'vicious dogs' | 

Tom Niland's family slam 'domestic terrorists' who left Sligo OAP in coma

Hunt for three-man gang as gardaí zero in on CCTV evidence

Tom Niland is in a coma

Eavan Murray 

GARDAÍ hunting a vicious criminal gang which left a bachelor farmer in rural Sligo fighting for his life have identified three key suspects on CCTV close to the scene.

Thomas 'Tom' Niland (73) suffered horrific head injuries during an aggravated burglary at his home in Skreen, Co Sligo, on January 18.

It is understood gardaí have made significant progress in their investigation.

Investigators believe the gang which targeted the elderly retired farmer was familiar with the local area and used a network of isolated rural roads traversing the Ox Mountains during its escape.

Days following the incident, a man walking beside Easkey Lough on a mountain road that links Dromore West and Tubbercurry found Mr Niland's wallet.

Detectives believe the wallet was thrown from the raiders' vehicle as they fled.

The garda diving unit spent two days combing the lake but have yet to find Mr Niland's phone, which they believe was taken during the robbery.

During the attack, in a bid to further incapacitate Mr Niland, one of his attackers tied his shoelaces together.

After the gang escaped, the bachelor managed to crawl to the roadway outside his house and was found by a passing bus driver and security guard.

Outraged locals have come together to condemn the sickening attack on Mr Niland, who is highly respected and described as "a gentle giant".

Speaking outside Sligo University Hospital, where Mr Niland is on a ventilator battling for his life, Martin Walsh, Tom's first cousin, described the attackers as "domestic terrorists".

Michael Walsh, (first cousin of Tom Niland) and his daughter Michelle Haran

"What is terrorism? It's leaving people and communities living in fear," he said. "And it's not like international terrorism where there are occasional attacks. This is ongoing, this is almost weekly now.

"People are being terrorised, robbed and beaten in their own homes. It's almost like people are accepting this kind of violence as commonplace in our society. Why is it allowed to be like that?

"It was so vicious, almost like a murderous attack. What can you say? It's not the first time, and it won't be the last, because they are getting away with it. These people have everybody terrified."

Mr Walsh described the level of violence inflicted on Mr Niland as "beyond comprehension".

"How could brutalising someone come naturally to anyone?" he said.

"I don't know if it's the gang mentality. When they were together they seemed to lose control... what were they trying to prove to each other?

"There has to be a reckoning for this; you have to hope so."

Mr Walsh and his daughter Michelle Haran pay daily visits to Mr Niland's bedside.

Initially following the attack, Mr Niland was conscious and was able to provide gardaí with a description of his attackers. However, within 48 hours, his condition deteriorated, and he fell into a coma.

Despite the best efforts of his medical team, he has shown no signs of recovery.

"The injuries to his head meant his brain was swelling all the time. There was a deep bleed inside, and they were watching to see how it was going all the time," Mr Walsh said. "I brought my phone into him, and he rang a good few people.

"Everybody was thinking, 'thank God', he was going to be OK, apart from the beating, and who cares about the money? Then the following day, he had a turn, and he has never come back from that.

"There has been absolutely no change. He is unresponsive on a ventilator.

"The guards are determined to find these people, and they certainly have a lot of resources put into it. They are throwing everything at it, and we are so grateful.

"The term they are using is aggravated assault. But what does that even mean?

"It means nothing when you look at the situation Tom is in now. If they could only see what they have done to him."

His voice breaking, Mr Walsh added: "He looked shocking. You can't communicate with him. You can't express to him what you feel.

"The condition he is in, and you almost feel embarrassed for him that you are there looking at him like that. And you can't do anything for him.

"I don't know how anyone could do this to another person. They are like vicious dogs."

Ms Haran said she is still in a state of disbelief.

"The first time I saw him after he was beaten, I didn't recognise him," she said.

"He was a very quiet and shy man. He would be the perfect example of a gentle giant. He was big and strong but gentle. The level of violence was just so unnecessary.

"This happened at 6.30pm. Tom lives on the main road, and they were so brazen to go there at that time.

"They had no fear in them. I don't understand it."

Shop owner Blain Feeney, from Dromore West, just a 10-minute drive from Mr Niland's home, said the community is "outraged and horrified" by the attack.

Fighting back tears, Mr Feeney said: "Tom never bothered anyone. He just got on with his life. He is a quiet, dignified, lovely man.

"The sense of devastation and fear in the area is almost unthinkable. We are all hoping and praying that these monsters, who are still at large, will be brought to justice. All they got was a small amount of Tom's hard-earned money. It's totally unacceptable. Tom is a real man who worked for every penny he had, not like these disgusting cowards.

"Can we please get someone in government to think practically about protecting rural Ireland?"

Mr Niland described his attackers as being broadly built with Irish accents.

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