The murder of innocence

It’s 30 years since the “grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented” events that led to the resignation of the attorney general, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

The murder of innocence

ON this day 30 years ago, Patrick Connolly, the government’s attorney general, resigned. It was a Monday. He had been summoned from his holidays in New York by Taoiseach Charles J Haughey.

Three days before, police had found Malcolm MacArthur, who had been on the run since the end of July, having committed two murders, in Connolly’s apartment in Pilot View, Dalkey, Co Dublin.

“I remember the first I really heard about it was on television that Friday evening,” says Mary O’Rourke, then a senator. “I think the Gardaí had gone into that apartment block in Dalkey. Patrick Connolly, who is a very good man and a very good legal guy, was completely unaware of the storm that was blowing around Malcolm MacArthur. He was absolutely unaware, but he knew him, and, to him, he was just a guy looking to rest up for a day or two, but then the full enormity of it broke.”

Haughey was acting minister for justice as Seán Doherty was on holidays in France, and was unable to ask the attorney general for advice. Haughey had to go it alone. He chose a few pithy words to sum up the situation — “grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented,” from which the acronym, GUBU, was used by Conor Cruise O’Brien as shorthand for the scandals that bedevilled Haughey and later Fianna Fáil administrations.

“I think the very fact that Charles Haughey was so upfront about it, and gave a press conference, which was, in a way, the only way to deal with it, to give all the facts as he knew them, I think that took the political bite out of it,” says O’Rourke. “He explained it as it happened — that the AG was completely innocent. He didn’t know he was sheltering a murderer, but it was everything — grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented, but certainly they were very fine words to describe what happened. I remember staring at the television and being bowled over. It was so startling and so upsetting.”

The murders, which John Banville fashioned into a novel, The Book of Evidence, were disturbing, and agitated the nation during an unusually hot summer.

MacArthur was born in Apr 1945, to a farming family of Scottish extraction, and grew up on a 180-acre estate near Trim, Co Meath. He studied in a number of American universities, before graduating with a bachelor of arts in 1967. He didn’t work, but was known as an intellectual and eccentric in Dublin in the 1970s, and befriended Connolly.

The £70,000 MacArthur inherited in 1974, after his father’s death, ran out in 1982 while he was on holidays in the Canaries with his partner, Brenda Little, and seven-year-old son, Colm Malcolm. He left the pair and returned to Ireland. He landed in Dublin on Jul 8.

Two weeks later, July 22, Paddy Byrne, a gardener at the American embassy in Phoenix Park, saw MacArthur skulking around a woods, close to Chesterfield Avenue. It was 5pm. MacArthur was moving piecemeal, sheltering suspiciously behind each tree he passed. Byrne noticed MacArthur’s clothes. “He was dressed a bit queer for a hot day, with a hat on and a heavy pullover tied around his shoulders or neck,” he told RTÉ’s Pat Kenny radio show last year.

Byrne watched as MacArthur approached 27-year-old Bridie Gargan, a nurse who was sunbathing. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Castleknock. MacArthur shouted at her. She ran for her car, a metallic-silver Renault 5, but was grabbed by MacArthur, who battered her in the face and head. Byrne thought they were lovers, but was alarmed by the ferocity of the blows. MacArthur held her by the hair as he hit her with a lump hammer.

Byrne jumped the fence and ran towards the car, about 100 yards away, to intervene. Byrne challenged MacArthur: “What’s going on here?” MacArthur pulled a little black gun, which, unbeknownst to Byrne, was a replica, and warned him off. Gargan was in the back of the car. Byrne could hear her whimpering, but was forced to take five steps back, as MacArthur threatened to put a bullet in his head. It gave MacArthur enough space to drive off, leaving a trail of dust in the air. Byrne ran to the road and tried to flag down a car, but 30 or 40 passed by, before a friend spotted him and stopped.

By the time they had reached a phone and raised the alarm, MacArthur had exited the Phoenix Park by the Islandbridge gate. A passing ambulance driver saw the bloodied Gargan in the back of the car, and, mistaking, MacArthur for a doctor, escorted them, siren blaring, to St James’s hospital, ironically where Gargan had worked earlier that day.

MacArthur abandoned the car and Gargan, who died a few days later from her injuries.

Three days later, Jul 25, MacArthur surfaced in Edenderry, Co Offaly. He was responding to a classified advertisement posted by farmer Donal Dunne, who was selling a shotgun. MacArthur took the gun from Dunne for inspection, turned it on him and shot him dead; he then stole his car and returned to Dublin, where he sallied around until his arrest on Aug 13.

MacArthur’s court case in Jan 1983 had ugly scenes. He was attacked in the yard while being brought into Bridewell court, in Garda custody. “There was no way that anyone standing as far away as the road could see him in the gap, but through the barred windows I heard a sound that was neither human nor animal, a low, thunderous swelling of noise that was as inchoate as it was meaningless. It is a sound I hope never to hear again — the baying of the crowd. Five minutes later, [MacArthur] was charged with two murders,” wrote Mary Kotsonouris, the district judge before whom he was arraigned, in her memoirs, ’Tis All Lies, Your Worship: Tales from the District Court.

A future attorney general and Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, was a junior counsel on MacArthur’s defence team. MacArthur pleaded guilty to Gargan’s murder, so the State entered a plea of nolle prosequi for the Dunne murder.

MacArthur received a life sentence. In May, 2003, he was moved from Mountjoy to an open prison, Shelton Abbey, Co Wicklow. Over the last few years, he has had temporary release days, which are regarded as the first steps to freedom. He has visited museums, and his family in south Dublin.

“The minister was, at all times, conscious of the dreadful events of 1982 and of the impact on family members. The victims’ families have been contacted and informed of developments,” says a spokesperson for the minister for justice, equality and defence.

MacArthur has served more time than is normal for a convicted murderer, but his full release, which is at the mercy of the minister for justice would attract a storm of adverse publicity.

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