A deceased Co Galway farmer did not like the main beneficiary of her contested will and referred to him as “O’Toole the fool”, the High Court has heard.
Maureen Donnellan, a distant cousin of the late Margaret Hernon, told the court that from her early childhood she spent a lot of time with the deceased, assisted her in her later years and knew her extremely well.
Ms Donnellan, whose mother is a first cousin once removed of the deceased, said she was very surprised when she heard several months after Ms Hernon’s death that the bulk of her estate had been left to another cousin, Peter O’Toole, of Leagaun, Moycullen, Co Galway.
She said Ms Hernon did not like Mr O’Toole, did not want to spend time with him, and had a nickname for him.
She said Ms Hernon, who knew about Mr O’Toole’s criminal convictions, called him “O’Toole the fool” and “only fools and horses”, which, she said, was a reference to an alleged failed attempt by Mr O’Toole to rob a horse box.
Ms Donnellan said Mr O’Toole approached her several times asking her to bring Ms Hernon to his home so he could show her his cattle. These invitations were generally refused by Ms Hernon, Ms Donnellan said.
Ms Hernon, who had no children and was an only child, died aged 91 on March 16th, 2017. She was pre-deceased by her husband Frank in 2005 and all of her first cousins.
Banged on door
Ms Donnellan said that following Ms Hernon’s death, Mr O’Toole arrived at her mother’s home, which is next door to Ms Donnellan’s house, and banged very loudly on the door.
Ms Donnellan said that when she spoke to him that night in July 2017, Mr O’Toole asked: “How could you be so f***ing stupid as to lose everything?” She said this was a reference to the fact that it was believed at the time that Ms Hernon, who the witness said could be indecisive at times, had died intestate.
She also claims Mr O’Toole contacted her saying that if she helped him she would be looked after, and that he had a solicitor in Dublin who could help. These offers came before September 2017, when it was revealed Ms Hernon made a will before a solicitor in 2006.
Ms Donnellan was giving evidence on the second day of an application brought by Agustus ‘Gus’ Kelehan, one of more than 40 offspring of the deceased’s first cousins, seeking to set aside the 2006 will. The case is against the executor of the estate retired solicitor Liam O’Gallchobhair, of Highfield Park, Galway.
It is claimed the will was procured by deceit. The claims are denied. The plaintiffs are no longer pursuing their allegations that the will was obtained by forgery or by undue influence, Mr Justice Cian Ferriter heard on Wednesday.
The court also heard Mr O’Toole is not contesting the plaintiff’s evidence that he received several criminal convictions including one for possession of a gun that was used by others in a robbery in Galway City in 1974 in which an innocent man was shot dead. He was also convicted in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s for offences including obtaining property by deception and forgery.
In her evidence to the court, Ms Donnellan held a photograph of Ms Hernon and became upset when speaking about the circumstances of her death.
In reply to David Kennedy SC, appearing with Paddy McCarthy SC and Conor Cahill BL, instructed by Patrick Higgins of Keanes Solicitors, she said she was a frequent visitor to Ms Hernon, particularly in her final years.
Ms Donnellan said she helped Ms Hernon manage her affairs without trying to infringe on her dignity and independence. She said she was suspicious about the will and made a complaint to gardaí about it.
She said she never saw Mr O’Gallchobhair at Ms Hernon’s house and that when it came to legal matters she was aware the deceased had dealings with another firm of solicitors. She also said that while Ms Hernon had lots of visitors when in nursing homes prior to her death, she never saw Mr O’Toole’s name on the visitor’s register at any of the facilities.
Under cross-examination by Michael Hourican SC, wgith Vinog Faughnan SC and Laurence Masterson BL, instructed by O’Dowd Solicitors, Ms Donnellan said that while names included on a draft will were similar to those on the 2006 will, she did not accept that that will is correct.
She said she works in the insurance sector and was suspicious of the will as the document had no headed paper and no official stamp. In response to counsel, she said she believed the names on the will other than Mr O’Tooles had been “randomly plucked out of the air”.
When concluding his evidence under cross-examination on Wednesday, Mr Kelehan said he was surprised no relative of Ms Hernon’s late husband was included in the 2006 will. Mr Hernon had one nephew in particular who he was very close to, Mr Kelehan said.
Mr Kelehan also denied Mr Hourican’s contention that the claims he was making against the will were “an attempt to blacken the names” of Mr O’Toole and Mr O’Gallchobhair.
Ms Hernon left a valuable estate including the farmhouse where she resided at Barnacranny, Bushypark, Co Galway, with 13 adjoining acres of farmland, lands in Athenry, Co Galway, and a significant quantity of cash.
It had been believed that she died intestate, having never completed a will that she had been drafting.
Six months after her death her family was informed she made a will in 2006 before Mr O’Gallchobhair, who was also nominated to act as executor of her estate. He ceased practising law in 2010.
She left sums totalling €22,000 to a few family members, including Ms Donnellan and her mother, and the local Catholic church, while the rest of the estate was left to Mr O’Toole.
Mr O’Gallchobhair denies the claims against him and, in a counterclaim, seeks an order formally proving the 2006 will. He claims he knew the deceased for many years and drafted the will after meeting her in Galway city in 2006.
He claims he and another man, John Concannon, a farmer from Truskey East, Barna, Co Galway, witnessed Ms Hernon sign the will. He died in 2017, a few months after Ms Hernon passed away.
He accepts he knows Mr O’Toole, and had acted for him, but denies all of the allegations that he colluded with him.
Mr O’Toole denies any wrongdoing and claims he had a good relationship with the deceased.
The hearing continues.