IT WAS one of the most shocking and notorious multiple murders in Irish history, and many still remember the time in 1994 when Brendan O’Donnell took three innocent lives in the quiet Co Clare countryside.
The nation was horrified when news emerged that O’Donnell shot dead Imelda Riney and her three-year-old boy Liam. More bloodshed was to follow in the killing of local priest Fr Liam Walsh.
Now a new film is set to pose the difficult question: what if you love somebody who has done a terrible thing? That’s the dilemma posed by Property of the State, a new film about O’Donnell told from his sister’s perspective.
Based on Ann Marie O’Donnell’s diaries and accounts, the drama starring David Rawle, Aisling Loftus and Elaine Cassidy, documents the abuse, mental illness and events that brought her brother to that shocking place. For anyone familiar with the case, it makes for difficult but revealing viewing.
Young actor David Rawle — one of three who plays O’Donnell at various points in his life — was not even born when the killings took place. But he says he was daunted at the prospect of taking on such a troubled character.
“It wasn’t a story that I was familiar with. But I understood that a lot of people in Ireland, it was a story that they’d either heard about, or were quite close to,” he said.
“This is somebody’s life that you’re taking on, and originally, after reading the script, I said: ‘I don’t think I want to be part of this’. I was scared, because it was so different. I’d agreed to meet with Ken (the producer), and Kit, the director, so I said I’ll see what they have to say and we’ll see what happens.
“I talked to them and they completely put me at ease. By the end of the conversation I went from not being particularly sure to being eager to get started.”
The film depicts how O’Donnell was taking valium from a very young age, went on to suffer from acute mental illness and struggled to cope with the death of his mother. His father, according to Ann Marie, was extremely violent towards him.
For the 17-year-old actor, who endeared himself to audiences in Moone Boy, the prospect of going into such dark territory was not an easy one. “Obviously it was a very daunting, very harrowing story. You’re working with all these amazing people but at the end of the day it was a very serious storyline and it wasn’t like anything I’d done before.
“It was difficult for me to do something that was so out of my comfort zone. But I think it was good to try something that I’d never done before. It was seeing if I was able to do this, able to do something that was on the other end of the spectrum.
“I think the story is very important and we all did it justice. It’s not a particularly nice story but I think it’s important at the same time that people see it from this perspective.”
For director Kit Ryan, it was important that O’Donnell’s story be told, even if it aroused controversy. “I was very aware there are some in Ireland who would rather this film had not been made, that old wounds should not be reopened,” he said. “However, the tragic events were the culmination of domestic violence, institutional abuse and mental illness that went untreated for years and then the subsequent trial of a mentally ill young man, being tried as a sane man. I felt that this story was too important not to be told.”
Ryan spent some time living around the very community where the events took place. “I have spent some of my life in East Clare and was a teenager when this horrific tragedy took place in the next village. I was abroad at film school when Ireland was shocked to its core by what Brendan had done, and although I didn’t know him personally, I did know of him from the village, and I too couldn’t understand what had taken place.”
In the years that followed, Ryan says it wasn’t difficult to believe that this young man was pure evil.
“At this point it was never my intention to make this as a film, however as the years passed I began to think more and more about why this terrible tragedy happened and if there were lessons to be learned from it. Though the story I have told now is very different to the one I knew then.
“Terence Ryan, the producer, also lives in Clare and was well aware of the Brendan O’Donnell case. It only became a project we considered once we started to hear about concerns some locals had that Brendan had been failed by the mental health system.
“Terence brought in some researchers and over several years, we slowly started to piece together a different picture to the one we had been originally told. Ann Marie was interviewed early on though it wasn’t for another ten years before we knew that she was our story.”
Still, the director says he feared the film could get a negative reaction when it was shown to audiences, but is heartened by the response it has received so far.
“I was most nervous at our first public screening, not because it was the first but because it was being premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh, not a long way from where it all took place. I was preparing myself for a bad reaction, though instead as the end credits rolled, we had a standing ovation.
“I now have experienced this quite a few times in different parts of the world, with many people wanting to talk to me about their own similar experiences with family and friends.
“It has a very deep emotional impact on people and it has opened debate up on how the mentally ill have been treated, and maybe more importantly how they are cared for in today’s society.”
Rawle agrees, and his great hope is that the film will spark debate about supporting the mentally ill.
“I think it’s so, so important. That people can see it’s not just the circumstances that somebody is brought up in, what happens to them. It’s also how they’re dealt with, how you treat people and how the State let all these people down. And what the terrible consequences of these seemingly small actions can be. How they can all mount until something like this, something terrible, happens.”