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The sex case that divided a town and shocked a watching nation

Last Friday in Listowel, a week before Christmas, there was frost on the stone bridge over the Feale and a blistering blue bit the sky. It was a Bryan MacMahon story-book sort of day designed for the holly gathered, the fire lit and the candle set in the lace-curtained window, for storytelling and piano music in the graceful houses lining the fine square of the market town.

But the plot was more John B Keane, that other literary great of the Kerry town.

Not exactly Sive. But there were elements. There was rural versus town, middle-class versus poor, older man versus younger woman. But this was a 21st-Century type of Sive -- with Black Russian cocktails and sex, or attempts at sex, on hard tarmac alongside a skip, and grainy cctv footage.

A courtroom, a young woman from a poor background taken by ambulance, enduring a clinical examination in a sexual assault unit, supported by Rape Crisis Centre counsellors but shunned elsewhere and then suicidal.

In the end, a town with a high reputation for fiction, carefully honed over decades, was riven and undone by the extraordinary resolve of that young woman, who was far from literary pretensions -- "to tell the truth, the grainy truth and nothing but the grainy truth" against all intimidation, and her own lack of self-confidence.

By noon on Friday, along the streets draped with festive decorations, the reaction to the case was raw -- though no-one would give their names.

But Maurice O'Sullivan, a respected Listowel solicitor with no connections to either party, had enough of it and went public to register his support for the young woman and his shock at the queue of sympathisers allowed to form in court -- to shake hands with or even embrace the man who sexually assaulted her.

"I am curious as to how (the queue) was allowed to happen. . . It is hard to believe it wasn't pre-arranged. It's a very serious step backwards," he said.

When Danny Foley, 35, of Meen, outside Listowel, was convicted on December 4 at Tralee Circuit Criminal Court -- after a unanimous verdict from a jury of 10 men and two women -- of sexually assaulting a 22-year-old female on the morning of June 16, 2008, in a car park at the back of Mermaids nightclub, in the centre of Listowel, nobody could have foreseen the chain of events that would drag the town into the unwelcome glare of national publicity.

Far from coming to the notice of gardai for any law-breaking, Foley, who had worked as a security man in the Listowel area for the last 10 years, had always been helpful to them.

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The burly man, known as "the gentle giant", was a well-known figure. He was a bouncer at Jumbo's late night chip shop, across from Mermaids nightclub -- where he went to celebrate his 34th birthday on the night of June 15, 2008.

Foley was in the thick of late-night events of Listowel's William St -- a short distance from John B Keane's small pub and home. His employer, Listowel business man Dermot O'Mahony, told the sentencing hearing last Wednesday that he had a "calming influence" on the street.

"He's an exceptional security man," said Mr O'Mahony -- a distinguished-looking silver-haired gent who stood out among the mainly rural crowd who packed the benches of Tralee Courthouse in support of Foley at last week's sentencing.

Mr O'Mahony described the defendant as "polite, inoffensive, courteous and calm".

"People like him, and he doesn't attract hostility. He is honest, reliable, trustworthy and I hold him in the highest esteem."

He was one of two character witnesses called by Foley's legal team. The other was Fr Sean Sheehy, until this weekend parish priest of Castlegregory, Co Kerry and a native of Meen.

"He always struck me as having the height of respect for women. There is not an abusive bone in his body. His respectfulness certainly struck me," the priest said.

Listening in the body of the courtroom was the woman Foley had been found guilty of sexually assaulting.

Nobody was more shocked by events at the centre of the case than Garda Paul Murphy, a calm experienced officer, or his partner Garda John White.

It was they who found Foley crouching over the half-naked woman alongside a skip near the wall dividing the garda station from the Revenue Commissioners' car park at the rear of the nightclub.

Garda Murphy ordered detailed notes to be taken.

Foley told them he had "found your wan" and pretended not to know her. His language would come back to haunt him later, with the trial judge describing it as "odious" and revolting.

At the sentencing hearing, Det Sgt John Heaslip publicly acknowledged that, far from having previous convictions, Danny Foley had long been "helpful to gardai" when they needed his assistance.

He was a bit of a ladies' man, according to locals, liked by women, and would have had a number of girlfriends down through the years.

He was not a townie at all -- his family were originally from Lisselton and later settled at an uncle's place, at Meen, over five miles from Listowel. They gravitated more towards Tarbert and Ballylongford, to the north of Listowel, according to one informed local. They were farming stock and well respected locally.

"Her family are pure town. They would be in one of the council houses," said a local yesterday.

"She has never caused any trouble and is a quiet, shy kind of girl," according to the source.

The extraordinary scenes witnessed at the Circuit Criminal Court in Tralee, in which up to 50 people -- the bulk of them middle-aged and elderly men -- queued to shake Foley's hands, pat his arm, hug and kiss him and wipe the tears welling in the convicted sex offender's eyes, had never been witnessed in the Tralee courtroom.

The court, under Judge Donagh McDonagh, who does not normally sit in the south-west, got underway at precisely 10.30am.

There were matters to be dealt with on the civil list and, after discussion with barristers on motions, they agreed to begin the criminal list at 11.15am.

Shortly after 11am, what seemed like a huge mob was crowding into the courtroom.

