Writer and Author

Tag: Sharon Whelan

A few thoughts on International Women’s Day

I’ve been spending most of my time recently lost in the past. At the moment I’m researching crimes from so far back they’re in another world.  If you were accused of a crime back then there was no chance of a retrial and if you were convicted of murder then your fate dangled at the end of a rope, a ghoulish spectacle for day trippers.

Life was brutal, shorter, bleaker.  Cholera and typhoid swept Britain and Ireland and infant mortality was high.  I’m looking at a time when there was no such thing as universal suffrage, to vote in an election you had to have land, and be a man.  Women belonged to their husbands, on the day of their marriage everything they owned passed to him, they could not divorce their husbands if he was unfaithful and on divorce they could lose even the right to their own children.

It’s like looking into another world.  Now we can take for granted the right to vote and the position of the mother, given special protection in Article 41.2, is seen as so inalienable it can be to the detriment of the rights of the father.  In a few short generations, women’s lives have changed utterly.  We have more freedom, more of a voice, more opportunities than our grandmothers did, and even many more than our mothers’ generation.

But while there’s been incredible progress, the world we live in still has a very long way to go before there is true equality for the sexes.  I work in a job where most of my colleagues are women but only to a certain level.  Apart from one or two notable exceptions, the majority of judges in the courts, or editors in the newspapers are men.  Most of the senior barristers are men and most of the senior gardai are men.  It’s changing, of course, but for a large chunk of the rest of my working life that’s the way it’s going to be.

85% of the politicians who pass the laws that govern what goes on in the courts are men, which might possibly have something to do with the fact that sentences for sexual crimes are so pathetically low.  Domestic abuse is still rife and women still die all too often at the hands of their partners.  I still spend most of my time writing about this violence against women as it takes up so much of the courts’ time.

But this is the First World, the civilised bit.  The inequalities I see around me are miniscule compared with those that women have to face in other parts of the globe.  We’ve come a long way in a hundred years or so, but there’s a hell of a long way still to go.  There are plenty of places on earth where women would recognise the strange world I’m finding in my research as pretty close to their own reality.

Yet I meet so many young women who see feminism as a dirty word and would be embarrassed to apply it to themselves.  They see the race as won, the fight as fought, and simply accept the status quo as something that can’t be changed.  For a long time I was more reticent about saying what I thought, not wanting to appear strident, or even, god forbid, unattractive.  I’ve laughed along with sexist jokes for fear of being branded a kill joy.  I’ve fluttered my eyelashes and bitten my tongue, pretending to be one of the lads.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not got a problem with men.  This has nothing to do with which gender is better, it’s about equality.  And it’s important to say it.

It would be nice to live in a world where feminism was no longer necessary, where everyone played to their strengths and not their stereotypes.  It would be nice if everyone judged everyone else according to who they actually were, not what they seemed to be.  But that’s the foreign country and far more distant than my world of hangings, cholera and bridal chattels.  That’s why International Women’s Day is still important a hundred years after it was started and why I’ll keep banging on about rape sentencing and women who die at the hands of the men who claim to love them.

Going Postal?

Sharon Whelan was getting ready for Christmas.  She rang her parents three times that Christmas Eve to let her father know when it was safe for him to drop round the presents her parents had been keeping hidden from their two grandaughters, Nadia and Zsara.

Eventually, at around 10.45, she rang her dad to tell him that the children were finally asleep and it was safe to bring round the presents without spoiling the suprise of Santa’s visit.  He drove the short distance to the run down farmhouse she was renting and parked a short distance away so as not to wake the children.  Sharon came to meet him at the gate and took the presents from him.  That was the last time he saw his daughter alive.

Today, 23-year-old postman Brian Hennessy admitted to murdering Sharon, Zsara and Nadia. He will serve two life sentences for his crimes as the sentences for the murder of the two children will only start after he has served one for killing their mother.  Dressed in a greyish brown suit, his wavy blonde hair reaching his collar, Hennessy wept as Sharon’s brother John Whelan read a victim impact statement on behalf of the family, telling Hennessy that he had destroyed Christmas for the family for ever more.

Last Christmas, Hennessy had just finished four straight nightshifts in the sorting office in Kilkenny post office.  He arrived home from work after his shift finished at 8am on Christmas Eve and rested for a while.  At 10 o’clock his mother sent him out to get the turkey for the next days festive dinner then, after another brief rest he went to see his girlfriend of three years.

