The unsolved killing of Charles Self changed how homosexuality was viewed by gardaí and society
The brutal murder of RTÉ set designer Charles Self remains unsolved 40 years on, but the aftermath and the investigation into his killing was the catalyst for changing the way gardaí treated the gay community in Ireland.
In 1982 homosexuality was a crime in this country and the police and some sections of society were deeply homophobic. It would be another 11 years, 1993, before it was decriminalised and the word “gay” became the norm to describe same-sex couples, instead of “homosexual”.
Self was found stabbed to death in his Monkstown home in south Dublin on January 21, 1982.
The 32-year-old was openly gay and after the discovery of his body, gardaí “waded into” the gay community to try to find the killer.
Their tactics not only alienated people, but were so extreme that they may well have alienated the very people who might have been able to help them find the person responsible for the murder.
“Gardaí had no clues except for a set of fingerprints and they also did not have good communications with the gay community,” one of the country’s first gay activists, Edmund Lynch, said.
“Their solution was to build a database of gay people, even though they had fingerprints of the alleged killer.
“They decided to make Pearse Street Garda Station their headquarters and then started to bring in gay men for questioning and frighten them individually … into naming other gay people.
“This made hundreds of people frightened, humiliated and in fear for their lives.”
Mr Lynch and a young Dublin solicitor, Garrett Sheehan, who later became a highly respected judge, eventually negotiated a deal with senior figures in An Garda Síochána’s so-called Murder Squad that anyone brought to a garda station from the gay community would be fingerprinted first, but if their prints did not match those found in Self’s Dublin home, they would be destroyed and not kept as part of a “gay database”.
The investigation had a devastating effect on many members of the gay community who were “outed” to their families and employers when they were arrested as part of the garda investigation.
Many of them decided to emigrate to England to escape from this pervasive investigation, said Mr Lynch.
Mr Lynch founded the Sexual Liberation Movement, in Trinity College Dublin, 50 years ago in October of next year. Among the people who attended the meeting were Ruth Ridderick, Mary Dorcey, Margaret McWilliams, Gerry McNamara, Hugo McManus, Peter Bradley, David Norris, Irene Brady, Michael Kerrigan and Edmund Lynch.
From the Dublin suburb of Drimnagh, where he still lives, Mr Lynch had originally worked as a sheet metal worker, before getting a job as a sound engineer.
He went on to become a widely respected producer in RTÉ, where he knew Charlie Self. But there the similarities ended.
“I didn’t particularly like him,” he said in his forthright manner over a cup of coffee.
“I was political, he was busy chasing other men. I know he was a friend of Vincent Hanley (a gay DJ in RTÉ), but he was very arrogant. He usually drank in The Bailey and we went to Bartley Dunne’s,” he said, although Self did occasionally go for a drink to Dunne’s, known unofficially as the city’s only “gay bar” at the time.
Like others, he was shocked by Self’s murder and that of other gay men at the time, before the term “gay” was even invented.
“Who carried out the murder certainly wasn’t known in the community at the time,” he said.
“Or at least I never knew. But a lot of the community were terrified, I just didn’t give a sh**e. I beat a path to Pearse Street Garda Station, where the investigation was based, and after a lot of pressure and with the help of Garrett Sheehan, we got them to appoint a liaison officer for the gay community.
“We told them, ‘You won’t get much help if that is the approach you have’.”
Although the initial investigation and a cold-case review compiled a dossier on Charles Self’s movements on the day he was murdered, a vital witness who went home with him that night was never identified.
The man who may hold the key to this brutal killing sadly remains a man of mystery to this day.
Dublin, Wednesday, January 20, 1982
It had been snowing on and off for a couple of days. On Wednesday, January, 20, 1982, Charles Self’s car had broken down, so he left it in the RTÉ car park and went home to the mews house he shared with Vincent Hanley off Brighton Avenue in Monkstown.
He lit the fire before deciding to go into town. He was picked up by a motorist at the bus stop on the Monkstown Road and dropped off near O’Connell Bridge. He had a few drinks in The Bailey before proceeding to the South William pub and then on to Bartley Dunne’s in Stephen Street Lower, a popular venue for actors, lawyers and the gay community.
Self was unselfconsciously gay, but not camp. He wore an earring when it was unheard of and he had a preference for younger men.
