The former England footballer Ian Wright had been shocked by the abuse he received from a Tralee teenager – the kind of abuse he might have expected to hear years ago, a court has been told.
However, Ian Wright believed in “redemption”. In one of two short victim impact statements read to the court, he forgave his young late-night harasser and has urged him and those who may have taught him or enabled such hate, “to change for the better”.
18-year-old Patrick O’Brien had sent “crass” and “racist” messages to the former Arsenal and England footballer late at night after he lost a virtual soccer match on a PlayStation game, FIFA, where a virtual Wright was downloaded to play for him, Tralee District Court heard.
O’Brien of 8 Sycamore Court, Ashleigh Downs, entered a guilty plea to two charges. He admitted that on May 11, 2020, at a place unknown in the District court area of Tralee, he harassed Ian Wright, contrary to Section 10.1 and 6 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997.
Patrick O’Brien also admitted that on the same date he did send by telephone a message that was grossly offensive, obscene and menacing, contrary to Section 13.1 (a) and Section 13.2 of the Post Office Act 1951, amended by Section 4 of the Communications Act 2007.
The court heard how a charge under the Incitement to Hatred Act might have been brought, but Mr O’Brien had not published the offensive material himself – this was done by Mr Wright.
Judge David Waters stressed that Mr Wright “did nothing wrong” in publishing the material and had “called out” the teenager on the vile things he said.
“100% of the responsibility falls on Mr O’Brien,” Judge Waters remarked at one stage.
Patrick O’Brien, dressed in a suit and wearing a face mask, appeared in court accompanied by his mother and his solicitor Patrick Mann.
Mr O’Brien had turned 18 last February and was now accepted at a third-level institution, the court heard.
After the guilty plea was entered at Tralee District Court, Garda Sergeant Eoin Donovan outlined the facts of the case.
Patrick O’Brien had been playing FIFA online on his PlayStation computer game against a friend and had downloaded the virtual Ian Wright as “a legend” to play for him. He had lost the game “and got mad”, Sergeant Donovan said.
"The Ian Wright character did not perform as well as he hoped, so Patrick O’Brien messaged Ian Wright privately on Instagram,” the Sergeant said.
The garda described as “crass, racist and threatening in nature,” the 20 messages that were sent in what the court heard were rapid succession on the night.
“He was using racist slurs, beginning with N- and C-,” the Sergeant said.
When the judge asked for examples to decide if they were indeed as described, the Sergeant read out to the court, spelling out some of the bad language: “C**T, C**N, Monkey, n****r – the latter were terms repeated once or twice, the Sergeant said.
He had also called Mr Wright “a cotton-picking black c**n”, and included monkey emojis.
O'Brien told Mr Wright he was 65.
“If I get coronavirus I will cough in our face and give you a death sentence…” the young Tralee man threatened, adding that this would put the footballer on his deathbed.
The following morning Ian Wright was made aware by his publicist of the messages and the former Arsenal star took screen captures and put them up on his public page.
The following morning Patrick O’Brien was inundated with messages and there was a huge media fall-out in the UK, the sergeant said.
Patrick O’Brien’s mother also received messages online and she took her son to Tralee Garda Station where he made “a full and frank admission”.
The court was told how Ian Wright had wanted to come to court but was unable to do so due to Covid restrictions.
In the first victim impact statement of May 13, the former footballer wrote: “Emotional, very shook up with the intensity, I have experienced racism years ago but I am in complete shock to experience it now and am very disappointed.”
However, in a second victim impact statement, dated November 19, Mr Wright said:
"I hope that you and also those that either taught you or enabled this hate will learn from this and change for the better.”
Patrick O’Brien had no previous convictions and had never come to the court’s attention before or since. He was from a very respectable family and his mother had brought him up on her own.
He had also contacted Mr Wright "straight away" to apologise, Sgt Donovan agreed with solicitor Patrick Mann.
There had been “a rush of blood” to the head while playing a virtual reality game late at night, the sergeant also agreed.
There had been a huge social media fall-out and millions of hits on the 18-year-old’s name online.
Judge David Waters said that the fact an individual of his age would hold such views and express them in such a vicious and calculating manner was worrying.
The judge also said Mr Wright had called out O’Brien on the vile things he said.
The judge ordered a probation report, given the teenager’s age, and remanded him on bail to the last court in January.
However, he said he was not making up his mind on the sentence until he got the full probation report.
The judge again reiterated that Mr Wright was “right to call out “ what the judge said was “vile abuse, vile language targeted at an individual all because his virtual personality did not perform.”
“That he sought out and targeted this individual is one of the real aggravating factors,” Judge Waters told defence solicitor Mr Mann.
Some people put up “drivel” on their own social media pages, but Mr O’Brien had sought out Mr Wright and targeted him, the judge added.
Judge David Waters remanded Mr O’Brien on continuing bail and ordered him to reappear on January 27.