Witness protection, Irish-style: ‘There’s a 70 per cent chance I’ll die with a bullet in my head’

Joseph O’Callaghan fears being shot, but he doesn’t regret testifying in a murder case

‘They drove me up from Naas on the wrong side of the road,” says protected witness Joseph O’Callaghan. “There were jeeps on each side with men with guns. They brought me up into this courtroom and there were guards all around me and I couldn’t see anyone but I could hear people… They walked me through the court and you could hear people going ‘rat’, ‘snitch’, ‘grass’. The whole courtroom wanted to kill me. I couldn’t see them but then they put me into the box and when I turned around then I could see everyone.

“And Brian Kenny was there like a crazed f**king lunatic. I thought he was going to climb over the box. He was jumping up and down … Nodding and looking at me and staring. Everybody was there. The place was packed. You couldn’t see an empty space.

“[The judge] told the guard who was next to me – a big tall fella – to stand in front of Kenny and made Kenny sit down so he wouldn’t intimidate me. The judge said he believed that if [Kenny] was to get bail I would be dead in a few days.”

I never went to do a deal. I went because it was the right thing to do

In 2005, O’Callaghan testified against Brian Kenny and Thomas Hinchon, who were accused of the murder of Jonathan O’Reilly outside Clover Hill Prison the year before. O’Callaghan was 18, the youngest person to go into Ireland’s witness protection programme. He is now 35 and is the subject of a new book, The Witness, written by Sunday World reporter Nicola Tallant.


O’Callaghan and his mother, Mary, both live in different places far from where they grew up. They go by new names: Mary because she remarried; O’Callaghan because that’s what happens when you become a protected witness. None of their friends knows about what they’ve been through. O’Callaghan has a special alarm directly linked to the Garda Emergency Response Unit.

They want this book to put the record straight. “The perception was that I gave evidence because there was a deal done,” he says. “Usually people who go into witness protection, the guards have a charge and they say ‘If you give us this, we’ll let you off’… But they had no charges on me. I had been arrested for heroin when I was 15 but I was underage anyway so I would have just got a slap on the wrist. They had nothing on me. I never went to do a deal. I went because it was the right thing to do.

“I worked for Brian. I lived with Brian ... I sold heroin for him. I did everything he told me to do. I was in the room bagging heroin when they came back and told me they murdered somebody. I didn’t sign up for that. I didn’t even sign up to sell heroin … I signed up to be a milkman for pocket money.”

Milk and heroin

O’Callaghan first met Brian Kenny when he was 12 and Kenny, then a milkman, called to his door in Blanchardstown. Joseph was home alone, suspended from school, and enamoured with the idea of being a milkman.

Kenny is a manipulator. Joseph had been sexually abused once by a person in the neighbourhood when the family lived in Ballymun. His father, who still lived in Ballymun, had also been violent with his mother. When he was even younger, he had been friends with the younger brother of Shane Coates of the Westies. He was often in trouble.

Now, looking back, Mary thinks Kenny could sense Joseph’s vulnerability. At the time, Joseph was just thrilled he got to work on a milk float. “I thought it was a cool job. You could see them running along with the truck with all the bottles … And I knew one of the guys from school and he worked on the truck. He said something like ‘Can you run fast?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I can run faster than any of them’.”

I was going out with my uniform and instead of dropping me to school he was bringing me to Ballymun to collect and sell [heroin]

Joseph loved the job at first, but quickly things soured. He says that one night during the milk run, Kenny started to sexually abuse him, something he continued to do for years. After the first time, he says, “it was like nothing happened. We finished the milk round. But I knew it was wrong.”

Not long after this, he says, they passed another milk truck that was carrying a boy who had worked for Kenny before and who Kenny claimed owed him money. O’Callaghan says that Kenny leapt from their van, pulled the boy into a garden and started violently beating him with a hammer. The other milkman drove away. Nobody intervened.

“I could just hear screams and the smacks and there was blood all over him,” says O’Callaghan. “Then [Kenny] said ‘Get me a bottle of milk’ and he took his top off and he poured the milk over his hands and washing the blood off everything. And then he took the bloody top off and put a jacket on and zipped it up … Brian said, ‘If you ever rob from me, that’s what happens’.”

Joseph O’Callaghan was a traumatised child. Years later he would be diagnosed with PTSD.

It turned out that Kenny’s milk run was really a front for a heroin delivery business. The first time he was told by Kenny to drop some heroin in a letter box he didn’t even know what it was. He had seen needles on the ground in Ballymun when he was growing up but he had never seen heroin. Soon he was regularly delivering heroin and collecting payment.

