Victims of a hero and paedophile
To many he was an admirable Irish-language pioneer. But Domhnall Ó Lubhlaí spent decades secretly abusing teenage boys. Why was he never brought to justice?
Gearóid Ó Conchubhair was watching TV at home last October when news broke that Jimmy Savile had sexually abused scores of underage girls during a career lived largely in the public gaze. Ó Conchubhair watched with morbid fascination. Here was a person who had been knighted for his charity work. And at the same time he had lived a sordid secret parallel life, known to some yet never exposed during his lifetime.
The similarities were striking to his own experience. The name that cropped up in Ó Conchubhair’s mind was not a household name in the same mould. But for anybody involved with the Irish-language movement, Domhnall Ó Lubhlaí was revered and respected. He founded Coláiste na bhFiann in Ros Muc, Connemara, and cemented the concept of the summer course in the Gaeltacht that became a standard feature of summer life for thousands of teenagers.
Yet for dozens of adult men the memory of Ó Lubhlaí conjures up much darker, despairing emotions. Gearóid Ó Conchubhair is one of them. He arrived in Ros Muc in 1973 as a shy 13-year-old from Co Offaly, with what he would later discover was dyslexia.
Ó Lubhlaí groomed him that year, made a vulnerable child feel special. The following year he sexually attacked him during an overnight trip to Galway city. The abuse continued over three years. Ó Conchubhair has spent most of his adult life coming to terms with the internal chaos it caused.
In 1997 he had made a complaint that ultimately came to nothing. After learning about Savile, he was determined to bring it to a head. “I had had a serious meltdown in February 2011. When I saw the reports about Jimmy Savile, I was firm in my view that I had to do something about it,” he says.
Earlier this year, he made a formal complaint to the HSE, which in turn triggered a Garda investigation. Within weeks, however, Ó Lubhlaí, who was by then 84, had died in his native Mullingar, in Co Westmeath. It was not the first time that he had evaded punishment. At several junctures over the decades, his activities were made known to the authorities.
There had been two Garda investigations. In 2002, a prosecution against him collapsed for reasons that have never been fully made clear. The question is how the State failed so abjectly when presented with so many opportunities to bring such a prolific paedophile to justice.
The-black-and white footage from Ros Muc from the early 1970s has a John Hinde postcard innocence. A large group of young students watch attentively as a rotund man, wearing a pressed white shirt, and with thick greying hair, deftly demonstrates Irish-dancing steps. The tableau suggests a múinteoir scoile from central casting.
The person in question is Ó Lubhlaí. His public image of a republican, Catholic, Gaelic puritan was carefully cultivated. Ó Lubhlaí had had a chequered career. He was in the Army as a young man, then got a job as an Irish teacher in Co Tipperary. He was fired in 1956 after being arrested for membership of the IRA, another lifelong obsession.
In the 1960s he was an Irish teacher in Clondalkin, first at a technical school and later at Coláiste Chilliain, from 1985 until the early 1990s. He was also employed by Gael Linn in the 1960s, running its summer courses in the Gaeltacht. He parted company (for reasons unknown) to found Coláiste na bhFiann in 1968.
In its earliest manifestation, the summer school had a quasi-military set-up. The flag was raised and lowered each day as the scoláirí sang Amhrán na bhFiann . The students were also sectioned into units headed by ceannairí and practised marching. There was also a one-strike policy banning the use of English. It all created a sense of loyalty, of the college being elite. It was a huge success.
“He was charismatic, extrovert in every way. He was well connected with politicians from all parties; also clerics of all denominations,” says Ó Conchubair. “Everywhere in the Irish-language movement there seemed to be respect for him.”
For those who didn’t warm to him, there was no denying his success. “I would have put him up there in the top three” most influential figures in the language movement, says the respected activist Ciarán Ó Finneadha. “He had incredible achievements.”
Ó Finneadha was deeply shocked to learn, about 15 years ago, that this towering figure was a paedophile. At that time, he and several others set about ostracising him, confronting him every time he showed up at an Irish-language event.
Ó Lubhlaí’s predatory side stretched back at least to the mid 1950s. The first known incident happened at a summer camp in Tipperary in 1955. The abused boy, as a grown man in 1982, complained to the Departments of Education and Justice, but nothing came of it.
In 1964 Ó Lubhlaí seriously sexually assaulted a boy at a Gael Linn summer camp in An Cheathrú Rua and elsewhere. Victims came forward to recount attacks during the 1970s in Ros Muc, at a cinema on O’Connell Street, in hotels in Athlone and Wexford, at a campsite in Rath Carn, Co Meath, and in a flat he owned in Dublin. The last known assaults date to periods between 1980 and 1981. It was clear he had abused dozens.
