Meeting the murderer: Why did Mark O’Connell sit down to talk with Malcolm Macarthur?

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Forty-one years have passed since Macarthur emerged from the fringes of a driftless Irish gentrified background to commit two brutal killings

“I don’t ... I don’t think he’s a monster,” Mark O’Connell says slowly in answering whether he liked Malcolm Macarthur.

“And I’m not even sure what it would mean to call someone a monster.”

It’s a question that he will probably field again and again over this hot summer. Forty-one years have passed since Macarthur emerged from the fringes of a shiftless Irish gentrified background to commit two brutal killings that were almost random acts of violence in his ill-conceived plan to carry out a bank robbery. Since then, Macarthur has lurked around the national imagination as a motif of a strange time; a puckish, insolent figure in a bow tie with the curiously poetic name, responsible for a disturbing, off-kilter spree of violence, who had peripheral ties with what passed for elite society in the ransacked Ireland of the early 1980s.

I hope I did a good job of approaching it in a morally serious way. But I also wonder if the ethical thing to do would be to just not write this book

—  Mark O'Connell

“Had the murderer been an addict from the inner city, or even a member of the professional middle class gone berserk, it is unlikely that the killings would have made anything like as deep and lasting an impression,” O’Connell writes in A Thread of Violence, an account of the year he spent interviewing Macarthur in what proved to be a shared belief that the story has never really been told. “Or rather,” he clarifies on the page, “it has been told, endlessly and luridly, but always in the same tone of breathless incredulity, and with a sullen and persistent silence at its centre.”


Unlike his victims, Macarthur lived on – to not tell the tale. He spent 30 years in prison and was released in 2012. And he elected to remain in Dublin, where he could occasionally be seen out and about; a curiosity, an apparition in bookstores or at literary events.

O’Connell was just three years old when Macarthur committed the murders. But he had a tangential connection in that his grandparents lived in Pilot View, the apartment complex near Dalkey in which Macarthur had – in a macabre twist – been a guest of the attorney general, Patrick Connolly, at the time of his arrest. O’Connell believes he was around seven when he first heard about that family brush with notoriety and, naturally, it caught his childhood imagination when he visited there. “He was an ambient presence. But not in an overwhelming way.” Later, a doctorate on the work of John Banville, whose fictional character Freddie Montgomery, is loosely but clearly drawn on Macarthur, caused him to blur the two: whenever he read of Montgomery, he pictured Macarthur. Then, leaving Trinity College’s Berkeley library one gloomy September evening in 2012, O’Connell noticed a figure walking towards him, familiar with dense white hair and a tweed jacket complete with silk handkerchief. O’Connell’s jolt of recognition drew from Macarthur “a sideways look of almost cartoonish wariness and culpability”.

“This kind of weird sense of cognitive dissonance,” he recalls now of that evening. “Of: this is a fictional character, in my mind, from spending so much time thinking about this Freddie Montgomery guy and then seeing the real person, so that was kind of strange – a sort of palimpsest, you know, of reality being overlaid with fiction and vice versa. That was the source of where fascination with this subject came from. That was the sand in the oyster. And that was ten years ago.”

O’Connell graduated with his post-doctorate as the recession took hold and academic job prospects vanished. He began writing essay pieces for a website, The Millions, and caught the eye of publishers in America more than than at home. He has since published a series of acclaimed, wide-ranging essays. His first book, To Be A Machine, explored the fringe world of transhumanism and won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2018 and the Rooney Prize a year later. The subject of the book was, he says, his way into writing about “death and capitalism”. He followed that with Notes from an Apocalypse. Periodically he saw Macarthur around town and slowly accepted the realisation that he wanted to write about him.

Even though it is clear to the reader – by virtue of the existence of the book – that he succeeded in his mission, it’s hard not to feel anxious on O’Connell’s behalf as he wanders the deserted streets of pandemic Dublin hoping to orchestrate a chance meeting. It seems somehow desperate and ill-fated to wish yourself into the aura of someone who is remembered only because he murdered two helpless people. Because Macarthur’s trial lasted a mere seven minutes, little had ever been heard from him. Persuading him to speak would be no easy thing.

