A Thread of Violence, by Mark O’Connell, Granta, 288 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1783789573
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
Philip Larkin, ‘This Be The Verse’
In 1982 Malcolm Macarthur murdered two people who had had done him no harm, who had never met him and who had no idea who he was. Both murders were extremely violent. One victim, a farmer, had his face blown off with a shotgun, the other, a nurse, was bludgeoned to death with a hammer. We can be sure the families of his victims are still deeply affected, even after four decades.
Strangely, the murderer, a dickie-bow-wearing Big House type whose interests were overwhelmingly academic, did not appear to be a lunatic. Macarthur later explained that the killings, which horrified and puzzled the country, were simply a preparatory element in a larger plan to rob a bank, undertaken with a view to repairing his finances which, it seems, had gone into serious decline. He regarded himself as a rational person, a ‘facts man’, who realised there was ‘a problem to be solved’ and acted accordingly. The public does not find this a satisfactory explanation. However, Macarthur had little sympathy with the outcry which followed the murders, describing ‘the whole thing’ as ‘an extraordinary outburst of irrationality and emotional incontinence’. Macarthur is consistent in his dislike for the popular Irish manner of expressing emotion.
From the public’s point of view, the trial didn’t shed much light. As Macarthur pleaded guilty, it was a perfunctory business. Indeed, the murder of the farmer Donal Dunne was not even addressed during the trial, owing to the court’s desire to save time. The idea of claiming insanity was apparently considered but abandoned. The psychiatrists who looked him over in custody couldn’t find anything amiss, and generally he appeared cogent and composed. Putting him on the stand to demonstrate madness was not going to work. As a result of all this, people remained unsatisfied and the matter continued to trouble the public mind over the decades Macarthur served in gaol, and indeed since his release in 2012.
With the publication of Mark O’Connell’s A Thread of Violence, things have changed dramatically. The public now finds itself in possession of extensive information about Macarthur. Suddenly, there seems the possibility of an explanation.
During the Covid epidemic, and after considerable effort, O’Connell managed to bump into Macarthur on the street. Since his release he had refused to speak to the press. The impression conveyed is that because O’Connell was not a common journalist looking for a ‘story’ to entertain readers but a serious writer and, like himself a thinking man, Macarthur would be willing to answer his questions. As it turned out he talked to O’Connell for almost a year and, as a result, we now know a great deal about Mr Macarthur.
There are three aspects to O’Connell’s book. The first and most extensive is the information about Macarthur’s life, examined with a view to uncovering, if possible, the reason he committed his crimes. Second, there is the thread featuring O’Connell’s concern and ruminations around the moral probity of giving Macarthur a voice and even associating with him. Finally, there is his moral purpose, seeking (and failing) to bring Macarthur to an admission that he had done wrong, and was ‘in the depths of himself a sinner’ who should express genuine sorrow and remorse.
In the end, despite many promising lines of enquiry and the careful examination of a great deal of information, O’Connell declines to offer a final explanation for the crimes. While he does offer some tentative ones along the way, he is not prepared to declare the puzzle of Malcolm Macarthur solved. This hesitancy is in a sense the book’s great strength as it allows for a full airing of what the perpetrator has to say for himself.
But perhaps there are some who, wisely or otherwise, on considering the new information uncovered by O’Connell and other background matters, would not fully share the author’s inconclusion. Perhaps a different look at Macarthur’s life, largely based on O’Connell’s transformative book, might suggest something more solid by way of explanation. It may be that the author deliberately left that possibility open for readers. It has to be admitted however, that at best explanatory speculations, including the one offered in this article, can in the end say little more than ‘this is likely, is it not?’
Macarthur’s disdain for the popular press was certainly genuine at an aesthetic level, but also self-serving. With the popular press, as the coverage of his crimes over the years makes very clear, there was no possibility of controlling the narrative, whereas with O’Connell, who was keen to hear what Macarthur had to say, there was at least the possibility of pursuing an agenda. Macarthur, who is in parts strikingly clever and in parts strikingly naive, may have hoped to bring O’Connell to accept his explanation of events and his own positive account of his character. Indeed, early on in the exchanges he made it clear that he wanted to clarify certain matters. A clarified narrative, endorsed by O’Connell and reflecting the view that the key to the whole business was recognising that he, Macarthur, was essentially a good man who in 1982 briefly departed from a hitherto ‘blameless life’ and involved himself in ‘a criminal episode’, might percolate out into public consciousness and, perhaps, not only stop people abusing him on the street but, ideally, also lead to his acceptance back into society.
In this objective I think he failed, not because O’Connell disbelieves the claim that the murders were a departure from an otherwise unexceptionable life, which may well be the case. The problem arises from Macarthur’s failure to offer a wider explanation. From an observer’s point of view, the chief problem is that his acts of horrific violence do not qualify as a brief essay into criminality. They are something much more and require a larger explanation. O’Connell listened to Macarthur’s account with a certain professional sympathy but was not convinced.
