A Ballaghaderreen solicitor’s spectacular fall from grace

Declan O’Callaghan and his wife were seen as pillars of community before finances came under scrutiny

Declan O’Callaghan  photographed in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Declan O’Callaghan photographed in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

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There is a joke doing the rounds in Ballaghaderreen. “What does it cost to post a letter in Ballagh?” goes the opening line. “Ohhh, around €1,800,” goes the answer.

It is a joke well known in the locality in recent weeks and months but it’s doubtful if either the Gallagher family of Ballaghaderreen, or Tracey Connolly, a widow with three young sons living near the Roscommon town, think there’s much to laugh about whenever they hear it.

The true target of it is Declan O’Callaghan and his wife, Mary Devine-O’Callaghan, known locally as “Mary Two Names”. In a town of just 1,800 people, the couple are probably its best-known husband-and-wife team.

Declan runs Ballaghaderreen’s most visible and, until very recently almost certainly the largest, solicitor’s practice in the town, Kilrane O’Callaghan & Co, which has offices on Pound Street. Mary, a local power-broker within Fianna Fáil and (until recently) one of the party’s two honorary national treasurers, was the firm’s office manager.

Declan dealt with clients and court business; Mary ran the office.

The unravelling of Declan O’Callaghan’s reputation began 9,600km from Roscommon when a quad-bike overturned on an Indian Ocean island

But as of last month, Declan O’Callaghan has been stripped by the High Court of the right to practise as a solicitor, or even to hold himself out as a solicitor, pending a full inquiry by the Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal of the Law Society, the solicitors’ professional body.

As part of the same High Court order, Mary Devine-O’Callaghan has been removed as the firm’s cheque signer.

This spectacular fall from grace is the talk of Ballaghaderreen. Most people express a mixture of shock and anger, but the feelings are laced, too, with a sense of communal shame and embarrassment – that a solicitor of such unrivalled local prominence should have acted as he is now known to have, and that no one suspected anything was amiss . . .

The unravelling of Declan O’Callaghan’s reputation began 9,600km from Roscommon when a quad-bike overturned on an Indian Ocean island.

John Paul Gallagher from Bóthar Buí in Ballaghaderreen was in his early 30s and had been living in Madagascar for a few years. He was there as an electrical contractor. By April 2014, the job was winding down. Gallagher was looking forward to taking up a new job on North Sea oil rig. The move would bring him closer to home and to his long-term partner, Erin, who was expecting their first child and living in Scotland.

In the meantime, however, Gallagher intended to enjoy his final days on the adventure-filled tropical island off the coast of Mozambique. On Friday April 25th, 2014, he and a few pals hired quad-bikes, a popular choice for holidaymakers. On rough terrain, however, something went wrong. Gallagher’s bike overturned, throwing him off it and fatally injuring him.

Word filtered back to Roscommon in the coming days. His parents, Tom and Kathleen, brothers Michael and Peter, and sister Pamela, plus all his friends back home, were devastated, a sorrow shared by locals. John Paul Gallagher’s death, at such a young age, and so far from home, was all the more poignant when, about six weeks later, Erin gave birth to their son. Two weeks after the crash, John Paul was buried in Kilcolman Cemetery after a well-attended funeral Mass in Ballaghaderreen’s St Nathy’s Cathedral.

Led campaign

St Nathy’s looms large in the life of Declan O’Callaghan – and he in the life of the church. He successfully led the fundraising campaign to restore the cathedral a decade ago. His role in such an important project for the church and the community was hardly surprising, given his profile in the town.

He is on the board of both the local secondary school, St Nathy’s College, adjacent to the cathedral and under the patronage of the Bishop of Achonry, as well as the board of the local Catholic primary school, St Attracta’s. He is an active member of Castlemore-Kilcolman parish, regularly filling a slot in the five-week rotating prayer-reading roster. He was due to read at last Sunday’s 8am Mass but did not.

Until recently, he chaired the Council for the West, which seeks to promote Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Mayo, Galway and Clare. Ten bishops are numbered among its patrons.

