Special Report: A night out that turned into a tragedy

It was only after Johanna O’Hara found her 20-year-old son dead in a field, after he had taken his own life, that she and her family learned he had been arrested, writes Michael Clifford
Special Report: A night out that turned into a tragedy

John and Johanna O’Hara with a picture of their son Niall, at their home near Granard, Co Longford. Niall took his own life in March 2019. Picture: Bob Morrison

Sometime after Johanna O’Hara discovered her son’s body in the field, a paramedic suggested it might be a good idea for her to sit with Niall.

Johanna sat beside her 20-year-old son. The numb devastation that weighed on her in those minutes can only be imagined.

A little over an hour before she found him, he had been in the kitchen with her at their home outside Granard in Co Longford. It was March 18th 2019. 

Niall had stayed out the previous night after meeting up with friends in Cavan. He’d got a lift home that morning.

Then he left the kitchen in a bit of a rush. Johanna thought he might have gone to visit his grandmother who lived nearby. When he hadn’t returned within an hour she rang and discovered he hadn’t been to his grandmother’s house.

She went up through the fields. On seeing him, her first instinct was to ensure her other two sons would not come on the scene. 

She ran and got her husband John, who was working on the family farm. John rang the guards.

Within minutes, the local gardaí and paramedics were on the scene of another suicide in rural Ireland. 

To Niall’s parents, his decision to end his life was unfathomable. So when Johanna sat with her son, her first instinct was to look in his pockets for some clue, a note, anything that might make sense.

She found a piece of paper, not a note, but a form. She asked one of the gaurds what it was.

“He explained that it was what you got if you were arrested, a charge sheet,” Johanna says. 

“I asked him to find out what happened. Something must have happened to him.” 

The charge sheet was for a public order offence. This added to the O’Haras’ confusion. Had this anything to do with Niall’s decision? 

Two days later a garda came to the house. He told John and Johanna that there had been another public order incident with Niall a few weeks previously in Sligo.

“He left a folder from Pieta House, Johanna says. “We didn’t even know what it was until we looked at it days later. Maybe that was their way of reaching out to us, but they knew we needed answers. We didn’t know what to do. We were lost. If they met us halfway it would have helped.” 

The cusp of adulthood

The O’Haras wanted to know what had happened their son. Niall had a full life. He was a busy, sociable, sporting young man on the cusp of adulthood. 

He was in his third year at Maynooth University and played football both for the college and for his home club, St Mary’s. He had turned out for the county’s minor team. Football was a great passion in his life.

He was also outgoing and had plenty of friends. 

“He was never a minute’s trouble,” Johanna says.

He frequently helped his father out on the farm. When John and Johanna went on a holiday, Niall was able to take care of the enterprise. Apart from that, he had a part-time job in a pub in Cavan, where he worked on weekends home from Maynooth.

There were none of the signs that might betray the kind of negative emotion that can spiral and drive a young person to a point where they can’t see a future.

The O’Haras believed then and now that what afflicted Niall was the fall-out from the two nights on which he arrested.

“It was definitely what happened in Sligo,” Johanna says. “His lack of understanding of it all and how he was trying to deal with it.” 

 John agrees. “One hundred per cent,” he says.

On both occasions the offence at issue was minor. Students drink to excess. Students can get messy. Sometimes that can lead to an encounter with An Garda Siochana. 

None of it amounts to a hill of beans in terms of a young person’s character, record or prospects. But in today’s world where pressures rain down on young people the encounters set Niall off down a road to despair.

“The night before our awful nightmare, when he was out in Cavan, he’d had a few drinks and opened up to friends,” Johanna says. 

“He was due to appear in court over the Sligo thing a few weeks later. All of the friends he spoke to that night said me mentioned Sligo.” 

Six weeks after they buried Niall, John rang Cavan garda station to ask for a meeting with the gardaí who had encountered Niall on the night before he died. These had included the two arresting gardaí – young recruits – and the sergeants who were in charge on the station when Niall was brought in and subsequently when he was released.

