Extraordinary tale of Bobby Ryan's murder has left a mark on rural Tipperary which will last generations
Before the evidence played out in court, this murder in the shadow of the Galtee Mountains had the ingredients of a crime of passion, Maeve Sheehan writes
Tipperary town is surrounded by prime farming country, a landscape of rolling pasture and looming hills, land that returns a good living to those who farm it well. There are no hippies here to introduce their cosmopolitan ways, as one local man said. The land is too good and too expensive - a grass and tillage farm in Golden fetched a record €17,000 an acre recently.
As there's not much by way of industry, farmers primarily keep the town going - and most of those who are not farmers have a connection of some sort with the land. "This is real rural Ireland. It's small town. These people stick together. The land is good. The farming is good. They have a good life down here," said the local man.
About 6km outside of town, nestled at the foot of the hills of Aherlow, is Breanshamore, the home of one of the area's most successful dairy farmers. Pat Quirke, grandson of a garda, held some standing locally as a farming scholar, investor and stock-market gambler, until he went on trial for murder.
Most mornings, Quirke and his wife, Imelda, left their dairy farm in the care of a neighbour and caught the train to Dublin at Limerick Junction nearby. At Heuston Station, they would alight and cross the Liffey to the Criminal Courts of Justice, Quirke in a suit and tie, a flat cap, with his satchel slung over his shoulder. He walked in measured gait, his deliberate strides speeding up when he passed the flashing cameras that greeted his arrival and departure. In Court 13 on the fourth floor, he opened his satchel and laid out the items inside on the bench, a notebook, his glasses' case and his pens, sometimes a ring-bound folder and a highlighter pen.
Imelda, thin and speedy to his slow, large-eyed and hollow-cheeked, accompanied him for every day of the trial, taking notes, sometimes in a little policeman's notebook, bringing him bottles of water, hurrying outside the court room whenever he did. Their eldest son, Liam, frequently sat with his mother.
Their neighbours say they were childhood sweethearts whose romance blossomed through Macra na Feirme. She used to work as a sales rep in car finance for Woodchester.
Back in Tipperary in the evenings, the couple were sometimes seen with their dogs, speed walking through Tipperary town. They seemed "tight", said one man who saw them "walking shoulder to shoulder with three Jack Russells, chatting away". According to the same man, they continued to go to Mass on Sundays, at least for the first weeks of the trial. You would think they would slip into their seats at the back of the church, he said. But no, they walked three-quarters of the way up the aisle, in full view of the congregation.
In the dock, Quirke struck the same pose each day, shoulders back, hands resting on his lap, facing ahead, no nervous knee jigging or twirling of pen. He was still but for his darting eyes. "I'd say he'd miss nothing," noticed one of the followers of the daily soap opera. He was inscrutable until the long, tense wait for the verdict, when he walked the halls of court with Imelda by his side, unmistakable anxiety in his eyes. After 20 hours of deliberation over seven days, after one of the longest trials in criminal history, 10 of 12 jurors declared him guilty.
A cunning plan
The case against Quirke was that he had an affair with his sister-in-law Mary Lowry, the widow of his wife's late brother. She ended it after she met Bobby Ryan. Quirke murdered his "love rival" and dumped his body in a disused run-off tank on his lover's farm, removing the obstacle to the resumption of his affair with Mary Lowry. But she did not resume the affair, tried to "consciously uncouple", as the prosecution put it, and instructed her solicitor to terminate the lease he had on her land and get him off her property. A controlling man, he had two options: leave Bobby Ryan's body where it was and risk the possibility that the next farmer who leased Fawnagowan would find him. Or pretend to find the body himself, as the prosecution contended.
The weakness in the case was the absence of any forensic evidence - it was "thin", "threadbare" and "dangerous", the defence said. The prosecution could not prove where Bobby Ryan was murdered, or with what, or even at what time. What they had was an accumulation of circumstantial evidence - strands that individually proved nothing, but together presented a compelling picture of guilt. The more circumstantial evidence the gardai gathered, the more his many little lies became big ones, the more holes they found in his devious cover-up.
