A post-Leaving Cert assault: ‘I kept shouting stop ... They were supposed to be my friends’

What started as a Leaving Cert celebration ended in an assault by schoolfriends

“It took me six months before I even opened my Leaving Cert yearbook – it was there with all these messages from people but I couldn’t look at it. There were pictures of two of the lads who attacked me in it, so it was up there on the shelf for weeks upon weeks upon weeks.”

Shane – we have changed his name and those of his family to protect their identities – is sitting in the living room of his family home in west Cork, flanked by his parents and his younger brother as he recalls the night that his world was turned upside down when three lads he considered friends decided to strip him and shove a bottle between his buttocks.

He had gone out that night to celebrate his Leaving Cert results, full of excitement like every other student before him, about to bid farewell to one chapter of his life and embark on another, never in a moment imagining he would be the victim of such a vile violation by people he viewed as friends.

“We had been doing school remotely from home because of Covid so we hadn’t seen anyone – the pubs had just opened so it was a chance to catch up with people and we headed out the same as Leaving Certs have done over the years,” he says as he begins to recall the events of September 7th, 2020.

I was still fighting to try and get them off me but I thought I was going to vomit and I kept shouting out to them to stop... and all the time they were laughing... I didn't know how it would end

Together with four friends, Shane went to a pub some miles away before they availed of an offer of a caravan for an after-party where, at about 11pm, the five of them began to tuck into some food, and drink some bottles of beer that they had brought with them.

Det Garda Fintan Sleator later summarised events after the three accused, Gerard O’Mahony (20), of Hillview, Castlelack, Bandon; Darragh Collins (19), of Scrahane, Enniskeane; and Darragh O’Riordan (20), of Loughneill, Crookstown, all pleaded guilty to assaulting Shane and causing him harm.

Det Garda Sleator told Judge Helen Boyle at Cork Circuit Criminal Court that at the height of the attack Shane had his pants and underpants pulled down by the three accused and a glass bottle pressed between his buttocks and pushed against his anus (it did not penetrate it).

Shane takes up the story: “It was completely unexpected – I was sitting on the couch, sipping on a bottle and the lads were over in the kitchenette area and then it all happened all of a sudden – one of them said, ‘Will we spread him so or what?’

“Before I knew it, I had a lad sitting on my back and they were tying my shoelaces together and burning them to melt them together to stop me running away. I slid down off the couch and got turned around so my head was in the cushion. I pleaded with them to stop because I couldn’t breathe – I thought I was going to choke.

“I was still fighting to try and get them off me but I thought I was going to vomit and I kept shouting out to them to stop – it probably went on for five or 10 minutes or more, and all the time they were laughing and thought it was a great crack and I didn’t know how it would end.

I went into his room and the whole place was covered in vomit, and Shane was sitting in the middle of the bed, rocking himself

“Eventually it stopped, and I pulled up my underpants and my pants – they had to cut my shoelaces so I could get my shoes back on and then as we were heading out, one of them handed me a tenner to get new shoelaces and Gerard O’Mahony gave me a hug and said we should go out more often.”

Shane is almost matter of fact telling what happened to him, but getting to the point where he can talk about it so calmly has been a traumatic journey, not just for him but also for his parents and his younger brother Jamie, all of whom have been affected by the events of that night.

His mother Claire takes up the story of how, after her husband Mick collected Shane from where he was dropped off by the group, she quickly realised that something traumatic and upsetting had happened to her son.

“I had been trying to ring Shane all night and there had been no answer, so I thought he might have lost his phone. So when Mick came into the bedroom after collecting Shane, I asked him what sort of night did Shane have, and he said the only thing Shane said was, ‘I should have stayed at home’.

“About 10 minutes later Shane came to the bedroom door and said, ‘Mom, can you please come into me?’ So I went into his room and the whole place was covered in vomit, and Shane was sitting in the middle of the bed, rocking himself and I asked him what happened but he didn’t answer.

“I saw his ripped socks and shoes on the floor and I ran back to Mick and said, ‘Something bad is after happening to Shane’ – Shane wasn’t talking, he was just staring into space so we got him out of bed and changed the sheets and I said to him that we would deal with it all in the morning.”

