A man suspected of raping two young girls at the weekend has more than 100 criminal convictions and served a series of jail sentences stretching over a decade.
Gardai continued to question the 30-year-old suspect throughout yesterday at Athlone station as up to 300 people gathered nearby to voice their condemnation of the horrific attacks.
The suspect had only been released from jail last Wednesday – just three days before the attack on the girls, aged six and nine, who were attending a birthday party.
It emerged that the attacker lured the two girls into a house on Saturday afternoon after inviting them to play with his daughter, whom he said was their age and too shy to come out.
Inside the house the girls were subjected to a savage ordeal before escaping through a window.
They later returned to the house where the party was taking place.
The father of one victim had to be restrained while the suspect was detained by locals soon afterwards.
One resident revealed that the father was "losing the plot" and was shouting: "What did you do to my baby?"
The 49-year-old publican, who did not want to be named, added: "What had me was the screams. I can hear them ever since in my head. They were bad."
He said people had been searching for the girls for about 45 minutes before they reappeared and told of their ordeal.
At the same time, he said, he spotted a man walking alone and carrying a bottle of vodka.
"He tried to hit me with the bottle of vodka.
"Myself and another friend held him down on the ground and we called the gardai."
The suspect was just out of jail, having served a five-month sentence for assault – less a quarter remission for good behaviour behind bars.
But Justice Minister Alan Shatter confirmed the man being questioned did not have a criminal record for sex offences against children.
Mr Shatter told Pat Kenny on Newstalk radio that he wanted to "set the record straight" to ease people's "genuine and understandable fears".
"What happened was shocking. My heart goes to the children and their families," he said.
"It is incorrect to suggest that an individual being questioned is someone who has been released from prison following on from their being convicted for committing a sexual offence."
Arriving at the scene on Saturday, gardai found three men pinned down by local residents and relatives of children attending the party. Two men were being held in the house and the third was being subdued on the road.
All three men were taken into custody but the two others were later cleared of any involvement in the assaults.
The prime suspect has served as many as 10 jail sentences since 2002 and has a lengthy criminal history, including assaults, at least one of them linked to domestic violence.
He is closely associated with two other men who have been in jail overseas in the past in relation to serious crime.
As detectives questioned the men, a group of protesters quickly swelled outside.
Scores of parents joined a protest near the courthouse and garda station in the town.
Nicola Quigley said people felt compelled to come out on to the street."If this happened to my child, I would expect the whole town to be here," said the 27-year-old from Moate.
Meanwhile, the victims, who are not from the area but had travelled to Athlone with their parents for the birthday party, continue to receive medical treatment and counselling.
Fiona Neary, director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland, urged anyone with concerns about the behaviour or activity of someone living in their neighbourhood, to work with the gardai.
She added: "Child abduction is traumatic, both for the victims and their community. Research and national data tells us that acquaintances, friends and neighbours are the most commonly named perpetrators by child survivors, both boys and girls.
"Strangers accounted for only 7pc of all reported incidents."
She said all communities could act to protect children by talking to the gardai in confidence.