The problem with Macarthur’s ‘nothing to see here’ approach deepens with the absence of anything recognisable as heartfelt regret or a genuine feeling of responsibility and guilt. It is this which effectively blocks the possibility of his social rehabilitation. Sorrow is the non-negotiable sine qua non for forgiveness.
Presenting the ‘episode’ as an exercise in rationality further increases the difficulty. But for his own reasons Macarthur does not wish to change his story, such is the importance he attaches to the rational-criminal-episode explanation. It is a problem that pervades his conversations with O’Connell. It is essentially a pretence, which he maintains stoutly until toward the end of the exchanges with the author when some cracks begin to appear.
If Macarthur’s explanation fails to convince, as it does, is there a more convincing explanation available and, if so, what might it be? There are several possibilities but the theory offered in this essay, and it is up to the reader to judge its credibility, is that a neglected and emotionally damaged Macarthur fabricated a life and personality for himself in response to the challenge of survival following a seriously dysfunctional childhood, and that he murdered Bridie Gargan and Donal Dunne when this fabricated and inherently fragile world collapsed around him leaving him rudderless and out of control. (Readers are asked to note that while this interpretation may suggest an element of diminished capacity, it is not offered as something which absolves Malcolm Macarthur of responsibility for what he did.)
Most people who have commented on the case have assumed that some kind of madness was involved. This view, however, is anathema to Macarthur, who makes clear he does not accept that either madness or his background played a part in events. For him the murders had nothing to do with his childhood, they were a one-off business undertaken in an attempt to solve a problem. He sees what happened as entirely rational, albeit unfortunate in some respects and admits that the merit of the ‘technique’ he employed is open to debate.
‘It wasn’t what you might call irrationality or lack of control. There was a problem to be solved … It wasn’t an act of madness.’
The argument that will advanced here is that it was more a case of massive loss of control rather than a standard form of madness.
Malcolm Macarthur’s fabricated world was not a slight affair. It was made of a dense fabric and offered its occupant security and protection chiefly by supplying a means of being in society, which was important for him, and yet simultaneously being at a remove from the world. In this stilted but functional situation Macarthur was freed from the requirement to engage socially in any substantial way. His constructed life was characterised by a general absence of intimacy and the substitution of rigorous and unyielding good manners for the normal emotions of human engagement. A side effect of living in this world was missing out on real experience and the cumulative knowledge of the world that follows. His compensatory life tended to insulate him from life. It was also inimical to the development of ethical or moral understanding, which was to affect his behaviour when forced to deal with a real-world crisis. Old Dan’s faith and fervour were long gone and, in any case, there was no room in Malcolm’s pretend world for such things. The financial freedom that followed his coming into his inheritance allowed him to bury himself in his fabricated world and, like a method actor, take on its protocols as representing his essence.
Maintaining the deep facade required focus and commitment. Malcolm Macarthur drank very moderately and did not take drugs: O’Connell explains he did not wish to relinquish control of himself. His reliance on reason, manners and self-control were attempts to erect a bulwark not only against an unpredictable world but also against the emotional chaos of his formative years. He explained to O’Connell that he had never been unmannerly to anyone in his life, and in prison he passed thirty years without a single disciplinary infraction. Here was a man who from his early years had proceeded with pathological caution. Arguably, this sheltered environment was the only world that ever provided Malcolm Macarthur with stability, and it was valued by him as such.
Indeed, following what he described as his ‘criminal episode’, it appears he sought to reassure himself with a version of his comfort world. He began excluding the murders from his thinking even before his arrest. Hiding out in his sophisticated and unwitting friend’s apartment, before the gardaí discovered his whereabouts, he slipped back into his previous gracious personality. He was delighted to savour his host’s extensive classical music collection and also to enjoy his exclusive bottled water. Being the complete gent, he ordered replacement bottles to be delivered to the apartment, along with a copy of Town & Country magazine for his own enjoyment. But on this occasion his compensatory personality had to co-exist with his desperate need for money. He was still out of control and also ordered hacksaw blades. His ‘problem’ remained to be solved. The spade he had purchased to bury anyone he murdered could still be used. Fortunately, the gardaí arrived. As readers will be aware, in a bizarre twist his friend turned out to be the attorney general, the highest law officer in the state. But of course, this was not an intimate or close friendship.
In the formal and highly structured world of prison life, it seems, Macarthur was largely successful in restoring a version of his comfort world. In prison he helped his fellow inmates with letters and legal advice. He joined table quiz teams and was a valued teammate whose presence always ensured victory. He said himself it was not a bad place for people who enjoyed reading and studying. The Times Literary Supplement was delivered weekly. He was regarded in a way which was pleasing to him and was not dissimilar to the way he had been thought of in Dublin before his trial.
Understandably, in freedom he still desires the security of his old and trusted illusory world. After all, it’s the only one that ever enabled him engage with the world on his own terms. In his life out of jail he continues to hanker after a controlled and secure world. To avoid dust in his apartment he tapes rubbish bags over the television set and once a week carefully selects the BBC radio programmes he will listen to, tenderly perusing the clippings through the week. He attends lectures and art cinema and visits libraries. When he passes a fellow Mountjoy alumnus seeking alms on the street, he always contributes. He has, he says, ‘a full complement of healthy emotions’.
