40 years waiting to clear his name
Martin Conmey was 20 years old when he and two others were wrongly accused of killing Una Lynskey, yards from her home near Ratoath, Dublin in 1971. Michael Clifford outlines his long battle for justice and arduous quest for a certificate of miscarriage of justice
By Michael Clifford
THEY found Martin Kerrigan’s body deep in the Dublin mountains, only yards from where Una Lynskey’s body had been found days earlier. He had been abducted near his home, in rural Co Meath, just as Una had.
He was most likely still alive as he was driven the 25 miles from near his home to the spot where his body was found. Una Lynskey had been taken on the same journey, sometime in the preceding two months, dead or alive.
The message, never written, but chillingly conveyed, was simple. A life for a life. It was December 1971. Two young members of a tight-knit community had been violently murdered, and the community ripped asunder.
A country unaccustomed to such outrage was numbed. For some of those caught up in the tragedy, lives were set on a different, painful path, which brought them from the cusp of adulthood, into late middle age, from innocent 1971, all the way to today, when the end might be near.
Una Lynskey was 19 when she finished her day’s work at the Land Commission in Dublin on Oct 12, 1971. She had been working in the state agency for just a few months. After work, she got the bus home with her cousin Anne Gaughan. The two young women alighted from the bus at the mouth of Porterstown Lane, an area a few miles south of the village of Ratoath. Both were members of a community which had been formed by the resettlement of about 10 families from the west of Ireland to the Porterstown Lane area in the 1940s.
The move had been organised by the Land Commission, the very body for which Una was now working. Many of the families were related, and that, allied to their origins, ensured the ties that bind in rural Ireland were particularly tight among these families.
The two women spoke briefly as the bus pulled off into the autumn evening. Anne Gauaghan lived near the stop. Una’s home was a 15 minute walk up the lane. She set off alone and was never seen alive again.
A few hours later, when she didn’t arrive home, the alarm was raised. A major search was launched. Yet no trace of the missing girl was found. The case was elevated to a murder investigation. Detectives from the fledging murder squad were dispatched to the area. They would, in time, be central to how the case developed.
One early lead involved the sighting of a Zodiac car in the locality sometime before Una disappeared. Nothing came of the lead. The murder squad then began to concentrate on three local men who had been seen in a similar car that evening. Dick Donnolly was 24 and owned a Zypher model. He had been seen driving around with two others, 20-year-old Martin Conmey, and 19-year-old Martin Kerrigan. All three were part of the local fabric, well known to the Gaughan and Lynskey families. As the days wore on, gardaí began to concentrate more and more on the three local lads.
Then, on Oct 25, they were taken to Trim Garda station. Other local young men were also taken in and questioned. What happened in the garda station would become central to everything that unfolded thereafter.
Forty-eight hours after the arrests, the three men were released. During their detention, Conmey and Kerrigan signed statements admitting to encountering Una Lynskey on the evening she disappeared.
The details were sketchy and conflicting, but in broad terms the two statements related that the men had encountered Una on the lane that night, something happened, and the girl ended up dead. They hid the body in a field. There was also some suggestion that Donnelly’s car hit her by accident and they had hidden the body afterwards out of fright. However, the statements did not lead to a breakthrough in locating Una’s body. Neither were any charges pressed.
Donnelly, who was a few years older than his friends, didn’t sign any statement. All three claimed they had been ill-treated and that the statements were made under severe duress. Gardaí vehemently denied anything untoward.
Martin Conmey’s hair was in a bad state and he claimed members of the investigation team had pulled it from his head. Gardaí subsequently claimed he pulled out his own hair in frustration when he came clean about what had happened.
By then, the dynamic within the community had changed utterly. Una was one of a family of 12. Their cousins also lived in the area. Now, they were convinced Una had been abducted and murdered by the three local lads. The tension spilt over. On the road outside the Kerrigans’ home, the word ‘murderer’ was daubed. Near the Conmey home a crude depiction of a gallows was sketched. Una Lynskey’s brothers shouted abuse whenever they encountered those who were now murder suspects.