John and Johanna O’Hara at their home near Granard, Co Longford. ‘Why can’t the gardaí just look us in the eye and tell us whether this happened or that happened, and then we can move on and grieve,’ asks John. 	Picture: Bob Morrison

John and Johanna O’Hara at their home near Granard, Co Longford. ‘Why can’t the gardaí just look us in the eye and tell us whether this happened or that happened, and then we can move on and grieve,’ asks John. Picture: Bob Morrison

The meeting was agreed, but when he and Johanna arrived they were met by two inspectors. These officers were helpful, but they were not whom John and Johanna had come to see.

Around this time, then Fianna Fail Health spokesman Stephen Donnelly contacted the Minister for Justice on behalf of the family. By pure coincidence, Donnelly’s wife is from the area and they met at Niall’s month’s mind. He offered to do what he could.

Donnelly asked the minister could the gardaí facilitate the O’Haras in their  request. That line of inquiry was to take months to reach any kind of conclusion.

Separately, on 19 May, John phoned Sligo garda station and requested to meet the gardaí from the night Niall had been arrested there. He was told he would have to apply in writing to the relevant superintendent.

Rearragned meeting

The following day, the rearranged meeting in Cavan took place. Present were a superintendent, an inspector, one of the two sergeants and one of the two gardaí who had dealt with Niall on his last night, a welfare officer and another guard taking notes.

The O’Haras were told that the second garda who had been involved in Niall’s arrest wasn’t available as he had a dentist’s appointment.

Early on in the meeting, the super told the garda and sergeant that if they became uncomfortable at any point, they were free to leave. 

Johanna says she completely understands the senior officer protecting his charges, but she was “horrified” that it was done in front of her and John.

“We couldn’t escape from our uncomfortable lives,” she says. “We didn’t want to make anybody uncomfortable. We just wanted answers. We were exhausted, mentally exhausted at that stage.

“I understand his wanting to protect them. But he didn’t have to say it there in front of us. His whole tone was that they did their job and that was that.” 

According to the O’Haras, the senior officer told them he had considered sending somebody to their home in the days after Niall’s death but decided it would not be the right thing to do.

“I agreed with that,” Johanna says. “But it would have been a good idea to send a letter, just a hand reaching out saying we know you have lots of questions.” 

Michael Clifford podcast: John and Johanna O'Hara describe quest for answers after son's suicide

The incident itself was relatively innocuous. Niall came out of a nightclub the worst of wear from drink and he kicked a car. The owner of the vehicle didn’t want to press any charges, but Niall ran off and was arrested and brought to the station.

“We asked to be brought to the cell,” Johanna says. “We wanted to get a feel for what it was like for somebody so young to be thrown in a cell and left there with his thoughts.” 

John and Johanna were told that Niall had talked with the gardaí about Maynooth and football and that he was “an absolute gentleman”. 

Johanna found it difficult to accept what she was hearing.

“I felt as if it was rehearsed,” she says. 

It was as if they were telling us what they thought we wanted to hear. I don’t believe there was any conversation with Niall and they did what they do, they just put him in a cell. 

"They said it was minor, but when I asked did anybody explain that to him they said they didn’t have time for that.” 

They were told that when Niall was in custody he said to one of the gardaí to promise him that nobody was going to find out about it. When he was being released, he asked the sergeant would he have to go to court. The sergeant confirmed he would.

The meeting was completely unsatisfactory for the O’Haras. They had not found out anything of substance.

Meeting in Sligo

Following the meeting in Cavan, the family had to persistently chase the gardaí in Sligo for answers. They retained a solicitor to assist. They contacted Stephen Donnelly on a number of occasions. (The O’Haras are entirely complimentary of Donnelly’s efforts to assist them.) 

In July, the Minister for Justice, on foot of Donnelly’s original request to him, wrote to say he had requested a meeting in Cavan. But that was already done by then.

On 6 November, Johanna wrote again to Donnelly, including a photograph of Niall, and asking to pass it onto the minister. The following day, they were contacted by a senior garda.

Eventually, on 20 November, seven months after making initial inquiries, the family was furnished with a report on Niall’s arrest in Sligo.

Niall and his friends were going to the town for college rag week but he had an assignment to finish so he left Maynooth it a day late. 

Friends have told his parents that he probably drank on the train en route in an effort to catch up with their partying. According to the report the gardaí encountered him on the street on the night in question.

They said they had reason to believe he might have taken a substance. On searching him, according to the report, they found a small quantity of a white powder. Notably, he was not charged with possession of any drug but was released.

