PATSY McGarry, the respected journalist, is a near neighbour – or as near as a Roscommon man can be – whose reputation for impartial, informed writing is well made.
These qualities which have marked his career as a writer on religious affairs are equally evident in his newly-published book on Nicky Kelly and the extraordinary events which followed the Sallins train robbery over 30 years ago.
For those too young to remember, the Sallins mail train robbery of 1976 was the first of many spectacular heists. One of the three accused, Nicky Kelly, fled the country in the middle of a botched trial, jumping bail and making his way to the US. He was convicted in his absence, together with co-accused, Osgur Breathnach and Brian McNally.
When the convictions of the other two were overturned on appeal in 1980, Kelly came home, only to have his appeal rejected. He spent four years in prison, before being finally released on humanitarian grounds. He was eventually given a Presidential pardon and awarded compensation.
That was the outline of the story, but what Patsy McGarry has done is to write the definitive story of Nicky Kelly’s experiences, and his mistreatment by the agents of the state, in a compelling story called While Justice Slept: The True Story of Nicky Kelly. There is also an interview with a member of the IRA gang who actually robbed the train that night, and who confirms that neither Kelly nor any of his colleagues had anything to do with it.
Kelly, and the others, were framed. They were framed at a time when the public believed only in the propriety of the law; long before the Donegal Garda files or the McBrearty affair were even contemplated. The three accused claimed that it was only after sustained beatings and assaults in Garda custody that they signed a confession to the crime. When this was brought up at the trial, the court explained the injuries by saying that they must have injured themselves, or beaten each other up, while in their remand cells. And everybody looked the other way.
The book reminds us of how fortuitous it was for Kelly that the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four cases were being given such huge exposure in the media. Given the protests over the miscarriages of justice involving Irish prisoners in Britain, the government here could hardly be seen to turn a blind eye to the accusations on its own doorstep.
We have moved on since then. We have become more cynical about the law and how it works. A book like this is another sign of how mature public debate has become, and yet it is arresting to learn that it took him 13 years to find a publisher, and even then sections of the book, where names were named, had to be deleted.
For Nicky Kelly, things have moved on as well, however deep the scars of his battle with injustice are. Five years ago, he narrowly failed to take a Dáil seat in his home county of Wicklow. This year, the wide predictions are that he will go one better and find himself at the centre of power in Leinster House.
His story is a reminder of how the concept of justice can be set aside when, in the wake of some dramatic crime or other, there is a public outcry to find the culprits and see them punished. Even after all those years, it is strange that no public enquiry has ever been held, no closure brought to the train of events so well described by Patsy McGarry. If the Sallins convictions represented the most shameful of scenarios, we might well ask how many other less published cases were decided on evidence that was flimsy and on witness statements obtained under duress. And who knows, if the electorate of Wicklow finally give Nicky Kelly the ultimate accolade, then maybe it will be a case of the score finally being settled.
SICKNESS IN THE HEALTH SERVICE
WHAT’S a nought among friends, after all. The Health Service Executive said during the week that it was prepared to pay only €10 million (and not €100 million, as previously reported) to engage a set of external financial advisers for the coming four years.
Quite why the HSE needs an outside team of financial advisers for, given that the HSE itself is the highly resourced offshoot of the Department of Health, is an interesting question.
But then, on the other hand, anyone who places an advert seeking tenders to the value of €100 million, when it really means €10 million needs an adviser in the worst way in the world.
BUPA PLAYING A DANGEROUS GAME?
THE BUPA pullout from the Irish health insurance market took another strange twist in the past week when the company flatly turned down an approach from AXA to buy its Irish business.
Four hundred and fifty thousand members of BUPA were left dangling when the company, angered over the failure to overturn the risk equalisation ruling, said it was withdrawing from Ireland. Its 300 staff, equally shocked, undertook a campaign to force the Government to give way to BUPA’s demands.
Now, however, with a possible purchaser, AXA, knocking at the door, BUPA seems to have no interest whatever in taking the gift horse by the bridle as it exits the market. Quite the contrary, which is leading many observers to ask whether BUPA is really as anxious to pull out as it made it appear two months ago.
Surely it would make for good sense to sell off the claimed loss maker to a company prepared to pay good money to take it over. Or – whisper it – could it be that BUPA was simply playing chicken with Mary Harney all along?
EPIC VOYAGE MADE EPIC TV
THE epic, historic voyage of the Northabout across the ice-bound roof of the world was given deserved treatment by RTÉ in a documentary last week.
The all-too-short (though it ran for an hour and a half), fly-on-the wall account of the journey from Westport in Jarlath Cunnane’s boat across the legendary North East Passage on the Arctic Circle, was a cracking adventure.
