A hero in his own time with the marks to prove it

THE man whose crime-fighting work while head of the state’s forensic science lab nearly cost him his life will be honoured tonight for bravery.

Dr Jim Donovan endured threats and intimidation while director of the lab and survived two car bomb attacks planned by Martin “The General” Cahill, one of which left him with devastating injuries — he still suffers excruciating pain and bleeding from injuries sustained in a 1982 attack.

However, despite the physical and emotional pain and constant Garda protection, he feels very proud of his work establishing and developing what is a crucial element of the State’s crime-fighting machinery.

In a rare interview, Dr Donovan said he regrets that part of his life has been “so curtailed by criminal activity”.

“I regret that I have to take care where I go. I regret that I lost the ability to walk easily or run,” he said.

“It was far more dangerous than I thought it would be. I didn’t realise that at the time. If I had known 27 years ago of the punishment I would have to endure, I don’t honestly know if I would have gone through with it. But at the same time, I feel proud that I was at the beginning of something unusual.”

The 64-year-old grew up on Cattle Market Street, in the shadow of Cork’s Shandon Steeple, to become the country’s top forensic crime fighter. He was educated at North Presentation and North Monastery schools and UCC, where he received a degree in chemistry and a PhD in organic chemistry.

His first job was as assistant quality control manager at Erin Foods, based in Thurles, where he worked on improving their mashed potato product.

He worked as a chemist at the state lab in 1971, specialising in toxicology, and set up the state forensic laboratory in 1975 at Garda HQ in Phoenix Park.

Dr Donovan was its director and sole employee — “I directed myself”, he jokes — for six months before a clerical assistant was appointed. Today, the lab has more than 100 staff.

Under his stewardship, evidence provided by the lab helped put hundreds of criminals behind bars, including the killers of Lord Mountbatten, infamous rapists and murderers Shaw and Evans, and double killer Michael Bambrick.

Dr Donovan was a key court witness in hundreds of cases, giving forensic evidence to secure convictions, including putting members of the General’s gang behind bars.

In 1972, he was Ireland’s representative at European level for forensic matters and his work led to the comparison across European police jurisdictions of drug seizures.

In 1994 he developed and was a founder member of the European Network of Forensic Science Institute. He retired as director of the forensic science lab in 2002 due to ailing health.

Dr Donovan remains the longest serving director of any European forensic lab. He lives in Dublin under Garda protection.

He will be honoured by Cork’s lord mayor Donal Counihan tonight — one of several people to receive the lord mayor’s civic and community awards — for bravery and a life dedicated to public service.

Dr Donovan said he is very proud to accept the award. “It came out of the blue, to be honest, but it’s nice to be recognised.”

During his time with the lab, he and his wife, Mary, were subjected to constant intimidation — silent phone calls, false fire brigade call outs, and obvious photography.

He received Garda protection while working on the Lord Mountbatten case.

He provided evidence against IRA figures and was working on an armed robbery case involving The General when he was first attacked. He escaped injury in December 1981 when a device went off under his car, forcing it off the road. But his life changed forever a few weeks later when a second bomb went off under his car near Newlands Cross in Dublin on January 6, 1982 — also attributed to Cahill and his brother.

“I remember the flash first,” he said. “Then I felt the car lift up, heard the noise and felt the searing heat. I put my hand down, felt broken bones, my trousers ripped apart, and my right hand stuck to the steering wheel.”

His left foot was blown off, flesh and tissue from both legs were ripped off, his eyes were cut, and a crucial nerve in his right hand was badly damaged.

Cahill reportedly oversaw the placement of the bomb. No one was ever charged with the attack.

Dr Donovan still suffers excruciating pain every day. A spinal chord stimulator was implanted recently to block some of the pain.

He has to deal with ulcers, arthritis and problems with his lower abdomen.

“Every day, every morning, I have to examine a white sock for oozing,” he said. “Because my left foot is actually numb, I don’t feel much, I worry about not finding a serious wound until it’s too late.”

Despite the difficulties, Dr Donovan continued his work fighting crime, helping to put hundreds more dangerous criminals behind bars.

But the physical and emotional scars remain with him and his wife. “I have suspicion on almost everybody — especially people coming to the door. My wife doesn’t answer the phone, we have a recorder and screen calls constantly.

“I still have a Garda driver and my wife pulls the car into the garage every night.

“Because nobody has ever been charged with the car bomb attack, they could still be out there, it could be anybody.”

Dr Donovan will attend the ceremony at City Hall tonight with his wife, Mary, his sisters, Carmel and Helen, and several friends.

Forensic science: A life solving crime


On August 27, 1979, Lord Henry Mountbatten set sail from Mullaghmore harbour, Co Sligo, with his 14-year-old grandson Nicholas, the boy’s grandmother, Dowager Lady Brabourne, and local boy Paul Maxwell, 15, on board.

All four died when the boat was ripped apart by 15lb of gelignite.

Thomas McMahon and Francis McGirl were arrested and clothing samples were sent to the lab.

Sea sand on their boots matched exactly the type of sand from the spot where Mountbatten’s boat was moored. Almost 100 samples were taken from other beaches in Sligo and Mayo, but none compared to those in Mullaghmore.

Paint flecks on McMahon’s boot and on the side of his anorak matched samples from the outer layers of the boat, as well as samples taken from debris found in the abdomen of one of the victims, who had been blown in half.

This evidence, as well as traces of nitroglycerine, a component of gelignite, on McMahon’s clothing, helped convict both men.


Clareman Paud Skehan was tortured and murdered in 1998 near Killaloe, Co Clare. He was hung upside down in an inverted crucifix position and doused with petrol.

Gardaí took floorboards from his home to the lab.

Skehan had dripped blood and the assailant had walked on it. The lab identified the marks as being made by Fila sneakers. The footprint matched the sole of prime suspect Willie Campion. He was sentenced to life in prison.


On August 26, 1998, schoolgirl Carol Carpenter was strangled near her home in Killinarden, in Dublin. Her battered body was found two days later. Garda inquiries led to the house of neighbour Joseph Dowling. Forensic tests revealed that blood stains in the house were Carol’s. The particular spatter pattern of blood stains on the fridge could only have been made if Carol had been lying down while she was being battered.

Dowling was charged with murder. At the last minute, he pleaded guilty.


On December 6, 1998, Siobhán Hynes, 17, was raped and murdered on a beach in Carraroe, Co Galway. The case against John McDonagh depended on forensic evidence.

Numerous fibres from the girl’s acrylic, wine polo neck, her blue polyester fleece jacket and her black socks, matched a jumper worn by McDonagh. Two red fibres, found on McDonagh’s car seat cover, matched those of Siobhán’s clothes. McDonagh was sentenced to life.


Garda Reynolds from Co Galway was shot dead in Raheny in 1975 while trying to arrest two armed bank raiders. The lab proved that a .45mm bullet recovered from his body was fired from a gun found at the house of the chief suspects — a husband and wife — and that the woman fired the weapon.

More in this section

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.