Portrait of a serial killer: Nash showed no emotion
Alison O'Riordan sat close to Mark Nash for three months as he was forced to listen to the full extent of his horrific crimes
As I took my place on the media bench next to serial killer Mark Nash in Courtroom 17 on the sixth floor of the Criminal Courts of Justice last January, I knew very little about the man on trial.
Over three months, I would become familiar with his demeanour and had a front row seat to observe every little detail - from the silver engagement ring on his left hand to his man-about-town swagger as he bustled into court.
His mane of jet-black tight curls, familiar from earlier photographs, has vanished, leaving the bald 42-year-old looking his age. Dressed in fashionable attire, he was turned out very well for someone who has been behind bars for the last 18 years. We are told these glad rags are courtesy of his current girlfriend, the sister of another convicted killer.
Those who have known and observed Nash for a lot longer than I have - he first arrived here from the UK in 1996 - describe him as emotionless, displaying little human empathy. Whatever emotions he was feeling, it would be fair to say that they were only fleetingly displayed during the 48 days of the trial.
His demeanour appeared neutral, most of the time, and while many in court gasped at some of the more horrific revelations in the evidence, Nash's reaction was more muted. Just once, when the full horror of his crimes was made public, did he show that anything was registering with him.
This case was never regarded as a slam dunk by anyone involved. When the jury was sworn in on January 21 last to adjudicate on the horrific murders of Sylvia Sheils (59) and Mary Callinan (61) - two ladies who lived in sheltered accommodation in a house attached to St Brendan's Psychiatric Hospital in Grangegorman - the case was already 18 years old.
In the course of the lengthy investigation that led to Nash being charged with the murder, gardai assembled a list of 260 'persons of interest'; over 1,800 statements were taken from potential witnesses - 71 were actually called to give evidence - and there were 1,700 separate lines of enquiry. And then there were the 13 "spontaneous" and voluntary admissions of guilt by Nash.
Many of the witnesses are now dead, such as Ann Mernagh, the third woman in the house that night. The predatory serial killer stood over her bed and stared at her as she slept, wearing earphones.
Dead too is Detective Sergeant Pat Lynagh, an integral part of the team in Mill Street Garda station in Galway who was present when Nash confessed to the Dublin murders on August 16, 1997. Then there are people who were central - such as retired State pathologist John Harbison and former Chief Superintendent John Gallagher - who were not available to give evidence for one reason or another.
The story of serial killer Nash unfolded over the whole length of the trial, but it was not a seamless telling. In February, two-and-a-half weeks of legal argument took place in the absence of the jury of six men and five women, and there were many other days when they would troop into court at 11am as normal, only to be told they were not required that day and could go home.
Much of this interruption in the public process was down to Nash's defence team attempting to have his confessions and letters he had written to his girlfriend, excluded from evidence. They were not successful.
Then on February 17 the original foreman of the jury told the court he needed some time off for a garda aptitude test. The defence sought to discharge the entire jury but Mr Justice Carroll Moran opted to excuse the aspiring Garda and continue with 11.
The most harrowing evidence came from Detective Garda Eugene Gilligan, since retired but formerly attached to the Garda Technical Bureau. He told the court that when he first saw the body of Ms Callinan, she was in her bedroom wearing a blue floral nightdress which had been gathered around her upper chest with just a slipper on her right foot.
As well as two electric carving knife blades found in her bedroom, one beside her neck and another on the floor, a kitchen fork with a red handle was also found protruding from her vagina. It was extremely difficult to remove, and had been broken.
"It had been pushed up into the vagina with an amount of force and embedded in the bone. It was a two-pronged fork and one of the prongs jammed within the bone," said Garda Gilligan, holding up the two-pronged fork up for the court.
This was the point when some members of the jury and many of those in the public gallery became visibly shaken. All were clearly shocked by the savagery of the attack, described in the kind of evidence that is rarely heard in our law courts. I looked at Nash. Throughout the trial he had not flinched as his horrific behaviour had been described, but this was something different. This was so visceral it would almost provoke a physical reaction in a normal person.
At first, Nash gave no indication that any of this was getting through to him. But then his breathing appeared to become heavy. He hung his head and looked at the floor, his eyes staring, almost protruding. Then he clasped his head in his hands.
