'My sister and her girls never woke up on Christmas morning'
Sharon Whelan and her beloved daughters, Zarah (7) and Nadia (2), were murdered on Christmas Eve in their own home. Now, just seven years later, their killer is soon eligible for parole. Determined not to let the murderer take anything else from his family, Sharon's brother John says he's finally ready to embrace the holiday again for the sake of his loved ones
Like many parents, John Whelan feels strongly that Christmas should be special for his children. On December 24 this year, he and his wife Sandra will tuck their youngest sons into their beds where they'll no doubt dream of what Santa's bringing them in the morning. There will be excitement and there could well be trouble getting the boys to sleep, it's hard to drift off when you want to watch out for sleighs. It'll be a similar scene to that in homes all over Ireland.
Seven years ago it was exactly the same scenario for John's sister, Sharon. The mum-of-two had to make several hushed phone calls to her dad, Christy, telling him to hold off on delivering the gifts she'd stashed at her parents', since Zarah (7) and Nadia (2) were still too giddy to even think of sleep. Eventually Santa got to deliver his stash, but tragically the girls never got to see it.
The murder of Sharon Whelan and her daughters in Christmas 2008 is a case that many people across Ireland will have etched into their memory because of its cruel and callous nature.
After a 10-hour drinking binge on Christmas Eve, part-time postman, Brian Hennessy (then 23), forced his way into Sharon's home where he allegedly raped the 30-year-old before strangling her.
In a bid to conceal his crime he then lit two fires in the house, killing Sharon's sleeping children. Afterwards he returned to his own home to celebrate Christmas with his family as if nothing had happened.
Hennessy was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences and one concurrent life sentence for the murder.
Speaking soon after the gruelling trial, Sharon's brother John, an addiction services counsellor from Co Kilkenny, told reporters how Christmas no longer had a place in his family's life.
"Christmas for us is no more," he said. "It does not exist". Today, after a long and difficult journey, he's changed his mind. He wants to embrace the holiday for his family's sake - it won't be another thing that Brian Hennessy steals from him, his wife, Sandra and their three sons aged 17, 10 and three.
"There have been enough casualties," he says. "I'm more determined than ever to make Christmas special for the kids. There are times around Christmas that are very personal for me and how I deal with that, but that will be kept very separate from the celebrating. It's important for us as a family to celebrate and continue to celebrate it."
On Christmas Day 2008, John, Sandra and two of their sons (then aged three and 10, they've since had another boy) had spent the morning opening gifts in their home.
They live about 40 minutes away from where John's parents, Christy and Nancy, live in Windgap and his sister, Sharon, was little more than a mile down the road from that.
About 100 yards up the road lived another aunt. The Whelans were a close-knit family. Sharon had been fostered by Christy and Nancy from the age of four.
The couple had two boys, but "always wanted a girl" laughs John. When she was 18 and legally able to do so, Sharon changed her name to Whelan.
"As far as I was concerned, she was my sister from day one," says John. "She and I were very tight. We'd lose the rag with each other, then forget about it and throw the arms round each other. We were a normal brother and sister, a very normal family. Everything was just so normal until that day…" he tails off.
John was upstairs taking a shower when the phone went. "Sandra answered and on the other end Mam just kept screaming: 'They're gone, they're gone.' It took a while to make sense of what she was saying."
His first instinct was to shield his children from distress and he took the phone outside. His next was hope - perhaps Sharon and the kids were in one of the outhouses around their old farm building? Had anyone checked at their aunt's house up the road?
"I just kept looking for alternatives," says John. "But then word got back to us that they'd been found inside."
Having seen the smoke, two local men had broken into the house by the back door and risked their lives to carry out Sharon and the girls.
All three were already dead. In time though, even this seemingly futile act of bravery would be rewarded.
John initially assumed it had been an electrical fault in the old farm house or that something like a candle had been left on.
