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A bow-tied killer and his bittersweet glimpse of freedom...

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Malcolm MacArthur leaves the High Court in July 1983

Malcolm MacArthur leaves the High Court in July 1983

MacArthur

MacArthur

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Malcolm MacArthur leaves the High Court in July 1983

An angry shopper confronted the country's most notorious murderer outside a Wicklow supermarket on Monday evening as he waited for his lift back to prison after weekend release.

"Life is supposed to mean life, Malcolm," she growled, and for a moment, there was something in Malcolm MacArthur's expression that said he wished it did. For a man who has spent almost half of his existence behind bars, he is learning that freedom often comes with a bittersweet taste.

In a genteel and unthreatening fashion, the 66-year-old pleaded with waiting pressmen to leave him alone, uttering his first words in public for almost 30 years. He had hoped to be anonymous when he was released, he told them, because he wanted to go back to his old haunts and be left in peace.

In the gay clubs and bars of Dublin, a frisson of anxiety filled the air as rumour spread that the toff-turned-killer who once mingled in those circles could be soon back among them.

Some of his former acquaintances expressed shock at reports that MacArthur may be released permanently as they recalled the August day in 1982 when the Meath socialite was arrested in the Dalkey home of the Attorney General after going on a murderous rampage.

Ominously, it happened to be Friday the Thirteenth and law chief Patrick Connolly was preparing to leave for a long holiday in America the following day. It was close to 7pm when his state car was approached by a team of detectives as it pulled into the plush Pilot View apartment complex. They wanted to interview a house guest who had been staying with Connolly.

Connolly took them in and introduced them to MacArthur, frowning at his friend as he remarked: "I don't know what this is about, Malcolm, but whatever it is, you're on your own."

Three weeks earlier, on July 22, MacArthur's killing spree had begun. His first known victim was Bridie Gargan, a 29-year-old nurse who worked at St James's Hospital. It was a hot day and she had decided to lie out in the Phoenix Park for the afternoon before driving back to her flat in Castleknock.

MacArthur was in a violent rage that day, a mood brought on by the impoverished state he now found himself in, having squandered an inheritance of almost £100,000. At the time, he had a girlfriend, Brenda Little, and a seven-year-old son, Colin, to support. He had abandoned them during a holiday in Tenerife to sort out his financial worries back home.

"Desperate situations require desperate remedies," the 33-year-old killer told gardai shortly after his arrest.

Malcolm MacArthur grew up in Breemount House, a sprawling period manor in Trim set on 180 acres of prime Meath farmland, but his youth was marked by misery and neglect.

The only son of Irene and Daniel MacArthur, who managed the family farm, his mother considered him an irritation in her busy social life of tennis and hunting. But his relationship with his father was more disturbing.

A notorious scrooge, he beat his son from a young age, and sent him to school in a bedraggled state, often without shoes or socks. On one occasion, the young boy required five stitches to his hand after being bitten by his brutal father.

As a teenager, Malcolm once commented to a girlfriend that if they ever had a child, they would raise it to the age of seven and then abandon it the way he had been.

As his financial troubles grew, he concocted a plan to carry out an armed robbery. First, he would need a gun. Donal Dunne, a farmer from Edenderry, happened to be advertising one for sale. All MacArthur needed was a car to get him to Offaly.

On that fateful July day, carrying a lump hammer, an imitation pistol and a shovel in his blue holdall, he meandered up the quays of Dublin in his tweed trousers and stalking hat, and strolled into the park.

Before long, he spotted Ms Gargan sunbathing next to her Renault 5, close to the American ambassador's residence. A gardener working at the diplomatic home watched in horror as MacArthur ordered the young nurse into the car and began to bludgeon her to death.

The gardener raised the alarm, but by now MacArthur was speeding through the city escorted by an ambulance. In a bizarre twist, the driver had seen the blood-splashed victim stretched out in the back and a hospital parking permit stuck on the car window. He thought that MacArthur was actually a doctor desperate to get her to an emergency unit.