As the evidence continued, we listened to a description of how Ms Sheils had sustained neck, head, chest, abdominal and vaginal injuries, with two knives found in her bedroom, and another knife, a Prestige steak knife with the blade slightly bent, found amongst the bed clothes, and a large serrated carving knife, found under her bed, the blade bent to around 180 degree. You couldn't help but wonder how Stella Nolan, a sister of Ms Sheils, could bear to listen as she sat in the court.
Nash appeared to recover his composure somewhat, but the intense focus in his eyes was not something any observer could miss. The ferocity of his crimes was being relayed for all to hear and he had no choice but to sit and listen. For all of us in court, it was a description of barbarism inflicted by one human being on another. For Nash, it was a prosecution counsel representing the State - all of us - publicly stating: "We know what you did." No amount of denial could allow any normal person to hide from that.
But it became clear, despite the mountain of evidence, and the confessions, that Nash was up for denying everything.
On February 18, Detective Garda Gerard Dillon, now retired, who was attached to Mill Street Garda Station, read a written statement given by Nash in Galway on August 17, 1997, in which he said he wished to volunteer information in relation to a double murder he "committed in Dublin five months ago". At the time Nash made this statement, he was already under arrest for another double murder - that of Catherine and Carl Doyle.
The confession that would now be read to the court, contained the line: "I cannot explain my mind at time, but everything seemed to turn black, I lost control and decided to break into a house, I went in a side entrance to the back of house." The jury was told that Nash made this admission "in a free flowing way . . . over a relatively brief period of time," and that it was not the result of a garda interview - there were only a few brief questions to clarify matters.
Hearing this, Nash rolled his eyes and shook his head as if in disagreement. But otherwise he maintained a dogged exterior of stoicism.
However, he showed an emotion of a different kind on February 27, one which also served to demonstrate how far his mind must be from what most of us think of as normal. Faced with prison for most of the rest of his life, having been in prison for the past 18 years, and being publicly accused of the most appalling acts of savagery against defenceless and vulnerable elderly woman, he inexplicably found a reason to appear to perk up.
This was when his former English girlfriend Lucy Porter appeared in court. Ms Porter had been living with Nash and their five-month-old child in Prussia Street in Dublin 7 in March 1997. The had come to Ireland around the time the baby was born, but broke up shortly after the Grangegorman murders, and Nash found another girlfriend. .
Nash tried to make instant eye contact with the well turned-out mother of one but she pointedly averted her eyes and walked behind him on her way to the witness box. She had not come to help him or even to see him. She had evidence that would help seal his fate in court. Ms Porter told the hushed courtroom that she noticed how Nash, who did not like showering, started to take showers up to three times a day after March 1997 - the month the murders occurred.
Once again, Nash's demeanour changed. His initial enthusiasm for the arrival of the mother of his child vanished. As she told her story, he raised his eyebrows, seeming to indicate disbelief at the tale she was telling. Ms Porter, who worked in Eddie Rocket's in O'Connell Street, was asked by defence counsel Mr Hugh Hartnett if this change of habit could have been accounted for by the fact that their relationship was sexually in decline and Nash might have been having sex with other people.
"He was having sex with quite a lot of people since we were living in the UK," replied Ms Porter.
Mr Hartnett made one more attempt to extract some value for his client from Ms Porter. He asked her if Nash was a fantasist and she said that he was. But when asked by the prosecution to explain what she meant, she replied: "He told a lot of lies, not just to me, but to everyone I think."
Shortly after Nash broke up with Ms Porter, in April/May 1997, he took up with Sarah Jane Doyle and they began living together in Clonliffe Road, Dublin. It was Sarah Jane who was left for dead by Nash after he had killed her sister, Catherine, and her brother-in-law, Carl. For her, the ordeal of having to face Nash in court was clearly unbearable.
It is not hard to appreciate her terror. Sitting very close to him each day, he would sometimes lock eyes with me and it sent a shiver down my spine. I could feel the danger.
His behaviour was that of a man who did not seem to fully grasp what horrified everyone else. He could veer from his normal vacant stare to what seemed to be little spasms of anger - spasms that in anyone else could be interpreted as conscience. Then he could act the wronged defendant, puzzled, shaking his head and raising his eyebrows at a particularly damning piece of testimony. Sometimes other notes were struck. Like when a point was made that he was right-handed - he had been making notes with his right hand - he waved his arm at the jury.
Another day, it was his birthday and he seemed happy to accept good wishes on the occasion. But none of this could disguise the true sadistic, lethal nature of Nash. And on Monday last, the judge sentenced him to two life sentences to add to the two he is already serving.
And many of us breathed a little easier.