But there is the disruptive problem of public hostility, muted or otherwise. It’s hard to maintain day-to-day life in an illusory bubble of wellbeing if individuals approach you on the street and tell you that you are a cunt. Even if one is capable of responding with composure and good manners, as he did to one abusive person saying, ‘I must tell that you are at risk of causing a public order breach’, one’s equilibrium would suffer, all the more in the case of an individual who prides himself on having a strong ‘likeability factor’. More importantly Malcolm Macarthur does not wish to be excluded from society. He very much wishes to engage in his own mannered way, but for this to happen he must win forgiveness, something which despite his essential good character remains elusive. The ‘plain people’, it seems, are obstinate. It looks as if he hoped Mark O’Connell would assist him in advancing his rehabilitation. If so, it was another of his plans that did not quite ‘come off’.
The most important matter to consider in evaluating Macarthur’s psychological condition is his family background, which pretty much ensured that he would be both emotionally incapacitated and an outsider in Irish society. However, it is worth going back a little in time to see the Macarthurs in context. The problems did not start with Malcolm. Indeed there were difficulties over at least three generations before his birth.
Squeezed by historical currents and led by men of limited ability, the Macarthur family history played out as a Buddenbrooks-like saga of decline, with an added final act of total disaster. Malcolm’s grandfather Daniel, ‘Old Dan’, moved to Ireland from Lanarkshire, Scotland in 1907 with his wife, Mary, and family, and with his wife’s considerable inheritance. It is likely that he also had capital of his own. 1907 was just four years after the Wyndham Land Act had been passed. The transfer of land ownership from the gentry to the tenantry was well under way. Indeed, the gentry as a central economic category were dying and the land commission would continue hacking away at their estates until the 1930s. Arguably, it was a strange time to set up as a landed gentleman in Ireland. Mind you, there may have been bargains to be had as elements of the rump gentry decided to ship out with their government compensation and the proceeds of whatever else they could liquidate to see out their days in less trying locations such as Dorset and Rathgar, where they would not have to look at uncultivated Home Rulers farming and owning their land.
The key fact, from the point of view of the Macarthurs’ decline, is that for the greater part of the twentieth century Ireland was not an environment in which it would be easy to make money but rather one where it would be easy to lose money. Malcolm’s grandfather had not factored in the great differences between Scotland and Ireland, especially the economic difference. Nor it seems had he considered the possibility of Irish separatism succeeding politically and the low returns on agriculture that would follow. In short it is likely the whole business of moving to Ireland was not thought through and that he unwisely assumed it would be as easy to make money in Meath as it had been in Lanarkshire.
‘Old Dan’ purchased an estate in Co Meath with, a large house – Breemount ‑ attached. The family amazed the countryside with its wealth, two cars and an oil-powered electric generator at a time when many of the Meath gentry did not have flush toilets.
Daniel’s daughter-in-law thought him ‘strange’. Another observer described him as ‘odd in his ways’. It seems he came across that way. His enthusiastic Catholicism might offer a clue to his impulsive decision to move to Ireland. In the first years of the twentieth century, apart from the Irish poor in Glasgow, whose staunch religious faith many in Scotland found impressive, there were very few Catholics in Lanarkshire or Scotland generally. It is probable that Daniel, and perhaps his wife too, sought the spiritual comfort of a more comprehensive Catholic milieu.
It seems unlikely that the Macarthur family was traditionally Catholic or that Daniel was himself a ‘cradle Catholic’. Indeed, his enthusiasm suggests the zeal of the convert. If this was the case, his conversion was not quite as odd as it might seem. Nineteenth century Lanarkshire was full to the brim of ideological, religious and political excitement. Huge wealth was generated in this highly industrialised district. Fortunes were made with unprecedented speed, particularly in the textile business. Many individuals, conservative, liberal, Chartist and socialist, became immersed in the intellectual ferment around the question of how society should be organised. It was an exciting place.
Daniel and his mother, also called Mary, had been successful tea and wine merchants in Glasgow. In 1872 Daniel’s father, John, did not return from a wine-buying trip to Bordeaux. Whether he met with a natural or violent death or simply abandoned the family is unknown. Undoubtedly, the absent father cast something of a shadow over his son’s life. The woman Daniel married, Mary Bowie, was a Catholic from the town of Lanark outside Glasgow. It is not known whether Daniel converted before or after he met Mary. Her father, Thomas Bowie, was a sort of radical Tory and friend of the poor in the tradition of William Cobbett, a man who was himself sympathetic to Catholicism. Thomas converted to Catholicism around the middle of the century under the influence of Newman and at the same time as his Lanark neighbour and associate Robert Monteith. Monteith was the son of a fabulously wealthy textile magnate and paternalistic philanthropist whose factories some workers preferred to those of the experimental socialist Robert Owen. His son, also Robert, was a philanthropist too, though more ‘radical’ and eccentric than his father. He was an advocate of the self-sustaining local ‘organic’ community and decentralised power, a Tory of a particular stripe and a virulent opponent of the free trade imperialism championed by Lord Palmerston. It is likely that Bowie broadly shared his outlook. The two men, particularly Monteith, funded the building of the extraordinary cathedral-like St Mary’s Catholic church in Lanark in 1859 and set about bringing Vincentians from Ireland to the town to assist with philanthropic work. Being no admirers of Irish nationalism, they were insistent that they did not want vulgar Irish priests, nor champions of the equally vulgar Irish democracy.