The following day Shane didn’t want to tell his parents what had happened to him but when Claire said that she would approach one of the other lads who was with him on the night, the fourth friend who did not participate in the assault, to find out what happened, Shane told her.

“We were in the car and I said to him, ‘Please tell me what happened to you, I’ve seen the shoes, I’ve seen the socks and I know it wasn’t drink’, and he turned around to me and said, ‘Mom, they shoved a bottle up my ass’.”

Claire is calm as she recalls how they sat in the car in silence for a while before she said that they needed to get home and when they did, and told Mick, they decided almost immediately to contact a garda they knew and outlined to him over the phone what had happened.

Within half an hour the garda arrived at their home accompanied by two detectives from West Cork Protective Services Unit, who asked Shane to outline what exactly had happened to him.

Suddenly you are meeting nurses and taken into a room where they take down every detail about your body – cuts and bruises, everything is measured and marked down on a piece of paper

Shane recalls that evening as being quite surreal. Just 24 hours earlier, he had been heading out to celebrate his Leaving Cert results with some school friends and now he was telling two plainclothes detectives how three of those same lads had stripped him and assaulted him with a bottle.

“Originally I didn’t want to make a statement or go through with any of it. I would be very thick-skinned myself anyway, so I just wanted to brush it off. That night when the guards came down, it’s like you are in a daze – it’s all a bit unreal and happening so fast.

“One minute I’m sitting down here talking to two detectives, and the next minute they are putting my phone and my shoes and socks in evidence bags and you are out the door and being rushed up to Cork in an unmarked Garda car to the sexual assault unit at the South Infirmary hospital.

“Suddenly you are meeting nurses and taken into a room where they take down every detail about your body – cuts and bruises, everything is measured and marked down on a piece of paper.

“Then they went through counselling helplines with me – people I could ring if I wanted to talk it all through – and then they told me that everything was being kept on file and can be used as evidence in a court case if I wanted to proceed.

“I didn’t originally want to proceed, being stubborn, but after two or three days and discussing the entire process with the guards, I talked it through with Mom and Dad who advised me to go with it – it was my call and eventually I saw the light and went ahead.”

Shane made a statement to the gardaí outlining what happened to him which in turn led to the arrest and questioning of the three young men. A file was sent to the DPP in November 2020, with a direction back in February 2021 to charge all three with false imprisonment and sexual assault.

While the criminal process was taking its course, Shane was struggling. He recalls days when he was almost high and days when he was at a complete low, where he simply locked himself away and didn’t want to do anything or go anywhere, and it was “touch and go”.

The Covid-19 lockdown seemed to add to the intensity of it all as the family could do little to get away, physically or mentally, from it. The emotional trauma began to take its toll on the entire family, including Shane’s younger brother Jamie.

Claire explains: “There were nights when Shane was bawling crying and it was pure pain and anger – we spent so many nights up in Shane’s room, Mick at the end of the bed and me beside him, telling him things were okay and would get better – we had good days and we had bad days.

“Jamie is younger than Shane, but he became like Shane’s carer. He would call into Shane’s room just before going to bed to check if he was okay, and if Shane was out he would be checking what time he would be home and was everything okay. That’s no role for a young teenager.

“And it impacted on us too. Shane and myself would really be close but it got to the stage where I was becoming an emotional punch bag for him.

“One day he came down and gave me a hug and said, ‘Mom, I need to talk to someone, I can’t be treating you the way I’m treating you’.”

Over the following months, Shane attended a counsellor – remotely – who helped him deal with the trauma. “It was good, it was beneficial,” he says.

Shane's three assailants were arrested and charged with false imprisonment and sexual assault at Bandon District Court. There was no media present to report the charges, and soon a very different version of the incident began to emerge locally in west Cork that was far removed from the truth.

Shane’s father Mick says: “Initially, we didn’t know how many people knew what had happened but as time went on, we began to hear different things. And by around Christmas, a story started doing the rounds that Shane had gotten a bit of a beating and he had been offered €40,000 to drop the complaint – total rubbish.”

