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Friday 8 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Garda Press Office Nora Sheehan
long read

What the jury didn't hear in 'cold case' trial that found Noel Long guilty of Nora Sheehan's murder

The jury agreed with the State’s case that the evidence pointed to the ‘inescapable conclusion’ that Sheehan had met her death in June 1981 at the hands of Long.

ON FRIDAY, THE STATE successfully pursued the oldest murder prosecution in Irish history when a jury found 74-year-old Noel Long guilty of murdering Cork woman Nora Sheehan 42 years ago.

The panel of seven men and four women unanimously accepted the prosecution case that Long, who has a 1972 conviction for sexual offending and multiple previous assault convictions, was guilty of murder.

The jury agreed with the State’s case that the evidence pointed to the “inescapable conclusion” that the mother-of-three had met her death in June 1981 at the hands of Long.

The trial, which began on 13 July, heard evidence that a partial DNA profile generated from semen found in the body of Sheehan and preserved for decades had matched DNA found on clothing taken from Long in 2021.

There was also evidence that Long had been in the same area as Sheehan when she went missing, that fibres recovered from the victim matched those taken from the carpeting of Long’s car and that paint fragments removed from the victim’s clothing also matched paint taken from the same vehicle.

Nora Sheehan’s naked and bruised body was found by forestry workers at The Viewing Point, Shippool Woods in Cork six days after she went missing.

“We hope you are at peace now mom,” the family of Nora Sheehan wrote in a victim impact statement. 

“We never gave up hoping that one day we would get justice for you and we hope we have done you proud.”

katie-sheehan-ccj9 Paddy Cummins / Katie Sheehan, grand-daughter of Nora Sheehan, speaking outside the Criminal Courts of Justice after a jury found Noel Long guilty of Nora Sheehan's murder. Paddy Cummins / /

The jurors found Long guilty of murder by unanimous verdict after five hours and 32 minutes considering their verdict, but outlined are elements of the case that the jury didn’t get to hear.

Other sexual assaults

After the prosecution had closed their case, Long’s defence team made an application to halt the trial on the grounds of delay.

Trial judge Mr Justice Paul McDermott heard that gardaí at the Serious Crime Review Team had tried to progress a rape allegation against Long from 1982 but the victim was not willing to become involved.

Gardai also looked at other sexual assault cases from around this time where Long was a suspect in an attempt to determine if he could be arrested and DNA obtained from him, which could then have been used in Nora Sheehan’s trial.

The application to stop the trial on the delay ground was refused by Mr Justice McDermott in a detailed ruling on 28 July, where he said that Long was not prejudiced by the delay given the nature of the scientific evidence in the trial.

Armed robbery

During a pre-trial hearing that ran for three weeks in June before a jury was sworn in, prosecution counsel Brendan Grehan SC told the court that Long was identified as a suspect early on in the case, at a time when he was living at Riverbank on the Curraheen Road in Bishopstown in Cork with his then-wife and two young sons.

He said that on 16 June, 1981 – four days after Sheehan’s body was found at Shippool Woods – Long was arrested and detained for two days under Section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act in relation to an armed robbery at a post office in Cork city.

The jury never heard about Long’s arrest nor that he was questioned by gardaí regarding the murder of Sheehan, where he denied any involvement and denied that he knew the victim.

Long was released from custody two days later on 18 June, 1981.

During the pretrial hearing, Matthew Thorne (91) said that he had in fact arrested Long for the murder of  Sheehan, although Section 30 would not permit such an arrest.

Brown fibres

The jury was unaware that Long’s home had been searched while he was detained at the Bridewell Garda Station in Cork in June 1981 and that a brown jumper was seized.

It was examined by forensic scientist Dr Maureen Smith, of Forensic Science Ireland, who found matching brown acrylic fibres on Sheehan’s clothes.

However, the garda officer who had issued the search warrant is deceased and the evidence could not be proven at trial as a result.

Blood sample

The jury also did not hear that during Long’s detention in June 1981, he gave a voluntary blood sample from which his DNA profile was later developed and found to match a DNA profile taken from semen recovered from the body of Sheehan.

