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Life and death of thriller author who tracked down Bishop Casey

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Imaginative: Gordon Thomas wrote more than 50 books — many in collaboration with Max
Morgan-Witts — that were translated into about 30 languages, and some were best-sellers

Imaginative: Gordon Thomas wrote more than 50 books — many in collaboration with Max Morgan-Witts — that were translated into about 30 languages, and some were best-sellers

Imaginative: Gordon Thomas wrote more than 50 books — many in collaboration with Max Morgan-Witts — that were translated into about 30 languages, and some were best-sellers

Gordon Thomas was a phenomenon. A prolific author and journalist, he penned or jointly authored more than 50 books ranging from Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad to Voyage of the Damned: A Shocking True Story of Hope, Betrayal, and Nazi Terror which recounted the fate of 937 Jews who left Hamburg on the luxury liner St Louis just before World War II erupted. Even on Amazon there are 36 separate listings of his work, much of it completed during his many happy years living in Co Wicklow and where he will be buried following his death at the age of 84 from pneumonia.

Despite a stellar career as an author and commentator on the world of espionage, Thomas is remembered best in Ireland for his involvement in the extraordinary events surrounding Bishop Eamon Casey in the early 1990s.

He tracked down the runaway Bishop to Mexico and so became embroiled in one of the great controversies of that era.

Gordon, who died on March 3 at his home near Bath in England, claimed to have sold more than 45 million books during his lifetime and was living in Wicklow when he approached the Sunday Independent in 1993 saying that he had discovered where the disgraced bishop was living. He was commissioned to go to Mexico to confront him.

Scandal had erupted in the Irish Catholic Church the previous year when it was revealed that the colourful Bishop of Galway had fathered a child, Peter, with an American divorcee Annie Murphy when he was Bishop of Kerry back in 1974.

When he was approached by the media the Bishop "borrowed" some money from the diocese (which was later paid back by a benefactor) fled to London then to Rome, where he resigned his position, and on to a parish in Ecuador and later a convent in Mexico.

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American divorcee Annie Murphy had a child with Bishop Eamon Casey in the mid-1970s when he was Bishop of Kerry. Photo: Tom Burke

American divorcee Annie Murphy had a child with Bishop Eamon Casey in the mid-1970s when he was Bishop of Kerry. Photo: Tom Burke

American divorcee Annie Murphy had a child with Bishop Eamon Casey in the mid-1970s when he was Bishop of Kerry. Photo: Tom Burke

He kept in touch by telephone with a friend of Murphy called Dymphna Kilbane, and Gordon asked her if Casey would do an interview for a book he was writing about celibacy in the Church called Desire and Denial. Kilbane agreed to co-operate with Gordon and, accompanied by her barrister Catherine Egan and freelance photographer Charlie Collins, the party set out for Mexico.

Kilbane made contact with Casey and that call was recorded. She arranged to meet him outside a local institute in Cuernavaca, where he was learning Spanish. Instead Thomas took her place and confronted the bishop, who was "gobsmacked" by the encounter, photographed by Collins. While on the street, Gordon handed Casey a tape of the previous week's The Late Late Show which had featured Murphy, who he described earlier to Kilbane as "an evil woman". "Lots of pictures were taken and questions were posed, but the Bishop was not for talking," said Willie Kealy, who was deputy editor of the paper at the time.

"After this sensational scoop was published (Sunday, April 11, 1993) the bishop sought to discredit it by distancing himself from the words attributed to him, saying it was not an interview, which indeed it wasn't. It wasn't an interview of any kind, just a great scoop of finding the controversial cleric."

The episode, if nothing else, caused great consternation and ended up in several sets of legal proceedings. It wasn't the first or last time that Gordon found himself not only writing the story, but at the centre of it as well. He was born in Wales in 1933 in a cemetery keeper's cottage where his grandmother lived, and which his parents were visiting at the time.

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Bishop Eamon Casey

Bishop Eamon Casey

Bishop Eamon Casey

He relished delivering the line, "I was born in a cemetery", and he knew how to get the best out of the anecdote when entertaining friends during his time in Ireland. His father was in the air force and, until the age of 14, Gordon lived in the Middle East and Africa, attending school and learning Arabic in Cairo.

On the family's return to England, he was sent to a minor public school in Bedford. In My Story: Gordon Thomas, he recounted how his father introduced him to a British spy who had worked in Moscow and suggested that he interview him. But when he produced the notebooks for an essay he was expelled from the school at 16. "I was helped by my cousin Dylan Thomas (the poet) to get it published," he said of his first book. This, in turn, helped him to get a job in the Daily Express.

Gordon was married four times (once for 19 days). While a writer and producer at the BBC, he met and maried Annie Nightingale, Radio 1's first woman presenter. They had two children before they split.

Following the introduction of the artists' tax exemption by Charlie Haughey in 1969, Gordon was the first best-selling author to move to Ireland to avoid Britain's penal tax system. He moved into The Old Rectory in Ashford, Co Wicklow, with his fourth wife Edith, a German woman.

In the years that followed, best-selling authors, such as Freddie Forsyth, and well-known musicians followed in Gordon's footsteps, colonising the Gold Coast of south Dublin and north Wicklow.

In his earlier years in Ireland, Gordon wrote extensively for the Sunday Press and claimed in one of his columns that President Patrick Hillery's revelation about the state of his marriage was prompted by the KGB, who wanted to upset the Pope's visit to Ireland. Gordon wrote more than 50 books, translated into more than 30 languages. Some, such as Gideon's Spies: The Secret History of The Mossad and Pontiff, were best-sellers, insights into Israel's secret service and the Vatican.

Many were written in collaboration with Max Morgan-Witts. Gordon also wrote seven novels. Though he said he was offered many opportunities to join the intelligence community, he declined.

Despite his prolific output, he was never taken as seriously as he wished and his conspiracy theories were often debunked. Among critics was Fr Michael Cleary, who accused him of inventing sources. Gay Byrne described Desire and Denial as "a thumping good read, a good part of it is Gordon Thomas's imagination". Gordon hit back at, saying: "Critics are like legless men trying to teach running."

"I live a boring life," he told an interviewer some years ago, "I have had a hell of a good life, but I have had to work for it. There was a lot of pressure, writing makes you a lonely person. I don't have many friends."

After selling The Old Rectory, in Co Wicklow, Gordon and Edith moved to Delgany. Some years later he left Ireland to live near Bath. Their home was aptly named The House of Words. Gordon will be buried near his former home at Nun's Cross Church, Killinskey, Ashford, on April 1. He was 84 and is survived by Edith and his children, Catherine, Alexander, Lucy, Nicholas and Natasha.

Sunday Independent