Thursday 19 July 2018

Terror stalked a quiet land

It is five years since a triple killing in a quiet corner of County Clare brought Brendan O'Donnell to the pages of Irish criminal history. A priest, a young artist and her three-year-old son were gunned down in cold blood, sparking a frantic manhunt as the killer abducted another potential victim. Stephen Dodd, who was at O'Donnell's trial, reflects on the legacy of the case

It is five years since a triple killing in a quiet corner of County Clare brought Brendan O'Donnell to the pages of Irish criminal history. A priest, a young artist and her three-year-old son were gunned down in cold blood, sparking a frantic manhunt as the killer abducted another potential victim. Stephen Dodd, who was at O'Donnell's trial, reflects on the legacy of the case

IT WAS, he maintained, his ``area''. Brendan's territory was a small patch of rural Ireland, a quiet haven between the forested shores of Lough Derg and the white stone desert of the Burren. When he was not behind bars, he returned there time and again, to visit his mother's grave, to sleep rough, to steal cars, to fish for trout, to drift.

Imelda Riney's appalling misfortune was to chose Brendan O'Donnell's territory as her private slice of heaven. Leaving a broken marriage behind in England, she moved with her children to a hideaway house in a place where the tourists never came. This was the vision: an artist; alone in the trees and immersed in nature, in leaf and bark and wood, deep in the elemental. Inside every urban heart there is a longing for rural simplicity. It may be an unreachable dream, but it compels. Imelda looked for peace in east Clare. Instead she met Brendan.

There is no real salutary lesson to be wrested from the crimes of April 1994. This is not a Greek tragedy of flawed lives and unremitting fate, or an easy fable with glib morals in its epilogue. There is no utopia, and no dark force opposing it; there is just a killer and his victims, and a true-life horror story without parallel in Irish criminal history.

Though the politicians have used O'Donnell's crimes as the spur for reviews of psychiatric assessment procedures, and though his case prompted calls for legal reform of insanity laws, it is in the facts themselves that the impact of the murders is still felt. Those who suffered at O'Donnell's hands, who hunted for him, or who sat through his trial will not easily forget their encounter with either madness or unimaginable evil.

Even now, two years after his death, we do not truly know if mere insanity propelled Brendan to shoot Imelda, her three-year-old son Liam and local priest Fr Joe Walsh. At his trial, psychiatrists were divided. Some said he was shamming, while others diagnosed schizophrenia, a mental illness in which normal reality becomes fragmented anddisturbed.

In the court, O'Donnell's apparent insanity startled those who had no warning of it. He spoke, easily and without emotion, of the devil, and of how voices had instructed him to kill. Once he said the devil was talking to him as he was sitting in court. We watched as Brendan pointed to a spot in the air, just beyond the judge's bench, a few feet from the press benches. There, he said. That was where the devil had been. That was where the voices came from.

As the days of the trial ticked on towards the record books O'Donnell's became the longest murder trial in Irish history more delusions spilled into the evidence. They were always absurd, and might have seemed comical in any other setting. Brendan told us how he had been buzzed by giant butterflies in his prison cell. A monstrous pheasant had attacked him. A voice told him to call all the prison warders ``Séamus''. A woman's face mutated into a cat, and he watched a man turn into a bearded Mexican.

O'Donnell unnerved us all. Each day he attended he sat, sometimes directly in front of us between two warders, in a courtroom packed with those who had good reason to detest him, the loved ones and relatives of his victims. He remained, for the most part, impassive. The only time he smiled was when he spoke of burning cars, when a child-like grin lit a face bloated by anti-psychotic drugs. O'Donnell beamed like a boy in front of a Christmas tree as he thought of the flames and the destruction.

When he spoke of death, however, he was calm, as though he were talking of a dull night's television. Why did he kill Imelda? Because she was the devil's daughter. Why burn cars? Because fire is the devil's work. The answers were delivered with flat assurance, as though they were obvious to anyone. If we accept Brendan O'Donnell was insane, his evidence at the trial suggested a strange logic had burrowed into his madness. His world, or his interpretation of our world, hung on its own rationale.

In the closing stages of the case, both the jury and the public debated whether O'Donnell was mad, or merely bad.

``We are talking about badness,'' decided Art O'Connor, consultant psychiatrist at the Central Mental Hospital, where O'Donnell later died of a heart attack. It is tempting to speculate, though, that the two were never mutually exclusive; a madman might still possess a conscience.

Whatever we believed about the sanity of the sedate, occasionally twitchy man in the court-room, there was little dispute about the progressive fragmentation that formed Brendan O'Donnell's life story. When he killed little Liam, he said, he was ``saving'' the boy from living without a mother.

Brendan's mother had been his one anchor in a troubled childhood. Brendan's mother had been his salvation. He refused to go to school unless she sat outside the classroom and waited for him. He was distraught when she was ill, and felt abandoned each time she went into hospital for treatment for depression. O'Donnell described the day she died. Snow was falling in the grounds of the hospital, and the young Brendan could not believe she was really gone. As they buried her he threw himself into the grave, unable to accept her death, afraid the earth might smother her in her sleep.

Reality began to fracture. The voices began, he claimed, talking to him in the fields, as he explored further into what became his territory. At first it was just one voice, and then there were several, whispering and issuing orders. In court Brendan spoke of an unidentified male voice, and another whisper from a dead friend, someone who had drowned. Then he began to hear the voice of the devil.

