'My husband's hit and run driver never thought about the man he left on the road or the four kids left behind'
In 2012, father-of-four Paud O'Leary was training for a charity cycle when he was knocked down and left to die in a ditch. Now, following the sentencing of the hit-and-run driver, his widow Margaret opens up about losing the man who could light up a room
In June 2012, father-of-four Paud O'Leary brought home a hare. It was one of many animals to have been carried through the door of the family's home he was always taking pity on lost or injured wildlife.
The hare had been lying injured in a roadside ditch about half a mile from the family's farm in rural Gneeveguilla, Co. Kerry. Paud, a farmer and school caretaker, was driving with his young sons Paudie (just shy of his ninth birthday) and seven-year-old Ross, back from a hurling match in Cork when the boys spotted the animal lying in the heavy rain.
"What could I do? I couldn't leave it there," he said to his wife Margaret as he placed the injured animal in a box in front of the kitchen range. She thought it would die straight away, but the hare revived and lay for the next week, happily nibbling on flowers and bits of grass.
"One day I came back from work and the hare had died," says Margaret, recounting the story. "Paud came home from work to break it to the boys. They cried but Paud reassured them 'he'd a good death,' he said. 'He was warm and he was happy and he had a fine death lying there beside the heat'."
Just three weeks later, not far from that ditch where he stopped to help a wounded wild animal, Paud O'Leary was knocked down and left on the roadside to die. Last month, Cork student Shane Fitzgerald (23) was sentenced to six-and-a-half years, with the final 18 months suspended, for dangerous driving that caused the death of Paud O'Leary in a fatal hit and run. Throughout the month-long case at the Circuit Criminal Court in Tralee, Fitzgerald pled 'not guilty', only later admitting in his probation report that he had caused the collision.
At around 5.15am on July 1, 2012 he was driving home from a night out drinking in Killarney when he collided with Paud who was cycling in the opposite direction. Such was the force of impact to the right front side of Fitzgerald's dark grey Toyota Land Cruiser, that the cyclist wrenched the wing mirror from the car as he was thrown off the road into a deep ditch, his buckled bicycle lying beside him. He had been training for a charity cycle.
As part of the evidence, Margaret who attended every day in court, had to watch three hours of silent CCTV footage taken in Killarney showing Fitzgerald drinking heavily in a hotel residents' bar before getting into his vehicle at 4.50am on July 1, 2012.
"Watching that CCTV my heart was screaming 'Stop, please don't get into the car,'" she says, her voice breaking. "And when he got into the car he ended up on the wrong side of the road and I'm thinking 'Oh God please, you're not able to drive, please stop, please just go to sleep'. Watching it happen in front of your eyes was very difficult, because you know what's going to happen." Adding to the family's pain was the fact that Fitzgerald fled the country the day after the accident, taking a ferry to Liverpool before applying for an Australian visa and leaving the UK on July 12 to start a new job working in the mines in Perth in Western Australia.
It was only after he returned to the UK in 2014 that he was arrested for extradition as he prepared to board a plane back to Australia. "He didn't just drive on but went all the way to Australia where he was able to make a life for himself," says Margaret. "If he had stopped, my husband wouldn't have been left in a ditch to die on his own, I wouldn't have woken up to find someone missing, there wouldn't have been an investigation and gardaí calling to our door.
"But he never thought about the man he left in the road, or me, or my four children. He was only ever concerned about himself. When he appeared in court I remember he was very concerned that he'd lost his job. I lost my husband."
Living in the sleepy village of Gneeveguilla, just 19km east of Killarney, Margaret O'Leary never would have imagined her life would end up on the front page of newspapers. She and Paud had been together since she invited the handsome 20-year-old to her 21st birthday.
He was, she says simply, the love of her life. "He was very good looking," she laughs. "In fairness, I was really punching above my weight but he had no idea, not even to the day he died. Even in our married life I'd often just sit in the kitchen and watch him as he'd be getting the kids ready for sports and he'd turn around and say 'what are you looking at?' and I couldn't tell him I was looking at him because he wouldn't understand it! It wasn't a sexual thing, he was just an absolutely glorious looking guy.
"He was very unassuming, maybe even lacking a little bit in self-confidence, but when he walked into a room, it lit up - people wanted to know who he was."
