One Sunday in early May 2022, I went for a walk with my son in Sandycove, a coastal suburb just south of Dublin.
It was a bright and beautiful day, and the first fine possibility of summer was in the air; the beach was crowded with picnicking families and children flinging themselves, shrieking, at the icy sea. We made our way up the hill past the bathing area at the Forty Foot, and when we came to the squat Martello tower in which James Joyce set the opening chapter of Ulysses, we paused for a moment.
As I dutifully informed my son of the building’s significance, and as he dutifully listened, my gaze drifted along the coastline and came to rest on a cluster of three-story apartment buildings on the very edge of the rocks above the bay. I knew this apartment complex well, though I had not been there since childhood.
I pointed the place out to my son, and told him that my grandparents had lived there when I was a child, and that I remembered it very vividly. I remembered in particular, I told him, the view of the bay from the kitchen window, and my grandfather’s insistence that on an especially fine day you could see clear across the Irish Sea to Wales. I was, I said, fascinated by this prospect of seeing Britain from the kitchen window. Whenever I visited them I would always head for the binoculars that hung from a hook on the wall, and I would peer east across the water; but, Ireland being what it was, the view was never clear enough.
I told my son that I wanted to show him the place, and so we walked a further ten minutes or so, past the fine Victorian terraced houses between Sandycove and Dalkey, until we reached the sea again at Bullock Harbour. The apartment complex, which was called Pilot View, was sealed off from the road by a set of large electric gates.
It was the kind of place that estate agents habitually refer to as “an exclusive development,” or “highly sought-after.” In my grandparents’ time, a lot of well-off people lived there: couples whose children had grown up and moved out, or older professionals who had never married. (As a boy I had an enthusiasm for luxury cars, and I remember being deeply impressed by all the Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes in the parking spaces out front.)
Standing outside the entrance to the car park, I pointed out to my son the door to my grandparents’ building. Like most children of his age, he liked to hear about his parents’ childhoods, and so he listened contentedly as I recalled playing in the garden behind their ground-floor apartment, the lawn that sloped down toward the rocks, and the Irish Sea beyond.Class and power… were more than mere contexts for these crimes; they are at the center of their enduring fascination.
As I spoke, however, my mind was elsewhere. It was not really my grandparents I was thinking of, or even my own childhood as such, but a thing that had happened in 1982, when I was three years old. A murderer had been arrested there, in the apartment building adjacent to my grandparents’. This murderer was among the most notorious in Irish history, and the story of his crimes and their aftermath was one that had haunted me, in various ways, since childhood. It was one that had haunted our country too. I knew that my son would have been interested to hear of this—more interested than he was in James Joyce, certainly, or in my own early memories—but I said nothing about it.
As I continued to tell my son about my grandparents, I was gazing up at a window of the penthouse next door, imagining the murderer gazing down in our direction, an expression of watchful abstraction on his face. This was the window, I knew, in which the detectives who arrested him had seen his face appear as they were preparing to close in. It was as though the image of this murderer—the knowledge of what he had done and of the circumstances of his arrest—had overwritten my own childhood memories of the place.
In this way, too, the murderer and his crimes had come to be superimposed over my experience of the city I lived in. I would go for a run in the Phoenix Park, and as I passed the Wellington Monument I would see him standing there, peeling and eating an orange in the moments before he attacked his first victim. Farther on, I would reach the American ambassador’s residence, and as I stopped to stretch before turning back for home, I would see in my mind what had happened there almost forty years before. I would see this man bundling a young woman into the back seat of her own car. I would see the eruption of sudden savagery with the hammer; the car speeding off down the jogging track, a fine spray of blood across its windows.
It was from my own father that I first learned about the murderer, whose name was Malcolm Macarthur. I was about nine, the age my son is now. My father gave me only the broad outline of the events that had culminated in Pilot View, in, as I remember it, that same car park in front of my grandparents’ apartment. One of my grandparents’ neighbors, my father told me, a man named Patrick Connolly, had once been a very prominent political figure. He lived in an apartment on the top floor, and my grandparents knew him—though only passingly, I gathered, in a polite and neighborly sort of way.
