'We are a broken family waiting for over 30 years' - Sheila Stack

The wife of murdered Portlaoise Prison Officer Brian Stack speaks out about their long wait for justice

'We are a broken family waiting for over 30 years' - Sheila Stack
By Lynda Kiernan lynda.kiernan@leinsterexpress.ie @laoisnews

The widow of Portlaoise Chief Prison Officer Brian Stack, murdered by the IRA over 30 years ago, has made a heartfelt plea for his killer to come forward.

Speaking to the Leinster Express at her Portlaoise home, Sheila Stack remains hurt and angry at the lack of justice over Brian's death, which left her a widow with three young boys in 1984.

“Brian was deprived of seeing his sons grow up, as a result of the actions of a man, not of God. If he had died from cancer or was killed on the road, that would be a completely different thing.

“He was just doing his job, and some people were not happy with that. He was shot in the back by a coward who could not give him eye contact. Shame on you whoever you are, but then you don't care,” Mrs Stack said.

She said those who know the truth but keep quiet, “are guilty of protecting a coward”, asking them to look into their consciences.

“We are a broken family waiting for over 30 years for people to come forward with information on this case. No individual has the right to take life. We just want justice,” the widow said.

The Portlaoise couple married when Sheila O'Donoghue was 22. They had 17 years together, and three sons, Austin, Ciaran and Oliver, and Brian rose in the ranks working in the high security prison.

“He was a very easy going man but he was very private about his work. It was a demanding job, he was immersed in it. You could see it from his demeanour sometimes, a frustration, but he always said he couldn't talk about it,” she said.

Brian was shot by a motorbike passenger as he walked out of the national Boxing Stadium in 1983.

“My brother Seamus came to our house and first said the Gardaí told him there was an accident, Brian was hit by a motorbike. I think he was trying to break it to me gently,” she recalled.

Brian was first rushed to the Meath hospital, and then spent a year in rehabilitation, before coming home where Sheila cared for him. He was paralysed from the neck down, and brain damaged.

“It was like a madhouse, just dreadful, I had to keep going. I sent the boys to boarding school, I thought that was the best thing at the time. Brian needed constant care, he could speak but he had the mental ability of a three year old, very demanding. The doctors said to look after myself first but it doesn't work out like that,” she said.

Then one day after six months, he stopped breathing suddenly.

“I called Dr O'Sullivan, I ran for a neighbour who is a nurse and she tried to resusitate him. He went to hospital but he never regained consciousness. He died two weeks later,” Mrs Stack said.

She had to keep going.

“What can you do, you're doubling up as two parents, trying to control three lads, with the usual problems. The whole house changed, it went from a family of five, to being turned upside down. I had support from my family, but at the end of the day you have to deal with it yourself,” she said.

The state did little to help, with no support from the government or the prison service, and no counselling .

“It was a different era. The Governer of Portlaoise, William Reilly was extremely good though, and staff set up a rota to give their time to bring me to visit Brian in Dun Laoghaire,” Mrs Stack said.

The tragedy changed her.

“It makes you more compassionate, you value things differently, you have to live it to know,” she said.

Her eight grandchildren now keep her going.

“They never knew Brian, he lost out on the lads growing up too,” she said.

The family's way of coping with the tragedy was to put it to the back of their minds.

“It was never talked about until we got a call from a writer Barry Cummins in 2007, he wanted to write a chapter about it. Suddenly after that the media were on it, and we contacted the Gardaí to ask about the investigation. They told me that Brian's file was put away a month after his funeral. It was devastating to be told that. The case was still open but I feel they just didn't want to go there,” she said.

Her son Austin began to campaign for answers, and with Oliver, travelled in a blacked out van to meet the IRA to be finally told that they had done the murder.

In 2013, on the 30th anniversary, the Minister for Justice unveiled a bust of Brian, presented the family with the Stack medal, and renamed the prison training centre as Brian Stack House.

“It was recognition finally, and very much appreciated, but it wasn't closure.” said Mrs Stack.

The unsolved case became a political football again before Christmas, with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams claiming in the Dáil that the Stacks betrayed confidentiality on names of people with information, a claim flatly denied by Austin Stack.

A fortnight ago, a promised meeting was held with the Taoiseach and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, promising full resources for the investigation.

“They instilled some optimism, but for me this is going on a lifetime. It might go on another 30 years, I might not see it, it's just all too embedded. I just want people to be honest, to put their hand up and say 'yes, I did this'. We have to keep pushing. We have to have hope,” Sheila Stack said.