“I was going out with my uniform and instead of dropping me to school he was bringing me to Ballymun and dropping me to collect and sell.”

Kenny was terrifying. “We could be driving down the road and he could be singing Van Morrison, having a great laugh, and the next thing he’d grab me by the leg and say ‘Imagine watching your sister being in jail’ or he’d just smack you. It was strange; things started to happen for no reason. And I was trying to keep him at ease all the time. Keep the anger down. Smile and nod. Everything I did was trying to keep him happy.”

Outwardly, Kenny was charismatic and likeable. Mary was so fooled by Kenny that even after he and two other milkmen received suspended sentences for heroin dealing in 1999 she believed him when he said he had been framed.

“It reminds me of my husband [Joseph’s father]. People worshiped him, but when he was on his own … You could be sitting there all hunky dory and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it’d be … bang.”

Eventually Kenny got Joseph to move in with him and his family. “The day of my da’s funeral he told my ma I was going to stay with him and I never went home… He was building a shed and he said I was going to be working on the shed for the summer.”

At the time, says Mary, she thought Kenny would keep Joseph out of trouble. In fact, life at Kenny’s house was incredibly dysfunctional. “When I was babysitting his children they’d buy me six cans and 10 fags and a bag of cocaine to sit there minding the kid. [Kenny’s son] was only a baby. I had to stay awake in case he cried and that’s what they’d give me to stay up.”

Sometimes he would create an air of normality, getting everyone dressed up and taking them to Sunday dinner. “And then he’d come home and smash the whole house up. He would beat you and then he’d say sorry and hug you and say, ‘You’re like a son to me’.”

(Kenny’s former partner Rita Harling has also written a book detailing years of abuse she says she suffered at his hands).

After Kenny’s first drugs conviction he was increasingly upwardly mobile in the world of gangland crime. He loved the Sopranos. He began working for the gang boss Martin “Marlo” Hyland in Finglas alongside Alan “Fatpuss” Bradley and his brother Wayne.

“He idolised them,” says O’Callaghan. “He wanted to be like them.”

When they'd come back after a big robbery or after a big shipment came in, they'd all be partying and sniffing coke

When the men committed burglaries they would use O’Callaghan as a diversion. “They’d call the police station and say I had a gun in the car and then they’d get the police to chase me around Finglas or Blanchardstown and they’d be off doing robberies.”

He would be dispatched to collect jeeps full of drugs. He would be sent around the city on a motorbike with heroin strapped over every inch of his body. Gangs regularly use teenagers to ferry drugs. “Everyone kind of had their own,” he says. “But I was a regular where as a lot of them didn’t last too long.”

O’Callaghan says that he was constantly terrified. “When they were happy, you’d be happy,” he says. “When they’d come back after a big robbery or after a big shipment came in, they’d all be partying and sniffing coke, Fatpuss is in the corner thinking he’s a DJ even though he’s s**te ... There’s prostitutes everywhere. They’re all sleeping with each other’s girlfriends.

“Brian’s there with Marlo knocking back Jack Daniels and I’m thinking, ‘Hopefully I’m not getting a hiding tonight. I’m not going to get beaten. I’m not going to get touched in a way I don’t want to be touched.’”

Kenny’s gang associations changed over the years. He stopped working with Hyland and began to work more with Thomas Hinchon, who had a gang in Clondalkin.

O’Callaghan felt continuously trapped. He was using cocaine heavily. He was regularly sexually and physically assaulted by Kenny. He was shot at with guns as a joke. He was beaten with a crowbar.

How could you not go when you knew so much information and knew who the people were that did it

The final straw was when Hinchon and Kenny came home one day and told him that they’d killed Jonathan O’Reilly and to dispose of the bike, gun and other evidence. He hid the gun in a field and then, over the next few days, he worked out how to get out of the house (he was locked in the house at night by Kenny) and he got his sister to collect him. His mother wanted him to go to the Garda.

“It was the right thing to do,” she says now. “Somebody’s life had been taken. Apart from the drugs or the other stuff that happened, there was a family out there who have lost their son. It was the right thing to do. How could you not go when you knew so much information and knew who the people were that did it. Nobody in their right mind could live with that on their conscience.”

He was scared to go at first because Kenny had told him he had friends on the force. But they went, anyway.

Gardaí raided Kenny’s place and O’Callaghan ended up showing them where the gun was hidden in the fields. He felt a twinge of shame when a garda saw his room and asked where his stuff was. All the gangsters had expensive possessions. Joseph O’Callaghan owned nothing.

