Gene Kerrigan: A sensational and startling case in a time of innocence
As Malcolm Macarthur is released from jail, Gene Kerrigan explains why we remember his crimes so vividly
Malcolm Macarthur was an appalling person who killed two people because he couldn't think of anything better to do. He had a plan, it was a stupid plan -- and the killings derived not from some inbred desire to kill but from a willingness to do whatever was necessary to get what he wanted.
The reason we of the older generation remember him so vividly is that the Macarthur case was a sensation at a time of relative innocence. The scandals that would undermine so much of public life hadn't yet been found out. The circumstances of Macarthur's arrest made the case startling -- although the crimes themselves were quite straightforward. The reasons he murdered two people were shatteringly banal.
Malcolm MacArthur was from a wealthy background and had inherited a large amount of money in the Seventies and had grown used to a life of leisure. He liked swanning around Dublin, drinking pints and portraying himself as a "character". Complete with bow-tie and an air of what he seemed to believe was sophistication.
However, by 1982 his inheritance had been squandered and he was running out of money. He and his partner had been on holiday abroad, with their child. He came back to Dublin alone, determined to get his hands on cash, and stayed at a guest house in Dun Laoghaire. He decided on a robbery.
Better get a gun, he thought. He bought a pistol crossbow and cut off the crossbow bit, but it wasn't a convincing gun. Then he saw a newspaper advert, shotgun for sale. The seller lived down in Offaly, so Macarthur decided to steal a car, to drive there.
Now, today and back then, all over this country there are kids who can get into your locked car, and start the engine, using little more than their big sister's nail file. Lacking such skills, Macarthur bought a heavy hammer, to hit someone, to kill them, so he could take their car. And, since he couldn't leave the body lying around, alerting the police to search for the stolen car, he also bought a shovel. To bury the body.
On 22 July, 1982, he went up to the Phoenix Park and found Bridie Gargan, a young nurse, sunbathing near her car. He made her get into the car and he hit her with the hammer. Then, his stupid plan went wrong. Driving away, he was spotted by an ambulance crew, who thought he was a doctor bringing an accident victim to hospital. They insisted he follow them as they drove ahead, the siren moving traffic aside.
The scene inside the car was horrific. Macarthur eventually abandoned the car, leaving behind the dying nurse.
A couple of days later he got a bus down to Offaly. If he'd thought of that in the first place he needn't have tried to steal a car. In which case, he wouldn't have killed Bridie Gargan.
In Edenderry, he met Donal Dunne, the farmer selling the shotgun. They took the gun to a quiet place, to test it. Dunne wanted £1,100, which Macarthur couldn't afford. Macarthur shot him dead with the shotgun, and drove the farmer's car back to Dublin.
So far, to get a car which he later decided he didn't need, he had killed Bridie Gargan. To get a gun to carry out hold-ups, he killed Donal Dunne. Now, armed and ready for a life of crime, he went to a house in Killiney. He vaguely knew the man who lived there, an American named Harry Bieling. He pointed the gun and demanded money. Bieling ran away.
And that was the end of Macarthur's career as an armed robber.
By now, the police were searching for a killer in Dublin, who used a hammer. And a killer in Offaly who used a shotgun. And an incompetent hold-up artist in Killiney.
Meanwhile, Macarthur had been to see Paddy Connolly, a lawyer and an old friend of his partner's. They had previously stayed at Connolly's Dalkey flat when Connolly was away, and Connolly invited him to stay now.
Connolly, as it happened, had recently been appointed Attorney General, by Charlie Haughey. He asked Macarthur along to an All-Ireland hurling semi-final at Croke Park, where they sat in the VIP box. One report said that as the police scoured the city for the killer, Macarthur was shaking hands with another VIP at Croke Park, the Garda Commissioner.
Having attempted to rob a man who might identify him, Macarthur had the bright idea of ringing the police to inform them that the attempted robbery at Bieling's house was a joke, a prank, a jolly jape. This, and some other dodgy behaviour, led police to concentrate on the Dalkey area.
One night, Paddy Connolly was returning to his flat in his State car, driven by a garda, when he was stopped from entering -- the police had it surrounded. A bemused Connolly let them in and Macarthur was arrested. The police found the shotgun, and some papers that suggested to them that Macarthur had been planning to electrocute someone, possibly his mother. Perhaps, in his search for an easy life, inheritance -- rather than armed robbery -- was more in his line.
Macarthur pleaded guilty to Bridie Gargan's murder, which spared the State a trial, and in return there was no trial for his murder of Donal Dunne.
Two brutal, stupid, killings; a case made memorable by the fact that a hunted killer was found in the Attorney General's home; the attachment of Charlie Haughey's name -- causing a wave of unfounded gossip -- all ensured the case would be remembered. And made it unlikely that Macarthur would serve less than 30 years.