'My sister and her girls never woke up on Christmas morning'
It was the callous triple murder of a mother and her two children that shocked the whole country.
Sharon Whelan and her beloved daughters Zarah (7) and Nadia (2) were murdered on Christmas Eve in their own home in Co Kilkenny.
Now, under Ireland's justice system, just seven years later their killer is soon eligible for parole, but Sharon's brother John is calling for the Republic's rules to be brought into line with the UK.
Like many parents, John Whelan feels strongly that Christmas should be special for his children. On December 24 this year he and his wife Sandra will tuck their youngest sons into their beds where they'll no doubt dream of what Santa's bringing them in the morning. There could well be trouble getting the boys to sleep.
Seven years ago it was exactly the same scenario for John's sister Sharon. The mum-of-two had to make several hushed phone calls to her dad Christy telling him to hold off on delivering the gifts she'd stashed at her parents' since Zarah (7) and Nadia (2) were still too giddy to even think of sleep. Eventually, Santa got to deliver his stash, but tragically the girls never got to see their presents.
The murder of Sharon Whelan and her daughters in Christmas 2008 is a case that many will have etched into their memory because of its cruel nature. After a 10-hour drinking binge on Christmas Eve, part-time postman Brian Hennessy (then 23) forced his way into Sharon's home where he allegedly raped the 30-year-old before strangling her. In a bid to conceal his crime he then lit two fires in the house, killing Sharon's sleeping children. Afterwards he returned to his own home to celebrate Christmas with his family as if nothing had happened.
Hennessy was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences and one concurrent life sentence for the murders. Speaking soon after the gruelling trial John, an addiction services counsellor from Co Kilkenny, told reporters how Christmas no longer had a place in his family's life. "Christmas for us is no more," he said. "It does not exist."
Today, after a difficult journey, he's changed his mind. He wants to embrace the holiday for his family's sake - it won't be another thing that Brian Hennessy steals from him, his wife Sandra and their three sons aged 17, 10 and three.
"There have been enough casualties," he said. "I'm more determined than ever to make Christmas special for the kids. There are times around Christmas that are very personal for me and how I deal with that, but that will be kept very separate from the celebrating. It's important for us as a family to celebrate and continue to celebrate it."
On Christmas Day 2008 John, Sandra and two of their sons (then aged three and 10 - they've since had another boy) had spent the morning opening gifts. They live about 40 minutes away from where John's parents Christy and Nancy live in Windgap, and Sharon was little more than a mile down the road from that. About 100 yards up the road lived another aunt. The Whelans were a close-knit family. Sharon had been fostered by Christy and Nancy from the age of four. The couple had two boys, but "always wanted a girl", laughed John. When she was 18 and legally able to do so, Sharon changed her name to Whelan. "As far as I was concerned, she was my sister from day one," he said. "She and I were very tight. We'd lose the rag with each other, then forget about it and throw the arms round each other."
John was upstairs taking a shower when the phone went. "Sandra answered and on the other end Mam just kept screaming: 'They're gone, they're gone'. It took a while to make sense of what she was saying," he said.
His first instinct was to shield his children from distress, so he took the phone outside. His next was hope - perhaps Sharon and the kids were in one of the outhouses around their old farm building? Had anyone checked at their aunt's house up the road? "But then word got back to us that they'd been found inside," he said.
Having seen the smoke, two local men had broken into the house by the back door and risked their lives to carry out Sharon and the girls. All three were already dead.
John initially assumed it had been an electrical fault or perhaps a candle had been left alight. "But dad kept saying: 'No, Sharon was always very careful about things like that'," he recalled.
A few weeks later their family liaison officer told them the investigation had been upgraded to murder. Zarah and Nadia had died from smoke inhalation but no smoke was found in Sharon's lungs, meaning she'd been dead before the fire started. Thanks to the men who carried Sharon's body out of the smouldering farmhouse, Garda could collect vital DNA evidence, and it connected Hennessy to the crime.
