Retired detective Philip Ryan explains how gardaí built a circumstantial case against the Tipperary farmer
The man who found the body in the underground tank on Mary Lowry’s farm at first appeared most helpful. Pat Quirke had no problem accompanying detectives to Tipperary garda station to be interviewed under caution.
In a recorded interview, he told them how that morning he was drawing water from a tank he had not used in five years, intending to agitate and dilute hardened, caked slurry or effluent so he could spread it on the land.
He prised open the lid, he said, and watched the water in the tank recede. He noticed what he first thought was “plastic” or an inflatable doll, but then realised was a body. He later told gardaí the body was naked.
He guessed it might be Bobby Ryan, the truck driver and DJ known as Mr Moonlight, who had been missing for two years and was last seen by his girlfriend, Mary Lowry, on June 3, 2011 as he left her home to go to work.
Ms Lowry was a widow — Quirke’s wife’s sister-in-law — and the woman with whom he had a two-year affair until she ended it and took up with Bobby Ryan. He did not dispute the liaison. “Well, I’m sure you know I had an affair with Mary Lowry,” Quirke told the detectives at one point in the interview.
When they asked him if he knew Bobby Ryan’s body was there in the tank all along, he answered: “No. These are nice questions now lads.”
Quirke went on to draw Mary Lowry into the frame, telling the detectives about her “intriguing”, “couldn’t care less attitude” toward Bobby Ryan’s disappearance and her “strange answers” when he asked her about it.
Cunning, manipulative, devious, that first exchange with detectives set a pattern that Quirke followed in his numerous garda interviews over the months before he was finally charged with Ryan’s murder.
There was no forensic evidence to directly link Quirke to Bobby Ryan’s murder, or even to say how he was murdered, just threads of circumstantial evidence and Quirke’s lies.
“We certainly got a sense that Pat Quirke was telling lies. That’s absolutely the starting point for me. Pat Quirke had to be telling lies,” said Philip Ryan, a recently retired detective with the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation (NBCI) who worked on the case.
“He was trying to be clever and maybe superior to the interviewing gardaí, and of course history has demonstrated to us that he wasn’t that clever at all.”
The challenge was to pick holes in his accounts. “They simply weren’t believable,” Mr Ryan said.
The trial of Pat Quirke at the Central Criminal Court in Dublin for the murder of Bobby Ryan appalled and then enthralled the public for more than three months.
The case unfurled against a backdrop of rolling pastures in Tipperary, with storylines to rival any soap opera of an illicit affair, jealousy, rage, money and — for Bobby Ryan’s loved ones — loss.
Quirke (53) was a successful farmer from Breanshamore, married to Imelda and with three sons. Mary Lowry was married to Imelda’s brother, Martin, who died in 2007, leaving Mary with a valuable farm at Fawnagowan and €200,000.
Their romance began when Quirke took over a lease of her farm. She told Quirke’s trial they would meet on Mondays and Fridays in her home when the children were at school. She said she felt ashamed and tried to end it, but she was vulnerable, she said, and he was “controlling” and “manipulative” and constantly asking for money.
Then she met Bobby Ryan at a dance, felt he was “a breath of fresh air”, and they began a relationship.
Mary Lowry was the last person to see him when he left her home that morning 11 years ago, pulling on his navy tracksuit and shoes, leaving her bedroom and creeping out so as not to wake her children.
After Bobby Ryan disappeared, Quirke continued to pursue Mary Lowry, snooping around the farm he leased from her. CCTV footage showed him rifling through her underwear on the clothes line; her passport disappeared ahead of a family holiday. She reported Quirke to gardaí, resulting in his being charged with assault and burglary, although those charges were dropped.
Crucially, she terminated the lease, and Quirke would have to be off the farm by July 2013. This gave him the option of leaving Ryan’s body in the tank, for the next tenant to find, or accidentally “discovering” it himself.