His birthday had been the day before so he was due to meet some work colleagues for celebratory drinks at the famous Kytlers Inn in Kilkenny town itself.  They met at 3.30 that afternoon and stayed until 8 when they were joined by his father and his brother.  Hennessy and his family then went back to a pub nearer the family home in Windgap, Co. Kilkenny and the evening ended at the local, Guineys.  Hennessy had now been drinking for 10 hours and was definitely the worse for wear.

When Guiney’s shut it’s doors at around 1.30 Hennessy and his sister headed back to his parents’ house but he soon left again, saying he had left his jacket at the pub.  Revellers making their way home saw him weaving his way down the middle of the road in the direction of the pub but he never got there.  He would later tell gardai that he decided to go looking for sex.

Sharon Whelan was the older sister of an ex girlfriend of his.  The relationship had been short-lived, only two months some four years previously, and he only knew Sharon through that.  There had never been a relationship between the two but he decided that the 30-year-old single mother was the one to satisfy his urges that night.  He told gardai that he had bumped into her one day and she had told him he should call up to the house some time.  He decided that Christmas Eve was to be the time.

Brian Hennessy is the only one who knows what happened when he knocked on Sharon Whelan’s door in the small hours of Christmas morning and he claims not to remember the exact details.  Sharon Whelan’s body was found to have extensive bruising around the vaginal and anal areas and bruising to her face, legs and knees.  She also had all the classic marks of strangulation, bruising to the throat, a broken hyoid bone and tiny pin point haemorrhage’s around the eyes and face.

Hennessy denies raping her.  He told gardai that the sex was consensual, that she brought him into the bedroom she shared with her two daughters and that they had quite and gentle sex in the bed where her 7-year-old daughter Zsara was sleeping, while 2-year-old Nadia slept in a cot nearby.  He says that afterwards, as he was leaving, Sharon threatened to tell the local gossips that they had slept together and he did not know what came over him.  He strangled her to stop his girlfriend finding out.  The prosecution contend that it wasn’t an illicit liaison she was threatening to tell about but a horrific rape and it was this secret he killed to protect.

Hennessy says he killed Sharon in the living room of the house.  He described to gardai how he put his hands around her throat and squeezed for several minutes until she fell to the floor dead.  He said he sat with her for several minutes deciding what to do before making up his mind to destroy all trace of his crime.

He said he took Sharon back into the bedroom and left her there.  Then, using a cigarette lighter he found in his pocket he set fire to a pile of clothes left sitting on the kitchen table.  He thought he had set another fire in the living room but couldn’t remember.  Fire investigators discovered two clear seats of fire when they examined the gutted building.

Neighbours waking on Christmas morning saw smoke coming from the old farmhouse and raised the alarm.  Hennessy had returned home at about 7 that morning and told his mother he had spent the night with friends.  He was sleeping it off as Sharon, Zsara and Nadia’s bodies were pulled out of the burning building.  All three were dead.

Sharon’s family were all in court today, to see her killer sentenced.  She had been informally adopted, along with her brother and sister by Ann and Christopher Whelan, and had grown up with their five children.  Her foster brother John took the witness stand today for an emotional victim impact statement.

He told Hennessy that it was obvious human life meant nothing to him.  “It is beyond belief that anyone with any humanity or conscience could carry out such an act of pure evil”  He had not only stolen the lives of three people who had gone to bed that night looking forward to Christmas but had ruined that time of year forever for all those who loved them.  “Christmas for us is no more.  It does not exist.”

He said that his parents had become shadows of their former selves, simply existing rather than living life in the wake of such bitter loss.  The voices of the children playing in the local school serving as a daily reminder of the grandchildren they had lost.  He said that the twice daily pilgrimages to the graves were all his parents had left.  There was nothing that Hennessy could serve that would come close to righting that wrong.

Nadia’s father, Joseph Delahanty, spoke of the loss of his little girl, recently diagnosed as autistic, in a statement read to the court.  Both families sobbed openly as the catalogue of loss was read out to the packed courtroom.

Handing down his sentence, Judge Barry White told Hennessy he had not been man enough to admit his guilty at an earlier stage to save the Whelan family the pain of court.  Judge White told Hennessy that his actions had meant that Christmas, for all those connected to Sharon and her two daughters, would be a time of anguish, pain and grieving.  He said that Hennessy’s stated remorse had not been enough to make him face up to what he had done before the case reached court.

Speaking outside the courthouse Sharon’s brother, John Whelan spoke of the family’s relief at the sentence.

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