Gene Kerrigan: Four decades after Una died, Conmey fights to clear name
Community still bears scars of awful events as the man convicted of killing appeals, writes Gene Kerrigan
Published 02/05/2010 | 05:00
A FEW feet away from the woman in the witness box, on the table in front of the barristers, there was a photocopy of an October 1971 newspaper story. The paper was the Drogheda Independent; the reproduced column was titled "Down Your Way".
It had a large photo of a young woman with long, dark hair being questioned by a plainclothes detective. The garda stands tall and confident, the young woman is neither.
In the witness box last week she was direct, clear and assured. A woman in her 50s, describing events that occurred when she was 16.
Those were traumatic days, in the aftermath of the disappearance of Una Lynskey. The area where Ms Lynskey lived, at Porterstown Lane, in Meath, housed the proverbial close-knit farming community -- but even more so than was usual in rural Ireland. The lane is v-shaped, tucked in between two more significant roads -- the Dublin-Navan road, and Fairyhouse Road. The little enclave, close to Dunshaughlin and Ratoath, was home to a small number of families.
About 10 of the families had been transplanted there from Mayo, by the Land Commission. Giving evidence, one man was asked if that was his house -- the judge pointing to a map. No, said the man. But it had his name marked alongside, said the judge. That, said the man, was his father's grandfather's house.
Una Lynskey was 19, one of 12 children. She had started work several months earlier at the Land Commission in Dublin, the body that created her little community. She had a long day. She had to walk down to the Fairyhouse Road to catch a bus to Dublin, and make the reverse journey at the end of the day. That was okay, she was beginning to sample life -- work, independence, a boyfriend.
On October 12, 1971, she travelled home from work, got off the bus on the Fairyhouse Road at around 6.55pm. She, as usual, had shared the bus journey with a cousin, Anne Gaughan, who also worked in Dublin. Anne lived near the bus stop and Una began the 15-minute walk home alone.
When she didn't arrive home, the alarm went up pretty soon. In a city, or in rural Ireland today, it might take a longer period before families would become anxious. Back then, given Una's nature, unease arose immediately. It took no time to establish that Una had been on the bus, that she had started walking home.
In the first days of agony, the media spread the word, the gardai checked every lead, neighbours arranged searches. Nothing came of it. For two months the family suffered the pain of knowing and not knowing. Una wouldn't do this to her family. It had to be something terrible, yet there was no body, no certainty. There was horror and there was hope.
Then, on December 10, 1971, just under two months after she disappeared, Una's body was found hidden under bushes in the Dublin mountains. She was fully clothed. Decomposition meant it wasn't possible to say how she died.
The gardai seem to have concluded from early on, not unreasonably, that someone had abducted Una. There was evidence of screams in the area that evening, evidence of a Zodiac car, and a middle-aged man seen in the locality at the time Una disappeared.
Most gardai are -- happily so -- unpractised in solving homicides. In most places in this country there aren't enough homicides to build up a body of experience. As a result, back in those days, a squad of experienced officers came together to investigate serious crimes.
Nicknamed the Murder Squad, they were more formally known as the Technical Bureau. They were experienced in interrogation, and they were lumped in -- in those less sophisticated days -- with the fingerprint and ballistic experts.
Perhaps in those days interrogation was considered something of a science. When these experienced officers arrived down from Dublin they knew that there was a 15-minute period on October 12 that was crucial.
Somewhere during the short time after she got off the bus, in that small, intimate area, someone had taken Una. There was the evidence of a strange car in the area, the evidence of screams heard during the vital period, but these things were never explained. In an investigation, the gardai routinely interview possible witnesses, building up a picture of surrounding circumstances, looking for discrepancies -- for the detail that gels or jars with some other detail, bringing focus to the investigation.
That day in October 1971, Martin Conmey, aged 20, and his younger sister Mary were standing by the gable wall of their house, being questioned by a plainclothes garda. Coincidently, a press photographer arrived and snatched the photo that appeared in the Drogheda Independent.
The garda doing the interviewing behaved quite properly, but Mary was nervous. He was interested in what time her brother Martin got home, the night Una disappeared. Mary didn't like the idea of being questioned in the absence of her parents.
She kept glancing towards the gate, hoping they would arrive home. The gardai had got nowhere with the sighting of a middle-aged man driving a Zodiac. But they were beginning to concentrate on three young local men -- Martin Kerrigan, Martin Conmey and Dick Donnelly. Dick had a Zephyr car, similar to the Zodiac. And the gardai believed he had been driving it in the area at the time.
