‘I am absolutely overwhelmed’: Natasha O’Brien attends solidarity protest in Limerick

Thousands attend demonstrations prompted by suspended sentence for soldier Cathal Crotty over his assault on O’Brien

More than a thousand people have gathered in protests in Dublin and Cork in solidarity with Natasha O’Brien, a woman who was viciously assaulted by an Irish soldier who walked free from court with a three-year suspended sentence. Video: PA

More than a thousand people have gathered in protests in solidarity with a woman who was viciously assaulted by an Irish soldier in Limerick.

A large demonstration in Dublin was one of several protests to be held across the country after Cathal Crotty (22), a serving Irish soldier, beat Natasha O’Brien (24) unconscious to the point that she believed she was going to be killed. Crotty later boasted about the attack on social media.

Crotty, with an address at Parkroe Heights, Ardnacrusha, Co Clare, pleaded guilty to assaulting Ms O’Brien in Limerick in 2022.

Ms O’Brien, who attended one of the protests in Limerick alongside about 500 people, has criticised the three-year suspended sentence imposed on Crotty, saying she feels let down by the judicial system.

Natasha O'Brien (24) who was assaulted by serving Irish soldier Cathal Crotty (22), of Parkroe Heights, Ardnacrusha, Co Clare, at O’Connell Street, Limerick on May 29th, 2022. Photograph: Brendan Gleeson

Speaking at the event, she said: “I am absolutely overwhelmed by your solidarity and your support. Without your outrage, your fear, your horror this would not have been looked at.

“What happened to me has happened to so many. The injustice of the Department of Justice.

“What happened to me was horrific and I experienced an extremely violent assault by the hands of a soldier in the Irish Defence Forces, who are supposed to protect us.

“It’s one thing to be the victim of a heinous crime at the hands of a man who has pledged to protect the citizens of Ireland, but it is another thing when the Department of Justice and the Defence Forces overlook it.

“I did not put myself through that and bare my soul to Judge Tom O’Donnell to be told that I should be happy that he took the guilty plea, that I should be happy because he said he was sorry he was caught.”

There has also been criticism of Judge O’Donnell, after he told the court earlier this week that if he imposed a custodial sentence, Crotty’s Army career would be over.

Many people taking part in Saturday’s protest in Dublin criticised the suspended sentence.

A large crowd gathered at the Spire on O’Connell Street before marching to the Department of Justice offices, chanting “this cannot continue”, repeatedly.

Onlookers and those left waiting for delayed buses due to the march clapped while bus and taxi drivers beeped in support as protesters marched chanting:

“When women’s rights are under attack, stand up fight back,” and “justice for Natasha”.

At the Department of Justice, protesters shouted “shame”, as they heard how Crotty shouted homophobic slurs before beating Ms O’Brien, “shame” as they heard how he boasted about his attack on social media and “shame” as they heard how he received a fully suspended sentence.

It was one of four protests organised in solidarity with Natasha O’Brien, with others in held in Limerick and Cork.

They were organised by the Rosa socialist feminist group, while a similar protest was organised in Galway by local activists.

Speaking to those gathered, Ruth Coppinger, Rosa spokeswoman, said a lot of people are “acting shocked, but unfortunately, this is a regular occurrence”, before citing other examples of suspended sentences including the case of Limerick hurler Kyle Hayes.

“Their jobs were considered much more important than the victims and the impact on the ongoing pain and suffering that they have caused,” she said.

In his sentencing, Judge O’Donnell said he had “no doubt” if he imposed an immediate jail sentence, Crotty’s Army “career is over”.

Ms Coppinger said it was an “absolute disgrace” that an officer in the Defence Forces had told the court that Crotty was an “exemplary”, “courteous” and “disciplined” soldier.

Activist and academic Ailbhe Smyth told those protesting that the judgment sends a message to men “that they can do this with impunity”, which she described as “unforgivable”.

“This problem is not just about one judge, this is systemic, it is cultural and it is built into our criminal justice system,” she said, adding that “the cards are stacked against women and victims” within the judicial system.

“It sends a message to women that our lives don’t matter, our safety doesn’t matter, we’re not worth a button, we’re worth €3,000,” she said, referencing Ms O’Brien’s ordered compensation.

Referencing recent figures from Women’s Aid, which reported its highest-ever number of disclosures of domestic abuse, Ms Smyth said it demonstrates a “war against women”.

Those present heard how funding provided to services for women on the ground is “only a finger of what is actually required”, while social media companies are “bombarding” boys with misogynistic content.

Another protest has been planned for 6pm on Tuesday at Leinster House.

Laura Fitzgerald, also from the Rosa organisation that organised the protests, said: “Women’s Aid this week reported the highest number of domestic violence disclosures in one year in 2023. That’s how widespread domestic violence is.”

People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith said: “A few months ago I criticised a judge in the Dáil and you would think the sky had fallen in.

“The Minister for Justice [Helen McEntee], the Ceann Comhairle, the Taoiseach, all said, ‘you can’t say that, you can’t criticise the judiciary’.

“I was dragged over the coals for it. To criticise a judge in this establishment is, to them, a mortal sin.

“They appoint them. And because they appoint the judges, we have to judge them and we will judge them at the next election and tell them they have had their day.”

Taoiseach Simon Harris was among those who praised Ms O’Brien for coming forward and speaking out after she was assaulted by Crotty.

Asked about the suspended sentence Crotty received, Mr Harris said: “I find myself precluded from being allowed to comment on the sentence of a court despite perhaps having quite a lot that I would have liked being able to say, other than let me say this – the legal process may not be concluded because it is absolutely always open to the DPP to appeal a sentence and also to appeal the leniency of a sentence.

“I need to be particularly careful in that context. But we are living in a country where there is still an epidemic of gender-based violence.”

In a statement on social media on Friday, the Irish Defence Forces said: “Any conviction in a civilian court may have implications for the retention and service of members of the Defence Forces, as stipulated in Defence Forces Regulations.

“Once due process has been completed in a civilian court of law, it becomes a matter for the relevant Defence Forces authorities in accordance with Defence Forces Regulations.

“We can confirm that these proceedings have commenced and as such, it would be inappropriate to comment further on this specific case.” – Additional reporting: PA

Jack White

Jack White

Jack White is a reporter for The Irish Times