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A decision that neither of these two devastated families wanted

IN many ways it was the verdict neither of the families wanted -- but that they had probably been expecting in their heart of hearts.

Eamonn Lillis sat motionless, his face drained of all colour, while the family of his dead wife, Celine Cawley, sat frozen in their seats, scarcely breathing, a picture of utter devastation.

They managed to hold onto their dignity until the jury had left the room, as though wanting to spare them the sight of how their decision had impacted upon the family.

And then Joanna Cawley, the young daughter of Celine's brother, Chris, broke down in quiet tears, holding a tissue to her face.

Celine's sister Susanna also began to cry silent tears of sorrow.

There was no doubt that it was bitterly disappointing for all concerned. Neither an acquittal nor a murder verdict, the finding of manslaughter was the medium ground that satisfied nobody.

It was a day of uneasy anticipation yesterday, broken only by the jury seeking the clarification of a legal point, lunch or a cigarette break; towards evening time, the courtroom had drifted into lethargic despondency.

In the morning, Mr Justice Barry White had told the jury that, because they had already been deliberating for four-and-a-half-hours the previous day, he would now be willing to accept a majority verdict.

He explained this as meaning at least 10 jurors in favour, two against.

At about 3.55pm, there was a muffled knock on the modern walnut veneer door of the jury room that lacked the resonance of the ancient heavy oak doors of the Four Courts.

But it was a false alarm.

The jury needed tobacco. Celine Cawley's brother, Chris, blinked and his elderly father Jim heaved a weary sign.

Finally at 6.09pm, the jury minder emerged and spoke a quiet word into the ear of the registrar, who duly announced to the courtroom at large: "There's a verdict."

Those waiting there sprang into immediate action and shot out into the corridors to locate family members, gardai and barristers.

Eamonn Lillis, who had been outside chatting to his sisters Carmel and Elaine, came back and sat stiffly erect, his eyes darting to his legal team.

The 10-minute wait for the judge to return seemed interminable, and then finally Mr Justice White was there, his reading glasses on.

The jury filed into the seats looking grave and exhausted after what had been a long and tiring process -- nine hours and 28 minutes of deliberations in total over the past two days.

The foreman clutched the cream issue sheet on which was written their findings.

The accused, Eamonn Lillis was found guilty of manslaughter.

They said the State had failed to prove intent.

It had been a majority verdict of 10 to two.

An unbearably heavy atmosphere stole through the packed courtroom and one of the younger female jurors began to weep.

The shoulders of Mary Ellen Ring SC for the prosecution slumped. It was a difficult situation -- not quite victory, not quite a defeat.

At the other end of the bench, the face of Brendan Grehan SC betrayed his own disappointment at not having secured an acquittal.

Eamonn Lillis never moved -- only his colourless face betraying his inner feelings as the enormity of his situation began to sink in, shades of regret and relief mingled on his face.

He would be going to jail for the role he had played in Celine's death and he would have to wait until Thursday to find out for how long.

Across the room, his sisters Carmel and Elaine twisted their hands in their laps and appeared deflated. It was obvious they had, naturally, hoped that their brother would be acquitted.

Mr Grehan asked for his client to be remanded on continuing bail until the sentencing and the judge agreed, asking how long it would require for Eamonn Lillis to put his affairs in order.

Everybody was soberly mindful that these "affairs" would primarily focus on the young teenage daughter of Celine Cawley and Eamonn Lillis and her care during her father's jail sentence.

Mr Justice White agreed but said he would require that Lillis sign on twice daily in the intervening period, between the hours of 9am-12pm and 6pm-9pm.

As the courtroom emptied, the Cawley family crumpled in their seats. Most of them were crying quietly.

James Cawley, Celine's elderly father, was stoic until Det Sgt Fionnuala Olohan reached out and gave him a hug.

At that the venerable old solicitor finally lost his reserve, hugging her tightly back, gratefully and sorrowfully.

It was a poignant and terrible moment.

Outside, as the cameras and reporters waited, Eamonn Lillis -- a free man for now -- strode out the door with his sisters and battled his way to a waiting car.

A parked motorcycle was knocked over in the scrum but unfazed, Lillis merely stepped over it.

Then the Cawleys emerged from the courtroom, all their eyes red in raw grief.

Chris Cawley was supporting his wife, Sorcha, whose legs were sagging under her in her sadness.

The case is ongoing and so the family was not in a position to make any comment at this stage, Chris said.

Then, linking arms, they walked sadly away together.

Irish Independent