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'A sinister summer' - The story of Malcolm MacArthur and murder in Offaly

'A sinister summer' - The story of Malcolm MacArthur and murder in Offaly

'A sinister summer' - The story of Malcolm MacArthur and murder in Offaly

It was the evening of Friday, August 13, 1982. A group of detectives were stalking the window of the Attorney General's apartment in leafy Dublin 4. They were looking at the silhouette of a killer; one of the most notorious in Irish history. The curtain was about to come down on a sinister summer saga. 

Malcolm MacArthur was released from prison in 2012 after serving 30 years for the murder of nurse Bridie Gargan in the Phoenix Park on July 22, 1982. He was never convicted of a second murder, that of Offaly man Donal Dunne just three days later. This Saturday marks 38 years since the Edenderry farmer is believed to have been executed by MacArthur with his own gun.

Violence and affluence

This story begins far away from the bog outside Edenderry or a sun-soaked Phoenix Park. On the Spanish island of Tenerife in early 1982, Malcolm MacArthur was setting up a life with his partner, Brenda Little and their seven-year-old son. Money woes led MacArthur back to Ireland alone, although he told Little he was going to Switzerland to sort his financial affairs. In reality, he was plotting a robbery to recoup money he had blown in the late 1970s. He chillingly told gardaí after his arrest for the two murders: "Desperate situations require desperate remedies."

MacArthur had lived a largely privileged life up to that point, at least on the face of it. He grew up on a 180-acre estate at Breemount, Trim, Co Meath. He was the only son of Irene and Daniel MacArthur, a stern man of Scottish heritage. Malcolm was a degree-educated academic, an art lover and an oddity - shaped as much by the violence as the affluence in his upbringing. His father was a violent man. His mother admitted later that her son once required five stitches to his hand after once being bitten by his father.

The death of his father in 1974 saw Malcolm inherit a small fortune of around £70,000. He used this new wealth to indulge himself in the art and social scene in Dublin. He became a wild-eyed wanderer of sorts in the city and was known to frequent the swanky bars and restaurants of the capital in this newfound life of leisure. He squandered the money, however, and in May 1982, after moving to Tenerife, he plotted his return to riches - a bank robbery. He arrived back in Ireland on July 8, 1982. 

Stranger in the park

The first part of MacArthur's wicked plan was to acquire a car and he stalked an opportunity in the Phoenix Park. As it is today, the vast expanse of the Phoenix Park was popular with walkers and sunbathers in 1982. Well-dressed men and women from nearby offices still laze on the grass while eating their lunch. It is the epitome of summer in Dublin.

Bridie Gargan, a 27-year-old nurse at St. James's Hospital, was indulging in that small pleasure after finishing her shift on the evening of July 22, 1982. She sat in the sun unaware of the menacing eyes on her. MacArthur cut a strange figure in the park that day, dressed in a combat jumper, tweed trousers and cap. He too was being watched as he slithered from tree to tree close to the young Meath native and her small grey Renault 5. What happened next would shock the nation for months and years later.

MacArthur edged closer to Bridie Gargan and as she moved to get up, he grabbed her and bundled her into her own car. A planned car theft turned even darker as the once-popular, albeit eccentric socialite, began bludgeoning the young woman with a lump hammer. A gardener at the nearby residence of the American ambassador, Paddy Byrne, had been observing the peculiar movements of MacArthur in the park. 

He was compelled into action when he saw Ms Gargan's body flailing ferociously in the back of the car as MacArthur struck her repeatedly with the hammer. Mr Byrne jumped a wall and ran frantically to knock on the window of the car. The sight that greeted him was both peculiar and terrifying. MacArthur was sitting upright in the car casually reading the newspaper. He had attempted to hide his victim's bloodied body under some of the pages. Byrne challenged him as he emerged from the car brandishing a gun. "Back off or I’ll put a bullet in you," MacArthur barked as Paddy Byrne fell to the ground. 

The plucky Dubliner even attempted to grab the gun from the killer. "But my hands were sweating and I lost my grip," he told the Daily Mail in 2011. "I couldn’t hold onto him. He ran at me again with the gun and I told him that I was going. He kept coming at me and I lost my footing and slipped into a ditch." Byrne says what he saw in the back of the car will never leave him; the sight of Bridie Gargan attempting to speak despite being brutally beaten and barely semi-conscious.

