John Carthy death: A tale of blunder, negligence and cover-up

The scene commander at Abbeylara, Superintendent Joe Shelly, deliberately concealed information damaging to the Garda in a way that contributed directly to the death of John Carthy, according to the Barr tribunal report. It claims Joe Shelly did not pass on to Garda negotiators the history of bad relations between John Carthy and the local gardaí and that this failure hopelessly compromised the attempts to resolve the stand-off with John Carthy. By Frank Connolly


Joe Shelly has been at the centre of all of the three major investigations into the conduct of gardaí in the last 20 years: the Kerry babies inquiry in 1985, the Morris tribunals, ongoing investigations into Garda misconduct in Donegal and now the Abbeylara inquiry (see page 24). He was at the centre of the Abbeylara "siege", having become scene commander. His performance was deemed by the chairman of the tribunal, Robert Barr, as deficient in several respects, notably:

• The failure to make the Garda negotiator at Abbeylara, Sergeant Micheal Jackson, aware of Carthy's antagonism towards the gardaí and the reasons for it.

• The failure to have Carthy's doctor, Dr Patrick Cullen, properly interviewed to discover the possible motivation of John Carthy and his state of mind.

• The failure to have a friend of John Carthy, Kevin Ireland, to whom John Carthy spoke frankly a few hours before he was killed, properly interviewed about Carthy's request for a solicitor and his assertion that he was not going to harm himself or anybody else at the scene.

• The failure to have gardaí, uninvolved in the containment of John Carthy, removed from the scene and removed from a position where they could appear vulnerable on Carthy's exiting the besieged house.

• The failure to have the immediately family of John Carthy properly interviewed about his possible motivation and the failure to have John Carthy's sister, Marie, involved in attempting to resolve the stand-off.

The failure to grapple with the background to John Carthy's antagonism towards the gardaí is the most serious finding made against Superintendent Joe Shelly by the tribunal. This had arisen from two incidents, one concerning the confiscation of his shotgun by means of a subterfuge on the part of the gardaí. The second concerning the alleged ill-treatment of John Carthy by two gardaí after he had been wrongly accused of burning a mascot-effigy at Abbeylara.

From 1992, John Carthy held a licence for a Russian-made, 12-bore, double-barrelled shotgun, which he maintained in good condition and used for hunting. During this time he was in dispute with a local employer in Abbeylara and John Carthy's solicitor wrote to the employer claiming unfair dismissal. The employer's wife, Evelyn McLoughlin, worked part-time in Granard Garda station and she claimed that as the result of the employment dispute she feared for her and her husband's safety – this was because, she said, she was aware John Carthy had a shotgun and was mentally "unstable".

John Carthy was also involved with the local handball club and at one stage became frustrated with being unable to play because local children were occupying the handball alley. A false allegation was made that John Carthy had threatened to shoot the erring children. Carthy denied that he ever made such a threat and a Garda investigation found there was no substance to the accusation. But following the complaints by Evelyn McLoughlin, gardaí decided to confiscate John Carthy's shotgun pending further investigation of the complaints.

On 10 August 1998, Garda Oliver Cassidy of Granard station obtained the gun by subterfuge. He told John Carthy a direction had been issued that all licensed guns in the area were to be taken into Garda custody for inspection. John Carthy was not told of the allegations that had been made against him. Carthy willingly handed over his weapon and then spent a considerable time seeking to have it returned.

On 13 November 1998 John Carthy succeeded in having the gun returned – a crucial factor in this was a supportive letter from his Dublin psychiatrist, David Shanley of St Patrick's Hospital in Dublin. Gardaí had found no substance to the allegation that he had threatened anyone and his licence was renewed annually from that time.

Whether a man with bipolar disorder should be given a licensed shotgun was an issue that was not addressed by Robert Barr in the course of his report (an omission which some have found curious). He found Shanley's representations on behalf of John Carthy were appropriate. But he concluded that the incident concerning the confiscation of the shotgun and the deception surrounding it caused John Carthy to distrust gardaí.

The other incident arose when the Abbeylara GAA club reached the county football final and a local publican, William Crawford, spent £2000 on erecting a large wooden effigy of a goat which was placed on the village green. On the night of 22/23 September the goat mascot was burned.

The following day Garda David Martin from Smear Garda station was told by William Crawford that Carthy had burned the mascot and that there were two witnesses to this (in fact there were no "witnesses"). He passed this information to Garda Turlough Bruen at Granard who immediately decided to arrest and interrogate Carthy, without first establishing if there was substance to the allegation.

John Carthy was not home when Bruen called and the garda asked John Carthy's mother to get her son to call into the station later that day. At 7.30pm John Carthy went to the station thinking the garda wanted to talk to him about the gun which, by then, had not been returned to him.

Instead, he was arrested and held for several hours during which time, he claimed afterwards, he was physically and verbally abused. John Carthy was interviewed twice but, contrary to Garda procedures, no notes were taken by Bruen or his colleague, Detective Garda Frank McHugh.

