Wednesday 16 October 2019

Murder mystery that still haunts a village 40 years on

Bernadette Connolly was just 10 years old when she disappeared close to her home near Collooney, Co Sligo. Kim Bielenberg returns after four decades to find her family and neighbours still in shock

A family's grief: Bernadette Connolly's
sisters Kerrie, Ann and Patricia hold a
photo of her as a young girl (left).
Right: a cross marks the tragic spot
near her home; a smiling Bernadette
with her mother Maureen
A family's grief: Bernadette Connolly's sisters Kerrie, Ann and Patricia hold a photo of her as a young girl (left). Right: a cross marks the tragic spot near her home; a smiling Bernadette with her mother Maureen

On Fridays it was normally Ann Connolly who set out on her bike to fetch the fish for tea. But on April 17, 1970, one of her younger sisters, Bernie, was given the job of cycling a couple of miles to the neighbours to pick up the groceries.

Bernie would have set off on the errand with that sense of excitement that any 10-year-old feels when she is given such a grown-up duty. She had her gleaming Raleigh Astronaut bike, which she had received from Santa the previous Christmas.

There was little traffic on the country road and Bernie's mother Maureen had no reason to believe that there was any imminent danger.

Bernie was a keen Irish dancer, who still had traces of a Birmingham accent from her early years with her family in England.

Her school copy books tell in touching detail of the ordinary life of a girl at the start of that decade:

"Myself - 23rd February 1970.

My name is Bernadette Connolly. I have two sisters. I have one brother. Mary Flynn is my best friend. I want to be a teacher when I grow up. I have curly hair. I have brown eyes. I have glasses. I sit beside Patsy Kerins.''

Bernie's bicycle would have been named after the spacemen who were causing excitement at that time, and on that very day. Alibis in the murder investigation were to be linked to television broadcasts of the Apollo 13 mission which splashed to Earth that day. Another of Bernie's copy books described an earlier moon landing: "They stayed on the moon for 30 hours, and then they went back to the mother ship.''

On a gentle spring afternoon this week, Gerry Guilfoyle, husband of Bernie's sister Ann, showed me the route that the girl had taken.

He told me how she would have passed close to the Cloonmahon Monastery, standing on the hill. The monks have long since gone and the building is now a facility run by the HSE.

On her short journey down a road lined with trees and bogs, Bernie overtook a donkey and cart and shouted a greeting. She cycled fast into the distance -- and then she vanished.

There are many theories and stories in the locality about who took Bernie. Her bike was carefully placed on a high bank, and her mother's purse, which she had taken to pay for the groceries, was lying nearby. The only other signs of Bernie and her assailant were some footprints.

There were no screams heard and Bernie would have known not to speak to strangers. Could it be that someone who knew her offered her a lift?

After the Connollys raised the alarm the area was searched for weeks on end, but Gerry Guilfoyle does not believe the original investigation was entirely satisfactory. The family has spent many years looking for justice.

A junior Garda involved in the Bernadette case said later that the scene of her disappearance on the quiet country road had not been properly preserved.

With no officer minding it overnight, he claimed the footprints that could have offered clues were allowed to disappear.

The body of Bernie was found 112 days later on a bog 15 miles away from where she disappeared. She had been raped and murdered.

In the aftermath of Bernie's disappearance, the priests and religious brothers at Cloonmahon were keen to help, but the behaviour of particular individuals aroused certain suspicions.

Some of the suspicions were caused by the movements of a green Ford Escort van, which was seen in the area at the time. The monks had such a van.

A petrol pump attendant, who has since died, said a man from the monastery called for petrol in the van that evening. But this man later vehemently denied it was him. Both men were adamant.

After the disappearance, another resident of Cloonmahon, Fr Columba Kelly, moved in with the Connolly family, apparently with the purpose of consoling them. According to the family, he took charge of the sympathy letters, offering to read them and to alert Gardai if there was anything untoward. Soon afterwards, Fr Columba was sent to Africa by his order.

He was never questioned by Gardai after his departure. Detectives have told the journalist Stephen Rae that there were plans to question him on a visit to Ireland, but for some reason the force held back. The priest died in 2001.

One incident that heightened suspicion was a story told by Fr Columba that he had spotted a car driving near the Connollys' house soon after the disappearance. He reportedly told Gerry Connolly that he had followed the car towards Ballinafad but then lost sight of it. Bernadette's body was eventually found near Ballinafad.

Vital material relevant to the case -- including the bicycle, the purse and the religious medals worn by Bernie when she was abducted -- have been lost while in the custody of the Gardai, and cannot now be found.

The case and that of a murdered Garda, Dick Fallon, during the same year shocked the entire nation and led to a feeling that the country was no long as safe as it once had been.

As Barry Cummins noted in Unsolved, a book covering this and other murder cases, "There had never been an investigation like it before. There were many instances of children being attacked in random assaults, but in recent memory there was no case in Ireland of a child being abducted.''

To this day, Bernadette's four siblings -- Ann, Tommy, Patricia and Kerrie (born two years after the murder) -- do not know the truth of what happened to Bernie. If anyone, alive or dead, knows the identity of the killer, they have not come forward with anything that will shed a clear light on the case.

The two men from the monastery are by no means the only suspects, and there is no compelling evidence against them. Attention has also focused on an English fisherman who was believed to be in the neighbourhood around that time.

The man known as RR was subsequently convicted of sexual assaults and served a seven-year prison sentence. He told Gardai that he was not in Ireland during the week of Bernie's disappearance.

Bernie's sisters Kerrie and Patricia welcomed me warmly to the home on Kiernan Avenue, Collooney, where the family moved after Bernie's death.

Even Kerrie, who was not even born at the time of the killing, feels a sense of trauma at the gaping hole in her family.

With a tremor in her voice she says: "It has me in knots and I cannot see an end to this. All we want is to find the truth.''

Kerrie was never actually told as a girl what had happened to Bernadette, but she gradually became aware of it as she grew older. The presence of her departed sister could not be avoided. It was all around her.

As a girl, she once came across a box of Bernie's belongings in a wardrobe.

"There was a little skipping rope in there and some of the copy books. Then I sensed that there was someone at my shoulder. It was my mother and she asked me never to open the box without her permission.''

Last year, in the wake of the Murphy report into clerical abuse, Gardai announced a review of the case following concerns expressed by the family that detectives had been hampered in earlier investigations.

A spokesman for the Gardai said this week: " The review is on-going and it would not be appropriate for An Garda Siochana to comment at this time.''

There is a terrible irony in the life and death of 10-year-old Bernadette Connolly.

Her parents Gerry and Maureen had returned to Ireland from Birmingham, partly because they believed it was a safer place to bring up children. Their choice was to prove a tragic one. But how could they have anticipated it?

Even in our more violent time, when murders and attacks are commonplace, the case of Bernadette still seems beyond belief, particularly in a peaceful country town like Collooney.

As Kerrie puts it: "We will have to let it rest some time. But every day I still try to imagine what it would have been like if she was still around. She should still be here.''

Irish Independent

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