The ideological current missing from Lanarkshire’s rich ferment was separatist nationalism. This absence was to do with the spectacular prosperity enjoyed in the Scottish lowlands under the Union. In Scotland, contrary to the European norm, Romanticism did not fuel political separatism but confined itself to expressions of apolitical national feeling, evidenced in the celebration of bagpipes, tartan kilts and other medieval remnants. The works of Sir Walter Scott, which sold in huge numbers around the world, were essentially Unionist while, of course, replete with national sentiment. In general in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Scots were happy to live under the crown and when George IV came to Scotland in 1822 ‑ a visit essentially choreographed by Scott ‑ he wore an elegant tartan kilt, to the considerable delight of his subjects. It was money that made Scotland different from Ireland and it was money problems that fuelled the decline of the Macarthurs in Ireland and, indeed, led Malcolm Macarthur into murder. Following his arrest Malcolm Macarthur told gardaí that the cause of the murders ‘all goes back to money’.
Mary’s father, Thomas, who had landed interests, died a wealthy man and Mary, being his only child, inherited a considerable fortune. Both Mary and Daniel, ‘Old Dan’, came to Ireland out of Lanarkshire’s extraordinary exuberance and prosperity. They probably assumed that in Ireland, like Mary’s father in Scotland, they would do well from being part of the landed elite. This was not to be the case. The great difference between the two countries may be sensed by considering that in the century following 1840, in approximate terms the population of Scotland grew by 400 per cent whereas that of what was to become the Republic declined by over 50 per cent.
Had they been Presbyterian, and gone into trade, in which Daniel was experienced, the family might, as Unionists, have blended in quite well with the wealthy Scottish merchant community that settled in Dublin during the nineteenth century and which bequeathed to the city such exceptional Victorian gothic monuments as Findlater’s Church in the city centre and Christ’s Church in Rathgar. Both were designed by Scottish architect Andrew Heiton, whose family included the successful Dublin coal merchants of the same name. However, having settled in rural parts, being an enthusiastic Catholic and having rejected Presbyterianism, ruled out the Macarthurs’ integration into Dublin’s Scottish merchant community.
The absence of a like-minded community in Ireland in which to settle played no small part in the isolation and decline of the family. If Daniel thought he would find in Ireland a Catholic gentry with similar social and constitutional politics to his own, he was to be disappointed. Individuals existed, but nothing that could be regarded as a social class. For the liberal Macarthur family, carrying with them a dislike of separatist nationalism, the idea of attaching themselves to the more prosperous Catholic classes, some of whom were substantial farmers but who were, as a class, consistent advocates of Home Rule, would not have appealed. Culturally, the Macarthurs were very British.
Twenty-nine years after moving to Ireland, Macarthur’s grandfather Daniel died following a fall in 1936 on the First Friday in February of that year, when he was racing to evening prayers on his bicycle. The spokes of his front wheel came in contact with a servant’s walking stick at the bottom of the steep hill which descended from the house, and which gave Breemount its name. Old Dan was thrown over the handlebars with his skull being split open. It seems to have been generally accepted that this was a tragic accident. In any case it was no doubt a further disruption to family stability.
The family’s wealth, including Mary’s inheritance, contracted under Old Dan’s stewardship in the grim economic circumstances of early twentieth century Ireland, and on his death land, nearly 200 acres according to one account, had to be sold in order to free his estate from encumbrance. The decline of the original optimism was becoming apparent. All the deceased’s five children except the youngest, Malcolm’s father, left Ireland. It could be said that they voted with their feet on the matter of the Hibernian Catholic idyll into which their father had delivered them. Feelings may have been quite strong on this point as the two eldest sons effectively renounced their right of inheritance to the family’s Meath estate, which was no small matter. The eldest son, Jack, emigrated to the United States. In the census of 1940, he is described as a ‘farm hand’, living in his father in law’s house. It doesn’t look like he got much from Old Dan when leaving.
As a result of his older siblings’ decision to get out, the youngest son, also Daniel, who was to become Malcolm Macarthur’s father, inherited both the contracted estate and the multiple confusions of identity and politics bequeathed by his father. His financial position as heir was considerably weaker than that enjoyed by his father and mother when they first moved to Ireland. The family had dropped down a few rungs. Once, according to one account, they had numerous servants, now it was two or three. Things would not improve under Daniel the younger.