"But dad kept saying 'No, Sharon was always very careful about things like that'," he recalls. His overwhelming feeling in those blurred days that followed was one of utter powerlessness.
"I'm the oldest," he says simply. "I was used to being the one who fixed things or tried to fix them. I've never felt so useless."
A few weeks later their family liaison officer told them the investigation had been upgraded to murder. Zarah and Nadia had died from smoke inhalation but no smoke was found in Sharon's lungs meaning she'd been dead before the fire started.
Thanks to the local men that carried Sharon's body out of the smouldering farm house, Gardaí could collect vital DNA evidence and it connected Brian Hennessy to the crime.
On January 17, Hennessy was arrested, but he inflicted further pain on the Whelan family by refusing to admit his guilt until the 11th hour when his trial began.
Eventually, he confessed he'd killed Sharon, with whom he'd had just a passing acquaintance, after they'd had sex.
"I just strangled her with my two hands around her neck," the court heard that he'd told Gardaí at his 2009 trial. "I killed her in the living room."
He then brought the mother's body into the room where her two children slept and later lit two fires. Zarah and Nadia died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
He said he'd done it to stop his girlfriend finding out he'd had sex with another woman. He pleaded not guilty to a further charge of rape, which was among th charges that the State did not proceed with after he was indicted for the murders.
"We went from dealing with an accident to hearing the news that someone had made a conscious decision to end my sister's life," says John. "That's a very difficult thing to get your head round, that someone would do that. I don't think you ever adjust to that."
More anguish was to come. On appeal, Hennessy had his sentence reviewed as unduly severe and it was ruled all three terms should run concurrently. Early next year he will be due for parole: Seven years served, three innocent people killed.
"It's an insult," says John. "No one has ever explained to my family which one he's serving that sentence for. In the eyes of the State, the other two lives clearly didn't mean anything." In the past seven years every element of his family's lives has suffered. "It has an effect on people, your job, your mental health. Relationships suffer, family gatherings are hard. One third of your family isn't there, it's as if there is less colour in life. It's the family, not the perpetrator, who has the life sentence."
John started to keep loved ones at arm's length. It was, he now realises, a self-preservation mechanism, an impulse to avoid ever suffering the pain of losing a loved one again. There were times he'd feel guilty for forgetting the loss for a moment, then times when the burden of remembering felt overwhelming.
He has, he says, gone through every emotion imaginable. At the start he was angry. "If we'd had the death penalty here I would have readily pressed the switch myself," he admits. "But I know now those were fleeting feelings. I don't believe anyone has the right to take anyone's life, no matter who that is. Even Brian Hennessy, his life means something to someone."
But getting there has taken time. "I went through a phase where I was very angry, snappy and quite volatile. It never got out of hand but it made me a person I didn't like and I had to check that and change it."
He credits his family, and his faith, with supporting him through these dark years. "I'm not religious," he explains. "But I have a personal belief that gets me through. I believe in the goodness in people. By experiencing the worst in a person, it's made me appreciate the goodness in everyone else around me. Hate can eat you up and I can't allow that to happen.
"When you're hit by something like this it's like starting over. Everything you believed in you have to re-evaluate because you've been visited by this evil," he continues. "I started to distance myself from the people I love, and sort of convinced myself that I didn't love them so that if anything happened to them I would be able to deal with that. But, in the last while, I've gone the other way. I've become an awful lot closer to my kids, my wife and parents. I see the good in people before I start looking for the bad."
But knowing that Hennessy could be eligible for parole so soon as hit the family hard.
"It feels like we've been dragged back to square one and it's so unfair, we've been through enough," he says honestly. "It's not about revenge or 'may he rot in jail', it's about justice and what is a fair sentence. To force a family to go through the stress and anxiety of a parole hearing, seven years after one third of your family has been wiped out…it's not right."
Four years after Sharon's death, John became involved in Advic, an advocacy group for victims of homicide in Ireland. He wanted to use his experience to try and help other people. After enduring the pain of losing someone to a violent death, he admits it can be challenging to come into constant contact with others enduring the same agony, but he believes it is also cathartic.