Of the three men, Kerrigan was the most vulnerable to any form of attack. Dick Donnelly was a big man. Martin Conmey had older brothers. Martin Kerrigan’s only brother, John, was away in England.
On Dec 10, there was a breakthrough in the case. A walker in the Dublin mountains came across a badly decomposed body. It was quickly identified as being that of Una. It was not possible to determine cause of death. Nine days later, at 11pm on Dec 19, Martin Kerrigan was bundled into a mini near Porterstown Lane. Immediately, everybody knew what was happening. Members of Una Lynskey’s family had decided to exact revenge. It quickly became apparent that Kerrigan had been abducted by Sean and James Lynskey and their cousin John Gaughan.
“We thought they were going to give him a hiding,” Martin Kerrigan’s sister, Kate, told this reporter in an interview 12 years ago. “It was awful, but we thought that would be the extent of it. We went up to John Gaughan’s house, waiting for them to come back, but then we went home. At around four in the morning a guard called and told us.”
The Lynskeys and Gaughan had given themselves up on return from the Dublin mountains. Martin Kerrigan’s body was found within hours. The same day, Donnelly and Conmey were taken to Rathfarnham Garda station and questioned again about the killing of Una Lynskey. Members of the gardaí would later admit in court that the two men were shown photos of the naked body of their friend, who had been violently killed the previous day. By now, the middle-aged man in the Zodiac had been completely eliminated from the gardaí’s inquiries.
On Mar 6, 1972, Donnelly and Conmey were charged with Una Lynskey’s murder. Nine days later the Lynskey brothers and John Gaughan were put on trial for the murder of Martin Kerrigan.
The three men claimed Kerrigan was alive when they left him. Evidence was also presented of an apparent attempt to castrate Martin Kerrigan while he was still alive. The three men were found guilty of manslaughter.
From the point of view of a jury, it would be difficult not to have some sympathy for the killers. After all, at the height of bereavement, rage had apparently driven them to seek out revenge. They were sentenced to three years in prison.
On Jun 28, 1972, the trial of Donnelly and Kerrigan for Una Lynskey’s murder began. The case nearly exclusively rested on the statements made in Trim Garda station, and some supporting evidence taken from other local men, who testified about seeing Donnelly’s car at the time in question. No motive was ever established beyond a loose suggestion the three had panicked after something happened when they encountered Una in the lane. Afterwards, it was claimed the three went out socialising in a local pub as they had been scheduled to do.
Summing up the case, Justice Seamus Henchy told the jury: “If these were the murderers of Una Lynskey, if these young men had done that, had gone afterwards, gone for a sort of evening with their girlfriends to pubs and so forth and of course that would be a very callous thing to do if Una Lynskey had been left dying or dead. These girls (the girlfriends) have given evidence that they were with the young men that night and they enjoyed themselves.”
After a 13-day trial, the jury went out at 2.58pm on Jul 15. They deliberated until 2.34am the following morning and returned verdicts of guilty of manslaughter on both men.
“I am totally disinterested in such a ludicrous verdict,” the prosecuting counsel was recorded as reacting in court. It would be difficult to disagree with him. If the men had done it, all the evidence suggested murder. If they had not, they were innocent.
Although the jury’s brief was to consider only the verdict, events beyond the jury room must have been difficult to ignore.
Crude justice had already been dispensed to the two defendants’ friend, Martin Kerrigan. The men who had killed him had been convicted of manslaughter, rather than murder. The idea that they may have killed the wrong man was beyond comprehension. Ergo, Kerrigan’s two friends must have been guilty of killing Una Lynskey. Mustn’t they?
Donnelly, who hadn’t made a self-incriminating statement, had his conviction overturned on appeal. Conmey spent three years in prison. Labelled a killer on the cusp of adulthood, he had never before been in any trouble whatsoever. His life would never be the same again.
