No such thing as 'right or wrong place' when it comes to being attacked: Cork woman speaks out

As protests take place following the murder of Sarah Everard in London, Ann Murphy speaks to a Cork victim about the lifelong effects of violent attacks
No such thing as 'right or wrong place' when it comes to being attacked: Cork woman speaks out

Sinéad O'Leary who survived the attack in which her best friend Nichola Sweeney was killed.

HORRIFIC incidents such as the murder of Sarah Everard in the UK can happen at any time or anywhere, according to a Cork woman whose best friend was murdered while she was left fighting for her life.

Sinéad O’Leary was stabbed more than 20 times in her friend Nichola Sweeney’s home in Rochestown as they prepared for a night out in April 2002. Their attacker, Peter Whelan, lived nearby.

Nichola was killed in the attack, after Whelan stabbed her 11 times. There was no motive for the random attack. Whelan is serving a life sentence for Nichola’s murder, as well as 15 years for the attempted murder of Sinéad.

Sinéad was speaking ahead of a protest against gender-based violence which is taking place tomorrow at 4pm on the Grand Parade, organised by Rosa (for Reproductive rights, against Oppression, Sexism & Austerity).

Sinéad said that, when something such as the murder of Sarah Everard occurs, people talk about victims being “in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

But she said: “With me and Nichola, we were in the right place at the wrong time — we were at home.”

Demonstrators hold up signs at a protest in Dublin to highlight violence against women in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard. Photo: Damien Storan.
Demonstrators hold up signs at a protest in Dublin to highlight violence against women in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard. Photo: Damien Storan.

She believes there is no such thing as the “wrong place” when it comes to violence.

She said: “These horrific events can happen at any time.”

Sinéad still suffers chronic nerve pain as a result of the 2002 attack, which took place when she was just 19 years old. She said her right arm was the worst affected, as she had used it to defence herself against Whelan’s attack.

A blade in one of the knives used by Whelan broke in Sinéad’s arm, such was the ferocity of the attack.

Now, almost 19 years on, she still feels as if she is fighting for her life, she says.

The last two years have been particularly difficult, as it emerged in 2019 that Whelan was granted day release by the Irish Prison Service to visit his mother’s remains in a Cork City funeral home. He was given the leave on compassionate grounds.

He had also been granted three separate day releases by the Parole Board, and approved by Charlie Flanagan, then justice minister, just six years into the life sentence.

She said: 

“I started my 20s in a hospital bed finding out that my friend had died, having to come to terms with the death of my friend, as well as my physical and mental injuries. There was no rhyme or reason. I spent my 20s and my early 30s working very hard to regain peace in my life. That was shattered again two years ago.”

She is hurt that Whelan was granted day releases while her suffering, and that of the Sweeney family, continues to this day, particularly as she had “played my part” in the criminal justice system to bring Whelan to justice.

She says she left Ireland in 2010 to help bring herself peace, travelling to a friend in Costa Rica, where she became involved in a turtle conservation project. Despite feeling unsafe at times in her job, including working on beaches at night, she managed to work on making herself feel safe and at peace again.

She also believes she had time to work on her grief and gain the head space she needed.

She remembered: “I came home feeling ready and I was here for a few years, putting down roots and finding myself in a really good space.

“But that was all blown out of the water again when I found out about the day releases.”

She said that the feelings of shock and disbelief that Whelan could be granted day release are not just confined to her and Nichola Sweeney’s family, but also to all families of murder victims.

She echoes a call made by Rockchapel woman Maria Dempsey, mother of murder victim Alicia Brough, in The Echo yesterday for a victims commissioner to channel the needs and concerns of victims.

Sinéad added: “I feel like I have to defend my life again.

“I had a sense of peace and security in my life, but that was taken again from me by a murderer.”

She feels strongly that there should be an exclusion zone, which would ensure that violent criminals could not return to the area where their victims or their victims’ surviving families are living.

She admits that she has thought about leaving Cork again after hearing about Whelan’s day releases, but she has decided to stay and continue to advocate for victims’ rights.

She also believes a victims’ rights advocate must be appointed to the new parole board to give more balance to parole decisions in the future.

She believes she has a duty to continue to fight for rights for victims and their families, and says that Nichola Sweeney could now have been a mother, a wife and many other things if her life had not been taken by Peter Whelan.

And she says: “Nichola will always be part of my life.”

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