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Grotesque Unbelievable

The original GUBU: How the Malcolm MacArthur killings rocked Ireland

A series of murders and the arrest of the suspect at the Attorney General’s home gave rise to the expression – as the public struggled to comprehend what was going on.

THAT WORD – GUBU – has been raising its head again this month.

One of those expressions peculiar to Ireland, it’s derived from Charlie Haughey’s attempts to sum up his shock and disbelief in the wake of the capture of double-killer Malcolm MacArthur in the the home of the Attorney General.

Conor Cruise O’Brien conflated Haughey’s stream-of-consciousness adjective-soup (‘grotesque’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘bizarre’ and ‘unprecedented’ were some of the words the then-Taoiseach reached for) in his newspaper column.

The phrase had sticking power.

And while it’s primarily connected, in the public consciousness, with the Haughey era and in particular that short-living minority government in the early-80s, it’s been used in the Dáil to refer to everything from tribunals to the health service and, more recently, the Garda whistleblowing controversy.

gubu5 The front page of last weekend's Sunday Independent. Sunday Independent Sunday Independent

More than three decades on, the extraordinary events that gave rise to the expression still seem unbelievable today. They’re no less bizarre or grotesque either.

MacArthur bludgeoned 27-year-old nurse Bridie Gargan to death as she was sunbathing in the Phoenix Park on 22 July 1982.

Days later, he shot dead farmer Donal Dunne on his own land. After a massive manhunt he was eventually located in the Dalkey apartment of the State’s principal law officer – leading, as you might imagine, to instant public consternation.

“Both murders were very shocking, and happened in quick succession,” journalist Joe Joyce, who covered the unfolding events for The Guardian, said.

But there was no consciousness in the media in general or in politics that these murders could have any relation with people in government.

reel1 RTÉ / screengrab RTÉ / screengrab / screengrab

What happened?  

The sole witness to the murder of Bridie Gargan broke his silence about the case in 2011 -the year before MacArthur’s release from an open prison in Co Wicklow.

Paddy Byrne, who was working as a gardener at the US Ambassador’s residence in the Phoenix Park, recalled spotting a bearded man moving amongst the trees towards a car parked by Chesterfield Avenue – the main route through the park.

“I saw this guy who was dressed a bit queer, with a hat and heavy pullover on such a hot day,” Byrne told RTÉ radio’s Valerie Cox.

When the young nurse, who had stopped to sunbathe on her way home from work at St James’s Hospital, returned to the car, Byrne saw MacArthur follow and sit beside her.

“He started pulling her hair and began punching her in the side of the head,” the gardener recounted. He immediately decided to intervene.

I went to the car and hit it a belt with my fist and shouted at him. Ms Gargan was in the back of the car with a newspaper over her and I could hear her crying. He then pulled a gun on me and told me to back off.

The attacker got out of the car and threatened Byrne again with the gun before finally driving off.

As MacArthur sped out the gates of the park toward the city an ambulance driver noticed blood on the window and the parking permit for St James’s on the windscreen. Concluding that the driver was a doctor transporting an injured patient, he set his sirens blaring and gave the car an escort through the traffic towards the south-inner city hospital.

The car was abandoned, with the victim still inside, in nearby Rialto. Bridie Gargan, who had been beaten with a lumphammer, was pronounced dead four days later at the Richmond Hospital.

Co Offaly 

As gardaí carried out their investigation, another murder rocked the nation just three days later.

The killer of Bridie Gargan had travelled to Edenderry in Co Offaly, where he met Donal Dunne – a farmer who had advertised a shotgun for sale.

The unsuspecting seller was shot in the face by MacArthur, who left his body partially hidden, stole his car and returned to Dublin.

reel3 RTÉ / Screengrab RTÉ / Screengrab / Screengrab

“The murders happened in pretty quick succession – and nobody initially knew whether they were connected or not,” said Joyce, who later wrote about the case in his book about Haughey ‘The Boss’.

The murder rate in Dublin was very low at the time. You had lots of people being killed in the North – of course, politically motivated violence. But you didn’t have drug wars or anything like that.
They were shocking – particularly the murder in the Phoenix Park. The idea that somebody could be just sunbathing in the Phoenix Park and be murdered was just unbelievable.


