Leona O’Callaghan - ‘That’s when the depression set in; I could never see myself well again’

Limerick Person of the Month on her efforts to cope with rape at 13, her battles with UL and the struggle to get her life back

Aine Fitzgerald

Reporter:

Aine Fitzgerald

Leona O’Callaghan said her three children were the only people she listened to about whether to name her rapist Patrick ‘Whacker’ O’Dea Picture: Liam Burke/Press 22

Leona O’Callaghan said her three children were the only people she listened to about whether to name her rapist Patrick ‘Whacker’ O’Dea Picture: Liam Burke/Press 22

AS a young girl Leona Fitzgerald from Garryowen was the kind of child who would sing from the top of her voice on her way to school.

She was quite vulnerable, yes, as most children are, and also naive, but she was a very very happy child.

She was very close to both her parents, and particularly close to her older sister who was only a year-and-a-half her senior. She was “a solid person until, I suppose, everything happened”.

It started with the death of Leona’s cousin, who was more like a brother to her. He grew up with the family; Leona’s mum helped to raise him. Whacker, or Patrick O’Dea to give him his correct name, was her cousin’s best friend.

Leona had a fight with her cousin before he died. It played on her young mind.

“I loved listening to stories about Brendan and Whacker would just get inside my head in a way that, even still, is very hard to understand.”

The then 28-year-old O’Dea would tell Leona that he needed to protect her and he could see bad things were going to happen to her. She became very paranoid.

“That led to him telling me things my parents were supposed to be saying and doing, to isolate me, which were untrue.”

He convinced her that he was the only one who was genuine and that everyone else had ulterior motives and hated her.

The first time O’Dea abused Leona she was only 12 years of age.

“I was very ashamed,” she recalls. “I felt I had done something wrong because he would turn it around.”

The first time O’Dea raped Leona was in a graveyard. She was 13.

“I had struggled back and said no at that stage but me saying no didn’t matter. He gave out to me and told me the reason it was so painful was because I didn’t stop struggling and that was my fault.”

She recalls how that night one of her jobs at home was to de-ice the freezer.

“I was afraid of the blood. I was 12 and didn’t understand what was going on in my body and didn’t know if it would ever stop. I just remember being so scared. I had an attic bedroom and I went up there and sat on the basin hoping the blood would stop and the pain would go.

“That’s the hardest memory I have. Sitting there in another world, not knowing how I was going to function and then somehow getting up and functioning, coming down the stairs and trying to pretend as if nothing had happened.”

The next time she saw O’Dea he told her how much it cost him to get his leather jacket dry cleaned.

He had put the jacket down on the grave while he raped the child.

“He gave out to me for that,” she says.

Leona apologised and said she didn’t want it [the rape] to ever happen again “but that didn’t matter to him”.

Her parents, she says, had no idea of what was happening to their child . “I thought they hated me, that I was doing something wrong and that I was going to be in so much trouble. I was so distant with them.”

She became a very different child, troublesome and angry.

“I was trying to deal with the abuse in secret and then come down the stairs as if nothing had happened. That changes you in a way you don’t make your way back from.

“Now if somebody nearly 30 tried to join a group of kids of ages 12 and 14 everyone would say ‘what’s going on?’ but back then nobody flinched.”

Her parents brought her to a psychologist but she couldn’t say anything - “he had me convinced of how much trouble I’d be in”.

It was at the age of 14 that the abuse came to light.

“He’d been away for a while. I dreaded him coming back,” she explains. Her friends had started to have boyfriends and engage in relationships and Leona realised what had happened to her wasn’t right.

“It’s not meant to be pain, it was physical pain and I was scared.”

She remembers talking to a teacher and describing what she pretended was happening to a friend, “but obviously he saw through it, thank God, and he rang my parents and the abuse never happened again”.

Leona wrote to the teacher many years later. “I don’t know if he ever got the letter,” she says.

Her parents, she believes, tried their best to put their energy into trying to give Leona the life she would have had if the abuse hadn’t happened. But, she acknowledges, “it was a different time”.

“Nobody writes a book on how to handle things if your child is abused. Back then there certainly wasn’t as much support and guidance. For a while I got on with life and life got busy but then I needed to go back and when he came back to Limerick it was a big trigger and I wasn’t able to function without resolving what was going on, and the memories.”

She had secured 515 points in her Leaving Cert when she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and gave birth to her son two weeks after the exams. She had a huge interest in psychology but didn’t pursue it. She started studying accountancy at night and held down two jobs.

