On the night of February 13th, 1923, a couple were observed leaving a newborn baby and some baby clothes on the doorstep of a house near St Mary’s Chapel of Ease, better known as the Black Church, in Dublin’s Broadstone.
The couple hurried away from the scene in the direction of Broadstone railway station with the intention of taking a late train to Leitrim.
Having a child out of wedlock was regarded then as a mortal sin and a public disgrace. In the days before a comprehensive social welfare system, abandoned babies, or “foundlings”, as they were known, were not uncommon, though the practice was dying out in the early part of the 20th century.
In their haste to get away from the scene, the pair did not notice that they were being followed by three women from a tenement in nearby Rutland Square (now Parnell Square) who saw them acting suspiciously. It seemed odd, they noted, that he looked a lot older than her and she was very badly dressed and distressed.
When the three women saw the baby being abandoned they raised a hue and cry. A civic guard arrived on the scene and arrested the pair.
The couple turned out to be Fr Edward Ryans, a 36-year-old Catholic priest from Aughavas, Co Leitrim, who was a well-known republican, and his housekeeper Mary Kate Gallogly, who was 19.
The incident would lead directly to a murder on the streets of Mohill, Co Leitrim, five weeks later.
The death of Dr Paddy Muldoon on March 18th, 1923, shocked Ireland at a time towards the latter end of the Civil War when bloodshed on the streets was common.
Though Dr Muldoon was a medical doctor for the National Army, he also treated those from the anti-Treaty side. The man who most likely pulled the trigger was a notorious anti-Treaty IRA agitator John Charles Keegan, who terrorised the people of south Leitrim for a time during the Civil War.
Yet the murder was only tangentially about the Civil War. It was, instead, about lust, deceit and revenge.
Dr Muldoon had emerged from a game of cards at the parish priest’s house when three men wearing trench coats approached him. Two fired at him at close range. He slumped in the middle of the road and was pronounced dead by a fellow doctor.
Nobody was ever convicted of his murder, but there is little doubt now that it was Ryans who ordered the shooting of someone who knew too much about the circumstances of his housekeeper’s pregnancy.
The book The Murder of Dr Muldoon was published in 2019 and its authors Ken Boyle and Tim Desmond had access to documents related to the case that were not in the public domain before. The case was also the subject of a RTÉ Radio documentary, An Unholy Trinity, first broadcast in 2017.
The story began with a stormy meeting in a house in Cloone, Co Leitrim, on January 17th, 1923. Present were Dr Muldoon and his wife Rita Ryans and two other priests. The meeting was called to discuss the crisis pregnancy of Mary Kate Gallogly.
At that meeting Fr Ryans produced an automatic pistol and began waving it around. “Fr R informed guests and especially Dr. M and myself that the weapon would account for 12 men,” Rita Muldoon later wrote in a contemporaneous account. Quite why Ryans, who already had a reputation for violence, resorted to such measures was not explained, but the inference was clear – Dr Muldoon knew the priest was the father of the child.
Ryans went on trial in Dublin for abandonment of the child, but the jury failed to reach a verdict. His co-defendant, Gallogly, never appeared alongside him. She had been sent to a detention centre for women run by the Free State army in Athlone and then to a lunatic asylum.
Rita Muldoon’s life was never the same again, but she doggedly pursued justice and truth for her late husband. “Rita had begun 1923 as a happily married Leitrim doctor’s wife, but had finished the year a widow,” the authors observed.
Ryans was released from jail in December 1923 having served time for the abandonment, but he never stood trial for murder.
In 1924 he asked the local anti-Treaty IRA to conduct an investigation into Dr Muldoon’s murder. To nobody’s surprise his erstwhile comrades exonerated Ryans and said Muldoon and his companion had been mistaken in the dim light for “(Free) Staters in mufti” and his shooting had been an “unavoidable accident”.
Ryans belief that this would vindicate his reputation had the opposite effect. Rita Muldoon wrote to all the Irish newspapers. “My husband’s death was not the result of an unavoidable accident, but a carefully planned, cruel, callous murder,” she pointed out.
The Muldoon murder became a microcosm of the new State. Both Éamon de Valera and Sean Lemass were involved. Lemass, a shrewd judge of character, was not convinced by Ryans protestations of innocence, though he believed the gulf in evidence was such that the case should simply be dropped. Frank Aiken, Kevin O’Higgins, Richard Mulcahy and General Sean Mac Éoin were all involved in one way or another.
There can be no mistake that the tragic death of Dr Muldoon was instigated by Ryans who still professes to save souls
This, though, was not a facile morality tale about the shortcomings of the new State. Though the Catholic Church held an iron grip on faith and morals, Ryans did not get away with his crime even though he never faced justice for the murder.
He left Ireland in disgrace in 1926 for the US to join many other Irish people in the post-Civil War period who were fleeing their pasts. He eventually ended up as a priest in Morecombe, Lancaster, in England, but even then he could not escape his past.
He was tracked down and confronted by Thomas William Muldoon, a nephew of the slain doctor. Thomas William posted handbills around the church. “There can be no mistake that the tragic death of Dr Muldoon was instigated by Ryans who still professes to save souls,” the handbill stated. Ryans eventually died in 1964 in exile.
Gallogly appears to have had a happier life. She married a local man in 1933 and they had a child in 1940. She eventually emigrated to the US.
Rita Muldoon was fortunate that she came from a relatively wealthy Clifden family and moved back there to live with her four children. She never remarried and died in 1953.
Dr Muldoon’s grandson Malcolm Donnelly recalled knowing her when he was a child on holidays in Co Galway. “She was a nice-looking woman but she aged quite badly. She always dressed in black.”
The people of Mohill and the local historical society will remember Dr Muldoon at an event on the centenary of his death on Saturday, March 18th, by retracing his final footsteps. Historian Dr Pádraig McGarthy will deliver a talk and a plaque will be unveiled to serve as a permanent reminder to the terrible events of 100 years ago.