Some years before, my father told me, this man and his apartment had been at the center of a bizarre and scandalous incident. A friend of Connolly’s, Malcolm Macarthur, had murdered two people, and for two weeks there was a very public investigation and manhunt, and when the Gardaí (the Irish police) had finally tracked him down and caught him, he was staying in Connolly’s home.
They had arrested Macarthur right there, my father told me, in the apartment complex where my grandparents lived, where I came to stay when my parents went away on weekends, where I played in the hallway and on the lawn and on the rocks along the shore. From then on, whenever we visited my grandparents, my head would swirl with action-film scenes: SWAT teams descending from helicopters on ropes, rappelling down the side of the building. Shoot-outs in the car park. Snipers on the roof of the nursing home across the street.
None of this kind of thing happened, of course, but even now when I think about Macarthur’s arrest, it is hard for me not to imagine it playing out like that, the way I’d constructed it in my mind as a child. But I will try to keep my imagination out of this, one way or another. There is more than enough reality to be getting on with.
The people of Dublin know this story well. But we know it only as a story. Although Macarthur was convicted of murder, there was hardly a trial at all. He pleaded guilty, and so no evidence was heard in court. What details emerged in the press about the culprit were largely leaked, or garnered by reporters from acquaintances in the days and weeks after his conviction. The case came to trial very quickly and was over as soon as it began; all of this, along with the involvement of the attorney general, led to lingering suspicions about the government intervening to mitigate embarrassing revelations.
It wasn’t until years later that I came to understand these events more fully; but even then there was something opaque and elusive about the story of Macarthur, as much urban legend as historical fact. When he committed these murders, he was thirty-seven years old, and a well-known figure about the city—though much less so than now, and for very different reasons.
There are Dubliners of a certain age who remember him in those days: a handsome, erudite man with a refined manner of speech, who drank in the city’s more sophisticated bars, and mixed with an assemblage of bohemian and establishment familiars. They remember him as an incongruously suave proposition, sitting alone in a quiet corner, sipping a glass of wine and reading, for some reason, a copy of Le Monde. Emerging from the front arch of Trinity College, contentedly absorbed in his thoughts. The silk bow ties, the tasteful brogues, the Harris tweeds. And the hair—the dark, dense curls, swept back from a high, aristocratic forehead.
He came from a well-off landowning family in Co. Meath, where he had grown up on a large country estate, with a house- keeper, a gardener, and a governess. He thought of himself, and was thought of by others, as landed gentry. In his twenties, he came into a large inheritance, and he lived well on this bounty. His life was a project of refined hedonism. His days were entirely his own. He was a free man.
But the money, as is the way of money, did not last. He had loaned too widely, and spent too deeply, and on the cusp of middle age, having never had a job in his life, he found that he was going broke. And this would not do.
He decided that the quickest and most efficient way out of this situation was to commit an armed robbery. Such heists were often in the news at the time: the IRA had lately been conducting a campaign of bank jobs in order to fund their armed struggle. He was a clever man, he reasoned, and a capable one, and so why should he not be able to pull off something along those lines?
He had, at that point, been living for some months with his partner and son in Tenerife, a Spanish island off the coast of Morocco. Explaining that he was leaving to attend to some financial affairs, he returned to Dublin. Two weeks after his return, he still had not succeeded in pulling off the planned heist, but in the effort to attain a gun and a getaway car, he had murdered two complete strangers.
His first victim was the nurse Bridie Gargan, whom he beat to death with a hammer in the Phoenix Park in the process of stealing her car. His second was the farmer Donal Dunne, in Edenderry, Co. Offaly, who had agreed to sell him a shotgun, and whom he shot point-blank in the face. Both of his victims were twenty-seven years old.
Having committed these murders, Macarthur was still no closer to carrying out his plan. He was further, in fact, than he had been when he started, because the crimes had become the focus of a very public investigation, and a great deal of media interest. Deciding he needed a more suitable place to hide than the guesthouse where he’d been staying, he accepted an offer from his friend Paddy Connolly, who knew nothing of his crimes, to stay in the spare room in his penthouse apartment.
When Macarthur was finally arrested, almost three weeks later, there followed a great and enduring convulsion of captivated outrage: not just because this murderer had finally been caught, but because of where he had been caught, and whom he was staying with. Patrick Connolly was not just Macarthur’s friend: he was also the attorney general. He was the most senior legal official in the country, a significant figure in an already embattled government.
