AROUND this time last year gardaí in Cork launched a search operation for a 43-year-old father-of-two who had gone missing somewhere between Ballycotton and East Ferry.
A day later he turned up on his own, safe and unharmed. But whatever happened in the background, and perhaps nobody will ever know, there was concern enough for his wife to report his short disappearance. Something wasn't right.
Last week the same man murdered his two daughters before crashing his car into a land bank and perishing in a ball of fire.
The pieces of the puzzle surrounding why John Butler carried out his unthinkable crime were starting to come together in the small rural town of Ballycotton last week as his little girls Zoe (6) and Ella (2) were laid to rest and their mother Una struggled to come to terms with their deaths.
"I would say she hasn't cried yet," said a source close to the family, three days after the fact.
It will take gardaí at least another two months to piece it all together but what is clear is that there were warning signs. There were concerns for Butler's state of mind, although probably nobody could have known how things would play out.
Last week's horror story began on Tuesday morning. Una Butler (40), who had married her husband 10 years earlier, had driven to work in Cork city where she is employed as a clerical worker for the Revenue Commissioners. She was carrying on her daily routine as usual when she received the first sign that something was wrong.
The initial call came from one of her sisters, alarmed that Una's elder daughter had not arrived at school that morning (local sources suggested her sister works at the school but this could not be confirmed).
Again, whatever had been going on in the background, it was enough for Una to rush to her car and drive home. On the way she tried, unsuccessfully, to contact her husband.
Somewhere en route she was stopped by gardaí who diligently set out to prevent her reaching the scene of her daughters' deaths and who broke the news that nobody should ever have to hear. Zoe and Ella were discovered in their pyjamas. Zoe's body was on the couch, her sister's on the floor.
Gardaí believe they were killed sometime around eight o'clock, shortly after Una had left for work.
Their father, in his final parental act, made breakfast for his two girls. Later, when their bodies were discovered, one held a piece of toast while the other faced the television set where cartoons continued to play against the devastating scene. Una had called the house frantically, dozens and dozens of times trying to reach her husband. Something wasn't right.
About two kilometres away John Butler's car lay upturned against a mud bank at a T-junction between Ballycotton and Cloyne.
It had been driven at speed into the mud wall, turning into a fireball on impact. Gardaí who had been called to the scene initially believed they were responding to a standard road accident but this was clearly not the case.
There was too much fire for a normal crash and nobody with local knowledge could have hit as conspicuous a bank as that. It would later transpire that Butler had bought €20 worth of petrol, which he held in a canister, before his suicidal high speed impact.
Days later the extent of the damage could be seen in the charred remains of an overhanging tree, the blackened patch of grass and the solitary candle that blew in the wind as locals drove past, reminded of the horror that will make the name Ballycotton notorious for all the wrong reasons.
One of Butler's brothers was at the scene with gardaí when he got a phonecall. Una's sisters had made a horrific discovery at the family home. The picture was becoming horrendously clear.
The east Cork fishing village of Ballycotton looks like it was built to grace postcards – with winding roads, pretty buildings and a high mounted church overlooking the sea from which the community earns its sustenance. Such a remote place deals with its tragedies like any small community. It is stunned, disbelieving and protective of its victims. Initially its people discuss the situation in the blur of post-traumatic shock and then become protective, eventually even hostile.
As the country attempted to understand the tragic events of last week, the community, family and friends of those directly affected were more concerned with recovery and privacy. Journalists were issued the standard appeals for privacy, respected by some, ignored by others. Locals voiced, and in some minor instances acted out, their distaste for the media presence – one reporter was run out of a local bar; a photographer was targeted by two men as he sat in his car. It is an understandable reflex.
On Friday, the two Butler girls were buried in a sleepy corner of the country in which they should have grown up.
The previous evening they were laid out in their small coffins in the living room of the home in which they had lived and died. On Friday morning, at about a quarter to 11, John Butler's body, which had been positioned beside his daughters, was removed to his hometown of Cobh.
On the way, the procession passed the crash scene where he had ended his life; family members stepped out of their cars, laid some flowers, said a prayer.
Back in Ballycotton later that day, hundreds turned out for the funeral mass which was strictly private. The school pals of six-year-old Zoe lined out in a guard of honour between the Star of the Sea church, down its winding stairs that overlook the ocean and on to the neighbouring national school where other mothers had earlier huddled and discussed the unthinkable.
Post mortem results found that the little sisters had died of asphyxia.
John Butler was buried yesterday and it was on him that all attention focused as people grappled to come to terms with what had happened. The question asked everywhere, by the public, by the gardaí, by neighbours, media commentators and no doubt the family itself: how can a father kill his children?
"They don't know what is going on," said a local source in the community. "There was nothing [wrong]; absolutely nothing. Up to whatever went wrong he was perfect, happy out. He was a kind fella with no problems."
This was an opinion widely echoed and may account for much of last week's negative reaction towards perceived intrusions. Butler was a well-liked individual who seemed to fall foul of harder times.
Clearly though, people's perceptions that there was "absolutely nothing wrong" in the build up to his unexplainable actions were not in keeping with reality and it seems there had been concerns for his wellbeing. Maybe it was the same concern expressed when he went missing a year ago. It was certainly the same concern that had him treated by a doctor and prescribed medication. Gardaí are continuing to probe his medical background as part of their investigation, a file on which will be submitted to the coroner. They have already issued the proverbial 'nobody else is being sought in connection with the incident' statement.
John and Una Butler married around four years before they had their first daughter. Una comes from the very well regarded O'Riordan fishing family, which has deep ties to the community; her sister married into a local family that owns a popular pub in the village. Tragically, she lost her brother Michael 'the Monk' in a motorbike accident some years ago.
John hailed from Cobh and was best known for his love of gaelic football and road bowling. He was unknown to gardaí, he had no criminal record and no history of violence. He was, according to those who knew him well, a normal, outgoing guy and doting father: the kind of character that makes such a story all the more difficult to digest.
He was a social man who liked to spend time with his relatives. "Someone saw them out only a few weeks ago; they were a very close family. They were out playing football and having the craic," a source said.
According to others, he was not known to suffer from any kind of psychological problems when he worked at Irish Steel, but it seems likely that it was around this time things began to go wrong.
Butler later worked in the building industry, but had lost his job and was struggling to find work. He was in the process of setting up his own business, but it is unclear how this was progressing.
In recent times he acted as the 'house husband' looking after the home and children. But he was unhappy and keen to return to work. Sources close to the family noted that the bungalow in which they lived was surrounded by decorative stone work and paving that Butler had been in the middle of completing, the sign of a man unwilling to lie idle.
"When his wife heard about the accident that morning she rang him and didn't get an answer and drove home. She obviously had a feeling about it," said a source.
"She was rushing home and at the same time she heard about a bad crash and I think she may have put two and two together. The general consensus down here is that people are asking why did he take the two girls as well, that there must have been problems."
It's unclear how long the candle will be left burning at the crossroads between Cloyne and Ballycotton but the charred cinders of the surrounding shrubs will remind everyone entering this town that something unspeakable took place.
The events of last week will loiter in the seaside air and for many they will never go away. As gardaí called from door to door on Friday near the Shanagarry petrol station that Butler visited in the run up to his death, it was clear that the memories of this tragedy will not be buried alongside its victims.
It will take another two months at least for investigators to conclude their work, trawling through the mysterious circumstances and putting together the final pieces of a very grim puzzle. Butler will never be charged with any crime and in any case, it is his family and community who must pay the price.
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