Bruen claimed he could not take notes as Carthy was talking too quickly and he did not want to interrupt him. The tribunal rejected this explanation. McHugh said he did not remember that he had a duty to take notes. The tribunal rejected this claim also. Both gardaí denied that there was any assault on John Carthy. However, on the basis of evidence from from Dr Patrick Cullen that Carthy presented with tenderness on his neck the following day, which he (Carthy) said was due to ill treatment in Garda custody, the tribunal found: "It is highly probable that, having recruited McHugh to add further pressure in interrogation, Bruen set about attempting to extort a confession from the detainee... the interrogation would have been robust... and that when it failed to achieve its purpose it spilled over into some physical abuse of the accused."

The two incidents that poisoned John Carthy's attitude towards gardaí were never made known to the negotiator, Sargeant Michael Jackson – Jackson attempted, over a period of almost 24 hours, to establish rapport with John Carthy, communicating with him mainly through a megaphone. At no stage, it appears, was Jackson made aware that his very presence and the presence of so many other gardaí at the scene were probably an exacerbating factor.

Joe Shelly had been informed of the history of John Carthy's difficulties with gardaí but failed to inform the negotiator. He told the tribunal that he heard Carthy "might have had a problem with some of the gardaí". He confirmed that he was informed about the wrongful arrest over the goat mascot but he did not make any further inquiry about it as "you could appreciate I had a lot of things to put in place" when he arrived at the scene. Dr Patrick Cullen had made it known to gardaí at an early stage of the stand-off of John Carthy's animosity towards the force, arising from the events of 1998.

When Cullen arrived at the scene after 6pm on 19 April he warned Garda John Gibbons about Carthy's animosity towards the gardaí. Gibbons informed Shelly of what he had been told. But, according to the report: "Shelly took no steps to obtain any further information from Dr Cullen about his warning or regarding Carthy's mental state or medical advice on how the situation might be dealt with."

In one of its most damning, albeit controversial, conclusions, the tribunal found Joe Shelly deliberately concealed the reasons for Carthy's antagonism towards the Garda to save the force from embarrassment. Shelly did not carry out any detailed interview with Cullen, despite the latter's warnings, because he did not wish to publicly disclose the assault at Granard Garda station and the withdrawal of Carthy's shotgun two years previously. Shelly appointed himself as intelligence coordinator to avoid another person learning of Carthy's sorry experiences with the local gardaí.

The report stated: "It seems probable that if properly advised on the basis of information available from Dr Cullen (but not obtained) Sergeant Jackson would have realised in the first few hours of his attempted negotiation with Carthy that, having regard to his distrust of and violent attitude towards the gardaí, the likelihood was that as a police officer he had little or no prospect of establishing any significant rapport with the subject and that an alternative strategy was required."

This failure to adopt an alternative strategy, possibly by involving civilian and trained personnel and family members, almost certainly contributed to the death of John Carthy. The report also criticised Shelly and other senior officers over a number of other failures.

John Carthy telephoned Kevin Ireland, a friend and former workmate, at 12.24pm on 20 April (the day of his death) and spoke to him for almost two minutes. During their conversation Carthy, who seemed relaxed, said he was in a house surrounded by armed gardaí, about 60 of them "with guns and everything". Ireland asked him not to do anything stupid and Carthy replied that he "hadn't a notion" of doing something stupid and that he was "just trying to keep them away from the house".

Asked by Ireland to give himself up, Carthy said that he would surrender if he got a solicitor. He asked Ireland to get him a solicitor by the name of "Mick Finucane". Ireland told his friend that he would get him a solicitor and Carthy hung up. Ireland passed on this crucial information and it was eventually brought to the attention of Joe Shelly. Shelly made no attempt to have a solicitor by the name of "Finucane" identified and contacted. Shelly also failed to make any direct contact with Kevin Ireland or have him properly interviewed.

He was also criticised for failing to ensure that members of the Carthy family, in particular his sister, Marie, and mother, Rose, were interviewed individually by experienced officers. Instead they were handled by a recent Garda recruit and Marie Carthy was refused access to the scene during a vital period following her arrival on the evening of 19 April.

Shelly failed to prepare for an armed exit from the house by John Carthy, with the result that he and other armed and unarmed officers and civilians were taken entirely by surprise when Carthy suddenly emerged from the house. The tribunal found that the "consequent confusion and negligence of those in command led to the tragedy of his death which would not have happened if the Abbeylara Road had been kept clear of vehicles and all personnel".

Detective Garda (now Sergeant) Aidan McCabe said he would not have fired the fatal shot that killed Carthy if he had not seen that others in the immediate vicinity were exposed. Shelly and the other scene commander, Superintendent Michael Byrne, "had primary responsibility for the circumstances which led to Mr Carthy's death", Barr said. Shelly himself had to run for cover when Carthy emerged from the house.