Gardaí knew this since 2008 but could not use the blood sample in evidence as the trial judge ruled that Long had been unlawfully detained in breach of his constitutional rights, as gardaí had used Section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act to detain him for the murder.  


While Long was present in the garda station on 6 July, 1981, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) gave directions that he was to be charged with the murder of Sheehan.

Long was duly charged and brought before the District Court in Cork the following day.

However Dr Robert Dermot Coakley, the pathologist who had carried out the postmortem on Sheehan, died unexpectedly on 5 August, 1981 and was therefore not available as a witness.

This resulted in the DPP withdrawing the charge of murder on 10 November, 1981 as it was believed that the cause of death could not be proven.

Cause of death

Dr Coakley’s opinion as to Sheehan’s cause of death did not go before the jury because he wasn’t available to give evidence as he died weeks after conducting the post mortem.

His opinion was that the victim’s cause of death was due to asphyxia in the course of a sexual assault.  

Before Dr Coakley died, he had prepared a draft report which had been typed up.

He had also made handwritten amendments to that report and added his conclusion.

His record of the postmortem could not have been used in evidence until a change in the law under the Criminal Justice Evidence Act of 1992.

However, this change did not permit evidence of his opinion as to the cause of death to be given to the jury.


The jury also did not hear that in 2017, gardaí obtained another DNA profile from Long under the DNA Database Act, which had just come into effect.

This was possible because he had been convicted of an assault and was obliged to provide a DNA sample.

However, the DNA sample provided in that way could not be used in evidence under the Act.

It also emerged during the pre-trial hearing that gardaí retrieved “a discarded fork” used by Long, which was also used to develop his DNA profile.

However, this evidence was not used during the trial proper.

‘A million miles away’

Although the jury heard that a search warrant was executed by gardaí on Long’s house on 30 November, 2021 they didn’t hear that detectives made contact with the defendant subsequent to this.

On 7 May, 2022 Long returned a call to Detective Inspector Eamonn Brady in which the Inspector explained that he was still investigating the murder of Sheehan and had new evidence which he wished to put to him on a formal footing. 

He explained to the defendant that he had no power to arrest or detain him and informed Long that if he did meet with them, it would be on a voluntary basis.

The Inspector informed Long that they would meet him at Bandon Garda Station at a time and date suitable to him and his solicitor.

He asked Long to consult with his solicitor before making any decision. 

The Inspector said Long informed him that he didn’t want to have anything to do with the case and that he wanted to stay “a million miles away from it”.

Long said he didn’t want to know about the new evidence as it had nothing to do with him.

The defendant said there was no point in talking to his solicitor as it had nothing to do with him. Long said he wouldn’t be meeting with gardaí. 

Noel Long Trial File1 Paddy Cummins Noel Long Paddy Cummins

The Inspector said he informed Long that this was a serious investigation, that Sheehan had been murdered and that he should consult with his solicitor before making a definite decision not to meet gardaí.

Long repeated that he wanted to stay a million miles away from this, that he had kept his head down for 40 years and just wanted to get on with his life. 

Donal Boyle

Donal Boyle (81) gave evidence to the jury about meeting Long at his [Boyle's] own home in Togher on the evening of 6 June, 1981 close to where Sheehan lived.

However, following defence objections, Boyle was not permitted to give evidence that Long had failed to show up at an arranged meeting the following morning on 7 June [the morning after Sheehan went missing] at the ‘Speckled Door’ Pub near the Old Head of Kinsale for an organised dive.

This location was near Shippool Woods, where Sheehan’s body was found on 12 June, which the prosecution maintained showed that Long was familiar with the area. 

‘Helping gardai with enquiries’

The jury was also unaware that Long was again questioned about Sheehan’s murder on 6 July, 1981.

This was done outside of a formal arrest, in circumstances where the gardaí had no power to effect such an arrest, it being stated instead that Long was “helping gardaí with their enquiries”.  

