It is slightly astonishing that the death in 1985 of Fr Niall Molloy has not been seized upon by the true crime industry. The case, which comes with whisperings of a conspiracy and of long-buried secrets, feels like natural territory for a long-form podcast in which the narrator inserts themselves in the story. Or a Netflix series padded out with extraneous information about the town where he died, Clara, Co Offaly.
All this may yet come to pass. But for now RTÉ has taken a sombre, old-school approach with its documentary about the Molloy case. And yet, for all the lack of sensation, the events chronicled in The Killing of Father Niall Molloy (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm) feel almost too extraordinary to have actually happened.
In the first of two episodes, the facts – as known – are calmly set out. In July 1985, gardaí were called to the Clara home of wealthy couple, Richard and Therese Flynn.
The body of 52-year-old Fr Molloy lay in an upstairs bedroom. He had arrived late at a Flynn family wedding attended by the great and good of Irish society. Among the A-listers in Clara were Fianna Fáil politician Brian Lenihan snr, who poured his own pint upon finding the barman otherwise occupied.
Lenihan and other guests were long gone when gardaí walked in. There were signs of a struggle, including blood on the carpet. And there was a suspect. Richard Flynn said he had struck Molloy when a row about going downstairs to fetch drinks boiled over.
Flynn was charged with manslaughter and actual bodily harm. At trial, his barrister argued Fr Molloy could have potentially suffered acute heart failure not related to his injuries. Shortly afterwards, the judge directed that the jury return a not-guilty verdict. And yet at the subsequent coroner’s inquest it was ruled that Fr Molloy died from trauma to the head.
Ever since there have been mutterings. Those will be unpacked in part two. Episode one starts at the beginning.
Molloy had a privileged upbringing in Georgian Carrowroe House, portrayed here as Co Roscommon’s answer to Hyannis Port . “When I saw a programme about the Kennedys, it reminded me of that time,” recalls one of his nieces.
Molloy’s passion for horses seemingly led him to develop a fast friendship with the Flynns, Therese in particular. The relationship was strictly platonic. But following his death there were the inevitable unsubstantiated rumours – as well as the suggestion that Fr Molloy had been a “playboy” figure, too fond of material pursuits.
More substantial was speculation that Molloy was owed significant sums of money. “Niall had been in contact with the solicitor on a number of occasions,” says nephew Henry McCourt. “[He was] very concerned about his finances and money that was due to him. Gardaí were made aware of that fact.”
Therese said she had no recollections of the circumstances in which the priest had died. But after the criminal trial Fr Molloy’s family claimed that there had been an appalling miscarriage of justice. “I’m shocked and abhorred, as a nephew but also as an Irishman, that our system of justice can work in such a manner,” said his nephew Ian Maher in 1985.
Today the case is kept alive by another nephew, Bill Maher. Each year he returns to his uncle’s grave for a memorial service. He breaks down discussing his campaign for justice and for closure. It is a reminder that crimes from the relatively distant past can leave scars that will never heal. And that the Molloy family will not rest easily until the truth is revealed.
“It’s a sad journey back here every year,” says Maher. “Another year, still battling on. I’m getting old. I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing it. But I’ll keep doing it. It has to be done.”