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Four days in May: a story of murder, madness... and an enduring nightmare

Twenty-six years ago this month, three brutal killings cast a long, dark shadow over the Republic, writes Liam Collins

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Shallow grave: the location in Cregg Wood where the bodies of Imelda Riney  and her son Liam were found

Shallow grave: the location in Cregg Wood where the bodies of Imelda Riney and her son Liam were found

Shallow grave: the location in Cregg Wood where the bodies of Imelda Riney and her son Liam were found

The day remains imprinted in my mind through a series of stark images: the car burning as dawn broke over Lough Derg; the terrified face of the farmer whose daughter had been snatched from her bed and disappeared into the Clare hills; the helicopter hanging ominously over a dark wood.

We had been driving crazily for about two hours along remote roads on the Clare/Galway border when we saw the chopper hovering over Allandra Wood, near Woodford.

The adrenaline took over. Go for it, we shouted in agreement.

Declan White gunned the engine and we plunged deeper into the forest until we saw cars slewed across the road at the brow of the hill just ahead of us.

The car screeched to a halt and we flung the doors open and ran up the road. Gunfire crackled in the morning air and when we got to the cars, he was lying face upwards on the road.

To the left, an old farmer was crouched and someone was wrapping a blanket around the girl with a mane of russet hair, bloodstains slashed across her bare feet as she whimpered in pain.

We got down on the road beside the slight figure with a straggly red beard, dressed in a green combat jumper and jeans.

"Where's Imelda and Liam?" Declan White pleaded.

"Tell us where the priest is," I said, more for something to say than in the hope of getting an answer.

We were, to use Louis MacNeice's line, "as close as the killer is to the man he kills". Only he was the killer, and in his empty eyes you could see that he knew this was the end of his rampage.

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Tragic deaths: Imelda Riney

Tragic deaths: Imelda Riney

Tragic deaths: Imelda Riney

Then we were pulled aside and he was shoved into the back of a squad car.

More people were piling into the scene and the roadside became chaotic, the whoosh of the helicopter blades above adding to the drama.

I looked at him again. He didn't look like a monster who had murdered the beautiful Imelda Riney (29), her son Liam (3) and Fr Joe Walsh (37). He looked like a misfit; every community has one.

He may have lived on for a few more years but life ended for 19-year-old Brendan O'Donnell that sunny Saturday morning, May 7, 1994.

Missing people are tricky, as any police officer will tell you; they disappear and then have a habit of turning up asking what all the fuss is about.

Imelda Riney probably fitted into that category, or so the gardai thought.

She was a free spirit who, after some years and marriage in London, had found an alternative lifestyle in a remote woodland cottage near Whitegate, Co Clare, where she lived with her two young children, Oisin (7) and Liam.

She did a bit of painting and taught pottery at some of the local schools. For a girl who grew up in suburban Terenure, Dublin, she was adaptable and confident about looking after herself and her family in a house well off the beaten track.

She drove an old red Ford Fiesta and was known around Whitegate, Mountshannon and Scariff where 'alternative' folk, some home-grown but others from England, Germany and Holland, had found their own little patch of peace and harmony, living on small-holdings and restoring old cottages that were only viable for those who had opted out of the consumer society.

Although they had been separated for about two years, her husband Val Balance was over from London that week and doing some work locally.

On the morning of Friday, April 29, he got up early and took Oisin to a nearby family to be looked after, leaving Imelda and Liam at home sleeping.

It was their misfortune that Brendan O'Donnell, a disturbed young man with a history of petty crime and car theft, was back in the woods, teetering on the edge of the full-blown madness that would have such fatal consequences for those who crossed his path.

Fr Joe Walsh

Born in nearby Whitegate, his mother had died when he was nine and he didn't get on with his father. He had been in Trinity House detention centre in Dublin and in prison in England.

He had recently returned to his stamping ground, been seen roaming the remote roads and woodland paths - and, alarmingly for locals, he had stolen a .22 rifle and ammunition that Friday morning.

He was now armed and dangerous.

Val Balance collected Oisin and went back to the cottage that Friday evening. The car was gone and the kettle was boiled dry on the hob, which was still hot.

But he didn't really start to worry until Imelda didn't turn up the following day, Saturday.