In the decades that followed Martin Conmey’s release, he tried as best he could to get on with life. Others in his family couldn’t leave the past alone, not when it was weighted with what they saw as an appalling injustice.
Martin’s sister, Mary, who had been a young girl in 1971, pursued every avenue she could to clear her brother’s name. She married another local man Pádraic Gaughan, who is a cousin of the Lynskeys. Unlike many in his wider family, Gaughan believed in the innocence of the three young men from the outset.
Martin decided himself to act when he saw the Gulidford Four being released. Tears came to his eyes at the sight of Gerry Conlon declaring to the world, “I’m an innocent man”.
Billy Flynn, the private investigator credited with uncovering the Garda corruption in Donegal was retained, and he did some invaluable work in the case, prior to his death in 2010.
The family and their friends, including Conmey’s co-accused Dick Donnelly, pursued what they saw as a miscarriage of justice, until finally the case made it back into the Court of Criminal Appeal in 2010. At last, Conmey was getting the chance to clear his name.
Everything about the case against Martin Conmey, Dick Donnelly, and Martin Kerrigan flowed from their detention in Trim Garda Station and statements obtained from other witnesses about Donnelly’s car on the night in question. The three suspects, and the other witnesses, all claimed they had given the statements under duress, after being subjected to violence.
The case was handled by the murder squad. In 1971, the murder squad was a fledging outfit, which would come to major national prominence over the following 15 years. It would be involved in solving some of the most serious crimes in the country, and received much commendation for its work.
There would also be a number of instances in which it was claimed members of the squad systemically abused suspects in order to extract confessions. In time, the squad would form the core of a group that came to be known as “the heavy gang”. The head of the squad was Detective Inspector John Courtney, who was the subject of a number of allegations of Garda brutality in various courts and a tribunal.
There is no record of any court or inquiry accepting Courtney abused suspects. He was never charged with assault and maintained he never ill-treated anybody in custody.
“There was no such thing as the heavy gang in the Garda Síochána,” he told the Court of Criminal Appeal in 2010 when he gave evidence at Martin Conmey’s appeal. The murder squad investigated practically every serious crime in the country through the 1970s and 1980s. The kidnapping of Dutch industrialist Tieda Herrema in 1975 was a success for the squad when the kidnappers were located at a house in Co Kildare. Conor Cruise O’Brien, a minister at the time, related one officer told him a suspect had refused to give the kidnappers’ location until he, the officer in question, “beat the shit” out of him.
The murder squad also investigated the Sallins train robbery for which Nicky Kelly was convicted. There was ample evidence at least four suspects, including Kelly, were severely assaulted in custody, but the gardaí maintained they had beaten each other up. Three men were convicted after a bizarre judicial process. Two were released on appeal, and Kelly pardoned.
Then there was the Kerry babies, an investigation which Courtney oversaw. A young woman, Joanne Hayes, and four of her siblings were interviewed in Tralee Garda Station in 1984, some weeks after a baby’s body was found on a beach in Cahirciveen, some 50 miles away.
Hayes admitted stabbing and throwing the baby into the sea off Slea Head, across the bay from where the body was found. Her brothers and sister admitted complicity in the crime. Afterwards, blood tests showed that Hayes and her boyfriend at the time could not have conceived the Cahirciveen baby. Another baby, which had died naturally soon after birth, was buried on the Hayes’ farm.
The family claimed they were intimidated in custody and Hayes’ two brothers claimed they were assaulted. A murder charge against Hayes was dropped and a tribunal set up to establish how a family could sign confessions to the murder of a baby to whom Joanne couldn’t have given birth. That question was never properly answered in the tribunal report.
All of that, including a pattern of allegations, would come later. In 1971, no controversy surrounded the murder squad.
At the 2010 hearing, the court heard from Seán Reilly, who was another young man in 1971, living in the Porterstown Lane area. He had been outside his family home with a friend on the night in question.
He had given a statement to a local garda of having seen a car passing outside his home on the fateful night, but that it was dark and would have been impossible to make out who it was. Then, on Oct 25, he was visited by a murder squad detective and brought to Trim for a further interview about what he saw.
