The quiet lives and shocking deaths of three brothers known as the saints

Known locally as the saints, Willie, Paddy, and Johnny Hennessy lived quiet lives. The only remarkable thing about them was the shocking circumstances in which they died 
The quiet lives and shocking deaths of three brothers known as the saints

Brothers Willie and Paddy Hennessy from Curraghgorm near Kildorrery in Co Cork pictured in 2009 who were killed by their brother Johnny before he took his own life. Picture: Seán Burke/Provision

To the outside world, the most remarkable thing about the lives of Willie, Paddy,  and Johnny Hennessy is the manner in which their lives ended.

They were, according to the close network of friends and family who knew and cared about them, ordinary, decent, and hardworking men.

Very few people knew anything about their business and they liked it that way.

That anonymity was abruptly ended when Johnny suddenly attacked his two brothers with his heavy sledge axe on their 10-acre farm in Upper Curraghgorm, north Cork, on February 25.

Willie was found dead lying face down in a shed, while Paddy was found by his daughter Elaine, lying flat on his back in the farmyard.

Johnny Hennessy later took his own life in the same river where another brother, Jer, had drowned a few years previously.

It is understood he even entered the river at the same spot Jer had entered it in January 2014.

Figuring out why and what happened

As they tried to figure out why and what happened, detectives took detailed statements from friends and family.

Joe O’Shea, who owns and works in the Amber Service Station and Shop on the Dublin Road in Mitchelstown, had known the Hennessy brothers all his life.

He gave detectives one of the most comprehensive statements, which was read out at Mallow District Court before north Cork coroner Dr Michael Kennedy.

Originally from Kildorrery Road in the heart of Mitchelstown himself, the 64-year-old grew up near the Hennessy family’s 10-acre farm in Upper Curraghgorm about 8km away.

He not only remembers the brothers passing his house when he was a child, but he also remembers their parents Thomas Hennessy and Ellen McCarthy, and uncles, who had, he said, all lived on the farm.

Both the brothers’ parents died more than 40 years ago.

 A Garda car at the entrance to the Hennessy family farm at Curraghgorm near Mitchelstown, north Cork, where brothers Paddy (60) and Willie (66) were found dead in February. Picture: Dan Linehan
A Garda car at the entrance to the Hennessy family farm at Curraghgorm near Mitchelstown, north Cork, where brothers Paddy (60) and Willie (66) were found dead in February. Picture: Dan Linehan

Joe told gardaí that Ellen was known to have suffered “mental health issues”, and that both Willie and another brother, Jer, also suffered mental illness.

While Willie’s mental illness had in the past led to him being hospitalised, the inquest also heard that it had been well managed with antidepressants he had been prescribed.

Although the inquest heard Jer took his own life on January 7, 2014, when he was in his late 50s, his sister is not so sure he did.

She told gardaí in her statement that “in the post mortem they weren't sure if he committed suicide or if he had a heart attack”.

Paddy’s long-term partner Kitty Russell only met Jer once before he died and she told gardaí: “The lads rarely spoke about him other than saying ‘we don’t know what got over him’.” 

As well as being entrenched in his rural farming community, Jer had been a GAA stalwart, playing with the team that won the North Cork novice hurling title in 1979.

Living with Willie and Johnny, he had worked at Cork Marts for 32 years before he drowned in the River Funshion.

A very simple life 

In his statement to the inquest, Joe O'Shea described the brothers as living "a very simple life”.

According to their sister Breda, Johnny was living in a bungalow alongside the original homestead.

Willie, Paddy, and Jer had “helped him out to have his own house” and built it for him.

At one point, while the new house was being built, Willie and Johnny — who worked all their life on the farm — lived together in a mobile home on the land.

They then appear to have both moved into the newer house.

The farm was, Joe recalled, “very, very basic”.

“The water is got from a local stream and the milk is got from their cattle and kept in a bucket," Mr O'Shea said.

The house had electricity, but not (for) long I’d say. 

He said they had around 19 cattle and also sold firewood.

At one point, they had had their own timber on their lands.

“They used to chop it down with a chainsaw and make it into blocks with an axe,” Joe recalled.

“Johnny was as hard as nails. It was a rough set-up.

“They had it tough but they were happy living in the middle of nowhere when nobody knew their business.

“They had very little and wanted very little and lived a very simple life”.

And he said: “None of the brothers would be able to use a computer or any technology.

They all had mobile phones but they would be basic phones and not smartphones.