O’Connell took the strategy of appealing to Macarthur’s intellectual vanity, presenting him with a copy of his book and a piece he’d recently written for the New York Review of Books and suggesting the idea of Macarthur’s speaking with him for what would become a piece of literary non-fiction. The older man might well have been flattered. O’Connell is a youthful 43 and has an easy way about him. As they talk on the street, a stranger materialises, recognises Macarthur and accosts him. “You didn’t give that poor girl much of a chance, did you?” the man says, calling Macarthur a “c**t” before taking a photograph. Immediately, O’Connell is confronted with the consequences of being associated with his potential subject.

I regard the Irish as a slightly unctuous culture

—  Malcolm Macarthur to Mark O'Connell

“I am not at my best in situations of conflict, but the complexity of this scenario was especially acute,” he writes, later fretting over what might become of that photograph. “Like it or not, I was implicated.” In a bleakly comic moment, Macarthur tells O’Connell of a time he was mistaken for former Anglo-Irish banker Seanie Fitzpatrick and abused for that. (Strangers also mistook him for Banville from time to time). From that day, the pair struck up a relationship that was formal, cordial, sometimes tense. Through it all, O’Connell examined and queried his own motivations as much as he did Macarthur’s recollections.

“Did I ask myself what I was doing? Yes. Always, you know, and that’s kind of the work of writing, in a way. Like the book is full of those sorts of slightly tortured moral triangulations. Why am I telling this story? What is my position in relation to the story? Where do I put myself within it? You know, whose point of view do I tell it from? And, yeah, the slightly morally queasy question of like, having to get close to this person to spend real time with this person, and sort of get into his world, in a way, to tell this story properly. But all that difficulty and complexity only really became apparent kind of cumulatively, as we went along.”

This is the second Macarthur book of 2023. Just last month, Hachette published The Murderer and the Taoiseach, a rounded account of the political and social ramifications of the murders and subsequent trial, written by The Irish Times political correspondent Harry McGee, who also narrated a popular podcast on the subject. A Thread of Violence – the title comes from a speech Macarthur delivers to O’Connell in his apartment – is essentially a collaboration. O’Connell gets to hear from and write about someone who has long fascinated him. And Macarthur has a chance to correct all the bogus headlines and half-baked stories that irritated him down the years of silence – of a dismal childhood, of why he did what he did. The result is an intriguing and sometimes uncomfortable book, not least because O’Connell doesn’t spare himself. And always close to the page, at the heart of this story, are two absentees; the victims who never stood a chance. O’Connell recounts a phone conversation with a friend of his, Katie, who straightens his mind on the dangers of reducing Macarthur to a “character”: here are two people whose lives were taken. “He’s a real person,” she reminds him. “He’s a man who did terrible things.”

O’Connell repeatedly tried to contact both the Gargan and Dunne families whom Macarthur’s murders left bereaved but he wasn’t that surprised that they declined to reply. And he can only guess how uneasy those families would feel at the idea of any book about Macarthur.

“Yeah. I can only imagine. It’s difficult for them. Like it would be impossible to ignore a book like this, or Harry McGee’s book either. It’s painful. I was aware of that all the way through. Holding in your mind the idea that these people lost their lives, and that there’s still real suffering and loss attached to that. So, there’s always this kind of tension between this being a great story. And the conversation with Katie, I think it’s one of the best bits in the book. And in a way, I didn’t write it, I just sort of transcribed this conversation with her. There is a moral dimension to telling a story, to making a story out of something like this, to seeing someone like Macarthur and thinking: this is a great character. You know, what does that mean? When I started writing the book, I was fairly determined to centre the victims’ narrative and tell their story and to not have those losses be disembodied wounds. And, obviously, the first thing that happened was that the families didn’t get back to me. And they kept maintaining silence. And I tried intermittently over the course of the years that I was writing the book. And I think there was something that I took from that silence, which was if I had been murdered by some person for basically meaningless and sort of senseless reasons, in 1982, or one of my loved ones, well, would I want to become part of his story? And I don’t think I would, you know? So I think it’s complicated. And I wouldn’t want to be caught up in all these kinds of discourses, particularly in this sort of so-called true crime genre. They’re all very kind of fraught. It just seemed right to ... not have their story be subsumed into his. Because it is, for better or worse, a story about Malcolm Macarthur.”

