Pubdate: Sun, 18 Oct 1998
Source: Irish Times (Ireland)
Copyright: 1998 The Irish Times


Sabrina Walsh, the drug-taking handbag snatcher sentenced to prison for six
years, deserved better, according to her family.

In the Court of Criminal Appeal on Monday, a priest had his seven-and-a-half
year sentence for sexually abusing two young boys reduced to 18 months. On
the same day, in the same court, a young woman heroin addict who stole a
tourist's handbag had her nine-year sentence reduced to six years.

The picture of 20-year old Sabrina Walsh being escorted from court, which
accompanied the court report in Tuesday morning's Irish Times, is one of a
young woman in stunned disbelief. Her dark hair is cut in a short boyish
cut, her eyes look vacant.

"That's not the Sabrina I knew," remarks Marie Mahony, one of Walsh's former
neighbours in Coultry Drive, just off Coultry Road in Dublin's Ballymun. The
middle-aged mother is holding a copy of the newspaper before her, standing
in her kitchen at number 57. "To see her, she might as well be dead. That's
not the child I knew.

"She had beautiful long curly hair down past her waist," she smiles, looking
up form the photograph. "Ah, it's sad to see her. It's awful what happened
to her. She shouldn't have got that at all. It's treatment that she should
have been given. She'll only end up worse in Mountjoy."

On June 30th, Walsh pleaded guilty to stealing a handbag in Cafe En Seine on
Dublin's Dawson Street in December 1997. Despite pleas by her barrister,
Raymond Farrell, in court on Monday that Walsh could not have known the bag
contained IEP10,000 cash and jewellery, Mr Justice O'Flaherty said
bag-snatching was like a "cancer" in society and that by the severity of the
sentence the court was sending out a "loud and clear" example.

"How can they do that to someone?" asked Walsh's eldest brother, Danny. "How
can they just decide that they are going to make some kind of an example of
someone? Destroyed her life is what they've done. And my ma's. She took a
nervous breakdown in June, and she's just in bits now."

Walsh's mother, Nellie, moved with her husband Christie, or "Royco" as he is
known, from a small cottage in the centre of Dublin to a three-bedroom
Corporation house in Ballymun in about 1976, just before Walsh was born.

Coultry Drive is a small crescent of houses. The paintwork on most is
peeling, and Tesco supermarket bags are strewn around the entrance to
several. The houses look at each other over a small patch of muddied green.

Before they moved, the youngest of the couple's five children were twins.
Days before the two boys were to make their Holy Communion, one was knocked
down and killed by an articulated truck. The tragedy, says Marie, was one of
the reasons for the family's move.

"Nellie used to say, when she was trying to get Sabrina treatment for the
drugs, 'God has already taken one. Is he going to take another?' "

Five-year-old Sabrina used to "pal around with" Marie's daughter, Louise.
The pair probably walked together most mornings across the grassy patch in
front of the houses of Coultry Drive, past the six tower blocks of flats on
Coultry Road, to the Virgin Mary national school the Shangan Road. They may
have been accompanied by one of her brothers, Matthew, Jason or Danny or by
her sister, Helen.

Sabrina and Louise continued on to Ballymun Comprehensive, and though Louise
did her Leaving Certificate, Sabrina left when she was 15. Marie says it was
her ambition to become a nanny.

"Nellie always had great time for kids and Sabrina was never away from her
mam. She was as happy as Larry when you'd let her look after the little ones
for a bit. She used to go off with my daughter with the buggy, you'd send
them to the shops and they'd be off for two hours."

Neither Danny nor any of the neighbours could tell how Walsh first got
involved in drugs, though most agreed that she started some time after her
15th birthday. She began experimenting with tablets containing morphine and
moved rapidly on to trying heroin, though according to Marie, "she only got
bad in the last year".

Nellie got her daughter into a treatment centre in Kildare sometime after
she turned 16 and it was there that she met a man, quite a bit older than
her, with whom she travelled to London.

They spent over a year there, said Danny, living and committing petty crime
together to feed their heroin habits. Nellie went to London to bring her
youngest child back to live with the family in Ballymun. It was in the past
year when she got to the stage that, in the words of Danny, "she'd sell
almost anything to get a fix."

Nellie bought her a jacket for Christmas in 1996 which she sold within two

When she returned to live in Coultry Drive two years ago, the family say
they would have to watch her constantly, for fear she might start a fire
with her cigarettes when she was stoned.

"I saw her there a few months ago," remembers Marie, "walking through the
shopping centre, and I said 'Hello' to her, but sure she didn't even
recognise me. She was just walking along, with her eyes closed like, really
out of it. And her hair was in bits, and her teeth..."

Nellie and Christopher Walsh surrendered their house in Ballymun about a
year ago, in exchange for a modern, comfortable apartment in town. Marie
says she hardly sees Nellie anymore, though they speak on the phone.

"Ah, Sabrina's mother, God she tried to do everything for her, doted on her.
Sabrina was her baby. She got her into a detox in Beaumont Hospital, and the
child was about to start another six-week programme in Cherry Orchard."

"She really wants to come off the drugs, is always talking about it," says

Walsh, he says, had six convictions for petty larceny before her nine-year
sentence in June.

"None of them guards or courts ever did anything to get her some treatment.
She's devastated now, very saddened. She thought she was going to get off,"
he continues, speaking on Wednesday evening. "I'm just after watching that
guard getting off for killing a young fella. And that priest. But no one
will fight for us. We couldn't get a big, expensive legal team."

Sabrina Walsh's case will be reviewed in 2000.

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Checked-by: Don Beck