These auditory and sometimes visual hallucinations that became the crux of the mad-or-bad debate. Did O'Donnell really believe he saw the devil in a field, smoking a pipe and staring at him through the emerald green eyes of a cat? Or was he faking, self-schooled in the text-book symptoms of a paranoid schizophrenic? Perhaps we missed the point, mistakenly believing that such symptoms leap from the rarest case studies, when they are by no means unusual. It is possible, of course, to be both insane and manipulative, mad and morally culpable.

Other troubled boys grow into ordinary men, while carefree adolescents become car thieves and killers. Whatever Brendan's devils told him, it was argued in court, he had been free to ignore. The devil once said he should count to 100, and that when he reached that number he would go deaf. He chose not to begin the count. Brendan did not display the same restraint over his orders about the killings.

O'Donnell's youth and early manhood passed in intermittent psychiatric care and in reform school and prison. Each time he was released he came back, to home ground, to Whitegate and Lough Derg, to the woods. Sometimes he went to the cemetery where his mother was buried, and slept on her grave.

Occasionally he found help. Tony Muggivan, a local man, took him in for a time, and remained convinced O'Donnell was himself a victim who had somehow slipped through the safety net of the social services. Others were not so sympathetic. O'Donnell gained a bad reputation and was considered by many to be a dangerous and unpredictable man. In the weeks before he killed, he conducted a crime spree, stealing cars, attacking an elderly man with an axe, evading police and stealing a .22 rifle.

When O'Donnell first saw Imelda Riney, he had effectively distanced himself from society. In his evidence to the court, he said he was in love with her, and the feeling was reciprocated. Brendan said they slept together, and claimed they planned to leave Ireland to live in France. The story, utterly implausible, has never been corroborated and is dismissed by all of Imelda's relatives and friends.

So, in the early days of April 1994, Brendan the outcast became O'Donnell the stalker. In court it was easy to spot the watcher's eyes, the only movement in an impassive body, darting to stare at female lawyers and gardaí. In the woods of east Clare his watching led him towards murder. Whether the voices in his head precipitated his crimes we cannot say, but perhaps it is not unreasonable to suggest that it was the essential O'Donnell the pre-delusional misfit whose girlfriend had once dumped him because he was too clinging that first took a sighting on Imelda Riney's patch of heaven.

On April 27 two gardaí attempted to arrest Brendan after a series of crimes in the area, but he evaded them, heading for cover with a stolen gun in his hands. Two days later he took Imelda and Liam from their home. At some point, forensic evidence suggests, he raped Imelda.

Then, in Cregg Wood, in a small forest clearing in the geographical heartland of his territory, he shot Imelda dead. Moments later he killed Liam. He later told his trial he did not want the boy to grow up without a mother. ``Like I did,'' he emphasised.

We do not know, and after Brendan's death we can never know, exactly why Father Joe Walsh died. O'Donnell shot him after spending several hours with the priest in his home. Fr Joe tried to talk his way out of the situation, offering money and his watch. It did not work. O'Donnell forced the priest to drive to Cregg Wood, made him kneel, and shot him twice in the head. He told the court a voice had instructed him: ``Kill Father Joe, he's trying to christen the devil's baby son.''

It was inevitable, perhaps, that the triple murders, so widely observed in the press, would become something of a prop for the theorists. As the trial came and went and the guilty verdict was passed, issues began to supplant facts. Experts debated the definition of insanity a legal rather than a psychological concept. Politicians attacked each other over social services procedure. The gardaí took a mighty rap over the villain who slipped through their fingers.

With each successive headline that screamed about the `Devil Killer', as with each sober analysis that sought to read a wider message from a very individual tragedy, the danger grew that society would become numbed to three people's final agonies.

If we sideline hindsight, it is difficult to imagine how such a singular atrocity, born either of mental illness or pure evil, could ever have been foreseen. Each community has misfits. Every town and every clutch of villages points a wary finger at those few who do not fit the norm. Some commit crimes and others are mentally disturbed, but few are dangerous. The notion that we might in some way legislate for madness, or for unpredictable villainy, is understandable, but falls wide of the mark.

BRENDAN O'Donnell died as he had lived, in confusion and in conflict. An inquest found he died of heart failure after suffering a rare reaction to an anti-psychotic drug. There was no evidence of suicide though O'Donnell had tried to damage himself on previous occasions. The drug is widely prescribed, with no likely adverse problems for patients who unintentionally take an extra small dose.

Modern society, despite civilisation's urge to contain the unpalatable, has found little instructive moral in the story of Brendan O'Donnell. He might once have been helped, it is argued; yet during the hospitalisation that followed his conviction, he never got any better. Those who have said he should have been locked away from society forget that he was frequently detained, and that the experience did nothing to deflect his destiny, and may even have intensified his alienation. It remains a truism of a just society, of course, that a criminal cannot be punished before he has committed his crime.

It could be said that Brendan O'Donnell slipped through the net, yet it is difficult to see how such an overwhelming capacity for savagery could ever have been detected. In another history, perhaps, Brendan might never have glimpsed Imelda Riney's intensely vulnerable idyll. He might have gone on, a petty crook rather than a murderer, until his record accumulated and he was put away.

But for circumstance, but for chance, three people would still be alive. It is another might-have-been, of course. It does not alter the sadness of what was.

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section