The death in London of Lady Veronica Lucan last week closes a chapter on one of the most notorious mysteries of the twentieth century. The saga of her missing husband became one of the great unsolved stories of the day.
Thousands of articles, at least a dozen books, TV documentaries, endless media speculation, acres of newspaper space were devoted to the story which had everything – high society, privilege, wealth and influence, violence, intrigue, an unsolved murder, and the disappearance from the face of the earth of a leading aristocrat.
But it was the missing Earl’s connection with Castlebar which meant that the town found itself forever being mentioned in the same breath as the infamous Lucan case.
The facts of the story were well documented. Lord Lucan, the seventh Earl, was, by 1974, in deep dispute with his estranged wife over the custody of their three children. On a November night, the children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, was bludgeoned to death in the basement of the family home in fashionable Belgravia. Her employer, Lady Lucan – the real target – rushed to see what was the cause of the disturbance, and was accosted by the assailant who tried to kill her. She escaped and raised the alarm, but not before recognising her husband as the attacker.
But the real mystery was only beginning. By the time the police arrived, the suave, debonair Lucan, who had once been considered for a role as James Bond, had disappeared, never to be seen again. Borrowing a Ford Corsair, he drove to a friend’s house in Sussex, from where the car was traced to the coast at Newhaven, abandoned. Inside was found the length of lead piping with which Sandra Rivett had been killed.
Lucan’s disappearance, and the mystery of how he might have been spirited out of England, became the subject of frenzied media coverage for the next thirty years. The British press scoured the globe, following up every alleged sighting of the fugitive. He was reportedly seen in South Africa, where wealthy friends had set him up in a new life. From New Zealand, India, Brazil and Central America came reports that Lucan was living under a new persona, safe from the reach of British justice.
During all that time, Lucan’s link with Castlebar was always good for a rehashed story. The fact that hundreds of Castlebar homeowners were liable for ground rent to Lord Lucan – but who resolutely used his disappearance as reason to default – always made for a good spin in the tabloids.
The more enterprising journalistic sleuths, desperate for any clue that might lead to a breakthrough, took to spending time in Castlebar, in the hope that the the Earl might turn up in an effort to bring his tenants to heel. There were even attempts to monitor the overseas holidays of Castlebar solicitor, Michael J Egan, legal representative of Lord Lucan, in the belief that solicitor and client would arrange to meet in some remote location.
Richard John Bingham, the missing seventh Earl of Lucan, had visited Castlebar once, with his mother, when he was in his early twenties. They were both warmly received by the Sisters of Mercy and the students at St Joseph’s Secondary School, at their former family home, Castlebar House. They also visited Christ Church where, to this day, the front pew remains reserved, with its brass plate, for ‘Earl of Lucan’.
Lord Lucan was declared legally dead in 1999, but the death certificate which enabled his son, George, to finally inherit the title was not issued until just last year.