As the manhunt continued, the public first became aware of MacArthur and his connection with the murders when he was was arrested at the home of Patrick Connolly.

After returning from Offaly, the 36-year-old killer had tried to rob a former American diplomat, Harry Bieling, in Killiney. After Bieling escaped, McArthur made his way to Pilot View in nearby Dalkey and the apartment of the Attorney General, who was an old friend.

Gardaí had connected the two killings at this stage as the attacker had taken the car in both incidents. The net closed in on McArthur in the wake of the Bieling raid, when gardaí at Dalkey received a phonecall telling them not to worry about investigating, as the whole thing had been a prank.

The caller used his own name.

reel5 Pilot View, Dalkey. RTÉ / Screengrab RTÉ / Screengrab / Screengrab

MacArthur was arrested on the evening of Friday 13th August, after gardaí met Connolly – an innocent party in the whole affair, who thought he was simply putting up an old acquaintance - on his way back from work at Government Buildings.

As the double-killer was questioned, the saga took another yet another bizarre turn the following day: the Attorney General insisted on jetting off, as planned, for his holidays in America, telling gardaí he’d speak to them on his return.

Haughey, who was away on Inishvickillane when his chief whip, Bertie Ahern, called him with the news, managed to phone Connolly in London as he stopped off on his way to New York – but the AG refused to return to give a statement.

By the time he’d reached the US the message had sunk in, however. Besieged by reporters, Connolly got straight back on a returning plane. Having run the gauntlet of local press once again in London, he was driven straight to Haughey’s Kinsealy home on his arrival back in Dublin.

mma Malcolm MacArthur RTÉ / Screengrab RTÉ / Screengrab / Screengrab

After a conversation lasting half an hour, Connolly tendered his resignation. He later returned to the bar where, according to his obituary last year in the Irish Times, “he was welcomed back by colleagues who had great sympathy for his predicament”.

In yet another twist to the case, it emerged that during his stay in Dalkey MacArthur had attended a match in Croke Park with Connolly. The pair even shared a VIP box, near the Garda Commissioner.

“The shock was that a suspect in these particularly brutal murders had been arrested in the Attorney General’s house, which was the first thing really that linked the murder to politics,” Joyce said.

“I don’t think anyone had been considering or thought that there was any sort of political connection of any kind – hence Haughey’s shock and surprise and amazement at this bizarre chain of events, which it truly was.

We’re all talking about it with the benefit of hindsight now – but nobody knew what the hell was going on.

FRANK DUNLOP FLOOD TRIBUNAL PUBLIC RELATIONS CONSULTANTS FORMER GOVERNMENT PRESS SECRETARYS LOBBYISTS Government Press Secretary Frank Dunlop leads Haughey into the infamous 'GUBU' press conference. Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Shocked by the turn of events, the Taoiseach struggled to do justice to the magnitude of what had happened as he spoke to reporters.

He made several attempts to encapsulate the situation, repeating words like ‘bizarre’ and ‘unbelievable’ as he spoke:

This was, as I say, a grotesque situation one that none of us has ever experienced before. I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who has ever had such an experience of such an unprecedented situation.

Said Joyce:

The irony in a way is that Haughey’s actual adjectives were merely expressing a genuine total shock and surprise.
Effectively Haughey ended up in the firing line in relation to something that had absolutely nothing to do with him or with politics or with his government or with anything like that – apart from this embarrassment that the Attorney General first appeared to have a suspect staying with him, even though he wasn’t harbouring him in any sense.

The idea that bizarre things kept happening to the Fianna Fáil-led government became its defining characteristic. Haughey and co were out of office by the following year – but the controversies continued, notably with the revelations about the bugging of journalists’ and even ministers’ phones.

That particular scandal had such far-reaching consequences that it would ultimately lead to Haughey’s resignation from politics eleven years later, when he was forced to resign as Taoiseach in 1992.

MacArthur was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of Bridie Gargan. He was never charged over the killing of Donal Dunne.

Related: Double killer Malcolm MacArthur released after 30 years >

Related: ‘Ireland’s Watergate’: How the phone tapping scandal would lead to Haughey’s downfall… eventually >

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