Even now, almost forty years after the murders, the public fascination with this story has not abated, and has in certain respects intensified since Macarthur’s release, after thirty years in prison, in 2012. Among Irish people old enough to remember the summer of 1982, he is as close to a household name as it is possible for a murderer to be; though his name is not surrounded by anything like the miasma of malice and depravity that arise from, say, the name Peter Sutcliffe in the UK, or Jeffrey Dahmer in the United States, it carries, in this country, a similar generational weight.
This fascination draws much of its strength from paradox: Malcolm Macarthur, the genteel brute; the savage intellectual. One of the most well-known photographs of him, taken at the time of his trial, captures this faintly surreal tension between the visual signifiers of aristocracy and those of criminality. In it, he is pictured walking out of the court after a hearing; his right wrist is cuffed to that of a Garda, and there is another uniformed officer at his back, but if you were to crop the image just so, you would never suspect that this man was any sort of criminal at all, let alone one who had, over the course of a recent dire weekend, beaten one perfect stranger to death and shot another in the face.
He is wearing a stylish sport coat with a handkerchief in a breast pocket, a crisp white shirt, and a silk bow tie. He is handsome, in a prim sort of way, his expression quizzical, as though he is contemplating some mildly troubling abstraction: an eyebrow slightly cocked, the nostrils nobly flared. He seems both there and not there: handcuffed to the wrist of a cop, and yet aloof and detached from the scene of which he is the center. This is a man not of mere vulgar wealth, but of class.There is, in its most simplistic telling, something of the fable about this tale of an heir who murders a nurse and a farmer.
Class and power—Macarthur’s social class, and his proximity to the political establishment—were more than mere contexts for these crimes; they are at the center of their enduring fascination. Had the murderer been an addict from the inner city, or even a member of the professional middle class gone berserk, it is unlikely that the killings would have made anything like as deep and lasting an impression. There is, in its most simplistic telling, something of the fable about this tale of an heir who murders a nurse and a farmer. As complex and confounding as the story turns out to be, it is always tempting to read it as enigmatic allegory, its meaning hovering just out of reach.
If this man, and the murders he committed, seem still to occupy a kind of mythic register, it is largely because the story has never really been told. Or rather, it has been told, endlessly and luridly, but always in the same tone of breathless incredulity, and with a sullen and persistent silence at its center.
It was that silence that drew me toward Macarthur, that brought me into his life, and him into mine. I had seen endless images of him: mug shots from the time of his arrest; press photographs of frenzied scenes outside the courthouse; tabloid shots of him walking the streets in the weeks after his release from prison.
I had read novels based on his life and crimes; I had once attended a play, a one-man show, whose protagonist was based on a version of Macarthur in one of those novels—an adaptation of a fictionalization of a reality that was barely known. I had read countless newspaper interviews with acquaintances and family friends about his childhood, his upbringing, his lifestyle. I had watched television documentaries about the murders, the investigation, the complex political consequences.
And in the years since his release, I had even passed him in the street, many times, as he walked through the city in a state of abject freedom. But I had never heard or read so much as a word from his own mouth about the things he had done, or his reasons for having done them. Not a word about his victims, or their families, or how he lived with the weight of his deeds.
I wanted to pierce that silence, and break through to whatever lay beneath it. As naive as it sounds to me now, I wanted to know the truth of this story that had haunted me for so many years. I wanted to know who and what this man was.
I did eventually come to know him, and there were times when I felt that I had glimpsed this truth. But there were other times, far more frequent, when I understood that such knowledge was impossible, and that I had wandered into a labyrinth of endlessly ramifying fictions.
It was, I think, this uncertainty, this knowing and not knowing, that prevented me, as we stood outside the apartment complex at Pilot View, from speaking to my son about Macarthur. Had I done so, I might well have felt a compulsion to admit that I in fact knew this man, this murderer, and that I had over the course of the previous year spent a great deal of time in his company, that I had been spending my days writing a book about him and his crimes. He would have asked me what this man was like—whether I was afraid of him, whether he was evil—and I would not have known what to tell him. Even now, I am not sure what to tell myself.
Excerpted from A Thread of Violence: A Story of Truth, Invention, and Murder by Mark O’Connell. Copyright © 2023. Available from Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.