He is a director of Developing the West Together, the Ballaghaderreen & Districts Development Company, which he has chaired for more than 20 years, Family Counselling and Therapy (Achonry) Limited and Ballaghaderreen Secretarial Services Limited – the last three of which share a Pound Street address with his legal firm.

He owned that court. Nine out of 10 cases here would have been his 

Enhancing O’Callaghan’s prominent profile was his wife’s political activities. The pair helped run the local information and publicity website, ballaghaderreen.com, which Mrs O’Callaghan helped moderate.

Mary Devine-O’Callaghan comes from Frenchpark where her father, Ray Devine, was a butcher. Ray Devine was a committed member of Fianna Fáil and right-hand man to Seán Doherty, the notorious late justice minister whose powerbase was Boyle. After decades of grassroots political activism, her father’s funeral in February 2013 drew a huge crowd. Among the attendees was businessman Denis O’Brien, an admirer, apparently, of Mary Devine’s brother, Fr Patrick Devine, a missionary in East Africa.

Mary Devine took her (political) cue from her father – and greatly exceeded his status within Fianna Fáil. She became the local constituency organiser, wielding sufficient influence when it came to who would run (and who would not) on the party’s general election ticket. Local activism catapulted her onto the Ardcomhairle, the party’s ruling national executive, and she became joint national treasurer of the party (with Limerick TD and accountant Niall Collins). Her status within Fianna Fáil had sufficient clout to get Micheál Martin to visit Ballaghaderreen.

Qualified

Mary Devine and Declan O’Callaghan met in the mid-1980s, not long after Declan qualified as a solicitor in 1983, working initially in a practice in Mohill, Co Leitrim. The couple married and in 1987 Declan set up his own legal firm, Declan O’Callaghan & Co, with a registered address in Ballaghaderreen to where they moved, buying a substantial house, Ardeeven, on the Sligo Road. Over the succeeding years, the couple built up a property portfolio. It included several properties in Ballaghaderreen (at least two adjoining Ardeeven, one of them the former home of musician Matt Molloy’s parents), several more in other counties and a villa in the Algarve.

In January 2005, the couple obtained planning permission for a vast extension to Ardeeven after which the house appeared to double in size to include, according to informed sources, a cinema, sauna, library and snooker room.

Away from the O’Callaghan family home, on the far side of Ballaghaderreen stands the source of much of his wealth: a two-storey, solid-looking rough-cut sandstone building peering straight down Main Street. On the left end is the local office of Roscommon Council and on the right end, the Garda station. In between stands the courthouse, filled with wooden benches and exuding an air of 19th century, slightly Dickensian severity.

On the far side of Ballaghaderreen stands the source of much of O’Callaghan's wealth: a two-storey, solid-looking rough-cut sandstone building peering straight down Main Street. On the left end is the local office of Roscommon Council and on the right end, the Garda station. In between stands the courthouse, filled with wooden benches and exuding an air of 19th century, slightly Dickensian severity. Photograph: Google
On the far side of Ballaghaderreen stands the source of much of O’Callaghan's wealth: a two-storey, solid-looking rough-cut sandstone building peering straight down Main Street. On the left end is the local office of Roscommon Council and on the right end, the Garda station. In between stands the courthouse, filled with wooden benches and exuding an air of 19th century, slightly Dickensian severity. Photograph: Google

“He owned that court,” said one of several local legal sources who spoke about O’Callaghan on condition they were not identified. “Nine out of 10 cases here would have been his.” Behind the facade of wealth, power, influence and high status within the community, all was not well, however.

The Irish Times has established that in the early 1990s, an audit of Declan O’Callaghan’s affairs, carried out by Jim O’Dowd, a chartered accountant and investigator who works for the Law Society, prompted the society to take action. According to sources familiar with events, O’Dowd found that O’Callaghan had obtained credit under false pretences – by obtaining, from three separate lending institutions, three mortgages, amounting collectively to some IR£100,000, and all on a single undertaking. There was also evidence of numerous other breaches to Law Society rules regarding client accounts. The ledger account (the written record of client monies held) did not match what was in the bank. The Law Society disciplinary body held an inquiry and, in lieu of striking O’Callaghan off the solicitors’ registry (known as the roll), recommended to Mr Justice Liam Hamilton, then president of the High Court, that he be curtailed professionally.

