A community that never healed after the gravest of injustices

The unsolved murder of Una Lynskey in 1971 was the catalyst for a misguided revenge killing and a false manslaughter conviction, says Michael Clifford.

A community that never healed after the gravest of injustices

Dick Donnelly needs the assistance of a wheelchair. He’s approaching 70, but for decades his life has had a question mark next to it.

Martin Conmey is a few years younger. He has lived with the question mark, too, served three years in prison, as a result, and finally cleared his name, over 40 years after his world exploded.

Anne Kerrigan is Dick’s wife. Dick, Martin, and Anne’s brother, Marty, were close friends, when circumstances thrust tragedy upon them, just as they were on the cusp of adulthood.

Marty died violently in 1971, at the hands of men who believed that he, Dick, and Martin killed their sister, Una Lynskey (inset right).

Anne, Dick, and Martin have come together to talk about how the decades, and even the vindication received by Martin Conmey in court, have failed to effect closure.

They want to talk about the Marty Kerrigan who will be forever 19, while his siblings and friends grew into adulthood and later life. They feel helpless in addressing what they see as a frightening injustice.

“I feel it was a terrible loss of a young life, for no reason,” Anne Kerrigan says. “He shouldn’t have died and I don’t think his name has been cleared, but how can it be cleared? He was never charged with anything.”

Marty Kerrigan was brutally killed by two brothers and a cousin of Una Lynskey, who believed that he, Dick Donnelly, and Martin Conmey were responsible for Una’s murder.

The erroneous belief that the three men were murderers had been prompted largely by the Garda investigation into Una’s disappearance.

“It’s still with me and my two sisters who live here, and our brother and sister in England,” Anne says. “It never goes away.”

Six months after Marty’s body was found, Dick Donnolly and Martin Conmey were tried for the murder of Una Lynskey and convicted of manslaughter. Dick’s conviction was overturned on appeal.

Martin served three years in prison, and had to wait another four decades before his conviction was finally deemed a miscarriage of


Marty Kerrigan never had the chance to defend himself, either physically or in the eyes of the law.

“The State apologised to me, but there was no apology for Marty,” Martin Conmey says.

“And it is always out there. I still feel there are people saying that I’ve got a few pound [he was compensated by the State, after receiving a miscarriage of justice certificate in 2014] and I’m just getting on with my life, but we never got any answers. This has tortured me all my life.”

Where lies closure? “It’s hard to know,” Anne says. “Unless somebody comes forward who knows something. There was a suspect very early on, but that wasn’t followed up. That man probably isn’t alive anymore, at this stage.

“We were told that because Marty was never changed with anything, he can’t be cleared.”

They wonder about an inquiry, but are not holding out much hope. Yet, they can’t let go, continuing, instead, to reach out for something, hoping against hope to live to see the day when the truth can be unearthed.

Life for a life

Marty Kerrigan suffered a horrible death. His body was found in the Dublin mountains, only yards from where Una Lynskey’s body had been found days earlier.

The message was stark — a life for a life. Marty had been abducted from near his home in rural Co Meath, just as Una had from the same area.

There was evidence that he had been subjected to some form of mutilation.

Both of the deceased were members of a close-knit community in the Porterstown Lane area of Meath, a few miles south of Ratoath. Most of the families were originally from the west of Ireland.

Una Lynskey was 19 when she disappeared, soon after disembarking from a bus, on her way home from work, in Dublin, on October 12, 1971.

A major search ensued, which quickly developed into a garda investigation. Murder was suspected.

Detectives from what came to be known as the Murder Squad were dispatched to the area. A car had been seen in the lane on the day in question, around the time Una disappeared.

Pretty soon, the gardaí began to concentrate on three local youths, all well-known to the missing woman: Dick Donnolly, Martin Conmey, and Marty Kerrigan.

Dick owned a Zypher model car and the guards began working to a theory that the three were seen driving in the lane soon after Una got off the bus.

Another sighting, of a similar make of car, was quickly discounted, once the guards began to focus on Dick Donnolly’s Zypher. It would be over 20 years before a private investigator would look freshly at this mavenue of investigation, including producing a photofit of the man who was driving.