On January 17 Hennessy was arrested, but he inflicted further pain on the Whelan family by refusing to admit his guilt until the 11th hour when his trial began. Eventually he confessed he'd killed Sharon, with whom he'd had just a passing acquaintance, after they'd had sex.
"I just strangled her with my two hands around her neck," the court heard that he'd told Garda at his 2009 trial. "I killed her in the living room." He then brought the mother's body into the room where her two children slept and later lit two fires. Zarah and Nadia died from carbon monoxide poisoning. He said he'd done it to stop his girlfriend finding out he'd had sex with another woman. He pleaded not guilty to a further charge of rape, which was among the charges that the State did not proceed with after he was indicted for the murders.
More anguish was to come. On appeal Hennessy had his sentence reviewed as unduly severe, and it was ruled all three terms should run concurrently. Early next year, he is due for parole. Seven years served, three innocent people killed. "It's an insult," said John. "No one has ever explained to my family which one he's serving that sentence for. In the eyes of the State the other two lives clearly didn't mean anything." In the past seven years every element of his family's lives has suffered. "It has an effect on people, your job, your mental health. Relationships suffer, family gatherings are hard. One-third of your family isn't there, it's as if there is less colour in life. It's the family, not the perpetrator, who has the life sentence."
John started to keep loved ones at arm's-length. It was, he now realises, a self-preservation mechanism, an impulse to avoid ever suffering the pain of losing a loved one again. At the start he was angry. "If we'd had the death penalty here I would have readily pressed the switch myself," he admitted. "But I know now those were fleeting feelings. I don't believe anyone has the right to take anyone's life, no matter who that is. Even Brian Hennessy, his life means something to someone."
He credits his family and his faith with supporting him through these dark years. "I'm not religious," he said. "But I have a personal belief that gets me through. I believe in the goodness in people. By experiencing the worst in a person, it's made me appreciate the goodness in everyone else. Hate can eat you up, and I can't allow that to happen."
But knowing Hennessy could be eligible for parole so soon has hit the family hard. "It feels like we've been dragged back to square one and it's so unfair, we've been through enough," he said. "It's not about revenge or 'may he rot in jail', it's about justice and what is a fair sentence. To force a family to go through the stress and anxiety of a parole hearing, seven years after one-third of your family has been wiped out… it's not right." John is now dedicated to campaigning for Ireland to have similar sentencing tariffs to the UK. "Since Sharon died, there have been an average of 60 murders a year in Ireland. That's another 60 families facing what we've gone through. We live in a violent society and there needs to be a stronger deterrent for those who chose to take a life," he said.
"We're not asking for judicial discretion to be taken away, but for the tariff system to be considered the way it is in Britain, be it 25, 30 or 35 years, and then parole to be considered after that."
His parents "don't really celebrate Christmas" now. "They do what they can for the other grandkids," John said. "But they spend most of the day at the grave." It's just a short walk from their family home to the burial ground where their daughter and granddaughters lie. Most days begin and end with a visit there.
He loved to meet up with his sister on Friday nights to play darts in the pub. She was bubbly and vibrant, with lots of friends; a "people person" who wanted to work in hospitality because she loved helping people. In the months before Christmas Zarah and Nadia had both been diagnosed with autism, something the family was adjusting to.
"All the 'what ifs' have been taken away," said John. "Zarah would have been 14 now and Nadia around nine. Lots of things could have and should have happened that were denied to us. It's hard to see past that.
"Even after what he did to Sharon… he waited there for up to four hours before he decided to light the fire and those kids were asleep for that time. He decided to light that fire knowing that they were there. He just left and they never woke up on Christmas morning. Our Sharon was lying there and her thoughts must have been with her children and what was going to happen to them."
He added: "Christmas Eve is tough. When the kids are in bed and you're getting ready for the morning… that's the toughest part. Thinking that they were doing the exact same thing, knowing they were going to bed with all the excitement of the next day, and it never came. For me it's very symbolic and poignant to be putting those presents under that tree. You do appreciate life more, you appreciate your kids and your relationships more, because you never know when they're going to stop."