"There was blood everywhere. As he was getting out of the car, the papers pulled off her and it was like someone had thrown a bucket of tomatoes all around her head and face. It was dreadful," Mr Byrne remembered. The papers fell away from her body as MacArthur scarpered to the driver's seat of her car and sped away. In a bizarre twist, an ambulance crew noticed the car in traffic and the blood on the back seat and presumed MacArthur was a doctor. Ms Gargan's car was branded with a hospital parking badge owing to her job. The ambulance led MacArthur towards St. James's Hospital where the young nurse had clocked out of work hours earlier. As the ambulance pulled through the gates, MacArthur turned away and fled towards Rialto. 

He abandoned Gargan's car on the South Circular Road. When it was discovered, she was found to be alive but unconscious on the back seat. She succumbed to her severe head injuries four days later and gardaí were now hunting a murderer. Meanwhile, MacArthur set about covering his tracks. He calmly walked into an office on the South Circular road to enquire about bus times. He wanted to get to Edenderry. He had seen an ad for a shotgun in a newspaper - the ad had been placed by Donal Dunne.

He hopped on a bus to Finglas where he walked into the toilet of the Fingal House pub on Glasnevin Avenue to shave off his beard. The trail of terror in his wake was filtering through newsrooms. The discovery of Bridie Gargan's battered body led on the front pages of the papers in the days afterwards. As gardaí scrambled to trace this bow-tied killer, he was heading for Offaly, hellbent to get his hands on a shotgun. Gardaí at the time believed he may have attempted to hitchhike his way but he arrived in Edenderry by bus.

ABOVE: The Evening Herald covers the brutal attack of Bridie Gargan in July 1982

A body in the brambles

MacArthur found his way to Edenderry on Saturday, July 24, 1982, the day before Offaly were due to play Kilkenny in the Leinster Senior Hurling Championship final in Croke Park. He spent the night on the harbour in Edenderry. He purchased a carton of milk and the Sunday Independent the next morning in a local shop and may well have read about his own brutal killing of Bridie Gargan. In an article on the front page chronicling a number of murders in Dublin over the previous number of weeks, the case of the tragic nurse was mentioned. The article noted that she was still in a "very critical condition" at the Richmond Hospital in Dublin. She died the next day, a matter of hours after the body of Donal Dunne was discovered.

On that Sunday morning, Dunne had agreed to meet a potential buyer for his shotgun which he had advertised the previous week in the national media. Unknowingly, he met MacArthur at approximately 10.30am at the Post Office in the centre of the town and drove him to the bog between Edenderry and Rathangan where the gun could be tested. Donal Dunne, who was 27 at the time, was seen leaving his home in Monasteroris that morning and was witnessed with the slouched figure of MacArthur on JKL Street as a congregation left Sunday morning mass and trickled through the town. This was the last time he was seen alive. 

While on the bog, a matter of miles from the town centre and close to the old Edenderry Clay Pigeon Shooting Club, Dunne handed over the gun to MacArthur. The man who had three days earlier bludgeoned a defenceless woman with a lump hammer, turned and coldly pointed the gun at Dunne. He shot him from three yards away before the local man could defend himself. MacArthur made a lame attempt to hide the body in brambles on the sun-seared and drying peat. He then stole Dunne's car and fled the scene where Donal Dunne's body lay dead for a number of hours. It would later be discovered by a child.

A family enjoying a picnic on the bog were shocked when their seven-year-old son ran to tell them about a grim discovery. It was a warm summer's evening at about 5pm when the boy noticed a trail of blood leading to some overgrowth. He followed the trail and discovered the body of Donal Dunne face down in the brambles. He had suffered severe gunshot wounds to the head. The family raised the alarm with Edenderry Garda Station and a murder probe was launched. At one point, 300 rookie gardaí were drafted from Templemore and deployed onto the bogland around Edenderry. They were searching hedges and woodland for the shotgun used in the execution-style killing. 