Malcolm’s father was not regarded in the locality as a good businessman; nor indeed was he so regarded by his wife. There were significant and valuable limestone deposits on the farm, which he attempted to exploit commercially making use of government supports. Today they are under the control of Cement Roadstone. The fact that he still had difficulty making ends meet despite this asset, raised some eyebrows. Probate was not completed for almost two years after his death in 1971, which suggests financial complications. Indeed, his executors felt it necessary to place a newspaper advertisement inviting people who were owed money to come forth. It would appear that, as in the case of his father, land had to be sold to settle his affairs before Malcolm and his mother could take possession and sell in 1974.
As might be expected, the family had no Irish party-political allegiance. Malcolm referred to their British liberalism and said the family read British newspapers, such as the London Times and The Guardian, while the radio was always tuned to the BBC World Service. His parents were particularly proud of their fireplace, which had come from Wellington’s ancestral home in Meath. The family did not regard itself as Irish in the sense of having any kinship, cultural or political, with the majority community. Shared Catholicism did not become a gateway leading to assimilation. O’Connell says that Malcolm Macarthur spoke of the Irish as ‘though they were a foreign people among whom he had lately found himself’. This should perhaps be read as part of his fabricated bubble life. He knew the Irish well enough. He was keen to maintain a distance but also enjoyed exposing to them his carefully curated personality.
When it came to marrying, Malcolm’s father looked for a wife among his landed neighbours. He married the young Irene Murray, who came from a large but contracted Meath estate, the couple having met at a hunt ball. The Murray family were Catholics who migrated to Ulster from the Scottish Highlands in the seventeenth century. They later moved south to Meath. Unlike the Macarthurs, they integrated. The family were firm and engaged Parnellites and strong Catholics. (By this stage the Macarthurs were in no position to object to the Parnellite connection.) Irene’s Mother founded a branch of the Legion of Mary in the local village. Being ‘important’ landowners, they were of course ‘above’ the ordinary people and engaged in the standard equestrian pastimes of the gentry, along with tennis and competing in agricultural shows. The young Irene won prizes for her white eggs and was photographed in the Meath Chronicle displaying her father’s prize cattle. While the Murrays’ manners were similar to those of the English upper classes, there was not much in Mary’s background that prepared her for dealing with the shortcomings of the younger Daniel and his family.
Malcolm’s father comes across as somewhat bumbling, but not in a nice way. It seems he had a nasty streak. There was quite a bit of tension with his wife, who accused him of mismanaging the farm and their finances generally. She said, when interviewed after the murders that her husband ‘fabricated stories to everyone’. She said that he had inherited Old Dan’s strange ways and that he had ‘a sadistic streak’, which was manifested mostly against her but on one occasion he had bitten Malcolm’s hand, necessitating a visit to the hospital and five stitches. Malcolm, she said, had witnessed violence from a young age. His later fabrications were clearly in the family tradition and while he accused the Irish of being ‘fabulators’, this too was a Macarthur characteristic.
Coming from an established gentry family Irene probably had a better idea than her husband regarding the minutiae of social and economic survival within the contracted ranks of the landed community. The impression given in O’Connell’s book is of a woman who felt she knew better than her husband, which indeed seems likely to have been the case. It would seem her impulses were of the conservative variety typical of her class in Ireland. When interviewed after the murders she said she had always believed in an eye for an eye. When she first read of Bridie Gargan’s murder she thought why waste time and money on a trial?
If Malcolm’s father was liberal, he was not particularly decent. In the 1960s he went to court to evict a retired agricultural labourer from a cottage on his estate. The labourer was sixty-six years old and had been employed at a rate just very slightly above the dole. A number of people spoke of him as being both mean and having a bad temper.
Like most of her husband’s siblings, Irene too needed to get out of the place. The marriage ended in 1962 when Malcolm was in his mid-teens, following which Irene set up house in Trim with the housekeeper, who also left Breemount. Malcolm was, it seems, required to make a statement in favour of his mother’s case to the solicitor arranging the legal separation. This may not have pleased his cantankerous father.
The evidence all points towards a miserable and lonely childhood, characterised by neglect and possibly abuse. On one occasion Malcolm witnessed Daniel upend a jug of milk over Irene’s head. The incident was mentioned by Malcolm in the account he gave to Irene’s solicitor at the time of his parents’ separation. Irene commented in a radio interview that ‘he probably absorbed more than I would have thought at the time’. A man who knew the family when a boy commented that Irene was ‘old school landed gentry who had no maternal instinct whatsoever. Malcolm was an inconvenience who interrupted her hunting, gardening and tennis.’ There are consistent reports that he was very much left alone as a child, in O’Connell’s words that he was ‘left to his own devices’. A former employee of the family said he took the young lad in on many occasions and that ‘he would not speak and if you addressed him he would run and hide his head behind his hands. The poor lad was scared stiff of everyone.’ Another former employee said: ‘Sure the poor lad had a dreadful childhood, never knowing whether his own wanted him or not.’ There is quite a bit more in a similar vein indicating emotional neglect. Irene herself acknowledged: ‘I carried on in the tradition I had been brought up in, that is that children are seen and not heard.’