That evening I got a phone call in the newsroom of the Sunday Independent from an old friend then living in Mountshannon, Declan White. He told me about the missing woman and her child and said he was convinced something was seriously wrong.

A car was found burned out in the woods later that day. It would be several days before it was identified as Imelda's, but a sense of foreboding was spreading.

Local people who knew her had already made a tentative connection between her disappearance and the return of Brendan O'Donnell.

Imelda and Liam were officially reported missing on Sunday, May 1.

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Imelda Riney's son Liam

Imelda Riney's son Liam

Imelda Riney's son Liam

The following Wednesday, I headed for Mountshannon, deciding for some reason to take the Galway road, turning left at Ballinasloe.

Along the way I heard that the priest in the village of Eyrecourt, Co Galway was now missing, after failing to turn up for mass that morning. I stopped at the church and spoke to a couple of women. They hadn't much to say, but you could sense they were hiding something - that Brendan O'Donnell was well known in the village. They knew enough to fear what was unfolding.

After booking in to the Mountshannon Hotel, I wandered into Scariff. There was an air of a phony war about the place. Two detectives I met maintained there was nothing amiss, nobody was really missing.

"They disappear like that," one of them told me calmly. "Could be gone to Dublin or over to England, they're always on the move," he said, referring to the 'alternative' community that had taken up residence among them.

Thursday morning's newspapers carried that iconic photo of Imelda Riney, her long reddish hair cascading from beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat, looking like a figure from a Lavery painting.

Striking images of beautiful women have a dramatic effect, and the smaller photo of Liam added a poignant note.

That afternoon, the Mountshannon Hotel began to fill up with reporters. With them came a certain tension. The name of Brendan O'Donnell was now well known among the journalists.

But there was no answer from the family home in Whitegate when we called to try to find out more about this enigmatic figure.

On Friday morning, Fr Joe Walsh's blue Opel Astra was found burned out but still smouldering on Williamstown Pier outside the village. It was as if unseen eyes were watching and waiting.

It was only then that gardai in Clare, where Imelda and Liam were reported missing, and the gardai in the Galway division where Fr Walsh disappeared really begin to communicate seriously.

By that night, hard-faced armed gardai began to appear around the village.

It was still dark that Saturday morning when I heard the stones hopping off the bedroom window facing the street. "Come on, come on ... it's happening!" shouted Declan White, standing by his car below. I threw on some clothes, grabbed a notebook and bolted.

As we left Mountshannon, we could see another car in flames on the lakeshore. A passing car stopped briefly and the frightened face of Fiona Sampson's father peered out, asking if we'd seen her abductor.

Only after the chase ended at Allendra Wood did the terrible facts begin to trickle out.

Eight days earlier, on Friday, April 29, Brendan O'Donnell abducted Imelda Riney and Liam, forcing her to drive to Cregg Wood where he shot them both and buried them in a shallow grave. The following Sunday his uncle drove him to Eyrecourt where he had tea with his granny Mary Quinn, leaving her house at 9pm to sleep in a disused property.

He hung around the woods until the Tuesday when he abducted Fr Joe Walsh in the early hours of Wednesday, forcing him to drive back to Cregg Wood where he shot and buried him some yards away from his earlier victims.

Despite all the activity around Mountshannon that Saturday morning, May 7, later in the day the place was pervaded by an eerie feeling, almost one of unreality that such violence had been unleashed on this quiet place.

Then reports filtered back that a body had been found in Cregg Wood. Reporters and curious locals began to walk along the woodland path, late afternoon sunlight shafting through the trees.

Eventually we came to a lone garda on sentry duty. We could go no further, but his presence was confirmation that the priest's body had been found. There was just a sliver of hope that Imelda and her son had somehow been spared.

Most of us had deadlines to meet and began to hurry back to the village. Inside the hotel, phones which had been installed all over the lobby were buzzing with incoming and outgoing calls.

That photograph that in a way immortalised Imelda would be on the front pages and on television news for days to come.

Those four days in Mountshannon remain etched in my mind, but that's as nothing compared to the nightmare the families have endured dealing with the senseless, random killings that shattered their lives 26 years ago.

Even today there is no answer to why it happened or how it could have been prevented.

Belfast Telegraph