Realising he was being pursued, MacArthur drove through St James's and out again, before dumping the car and its dying owner in nearby Rialto.

He then jumped on a bus to Finglas, fled to a local pub to shave his beard, and hitchhiked to Edenderry two days later to acquire Dunne's gun.

Dunne took MacArthur to his local clay pigeon club to try out the shotgun. As MacArthur took the weapon in his hand, he said "sorry old chap," and blasted it at point blank range through Dunne's head, killing him instantly.

By now, Brenda Little was growing concerned. Still in the Canaries, she hadn't heard from MacArthur for days and decided to contact their mutual friend Patrick Connolly, who had been appointed Attorney General by Taoiseach Charles Haughey earlier that year.

Connolly had got to know the couple when they lived in a flat in Donnybrook rented by him. Little and MacArthur became regular guests at his new coastal home, which she helped to furnish.

On August 4, several days after her panicked call, Connolly was relieved to find MacArthur on his doorstep and invited him to stay.

The following Sunday, in another bizarre turn, the pair went to the All-Ireland hurling semi-final at Croke Park between Kilkenny and Galway where they sat in a VIP box. At one point, MacArthur listened intently as the Garda Commissioner, who was also at the match, discussed the murders with the AG, and later even shook hands with the double killer.

But the cunning aristocrat wasn't as clever as he thought. Before calling to Connolly on August 4, he knocked on the door of an American diplomat he knew from social circles, Harry Bieling, who lived in Killiney.

He mentioned they shared mutual friends, revealed the shotgun and asked for money, which Bieling gave him in the form of a cheque. MacArthur left and Bieling contacted the police. Before long, they tracked MacArthur down to the home of the most senior lawyer in the land.

When the Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, was told the following day about the series of events, he described them as 'grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented', from which Conor Cruise O'Brien formed the infamous acronym GUBU.

Despite the controversy, the government's legal advisor, who recently expressed his opposition to the referendum on Oireachtas inquries, continued with his holiday plans and left for the US.

Several days later, he was summoned back by a livid Haughey and had no choice but to offer his resignation on August 16. He was never suspected of knowing anything about his friend's crimes.

MacArthur confessed to the murder of Bridie Gargan and a deal was done with the State on the Dunne killing to enter a nolle prosequi.

To quell public anger at that decision and give the Dunne family some sense of justice and recognition, the prosecution requested that a statement detailing all of the evidence be read out in court.

But the judge said this was not necessary given that a mandatory life sentence was being handed down.

During his 28 years in custody, MacArthur has been an exemplary prisoner who has, in the words of one officer, "never caused an ounce of a problem". But mystery still surrounds the case and questions linger as to why a man found guilty of one murder has spent almost three times the average time served in prison for that crime.

Almost a decade ago, allegations emerged that MacArthur was about to blow the cover on a paedophile ring involving powerful figures in Irish society.

In a separate claim, Kilkenny deputy Phil Hogan, the current Minister for the Environment, told the Dail that a resident of an industrial school in Clonmel, who had become a male prostitute, claimed to have seen a Department of Education official with MacArthur approaching a young prostitute in Dublin city centre.

Breaking his 20-year-silence, MacArthur issued a statement at the time from his cell saying the claims were completely false.

What is emerging now however is that before his imprisonment, MacArthur was a regular character in the gay underworld.

It was the era before decriminalisation when coming out was not an option for many men, especially those belonging to the upper echelons of society, the worlds of law, politics and academia, who went home to their wives and children at night.

"You would see him almost every Saturday afternoon, holding up one end of the bar of The Bailey on Duke Street," says a former patron of Dublin's most famous gay pub in the 1980s.

"He gave off an air of self-importance. We all thought he was landed gentry with his tweed suits and flowery bow ties. He was so flamboyant, he stood out a mile. But Malcolm was usually alone and seemed very difficult to talk to so he stayed at a distance to the rest of us."

Now the 66-year-old dreams of freedom and a life of quiet anonymity. But even if he does eventually get out, his notoriety will always walk with him.

Indo Review