It is also debatable if they even had bank accounts.

Joe would tell gardaí in his statement that they would sell cattle once or twice a year locally and would always ask him to cash the cheque — usually around €7,000 — from the cattle sale for them.

Every time they were about to sell cattle, Willie and Johnny would ask Joe to take cash from them to go towards the cost of selling their cattle.

He recalled: “I don’t think Johnny even had a bank account. I am not sure about Willie or Patrick.

“A couple of weeks before the cattle would be due to be sold (they) used come in together and ask me to put away money for the sale of the cattle and I would cash the cheque.” 

Kitty Russell recalled: “All of the three brothers used (to) cut timber and sell it. They all had their own customers and different runs.

“Even in the farm, they all got separate deliveries of timber, had different piles in the yard and barn and all (had) their own axes, (wood) splitters and chainsaws.” 

Their sister Breda also paints a picture of three brothers working together “as one” on the family farm preparing wood for their own individual wood delivery rounds.

Breda Hennessey, sister of the three deceased Hennessy brothers, at the inquest in Mallow, Co Cork. Picture: Cork Courts Limited
Breda Hennessey, sister of the three deceased Hennessy brothers, at the inquest in Mallow, Co Cork. Picture: Cork Courts Limited

She told gardaí: “Like all families, they would have their differences but when they were doing the timber together, they all seemed to be the one.” 

And Elaine, Paddy’s daughter, told gardaí: “The three brothers got on great. There was no hassle between them at all, like any brothers.

“Willie suffered a bit from the nerves but always did, he was much better over the last couple of years.

“Johnny had social anxiety. He mixed with nobody, he was an extremely quiet man.

"Dad was very quiet too, never had a bad word with anyone, he just kept to himself," Ms Hennessy said.

“I can’t understand how this [happened] with dad. It makes no sense whatsoever.

“I'm very shocked about Johnny and Willie as well. Johnny and Willie would always eat together at the house.

“Dad rarely went to the house. They had a microwave up in the shed and used to heat food and eat up there when they went doing the sticks together and made the tea up there too.” 

'They were so trusting'

Joe O’Shea was not only fond of the brothers but he also trusted them.

“The whole family were known as 'the saints' and were so trusting,” he recalled. “I remember I used to go to mass on a Sunday and they would mind the shop for me.” 

Of Paddy, he said he moved out of the family home at a young age, got married to Stephanie — who he was separated from at the time of his death — and moved to Linden Hill, Mitchelstown.

They had two children, Elaine and Paudie. When his son took his own life in May 2012 at the house in Linden Hill, Paddy took this very hard.

Paddy’s 17-year marriage to Stephanie broke up about two years after Paudie died and the couple separated.

But he continued to live in the same house as her for a few days a week, and she told gardaí that despite their separation, she had remained on “great terms with Paddy”.

Elaine Hennessy and her mother Stephanie Hennessy (former wife of Paddy Hennessy) at Mallow Courthouse on Wednesday at the inquests into the circumstances of the Hennessy brothers. Picture: Larry Cummins
Elaine Hennessy and her mother Stephanie Hennessy (former wife of Paddy Hennessy) at Mallow Courthouse on Wednesday at the inquests into the circumstances of the Hennessy brothers. Picture: Larry Cummins

According to their neighbour Joe O'Shea, Willie and Johnny “never ever had a woman” and he added that he had “never seen or heard of them with any woman”.

About eight or 10 years ago, Willie is said to have moved into Mitchelstown after he got a council house in Stag Park.

Johnny was happy to have the independence and “it just worked”.

The inquest heard how shy, quiet Johnny “hated” doctors and gardaí.

Last December, around the time Paddy suffered a stroke, Joe says Johnny told him he had not been to see a doctor “in 40 years”.

Before the stroke, he said Paddy used to also do the blocks with his brothers and sell the blocks with them.

“They worked as one selling them,” he recalled.

Johnny used to go off on his own in his red Toyota van and Willie and Paddy used to sell their own wood from the back of an old dog grooming van they bought about two years ago.

Garrett Roche, who lived next door to Willie in Stag Park, describes him as having been “a good friend that I would go to for advice or an opinion”.

For his part, Willie used to drop into his house “to watch The Late Late Show or have a cup of tea” and Mr Roche used to top up Willie’s Eir pay-as-you-go mobile phone for him.

He said he got to know Johnny and Paddy through Willie who he said all “got on exceptionally well”.