PICTURED: Gardaí at the scene of Donal Dunne's murder in 1982 Source: The Irish Newspaper Archives 

The manhunt

The key pieces of evidence gardaí needed were the shotgun and Donal Dunne's Ford Escort car. The car was later found near the Central Bank on Dame Lane in Dublin. Offaly supporters heading to the Leinster hurling final inadvertently followed it to the city after noticing the Offaly registration plate and assuming it too was headed for Croke Park. As gardaí combed the vast bogland near Edenderry, detectives in Dublin were piecing together two brutal murder cases. There was nothing yet to link them and they had no suspects, but investigators were intrigued by the similar descriptions of the killer in the Phoenix Park and the man spotted on the harbour and later with Donal Dunne in Edenderry. 

The gardener in the Phoenix Park had told gardaí that the man who attacked Bridie Gargan was dressed inappropriately for the weather in a combat jumper, tweed trousers and cap. When gardaí in Edenderry filmed a reconstruction of Donal Dunne's movements a week after his death, several witnesses came forward to say they saw him with a strange man. This man was said to be wearing a tweed overcoat, peaked cap, dark pants and thick horn-rimmed glasses. His cut-glass and cultured accent was also noticed in Offaly as it had been by the office worker he asked for bus times in Dublin after abandoning Bridie Gargan's body in her car on the South Circular Road days earlier. The similarities piqued the interest and steered the focus of gardai.

The link was clear and the hunt was on for a double-murderer when a fingerprint from MacArthur's discarded Sunday Independent in a bin on the harbour in Edenderry was found to match those found on polythene wrapped around a shovel left at the scene of Bridie Gargan's attack in the Phoenix Park. The discovery was significant but gardaí had still not identified the debonair deviant responsible for two gruesome deaths. They followed leads from north Offaly to north Dublin as they attempted to unravel the mystery that was now gripping the nation. 

The case was effectively cracked when MacArthur finally carried out the daring heist he had been planning. On August 4, he went to the home of US diplomat Harry Beiling in Killiney. He charmed Mr Beiling into believing that he had attended parties in the house months earlier and that he simply wanted to photograph the view of the bay he recalled from one of the windows. Once inside, MacArthur threatened Beiling with a gun. Beiling offered to go to another room to collect his chequebook, using the opportunity to flee the lacklustre intruder. MacArthur fled to Dalkey where he talked his way into the home of an old acquaintance, the then-Attorney General, Paddy Connolly.

Connolly had effectively been duped into accommodating MacArthur through a connection with the killer's partner, Brenda Little. He told Mr Connolly that he had just returned from Switzerland and needed a place to stay. The Attorney General, who would eventually lose his post as a result of the controversy, was deemed by gardaí as an innocent party in the affair. He was unaware of MacArthur's horrific crimes and the fact that Donal Dunne's shotgun was upstairs in his swanky Dublin apartment at Pilot View.

After the failed Beiling robbery, MacArthur made a truly bizarre move that would be his ultimate undoing. He phoned Dalkey Garda Station to say that the incident at Mr Beiling's home was simply a prank gone wrong. The curious call was not lost on the garda on the other end of the phone who could hear classical music playing in the background. The garda asked for the man's name and astonishingly, he replied: "Malcolm MacArthur." He even told the officer that he was born in Gardiner Street. Despite this revelation and MacArthur using his real name on the call, door-to-door enquiries yielded little progress for gardaí.

That was until the gut instinct of experienced detective Mick Sullivan led him to phone detectives investigating the murders of Bridie Gargan and Donal Dunne. This call was quoted by one of those detectives, Tony Hickey, in a recent Sunday Independent interview. "We had an unusual aggravated burglary here and, the more I think about it, the more I think the fella that did it is your man." Once again Beiling had described a well-dressed and well-spoken assailant, much like those depicted by witnesses in the Gargan and Dunne investigations.

Around the same time, a newspaper seller in Dun Laoghaire came forward to say that a reconstruction of Bridie Gargan's murder had jogged his memory of a strange customer - a man in a tweed hat, beige jumper and glasses. The description of the beige jumper with shoulder patches matched that of a garment discarded by Bridie Gargan's killer in a garden as he left the scene. Detectives were closing the net on their man.

