A dispute between neighbours that ended on a quiet country lane

Kerry farmer Michael Ferris convicted of manslaughter of Anthony O’Mahony

 

When gardaí arrived at a quiet country lane in Rattoo, Co Kerry on April 4th, 2017 following a call about an incident between a tractor and a car, they were alarmed to find the scene deserted.

The ditches and hedgerows on either side were torn-up, and a lengthy trail of debris was strewn along the road. A mangled Peugeot 508 had been pushed into a ditch, its bonnet and windscreen repeatedly punctured.

Inside the car lay an elderly man, strapped into his seat, catastrophically injured. “They were horrific injuries,” Garda Pat Naughton recalled, “absolutely horrific injuries to his upper body, to his face, to his skull.”

Though the scene was deserted, what had transpired on the morning of April 4th, 2017 near Ballyduff, beneath the 1,000-year-old Rattoo round tower, quickly became clear.

Farmer Michael Ferris (63) admitted that he had parked his teleporter on the laneway and gone to do a few jobs, knowing that John Anthony O’Mahony (73) was likely to complain once he had come across the obstruction.

On hearing O’Mahony “hooting” his horn, Ferris got back into the teleporter. Rather than moving out of the way, he drove towards the car, again and again, puncturing it with the machine’s pallet forks and lifting the Peugeot from the ground a number of times.

Gardaí later found the yellow teleporter at the entrance to a milking parlour on the laneway. On the New Holland machine’s two prongs was blood, glass and human body matter.

The facts were clear early on: Ferris had used the machine to kill O’Mahony. However, the Central Criminal Court jury in Tralee was asked to decide on the “why”. Did Ferris lose control and lash out? Or was it pre-meditated?

The crow-banger

Brendan Grehan SC, for Ferris, said his client was a good man who did a bad thing. He had reached the end of his tether with O’Mahony after years of cumulative provocation, fuelled by bitterness about the use of a crow-banger.

For years the crow-banger – used to scare away birds from crops – had gone off every four minutes and 26 seconds all day on O’Mahony’s land, less than 120m from the home of Ferris’s neighbours, Mairead and Pat Walsh.

A bachelor tillage farmer from Ardoughter, some 5km from Ballyduff, O’Mahony had in the 1980s bought 100 acres at Rattoo with his brother, to add to another 100 acres he held between farms at Ardoughter and Causeway.

O’Mahony was “passionate about his crops”, his nephew, James O’Mahony, told the court. The deceased also took an interest in protecting his land from the nuisance of pigeons and crows, for which he used the banger, a gas-powered device that emits a loud sound at regular intervals to scare birds away.

However, the repetitive loud noise infuriated neighbours for years. Fifteen years previously a banger was taken from O’Mahony’s field and later recovered by gardaí from a shed owned by Ferris.

Grehan acknowledged that people would not normally speak ill of the dead, but in this case he would be doing so to allow the jury to appreciate where Ferris was coming from.

Everyone accepted – prosecution and defence – that O’Mahony was a “a difficult man” who “had fallen out with the neighbours”. The picture painted for the jury was that it was the deceased, not the accused, who was out of control.

Despite his age and issues with heart disease, O’Mahony was viewed as oppressing the close community in Rattoo where locals – who would bring each other eggs and scones – lived in fear of him.

In the boot of his wrecked car, gardaí found an unlicensed double barrel shotgun and cartridges. O’Mahony would never have got a licence for a gun as, in 1987, he had shot at two members of the local gun club after they followed dogs on to lands at Rattoo. He received a conviction for assaulting one of the men with pellets, having offered no warning when he shot through a hedge at them.

There were also more recent incidents. Máiread Walsh, a neighbour of Ferris, broke down as she told the trial that O’Mahony fired a shot over the heads of her, her husband Pat and daughter when they were walking towards Rattoo round tower one evening in 2013.

When asked why he had done this, O’Mahony hurled abuse at the family, Mr Walsh told the trial.

A quiet man

Swiss national Michael Schumacher arrived to his holiday home in Rattoo in August 2016 and found the banger had been placed 4m from the gable of the house, with a noise like a bomb going off every three minutes which left his wife’s ears ringing.

O’Mahony later moved the device 50m back. When the couple attempted to thank him, O’Mahony got so angry that he turned red in the face, began shaking and frothing at the mouth before saying there were rats in the Schumacher’s house, the trial heard.

Ferris, by contrast, was regarded as a quiet, obliging man for whom no one had a bad word. In the period prior to his death, O’Mahony had moved the crow-banger from the middle of the land at Rattoo to just 120m from the Walsh home.

It was placed against a wall and would echo loudly, with the residents saying the sound followed them everywhere and forced them to wear ear protection.

“You’d have to live alongside a banger to understand that it’s horrendous. It would follow you everywhere – up to your room, out in your yard, it’s everywhere,” Mr Walsh said.

Garda Jim O’Brien, a PSV inspector who inspected the banger as part of preparations for the trial, said that even at 300m from the Ferris house, the recurring noise would be intrusive and disturbing.

Aside from the falling out between Ferris and O’Mahony over the missing banger 15 years earlier, there was no clear evidence of a flashpoint in the lead up to the morning of April 4th, 2017, when Ferris arrived into the kitchen at the Walsh home.

“Mahony is gone. Call the guards,” he told them.

‘Very sad’

In the Walsh’s home, he told Det Sgt Donal Horgan: “O’Mahony was going to be coming down the road with a crow-banger. There is always a problem with him for years. It would wake the dead. I spoke to him years ago about it.

“Today I blocked the road with a teleporter to stop him coming down. I parked it sideways. He started hooting . I was not in the teleporter. I sat up on the teleporter. I did not talk to him. No good talking to him. The pallet forks I had on it I made for the car and drove into it.”

Ferris was arrested and taken to Listowel Garda station. The doctor who assessed him said he had never had a mental health issue. While he was upset at the time, he was calm and fit for interview.

While he had trouble with the neighbours, O’Mahony had siblings and an extended family who cared for him and sat together throughout the trial, sometimes filling three benches.

His sister Angela Houlihan and others were upset on hearing the evidence of deputy State pathologist Dr Margot Bolster about the severe injuries that killed O’Mahony instantly.

There was tutting too when the Walsh family said O’Mahony made them afraid for their children.

Ms Houlihan said there were bangers “all over the place” in rural Ireland.

Asked about the Schumacher’s complaining about the noise from the banger, she said: “That’s what’s out the country. .. That’s what you have to listen to if you buy a house out the country.”

Ms Houlihan continued: “It’s very sad my brother had to go the way he did over a banger”, adding that she could hear one going off when she visits her brother’s grave in Raheala cemetery.