But the memories would keep creeping in.

Leona would wet herself reliving the abuse. She started failing exams for the first time ever. She couldn’t mind her children on her own.

“I felt like such a failure. That’s when the depression set in because I could never see myself well again. I thought I was the biggest liability to my children but now I’m well again I know I’m an asset to them.”

Leona was 28 when she started therapy “and can’t say enough about it.”

She spent six months in St Patrick’s hospital in Dublin four years ago and “they were amazing”.

“He had come back to Limerick and I wasn’t coping,” she points out.

She felt guilty about his abuse of two other girls aged six and eight after he abused her.

Today she is on antidepressants and probably will be for life and she accepts that.

It’s an acceptance, she points out, that comes from a place of strength.

She still has trouble trusting people and forming relationships.

“I’ve been married twice. The stress of everything took its toll.”

Her three children who live with her in Askeaton she says “are amazing”.

“They have probably been the only people who I would have listened to on whether to name him, whether to speak out. They have 100% been supportive in wanting that as well. They have been through a tough time.”

Her youngest child, aged 10, was aware of little bits in relation to what his mum had suffered, prior to the publicity surrounding the case in November.

“I didn’t want him to read it. I had always said I had been beaten up as a child and described it as that. I knew when it would hit the papers and with the internet now I knew there was no way I was going to be able to protect him from it. I asked him what he understood and he said ‘I know he raped you’.

“It was very hard — too big for his little shoulders. It was the hardest conversation of the whole lot, sitting down with him because you don’t want to give it to him, even though I knew it wasn’t me causing the pain on him - it was hard.

“I know they’ve had to see harder things than they should have but I also know I’ve shown them resilience and that you can be in dark times and good times can be right around the corner. If you can just get through that wave of the tough times. It takes a lot of guts to get out of the bed and just function but there is more to life than that. I’m only beginning to see that now and I can’t get enough of it.”

While she was attempting to put the pieces of her life back together and was preparing for her court case, Leona was also fighting another battle — this time against the University of Limerick.

Leona was the first of the whistleblowers who highlighted the university's misuse of public money. As a member of its finance department, her position became unsustainable after she questioned expenses claimed by senior UL staff, including the delivery of a fitted kitchen.

“A lot of people thought my depression came from UL. UL aren’t to blame for me being unwell and I wanted to be clear on that,” she states,

“Even though you have two very different topics — money versus abuse — the feeling is very similar. It’s the expectation to be part of something that didn’t feel right and say nothing. Well you don’t get to do that to people, you don’t get to hurt people like that.”

The blame she says lies with a very small number of people within the university who were “not open to challenge in any way. In fact, if you challenged them, you became the problem and they managed you out and that’s what happened with me”.

That small number of people, she says, were so powerful that they could “control the whole culture within the university”.

“When the HEA came in and tried to tell them what to do - whether it was to lift people’s suspensions or make an apology, they literally said no, we have autonomy here.”

She is particularly disappointed in the then president of the university, Don Barry.

“I didn’t find he was genuine. I wrote to him and gave him plenty of opportunity without the media and without the reputational damage to the university, to do the right thing at various stages and he had no interest. At least the new president sat and looked me in the eye and had the decency to hear me.”

Only last week president Des Fitzgerald wrote Leona a letter of reference in which he said: “I have found Leona to be articulate, intelligent and fair in her views. She has behaved honourably and has shown great courage. I believe she would be an asset to any organisation.”

Leona says, “For years on end I asked Don Barry to meet with me. He still hasn’t met me. I still would like the opportunity to sit with him in a room to show him I wasn’t a number. I was a mother and, obviously now, I was going through a lot. I wasn’t the Yes person they wanted me to be, signing things that weren’t right. I was offered a six-year salary and a pension for life. It would have been life-changing money but I said ‘what kind of a hypocrite would I be to take that?’”

Leona is now continuing her studies in accountancy at night and is close to qualifying.

“Because I was very good, I found all the loopholes and brought them to the very people who created them. I was good at what I did and they didn’t have the right to take that away from me. Everything happens for a reason and a lot of change has happened.

“Personally, I’ve kept myself busy. I’ve created a lot of fun. I do face painting and magic shows with kids at the weekends and I’ve gone back to college and am picking up the pieces.

“I always say a saying that helped me a lot — you can’t fall off the floor. When you’re down and at the lowest ebb, it is temporary. It will get better. It will get easier — just know that in your heart.”