Narrated by Liam Clancy, the camerawork was stunning, with a particularly breathtaking, red sunset over the frozen wasteland, saying it all about the call of the ice. And the close-ups of the Russian icebreakers bringing food and sustenance to communities isolated on the rim of civilisation, and living in conditions which are in rapid decline, showed that creature comforts are not as readily available to others as they are to us.
And if there was to be any complaint over the welcome coverage of the gallant achievements of the Northabout, it had to be the geographical carelessness of the RTÉ publicists who announced that the documentary would cover the journey from Ireland, through the Bering Strait, and back to Galway!
A CELEBRATION OF BALLINGLEN
AS mentioned on these pages some weeks ago, the death of the painter, Nancy Wynne Jones, terminated a long time link with north Mayo. The acclaimed artist had found her spiritual home in Mayo, the endless bog, changing light and bleak beauty of Erris providing her with inspiration.
The first contact with the area had been through the Ballinglen Arts Foundation, where Nancy Wynne Jones had been awarded a residency, and which was the starting point for an artistic love affair with north Mayo.
Fitting, then, that some of her work should provide the material for an exhibition titled “Ballinglen: The First 15 Years”, which opens this Friday at the Linenhall in Castlebar. The exhibition is of 25 works taken from the Ballinglen collection and selected by Eamon Smith, chairman of the Linenhall, who will perform the opening ceremony.
Other well known artists to be featured include Seán McSweeney, John O’Leary, Donald Teskey and Mary Lohan.
THE LIBERTAD COMES HOME
The energetic JJ O’Hara has been putting his persuasive powers to good effect with the news that the Argentinean naval flagship The Libertad is to visit Mayo later this year.
The magnificent vessel with its full crew of 300 will visit Ireland as part of the 2007 commemoration voyage in honour of the memory of Admiral William Brown, who was born in Foxford and is revered in Argentina as founder of the navy.
The Libertad will dock in Galway, Dublin and Cork, where ceremonies and receptions will be held, but a real highlight will be when the ship anchors off Killala Bay and sounds a gun salute. Later, members of the crew will visit Foxford to lay a wreath in honour of Admiral Brown at his statue.
JJ O’Hara will be delighted to see the Argentinean navy once more singling out Foxford as a special place of interest on the Libertad itinerary. But those who have visited Argentina know only too well of the respect and admiration in which the Foxford-born hero is held in his adopted country.
Two years ago, the Irish naval vessel, the LE Eithne, under Castlebar-born commander, Mark Mellett, paid a courtesy visit to Argentina. Mark Mellett and his crew were hugely impressed by the sense of affinity of his Argentinean counterparts with Foxford and its famous son.
MARATHON MAN BRENDAN CONWELL
THE Vodafone community award scheme ended the year on a high note when Brendan Conwell became the December recipient of the “Passion for the World Around Us” title, jointly sponsored by Vodafone and Castlebar Chamber of Commerce.
In recognising Brendan’s contribution to community life in Balla, the award was also placing the spotlight on one particularly vital aspect of his voluntary work. That is his involvement with Balla Youth Centre, whose focus is on providing activities for the “in-between” years – teenagers who have grown beyond Foróige, but who are too young to socialise at weekends.
A marathon man of extraordinary endurance, Brendan has been running 26-milers since 1980 and in the process has raised over €500,000 for charitable causes. That, in itself, is some record, quite apart from the many other worthy projects to which he devotes so generously his time and talents.
Vodafone is to be commended on its initiative in honouring so many unsung heroes through this award scheme, from which community life becomes the real winner.
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE …
WITH friends like John Deasy and Damien English at his back, Enda Kenny has no need of enemies as he tries to steady the Fine Gael ship for the last leg of this particular voyage.
The undermining of his position from within – accidental or otherwise – was something the party could have done without as it seeks to climb back into the ring for the final round. With Deasy, it was a case of his old insubordination asserting itself again. For English, the political naivety of being drawn into something so contentious on the end of a phone line, from a ski holiday resort, speaks volumes. And whatever localised, internal tensions may have put flame to the fire, neither TD should be given the slightest pardon for what happened.
The arrival of Mairéad McGuinness on the party ticket in Louth will have done much to restore Enda Kenny’s faith in the pragmatism of the people around him. It might be a big ask for the MEP to take a second seat for Fine Gael in a four-seater, but that is exactly the sort of achievement it will take all over the country if Enda is to occupy the Taoiseach’s chair come June.
And having a couple of slackers on the end of the rope, pulling the other way, just won’t do.
TOM Parlon, Junior Minister for relocating civil servants, was stranded on the Aran Island last week. Was that the first case of enforced decentralisation under a new, more strict, policy?