It turned out that gardaí questioned Long on that day for over 14 hours, using relays of detectives attached to what was then known as the “Murder Squad”.

Former detective Gerry O’Carroll gave evidence in the pre-trial hearing that Long had admitted Sheehan was in his car.

The prosecution stated they were not seeking to rely on this admission at trial.

‘Murder Squad’

Long claimed that during this 6 June, 1981 interrogation by gardaí he was beaten and brought into a dark room, where his head was repeatedly immersed in glass containers containing what he was told were body parts.

Former detective Gerry O’Carroll, one of the last surviving members of the “Murder Squad”, an historic garda unit involved in many high-profile investigations in the 1980s, denied the allegation and called it “extraordinary”.

“I can say this to my Lord: we don’t have body parts lying around in Garda Stations,” O’Carroll told a hearing that took place in the weeks before a jury was empanelled.

O’Carroll also characterised as “extraordinary” and “fanciful” Long’s recollection of being visited during the interview by someone dressed as a priest or a monk.

Hail Mary

During the pre-trial hearing, O’Carroll was cross-examined on the role religion played in his interrogations and of reciting a Hail Mary with serial killer John Shaw before he confessed to murdering two women in the nineteen seventies.

O’Carroll, who was also involved in the Kerry Babies investigation, said that on 6 July, 1981 – barely a month after Nora Sheehan’s body was discovered – Long confessed that he had picked up the mother-of-three in his car after gardaí told him they had forensic proof of matches between her clothing and Long’s car.

088Kerry Babies Case Eamonn Farrell / Det Sgt Gerry O'Carroll (R) prior to taking the witness box on his last day of evidence at the Kerry Babies Tribunal. Photo taken 12/3/1985. Eamonn Farrell / /

He also said that Long’s account of being prevented from using the toilet during his questioning and having to urinate into a can in an interview room was “nonsense”.

“To force him into this indignity is beyond comprehension,” he told Long’s defence counsel.

Long disputed making any confessions to O’Carroll and did not give any evidence about the allegations at the pre-trial hearing.  

In the pre-trial hearing on 15 June this year, the prosecution tendered O’Carroll for the defence, where he was questioned at length by Long’s senior counsel Mr Michael Delaney.

O’Carroll, who took the stand with the aid of a walking stick, said he recalled “fairly well” his dealings with Long that day at Union Quay Garda Station in Cork City.

The witness said he was a detective sergeant attached to the investigations section within the Garda Technical Bureau at the time and the section was headed up by Chief Superintendent Dan Murphy and assisted by the now deceased Detective Superintendent John Courtney.

He said he was aware that Long was invited into the station and had come voluntarily to help gardaí with their inquiries.  

O’Carroll said he interviewed Long that July morning for three hours with another detective.

When they asked Long if he had picked up anybody in the last month in his blue Opel Kadett, the suspect said that nobody except his wife had been in his car for the previous 12 months.

He said that Long was very quiet and silent for long periods of time and only spoke when spoken to.

“He was not very loquacious and forthcoming as naturally he was quiet and reserved and composed”.

O’Carroll testified that he remembered putting it to Long that gardaí had “incontrovertible forensic proof” that “the murdered lady” – Nora Sheehan – was in his car, which gardaí would prove with forensics.

The witness said the mention of forensic evidence had taken the suspect by surprise.

It was at this point that O’Carroll claimed that Long blurted out: “I did pick her up. I did give her a lift. I’m sorry for her family, I am sorry for my family. I didn’t believe it was happening”.

When the detective sergeant asked Long what it was that he “didn’t believe” was happening, he said the suspect replied “I can’t say any more”, before lapsing into a long silence.

He said he thought Long was remorseful when he said he “didn’t believe it was happening’.

O’Carroll said Long was amenable to meeting two forensic experts in the adjoining room around 4.30pm that afternoon.

The witness said that two detectives from the Garda Technical Bureau informed Long it was conclusive from the evidence found at Shippool Woods and from that gathered from his car that the suspect had contact with the victim.