People were puzzled by the influx, but then Foley was brought from his holding cell, having been ferried to Tralee by prison van from Cork earlier that morning. A queue then filed past the darkly clad victim -- skirting the edge of her seat -- and past the press bench to sympathise with Foley, who was flanked by prison officers. He was sporting a goatee beard and looked better after his stint in custody.

After their extraordinary display, the 50 supporters returned to the public area -- crowding the small court room. Fr Sean Sheehy said he shook hands with Foley at the instigation of the convicted man's mother, Margaret.

The victim sat looking at her hands, at times holding her stomach. She was accompanied by a young friend and Bernie McCarthy, a counsellor from the Kerry Rape Crisis Centre, who were at her side throughout the three-day trial earlier in December.

Minutes later, the judge came from his chambers at the rear of the court room. All stood in court.

Later in the week, Tim Foley, brother of Danny, would clam the queue was "spontaneous" and not orchestrated or designed to embarrass the victim. He denied a petition had been circulated -- people were simply volunteering to be character witnesses, he said.

There were gasps of astonishment at the seven-year sentence, but anyone with half an ear could see the direction the judge was taking. It was soon clear that Judge McDonagh was not impressed by Foley.

Beginning his review of the evidence, the judge revealed that he had reviewed his notes three times.

The "young lady" had gone out with her mother and met up with friends. She had a few drinks and had "quite sensibly decided to go home" when the drink began to take a serious toll on her, the judge said -- noting the Black Russian bought by Foley for her.

The accused insisted on accompanying her -- against her will -- out of the nightclub. She had only a vague memory after that.

"Out of the fog of that uncertainty, a number of elements are clear," said Judge McDonagh.

"She did not want to be where she was. Her resolve was to go home. She did not want to engage in sexual activity," he said.

Most tellingly she recalled from the fog of that uncertainty saying "get off me", the judge concluded.

It was quite clear the jury did not accept Foley's stories of mutual sexual activity, Judge McDonagh continued.

Foley had spun "a web of lies" -- and it was not only the lies that were "revolting", it was the "odious" language used, he said.

The judge particularly disliked Foley's crude, graphic and at times coarse descriptions of what he claimed were sexual acts between himself and the girl.

"The revolting lies. . . the odious language" added insult to injury, according to Judge McDonagh.

"It seems as though the accused wishes to add insult to injury, to demean and denigrate her in the eyes of the jury and of the public," he said.

No reasonable man could believe a girl could consent to sexual activity in the state she was in, he added.

The judge noted the injuries to the victim's breast, arms, back and legs.

"She was covered in small bruises and scratches," he said.

"The victim in this case was a thin, waif-like lady -- it was unlikely she would have been able to repulse him.

"The inescapable conclusion is that he divested her against her will."

Her victim impact statement was one of remarkable dignity under the circumstances, according to the judge.

The judge went further -- rapping the knuckles of the supremely confident, neatly bearded parish priest, who minutes earlier strode to the witness box to act as character witness, announcing that he had spent years in the United States and was now parish priest of Castlegregory in west Kerry

Foley's actions on the night clearly gave the lie to Fr Sheehy's statements that the had the highest respect for women, the judge said.

It gave him no pleasure to sentence someone so close to Christmas, he said, and then pronounced "seven years".

At that point, Foley's mother Margaret screamed and roared and put her hand over her eyes and continued roaring.

The judge ordered her to be removed from the courtroom, and she could be heard roaring and shouting for some minutes from the small foyer.

After consulting with prosecutor Tom Price, the judge ordered that Foley be placed on the sexual offenders' list "for life".

He refused leave to appeal on the grounds of severity, saying his was a balanced, "modest" sentence. With good behaviour, Foley would serve less than the five years -- he suspended two years of the seven -- he said.

But it was what happened next that truly shocked many people. The following morning on Newstalk radio, Fr Sheehy, the priest who shook the convicted rapist's hand, talked about "a miscarriage of justice".

"Well, I just wanted to support him, for one thing, and let him know he was not alone. I mean, it's a horrible situation to be in the dock as a prisoner, just sitting with his prison officers. From a purely pastoral standpoint, I would do that with anybody," said the priest.

Later in the week, he stepped down from parish work at the insistence of his bishop, Bill Murphy.

Foley's girlfriend Michelle O'Sullivan talked to Eamon Keane on Newstalk later that day, and she sounded a similar note.

"He can hold his head high because people are here to support him and they believe in him and, in my mind, he has done nothing wrong and has nothing to hide. The Danny they know and love is not the monster that he's being portrayed as," she said.

"I suppose all I can really say about that is the evidence that was presented in the case has obviously swayed the jury. I personally don't believe there was enough evidence to come back with a conviction. I certainly don't believe there was evidence to hand down the type of sentence that was handed down," she added.

"The future right now is very unclear. Obviously, we will be appealing the sentence that Danny has been given, and, as regards living in Listowel, whenever Danny can come home he can hold his head high."

And so Listowel is plunged into the unwelcome glare of the media. This story has shed a light on the town and its hinterland and what that has revealed has shocked many people.

They thought that we had left that country behind, but now they find that the hidden Ireland is still there and sometimes the veil is pulled back and what it reveals is a side of ourselves we never wish to see.

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