Quirke’s account of how he came to find Bobby Ryan’s body on April 30, 2013, was “off” from the start, according to Philip Ryan.
He had investigated many murders with the NBCI, including that of Meg Walsh, who was beaten to death and dumped in the River Suir, and the savage killings of two Polish men by 17-year-old David Curran, who stabbed them to death with a screwdriver and who later told Mr Ryan: “I have no conscience, garda.”
Mr Ryan was asked down from Dublin to join the investigation team weeks after Quirke’s first voluntary interview with gardaí by the detective superintendent on the case, Dominic Hayes.
The investigation team was local, based at Tipperary garda station and led by senior investigating officer Detective Inspector Pat O’Callaghan. Mr Ryan was brought in because of his experience in investigating murders and other serious crimes. He had worked with Hayes before on many such cases with the NBCI. They were also friends.
He spent much time in those first weeks scouring Quirke’s interview notes line by line for holes — facts that could be proved or disproved. And the pages of interview notes kept on accumulating: Quirke was interviewed voluntarily three times, and again during his arrests — once for harassment and finally for murder.
Each time, the interviewing detectives drilled into the complicated triangle of Quirke, Mary Lowry and Bobby Ryan.
But the starting point was how Quirke came to be standing in front of that underground run-off tank on April 30, 2013. According to Mr Ryan, Quirke’s first mistake in his garda interviews was the story he concocted to explain it. The story of drawing water from the underground tank so he could agitate or dilute the slurry to spread it on the land just was not plausible.
Several detectives on the team were experienced farmers or came from farming backgrounds, knew their run-off tanks from their slatted tanks and knew exactly what was involved in agitating slurry.
In short, there was not enough water in the run-off tank for diluting and spreading slurry. Nothing like the 120,000 gallons that the contractor who usually did the job needed. And why do a job himself that he usually hired a contractor to do?
Mr Ryan said: “There were farmers among us. They told me, ‘Listen Phil, it doesn’t work that way. He’d never have gotten enough water out of that tank’. Even if the tank was full, it was hugely insufficient; and, more importantly, experienced farmer Quirke absolutely knew he was never going to draw sufficient water from that overflow tank to agitate the caked slurry. His story was wrong.”
In the early days of the investigation, the team held formal conferences at which investigative tasks were assigned, usually followed by brainstorming sessions.
“Everything he said at interview needed to be forensically examined and jobbed. We needed to brainstorm to determine how can we corroborate or discount that statement or assertion made by him?” Mr Ryan said.
Engineers, plumbers, contractors and farmers were brought in to test his account. The team staged a reconstruction to examine Quirke’s claims in interview that Bobby Ryan’s body was naked in the tank, when emergency services at the scene were unable to tell whether or not it was clothed. The reconstruction was not entered in evidence, but gardaí believed Ryan could have known Quirke’s body was naked only if he placed it there himself.
The oddities in his story kept mounting. Telephone records on the day Quirke ‘discovered’ Bobby Ryan’s body were particularly telling, Mr Ryan said. He rang his wife, the vet, waited seven minutes and tried his wife again.
“At no stage did it occur to him to ring the guards, or the emergency services or anybody for that matter. Eyebrows have to be raised there,” Mr Ryan said.
The more detectives drilled, the more holes accumulated. An exhibit of a larva found on Bobby Ryan’s body, and expert evidence on its age, led investigators to conclude that Quirke opened the underground tank to check on the remains at least 11 days before he staged the discovery.
When he was finally arrested in June 2014 for Bobby Ryan’s murder, detectives questioned him about searches for human body decomposition that experts had found on his computer. Quirke did not deny them. “My son had recently died. That’s all I’m saying,” he said. Detectives pointed out that at least one of the searches took place a month before his son, Alan, died in August 2012, in a farm accident.
It was another strand of evidence, and one that also spoke to Quirke’s devious and callous nature, according to Mr Ryan. “I thought that [explanation] was particularly mercenary on his part,” he said.