When the witness was returned to the interview room, O’Carroll said he asked Long how he now felt having heard from the forensic experts that there was “conclusive, irrefutable proof” that Sheehan had been in his blue Opel Kadett.

O’Carroll said he put it to the suspect: “Are they correct? Are those men telling the truth?” to which Long had replied: “They are, they are telling the truth. Now I can’t say anymore”.

“And he never did,” added the witness.

O’Carroll said Long would not answer any other questions that were put to him that day and remained silent.

Mr Delaney told the witness that his client disputed making any confessions to him but O’Carroll disagreed.

Counsel also put it to the witness that Long’s recollection included him not being permitted to go to the toilet and having to urinate into a can in the interview room.

O’Carroll countered that this was “a falsehood”.

“Oh, that is nonsense. I never in all my years – 37 years in the police – would I make a person, especially, I mean, somebody who had volunteered voluntarily to come to the station; to force him into this indignity is beyond comprehension.

“Certainly it is not correct and if Mr Long states that, it is not correct. It is not right”.

Mr Delaney put it to the witness that his client said he was never invited into a room next door and showed forensic evidence with a discussion taking place around it.

“That is exactly what happened… my recollection is correct. And he agreed to go into the room,” protested O’Carroll.

Asked by Mr Delaney if it irritated him that Long stopped engaging in the interview, the witness said he was used to it as he had been in interview rooms with paramilitaries, who wouldn’t “open their mouths” over 48 hours.

“And Mr Long was not arrested; he wasn’t even an arrested person. That was his prerogative to remain silent. We understood that,” said the witness.

When asked if he was maintaining that Long was still in the station on a voluntary basis at 6.45pm that night, having been already questioned for nearly 11 hours, O’Carroll said if the suspect had said to him “I want out of here, I’m going home, I’m not arrested” then he could have walked out of the station.

When it was suggested by counsel that the witness was lying about not detaining Long against his will and that he was free to leave at any time, O’Carroll said he deeply resented that comment and called it a “scurrilous remark”.

Mr Delaney put it to the witness that no interview notes were attached to the file that was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions later that year.

O’Carroll said that surprised him as he took notes and his colleague witnessed him reading over the notes to Long.

“I was a scrupulous keeper of every document I had during my career; and it might seem strange that about 12 months ago, every document I possessed in my 36 years as a detective garda I incinerated. I have nothing left of my career, only very little of my notes,” O’Carroll said.

Changing direction in his line of questioning, Mr Delaney asked O’Carroll if a particular section of the Garda Technical Bureau at the time was known as “the murder squad”.

The witness said the whole section was “the murder squad” and that “the four inspectors, eight detective sergeant’s and about 30 or 40 detectives” that made up the elite unit were sent to the four corners of Ireland and outside Ireland to investigate serious crime, mostly murders.

“I think you’re on record as having stated in the recent past that the murder squad that you joined was a very exclusive and select unit,” Mr Delaney put to the witness.

O’Carroll agreed, saying that 40 “good detectives” had been handpicked, that the unit was needed at the time and that he is very proud he was a member of it.

He added: “We had a lot of killings and murders and we had a war going on in the north of Ireland. I saw 12 of my colleagues killed. And murder was commonplace – armed robberies, gunmen taking over villages and towns, IRA men robbing banks at will, stripping policemen of their uniform.

“And I think in 1980 it was decided they wanted a unit set up of dedicated, committed members”.

The barrister went on to ask the witness about his interviewing techniques and in particular about the confession serial killer John Shaw had made to him about murdering Mary Duffy and how he was on record as saying that it was the reciting of the rosary with Shaw that brought about that confession.

English national Shaw (76) is Ireland’s longest serving inmate and has been in prison since 1976 when both he and another English man, Geoffrey Evans, were arrested for the abduction, rape, torture and murder of Elizabeth Plunkett (22) in Wicklow and Mary Duffy (24) in Mayo that year.

Shaw and Evans were both given life sentences at the Central Criminal Court in 1978.

