'They said he was evil... but I loved him so much' - sister of murderer who killed woman, her baby son and local priest in remote woods

The murders committed by Brendan O'Donnell shocked the nation. His sister tells Donal Lynch why she still stood by her brother

Brendan O'Donnell's sister Ann Marie

Donal Lynch

Can you still love someone who has committed a terrible crime? That is the stark question posed by Ann Marie O'Donnell in a new film, Property of the State, which dramatises the life and crimes of her brother, Brendan.

It is a story of horror begetting horror; of the grief, beatings, abuse and mental illness that finally brought Brendan to the fateful day in 1994 when he killed three people: artist Imelda Riney and her little son Liam and a priest, Fr Joe Walsh. The crimes shocked the nation and cast a pall of infamy over Ann Marie and her family.

The film, which is based on her diaries, humanises a man whom the headlines called 'The Devil Killer', and explains in powerful terms why she stood by him throughout his life, even when he attacked her and threatened her child.

"There was so, so long in my life when people couldn't understand why I wanted to help my brother," she tells me. "We never escaped it. People turned away from me on the street. People shouted abuse at me and my grandmother. Some of my own family wanted nothing to do with him. I wanted, somehow, to tell his story. I felt if people saw it they might understand."

Brendan O'Donnell

There were only four years between herself and Brendan. They grew up in east Clare. "As a child, he was a lovely little boy, lovely head of curls, he was a lovely little boy," she recalls. "People would be disgusted to hear me say that, but he was a child the same as any child." From early on, Brendan suffered from psychiatric problems, however, and was taking powerful sedatives which were likely highly harmful to him.

"We knew he took tablets because he was having really bad nightmares and thinking he was seeing things in the room," Ann Marie recalls. "He also thought that there were worms in his food. He would have fits and see things nobody else did. My mother was the only one who probably knew the tablets he was taking were actually Valium."

Their mother suffered from serious depression and was hospitalised for it several times; every time she went Brendan felt abandoned. Their father was extremely violent toward Brendan - Ann Marie would later tell his trial that Brendan was beaten with a poker and hurley on occasion and also had his head "bashed against the wall".

"I have anger toward my father for the way he treated Brendan," she says. "I mean, I can understand giving [Brendan] a smack for something but this was really beating. I had to break up rows between them."

Their mother died after suffering a fall in 1984. Brendan took the news very badly and initially went into powerful denial. She recalls watching him standing in the morgue and repeatedly saying "no, that's not my Mam". In his mind, he first thought that she had taken a deliberate overdose and then around the time of her funeral, he thought she was being buried alive. He really couldn't cope with her death at all. He used to go and sleep on her grave.

Ann Marie had gone to live with her grandmother when she was nine years old but after the death of her mother, when she was 14, she moved back home to care for her younger brothers.

Brendan O’Donnell murdered Imelda Riney and her son Liam (3) before killing Fr Joe Walsh.

"Brendan was only 10 when she died. After that, he began getting into trouble for stealing things and breaking into houses. He took a gun and that was his first serious offence, I suppose, he got sent into a young offenders place."

This was where the nightmare of Brendan's childhood grew darker still. He would later say he was violently raped by a warder at the young offenders institution, but felt too ashamed to tell his family. "He would get off at the train in Limerick and try to run away," Ann Marie recalls.

"Another time we dropped him by car but he hitched a lift back home and was nearly back home before we were. That was how much he hated it. He went missing at one point and ended up living in Cregg Woods."

During this period, Brendan lived rough, having somehow slipped through the net of social services. At one point, he was taken in by a local farmer, Tony Muggivan, and his family. "He had been sleeping rough and he had been taken in by a family, the Muggivans and it was Tony he told and that was how we came to hear about it.

"Brendan used to always say, 'I am being abused' and I didn't know what to do because his father didn't want him at home. He'd say 'Brendan has my heart broke'."

One of the most poignant moments in the film depicts the efforts of Tony Muggivan to get real psychiatric help for Brendan. "He was refused in two hospitals but he would have been accepted in Galway but the forms were not signed. My father didn't want to sign them. Muggivan tried everything. He sold some of his livestock and offered them cash in the hospital if they would take Brendan in."

But there would be no psychiatric help for the young Brendan and he moved into adulthood carrying the scars of his childhood. He was now having auditory and visual hallucinations.

To begin with it was just one voice, and then there were several, shouting in his brain, giving him orders. At one point in his late teens, he attacked Ann Marie while she was alone with her infant son.

"My son was only seven months old on the day he went for me and Brendan went for him too. He seemed confused but a couple of hours later he came back to the flat and I had the landlady in there with me and I said 'what?' and he said, 'Can I have some washing up liquid?' and the landlady said 'You can't really be here after what you've done!' and he replied, 'Sure, I would never hurt you. I've done nothing.' That was even more scary in a way to hear him say that than what he had actually done to me. Because it was like he was moving out of reality. He was looking at me as much as to say, 'I really didn't do it.' We had to get the guards back then to have him removed, for his own good really."