They married at 28 and had 'honeymoon baby' Shannon (16) followed by Antoinette, Paudie and Ross. The Christmas before Paud died they discussed having another baby. "Paud was a born dad and he was interested but I wasn't quite on the same page," recalls Margaret. "I thought about it good and hard but I just wanted him back to myself. I think I said I was too old. Thank God, because if it had happened I would have been six months pregnant when he died."
In the relationship she was happier to be the quieter one, more the background looking after the house, the meals and the family's finances whilst Paud took the leading role with the kids, coaching the swimming, the football and the basketball for the children's local teams.
Being thrust into the spotlight hasn't come easily to her but there is power in her softly spoken grief. When she spoke on The Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk recently there was a wave of public empathy. Judge Thomas E O'Donnell described her Victim Impact Statement as one of the "most powerful" he'd heard.
Margaret says she feels compelled to speak out for two reasons, one being that she feels let down by the lenience of the sentence handed down to Fitzgerald.
"I don't feel we've got justice," she explains. "In my opinion once you knock somebody down and leave them for dead it should be a mandatory sentence of 10 years. If you leave the country I think the book should be thrown at you - life off the road. It was a heinous crime, 10 years off the road and five years in jail? It just doesn't add up. I want it out there that it isn't fair." But she also wants to be able to remember the time she had with Paud.
Margaret's voice changes when she talks about happy memories with her husband. It was Paud who would get the family up in the morning, and if they needed to be somewhere by 2 o'clock, he'd have them there at 1.30. He liked to do the dishes in the morning, joking with Margaret about how she'd miss him when he was gone. He was good at DIY and could turn his hand to any sport - although he found it hilarious when his wife recommended him for a football coaching job based on her having seen him train a farm dog. But where he really excelled was with his children. "Paud looked after the children and they looked up to him," says Margaret. "He never had to do anything physical, if he said 'give me that phone' then the phone was in his hand."
He coached Shannon's football team, Rathmore ladies, taking them from division three to one in 12 months, touring the county and researching other teams to guide the individual players to their best game. Several now play at county level.
Shannon, Margaret says, is very like her dad, strong, dependable, solid. She was heartbroken when her team lost the first match after his death. Her mum carried her off the pitch in tears.
He taught Antoinette to swim and had been training to complete the annual 112 mile Ring of Kerry cycle to raise money for Kerry All Stars, a charity for children and adults who, like Antoinette, have been born with Down Syndrome. He also coached his son's basketball team.
Last week Margaret was blindsided by grief after noticing the startling similarity between Paudie and his dad's hands. At night Ross worries about strangers downstairs, he worries he's going to die. There are still a lot of tears in the O'Leary home.
As the school holidays approached that summer in 2012 the couple had been worrying about childcare arrangements. They had bills to pay and needed to keep working but felt nervous about Shannon's first year minding the other three children. Paud was going to pop home from the school and Margaret would keep on her few hours' bar and restaurant work. It was the minutia of family life, the little things all families fret about, but overnight it all changed.
When Shane Fitzgerald got behind the wheel he ripped the heart out of the O'Leary family, but Margaret is determined he won't rob her children of their future or their happy memories of their dad. "I want to instil in them that it's the time you spend with your family and who you were in life that is what defines you, not your death.
"Paud spent his hours very wisely, he spent his time with his children. I don't want them to be afraid of life and Paud would not have wanted that. I'm going to make sure they fly the nest and they succeed and they will trust people and that this will not affect them down the road.
"If it had been me who had been taken that's what I would have wanted and it's what Paud would have wanted. The children are number one, they are fantastic, they are a lifesaver and they are my all."
Nor does she want to raise them in hatred and bitterness. "I can't say I hate Shane Fitzpatrick," she adds. "I hate what he did and I hate the way he was in court. I hate that he was able to get on with life as if it was a dog he had knocked down that morning.
"But I also feel kind of sorry for his life, that he can't feel. It's an awful lack in a person. Sometimes I wake up and I wish I could forget Paud, and that's an awful thing to say, but it's just so bloody painful, my heart is broken.
"But you're much better off having a small bit of feeling rather than being the person he is. My husband is dead but he was loved and respected and nothing can rob me of the love I had in my life."