It seems the only person who does not accept that Macarthur’s childhood was a disaster is the man himself. He is not at all critical of his parents, describing his father as ‘a perfect gentleman’ and his mother as ‘unfailingly decorous and refined’. He insists he had a happy childhood, that his relations with his parents were good, and those between his parents not hostile. They were, he told O’Connell, gentle and thoughtful people, not given to excesses of any kind, emotional or otherwise. This was an important ‘clarification’ he hoped to make via Mark O’Connell as he was well aware of grim reports to the contrary. O’Connell asks why, despite the weight of evidence against it was Macarthur so committed to the story that he had a happy childhood. He isn’t sure but suggests that perhaps it was because he wanted to maintain the criminal episode theory as the explanation for the murders and that a miserable childhood would be descended on by those looking for a psychological root to his behaviour and this would distract from his preferred explanation. This, I believe, is true, but in the light of the earlier speculation regarding Macarthur’s psychological condition, perhaps a further question can be asked.
Why was it so important for him to stick to the rational criminal episode explanation? There would be advantages to admitting that he was in a state of emotional breakdown when he committed his crimes. Indeed this is the only conceivable road to public rehabilitation and social acceptance. Why not grab it with both hands and while he is at it also express remorse for his horrible deeds? That for Macarthur is easier said than done. Owing to his psychological disability and the deep embrace of his compensatory personality, Macarthur does not speak the ordinary language of humanity and he cannot fake it. Moreover, if he were somehow able to follow such a course his background and childhood would come into focus which, arguably, is more than he could endure. Far simpler to stick with the ‘criminal episode’ explanation and imply there is no fear of another as the state is now caring for his modest financial needs and therefore nothing remains that should prevent his acceptance into society.
The confused political and social identity of the family and its rapid decline in status and wealth are perhaps most evident in the approach taken to the education of Daniel and Irene’s only child. Initially Malcolm was educated at home by a traveling tutor or governess in a manner common among the lesser Irish gentry. When it came to his formal education, a certain radical strain in the family’s cultural background asserted itself. Malcolm was to go to Bedales in Hampshire, according to his own account. (There are other versions.) This was a multidenominational, co-educational boarding school designed for progressive members of the property-owning classes who wished their children to escape the authoritarian and strict regimes of traditional public schools. The founder, John Haden Bradley, was a contemporary of Steiner and Montessori. It was a very progressive place altogether.
However, the plan to dispatch Malcolm to Bedales was abandoned: it seems it could not be afforded. This was a painful moment of truth. The response of his parents, primarily Malcolm’s father, exposes to plain view the collapse of the family’s already difficult situation and confirms their social descent, particularly Malcolm’s. It seems they were not prepared to put up any sort of fight on their son’s behalf. None of the more modestly priced Catholic Irish boarding schools were, it seems, considered. No determined stand to maintain even the appearance of the family’s social standing was made. There was no appeal to relations, no land was sold. This was indeed strange, given that it is widely believed that people who come from the propertied classes would eat grass in order to send their children to ‘the right school’. It seems Daniel Macarthur had stopped caring.
The experience of Malcolm’s father and his siblings had been quite different. They were privately educated, the boys in a prestigious Scottish boarding school, the girls in Switzerland. Pretensions to belong to this world were now in the past. Instead Malcolm was sent to the Christian Brothers in Trim, a school which educated the ordinary Irish, the class which the Macarthurs had long regarded as socially inferior. Miss Mangan, Malcolm’s tutor, who we can assume knew how things ought to be done, was upset when she heard of the decision. Irene too, it seems, knew it was ‘off’ and commented later that ‘his father decided everything’.
Sending Malcolm to the school of the common people with what Stephen Dedalus’s financially troubled and class-conscious father snobbishly called ‘Paddy Stink and Micky Mud’ came on top of Malcolm’s experience of neglect and loneliness in his early life. The school seems to have been perfectly civilised and well-run but Malcolm was of course an outsider, yet one, according to the account of one of his fellows, who did engage with his peers, though somewhat tangentially. He belonged and yet did not belong, the situation in life he was to find most congenial.
It seems clear that Malcom Macarthur came into his young adulthood a lost soul and, very likely, a confused soul. It is inconceivable that at some level he did not register his social abandonment. In the end the message to the boy was essentially ‘you’re on your own’, a phrase he would, according to some accounts, later hear again from attorney general Paddy Connolly when the gardaí called to arrest him at the latter’s luxury apartment in Dalkey. His formative years provided him with the opposite of emotional and social security. He responded in one of the few ways open to him. From his time in Trim he buried himself in his books, an early step in the construction of a compensatory personality.
It was a sad situation and prompts the question whether the damage done to the boy could have been avoided. In theory the answer is yes. If his family life had offered an emotional centre and a personal sense of worth through the experience of consistent love and support, things could have been different. The effects of his downward mobility might have been ameliorated. After all countless families go down in the world. However, this was not to be. The father was clearly restricted in his emotional range and his mother did not have much to offer the young Malcolm. Her world did not encourage displays of affection towards one’s children. To this ‘refrigerator mom’ tradition, Irene seems to have added a peculiar solipsism of her own. There was no salvation for Malcolm in deep family bonds.
