With her tailored black trouser suit and careful grooming, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill might have looked every inch the confident politician as she took to the stand to tell the court the impact that internet harassment had on her well-being.
But her voice betrayed her dry mouth and her darting eyes told of her agitation.
When she told the court she did not wish to be there “with every fibre of my being”, it was clear she meant it.
The Fine Gael TD for Dún Laoghaire was targeted by Gerard Culhane, who sent her several messages and explicit video clips, taken from pornographic websites, via Facebook Messenger around the time Ms Carroll MacNeill was running as a candidate in the 2020 general election.
Culhane (43), of Marian Place, Glin, Co Limerick, had pleaded guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to harassing Ms Carroll MacNeill (41) at unknown places within the State on dates between January 13 and March 26, 2020.
Detective Sergeant Rachael Kilpatrick told prosecutor Pietr Le Vert that the politician had received messages from a user she did not know, including three videos of a man performing a sex act on himself.
The first video showed a man masturbating. Ms Carroll MacNeill was “shocked and surprised” to receive the video, which she found “disgusting” and frightening. It was accompanied by winking, smiley face and love heart emojis.
There were two other sexually explicit videos showing a male torso – one in pink underwear, the other in tracksuit bottoms. As soon as she saw what was going on, she turned away and did not watch the rest.
Legally, the case was a rare one, although recent research has shown that online abuse of women has intensified during the pandemic. With two-thirds of young women claiming to have been harassed on social media, and female politicians being a particular target, there was a sense that this was merely the tip of the iceberg.
Most women would probably have said nothing and hoped the abuse would stop. Perhaps it was Ms Carroll MacNeill’s own legal background that propelled this dark and distasteful episode into a courtroom setting, allowing it to be inspected in broad daylight.
As she rose from the back of courtroom seven to give her victim impact statement, she had to walk past Culhane, who was wearing a black face mask. Neither looked at the other.
In court to support Ms Carroll MacNeill were her husband, former Ireland rugby player Hugo MacNeill, her mother Mary Carroll and her parliamentary assistant Amelia Francis.
Also there were several members of the Fine Gael party, including former TD and senator Helen Keogh, former TD and junior minister Mary Flaherty and TDs Richard Bruton and Brendan Griffin.
Ms Carroll MacNeill told the court she did not wish to be there using her own time, that of the court, of the Director of Public Prosecutions and gardaí, but “because some man decided to send me unsolicited sexually explicit videos we all have to be here”.
She resented the time that could otherwise be spent in “constructive” ways, like her political work or being with her child.
“I do not choose to be sexualised in this way, to be in media articles with sexual content,” she said. “But because some man decided to send me sexually explicit videos, it is there for ever more for everyone to see.”
Being targeted left her feeling “afraid” and with “a cold sense of dread”, not knowing what was going to happen next.
“For the first time I felt there was a real, actual risk to me. I felt it, and I couldn’t see it. I didn’t know where it was, I didn’t know what the nature of it was.
“OK, this was just a video, but what next? Was it just a video? Was it a precursor to something else? Was this person far away, or were they just over there? Were they crossing the road towards me?
“What were they going to do? Would they be waiting for me somewhere? Was I going to be hurt? Was I going to be attacked? Was my failure to respond a tacit invitation to send more?”
The harassment had changed her, she said.
“Why did I now have all these problems? Why was I quieter? Why was I reluctant to smile, to put my hand out to engage?”
The court heard how Culhane lived with his parents, left school after his Junior Cert and had been unemployed for many years. Socialising became difficult as his friends got married and moved on. He learned to use the internet and had conversations online that he found “emotionally satisfying”.
He contacted Ms Carroll MacNeill because he was “curious to see could he engage her in conversation”.
He did not intend to cause her any distress or alarm, and Culhane described his actions as “stupidity”, his barrister Karl Monahan BL said.
Judge Patricia Ryan said she wished to see a probation report before proceeding to sentence, adjourning the case to October 21.