Why was a priest killed in a couple’s bedroom at an unholy hour?
By Michael Clifford
Sergeant Kevin Forde was awoken at 3.15am on July 6, 1985. The parish priest was knocking on his door.
Sergeant Forde lived in a premises adjoining Clara Garda Station.
“There’s a priest dead in the Flynns’ bedroom at Kilcoursey House,” said Fr James Deignan.
It was scandalous and Fr Deignan wondered if it could be kept quiet. That was not possible, the sergeant told him.
Fr Niall Molloy had been dead for hours, when Sergeant Forde was alerted.
Over two hours earlier, at 1am, Fr Deignan had arrived at Kilcoursey House, an old country pile outside the Co Offaly town and home to Richard and Teresa Flynn, a wealthy couple who had various business and equine interests.
Fr Deignan had been asked by Richard Flynn to come to the house to deliver the last rites to someone. Fr Deignan was unaware that the person was a priest, and he didn’t ask what had happened.
The bedroom — one of nine in the house — was in some disarray. Fr Molloy was on the floor, his face bruised.
There was a long trail of blood across the floor, the result of an attempt to drag Fr Molloy towards the bedroom door.
A pathologist would determine that Fr Molloy must have been hit in the face five or six times, possibly by a fist. He bled into the membrane on the brain, which caused swelling, killing him.
The medical evidence would be that he was alive for some time after receiving the blows, but not necessarily conscious.
Fr Deignan administered the last rites to his fellow priest. He didn’t know whether Fr Molloy was dead or dying.
After doing his duty, he accompanied Richard Flynn downstairs.
They set about accessing medical help for the stricken Fr Molloy. This took some time. There was a lot of coming and going.
At 1.40am, Richard Flynn’s son, David, and his wife, Ann, arrived from their home in Tober, Co Offaly.
A doctor arrived at 2am. He confirmed the priest was dead. While the doctor was conducting his examination, Teresa Flynn was on the floor of the bedroom, in hysterics.
Two of her daughters were attending to her. The doctor gave her a sedative. At some point over the following hour, she was brought to hospital.
Then, eventually, somebody decided it was time to call the police.
The delay in informing the gardaí that somebody had died violently is an aspect of the Fr Molloy case that has haunted the deceased priest’s family over the last 33 years.
Another disturbing aspect was the subsequent garda investigation.
This led to Fr Molloy’s nephew, Henry McCourt, eventually lodging a complaint with GSOC. The result of that investigation was published this week.
GSOC pointed out that it was precluded by law from investigating the actions of the members of An Garda Síochána who were now retired.
However, the ombudsman commission did find that the retention of files was wholly inadequate.
“What has disturbed the commission is the fact that, despite extensive searches by garda personnel, it would appear that many original documents, and all the exhibits, could not be found, which may have assisted us in our enquiries.
“It is accepted that this is an old case, now in excess of some 30-plus years. However, the case involves death and has been an open investigation since 1985, and thus, regardless of the public profile of this case, the commission would expect that keeping all information and evidence safe and accountable would be a requirement, until the case is formally closed,” GSOC reported.
There is a third, disturbing aspect. Richard Flynn was charged with the assault and manslaughter of Fr Molloy and stood trial at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, in 1986.
Before the case could go to a jury for decision, the presiding judge, Frank Roe, directed the jury to find the defendant not guilty, on the basis of evidence proffered.
Had the jury been allowed to deliberate and come to a decision, it is quite likely that the matter would have ended there.
Instead, his family were left without closure, and with the lingering sense that their 52-year-old uncle’s violent death has gone unanswered, constituting a miscarriage of justice.
Niall Molloy came from a large family in Roscommon town. He had an interest in horses since childhood.
This persisted after he was ordained, in 1957, and through various postings that eventually led back to his native county, where he was a curate at the time of his death.
This hobby brought him into contact with Theresa Brennan, from Galway. After she married Richard Flynn, the priest and the couple formed a solid friendship, which included some joint ventures in the equine business.
Theresa Flynn and Fr Molloy had a joint bank account, for dealing in horses, and Fr Molloy took out an insurance policy in the year before his death, nominating Theresa Flynn as the beneficiary.
The priest was a regular visitor to Kilcoursey House and had his own bedroom there.
On the night of his death, Fr Molloy had attended the marriage of the Flynns’ daughter, Maureen, although he didn’t officiate at the ceremony.
Later that evening, back at Kilcoursey House, he entered the Flynns’ bedroom, fully clothed.
According to Theresa Flynn, she awoke to find Fr Molloy sitting at the end of the bed.
Her husband gave a different account to a garda, later that night.
He said that Fr Molloy entered the room, there was an argument over who would go downstairs to get more drink, the priest and his wife ganged up on him, and he hit his wife once and Fr Molloy two or three times, in self-defence.
A detective inspector asked Richard Flynn whether he had found his wife and Fr Molloy in a compromising position. “No, no, nothing like that.”
The investigation that followed had many shortcomings. The taking of statements was less than rigorous or timely.
The background to the relationship between the Flynns and the deceased man was not properly examined.
There was no medical evidence about Theresa Flynn’s treatment at Tullamore Hospital on the night in question. The analysis of blood splatters, crucial to a murder investigation, was cursory.
A report on the case by senior counsel, Dominic McGinn, in 2014, placed some emphasis on the last of these shortcomings.