It turned out that apart from everything else, Kenny had also been claiming rent allowance in O’Callaghan’s name

The court case was terrifying. “People laughed at me in court,” he says. “The courtroom was full when they asked, ‘What did you want to do when you found out what they done to Jonathan O’Reilly?’ I said, ‘I wanted to go back to me ma.’ People laughed in the court. I don’t know what’s so funny about that. I was serious. I wanted to go home to me ma’s the minute I left.”

His eyes well up. “I just wish I never got the job.”

Overseas move

O’Callaghan liked most of the gardaí who undertook the investigation but is very critical of what came afterwards. Despite suggesting, he says, that he could go somewhere in Ireland with his mother, they ended up sending him overseas alone. He’s also unhappy with the therapist who was assigned to him, feeling she didn’t help him sufficiently.

At home his family had to put up with harassment, though Mary downplays it.

“Your windows got put through,” says O’Callaghan. “Yeah the windows,” she says. “And once or twice it was said to me, ‘Your son is a rat.’ The type of person that I am … I just hold my head up high and take it on the chin.”

Overseas and all alone, O’Callaghan spiralled into addiction and despair, unable to talk to anyone about what he had been through and ultimately living on the equivalent of a social welfare payment.

From 2009 to 2015 I was just moving from place to place, in addiction, trying to stay alive

The family of Jonathan O’Reilly sent him a lovely letter, which he wasn’t allowed to hold on to, but he did keep a small picture of Jonathan in his wallet. He shows it to me. When he was alone and living abroad, he would talk to the picture, he says. “He was all I had.”

Eventually it got too much for him. “I was sectioned. I cut my wrists, took overdoses. I was just killing myself. My ma came and got me then… Took me back to the flat [in Ireland]... It was actually the safest place to be. Nobody would have expected me to go there.”

The Witness Protection Programme people weren’t happy about him returning to Ireland. They told him that they couldn’t help him anymore. “So basically from 2009 to 2015 I was just moving from place to place, in addiction, trying to stay alive.”

Large sums of money have been offered to people for information about his whereabouts. Some people he knew were even approached. At one point he was beaten and stabbed when recognised.

O’Callaghan’s solicitor ultimately convinced the State to pay for him to be sent to a rehabilitation centre, which he credits with his good mental health today. He worked through some of his trauma and learned some basic life skills. He learned to stop being frightened all the time.

In recent years he has had a socially useful job (“I’d done enough bad to the community by giving drugs out”), friends, a good relationship with his family (including two children he had when he was in his teens) and for five years he had a boyfriend. That was difficult, he says, because he constantly worried that his partner might be hurt or killed.

Fear and guilt

He does not say where or in what country he is now living. What’s life like for him now? “I always say to people, ‘When you look at the bushes, you see the bushes. When I look at the bushes, I look through the bushes.’ I’m always watching. But I used to be constantly terrified – now I have a small bit of fear. It’s good to have a small bit … Nobody knows about my background.

“I can’t plan. I never plan ahead. I don’t tell people I’m going somewhere because someone could sell you out. If I’m meeting my ma, we change the plan three or four times to make sure she’s not being followed.

“As long as Kenny and Hinchon and me are still breathing, it’s till death do us part. [Kenny’s] in an open prison. He’ll be out in the next year or two. There’s probably a 70 per cent chance I’m going to die with a bullet in my head. But I try and enjoy life. I look after myself. I cook. I pay my bills. I have a career. I work very hard.”

I think he'd have killed me eventually. I think I'd have ended up in the field [where] everything else was

There are things in the book that haven’t been in the public record before. While working on the book was therapeutic, he is also anxious about it. “I couldn’t sleep last night and I was out running at half six this morning. The other night I thought he was in the bedroom. I think my sleep will be all over the place for a while until the book is actually out.

“The truth has to be told, because people need to know what happened,” says Mary. “And I hope he’ll be happy then and gets some sort of closure because he needs that.” Her voice cracks. “The guilt will always stay with me. I wish I could just make it all go away and give him back his childhood.”

What does O’Callaghan think would have happened if he had stayed with Kenny and not gone to the Garda? “I think he’d have killed me eventually. I think I’d have ended up in the field [where] everything else was.”

Does he ever regret testifying? “I can’t regret it. Every time I meet Dolores [Jonathan O’Reilly’s mother] I see the peace I brought that family. They’ve been amazing.”

How did he feel when eventually visiting Jonathan’s grave, several years ago? “I felt like the world slipped off my shoulders. I was there for hours. I couldn’t leave. I definitely did the right thing. I do not regret it. If I had to do it again tomorrow, I would.”

The Witness by Nicola Tallant is published by Mirror Books and in shops from September 3rd.