Over 300 pages, he succeeds in stripping the phantasmagorical aspects away. Macarthur is an elderly man now but clearly still nimble in mind and body. He lives modestly in state housing in the city. O’Connell is true to his word in allowing him to correct the record and pushes back against the key events of 1982, witheringly summarised for O’Connell by former garda investigator Tony Hickey as “a frenzy of tomfoolery”. The account of Macarthur’s hapless, chilling intrusion into the lives of Bridie Gargan and Dónal Dunne is shocking anew, possibly because we have spent two hundred pages in the company of a rehabilitated Macarthur, who describes his early life on Breemount estate near Trim; his sojourn in California and the lull, upon his return where, apart from forming a relationship with Brenda Little, a Galway woman with whom he had a son, nothing happened. From 1967-1982, he basically devoted himself to the life of being a “private scholar”. He had inherited the equivalent of £900,000 from the sale of the family estate: a substantial sum but squanderable. He drank with the bohemian set in Bartley Dunne’s, knew people like Connolly- entirely blameless and whose milieu is succinctly framed by Hickey: “They’d be floating around, these sort of fellas.”

Macarthur had the means to do nothing with his life yet couldn’t even manage that successfully. By the summer of 1982, the money was gone. He left his family in Spain to return home to commit a robbery. He reasoned he needed a car- which is why Bridie Gargan, a 27-year-old nurse sunbathing in the Phoenix Park after her hospital shift ended, was bludgeoned repeatedly over the head with a lump hammer and died from her injuries. He needed a gun: Dónal Dunne had the pure bad luck to advertise the sale of one. Macarthur visited him in Offaly and shot him in the face at point blank range with the weapon he proposed to purchase. Even within the realms of murder, those acts of violence seem uncommonly barbaric and are hard to reconcile with Macarthur’s dandified persona and regard for impeccable manners.

Through O’Connell’s description of their conversations, you wonder at Macarthur’s existence before that July, within a dream world of pointless academia, of disdaining work, staving off reality. There is a hollowness to it that provokes in the reader the question of whether Macarthur was ever able to properly locate himself in the Ireland into which he was born. There’s a tense passage late in the book when O’Connell is pressing Macarthur about remorse, something he insists he does possess, even if he doesn’t express it in the accepted manner.

“There’s a certain formula with these things. And that’s why I regard the Irish as a slightly unctuous culture,” he tells O’Connell.

“That use of the phrase ‘the Irish’ is very telling to me,” O’Connell says now.

“I mean, he is nothing if not Irish, and in some ways he’s a quintessentially Irish character. But yeah, there is that sense of difference and separation and distinction. And I think, in this sort of slightly paradoxical way, there’s something defensive about it, because he and his family are not Anglo-Irish in the way that we would understand it. Their wealth and privilege and distinction were not absolute.”

Around the time he was completing the book, O’Connell went to see an exhibition at the National Gallery of the work of Alberto Giacometti, whose sculptures regularly featured the same subjects, over and over. “He [Giacometti] talks about this in an interesting way. He said the more time you spend looking at someone’s face, the more mysterious they seem.”

It struck him that something similar occurred through his project: the more frequently he saw Macarthur, the more difficult he became to discern.

“The more time I spent talking with him, thinking about him, the more times he came to recede ... into breath. And that’s the book.”