Like death by a thousand cuts, Quirke's guilt was by a thousand inferences.
Before the evidence played out in court, this murder in the shadow of the Galtee Mountains had the ingredients of a crime of passion: an illicit affair and a man who lost his mind when he fell in love. A former friend of Quirke's told the Sunday Independent this characterisation was rubbish: "He used Mary Lowry to trade out of his financial difficulties. The sex was the cream on top," he said. "He needed to get back in control of her to control her farm."
The affair with Mary Lowry was never in dispute. It began five months after Mary Lowry's husband, Martin, died, in 2008. Ireland was on the edge of the bust. His death left her bereft emotionally but with a valuable farm that she knew little about, and investments worth €200,000, Quirke later told gardai.
"I suppose we became attracted to each other," he told gardai during one of his interviews.
"You were married."
"Were you unhappy at home?"
"It's a good question that I've asked myself."
They would meet in her house in the afternoons when Mary's boys were at school. He said they were in love. She said she was "vulnerable". He was "not nice to me a lot of the time, he was trying to control me, in every possible way", she said.
"She knew what she was doing," he insisted.
In his Garda interviews, Quirke came across as grasping. He leased the 63 acres from Mary Lowry, ostensibly to help her but it actually cost him €1,600 a year. He suggested she change her will to leave him and Imelda €100,000 to look after her children if anything happened to her. He acquired 10 of her late husband's cattle for free. When a bovine virus infected his herd, he blamed the Lowry cattle and demanded €20,000 compensation from the widow. He played all this down with gardai, saying the compo was her idea. But, in fact, he had presented the widow with an itemised bill. "You were basically taking Mary Lowry to the cleaners," a detective put it to him.
Friends and acquaintances in Tipperary say she was vulnerable. "She was mad about [her husband] Martin," said an acquaintance. "When he died, she fell apart in a way." She didn't know anything about the finances, or the farm, and when Pat Quirke stepped in, according to this acquaintance, "his persuasive character eventually won her over".
"Locally, she is perceived as being an extremely vulnerable and insecure lady who put all of her faith in Pat Quirke," said a local farmer.
She ended their relationship in December 2010. They were in her bed and Quirke reached under her pillow for her mobile phone - scrolling through it, he found her text messages to Bobby Ryan and became enraged. During Garda interviews, he kept insisting that he was not jealous - just angry. Perhaps he knew his jealousy could be seized on as a motive for murder, or maybe he was deluding himself. But his actions spoke of a scorned man who seethed with jealousy - and who was also losing control.
In the months before Bobby Ryan disappeared, Quirke's investments were crashing, according to one co-investor, and he had racked up losses amounting to hundreds of thousands. He went to his GP complaining of financial pressures and was referred to a counsellor. Her evidence to gardai indicated that he was a controlling person, although she did not testify before the jury at his trial.
His obsession intensified in February 2011. He returned to his GP and confessed his affair; the following day, he rang Tusla, to report Mary Lowry for neglecting her children; he wrote to the Sunday Independent's agony aunt, the late Patricia Redlich, perhaps knowing that Mary Lowry would read it.
He made her feel awkward at family gatherings and badmouthed her to her family. Mary Lowry would later disclose how Bobby confronted Quirke in the yard at Fawnagowan and told him to leave her alone. According to his GP, Quirke was suffering from an "adjustment disorder" caused by a stressful event.
A terrible act
Gardai suspected - but couldn't prove - that on June 3, 2011, Bobby Ryan was murdered as he walked to his van which he always parked in the farmyard of Fawnagowan, so that Mary's mother-in-law, Rita, the matriarch of the Lowry family, wouldn't see it.
Gardai were unable to say how Quirke did it. But this is the Garda's theory.
