engaged in the last piece of theatrical bravado when he marched up the middle aisle of the AGM of Bank of Ireland and flung the keys to Gorse Hill in front of the bank's CEO Richie Boucher.

Gorse Hill has not yet been put up for sale.

Sentencing over boy killed in crash

The grief etched on the faces of Gillian and Ronan Treacy as they held a picture of their beautifully innocent four-year-old son Ciaran, killed by a drunk driver, illustrated once again the awful reality of drink driving.

Travelling salesman Finbarr O'Rourke (40) of Portlaoise got into his year-old Toyota Avensis car after drinking more than nine pints of cider in four hours and then ploughed into Gillian Treacy's 12-year-old Ford Mondeo at Ballymorris near Portarlington. Her sons Sean (7) and Ciaran were in the car; Ciaran was killed.

"He was the light of our lives, he was the energy in our home, a lovely, witty, beautiful boy… and he has been taken from us," said Gillian Treacy, who still could not forgive O'Rourke after he was sentenced last month to more than seven years in jail for the April 2014 tragedy.

Ciaran's parents added: "Ciaran never got a chance to start school, make his Communion, Confirmation, go to college, get married or have children. These are the things that will break our hearts even more, knowing he did not get to live his life, a life that was so brutally taken through the drunken actions of Finbarr O'Rourke."

O'Rourke, said Judge Keenan Johnson, was an "inherently decent human being" who made very bad decisions on the night he killed little Ciaran. The consequences of his actions have left Gillian Treacy facing the possibility of losing her lower leg, as she is still in on-going surgery after the crash. "But nothing could ever be as bad as losing Ciaran," she said.

Same sex celebrations

It wasn't so much the Referendum of Same Sex Marriage itself, but the outpouring of joy the night it was carried which defined a new Ireland in 2015, when the country became the first democracy to ratify marriage equality by referendum.

During the campaign the personalised stories of gay people, like Justin McAleese, a son of former President Mary McAleese, and political correspondent Ursula Halligan, defined the nature of this new Ireland.

While the Catholic Church, for so long a bastion of power in Irish society, was against the constitutional change, many prominent members of the clergy advocated a Yes vote, as did almost the entire political, business and social establishment.

Polls predicted the Yes side would win, but not by a landslide. The Referendum, held on Friday, May 22, was indeed a landslide, with the Yes side winning by 62pc to the Nos 38pc. The Yes vote carried in every constituency, apart from Roscommon South-Leitrim, by a convincing majority.

The night of the count was characterised by a carnival atmosphere in Dublin and Cork as the gay community and thousands of supporters took to the streets to celebrate a milestone in social history.

Barrister Cormac Gollogly (35) from Terenure, Dublin and banker Richard Dowling (35) from Athlone, Co Westmeath last month became the first same sex couple to marry in Ireland after the Marriage Equality Bill was signed into law by President Michael D Higgins.

Carrickmines tragedy

Located off a narrow wooded country lane in south county Dublin, unnoticed by most passers-by, was a halting site with a number of mobile homes type dwellings that had been built 'temporarily' to house a number of Traveller families, six years previously.

On the morning of Saturday, October 11, a devastating fire engulfed a number of the caravans off Glenamuck Road, spreading like wildfire and killing 10 adults and children in what was the worst fire tragedy in Ireland for decades.

The dead were Willie Lynch (25), his partner Tara Gilbert (27) and their children Jodie (9) and Kelsey (4). Willie's brother Jimmy Lynch (39) also died, as did his sister Sylvia Connors (25) and her husband Thomas (27) and their three children, Jim (5), Christy (2) and Mary (five months.).

The trauma of the fire and its aftermath was heightened when Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council proposed to move the surviving families to a new site at Rockville Drive, just down the road from the fire site.

This led to protests and a picket by residents and after a stand-off the Traveller families were moved into new accommodation in a council owned car park in nearby Ballyogan, about 15 minutes walk from their original homes.

Victory and retirement

The sporting year was characterised by victory and retirement.

The victories included Ireland's narrow triumph as back-to-back winners of the Rugby Six Nations championship, after France aided the Irish passage by keeping England to a 55 to 35 victory at Twickenham, meaning Ireland won on points difference, having beaten Scotland 40-10 earlier in the day.

The other significant victory was the Irish soccer team's late qualification for Euro 2016 in October.

What had seemed like a lost cause was revived when Ireland beat world champions Germany 1-0 in the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, thereby qualifying for a play-off, which was assured after a convincing 3-1 (aggregate) defeat of Bosnia.

The retirements were the long goodbye to international rugby of Munster legend Paul O'Connell and Tony McCoy's lap of honour on the racetrack where he had been such a dominant figure in national hunt racing for so many years.

Oh yes, and then there was Conor McGregor's 13-second UFC Featherweight bout in Las Vegas this month, which saw the tattooed Dubliner crowned world champion.

Banking Inquiry keeps us waiting

Varying between farce and hope, the members of the Banking Inquiry, chaired by Ciaran Lynch, finally signed off on an 11-chapter draft report after a 15-hour session on December 6.

On December 12, extracts were dispatched to "affected parties" and publication is now imminent.

The parade of witnesses included former heavyweight political figures like Brian Cowen, Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy, senior figures from banking, including those bailed out by the Irish taxpayer, among them Michael Fingleton of the Irish Nationwide Building Society, and senior figures from the public service who presided over the night of the bank guarantee.

