Sunday 15 September 2019

'The farm was his whole life ... all we wanted from this was a sense of justice'

Anthony O'Mahony's family feel they will never recover from the horrific death of their loved one, writes Wayne O'Connor

TRAUMATIC: Seamus, Margaret and James O’Mahony in their field beside Rattoo Tower. Photo: Don MacMonagle
TRAUMATIC: Seamus, Margaret and James O’Mahony in their field beside Rattoo Tower. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Anthony O’Mahony and his brother Seamus pictured harvesting crops in the field in 1998
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

Anthony and Seamus O'Mahony often travelled together as they went about their daily chores along the boreen that leads to the historic Rattoo Round Tower - a local landmark that serves as a sentry to this part of North Kerry.

Little did the two brothers know as they walked in companionable silence that one day the tranquillity of the country boreen they loved so much would be torn asunder and their family devastated.

Seamus travelled the road again last week. Pointing to a bunch of flowers beside the rural track, he said: "This is the spot right here. This is where his car stopped after the teleporter pushed it up the road. This is where Anthony was found dead."

The monastic tower at the end of the laneway is surrounded by large fields of pasture and arable, divided by centuries-old stone walls left behind by monks who settled here more than 1,000 years ago. Anthony had dedicated much of his life to working here before he was killed last year - the final act in a long-running dispute over a crow banger.

On the day he was killed, the little country track was a scene of utter bedlam.

Gardai, paramedics and fire fighters were working among the debris caused by Michael Ferris. He had used a piece of farm machinery to penetrate Anthony's car.

Seamus points again, this time about 100 yards up the road to a farmyard.

"That's where it all started. His car was dragged from there to here. He was probably dead long before it stopped."

Farmer Michael Ferris (63), from Rattoo, Ballyduff, Co Kerry, was jailed last week for five years for manslaughter. He had been charged with murder following the death of Anthony O'Mahony (73). The killing was described as "truly gruesome" by Ms Justice Carmel Stewart. A jury found him not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter.

The trial heard that Ferris had snapped because of Anthony's use of a crow banger. Ferris said the noise would "wake the dead".

The men had fallen out in the past over the gas-powered device used to keep feeding birds away from valuable crops.

In or around 2001 Anthony's crow banger was taken from his land. It was later recovered by gardai in a shed owned by Ferris. This ruined any relationship between the two men and they were never on speaking terms afterwards.

Anthony had to travel from his home 5km away and past Ferris's farm every day to tend to his land.

After sowing his crops, he would place a crow banger in his fields to protect them from birds.

The banger would usually be put out for a couple of weeks when the crops were sowed and again when they were to be harvested.

He would put the banger out first thing every morning before bringing it in at night. It was set to go off at regular intervals throughout the day and would go off at least 10 to 12 times every hour, much to the annoyance of some residents neighbouring his land.

"It's a typical rural row," one local said last week.

"You often see neighbours who don't get on and never talk to each other. It's the kind of thing that keeps two lads sitting at opposite ends of the bar counter but the rows never usually go this far."

It is not just that the row escalated to a killing but the circumstances of Anthony's death that drew attention.

On the morning of April 4, 2017, Ferris had parked his teleporter on the boreen blocking Anthony's path. He knew it was likely Anthony would complain.

At about 8am, Anthony turned on to the boreen in his Peugeot 508 and started beeping his horn when he saw his path was blocked.

Ferris drove the teleporter at the Peugeot, driving its forklift-like prongs through it, repeatedly picking the car up before dropping it.

He then went to a neighbour's house and said: "O'Mahony's gone, call the guards."

When gardai arrived, the teleporter was found with its prongs covered in blood, human tissue and glass. They said they found Anthony with "absolutely horrific injuries".

Ferris described the attack to gardai.

"I blocked the road with a teleporter to stop him coming down," he said.

"I parked it sideways. He started hooting. I was not in the teleporter. I did not talk to him. No good talking to him. The pallet forks I had on it I made for the car and drove into it."

Assistant State Pathologist, Dr Margot Bolster, also attended the scene.

She said Mr O'Mahony died from "polytrauma" - multiple traumatic injuries. She noted broken glass across the dashboard of his car. The teleporter had driven over Mr O'Mahony's legs and he had multiple gaping, penetrating wounds that amounted to "total evulsion [forcible extraction] of the heart and liver".

A large portion of his intestine could be seen protruding from his shirt.

In the minutes afterwards word spread locally about "an incident" at Rattoo.

Family members were called to the scene but could not get access after emergency crews arrived.

Anthony's nephew James, who helped him run the farm, said he tried to see what had happened but could not get access to the boreen. He went home and waited for news.

"It was a bit of a fiasco how we found out," James told the Sunday Independent.

"There were blue lights and fire brigade on the road but I couldn't get near the scene because the gardai had it sealed off.

"Then I went to my uncle's house to see if he was there. He wasn't."

James's mother Margaret was at home with the radio on in the background.

"We were talking when it came on the local station that a man's body was at the scene."

Her husband, Seamus, then received a call from a neighbour offering condolences.

"That's the first I knew of it being Anthony," said Seamus.

"I was a mile from the yard when it happened and I got a call…" his voice breaks with the pain of a memory he can never erase.

James and his cousin Sean Houlihan were tasked with identifying their uncle's body. They struggle as they relive that traumatic task.

