Robert Holohan case

  • 25 January 2006
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Fergal Keane reports from Ennis court house where the sentencing of Wayne O'Donoghue was superseded by the moving statement by Majella Holohan which has changed public opinion and raised unanswered questions about the circumstances of Robert Holohan's deathWhen Majella Holohan first took the witness stand at the Central Criminal Court in Ennis on Tuesday 24 Janaury, she was visibly nervous. She was only a few feet away from Wayne O'Donoghue, the man who tore her and her family's lives apart a year ago and she was at last being given a chance to tell how his actions had devastated them.
The place was packed to the rafters and when she started to speak the words tumbled out at such a high speed that none of us trying to take notes could keep up with her. But when she slowed down after a short while she went on to deliver the most articulate and devastating account of the trauma caused by the loss of a beloved child that has probably ever been heard in an Irish court. It took her 20 minutes to read the 11 handwritten pages she had composed on her own as a testimony to her son and in the course of that 20 minutes she managed to change the sympathies of almost the whole country.
Before Majella Holohan took the stand most people seemed to have sympathy for Wayne O'Donoghue, the 21-year-old engineering student who killed his neighbour, Robert. “We'll say a prayer for you boy,” one woman called to him as he was being led away from Cork courthouse just after he had been found guilty of manslaughter last month. She was echoing the feeling of almost everyone in and around the court and in Cork at the time. It was difficult at the time to find anyone who didn't sympathise with him in some way, but now no one is so sure. The outcome of Tuesday's hearing is that Wayne O'Donoghue has huge unanswered questions hanging over him and the legal system, yet again, is being questioned about whether or not justice was achieved in this case.
It was very difficult to listen to her as she spoke about her life and how her son had been taken from her. I saw a couple of trainee gardaí in tears as she spoke and most of the rest of us were desperately trying to hold it together just to make a record of what she was saying. Rob, she said, was a beautiful boy who brought joy into their lives from the moment he was born and she drew a picture of a family enjoying an idyllic rural life. All of that changed on 4 January last year.
She then went on to describe what is every parents most dreaded nightmare. How Robert went missing, how their despair and pain grew in the next few hours, the sleepless nights and the total hell of eight days searching before his body was found. Even then there was no escaping the nightmare.
“His perfect little body was so badly damaged that we could not see him, could not hug him or hold him to say goodbye… It was not until the Friday that he was returned to us. When the hearse came to our house the little white coffin was sealed. All we got was a lock of Rob's hair.”
Her account of how Wayne O'Donoghue had cynically taken part in the search and even asked her for news was chilling. As Mr Justice Paul Carney went on to say, O'Donoghue's actions after he had killed Robert went beyond panic and his cover up of his crime inflicted even more suffering on the Holohan family. Majella Holohan description of what O'Donoghue had done was more articulate:
“To bury your child is a nightmare, but to bury him in these circumstances… it is impossible to describe the depth of despair, the utter hopelessness, the injustice that was done to Rob and ourselves.”
It was obvious that the defence believed the statement was going to end on a note like that. But to her undying credit, Majella Holohan was not going to be bound by any deal struck with the representatives of her son's killer. From before the verdict in the trial we journalists were aware that the Holohan family were not happy that some issues were not explored in the trial. We believed that they might question why this had been done in a press conference after the trial and most media organisations had taken legal advice on whether or not we could safely report any allegations the Holohan family might make about Wayne O'Donoghue or the conduct of the trial.
In the end she bypassed all legal niceties by just asking the questions on her mind in open court. Why had semen been found on her son's body? Why had he been in O'Donoghue's bedroom at seven thirty in the morning? Why had he dialled 999 a few hours later? The questions put a different perspective on the relationship between the killer and his victim.
Unfortunately the only person who can fully answer those questions is Wayne O'Donoghue. And as he didn't give evidence during the trial, he is not going to give any answers.