The night before Bobby Ryan was murdered, Quirke spent the evening at the Horse and Jockey Hotel at a meeting with investors who wanted to sell their Polish property investment. Quirke sat facing forward, saying nothing until the end when, as was his wont, he delivered his opinion, said a source. He was against the sale. Quirke rang Imelda at around 11.30pm to say he was on his way home. Gardai suspect that he may have driven by Fawnagowan to check whether Bobby Ryan's van was there. It was never proven whether he went there planning murder or whether, as a confirmed Peeping Tom, he was merely snooping on the couple.
They suspect that the next morning, he drove to Fawnagowan, parked his car near the road and walked up to the farm yard. An expert radiologist suggested that Ryan was attacked from behind, with at least two blows to the head with a blunt object, possibly a baseball bat. It would have taken seconds for Quirke to come at him, striking a weapon down on his head, each blow sufficient to render him immediately incapacitated and unconscious. More blows to his face smashed his cheekbones and shoved his nasal bone back into his head. A blow to his upper leg was so forceful that it fractured the strongest bone in his body.
Gardai suspect Quirke quickly concealed the body beneath sacks in the milking parlour or behind the sheds, got into Bobby Ryan's van and drove quickly out, knowing how Mary listened for the sounds of cars over the cattle grid. He went to Kilshane Wood, a kilometre or so away.
Mary did hear Bobby's van as she lay in bed, after maybe three minutes' delay or maybe 10 - she was not sure. Either way, an "impossible" time frame in which to murder someone and conceal the body, the defence suggested. Not if it was planned, gardai believed.
Apart from the rattle of Bobby's van over the grate, there was no noise. Not a cry. Not a crack. Not a thud. Not a thing heard by Rita through her open bedroom window or Mary, in bed but awake. She rose at 7.45am to make breakfast and her boys' lunches. An hour later, she bundled them into the car for school along with Rita, who always came to town on a Friday. No one saw or heard any different.
There was one "unusual" thing about that morning, the court heard. Rita's son-in-law, Pat Quirke, in the farm yard at 8.30am, much earlier than normal, looking "hot and sweaty and bothered".
One fragile strand of evidence that, to be woven with all the others the prosecution alleged, presented a compelling picture of guilt.
Gardai suspect that Quirke returned to his car and went home to Breanshamore, then returned to Fawnagowan for 8.30am, knowing that the entire household would be leaving for town and that he would have a clear run at covering his tracks. Enough time to wash away the blood, possibly with water from the milking parlour - the court heard that there would have been an awful lot of blood - and conceal Bobby Ryan's body. Whether he placed it in the run-off tank then, or at a later stage, is not clear.
"He was the lead suspect when Bobby Ryan disappeared," said a local source. "It was known that Pat Quirke was frequenting Mary Lowry's house. He was seen as an admirer of Mary Lowry."
Mary Lowry suspected him. That was why she confided the affair to a stranger, Catherine Costello, a former policewoman helping with the search.
Flaws in the Garda investigation meant that Bobby Ryan's disappearance did not progress past a missing person's case. Gardai did not search Mary Lowry's property forensically for signs of blood or injury.
Gardai did search two of three tanks on the farm. But not the one that Bobby Ryan's body was in - because Pat Quirke was one of only four people who knew it existed. When a garda asked if there were other tanks, Quirke said there were not. This, too, became a strand of circumstantial evidence.
A grim discovery
On a Monday morning, in December 2012, when the Lowry family were away for the day, Quirke triggered the "curious and fatal" chain of events that would ultimately lead to his conviction for murder. Unknown to him, Mary Lowry had installed CCTV to find out who was snooping around her house, repeatedly setting off the alarm.
There he was at 11.45am, handling her underwear, looking in her windows, putting the key in the door setting off the alarm, and running away.
Later, he sat at his computer and researched how long it took for human bodies to decompose. The searches left a trace on his computer that gardai would later find.
The CCTV incident spurred Mary to report him to gardai and instruct her solicitor to terminate the lease.