On October 25, the gardai swooped. The three young men were taken to Trim garda station and questioned intensely over a period of 48 hours. Other young men from the area were questioned, and the gardai emerged with a set of statements that together would make a case against Kerrigan, Conmey and Donnelly. Two of the young men, Martin Kerrigan and Martin Conmey, signed statements. The third, Dick Donnelly, did not. The details were vague and contradictory, but the essence was that the three young men came across Una walking in Porterstown Lane, gave her a lift, something unintended happened -- perhaps something Martin Kerrigan did -- and Una died and they hid the body. In a nearby field, or under a bridge at Lucan, or they threw it in a pond -- depending on which statement you believed. There was also a story that Donnelly's car hit Una by accident, killing her, and they hid the body out of fright. (Medical evidence said Una was not hit by a car.)
At no stage did the statements include what we know now, but was not known then -- that Una's body was dumped in the Dublin mountains. Word spread. The community split -- into those who were repulsed by what the three were said to have done, and those who didn't believe what was being said about the young men.
The three men claimed they had been beaten and frightened in the garda station, that they were threatened and kept awake.
The gardai said none of this was true. The three were not under arrest -- according to the gardai they stayed voluntarily in the garda station for two days.
Last week, in the Court of Criminal Appeal, the hitherto unknown concept of "voluntarily detained" was mentioned. At around the time of Una's disappearance, 16-year-old Mary Conmey, sister of Martin Conmey, wrote a letter to a school friend named Monica. "The detectives are asking funny questions about the lads around here."
The gardai, she wrote, were saying the lads knew who kidnapped Una.
What happened, she wrote, was like something you'd read about in a book.
She wrote about how Martin Conmey kept giving the same statement, that he never saw Una that evening. "They went mad and brought in two guards to beat him up."
The lads weren't allowed to sleep, she wrote, and her brother was swung around the room by his hair. They kept at him until he said they did give her a lift and she died in the car. They signed statements "to save themselves", she wrote.
She told about how the words "Conmey murderer" had been painted on the road outside their house, along with a sketch of a gallows. She knew her big brother and his friends didn't do it. "They couldn't because they are too nice." She wrote: "This place would scare you now. You couldn't go out of the house at night, you feel someone is looking at you."
Mary Conmey is now Mary Gaughan -- she married a cousin of Una's. She gave evidence last week of the night her brother came home from Trim garda station after being in there for two days.
One side of his face was swollen, areas of his head were bald, where his hair was torn out. It is not disputed that Martin Conmey's hair was torn out -- but the gardai said on oath that he did it himself.
Mary saw Dick Donnelly that night, his ears dark blue. She said it was "very frightening" that the guards had done this. "The guards were the good guys."
Another seven weeks passed before Una's body was found in the Dublin mountains, two weeks before Christmas 1971. The community divisions erupted in rage. Martin Kerrigan was abducted by relatives of Una's and taken up into the Dublin mountains, near to where her body was found -- there he was killed. The people who abducted him claimed he was alive when they left, and were convicted of manslaughter. They served a couple of years in jail.
At some stage after he died, someone apparently tried to castrate Martin Kerrigan, then gave up.
The surviving two young men continued to protest their innocence. Martin Conmey and Dick Donnelly were tried and found guilty of the manslaughter of Una Lynskey and were sentenced to three years. Donnelly won an appeal, Conmey served three years. Last week in the Court of Criminal Appeal, 39 years after the events, 10 years after he began proceedings, Martin Comney, now aged 59, is seeking the overturn of his conviction. Why did he sign the incriminating statement? He said he was punched, thrown on the floor, pulled up by the hair -- he was frightened and he just agreed with what his interrogators put to him.
There are obstacles -- a technical one in that he must prove he has new evidence. Then he must convince the three judges of his case.
Some of the gardai involved in the investigation are still alive and are expected to give evidence that the incriminating statements were given voluntarily.
The Court of Criminal Appeal heard the evidence of Harry Whelehan, who then was a junior barrister for Conmey. He said that if he knew of the claimed new evidence it would have changed the way the case was conducted, so he is clear the evidence wasn't available back then.
Since 1971, Mr Whelehan has had a successful, highly regarded career as a lawyer, becoming Attorney General under Albert Reynolds and he has now retired.
One of the gardai involved was then a sergeant -- he became a highly regarded detective superintendent and is now retired.
All these years later, the young men of Porterstown Lane are mostly grey, and Martin Conmey is still trying to retrieve his life from what it became during those two controversial days in Trim garda station.
All these years later, the family of Una Lynskey no doubt still mourn whatever happened in those few minutes after she got off the bus on Fairyhouse Road. And all that was taken from her, by whoever she encountered, and all that might have happened, all that her life would have become in the decades since.