He left Bartley Dunne’s alone at closing time and proceeded to Burgh Quay, where he went into The Hotpot and ordered food. He arrived about 11.40pm and left at 12.05am. Investigators presumed he had gone over to the public toilets at the corner of Burgh Quay which was known as a “pick-up” location.
At 12.20am Self and a smartly dressed man in a two-piece suit, said to be about 25 years of age with fair hair flopping over his collar, got into a taxi on Eden Quay.
The taxi man, Patrick Shanley, remembered them getting amorous in the back of the car. He dropped them to Self’s home around 12.40am.
The taxi man handed Self £1.30 (€1.65) in change, which was found in his blood-soaked pocket the following morning.
Charles B Self (32) was born in England in February, 1949, but was raised by an aunt in Glasgow. He came to Dublin in 1978 having worked in the BBC. He was the main set designer on The Late Late Show and weeks before his murder had worked on a Christmas special for the performer Twink, Adele King.
He shared Annesley Mews, one of two mews houses with a courtyard, with Vincent Hanley, then one of the best-known DJs in Dublin, who was known as “Chrissie” in RTÉ, where most of the gay men had nicknames.
Hanley was spending most of his time in London where he was working for Capital Radio.
While he was away, the odd friend with a key to the mews stayed in his room – the smaller of the two bedrooms on the upper floor. Another RTÉ designer, Bertram ‘Bertie’ Tyrer, was staying on the night of January 20, as he couldn’t get back to his cottage in Wicklow, because of the heavy snow.
Dublin, Thursday, January 21, 1982
When Tyrer came down the stairs that morning, he found Charles Self lying dead in a pool of blood, with his black sweatshirt pulled up under his armpits. He was partly slumped against the front door, which was almost directly at the bottom of the stairs. The stereo was still playing in the living room.
Unable to get a dial tone to call for assistance, he ran across the courtyard to the neighbouring mews and his call was logged at Dún Laoghaire Garda Station at 8.59am.
Self had been stabbed 14 times, six of the wounds so vicious that the blade, a wooden-handed carving knife believed to be from a set he’d bought in Habitat, had penetrated his chest and come out his back. He had also suffered three slash wounds, one of them five inches long, to the throat.
Part of the cord from Vincent Hanley’s red dressing gown was also wound tightly around his neck.
“The scene that was presented to gardaí was that of a serious assault having taken place downstairs, initially in the kitchen area, then in the living room and finally in the narrow hallway at the foot of the stairs,” Detective Sergeant Alan Bailey, who investigated the case, would say later.
Bertie Tyrer told gardaí that he had gone to bed shortly after midnight. He said he was disturbed at about 2.30am when a man came into the bedroom where he was sleeping and said: “Sorry, wrong room,” and closed the door. Tyrer remembered him as having dark hair, rather than the straight fair hair of the man in the taxi with Self.
The woman who occupied the other mews, Mary Liddell, said that at about 4am she heard the sound of the stone bench being dragged across the courtyard and when she looked out, she saw the figure of a man climbing over the courtyard wall into a nearby garden. She noticed that the door of Self’s home was ajar, with the light on inside.
In 2008 Detective Garda Alan Bailey, who reinvestigated the case, believed there were “anomalies” in the original investigation, which led him to conclude that the murder scene may have been “staged” by the killer to divert attention from himself.
The window where it was believed the culprit had escaped was two foot in size and opened inwards – he didn’t believe anyone could get through it, least of all without disturbing items of crockery on the counter. A window box was found placed carefully on the ground in the courtyard, the plant and clay still in it – if someone had managed to climb through, they would almost certainly have knocked it over.
He concluded that the man who travelled in the taxi with Self should be treated as a witness, not a suspect and if only he came forward there would still be some chance of solving the murder.
Bill Maher, a friend of Charles Self and Vincent Hanley, who once lived in Annesley Mews, was interviewed in Dún Laoghaire Garda Station as part of the investigation. He remembers seeing a sketch of the suspect, drawn by Bertie Tyrer and given to gardaí.
Years later, when he asked to have another look at it, he was told there was no sketch or record of it among evidence collated at the time.
The man whose fingerprints were found in the house that night has never been identified.
Ireland has changed immeasurably in the 50 years since Charles Self’s killing.
Sadly there is little or no chance now that the murder will ever be solved.