Mr Ryan did not interview Quirke or Mary Lowry, but came to know them in poring over their statements.
“I assessed his statements to be self-serving and cunning and manipulative,” he said this weekend. The investigation team “tried to corroborate every single thing he said and very little of it was standing up”.
Mary Lowry, in contrast, came across as open and credible. “A significant pillar in any potential prosecution was Mary Lowry’s story. I found the content of her statements compelling, and indicative of a person who was laying bare her entire life in an honest way. I had a high opinion of her honesty, from reading her statements.”
Mr Ryan wrote “the book” for the DPP, a narrative of the facts and evidence of almost 200 pages, recommending Quirke be charged with murder.
He was not convinced money was the primary motive, despite ample evidence that Quirke profited from Mary Lowry. She loaned him €20,000, allowed him to keep €40,000 of the profits when he invested her money successfully, and he paid her rent of just €12,600 for the land, as well as keeping the €8,000 farm grant.
Mr Ryan believed Quirke was losing control, suffering from depression and enraged with jealousy. Evidence showed he was furious when he learned Mary Lowry was seeing Bobby Ryan, and he became enraged again when he learned he was staying over at her house.
He went to his GP, complaining of financial pressures, and later confessed his affair. He saw a counsellor. He reported Mary Lowry to Tusla for neglecting her children; he wrote anonymously to the Sunday Independent’s agony aunt, the late Patricia Redlich, saying he was “bereft”, knowing Mary Lowry would read it. The GP said Quirke was suffering from an “adjustment disorder” caused by a stressful event. This, his controlling personality and deteriorating mental state led him to the yard of Fawnagowan early on June 3 to murder Bobby Ryan.
The Court of Criminal Appeal dismissed Quirke’s 52 grounds of appeal last year, finding the prosecution case “sturdy”. The Supreme Court will consider two grounds of appeal next year, relating to the validity of the search warrant and the DPP’s discretion in expert witnesses.
Imelda Quirke, who stood by her husband throughout, runs the farm at Breanshamore with their eldest son, and successfully so. The latest company accounts show the farm had net assets of €389,191 in 2020.
“This was a significant case in the sense that we had achieved a conviction eventually based on an entirely circumstantial case, which is very unusual,” Mr Ryan said.
Despite the salacious details of the story, he said he never expected the media attention.
“My assessment at the time was that this was a country murder that no one, other than those it impacted, would have any interest in. I was hugely surprised by how it gripped the nation, hugely surprised. But I was delighted at the outcome.”
2007: Martin Lowry dies, leaving his wife Mary widowed with three children.
2008: Pat Quirke, the husband of Martin’s sister, Imelda, leases the farm and helps Mary Lowry with finances. They begin an affair.
2010: Mary Lowry meets Bobby Ryan. Quirke finds out in December and has a heated argument. Lowry finishes with Quirke.
June 3, 2011
6.15am: Quirke says he wakes to milk cows on his own farm.
6.30am: Bobby Ryan leaves Mary Lowry’s house at Fawnagowan.
8.30am: Mary Lowry says she sees Quirke in her driveway at Fawnagowan, “hot and bothered”.
9.15am: Quirke says he leaves Fawnagowan.
9.30am: Quirke is back on his own farm milking cows, later than usual. Later, he takes Imelda away for the weekend.
September 2011: Quirke claims his affair with Lowry is rekindled, which she denies.
December 2012: Quirke is seen peeking in Mary Lowry’s windows and taking underwear from her line. She terminates his lease at Fawnagowan.
April 2013: Quirke ‘discovers’ a body in an underground tank, claiming he is there to draw water for spreading slurry.
January 2014: Quirke is arrested on suspicion of harassing Mary Lowry.
June 2014: Quirke is arrested on suspicion of murdering Bobby Ryan.
May 2019: Quirke is found guilty of murder after longest trial in Irish history.