By Isabel Hayes
A man who set fire to his neighbour’s apartment before shouting: “I knew I was going to get her one way or another” has been jailed for four years.
Robert Coughlan (45) got a can of petrol and doused the floor outside his neighbour’s flat before setting fire to it, burning his hands in the process, Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard yesterday.
The woman, finding herself trapped in her top-floor apartment, considered trying to escape via a window before her brother came to her aid and extinguished the fire with multiple saucepans of water, Detective Garda Paul Daly told the court.
Coughlan, with an address at Castle Avenue, Clontarf, Dublin, pleaded guilty to one count of arson at the same address on August 8, 2020.
It is an offence that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Coughlan has two previous convictions for minor offences.
Sentencing Coughlan, Judge Martin Nolan said it seemed there was “some enmity” between Coughlan and his upstairs neighbours, whom he described as “kindly, well-intentioned people”.
The judge accepted that at the time of the incident, Coughlan’s judgment was heavily affected by his mental illness, alcohol and anti-depressants and that as a result, his moral culpability was reduced.
“If he had set this fire with the intention of harming (the victim) this court would have imposed a sentence of eight to 10 years,” Judge Nolan said.
Instead, the judge handed down a sentence of eight years and suspended the final four years on a number of conditions.
The court heard Coughlan caused about €20,000 worth of damage to the Georgian house, which was home to seven flats.
Det Gda Daly told Fiona McGowan BL, prosecuting, that Coughlan moved into the basement flat in 2011 and initially got on well with his neighbours.
However, he eventually started having disputes, particularly when he was intoxicated, which eventually led to him being issued an eviction notice.
The landlord took pity on Coughlan and delayed this eviction.
She, along with the victim and the victim’s brother, who also lived in the house, were “kindly, well-intentioned people with Mr Coughlan’s best interests at heart”, Judge Nolan noted.
They tried to help him with his difficulties when he was sober, the court heard.
On the day in question, the victim was in her flat when her brother saw Coughlan acting suspiciously on the landing before he noticed a fire outside his sister’s door.
His sister came to the door before the extent of the inferno caused her to retreat and consider another means of escape.
Her brother got a number of saucepans of water and eventually extinguished the blaze before Dublin Fire Brigade arrived on the scene.
When approached by the victim’s brother, Coughlan said “I knew I was going to get her one way or another,” Ms McGowan said.
Coughlan had burned his hands badly in the process of setting the fire and was taken to hospital for treatment. He has been in custody since shortly after the incident.
Dean Kelly SC, defending, handed up a number of medical reports outlining his client’s lengthy history of mental illness.
At the time of the offence, he was on a number of anti-depressants. He also had a long-standing alcohol addiction, the court heard.
Mr Kelly said it was in dispute that Coughlan said what he did about his victim.
He submitted Coughlan did not know that anybody was in the flat when he lit the fire. When questioned by gardaí he had little memory of the event.
He feels “regret and shame” for his actions on the day in question, Mr Kelly said.