After five hours he signed another statement, that referenced the car that had passed his house that night, saying it “could have been Dick Donnelly’s”. His friend, Martin Madden had given a similar earlier statement. After five hours in the Garda station, he changed it, saying, “A car passed going towards the Navan Road, I said to Seán Reilly, ‘that must be Dick.’ I know Dick Donnelly’s car well, it’s a silver Zephyr”.
Reilly claimed in the 2010 hearing that he was assaulted while in the Garda station. He told the court he was made to feel like a suspect. He said he was punched several times on the shoulder and shouted at and intimidated by gardaí who wanted “information about Dick Donnelly’s car”.
Asked in court to explain these crucial changes in statements, retired Detective Courtney replied: “It often happens that we had to go back to witnesses four or five times to get the full facts from them.” He denied that anybody had been abused at the Garda station.
Crucially, there was no explanation in the second statements as to why they differed so radically from the first in which there was absolutely no reference to Donnelly.With a positive sighting of Dick Donnelly’s car tied down, the gardaí had something to work on. Within hours of Reilly and Madden making their revised statements, the three suspects were brought to Trim. Martin Conmey was visited at home at 10.30pm.
Donnelly made no statement during over 40 hours in custody. Conmey and Kerrigan signed statements incriminating themselves in Una’s disappearance.
Conmey was kept awake from 10.30pm on Monday until the early hours of Wednesday morning.
John Courtney was also involved in another murder investigation in 1976 in which a suspect, Christy Lynch, was interrogated for 22 hours without break. Lynch claimed he had been abused in custody.
The Supreme Court overturned Lynch’s murder conviction on the basis of the interview conditions.
“I’d be very concerned if somebody (being questioned) didn’t get a reasonable amount of sleep,” Courtney told the court of criminal appeal.
Conmey testified at the same court that he had been punched, thrown on the floor and “pulled up by the hair” while being questioned. He said he was “making up stories” because he was “so frightened and scared”.
He just agreed with questions being put to him at the station because he had been told he would “never get home to see his parents”.
He said his hair had been pulled out, although at the 1972 murder trial the gardaí claimed he did this himself.
Asked about Conmey’s missing hair, Courtney told the appeal court: “I can’t remember anything about it. I used no violence whatsoever on him (Conmey).”
On Nov 22, 2010, the Court of Criminal Appeal gave its verdict on Conmey’s application. Conmey sat awaiting the verdict next to the man with whom he had been originally convicted, Dick Donnelly. The presiding judge, Adrian Hardiman, declared that the court was quashing the 1972 manslaughter conviction.
There followed gasps of disbelief, then clapping which gave way to the sound of sobs. Conmey’s sister Mary was in court, as were Martin Kerrigan’s four sisters. Their brother had been brutally killed, and now nearly 40 years later, they could feel vindicated that a court had decided his friend — and by extension Kerrigan himself — had not been involved in Una Lynskey’s death.
Afterwards, Martin Conmey described what had gone through his head when he heard the verdict. “Even when he (Hardiman) said the words, I didn’t know that the conviction was quashed. I turned to Stephen (Cooney, his solicitor). I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t let myself believe it. Then I just began crying.
“It made me bitter, it destroyed me in some ways, having taken away so many years of my life, but at least the result restored some of my faith in the justice system,” Conmey said last week.
“I’m just sorry my father didn’t live to see my name cleared. And it’s terribly unfortunate that Marty Kerrigan never had the opportunity to walk into a court to clear his name.”
Last month, the court began hearing Conmey’s application for a certificate of miscarriage of justice. The case was delayed as the State raised an issue over whether the court should be presided over by Judge Hardiman, as he had been asked for an opinion on the case 13 years ago when he was barrister.
As of yet, a new date has not been set for the hearing, but the judges indicated they would be anxious it would be heard before the end of the law term.
If successful with his application, it will represent for Martin Conmey the final furlong in a quest for justice that has run for more than 40 years.
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