Later, a community nurse visited Ann Marie. "She told me Brendan wouldn't be bothering me any more. And then, just seven months later, he done what he done."

The following spring of 1994, Brendan was again living more-or-less rough. Cregg Woods, which had been his childhood bolt hole, had altogether different associations for Imelda Riney, a young artist who specialised in glassware and mosaic.

The 29 year old had moved from England with her two boys to Clare, where she hoped to be inspired by the peace and simplicity of nature. At his trial, Brendan O'Donnell would later claim that he and Imelda had struck up a relationship of sorts but this was dismissed by her family. We only know that some time after her ex-partner, Val Ballance, picked up their older son, seven-year-old Oisin, for school, Brendan arrived at Imelda's door brandishing a shotgun. He demanded that she and three-year-old Liam accompany him to the local post office which he intended to rob.

She tried to "settle him down" he would later say, but he insisted, reasoning with her that she could later say he forced her to drive, which he did. At the ragged edge of her terror, Imelda began gesticulating at passing cars and Brendan, panicked himself by now, ordered her and the child out of the car. She carried little Liam into the woods, continually trying to reason with O'Donnell.

When she lunged at him to try and grab the gun, he shot her in the face. As the child leaned towards his mother, O'Donnell shot him too, watching his small body fall on top of Imelda. He later said he did it because he didn't want Liam to grow up without a mother, as O'Donnell himself had done.

Imelda's ex-partner reported her missing but it would take days - and the release of the photo of Imelda, with her long red hair cascading from under a straw hat - for the media to take notice.

In the meantime, Brendan had travelled to Galway with a view to confessing what he had done to Fr Joe Walsh. O'Donnell forced the 37-year-old priest to drive to Cregg Wood in Clare, made him kneel and shot him twice in the head. He later told the court a voice had instructed him: "Kill Fr Joe, he's trying to christen the devil's baby son."

As gardai launched a huge manhunt, Brendan put a pair of tights over his face and burst into a home in East Clare, abducting a teenage girl, Fiona Sampson, at gunpoint. She said O'Donnell told her he did not intend to kill or rape her, and said she would be free to go when he got out of the area. But later he said if he had to shoot her, he would, and it would be quick.

Fiona Sampson would soon be set free. They would meet a farmer, Eddie Cleary, on the road and O'Donnell attempted to force him to drive them away. With gardai and reporters surrounding the car, Cleary managed to pull O'Donnell out of it and a garda carried Sampson to safety. O'Donnell was handcuffed on the ground, screaming, "I'm f***ed now."

"I didn't know for a few days what he had done," Ann Marie recalls.

"I was visiting my grandmother. He came to the house and he had something and first he said it was curtain rails, then fishing rods but it didn't look long enough to be either of those. I said, 'That's a gun' and he said, 'Mind your business.' I had no idea that he had taken Imelda and her son the Friday before that. There was always the possibility he would do something but I never thought he'd kill anyone. I think it was a build up of his mental health issues."

O'Donnell's murder trial lasted 53 days - the longest in the history of the State. Slowly the narrative of his wretched life emerged.

The terrible details of Brendan's troubled life were heard in public for the first time - his defence barrister called his childhood "a living hell". Imelda's family sat in the courtroom and Ann Marie says that one of her sisters smiled at her during the trial. "They heard his evidence, which was absolute nonsense. He should not have been on the stand."

Brendan had tried to hang himself during the trial but his death in 1997 at the Central Mental Hospital remains somewhat mysterious. "I can't really answer as to what happened", Ann Marie says.

"We were told that it was in or above the therapeutic range of an overdose. He had been very unmanageable in the days before he died. He had cut his arm quite badly again. He bit out the stitches and they had to put a cast on his arm to stop him. I don't know what had upset him. He was supposed to be checked every 15 minutes but he died within a few days. My son was five when he died. Brendan gave him money at Christmas one year and he bought a white rabbit with it, he still has the rabbit and he's 25 years old now."

"In another way, it was an ease to him, the running was over at last. I was devastated that he was gone but I said to granny, it had ended, but had it really? There was something still over us. I think of the families of Imelda Riney and poor Fr Joe but I wanted people to know what kind of a life Brendan had."

That was the impetus for allowing her diaries to be made into Property Of The State. Ann Marie is still braced for bad reactions from strangers, so when people stood up at a screening in Galway, she assumed they were walking out in disgust.

Instead, it was a sustained standing ovation for what will surely be one of the most powerful cinema releases of the year. "It was unbelievable for me to see that. I was in tears, my son was in tears," she says.

"Because there was so long when people couldn't understand why I wanted to help my brother. It was said he was bad, that he was evil but you have to understand, as hard as it was sometimes, I loved him so much too."

'Property Of The State' is in cinemas nationwide from this Friday, October 27.