True crime stories have been at the heart of the podcast phenomenon of the past decade. Their popularity has raised questions about the ethics and morality of the narrative dramatisation of murder for what is, ultimately, consumer entertainment. They are the aural successor to a written genre originating in the wild success of Truman Capote’s ‘true crime novel’ In Cold Blood (1966). Thirteen years later, Norman Mailer won a Pulitzer for his novelisation of the story of the death by execution of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore in The Executioner’s Song. And in 1989, the New Yorker journalist Janet Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murderer (What is journalism for?), exploring the uneasy moral relationship between true crime writer Joe McGinniss and his subject, Jeffrey McDonald, who was on trial for murdering his wife and two daughters. She opened the piece with the lines that became her most quoted: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust, and betraying them without remorse.”

Malcolm died in 2021 and her work has been something of a touchstone for O’Connell throughout his evolution as a writer.

“She’s somebody who I read very frequently. And you know that book, I think, is a masterpiece. And you couldn’t approach a project like mine without Janet Malcolm. And in some ways, I had to be both Joe McGinnis and Janet Malcolm, which is a kind of an impossible situation to be in. But I hope I somewhat pulled it off.”

The book is an attempt to answer not: did I like him? But: what did I think of him?

—  Mark O'Connell

He does so by constantly questioning his position as he goes. He shares, for instance, his unease during the moment his daughter happened to be holding his phone. It rang and Macarthur’s name flashed up on the screen. And he doesn’t shy away from the fact that, for a writer of non-fiction, it thrilled him to have this access to Macarthur. The meetings took place at Macarthur’s apartment. There were no courtesies such as tea. “Not so much as a glass of water. I never asked! The relationship was very formal. I am sitting here taking notes. It wasn’t so much hanging out. We would sometimes go for a walk but always in service of some conversation for the book. Did I like him? I am equivocating here wildly. The book is an attempt to answer not: did I like him? But: what did I think of him?”

On several occasions, Macarthur tentatively raises the idea that a friendship might blossom out of their working relationship and O’Connell is forced to confront how this makes him feel, too. “My relationship with him is, after all, an inherently extractive one, as though I were a prospector who had struck a rich vein of crude oil.” It’s a line which calls to mind the lightning moment in The Center Will Not Hold, the documentary on Joan Didion, during which the writer is asked how she felt, all those years ago in Haight-Ashbury, when she encountered a five-year-old girl tripping on acid given to her by her mother. “Let me tell you,” Didion says before pausing to locate the precise emotion. “It was gold.”

As a subject, O’Connell sees Macarthur as the same sort of commodity. But equally, he did not cease contact with Macarthur once the conversations for the book ended.

“I felt a responsibility towards him and not to just cut him loose, you know. There’s always this turning around of a subject and doubting my position. I hope I did a good job of approaching it in a morally serious way. But I also wonder if the ethical thing to do would be to just not write this book. I didn’t do that. I wrote it.”

A Thread of Violence doesn’t attempt to offer a definitive answer on what it was that possessed Macarthur to do what he did that summer. Whether Macarthur is worth the kind of attention O’Connell devoted to him is left to the reader. This is a profile of an experience rather than an attempt to arrive at answers. “And that’s one of the reasons why I don’t think of myself as a journalist, because I don’t know that you can get to the truth of these things,” O’Connell says.

“I don’t know that you can get to the truth of a person.”

That’s the real theme, as he sees it, in the book.

“Living stories, you know? It’s about everything that I’m doing in this book, everything that Macarthur is doing and the sort of tension between that. It’s all about competing narratives. That’s what this book is about. It’s about the presence of fiction within what we think of as non-fiction. And that’s where it all began, with the Banville stuff with Freddie Montgomery and that’s the trajectory of the book as well; as an attempt to kind of get to grips with that.”

And just last week, he was almost surprised when the publishers sent him a copy, to find himself holding it. “Oh, it’s a book,” he laughs, describing his wonder that all those hours and the nervous energy and the sheer strangeness of that year of talking with such a notorious figure had resulted in an everyday object.

“It’s just a book. It’s not an ongoing relationship or a nervous breakdown or a moral problem or my life. It’s just a book. A thing that goes on the shelf.”

A book of evidence. Macarthur may even turn up for the launch.

A Thread of Violence is published by Granta

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times