The investigation's road to the door of the Attorney General moved a step closer when a motorist told gardaí he had picked up a man in a cravat hitchhiking in Killiney on the day of the Harry Beiling robbery. He told gardaí he had driven the man to Pilot View in Dalkey. With this new information, on August 12, 1982, detectives Tony Hickey and Kevin Tunney decided to drive into Pilot View for the first time. They were looking for more leads. They brought a folder of photofits of their suspect to a number of residents. The description was a cravat-wearing, wavy-haired man, sophisticated and soft-spoken; the unconventional killer evading the clutches of the law. The description rang a bell with one resident who said the Attorney General's nephew was staying with him and that it sounded a lot like him. He wore a cravat. The detectives' hair stood on end. 

Face to face with a killer

The next day, detectives arrived at Pilot View and fortuitously met with a taxi driver who told them he was on his way to deliver hacksaw blades and Perrier water to a well-spoken gentleman in one of the apartments. Gardaí suspected the hacksaws were going to be used to cut the barrels off Donal Dunne's shotgun. They were certain they had the right apartment and the right suspect, despite being about to raid the home of the Attorney General. They saw the silhouette of a man they believed to be their killer at the penthouse window. The in-the-dark Attorney General arrived in a State car and was ashen-faced to see 12 armed officers about to enter his home. They did so swiftly and arrested MacArthur. He offered little resistance and was ferried silently in a glare of blue flashing lights to Dun Laoghaire. Gardai found Donal Dunne's gun in the apartment. 

He was questioned at Dun Laoghaire Garda Station and the next day gave gardaí a 21-page statement. The first words of that statement were: "I affirm that I am responsible for the deaths of nurse Bridie Gargan and Mr Donal Dunne." Gardaí described him as condescending, calm and non-committal. They said he showed no remorse to them and that he was "all chat" in the squad car as they brought him to Mountjoy. So, gardaí had their man; the connections they had made knitted up like a neatly fitted bowtie. The fingerprints on the shovel in the Phoenix Park and the Sunday Independent in Edenderry, both cars and the murder weapons. They even had a confession in MacArthur's own words. Despite all of this, he was only ever convicted of one murder, that of Bridie Gargan. The reasons why are complex but rightly infuriated the Dunne family at the time and in the 38 years since.

The media frenzy that followed the MacArthur case was sensational. The Attorney General element, albeit innocuous, made it all the more enticing for readers of newspapers. The political involvement with Taoiseach Charles Haughey recalling Paddy Connolly from his holidays to relieve him of his duties as Attorney General added further fire. Haughey described the events of that summer as "grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented." 

The five-minute trial

The media attention threatened the trial, or so MacArthur claimed, due to the adverse publicity. It was clearly a fear shared by his defence counsel who set about striking a deal with the DPP. Deals are thrashed out by barristers and the legal establishment to get the best result for both with no need for a trial. Magill magazine published a lengthy explainer article on the deal seemingly done behind the scenes in the MacArthur case in 1983. It is rare for murderers to serve their full sentence in jail and the factors that could have precipitated an early release for MacArthur were at play in these negotiations. The parameters used to determine early release would be applied more favourably on someone convicted of one murder as opposed to two.

The complications being the fact that MacArthur had been charged with Donal Dunne's murder along with that of Bridie Gargan. He was sent for trial but the trial infamously lasted five minutes. At the last second, a file was submitted by the defence to say MacArthur was not a danger to society. Magill noted at the time: "From the minute the evidence was examined the defence knew that the best deal for Malcolm MacArthur was to get him convicted and into jail within the minimum of sensational publicity."

"MacArthur and his lawyers were aiming for an early release and the plan might have worked out were it not for public outrage and the efforts of the Dunne family at the dropping of the second murder charge," the report read. 

MacArthur's lawyer met him in Mountjoy on six occasions prior to the trial. The case against him was overwhelming but the only variable was his mental condition. It was thought the defence was weighing up the merits of pleading guilty but insane. The excessive number of prison meetings were allowing the defence to see how MacArthur, who had already been attacked and berated on his previous court appearances, would come across to a jury. Details of his lifestyle, the murders and his demeanour with gardaí were being widely reported. The general feeling was that a jury would be baying for blood and the defence worried these sentiments precluded MacArthur from getting a fair trial. 

