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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Eavan Murray

‘There is an acceptance that the man we knew is gone’ – family and friends of Tom Niland reveal heartbreak one year after assault which destroyed his life

James McLaughlin, who is a friend of Tom Niland

Tom Niland’s car is parked in his driveway – it last moved a year ago.

His sheep have all been sold, and his small house in picturesque Skreen, in west Sligo, lies empty.

Tom has spent most of the last 12 months in a coma or semi-conscious on a ventilator and tube-fed in the ICU at Sligo General Hospital.

He cannot walk or move his hands.

His beloved dog, the bachelor farmer’s faithful companion, is being cared for by friends.

Tom lived a full and productive life until a wet, dark evening on January 18, last year, when intruders broke into his home.

He was beaten beyond the point of recognition. His lifelong neighbours who came to his aid in the aftermath didn’t realise it was him.

His cousin Michael Walsh and his siblings visit Tom in hospital most days.

Michael has come to accept that life will never be as it was for his cousin, who was more like a brother to him.

“Very little has changed. He can talk but very little,” said Michael.

Tom Niland was attacked in his Sligo home a year ago

“He does make sense at times. He is still in the ICU being tube-fed. He hasn’t had food for a year.

“There was a lovely moment recently when they brought his dog to the hospital lobby, and he was taken down in a wheelchair with all his equipment.

“It was the first time he had left the ICU.

“He had a great reaction to that, and the dog was mad to jump up on him.

“That was fantastic. I’ve asked him a few times, but he can’t remember.

“That was a bad sign for me because we had hoped it would be a moment that brought him further along.

“Sometimes I don’t think he understands what I’m even saying to him.

“I feel so sorry for him. After we saw some progress, I hoped it would continue, but it didn’t.

“I know that Tom, the person he was, would not want this for himself.

“If he knew of someone else in his position, he would have said it would be a happy release for them to go because it’s no way to live.

“His body is dead. His life and his freedom have been taken from him.

“He only exists now in the most basic way,” said Michael.

What happened had a profound effect on the entire area of west Sligo. People still struggle to accept it, and there is a lot of anger and fear.

James McLaughlin, a lifelong friend and neighbour of Tom’s, said time hasn’t lessened the collective fear and trauma in west Sligo.

“It was, in some ways, life-changing for the community. There has been so much sorrow over the past year,” said Mr McLaughlin.

“It kills me every time I drive by his house and see his car there and the gates locked. He’ll never see his home again. There is a lot of anger too.

“I haven’t visited Tom. I would find it hard to see him as he is now.

“I knew him for more than 50 years. He was a big strong fine man. He worked hard and gave his whole life to farming.

“He had only retired, and this happened to him.

A extensive search for evidence was carried out near the Sligo home of Tom Niland, who was attacked last January. Photo: James Connolly

“The last time I spoke to him was just a couple of days before it happened. I met him at a vigil for Ashling Murphy on the Sunday night, and he was attacked on Tuesday. I still struggle with that.”

​Despite increased awareness, rural crime is still an issue in the area, said Mr McLaughlin.

“Since Tom was attacked, there were five burglaries in an area very close to him.

“They were only small thefts, but the fear it brings is unreal. It horrifies people.

“People have installed CCTV and have put locks and chains on their doors.

“That’s how people live now.

‘Sometimes I don’t think Tom understands what I’m even saying to him. I feel so sorry for him. After we saw some progress, I hoped it would continue, but it didn’t’

“We have been campaigning for cameras along the main road for the last seven years, but GDPR has put a stop to it. It’s madness.

“Tom didn’t die, but his life is gone – he won’t improve. The rest of his life will be very hard on him. He is totally confined to bed.

“I hate thinking of what lies ahead for him. It’s not right.”

Blair Feeney, a shop owner from nearby Dromore West, said three men have been charged and are before the courts.

“There is a feeling of sorrow for Tom. He is unlikely to see his home place ever again,” said Mr Feeney.

“His car is still parked outside, but it will never bring him anywhere again.

“Tom’s life is over. He won’t have any quality of life at this stage. It’s a very sad end for a total gentleman.

“He was a hardworking man who never leaned on anyone for anything. Every penny he had was hard-earned.

“Everyone thinks of him and speaks about him, but there is an acceptance that the Tom we knew is gone.”

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