"I don't know when a person dies if the expression on their face is the same expression they make when they are killed. But, I can still see his face.

"He had this horrific expression on it and that won't ever leave me.

"We knew then it was bad but it only really came out afterwards how bad it was."

The family revisited the scene last week.

Margaret said she used to regularly travel the road but she is not comfortable going there any more. James is the most regular visitor to his uncle's farm and he goes up there frequently.

Seamus, standing under the imposing Rattoo Round Tower, says he cannot bear to travel the road alone now.

"Before, I had no problem coming over here but now…" he shakes his head.

"I am OK if I have James with me but I'm slow to come here alone now.

"It's not a nice memory and when you're alone these things come up more."

The family is hurt and angry.

James says anger kicked in soon after Anthony was killed.

"We couldn't have an open casket. Angela [Anthony's sister] wanted to put a suit on him but the undertaker said, 'I can't put a suit on him. There is nothing to put a suit on'. His body was so mutilated.

"I had to put the suit in the coffin and close the coffin."

Seamus struggles to talk about the days after his brother's death.

"I would be awake at five o'clock in the morning and couldn't go back to sleep.

"I would go out into the yard and I don't know how many times I walked that yard," he explains. He is upset talking about the trauma. His voice breaks a couple of times before he composes himself.

"It was lovely spring weather and I was listening to the birds singing and all I could think to myself was 'this is terrible'."

The two brothers had always been close.

Anthony was the eldest of three children growing up on the family farm in Ardoughter, near Ballyduff in North Kerry.

He went on to study horticulture at Warrenstown College, Co Meath, after completing his Leaving Cert. A monk, who taught him there 50 years ago, attended his funeral after hearing of his death.

After finishing college he bought a farm in Limerick and focused on growing fruit and vegetables. He used greenhouses and worked with some of the country's top suppliers.

He never married and eventually settled back in North Kerry. He bought 100 acres in Rattoo, which he ran in parallel to the old family farm in Ardoughter.

Neighbours in Ardoughter seemed to think highly of him.

"I always found him to be fine," one neighbour said last week. "Any dealings I had with him were civil and he always seemed to be friendly, but then I didn't have the issues other people had with him."

This "issue" is the crow banger, a source of discontent among some members of the community around his land in Rattoo.

In court during Ferris's trial, Anthony was described as a man who was hard to get along with.

The prosecution and defence accepted he was "a difficult man" and "had fallen out with the neighbours" in Rattoo.

One neighbour living on the boreen, Mairead Walsh, told the court that Anthony had fired a shot over the heads of her, her husband and daughter one evening when they were walking towards the Rattoo Tower five years ago.

A shotgun and cartridges were discovered in Anthony's car after he was killed. He could not have had a licence for the firearm because of a 1987 conviction following an incident where he shot at two members of a local gun club who had strayed on to his land. He offered no warning when he shot through a hedge at them and received a conviction for assaulting one man with pellets.

Another neighbour, Michael Schumacher, told the court about an incident in 2016 when the crow banger had been placed close to the gable end of his house. He said Anthony moved it after he and his wife complained about the proximity, but when they went to thank him for doing so, Anthony became agitated.

These incidents supported the defence's argument of cumulative provocation, that Ferris was a good man who did a bad thing because of Anthony's behaviour.

Frank Buttimer, solicitor for Ferris, said it was important for the jury to hear from neighbours who had run-ins with Anthony.

"Because of the instructions that we received that the accused was provoked by the behaviour of the deceased, it was necessary for the jury to hear all of the available evidence to enable the jury to make a decision that provocation was to be considered by them," he told the Sunday Independent.

"It is regrettable that we therefore had to challenge the character of the deceased and if we had failed to do so we would have been failing in our duty to the client."

The way Anthony was spoken about in court angers his family. They argue that crow bangers are a part of rural life. It also hurts Seamus that his brother may be remembered as the angry neighbour portrayed during the trial.

"The trial destroyed us really," said Seamus. "It was worse than anything.

"It was the character assassination. I feel when you assassinate the character of a brother, or a sister, you are assassinating the character of the family in some way."

"People look at you differently," James adds.

"Well we think they do, whether they do or not…," Seamus said.

"People are awkward about it. We have had great people calling and there have been plenty of great friends but they find it difficult to talk to me about the thing. And I feel that is the problem.

"Some people come and say hello. Others find it difficult.

"We just want Anthony to be remembered as the person he was. He was hard working, honest and enterprising.

"The farm was his whole life. I was different; I had hobbies and kept them up as I got older. Anthony was dedicated to his work.

"All we wanted from this was a sense of justice but I don't even think we got that."

Ferris was jailed last week for five years for manslaughter. Ms Justice Stewart handed down a six-year sentence, with 12 months suspended, after stating she believed the offence was at the lower end of the upper range of manslaughter. She expressed sympathy with the O'Mahony family but cited mitigating factors, such as Ferris admitting to the killing and offering a guilty plea to manslaughter as factors in reducing the sentence. Ferris's age was also considered and so she reduced the headline 12-year sentence by a third and then a further two years.

She said suspending the final 12 months would allow Ferris to be rehabilitated into society. He is likely to be freed by early 2021 and is expected to return to his home on the boreen where Anthony was killed.

"We are very angry about what went on in the trial," said Seamus.

"This isn't justice. We won't get justice now I don't think. Maybe it will change in the future but it is too late for us now."

Sunday Independent

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