"There's a lot of healing in it," he explains. "To connect with someone who has experienced what you've felt or thought and know that you are not the only one who has had those thoughts and feelings - there's a lot of therapy in that, there's a lot of healing."
He's now dedicated to campaigning for Ireland to have similar sentencing tariffs to the UK justice system. "Since Sharon died there have been an average of 60 murders a year in Ireland. That's another 60 families facing what we've gone through. We live in a violent society and there needs to be a stronger deterrent for those who chose to take a life," he explains.
"We're not asking for judicial discretion to be taken away, but we are asking for the tariff system to be considered the way it is in Britain, be it 25, 30 or 35 years and then parole to be considered after that.
"But that takes political will to change and for some reason it's not there. Families aren't central to the justice system, they're on the periphery. There's no justice in the justice system, it's broken and it needs to change and change fast, before another year goes by and another 60 families are left to go through what we've been through." His parents "don't really celebrate Christmas" now. "They do what they can for the other grandkids," he says. "But they spend most of the day at the grave". It's just a short walk from their family home to the burial ground where their daughter and granddaughters lie. Most days begin and end with a visit there.
It's a further source of pain that, to the rest of the world, Sharon, Zarah and Nadia's names are forever synonymous with the actions of an evil man. The public only knows them as victims, but their monstrous deaths don't define who they were to their family. "We know them as they were," says John. "Sharon was a devoted mother, her kids were her life and there was nothing she wouldn't have done for them. They were the centre of her world and so well looked after."
He loved to meet up with his sister on Friday nights to play darts in the local pub.
She was bubbly and vibrant with lots of friends, a "people person" who wanted to work in hospitality because she loved helping people. In the months before Christmas, Zarah and Nadia had both been diagnosed with autism, something the family was adjusting to. Zarah loved sports, playing camogie and helping her granddad mark the pitch, putting out flags for hurling matches. She was "a lovely little soul", who her uncle remembers as being full of energy, very innocent and loving.
"She was always minding Nadia. She loved her little sister," he says. "Nadia was just two and barely getting her words together. Her autism was holding her back a wee bit there but you were never in any doubt of how she felt about things and she was able to make her presence felt."
He remembers her grabbing his hand and guiding him down to the play room where she'd point at whatever toy had grabbed her interest. She was affectionate, a little ball of energy.
"That's another casualty of all this," says John. "All the 'what ifs' have been taken away. Zarah would have been 14 now and Nadia around nine. Lots of things could have and should have happened that were denied to us. It's hard to see past that.
"Even after what he did to Sharon…he waited there for up to four hours before he decided to light the fire and those kids were asleep for that time. He decided to light that fire knowing that they were there. He just left and they never woke up on Christmas morning. Our Sharon was lying there and her thoughts must have been with her children and what was going to happen to them."
Unanswered questions about that night plague him but he tries to keep them in check.
At this time of year his mother and he have a different way of saying goodbye on the phone, urging each other to "focus on what we have". In the years after Sharon and the girls' deaths, a lot of well-meaning people told John 'time heals everything'. "It comes from a wonderful place and it's a genuine good wish," he says. "But actually time doesn't heal anything. You just learn to live with the loss, you live beside it. It affects you all the time. Some days it will affect you more than others, but it's always there."
He doesn't want to think about Brian Hennessy.
"I don't even allow him into my head a lot, he's done enough harm," but he knows that this year, like all those since Sharon's death, will bring its challenges. "Christmas Eve is a tough one. When the kids are in bed and you're getting ready for the following morning…that's the toughest part for me," he says quietly.
"Thinking that they were doing the exact same thing, knowing that they were going to bed with all the excitement of the next day and it never came. For me it's very symbolic and very poignant to be putting those presents under that tree. You do appreciate life more, you do appreciate your kids more and your relationships more, because you never know when they're going to stop."