After his Leaving Certificate, Malcolm travelled to California, where his Uncle Jack lived. Jack’s circumstances had improved considerably since 1940, due in some degree to his wealthy father-in-law having died. Malcolm attended university in California, presumably paid for by Jack. He majored in economics. Things might have worked out differently for him had he stayed there. However, for whatever reason, possibly with an eye on the Breemount inheritance and certainly out of fear of the Vietnam draft, he returned to Ireland in 1967 and to Meath, presumably considering himself as heir and looking forward to coming into his inheritance in due course. From then until his father’s death four years later he did not work and was presumably financially dependent. There are reports that things did not go well and that his father threw him out for a period, after which he lived with Irene. During this time, he would have learned the close connection between the possession of money and independence, a connection he emphasised many times in his conversations with O’Connell. But being unwilling to pursue a career, the only way he would achieve this independence was through inheritance. It became apparent that he would not have to wait too long.
His father’s health deteriorated in 1971 and he died some months later. It has been reported that by that time Malcolm only visited his father occasionally; Macarthur disputes this. It is not quite clear whether he was living in Breemount at the time but he was certainly present on the night Daniel died. There have been speculative newspaper reports that Malcolm may have killed his father. His passing, however, was regarded by the state as death from natural causes and there was no autopsy. One strong argument against the idea that he murdered his father is that as Daniel was already clearly dying there was no reason to kill him, unless of course, some visceral anger emerged. Mark O’Connell does not particularly rate reports that Malcolm was involved in the death. Others may wish to keep an open mind on the subject.
Breemount was sold in 1974. Malcolm received two-thirds of the estate (valued, in one account, at between €1.25 and €1.75 million in today’s terms) with Irene receiving the other third. This was a game-changer for him, providing the much-desired financial independence and freedom. Along with a subsequent smaller financial legacy from the Murray side, it would provide a secure and independent world for him from which he could conduct his life and engage with others in the garb of a refined and academic sophisticate from a landed background. His inheritance, of course, did not alter his social alienation ‑ rather it enabled it. He stood in and apart from society. Neither his studies nor his impressive intellect were employed to a social purpose. All was directed inwards. He did not publish, nor did he pursue an academic career. He merely studied, joking to himself that he was a ‘non-practising writer’.
Despite his efforts to block out the culture of Breemount, it would seem that he was also visited by the disordered patterns of the Macarthur past. Within eight years he was running out of funds. This was an impressive ‘burn rate’. Despite his degree in economics, he was financially incompetent, perhaps even more so than his forebears. He did not hesitate to ‘go into capital’ and did not register the implications. The fact that he did not think or plan ahead, that he did not buy some property and live off the rent indefinitely, suggests that his personal Breemount ghosts allowed only for affected rationality but not the real thing. Following his arrest he told gardaí he had spent most of his inheritance ‘because of mismanagement and unwise use’ and said that he should have invested. The penny had dropped for Malcolm Macarthur, but too late.
It has been said here that intimacy was not part of Malcolm Macarthur’s life experience and this is true, at least regarding the public-facing side of his life. In the freedom of his independent adult life, we hear of acquaintances but no intimates. This does not mean that in his heart he found this absence fulfilling. Actually, the evidence points in the opposite direction and towards a desire for intimacy and a life beyond both Breemount and his fabricated personality.
He wanted more. Once he inherited, and possibly before, he became a Janus-like figure, a man with two faces, one the sophisticated academic engaging tangentially with society, the other eager for intimacy and love. The exception to his exclusionary caution was his partner, Brenda Little, and certainly their son. Irene said she thought Brenda loved Malcolm but was not so sure it was reciprocated. We do not hear much of Ms Little – it seems she was off limits in O’Connell’s discussions with Macarthur, which is in itself something of a flashing light ‑ but what we do hear suggests a positive and socially engaged individual with considerable intellectual ability. Irene’s evaluation of her son’s feelings may have been wide of the mark. Irene was also a snob and was puzzled by the relationship since, in her view, Brenda was the opposite of ‘everything Malcolm stood for’.
There is no reason to doubt that despite the barriers he had erected, Malcolm Macarthur, like most people, desired emotional fulfilment. An intelligent woman from a working class background was in some respects the ideal person with whom to essay in that direction. It is clear that this aspiration did not require much time to develop. The couple had a son together quite soon after he achieved financial independence and there are a number of accounts which tell of Macarthur as an attentive and loving father, heavily involved in his child’s care and education. Clearly, he very much wished to be a better father than Daniel or, indeed, ‘Old Dan’. The couple’s son was born the year after Breemount was sold. It seems part of the freedom he sought included the freedom be part of a loving family. Had the money not run out and had the couple remained in Tenerife, where they moved with their child, it is just possible Macarthur’s disastrous background might not have led to catastrophe.