At the time, that line of inquiry was dismissed questionably early.

In pursuit of the theory concerning the local lads, gardai interviewed other youths, who claimed to have seen the Zypher at this crucial time. Nearly 40 years later, it would emerge that these men had initially stated that they hadn’t seen Dick’s car, but had later given conflicting statements saying that they had.

At a 2010 Court of Appeal hearing, one of the men, Sean Reilly, told the court that, after giving an initial statement, he was brought to Trim Garda Station, where he gave the same account.

“They [the guards] were not satisfied with this,” he said.

“I was punched on the outside of the shoulder and the cheek.”

He said several detectives were interviewing him at different times, that he was punched repeatedly, that the table in front of him was banged and that gardaí shouted at him. He singled out one of the detectives.

“I can tell you, he was frothing out of the mouth with temper,” Sean

Reilly said.

Reilly, as with the three men who became suspects, was very young, had never been in trouble, and came from a rural background in a conservative, authoritarian state.

He signed a statement putting Donnolly’s car in the lane. Crucially, his earlier statement was not referenced thereafter.

During a subsequent murder trial, the earlier statement was not given to the defence. If it had been, it would have raised the gravest questions about how there had been a complete change of recollection of what he had observed. The gardaí never offered an explanation as to why the man’s recollection had changed so radically in a matter of days.

At later court hearings, the gardaí repeatedly denied they had abused anybody in custody.

Within a week, the three suspects were brought to the same station.

“I had never been in a Garda station in my life, before that day,” Martin Conmey remembered.

All of them alleged being subjected to similar treatment to Reilly. They were repeatedly interviewed, and kept awake for 44 hours.

Conmey and Kerrigan signed statements admitting they had encountered Una Lynskey on the day she went missing, that something happened, and that she ended up dead.

But the details were vague. There was no resolution about where the body was buried. If this was an admission of guilt, it was a strange one.

Dick Donnolly, who, at 24, was older than his two friends, didn’t sign a statement.

“They wrote out something and told me to sign it, but I said I’m not admitting to something I didn’t do and that’s when the hammering really started.”

The gardaí denied any abuse in custody.

When Martin Conmey returned home, clumps of his hair were missing. Later, in court, gardaí would claim he had started pulling out his own hair, when the enormity of what he had done had begun to dawn on him.

Thereafter, everything changed in Porterstown Lane.

Una Lynskey’s family, on the basis of the Garda investigation and arrests, were now blaming the three men for Una’s disappearance and presumed murder.

The three, and particularly Marty Kerrigan, were subjected to threats and intimidation over the following weeks. Dick was older than the others, Martin Conmey big enough to take care of himself, but Marty was young, not particularly well-built, and his only brother had already emigrated to the UK. He was an easy target.

“The Lynskeys appeared outside our house, blowing the car horn at night,” Anne Kerrigan remembers.

“There was a drawing made on the road outside, of a man with a noose around his neck.”

On December 10, six weeks after

the three had been arrested, a walker in the Dublin mountains discovered Una Lynskey’s body.

Nine days later, at around 11am, Marty Kerrigan was bundled into a Mini.

Sean and James Lynskey, bothers of Una, and their cousin, John Gaughan, drove Marty mKerrigan away to his death.

“That night is burnt in my memory,” Anne Kerrigan says.

“I didn’t think anybody would be capable of taking his life. We got word around 5am.

“We were expecting to see him walk in, but then there was a knock on the door and the garda at the door was asking could we identify the body.

“That was the first we knew that he was dead.”

The funeral was a blur. These were all young people, on the cusp of adulthood, bound together by history and neighbourhood, and not only had two of their number been brutally taken, but the whole community had been sundered.

The Heavy Gang

The murder squad, which interviewed the three suspects and their friends would go on to notoriety later in the 1970s, forming what was loosely known as the “Heavy Gang”.

One of the main officers was John Courtney, then a detective sergeant. Over the years, there would be a series of allegations against Courtney and against other gardaí who worked with him.

It would be claimed that suspects in custody were systemically abused to extract confessions. Many of these cases relied solely on confessions for a prosecution.

