The Killing of Fr Niall Molloy (RTÉ One, Monday) is first and foremost a riveting true-crime documentary about one of the most notorious cases ever to come before a court, the shocking outcome of the trial and the decades of emotional torment the victim’s family has endured.
It’s assembled with forensic precision and lays out the known facts cleanly and clearly, and with a commendable lack of sensationalism.
It features an impressive number of key contributors, including Fr Molloy’s nephew Bill Maher — who continues to tirelessly campaign to uncover the truth — and other members of the family; the retired Garda sergeant who was the first policeman at the crime scene; several journalists who covered the story, and various friends and neighbours of both the victim and the Flynn family, in whose home Fr Molloy was beaten to death in 1985.
But director Adrian McCarthy’s superb two-parter, concluding next Monday, breaks the chains of the genre to become something more.
It turns a perceptive looking glass on the power of the wealthy, privileged class in the Ireland of the mid-1980s, a place of high unemployment and emigration.
Fr Niall Molloy, based in Castlecoote in Roscommon and adored by his parishioners, was not of that world of hardship. He came from a wealthy family. His friends Richard and Theresa Flynn were also wealthy.
They lived in a lavish “trophy house” in Clara, Co Offaly, complete with courtyard and stables.
Fr Molloy stayed there regularly (he had his own room). The thoroughbred horses he and Theresa co-owned were kept in the stables.
Local man Gerry North says Richard was less forthcoming than Theresa, who exuded confidence.
Unsubstantiated rumours, seized upon by the media at the time, swirled that Theresa and Fr Molloy were having an affair — a claim his family rejects.
Their shared interest in horses certainly made them close friends. “I’d say one of them never did anything without the other’s consent,” says Billy Sheridan, the Flynns’ nearest neighbour. “They were really partners.”
In contrast, Richard, he says, didn’t appear to have a say in any decisions. It seems to have been an odd set-up — although even more bizarre were the events that unfolded in the hours after a lavish Flynn family wedding at which Fr Molloy had been a guest.
Kevin Forde, the Garda sergeant in Clara at the time, recalls being woken up at 3am by the parish priest, Fr Duignan, who told him he’d been summoned by Richard Flynn to administer the Last Rites to the dying Fr Molloy. The priest’s first question to him was: “Is there any way we can keep it quiet?”
Sgt Forde arrived at the Flynns’ home to find a battered and bleeding Fr Molloy, who had extensive facial and head injuries, on the floor of the couple’s bedroom. There were blood splashes on the wall and a drag market on the carpet.
Theresa, who’d become hysterical, had already been taken to hospital by ambulance. Richard calmly confessed that he’d killed Fr Molloy. There’d been a row over who should go downstairs to get more drinks. Theresa and Fr Molloy had attacked him. He’d fought back, punching them both, leaving them unconscious.
Sgt Forde, who hadn’t been contacted by Fr Duignan until two hours after he’d administered the Last Rites, wasn’t buying this. “It was too pat for me,” he says. “It looked as if it was all arranged.”
Flynn’s conversation with Sgt Forde, who believes the investigation was bungled, remains the only account of what allegedly happened. When Flynn was charged with manslaughter, his legal team refused to allow gardaí to interview him or his wife, who claimed not to remember anything about what had happened.
During the trial, Patrick McEntee, Flynn’s wily defence counsel, introduced the idea that Fr Molloy’s death could, however unlikely, have been caused by heart trouble rather than head trauma. Shockingly, the judge, a friend of the Flynns, instructed the jury to deliver a not guilty verdict.
In the second part, experts armed with modern techniques examine a scrupulous recreation of the crime scene. Will they unearth new truths?