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Donal Lynch: No longer a queue to shake attacker's hand

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Right, Foley leaves the Midlands Prison with his belongings.

Right, Foley leaves the Midlands Prison with his belongings.

 Danny Foley with fiancee Michelle O'Sullivan.

Danny Foley with fiancee Michelle O'Sullivan.

Controversial priest Fr Sean Sheehy, who has since stepped down from his ministry.

Controversial priest Fr Sean Sheehy, who has since stepped down from his ministry.

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Right, Foley leaves the Midlands Prison with his belongings.

It could be a scene from one of John B Keane's plays but instead it's a real-life drama that will continue to play out in the coming months in streets around the legendary playwright's pub.

On Monday, September 2, just after 7am, Danny Foley, who comes from a small townland a few miles from Listowel, Co Kerry, was released from the Midlands prison in Portlaoise after serving three years and eight months for sexual assault on a young woman.

Foley, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, carried his belongings in two plastic bags slung over his shoulder. He cut a lonely figure. At the gates of the prison the crowds that controversially came out to support him during the dramatic sentencing scenes – including a local priest who queued up to shake his hand – were nowhere to be seen.

It was left to his mother and another relative to pick him up. They brought him back to an emptier household. In the years since Foley was imprisoned his heartbroken father died of cancer, and the cancer that stalked his mother 11 years ago has returned. Foley will have noticed other changes too. In the valley of squinting windows, opinions around the case have subtly shifted.

It's very likely that Danny Foley and his one-time victim will at some point pass each other in the town. In the face of enormous pressure she remained in Listowel after the verdict, and her child goes to school locally. In the intervening years, she has tried to rebuild her life.

It was reported a few years ago that she had her door kicked in and a source confirmed to the Sunday Independent that she has had to deal with "a few snide remarks from people – both men and women incidentally".

However, several of the men who queued up to shake Foley's hand in the courtroom have since come to her and apologised, and the majority of people in the town have been supportive. Her case was held up as a snapshot of the insular tribalism of small town life, but around Listowel last week locals seemed eager both to underline the fact that Foley is not in fact from Listowel itself and to forget a case that brought a lot of unwanted attention to the town.

The young woman at the centre of the case has since been back to the nightclub where it all began in the early hours of June 15, 2008. Then 22 years old, she met Danny Foley, a 34-year-old bouncer, who bought her a Black Russian cocktail. Upon drinking it she became incapacitated, but she remembered trying to prevent him from removing her clothing.

It was some time before gardai found her, scratched, bruised and semi-conscious, beside a skip. She was naked from the waist down – her jeans and underwear had been removed. The woman had extensive bruises and scratches on her body. Foley was hunched over her.

"I came around here for a slash and I saw yer wan lying on the ground," he lied to the guards. "No one arrived. I tried to get her standing."

Later, he learned of the CCTV footage of him carrying her and changed his story, saying that she took off her trousers and asked for sex. The jury convicted him, and Judge Donagh McDonagh in his sentencing remarks described the "odious" language Foley had used to describe his victim.

He added that Foley's allegations about mutual sexual acts on the night were designed "to add insult to injury" and "to demean and denigrate her further in the eyes of the jury and the public".

Cases like this pass every week through the Circuit Court, but what brought this case to public notice were the extraordinary scenes in the courtroom. About 50 people, mostly middle-aged and elderly men, queued past the press box to shake the hand of the convicted man and hug him after he was brought from the cell to the dock. One of them was Fr Sean Sheehy, acting parish priest of Castlegregory, Co Kerry, who told the court that he had known Danny Foley since he was a teenager and said there was "not an abusive bone in his body".

After the verdict Foley's fiancee went on national radio. She said that the handshakes were a reflection of "the support that is out there for Danny and the esteem Danny is held in".

The handshakes made news across the world and later became the inspiration behind a theatrical interpretation of events, The Listowel Syndrome, which appeared at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2010 (dismissed to me by one Listowel man as "a bunch of feminists dancing in some bedsit in Ranelagh"). More than anything it seemed like a clash of civic justice and the 'whatever you say, say nothing' culture of small town Ireland.

For generations the Irish psyche had a sly regard for the man who was found guilty but had done nothing wrong in the eyes of the community. Formal justice, rather than being the responsibility of the indigenous population, was a tool to keep them oppressed. In the minds of some Kerry people Foley was just a wild colonial boy who'd been dealt a harsh hand by the system. We didn't know the other side of the story, they said.

The victim, who had been the subject of wild gossip and innuendo, said the reaction made her "feel like curling up into a ball".

Today, according to those close to her, she holds her head up high in the town and has been provided with support by the Rape Crisis Centre in Tralee (although it's important to note: she was not raped). She has been provided with housing closer to her mother, where she feels safer.

Fr Sheehy, whose stance was sharply criticised by the Bishop of Kerry, has since stepped down from his ministry in Castlegregory. He has said that Foley plans to become a charity volunteer.

"It's inevitable that they'll see each other," one towns-person told me of Foley and his victim.

"Broadly speaking people here feel bad about what happened in the court with the handshakes. The vast majority of those men [who shook hands with him] weren't from Listowel and the priest himself said he hadn't a clue what was the done thing. She was treated abominably, but he got what was probably quite a harsh sentence. Both of their families have suffered terribly. All people want for them now is that they be allowed move on with their lives."

Sunday Independent