Mental-health crisis and Abbeylara

John Carthy was also a victim of deplorable conditions in mental-health services in the Longford/Westmeath area. By Siobhan Barry

The Barr report includes a brief outline of John Carthy's history of mental illness, his four voluntary hospital admissions to St Loman's Hospital in Mullingar from 1992 to 1995, his outpatient treatment in the Granard Clinic and his referral by his family doctor to attend a psychiatrist privately in Dublin from April 1995 onwards, because of his declared unhappiness about his progress locally. The latter begs the question: why a man of John Carthy's modest means would need to seek private care at such a distance and expense? Should his local, publicly funded mental-health service not be adequate to meet his needs?

Ideally, that local service would be multidisciplinary, ie staffed by doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, psychologists and social workers; be embedded in the community it serves; be accessible to those in need; and have the capacity to intervene early in circumstances where an individual began to show signs of relapse or where their family have worries of this nature. In general, such services have staff that can visit people at home and thus offer support and advice to those with enduring mental illness and to their families.

The reports of the Inspector of Mental Hospitals from 1998 onwards made repeated references to the need for closer collaboration between the Garda and the mental-health services.

The report for 1998 stated: "Concern was expressed [by the Inspector for Mental Hospitals] at the lack of involvement by the Garda in community mental health particularly in the Dublin area. It was acknowledged that involvement by the Garda varied between catchment areas and even within sectors in the larger catchment areas services... It is proposed that the training of gardaí should encompass a mental-health module and in each divisional area certain officers should be designated police mental-health specialists for the purpose of joint community-based mental-health activities in cooperation with the community services."

The same point was repeated four years later in the 2002 report of the Inspector of Mental Hospitals: "By reason of their fundamental community involvement, the Garda Síochána are first-line community agents and, as a consequence, encounter persons with mental-health problems almost on a daily basis, yet up to now had no formal training in principles of mental health or on service availability or contactability."

The 2003 report stated: "Previous reports had spoken of the need for greater cooperation between local mental health services and the Garda. In pursuit of this, the Garda Training College had introduced a mental health awareness module into its training course with the involvement of the inspectorate. Consultation with the Garda training personnel made clear that there was still a long way to go to dispel mutual distrust between psychiatric service providers and the Garda in relation to having both sides working harmoniously and productively together.

Issues specific to the Longford/Westmeath service (extracts from the report of the Inspector of Mental Hospitals)


"The Inspectorate were unhappy in the Admission Unit, St Edna's Ward and in particular St Finian's Ward, which was unacceptable for psychiatric care. In St Finian's, the furniture was dilapidated and shabby, curtains were missing or had fallen off the rails and there was a shortage of bedside lockers and screens around the beds. Patients, visitors and staff lacked privacy and there was no meaningful occupational or rehabilitation therapy for patients. This ward should be closed. The unacceptable conditions in St Edna's Ward have been mentioned in numerous previous reports and no improvements have been made..." (page 68)


"The male admission unit was still unsatisfactory but refurbishment was to commence shortly after the inspection." (page 78)


"There had been virtually no change in the major thrust of service delivery in the Longford/Westmeath Mental-Health Service since the previous inspection... The male admission unit was overcrowded on the day of inspection and this was largely due to the absence of any coherent admission policy with the indiscriminate admission of persons with alcohol problems... No social workers or occupational therapists were employed in the service but a number of psychologists were employed." (pages 89-90).


"There were a number of concerns with the Longford/Westmeath Mental-Health Service... All of the Longford community residences were inspected... The inspection of a semi-detached local authority residence in Spring Lawns was distressing as the house was in an unsatisfactory condition and required immediate attention. The house was in a poor state of decorative repair; the front garden was overgrown, the back garden had weeds three feet high, the windows had not been painted for some time, caravans were parked in front of and to the side of the house, the front door was splattered with the remnants of eggs and eggshells which were thrown at the premises by youngsters in the area and a pane of glass in the front door was broken." (page 110-112)


Eight services were named as "black spots" and were identified as being "unacceptable for the care and treatment of patients because of seriously unsatisfactory conditions" – certain wards in St Loman's Hospital, Mullingar were included in that list. (page five)

Three of the recommendations of the Barr tribunal relate to state psychologists and the Garda working more closely together in circumstances of siege negotiations, particularly where the subject is believed to suffer from mental illness. However, data collected by the Irish Psychiatric Association in late 2002 as part of a national survey of clinical resources in our adult mental-health services showed that 23 per cent of services had no access to a psychologist. We have had a public service staff embargo since 2003 so no appreciable improvement in that situation is likely. Furthermore, the number of training places in clinical psychology scarcely keeps pace with maintaining the inadequate status quo. Each year the funding for this training is generally uncertain until shortly before those training schemes commence – surely these are all mental-health issues relevant to the matter? ?

Siobhan Barry is a psychiatrist and director of the Cluain Mhuire Family Centre, Blackrock, Co. Dublin.

She is co-editor of Understanding Mental Health recently published by Blackhall Publishing