‘Students sneered at my son’: owner of dead pet at centre of row speaks

Alan English, editor


Alan English, editor

The owner of the dead dog, Sheila Bermingham Lillis, points to the spot at College Court, Castletroy, where she and her son Jeffrey, 16, found its body after it was fatally struck by a van last month. Picture: Michael Cowhey
THE owner of the dog whose death led to an accusation of animal cruelty against University of Limerick students has revealed her family’s upset at the loss of the family pet.

THE owner of the dog whose death led to an accusation of animal cruelty against University of Limerick students has revealed her family’s upset at the loss of the family pet.

Sheila Bermingham Lillis, from College Court, Castletroy, said some students “sneered” at her 16-year-old son when he became upset after finding the dog dead on the road.

Ms Lillis was getting ready to visit her brother’s house for a First Communion party when there was a knock at the door of her home at Castlebrook, College Court, close by the UL campus in Castletroy.

A student was standing outside, the bearer of bad news.

“How did I know he was a student?” she says. “The estate is full of them and I recognise them from seeing them all the time. Any student in that UL who lives round here would know me.”

She stresses that she has always got on well with the vast majority of students living in the estate. A handful of bad apples, she says, have given the rest of them a bad name.

“Anyway,” Sheila continues, “this chap said to me, ‘Your dog is after getting clipped.’ I said, ‘How do you mean clipped?’ He said the dog was after getting clipped by a van. At that stage I didn’t know what had happened.”

What did happen to the family dog, a four-month-old Jack Russell miniature called Rosie, has been bitterly disputed over the past two weeks.

The saga began with a letter to the Limerick Leader by a College Court resident, Charlie Cassey. Before sending it, she had contacted our reporter Donal O’Regan, who has written many prominent stories about animal cruelty.

Writing after being told about the dog’s death by her brother-in-law, who witnessed it, Charlie’s letter charged the students with an act of disturbing cruelty. She alleged that UL students had lured the dog to its death, while kicking a football around which it was chasing.

“The students waited until a van was passing before playing this sick game until the inevitable happened,” she wrote. “The little dog went under the wheels of the van, which drove over him [sic]. Did the students feel remorse after this disgusting act? No. As the dog lay dying in agony, the students laughed and jeered at my brother in law, as he roared and scolded them.”

The Leader published Ms Cassey’s letter and a news report by Donal based on its content made our front page. When the story appeared online, the response was extraordinary. It quickly became the most read story ever to appear on limerickleader.ie. A Facebook petition calling for the expulsion of the students has received close to 15,000 ‘likes’.

Many of those commenting on it wanted more a draconian punishment and the ferocity of the response drew a riposte from one of the students late last week. An unsigned letter to the editor was handed into the Limerick Leader. I was convinced it was genuine and the following day the letter was sent to the UL Students’ Union. Its president, Adam Moursy, told me he was fully satisfied that it was authentic and asked us to publish it. We did so on our website, early on Friday afternoon.

The letter strongly disputed the circumstances as outlined by Ms Cassey. While conceding that the dog had been struck and killed by a van while chasing a football, the letter writer insisted it was an unfortunate accident.

“As a group we felt very remorseful and upset but what could we do? What were our options?” the student wrote. “Look for the dog’s owner? We did not know where the unattended animal had come from, its collar contained no hint of ownership to anyone.

“Call a vet? The dog was dead within minutes and was it our responsibility to do so?

“Bury the animal? Yes, I’m sure it would have looked normal for a group of students to be seen disposing of a dog’s body in an urban area during the day.”

Until Friday, there was no information about the dog’s owner. But in his follow-up story last Thursday, confirming that gardai were investigating the matter, Donal O’Regan asked the owner to get in touch. On Friday, I took a call from Sheila Bermingham Lillis and while she did not witness Rosie’s death, her account of subsequent events strongly contradicts the student’s letter.

“Rosie was really my son Jeffrey’s dog,” she says. “He’s 16. After we heard, we ran across the green.The students were sitting in a little white car, four or five of them, girls as well.

“I knew straight away when I saw her lying there that she was dead. The poor little dog, her tongue was hanging out and she’d taken an awful blow to the head.

“Straight away, we were devastated. Jeffrey was extremely upset. He went straight for one of them, he lost it. He was shouting at him, ‘You killed my dog! I want to kill you!’

“One of them must have rung the guards because they came and started taking everyone’s names. I was asking the students, ‘Who done it?’ They wouldn’t say, they said it wasn’t them. They said, ‘We dunno. We just seen him there.

“The guard said to me, ‘Have you proof it was them?’ I was thrilled when I found out that a lady was after writing a letter to the Leader, and that her brother-in-law actually witnessed it. I want to meet that woman and say thank you for coming forward.

“I’m not blaming the van man, I’m blaming them for being so immature. They can say they didn’t mean it, but why should we believe them after the way they acted with me and Jeffrey? They were sneering at the child. They were laughing, as if to say, ‘It was only a dog.’

“My husband Kevin buried her. I had to buy a new dog for Jeffrey, he was so upset. I got a half chihuahua, half Jack Russell - Ben.

“Why should they get away with it? The guards have their names. Look, I don’t want it to come across like I’m anti students. I’ve got on great with the vast majority of the students that have lived here. There’s great communication. Some of the students used to pick up Rosie and rub her.

“My next door neighbours are students and we got on great with them. They might come to me and say, ‘Sheila, just to let you know, we’re going to be having a party on such and such a day.’ And sometimes I might say to them, ‘The kids have school the following morning.’ And they’d wouldn’t have the party that night, they’d have it another night.Very few of the houses around here aren’t occupied by students so in the summer the place is very quiet altogether.

“I’m upset that they didn’t have the decency to come to me and say, ‘Look, miss, this is what happened to your dog.’ But they couldn’t even pick her up off the road and bring her to my door.”

What would she like to see happen next? “I’d like the guards to call out to me. I’d like to talk to them about it.”