Most murderers plead not guilty because they have nothing to lose. Pleading guilty carries a mandatory life sentence anyway so most murderers take their chance with a jury. Magill reported in 1983: "Most convicted murderers do not serve more than seven years in prison. If the prisoner behaves himself while in jail, doesn't represent a danger to society, and isn't psychologically predisposed to violence, he stands a good chance of an early release."

This was the defining factor in what happened next. The evidence in both cases was stark for MacArthur but there was a chance of challenging the Donal Dunne evidence, or so the defence thought. The facts of the evidence weren't nearly as strong as they were in the Bridie Gargan case. MacArthur was the only witness to the crime and he didn't admit murder. However, they knew that even if he pleaded guilty to the Bridie Gargan murder, the details of the case would still bleed across the front pages for months during a trial for the murder of Donal Dunne. Pleading guilty to two murders would have hindered MacArthur's chance at an early release.

"One guilty plea wasn't enough. MacArthur had two options - plead guilty twice or squeeze a deal out of the Director of Public Prosecutions," Magill recorded.

"Paddy McEntee hammered out the best possible deal for MacArthur - plead guilty to the first charge and the second will be dropped. The DPP gets his conviction and MacArthur has the chance of getting out of prison while he's still a relatively young man. All that remained was to sell the idea to the DPP."

The DPP accepted and a "nolle prosequi" was entered on the charge for the murder of Donal Dunne. "The most obvious reason for a nolle prosequi or a dropped charge is a lack of evidence," Magill reported. The decision angered the family of Donal Dunne and the wider public. There was a mountain of evidence in the case, item number one being the presence of Donal Dunne's gun at the residence where MacArthur was arrested. The dropped charge caused another wave of negative publicity. 

"The DPP accepted the MacArthur deal because it brought with it a certain murder conviction. Even with a hostile jury, the defence might have succeeded with a guilty but insane plea. It was within the realm of possibility. A guilty plea was an absolute certainty, and it is not often such an offer is made. An added bonus was the prospect of a cheap trial, and the MacArthur case was very cheap indeed. The total legal fees are thought to have come to no more than £5,000 which is inexplicably low, even for such a short trial," Magill reported.

The only problem with the MacArthur deal was the unsatisfied public curiosity. It was planned that a statement of evidence would be read into the court during the short proceedings, thus satisfying that raging demand for answers. Following MacArthur's guilty plea for the murder of Bridie Gargan, which drew gasps from the heaving courtroom, the prosecution offered to read the statement of evidence but the presiding judge refused to hear it. He said that since there was a mandatory life sentence, the evidence was irrelevant. "He declined the offer to have it read, thus fuelling the fires of public outrage that kept the MacArthur case on the front pages especially when nolle prosequi was entered and the Donal Dunne charge dropped," Magill recorded.

With a life sentence imposed for the murder of Bridie Gargan, MacArthur was brought to the basement of Mountjoy prison, reserved for those who cannot mix with the general prison population for their own safety. The base is entered via the B wing of the prison and MacArthur was led there down a steep wrought iron spiral staircase. It was bleak and cave-like but MacArthur's cell had a window that met the ground above. The most he would have seen from the window was the feet of someone walking by above. He spent 30 years behind bars.

Despite his deprave actions, MacArthur actually became popular in the prison and was known to play pool with fellow inmates. Not long after the turn of the millennium, MacArthur was transferred from Mountjoy to the open prison at Shelton Abbey. He also served part of his 30-year sentence in Arbour Hill. He was released from prison and became a free man again at the age of 66 in 2012. He is still a low-key presence at art exhibitions and book signings around Dublin. He is now 74 years of age.

He has never been put on trial for the murder of Donal Dunne. The Sunday Independent recently reported that this conviction was never sought for "reasons never fully explained" by the DPP. 

Donal Dunne was killed exactly 38 years ago this Saturday, July 25, 2020. May he rest in peace. 

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