Two members of the Oireachtas Committee, Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein and Anti-Austerity TD Joe Higgins, declined to sign-off on the document.

Because of legal and constitutional issues the Banking Inquiry cannot apportion blame for the financial collapse that incinerated a huge proportion of Ireland's wealth from 2008 onwards, but still the report is eagerly awaited by political and financial commentators.

Elaine O'Hara's sad and lonely life

Seldom has a murder trial transfixed the nation as much as that of Foxrock architect Graham Dwyer (42), who was found guilty of the 2012 murder of childcare worker Elaine O'Hara (36) after a two-month trial suffused with lurid sexual detail.

After the trail, which began in January, Dwyer was sentenced to life in prison by Judge Tony Hunt on April 20. It was a trial that involved the jury viewing pornographic websites and hearing details of sexual fetishes, fantasies, bondage and violence and, said the judge, shone a light into the "dark corners of a dark story".

After the jury found Dwyer guilty of murder the judge concluded that Elaine O'Hara, who had a history of mental instability, had been "used and abused" by the Cork-born architect and father-of-three, who had engineered a "master and slave" relationship, in which he frequently used knives to cut and hurt her.

O'Hara, who had been a participant in bondage and sexual violence with Dwyer, was killed on August 22, 2012. What emerged from the 2,600 texts and emails between the couple was Dwyer's twisted aim to kill a woman.

Ironically, it was only because of the low rainfall of the summer and autumn of 2013 that the almost 'perfect crime' was detected. A couple of anglers fishing in the Vartry Reservoir in Wicklow found handcuffs and restrains, which would normally have remained hidden under water, and when a Garda investigation began a leather mask, mobile phones and knives were discovered.

Sympathising with Elaine O'Hara's family, Judge Hunt said it was "nightmare scenario" for her father to have to hear such intimate aspects of her life being read out in court. He also sympathised with Graham Dwyer's wife and family, whose lives were also altered forever.

Dwyer, who the judge said showed "no remorse" for his actions, has lodged an appeal against his conviction.

The murder of Garda Golden

Garda Anthony 'Tony' Golden was murdered after he answered a call at Blackrock garda station in Co Louth to go to a domestic dispute in nearby Omeath on Sunday, October 11.

Garda Golden was confronted by a 25-year-old dissident Republican with a history of violence. Adrian Crevan Mackin shot the unarmed Garda dead, critically wounded his own partner, Siobhan Philips, and then killed himself.

More than 4,000 Gardai attended the State funeral of Garda Golden in Blackrock.

Originally from Ballina, Co Mayo, Tony Golden left behind a grieving widow, Nicola, and three young children; Lucy, Alex and Andrew.

They haven't gone away, you know

That was the view of Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes of the PSNI investigating the murder of ex-IRA man Kevin McGuigan in Belfast.

His contention that some of the members of Action Against Drugs in Belfast "are or were senior members of the Provisional IRA" was backed up by PSNI chief Constable George Hamilton, who said as much to Northern Ireland's Justice Minister, David Ford, in a briefing document.

The fact that senior figures in the Provisional IRA are also 'calling the shots' at a senior level in Sinn Fein brought the issue to the fore.

That the PSNI don't believe the Provisional IRA have gone away is in stark contrast to a view expressed by the Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan, who told the Sinn Fein spokesperson on Justice, Padraig MacLochlainn, earlier in the year that the party's military wing "no longer exists".

What is clear is that the Garda Commissioner may have been out of touch with the reality of life in parts of Northern Ireland, where the remnants of the Provisional leadership still hold sway.

The forthright views of the PSNI also led to a crisis of confidence in the Northern Assembly, which took months of work by senior political and diplomatic figures in London and Dublin to iron out, as the crisis addicted assembly tethered on the brink of collapse.

The Berkeley balcony collapse

On Monday, June 15, Aoife Beary was celebrating her 21st birthday in Apartment 405 of the Library Gardens on Kittredge Street in downtown Berkeley, California, with friends - most of them Irish college students spending their summer working on J1 visas in the United States.

Most of the girls were friends from Loreto College, Foxrock, the boys from St Mary's, Rathmines.

At 12.40am, 13 of the partygoers were standing on the apartment balcony when the wooden support beams gave way. It plunged four storeys to the street below, flinging the students, some of whom clung to each other, into the air like rag dolls.

Six - Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Ashley Donohoe, a cousin of Aoife's from Sanoma County, Lorcan Miller, Niccolai Schuster and Eimear Walsh - were killed.

Aoife Beary, Clodagh Cogley, Sean Fahey, Conor Flynn, Jack Halpin, Niall Murray and Hannah Waters suffered varying but severe injuries, which kept some of them in hospital and rehabilitation in the months that followed.

Apart from the death toll and the catastrophic injuries, the impact of the collapse was felt so widely because so much promise was wiped out in that moment. The distraught parents of the dead had to make the long, lonely journey to Berkeley to collect their loved one's remains or comfort the injured.

Every parent felt something of their pain, because so many students have gone on J1 visas to the US to work, but also because it is every parent's nightmare that a happy gathering like Aofie's 21st could end in such carnage.

"Enjoy a good dance and the feeling of grass beneath your feet like it's the last time because in this crazy world you never know when it might be," wrote Clodagh Cogley as she prepared to return to Ireland and a life that had changed for ever.

The parents of five of those killed and seven of the injured have now launched legal actions in California against 35 named defendants associated with the construction of the balcony, which was held up by joists that had suffered severe dry rot due to water damage.

Sunday Independent

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