“This aspect of the investigation is particularly frustrating, because, subsequently, there was considerable conjecture about what may or may not have occurred at Kilcoursey House and a full and careful analysis of the pattern of blood splatters might have assisted in confirming or dismissing some of the suggested theories,” the lawyer reported.
In the end, Richard Flynn was charged with the manslaughter and assault of Fr Molloy.
The trial commenced on June 12, 1986 and concluded the same day. Richard Flynn was represented by Paddy McEntee, SC, the leading defence counsel of his day.
McEntee didn’t cross-examine the prosecution witnesses. The result was that the evidence was kept to a minimum, as there was little opportunity for witnesses to expand on the statements they made.
Then came the state pathologist, John Harbison. From him, McEntee extracted the nugget that Fr Molloy’s heart was not in the best shape possible.
He asked Harbison whether this could have contributed to the priest’s death.
Harbison couldn’t categorically deny such an outcome. Despite that detail, it was Harbison’s firm opinion that death had been due to the head injuries.
As a result of that exchange, McEntee applied to Judge Roe to direct the jury to acquit, on the basis that there was a possibility that the cause of death was a heart attack.
He also submitted that the evidence suggested self-defence on his client’s part.
After considering the matter, Judge Roe duly called back the jury and directed them to acquit on both charges.
While there might have been a legal basis to do so on the manslaughter charge, it is unclear the exact basis for throwing out the assault charge.
In any event, that was it. The legal process was complete. Richard Flynn walked free.
This matter has never been fully resolved. The review by Dominic McGinn went into some detail.
The prosecution lawyer, Raymond Groarke, wrote a report for the DPP after the trial. In it, he conceded that, in relation to the manslaughter case, the application from McEntee was valid.
However, Groarke had a different opinion on the fate of the assault charge. He reported that the count of assault should not have been withdrawn from the jury.
“There was ample evidence for the jury to consider whether or not the defence of self-defence was valid. This is the case if there was no other evidence at all than that of the accused’s statement.”
Had Richard Flynn been convicted on the assault charge, it is highly likely that, under the circumstances, anything but a considerable prison term would have led to public outrage.
A jury decision, one way or the other, would have also provided some degree of closure, ensuring that it had proceeded through the criminal justice system.
In the years to follow, it would emerge that Judge Roe moved in the same horsey set as the Flynns and Fr Molloy.
Six weeks after the trial, the inquest was held. The jury returned a verdict that Fr Molloy had died from head injuries.
In the years to follow, a number of incidents and developments added further to the mystery of the case.
Sometime in 1986, Niall Molloy’s brother, Billy, received an anonymous letter.
This purported to come from somebody who had witnessed a row between Niall and Richard Flynn at the Flynns’ daughter’s wedding, hours before the incident in the bedroom.
The letter stated that “Fr Nially and Mr Flynn were fighting downstairs. Mrs Flynn got between them to stop them.”
The letter went on to claim that the fight continued upstairs, afterwards, and that bottles had been broken in the course of it. Two possible witnesses were interviewed by the gardaí, but nothing came of it.
There were disputes between the Flynns and Fr Molloy’s estate over property, including a horse and some paintings. In some minds, what emerged might have been probative evidence in the criminal trial, as to motive.
It also emerged that there had been a burglary at Fr Molloy’s home about six months before his death. The inference was that documents relating to his business interests might have been stolen.
A cold case review concluded that while there had been a burglary, the only evidence available suggested that a small amount of money was stolen.
Then, on the night of August 29, 1987, there was a burglary at the offices of the DPP in Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green.
Around 60 files, including that on Fr Molloy’s death, were taken, most of which were ultimately recovered in October 1991. The Molloy file didn’t show up until a house was searched in January 1993.
One of the main suspects for the burglary was Martin Cahill, the criminal known as The General.
He would have plenty of interest in some files in the DPP’s office, but ordinarily that on Fr Molloy would hardly be among them.
However, with the case unresolved and dogged by suspicion, significance was attached, in some quarters, to the theft of the file in question.
In 2010, a series of articles on the case in the Irish Independent led to a decision to give the case a thorough going over.
The cold case review team of An Garda Síochána, including 10 detectives, reviewed the file, made additional inquiries, and conducted further interviews.
A report on that investigation was then compiled by the senior counsel, Domnic McGinn.
He produced a comprehensive report in 2014, ultimately suggesting that a full commission of investigation would not be warranted.
“Certainly, there are extremely unusual, if not unique, features about this case. Many of these are quite disturbing and merited an in-depth analysis.
Through it all, the family have said that they want and deserve the truth. They have provided their own research, which continues to raise questions.
In 2015, they sought a commission of investigation from then justice minister, Frances Fitzgerald.
“She came back to us after fourteen months to say she wasn’t going to accede to our request,” Henry McCourt told the Irish Examiner.
“GSOC was looking at the case at the time (following a complaint by Mr McCourt). But, now, their investigation is at the end of the road and they can’t take it any further, because they are constrained by law, in relation to retired members of the force.
“I would like to see somebody with the power to bring retired members of An Garda Síochána before them and to get their evidence, and that of other witnesses, on oath.
“A commission of investigation is the only thing that can make that happen. We’ve gone through all the other avenues.”
Whether the Government is disposed to such a request remains to be seen.
Theresa Flynn died in the 1990s. Richard Flynn died in 2017.