But the money was running out. Malcolm would inherit when his mother Irene died. That would be a big help. But of course people do not always die at the time most convenient for their heirs. In 1982 Irene Murray was still healthy and would live on in her house in Trim for many years. Malcolm returned to Dublin hoping to collect some debts. He had lent money freely and it is not difficult to imagine certain sorts in Dublin taking advantage of him. His efforts to collect what he was owed, unsurprisingly, came to little.
Could the idea have occurred to him that his mother might be helped towards her inevitable fate? Mother and son had never been close, and this remained the case in his adult life. She assumed he was on the staff at Cambridge, presumably on the basis of his regular visits to the university, where he had managed to acquire a reader’s ticket for the library. Clearly she was not much interested in his life, nor he in hers. In short, it appears he did not regard her as a person he could ask for an advance on his inheritance. But perhaps she was the sort of person he could murder.
When Macarthur was arrested very detailed plans for what seemed to be the killing of a female by electrocution were found on his person. The notes were written in the first person. O’Connell writes:
The notes included a list of necessary items: a phase tester, pliers, a screwdriver, a gag, a blindfold and “additional rope for tying across chest”. There was significant detail, too, on what should be done after the murder. “Wait for a while to ensure death is final” he wrote. “During this time take a few key important items, certain small photos into my possession. Make an inventory of other important items, a list, and can check on their presence when I arrive for the funeral.”
Many, including, it seems his mother, felt that she might have been the intended target of this plan. Macarthur laughed off the idea as preposterous, explaining that the plans were part of an elaborate parlour game he had engaged in with unnamed friends. O’Connell does not find this, in any sense, a credible explanation.
If it was Macarthur’s intention to murder his mother, why didn’t he do it? When he drew up the plan he was in rational mode. The ‘facts man’ was at the helm. The problem is that making a murder look like an accident is not particularly easy, especially when the intended victim is hale and hearty and does not live alone. How do you electrocute an active woman without leaving any evidence of force. If there was a plan to murder Irene, it seems likely it was eventually decided that it wouldn’t work. Macarthur acknowledged, somewhat ruefully, at one point that while he had intelligence, he lacked criminal cunning.
It is possible following his failure to recover all but a small fraction of what he was owed in Dublin and the realisation that he would not soon be inheriting from Irene that he began to panic If so the reason for the panic goes to the heart of the dynamic which led him to murder. Brenda and their boy, for whom he had strong feelings, were dependent on him. He left them in Tenerife with just enough money to last two months. This was the decisive factor. If he was single, he would probably have muddled on in some way. But in this reading, he was not only emotionally engaged but had deeply felt responsibilities. It was a successful union and the couple planned a second child. He told Brenda when he left Tenerife that when he returned he would have money. This crisis, hinging on his family responsibilities, was an entirely new experience. His practiced poise and composure were of no help. In fact, they were useless. Something had to be done. He was desperate. Why not rob a bank? That surely could be done: the IRA were doing it regularly. His bubble world was deflating rapidly as he fell into the real world with only desperation and desire to support his family to direct him. What he was about to do was driven not by a desire for funds to travel to Cambridge but by a sense of responsibility for his family. But he was in torment and out of control. What would he need? Simple, a car and a gun. He was now capable of doing terrible things.
It is quite clear that when he turned to the idea of robbing a bank there was no rational plan, there was nothing meticulous or detailed set out, nothing comparable with the electrocution ‘parlour game’ plan. It was not so much a criminal episode as an episode of hysteria which became murderous.
In Dublin he had impressed people as ‘a suave proposition’, sipping wine and reading Le Monde in the corner of a sophisticated bar. That individual was now nowhere to be found. He walked into the Phoenix Park thinking he would find ‘easy prey’. He hung around clay pigeon shoots trying to find a gun but simply attracted attention by his odd behaviour and his trance-like demeanour. At a time when Irish banks were among the most well-protected in Europe, he thought he could walk in and intimidate a teller with a shotgun. There was no bank chosen. He didn’t know how much money he would get. His vague notions didn’t qualify as a plan.
Despite Macarthur’s claim to the contrary, all the signs are that in the Phoenix Park, when he spotted Bridie Gargan, a zestful young woman with her life ahead of her, he was out of control. This man who hated vulgarity, sexism and misogyny repeatedly raised a hammer against Ms Gargan when she objected to being tied up. There is no sense in which this was a rational act. In fact, it ended all possibility of robbing a bank. Macarthur would then go on to brutally murder Donal Dunne, an equally violent and irrational act.
With those murders it was over for Malcolm Macarthur and for the Macarthur family in Ireland. The family had arrived in Ireland from Scotland seventy-five years earlier in a spirit of optimistic idealism. Their folly soon became apparent. A decline set in quickly and continued through the generations until the Irish adventure came to its final dramatic end in an explosion of violence on July 22nd, 1982 in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.
Materials in addition to A Thread of Violence were consulted in preparing this essay, including The Murderer and the Taoiseach by Harry McGee. Maurice Earls is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books. On July 27th this year he chaired a public discussion with Mark O’Connell on A Thread of Violence at Books Upstairs Dublin.