Ó Lubhlaí’s modus operandi was to take a boy under his wing, make him feel special, and then take him away on Coláiste na bhFiann business. They would often end up in a room that had only one bed, at which point the assault would take place.
Occasionally you could see flashes of that darker side in his public persona. “He had a ferocious temper,” says Ó Conchubhair. “He would go red with anger, and two minutes later it would pass.
“He managed to create this aura of fear and respect. He used to say, ‘Muna dtuigeann tú smacht ní féidir smacht a chur i bhfeidhm.’ ” – If you don’t understand discipline, you can’t impose it – “He understood smacht only too well. He was very careful and cunning and conniving.”
The long-term effect on Ó Conchubhair was devastating. He had low self-esteem and bouts of depression in his 20s. He threw everything into his career, gaining a doctorate and becoming a lecturer at the National College of Art and Design.
There was suppression that was hard to fathom to an outsider. He actually stayed with Ó Lubhlaí and his wife while at college. The abuse had long stopped and was never mentioned. Ó Lubhlaí attended his wedding. “It’s like you swallowed a worm and it it remains dormant for a while. Eventually it will get you. It will eat you from the inside out.”
Coláiste na bhFiann was made aware of the abuse in 1981, when parents of a boy assaulted over the previous year reported the abuse; they insisted they did not want to pursue it further. Ó Lubhlaí wasn’t removed, although he was not in direct contact with children at the time. In 1991, five years after Ó Lubhlaí had formally left Coláiste na bhFiann, there was a Garda investigation when that boy, then an adult, himself made a complaint. Ó Lubhlaí recorded conversations he had with the boy and convinced gardaí he was being blackmailed.
The head of Coláiste na bhFiann at the time was Liam Ó Maolaodha, who believed Ó Lubhlaí’s protests of innocence. It now appears he was in denial, however, as he recently disclosed that he too was a victim of Ó Lubhlaí’s, having been sexually assaulted in the early 1970s.
It was Ó Conchubhair who initiated the first major Garda investigation, in 1997. “The penny really dropped when I looked at my son, who was 11 at the time. If what happened to me happened to him, I don’t think I could be held back from murder,” he says.
He went to Coláiste na bhFiann’s new head, Caitríona Ní Cheallaigh, who acted with propriety by immediately contacting the Garda. Six victims came forward. Ó Lubhlaí was arrested in February 1999, and the prosecution was initiated in March 2000. He faced 56 charges of buggery and indecent assault, in relation to incidents between 1955 and 1981. The case was fixed for Mullingar Circuit Court for February 2002.
Before it could happen, Ó Lubhlaí sought a judicial review, which was heard before Mr Justice Aindreas Ó Caoimh in the High Court. The judgment criticised both the gardaí and the DPP for delays in the investigation, in the taking of the prosecution and the discovery process. It also seemed that the tape and transcript from the 1991 investigation had gone missing.
There were references to Ó Lubhlaí having been on heavy medication during his three Garda interviews, which cast doubt on their reliability. The Garda is now reviewing its handling of this case. The DPP’s office has, since its foundation, not been answerable to the public on any matter, even when mistakes are made. Once the prosecution collapsed, Ó Lubhlaí remained free. Separated from his wife, he lived out his final years in Mullingar.
There was one small development. Gael Linn settled a civil action for an undisclosed sum in 2011, over a case of abuse from the 1960s. A search in the Department of the Gaeltacht on foot of a freedom-of-information request yielded no records. That is surprising given that Éamon Ó Cuív said this week that, when minister in the late 1990s, he had become aware of Ó Lubhlaí’s abuse and had informed officials.
How did he get away with it? There have been conspiracy theories, including that he was a State informer about IRA activities and was therefore protected. Less fanciful is the suggestion that his stature meant people tended not to believe the allegations. Crucial, too, were the failures by the Garda, the DPP or both, and by other authorities.
There is also a strong case for an inquiry into when the Department of Education learned of Ó Lubhlaí’s activities and what actions, if any, it took about the career-long contact between a suspected paedophile and children in the classroom.
The Department of Education and Skills says it is “reviewing its records” to establish if child-protection concerns were raised with the department “concerning the person in question and if so what steps were taken on foot of this contact”.
Ó Conchubhair has felt furious that Ó Lubhlaí was never punished. He says he is lucky that his wife and their children have been rocks of support throughout. “I don’t want closure,” he says. “I want this and him to be exposed.”