Later that night, they encountered him again, crossing a barrier near the river in the town. The gardaí say they arrested him for his own safety.

“If that was the case we would be very grateful,” Johanna says. “But if he was arrested for his own safety why wasn’t there medical help there.” 

He was taken to a station outside the town and released around 5am, four hours after being arrested. The guards brought him back into the town.

The following morning, he went with a friend to the Sligo town station to find out what had happened. He was unaware that this was not where he’d been the previous night and a garda looked up the incident on the Pulse computer system to assist him.

“If you knew Niall, the courage it would have taken for him to go into the station like that. But it was a missed opportunity to sit him down and talk to him about what had gone on. It’s very frustrating.” 

The family believes the incident involving their son could have been handled by an adult caution rather than a public order charge which would lead to a court appearance.

Why wasn’t he considered for that? He had never been in trouble. It’s a great system. Put Niall sitting there in front of a super it would have a great effect on him. It would have been a massive life lesson, not a life lost. 

Niall had been due to appear in court in Sligo in relation to the incident two weeks after he took his own life. His parent believe that the trouble he encountered in Cavan on his last night was so out of character that it was probably due to trepidation he felt about the upcoming court date.

On 8 April this year, over a year after Niall’s death, the family finally received a report on Niall’s arrest in Cavan. Separately, one small relief for the O’Haras was a confirmation from the autopsy that there was no trace of any drugs in Niall’s system.

Dr Vicky Conway, of the School of Law and Government in DCU, believes that in a case like Niall’s there could well be a role for the garda ombudsman to investigate.

“In the relevant legislation, (an investigation) is only done where a guard may have caused the death of somebody, but in order that we can have confidence about what happens in garda stations, it should be broadened.

“The guards should want to understand whether what they did might have contributed in any way (to somebody taking their own life soon after being in custody).

Johnana: "If you knew Niall, the courage it would have taken for him to go into the station like that. But it was a missed opportunity to sit him down and talk to him about what had gone on. It’s very frustrating."

Johnana: "If you knew Niall, the courage it would have taken for him to go into the station like that. But it was a missed opportunity to sit him down and talk to him about what had gone on. It’s very frustrating."

She also points to recommendations from the Commission on the Future of Policing about resourcing garda stations with medical personnel.

“We also need to move to a point where there are inspections of places of detention,” she says. 

This State is one of the few which does not have a dedicated inspectorate with the right to inspect places of detention.

The O’Haras are extremely disappointed at the level of co-operation they received in attempting to understand why their son took his own life.

“Why can’t they just look us in the eye,” John says, “and tell whether this happened or that happened and then we can move on and grieve.” 

They believe that what they encountered was instinctive defensiveness rather than any attempt to assist them.

Questions unanswered

They have written to the Garda Commissioner Drew Harris.

“Following our beloved Niall’s death, we understandably had so many questions. We have a right to ascertain the events in our son’s life leading up to his untimely death,” the letter reads.

“We want an opportunity to meet with all gardaí involved in Niall’s arrest individually in the presence of their welfare officer only so that we can establish the answers in a non-intimidating manner.

“We are now very frustrated with a system that has made us fight through our grief for answers. This complete lack of empathy and compassion has significantly deepened our pain.” 

The O’Haras have also made suggestions about how situations like this could be better handled, both in terms of policy and resources. These include issues around the appointment of a family liaison officer, the use of adult caution and medical resources in garda stations, as recommended by the Commission on the Future of Policing.

“Considering what we have lost what we’re asking is not much,” Johanna says. 

Our son is never coming home. We’ll never get to see him playing football again. We have to trade the side of a pitch for the side of a grave. This is our life now. 

The gardaí do not comment on individual cases but the garda press office did answer a number of questions concerning policy. 

Adult cautions can be issued for a range of offences, but most of this is left to the discretion of the individual gardaí involved.

Family liaison officer are appointed for specific instances such as homicide but “in addition a district officer can appoint a family liaison officer to any incident (including suicides, a sudden death, cot deaths or any historic incident) that a district officer deems necessary.” 

People detained “receive medical treatment as per the 1984 Criminal Justice Act.” 

There is legal provision for the referral of any case to GSOC from the minister for justice or the commissioner if they believe it is appropriate.

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