Sorry seems to be the hardest word, according to that mournful old Elton John song. It’s not really, though, is it? It’s actually quite easy.
Just days before Monday’s first episode of reporter Mick Peelo’s new three-part series Crimes & Confessions (RTÉ/RTÉ Player), Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said sorry — in the form of a written apology — to Martin Conmey.
It came a little too late: 50 years after Martin was wrongfully convicted of the manslaughter of a young Meath woman, for which he served three years in prison, and 12 years after the conviction was quashed.
In 2014, the Court of Appeal ruled that Martin had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice. That’s putting it mildly.
I have a “sorry” of my own to offer. I’m afraid I allowed Crimes & Confessions to slip under my radar on Monday. So, it seems, did other TV critics; there were no reviews in the 24 hours after it was broadcast. Maybe we’re suffering from true-crime documentary fatigue.
But Crimes & Confessions, which is available on the RTÉ Player, demands to be watched. This is one of the first must-see series of 2022.
Even if you’ve read about the notorious exploits of the Garda “heavy gang”, whose interrogation techniques depended on beating suspects senseless, the damning story told here was jaw-droppingly shocking.
Tales of the “heavy gang” are usually associated with the late 1970s through to the 1980s, but as the programme made clear, the roots lie in the 1971 abduction and murder of 19-year-old Una Lynskey, a civil servant who made a daily commute to Dublin.
She disappeared during the short walk from a bus stop to her home in Porterstown, Co Meath, and was never seen alive again. Three months after she vanished, her remains, by then too badly decomposed to offer any forensic clues, were discovered by a workman on an isolated road in the Dublin Mountains.
Not that the investigating gardaí were interested in finding clues anyway. They’d already decided, without a shred of evidence, who Una’s killers were, and they knew exactly how to get them to confess.
Martin Conmey, Dick Donnelly and Marty Kerrigan, three friends aged between 19 and 21, were usually to be seen zipping around in Dick’s battered old car — an unmistakeable sight at a time when there were few car-owners in the locality.
They’d been seen on the lane the evening Una disappeared and made no secret of this to the gardaí. But witnesses placed them there hours after she’d vanished, meaning they couldn’t possibly have been responsible.
This didn’t deter Murder Squad men Detective Inspector Hubert Reynolds and Sergeant John Courtney, a shining young star of the force who’d risen through the ranks and been handpicked for this supposedly elite outfit in 1967. They were assisted by Garda Brian Gildea from Balbriggan Station.
Martin and Dick — who died last year but featured here in audio recordings —claimed Courtney and Gildea were the ones who set about enthusiastically beating confessions out of them and Marty. At one point, he claimed, Gildea shoved a hot poker into his arm and side.
Local man Christo Ennis, who was in a nearby cell, recalled hearing the men crying and screaming in pain.
After three days of this, Martin and Marty — exhausted, frightened and confused — signed confessions that shouldn’t have been worth the paper they were written on. Dick refused to sign.
Martin and Dick were convicted of manslaughter, but Dick’s appeal was successful and he was released after serving several months in prison.
In a horrific twist to an already horrific story, Marty was later abducted and killed by a gang of 10 men. His body was dumped at a spot near where Una’s had been found. Three of her relatives were convicted of Marty’s manslaughter.
If the intimidation and brutality detailed here were disturbing, so was the revelation that six witnesses reported seeing a new-looking, dark brown Ford Zodiac or Zephyr, driven by a well-dressed man, in the area when Una disappeared. One of them, a van driver who swerved to avoid it, said there was a struggling woman in the rear seat. They were ignored.
The series continues on RTÉ One at 9.35PM next Monday