That set the clock ticking on Quirke. The next farm tenant would likely use the milking parlour and re-open the sealed run-off tank and discover the body. His options were limited. He couldn't fill in the tank without drawing attention. Moving the body was too risky. He was left with "discovering" the body himself and trying to implicate Mary Lowry. He needed an excuse to open the run-off tank and came up with spreading slurry - which required large volumes of water to make it spreadable.
His actions on April 30 were a litany of suspicion: his clean casual clothes, his clean hands, caked slurry around the opening of the slurry tank, there was no water in the tank, even though he said there was. And his reactions: his "shock" at finding the body yet his having the composure to call Imelda, and then his vet when he did not get through to her. Gardai noted that he was alone with the body for seven minutes before he tried Imelda again.
At the heart of this case was a broken relationship, the defence said. Quirke was curious, a "nosey parker" and "inquisitive".
But being nosey did not explain his creepy behaviour. The jury was not told about the four audio recordings found on Quirke's computer, one of which was a sex tape of him and Mary Lowry, and another of her chatting with her new boyfriend Flor Cantillon. Gardai suspect he placed a voice-activated audio recorder somewhere in her home.
When he was finally arrested for murder, detectives questioned him about the computer searches for human body decomposition. He did not deny them. "My son had recently died. That's all I'm saying," he said. When gardai pointed out that the searches preceded his son's death, blowing his explanation out of the water, he tried to backtrack and then made no further comment.
The salacious details of this case ensured huge public interest, drowning out the tragedy, devastation and loss, most of all for Bobby Ryan's family, but also for the Lowry and Quirke families, their children, and their extended family network.
Mary Lowry and Imelda Quirke were once close. "They played tennis together, they were both into fitness. They both went swimming with their new bumps when they were pregnant. They were both into their appearance and went to the same local hairdresser," said a local source. Imelda was regarded as being the stronger of the two, more dominant.
Pat Quirke said Imelda has not spoken to Mary since March 2012, when she found out about the affair. He said Mary Lowry sent her a card saying "sorry" and she ripped it up.
Months later, in August 2012, Pat and Imelda Quirke's middle son, Alan, was killed. According to local reports, he lost his footing trying to jump on to a trailer as it was driven out of their yard. Alan was 11 years old, in sixth class and learning to play the tin whistle. His older brother Liam was 14 at the time of the accident; his younger brother Gary just eight.
A tragic legacy
The Garda investigation has no doubt engulfed the entire Quirke family. Imelda was cheated on by her husband, months later she suffered the unspeakable loss of her son, and within a year her husband was a prime suspect for murder.
Imelda's relationship with her large and close-knit family is said by local people to be strained by her loyalty to Quirke. Her brothers testified against her husband.
Mary Lowry has also been devastated by the case. She never returned to her home after Bobby Ryan's body was found there. She now lives in nearby Bansha, where she is involved in the Tidy Towns. She "bared her soul" in the case, revealing herself to be fully human - at times angry and defensive - and there were some inconsistencies in her evidence, such as the mystery of whether or not she stayed at Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore with Quirke after Bobby disappeared.
The effect on her children was also obvious during the trial. Tommy (21) looked anxious and flushed when he followed behind a garda to give evidence. Jack (19) became almost tongue-tied when being sworn in. Her youngest is still at school.
The ties that bind the Quirke and Lowry families are crystallised in a grave at St Michael's cemetery outside Tipperary town. There lies Martin Lowry, the kind and honest farmer who ensured his widow was provided for after his death, buried alongside his father, John. A small headstone beside the Lowry plot marks the resting place of Martin's 11-year-old nephew, Alan.
This is the place where Mary Lowry comes to visit her husband and where Imelda Quirke comes to tend to the grave of her son. Two women, no longer on speaking terms, but who share familial grief, who must come to the same place to mourn their loved ones.
The events that led to this extraordinary trial and its aftermath will leave their mark for generations.
"People here never forget.," said one local. "There is no anonymity here. There is no place to hide. In 100 years' time, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren will be known as the relatives of the man who was up in court for murdering Bobby Ryan."
Pat Quirke's prized herd and his expanding acres will account for little in the end.