In 2020, the Minister for Justice accepted a Parole Board recommendation that Shaw be granted two days of escorted temporary release per year.

Evans died in 2012 from an infection after spending more than three years in a vegetative state.

“Is it fair to say that religion has had a role from time to time in your interrogation of suspects?” probed Mr Delaney.

O’Carroll said he had made “a heartfelt plea” to “a very violent man” who gardaí believed had committed two murders and who had held out in an interview for the best part of two days.

He added: “When I interviewed him I felt this man is very disturbed… and I said, John we’ll say a prayer together, that was all. I never said did you kill anybody? Or did you kill Mary Duffy? Did you kill Elizabeth Plunkett? I never said a word”.

“It wasn’t the full rosary now, but I said we’ll say the Hail Mary. I said, ‘You’re a Catholic,’ he said, ‘I am.’

“I said, ‘You made your Holy Communion; you wore a little rosette with a badge and your confirmation,’ I said, ‘Your parents were proud of you. You remember that John?’ And he said, “Yes, I do remember very well Detective.”  

“And I said, ‘And look at the monster you’ve turned into.’ I said, ‘We’ll say a prayer for you.’ And it was during that little tiny interval where I said, ‘Let’s say a prayer,’ – and he might’ve never said a Hail Mary in a long, long time.

“And the next thing he saw what I’d like to put as the error of his ways and he broke down and wept and he said, ‘Yes, I’ve done terrible things and I’ve killed Mary Duffy and I killed Elizabeth Plunkett.’ And he made a full statement that night. That was it basically”.

The witness went on to tell the judge how he had been involved in almost 100 murder investigations and had given evidence in every court “in and outside the land”.

O’Carroll said that whilst he has no special skills, he was sympathetic to people.

“I don’t admit to being a saint; I am not. But you give everybody a fair chance, a fair shake down and I felt sorry for John Shaw at that moment”.

Visit from a priest

Mr Delaney explained that the reason he had asked about this aspect of the witness’s interview with Shaw was because Long’s recollection was that he was visited in the garda station that day [6 July, 1981] by someone dressed as a priest or a monk.

O’Carroll remarked that this was “extraordinary” and “fanciful” and denied it ever happened, replying: “I’d have known if a priest came into the room or a monk with a cowl”.

Mr Delaney said his client recalled being beaten throughout the day and a chair being pulled out from under him so that he would fall to the ground and get kicked.

The witness denied ever assaulting Long and said he had never seen anyone lay a finger on him, calling it “absolutely untrue” and “extraordinary”.

“And can Mr Long say who did this terror to him,” asked the witness.

Mr Delaney replied: “Well, it’s 42 years ago, O’Carroll. He says at one stage one of the gardaí had his head pinned between his boots. And he was also pinned against the wall in the room with one garda on either side of him”.

The witness also denied asking Long to sign his name “on a flap of a cigarette packet”.

Mr Delaney finally put it to the witness that his client maintained he was brought into a dark room where his head was repeatedly immersed in glass containers which contained what he was told were body parts.

The witness denied this ever happening and called the allegation “extraordinary”.

“I can say this to my Lord: we don’t have body parts lying around in Garda Stations.”

Mr Delaney put it to the witness that he had given an interview in the recent past about the existence of a “so-called heavy gang within the murder squad”, which was in operation at the time.

But O’Carroll asked the lawyer to “rephrase that”, as he took “umbrage at that comment” and had gone to the High Court, where he had received considerable damages on two occasions.

O’Carroll claimed that veteran journalist Vincent Browne had originally coined the phrase before it was taken up by other commentators, who he said “wouldn’t be that friendly” towards the gardaí.

He said he had sued two people for using that expression.

He told the court that even now he would certainly take legal action against anybody who used that expression “outside the confines of this court and privilege”.

Later that night on 6 July when Long was still present in the garda station, the Director of Public Prosecutions gave directions that he was to be charged with the murder of Sheehan.

Long was duly charged and brought before the District Court in Cork the following day.

Alison O'Riordan