Of their daily routine, Joe O’Shea said: “Willie used to come into me every day at around 8am, coming from home and he would then call up to Paddy before calling out to Johnny in the farm.

“Willie used to collect The Avondhu in Maxol for me every Thursday morning and in return, I used to give him two papers every day — the Daily Mail and the Examiner.

“They used just look at the photographs and bring back the papers the following day and I would give them two more.

“They used to ask me about the virus but it made no difference to their daily life.” 

'The same as every day'

On the day he died, Willie came in “as usual” at about 8 am and stayed about half an hour and “seemed in great form”.

“He just said that he was going out to Johnny and we were just having a general conversation, nothing stood out and it was the same as every day.” 

The last time he saw Johnny was two days before he killed his brothers.

He came into the shop with Willie at around 11.30am on Tuesday and they stayed for about 20 minutes.

Willie was driving the dog grooming van and they said they were going to get some timber for the day.

“Nothing seemed out of the ordinary and they both seemed in good form and were not arguing in any way,” Joe recalled.

“Johnny would come into the shop maybe three times a week sometimes on his own but mostly with Willie.” But then he added in his garda statement: “Johnny had no routine.

He was very strange and shy and did not like crowds or speaking to other people.

While there is little evidence of problems between the brothers, Joe did reveal to gardaí a family history of mental health issues.

He said: “I know their mother suffered from mental issues and I know Willie and Jer used to get depressed also but I don’t think Johnny or Patrick had any mental issues.” 

The men’s sister Breda told gardaí: “Johnny and William never married. If any one of the brothers had news, they would ring me or I would ring them.

“We would talk every week but not meet. They were always quiet boys and not that much for fighting.” 

And she added: “It feels like this isn't real at all because they were not type for fighting.

“I have no idea what caused this.” 

I was never aware of what issues they had between them or what they were fighting over.

Her husband Ned told gardaí in his statement to them: “They had their spats like most families but nothing major at all."

The three of them were known as the Saint Hennessy’s and, he added of the three dead men, “they were always together”.

'A small bit of friction'

When Paddy suffered his mini-stroke, the court heard Willie helped take over his delivery rounds while he spent a few months recovering.

Statements from friends and family insisted it was all very good-natured and there was no falling out when Paddy came back to the farm in January and took back his customer round from Willie.

However, according to Stephanie Hennessy, Paddy told her about a week before he was murdered that Willie had taken two or three of his old customers.

These were, she said, customers, Paddy had prior to him having his stroke.

She told gardaí: “While Paddy was recovering, Willie took over these customers.

“But Paddy said Willie won’t give him back the customers.

“He said no more about it then. The three brothers seemed to get on OK as far as I could see.

“This was the first time I heard of a problem between them from the communication I'd have (had) with him.”

 A Garda on duty where neighbours left flowers near the Hennessy family farm at Curraghgorm near Mitchelstown, north Cork, where brothers Paddy and Willie were found dead in February. Picture: Dan Linehan
A Garda on duty where neighbours left flowers near the Hennessy family farm at Curraghgorm near Mitchelstown, north Cork, where brothers Paddy and Willie were found dead in February. Picture: Dan Linehan

Friend of the brothers John McGrath said he was talking to Johnny and Willie seven weeks before they died, and detected a “small bit of friction” between them.

He said in his garda statement that it was Willie who was annoyed that Johnny had encroached on Paddy’s log business by not handing back customers he had supplied with wood while Paddy was recovering from the mini-stroke he suffered in October 2020.

And he said Johnny was in turn annoyed with Willie, who wanted to sell six acres of land to pay for a hip operation Paddy needed.

Willie, referring to Johnny, told Mr McGrath “the other fucker won’t give Paddy back his customers".

And he added: “I then remember Johnny saying ‘this other fucking idiot is trying to sell land to pay for Paddy’s hip operation’.” 

Whether the prospect of seeing part of the farm being sold sparked a crisis for Johnny is something we will never know.

But with Willie having moved out about 10 years previously, leaving his younger brother alone, it is hard not to wonder if the increasing isolation he found himself in also played a part in his decisions on February 25.

It is surely with people like Johnny in mind that the jury in his inquest on Wednesday called on the Minister for Health to review and enhance support services locally for people suffering from mental health issues in rural Ireland.

“Many of these people are suffering in silence from various issues,” the jury foreman told Mallow District Court before coroner Dr Michael Kennedy.

  • If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please click here for a list of support services.

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