This month’s “Off the Shelf” book review is a departure from my usual selection of a recent novel about Ireland or one written by an Irish writer. The subject of the book is Malcolm Macarthur, a man born into a privileged family from County Meath, who inherited enough of his family’s estate without the burden of daily work.
He was a handsome, well-spoken man who became a denizen of Dublin’s bohemian bars in the 60s and 70s. Despite his high-born background, Macarthur committed two of the most heinous crimes in Irish history. Over the course of a weekend in July 1982 he took the life of Bridie Dargan, a nurse whom he bludgeoned to death with a hammer in Phoenix Park when stealing her car.
Three days later, he shot to death a farmer named Donal Dunne, who was shot in the face with a shotgun. Both victims were innocent and 27 years old.
Macarthur had run into some financial trouble as a result of his spendthrift ways and was aghast at the prospect of losing his independent lifestyle. He conjured up a bank heist that never made it to the bank. The end result was a crime spree both tragic and brutal.
Macarthur became the loose inspiration for Freddie Montgomery, the protagonist in John Banville’s 1989 novel, The Book of Evidence. Both men experienced financial problems, which led to horrific crimes.
Sentenced to life in prison (there is no death penalty in Ireland), following a trial in which Macarthur confessed to his crimes, he was let out of prison on license. Being released ‘on license’ means that for the rest of their sentence the released prisoner must stick to certain conditions.
In 2012, having served thirty years, O’Connell begins by describing his hunt for Macarthur after learning he was released. He learned that Macarthur had shown up at book launches and seminars in Dublin, like Baggot Street Banquo and Trinity College, which had been a favored spot, a place where O’Connell himself studied, writing his Ph.D. on the works of Banville.
The lead that allowed O’Connell to locate Macarthur was an article in the Irish Sun with the headline, “Masking a Murderer: Double killer Malcolm Macarthur backs Covid locked down restrictions- labeling them “necessary precautions.” To make Macarthur’s story even more remarkable, Charles Haughey, the Irish prime minister, famously used the words, ‘Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre, Unprecedented” at a news conference in the summer of 1982 to describe what was going on in Ireland.
While Macarthur was on the lamb following the double murders, he was found to be staying as a guest in the seaside penthouse of the attorney general, Patrick Connolly. The most wanted criminal in Ireland was occasionally chauffeured around in the state car provided to the government’s chief legal advisor, complete with a garda driver. Conor O’Brien shortened the words of Hughey into an acronym that was to define an era: GUBU. Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre, and Unprecedented. For those interested in crime noir books this writer recommends A Thread of Violence.
Find this column and others from the October 2023 issue here!