Last Christmas began like any other. I woke up at about 8.20 and went up the hall to see the joy on my sisters face as she tore a Wii box apart with no idea how to begin setting it up. I started setting it up, as she and my parents sat in the conservatory. My parents kept mentioning something about a neighbour burning rubbish down the road; We’re at the top of the hill and can see all around. We made nothing of it for about 15 minutes as we couldn’t see very clearly, but the whole thing seemed very odd. Suddenly there was a cloud of smoke bellowing from down the hill. All 4 of us hopped into the car without thinking, fearing something was wrong.
We tore down the road, knowing that there was a house fire. Along the way, my mother called the emergency services in what was the longest 2-minute drive I’ve ever experienced. We guessed the road right and came upon a farmhouse in flames, my parents knowing who was in the house.
It was Sharon Whelan, a single mother with 2 children who was renting the house from another friend of our family.
We were the first people on the scene, as a crowd of neighbours closely followed us. I stayed in the car to mind my sister as we just sat in awe and watched it burn. I feel bad now for staying and doing nothing, but it was too late to do anything and someone needed to comfort my young sister. A few men began breaking into the house and then the fire brigade arrived….
Sharon and her daughters, Zara and Nadia, all lost their lives in the fire. In such a tiny village, everyone was in shock for weeks and the whole community was numb as to how this could have happened. Nights were spent packed into the tiny pub, the only focal point to discuss what had happened and rumours spread like wildfire. Days were spent putting everything you had heard the previous night, together.
I ended up spending Christmas night keeping my mother company as she bawled her eyes out, and we went through every possibility in our heads. Within a day of the incident, evidence was trailing out and we knew something sinister had happened.
The next few weeks were spent with the Gardaí; Going back through everything with them as the recorded it, fingerprints, DNA samples….
I found it very tough when they kept going back over my statement and criticising me….
One day in the middle of January, news trickled out that the local postal worker had been arrested at his home, Brian Hennessy. I personally didn’t know him, but he worked for my parents years ago and was a familiar face in the community, “The last person I would have expected to do it” reverbed around the village.
It is only this week that the court case has taken place. Yesterday a jury was chosen, and today the trial is finished. Brian pleaded guilty to all three murders. The postal worker had strangled 30-year-old Sharon Whelan before setting fire to her home. Seven-year-old Zara and two-year-old Nadia died in the fire. Mr Justice Barry White imposed two consecutive and one concurrent life sentences for the murder.
“Detective Sergeant Jim Lyng told Tom O’Connell SC, prosecuting, that Sharon Whelan was last seen alive about 11pm on Christmas Eve, when the foster father who raised her dropped off gifts for the children.
Christy Whelan parked away from the two-storey, dilapidated farmhouse the single mother rented and went only to the door so the children would not hear him. All three generations were to spend Christmas Day at Christy and Nancy Whelan’s house.
Instead neighbours found the farmhouse engulfed in flames the following morning and the three bodies were recovered from the downstairs bedroom at the back of the house. Rigor Mortis had set in on Miss Whelan, who was naked from the waist down.
Post mortem examinations showed that both girls died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to smoke inhalation, but their mother had no soot in her lungs.
Ms Whelan had a mark around her neck, her thyroid cartilage and hyoid bone were fractured and cause of death was strangulation.
State pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy found other injuries to Ms Whelan’s body, including bruising to her cheek bone, abrasions on her knee, and bruising to her thigh.
Ms Whelan’s family sobbed as details of sexual injuries were read out. Dr Cassidy stated that these injuries would be found in cases where sex was not consensual but did not necessarily mean this. However they would have been painful.
“She may have been strangled during a sexual act,” she wrote, adding that it could not be excluded that sex was attempted after she became unconscious or around the time of death.
“There was no evidence of a long struggle,” she wrote. “There were no defensive-type injuries.” She pointed out that pressure to the neck can result in rapid unconsciousness.
After the examinations, gardaí asked local men to give saliva samples. The DNA profile found on Ms Whelan’s body matched Hennessy’s.
Det. Sgt Lyng arrested Hennessy on January 15 in his home and he denied involvement. He had previously said the closest he had been to the house was the letterbox at the gate.
Hennessy later admitted going to the house to have sex with the woman, whom he barely knew. He said she was a little surprised to see him, but he claimed she brought him to the bedroom where her two daughters were sleeping, turned on the light and had sex with him.
Hennessy’s story about his whereabouts contradicted his mother’s, who said she let him in the front door about 7am on Christmas morning.
In the fifth interview he admitted killing Ms Whelan, accepted she was dead an hour and a half before he left, and agreed with gardaí that he “used her for his gratification whether she wanted it or not”.
When asked why he killed her, he said it was because she was going to tell people they had been together and that his girlfriend would find out. He denied the gardaí’s suggestion that it was so she wouldn’t tell people that he had raped her.
“I just strangled her with my two hands around her neck,” he said. “l killed her in the living room.”
He said the children were asleep when he brought their mother’s body into the bedroom.
“I sat on the bed. I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I saw the kids. It made me more sad that I’d taken their mother away on Christmas.”
“I don’t know why I did it,” he said about setting two fires. “I never thought about the children. I was worried about the murder.”
He said he knew what he had done to the Whelan family was unbearable.
“I will never be able to cope with this so God help them,” he said. “I’m so, so sorry. I don’t know what else to say.”
Det. Sgt Lyng agreed that the prosecution’s case was that rape was the trigger for the killing, that “he killed her, then sat there, pondered what he’d do next and set the fires”.
He agreed with Paul Coffey SC, defending, that Hennessy was from a respectable family and had never been in trouble. He agreed the defendant had worked four consecutive night shifts and had slept only briefly after coming home from work on Christmas Eve before spending 10 hours drinking.
Ms Whelan’s brother, John Whelan, described the murders as inhuman. “It’s obvious human life means nothing to you,” he told Hennessy from the witness box. “It’s beyond belief that anyone with a conscience could contemplate, never mind carry out such evil.”
He told the court that his father used to collect Zara from school every day, while Sharon and Nadia spent most days with his mother.
He said Christmas, which had meant so much to his sister and nieces, was now a time of loss and profound grief for his family.
He said the little girls ‘never woke from their sleep’ to find it was Christmas morning.
“The murder of our girls has left a hole in our hearts,” he said, explaining that every morning and every night his parents go the two-minute walk to their graves to chat to them. “It’s all they have left.”
“They hear children playing in the local school every day, knowing Zara should be there. The pain is overwhelming,” he said.
“All you will lose is your liberty, a loss that does not come close to the loss you have imposed on this family,” he told Hennessy.
Afterwards Mr Whelan told reporters that Hennessy’s admission had meant they did not have to go through a long trial. He also said that his family bore no animosity toward the Hennessy family.
“They cannot be held responsible for one man’s actions,” he said.”
Its been a long 11 months….