Wednesday 20 November 2019

A tough, shrewd detective who led the murder squad

Key role: Head detective of the so-called ‘Murder Squad’ based in Dublin, John Courtney — who passed away last Friday
Key role: Head detective of the so-called ‘Murder Squad’ based in Dublin, John Courtney — who passed away last Friday
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

When Malcolm Macarthur opened the door to No 6 Pilot View that Friday evening in August, the Attorney General Paddy Connolly, in whose apartment he was staying, was accompanied by John Courtney, head of the 'Murder Squad', and two of his ablest detectives, Noel Conroy and Tony Hickey.

The detectives rushed past the Attorney General and grabbed Macarthur.

"I don't know what this is about Malcolm, but whatever it is you are on your own," said Connolly as his friend Macarthur was quizzed by Courtney. Macarthur eventually brought the detective to a storage room where he had hidden the shotgun used to kill Offaly farmer Donal Dunne.

It was the end of the manhunt for the killer of Bridie Gargan and the beginning of a political crisis that led to the resignation of Connolly as Attorney General and threatened the stability of the government led by Taoiseach Charles Haughey.

"I met Haughey when I was asked to brief him on the case," said John Courtney, who passed away peacefully last Friday. "He was quite all right and he was very nice to me, he knew West Kerry and I told him I hailed from there, so that helped us find some common ground."

As head of the so-called 'Murder Squad', Courtney was involved in events that shook the country and often made international headlines; murder, kidnapping, combating the IRA's terror campaign. The 'Murder Squad', a highly mobile, close-knit unit of the force based in Dublin, was a central part in the great and terrible events of those decades. The kidnapping of industrialist Tiede Herrema and the subsequent siege, the kidnapping of supermarket executive Don Tidey and a deadly fire fight with the IRA near Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, the assassination of Lord Louis Mountbatten in Sligo, and the murder by the IRA of garda colleagues were just some of the cases he was involved in.

He also played a central role in the investigation of grotesque killings like those of Bernadette Connolly in Sligo, Una Lynskey and the subsequent killing of Martin Kerrigan who both came from Ratoath, Co Meath, Phyllis Murphy in Kildare, and many more.

He also led the investigation into the Kerry Babies debacle and told the Court of Criminal Appeal in 2010: "There was no such thing as a 'heavy gang' in the Garda Siochana."

Born in Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula, John Courtney joined the Garda as a 19-year-old recruit in 1947. After postings in Cork city and later Clondalkin in Dublin where he made his life, he rose through the ranks before being appointed as a detective to the 'Murder Squad', which was then led by Dan Murphy. With the rank of Detective Superintendent, Courtney became head of what was officially known as the Serious Crime Squad in 1979, which he led for 12 years, until his retirement in 1991.

"It could be hard at times," he told The Kerryman newspaper in an interview earlier this year. "You see a lot of tragedy and looking at dead bodies is never nice. You can't think about it too much. You just do your job and try to do the best for people. You work away, plug through and try to solve the problem.

"I knew a lot of guards who were killed and those cases were very hard to do. You did your best not to get excited and to be controlled and get on with it, but they were emotional cases."

The 'Murder Squad' was drafted in to local areas following high-profile crimes. Many of them, like the Macarthur murder of Nurse Bridie Gargan in 1982, were solved by dogged police work, piecing together the evidence, building up a picture of the criminal and getting that lucky break that led to the high-profile capture of the killer.

He described the kidnapping of Tiede Herrema by an IRA unit in October 1975 as one of his toughest cases. Kidnappers Eddie Gallagher and Marion Coyle were tracked down to a house in Monasterevin, Co Kildare, and the 18-day siege that followed was a worldwide story, which ended fortunately with the release of the hostage shaken but safe.

The gun-battle that raged in Derrada Wood near Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, in December, 1983 to rescue supermarket boss Don Tidey however, had a tragic outcome. Although Tidey was rescued, a recruit, Garda Gary Sheehan, and army Private PJ Kelly were killed by the IRA in the shoot-out.

A Tribunal of Inquiry was held into events surrounding the 'Kerry Babies' investigation, which he also led, but did not arrive at any satisfactory conclusion and the events are still the subject of speculation.

During his term as head of the Serious Crime Squad, John Courtney studied forensics and investigative science at the Police College in Wakefield and at Scotland Yard. He would use some of those techniques in subsequent investigations. He chronicled his life in an autobiography Murder and Kidnapping in Ireland: the inside story published in 1996.

Having played on an All-Ireland winning Kerry minor football team, he maintained an interest in Gaelic football all his life. He set up Courtney Investigations following his retirement from the Garda, but despite such a turbulent life, said: "I never miss it at all. I got enough of it, and since I left I get to go to all the football matches I want."

John Courtney was predeceased by his wife Mary and a daughter, Breda. He is survived by daughter Maura and sons Tom, John and George.

Sunday Independent

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