The Heavy Gang were involved in investigating the 1976 Sallins train robbery, for which Nicky Kelly was convicted and subsequently pardoned.

They also investigated the Kerry Babies case in 1983, in which a whole family confessed to complicity in a murder they could not have committed. There were many cases in those years involving the Heavy Gang and republicans who alleged they were beaten in custody.

These allegations were largely discounted in trials. Courtney, who died last July, was never found by a court or tribunal to have been involved in abusing anybody in custody.

“There was no such thing as a ‘Heavy Gang’ in An Garda Siochana,” he told an appeal court in 2012.

Yet, there was copious circumstantial evidence of people suffering injuries in custody.

Martin Conmey was blamed for pulling out his own hair. In the Sallins train robbery, there were claims that injuries suffered in custody were a result of two suspects having beaten each other up, when placed in a cell together.

All of these matters would only really emerge — largely through the media — in the late 1970s and into the 1980s.

In the case of Una Lynskey, when the gardaí determined who the “guilty” parties were, and when those individuals apparently voluntarily provided a partial confession, nobody doubted that the murderers had been fingered by good, old-fashioned police work, least of all the family of Una Lynskey.

The Lynskey brothers and Gaughan gave themselves up on returning from the Dublin mountains, after killing Mary Kerrigan. The same day, Dick Donnolly and Martin Conmey were taken to Rathfarnham garda station and questioned, once more, about the murder of Una Lynskey.

Members of the gardaí would later admit that the two men were shown photographs of their friend’s naked body.

On March 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 Marty Kerrigan. 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 28 June, 1972, the trial of Donnelly and Kerrigan for Una Lynskey’s murder began. The case nearly exclusively rested on the statements made in Trim station by the three and by other local youths who had claimed to have seen Dick Donnolly’s car in the lane.

After a 13-day trial, the jury went out at 2.58pm on July 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 evidence, events beyond the jury room must have been difficult to ignore.

Crude justice had already been dispensed to the two defendants’ friend, Marty Kerrigan. The men who had killed him had been convicted of manslaughter, rather than murder.

The idea that they might have killed the wrong man was beyond comprehension. Ergo, Kerrigan’s two friends must have been guilty of killing Una Lynskey. Mustn’t they?

Dick Donnolly was released on appeal, but Martin Conmey was not. At the appeal hearing, the judge had this to say about the statement Martin had given in custody: “There is no doubt that the applicant was subjected to very intensive and persistent interrogation, the necessity for which is not at all apparent from the evidence.

“It should have been possible for the gardaí, in carrying out their investigations at that time, to have treated the applicant with the respect and reasonable consideration to which every person supposed to be innocent of any criminal offence is entitled.

“Nevertheless, though the treatment of any applicant may have been harsh and oppressive, the statements made by him were held by the learned judge to have been…


Fight for justice

Observing the fight for justice of groups like the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, in the 1980s, finally persuaded Martin Conmey to seek justice for himself.

A long struggle included a Court of Appeal hearing in 2010 and culminated in the award of a certificate for a miscarriage of justice in 2014.

“I felt that my case was a vindication for Marty,” Martin Conmey says. “But there are still people out there who must think that he must have done something to be killed like that.

“They [the State] apologised to me for what was done, but nobody has apologised for the fact that Marty was killed.”

Anne Kerrigan says nothing was the same for her family after those traumatic months.

“My mother had died before that and we were just dealing with that. My father never got over Marty’s death. He was just a young lad, starting out in life. He worked on a farm, enjoyed hunting on the land, he was very much into the rural life. And, then, he was just gone.”

All of them recognise that the Lynskey family has had their own grief to deal with down through the years. Relations between them never healed after the killings and the Lynskeys eventually moved out of the area.

Una had been buried in the local cemetery, but her body was exhumed and moved to a different grave, in Co Kildare.

“They never got justice, either.”

The chances of the State establishing an inquiry are remote. Too much time has passed; too many of the principals are dead. In any event, the imperative for any kind of an inquiry appears to be political pressure, rather than the inclination to right a wrong.

“At the very least, we want an apology for what happened,”

Anne Kerrigan says. “It should be put on the record. It just can’t be wiped away.”

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