The book of evidence was served on the three accused, and soon after Shane and his family were contacted by gardaí who told them that a solicitor for one of the three had indicated that his client was willing to plead guilty to assault even though it wasn’t on the indictment. Soon after, the other defendants also offered a plea to assault.

Shane and his family learned that accepting a plea to the assault from the three accused – which he believes they offered to avoid the risk of a conviction for sexual assault and inclusion on the sex offenders’ register – meant Shane would be spared a trial and a rigorous cross-examination.

The impact on me and my family following that night can never be undone – time cannot be turned back

Notwithstanding the fact that all three had offered guilty pleas to assault, going to court still proved difficult. The first day that the case was listed – September 7th – was the exact anniversary of the incident, but then the case was adjourned for a week.

When they returned to the courtroom a week later the three accused indicated they were pleading guilty to assault causing harm, then Det Garda Sleator outlined the case, before Shane took the stand to read aloud his victim impact statement.

Sally Hanlon of Support After Crime had helped Shane draft the statement. He detailed from the witness box how a night that had promised happiness and fun turned into one of horror and humiliation.

“What happened to me that night – as described by the gardaí – turned my whole life inside out and upside down. I could not believe what they had done to me – I trusted them – these people were supposed to be my friends,” he told the court.

“The impact on me and my family following that night can never be undone – time cannot be turned back – my younger brother has turned into my carer, and is always concerned about how I’m doing, how I’m feeling – a worry that no 14-year-old should have.

“Mom now worries all the time over even the smallest things, always needing reassurance of who I’m with and where I am. I don’t live the life that I, as an independent 20-year-old, should live. I’ve not been out socially since the attack and I feel the last 12 months of my life have been stolen from me.”

Shane went on to thank gardaí, in particular Det Garda Sleator and his colleagues in the West Cork Protective Services Unit, for their help and for being available when both on and off duty to support him. He also paid tribute to his parents and his brother.

“I am forever grateful to you – I know this has been a difficult time for you, but your support, your endless long and sleepless nights, assuring me that I would be okay, will never be forgotten. I thank you and couldn’t do this without you,” he told his family.

A month or more later Shane recalls his anger as he listened to the defence barristers plead for leniency. His father described their submissions as “repeating themselves, saying they’re of good character, upstanding members of the community and that kind of stuff”.

What incensed Shane most at the time was when one of the defence barristers described the incident as “a prank gone wrong and a messing joke”.

“I was fit to scream and box his head off when I heard that,” he says.

The three accused each brought €5,000 to court as compensation, but Judge Helen Boyle said she wanted time to reflect on the crime, noting the aggravating factors, including the cowardliness of three ganging up on one, the humiliation of the victim and the failure to stop despite his fear of choking.

As far as I'm concerned, they got off lightly because this went well beyond a prank

In the event, she opted not to impose a custodial sentence, noting their guilty pleas, their lack of previous convictions, their payment of compensation and their remorse as mitigating factors. All three were given 18-month sentences which were fully suspended.

The State opted not to proceed with the false imprisonment and sexual assault charges that the DPP had originally directed, and O’Mahony, O’Riordan and Collins were given convictions for assault causing harm contrary to Section 3 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997.

Shane still has questions. Why did they target him? Was it planned? But he is phlegmatic about the sentence. “I think I got justice – it gave me closure – and all three of them having convictions meaning there will be limits on their ability to travel to places like Australia, so they have been penalised.”

However, Claire is less convinced as she says what the three defendants did to her son, “you wouldn’t do to an animal”.

She still finds it difficult to comprehend given that Shane had gone to primary school with O’Mahony and to secondary school with O’Riordan and Collins.

“As far as I’m concerned, they got off lightly because this went well beyond a prank, and Helen Boyle did deliberate and she did say she was going to consider a custodial sentence because her argument was, whether somebody is male or female, if they say ‘stop’, you stop right way, and they didn’t. I don’t think justice was served. I would have liked a custodial sentence, and there are days when I really want to hurt them and there are days when I feel really sorry for their parents because no parents should be held accountable for what they did.

“But I know if it was me and my son who had done this, the minute we left the court I would have approached whoever it was and said, ‘This should never have happened and I’m sorry’, but none of them ever looked us straight in the eye and apologised. We never got that from any of them.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times