By order on March 22nd, 1991, O’Callaghan’s certificate was limited to allowing him practise as a solicitor only under a more senior and experienced solicitor of good standing, for a period of three years. The idea of this system is that the errant solicitor is mentored back to proper behaviour. O’Callaghan was made foot the bill for the tribunal that heard his case and, after serving his restricted three years (the Law Society did not, but could have, examined him further), severed ties with his mentoring solicitor and resumed practice as the principal of his own firm, Kilrane O’Callaghan of Pound Street. It was some 20 years before the wheels came off again.

O’Callaghan tried to explain the deductions of €344,000 – a whopping 76 per cent of a child’s inheritance – as accumulated costs and fees

After John Paul Gallagher’s death in Madagascar in April 2014 and the birth of his and his partner’s baby, the dead man’s estate (which belonged as of right to his newborn son) was handled by Declan O’Callaghan. According to well-placed legal sources familiar with the case, a large part of the estate was accounted for by an insurance policy. Whatever the source of the money coming into Kilrane O’Callaghan, and into the client account supposedly administered ultimately on behalf of the baby, some of it soon began to flow out.

According to sources familiar with what was going on, about 100 transactions were made involving the baby Gallagher’s money in sums ranging, generally but not exclusively, for amounts below €10,000.

Of €454,000 held in the child’s name, €344,000 was removed between 2014 and 2017. While this was going on, the public face of Kilrane O’Callaghan projected an entirely different profile of solid professionalism and respectability.

In May 2017, Declan and Mary’s daughter Aoife O’Callaghan (herself a solicitor) married. A lavish reception was held in Lough Rynn Castle Estate and Gardens hotel. Country singer Mike Denver and his band (“the best band for dancing” his proud boast) played for, it is understood, a five-figure fee, and there was an open bar. A la carte dining at the hotel currently stands at €65 per person.

On Monday, May 8th, Roscommon Racecourse played host to the Kilrane O’Callaghan & Company Solicitors Handicap – seven horses chasing a total purse of €12,000. The winning horse was named Bottle of Smoke. But around this time, the Law Society took a look inside Kilrane O’Callaghan and Jim O’Dowd (the same forensic accountant who examined O’Callaghan some two decades previously) didn’t like what he saw.

Client account

In any solicitor’s practice, a client account is sacrosanct, its contents, money held on trust, inviolable and never to be removed or spent without authority. The ledger must always balance. Kilrane O’Callaghan’s books did not balance.

Initially, O’Callaghan acknowledged discrepancies, matters he would later insist to the High Court were mere technicalities. But O’Dowd didn’t believe him. O’Callaghan tried to explain the deductions of €344,000 – a whopping 76 per cent of a child’s inheritance – as accumulated costs and fees.

According to a retrospectively constructed timesheet, the alleged fees included one for €1,800 for sending a letter to a barrister and, extraordinarily, one for €1,600 – for receiving a letter from a barrister (hence, the Ballaghaderreen joke about the cost of posting a letter). A lump sum of €50,000 was taken without authorisation, the alleged cost of examining whether there were grounds to sue anyone in relation to John Paul Gallagher’s fatal accident. But no such case was ever taken. A sum of €8,000 was taken for, allegedly, researching and drafting on an issue where he had no instructions to do so.

“It [the timesheet] was the creation of a time sheet to try to justify the level of costs billed, which were billed without authority, without notifying the client, and I would say at a level 10 times beyond what would be a decent fee for an average solicitor,” said a solicitor familiar with O’Dowd’s findings.

In April 2018, the Law Society initiated proceedings against Declan O’Callaghan in the High Court, resulting in various hearings, mentions and adjournments over the succeeding months. The process was of particular interest to Tracey Connolly when she became aware of it. Tracey’s husband, Craig Connolly, was a fitness enthusiast and co-owner of Fullbody Workhouse, a gym in Roscommon town. As Tracey later recalled, on Saturday morning, February 27th 2017, Craig said goodbye to her and their three young boys, Fíonn, Rían & Sénan, and was not seen alive again. “He never came back to us,” she said in a promotional video for a memorial walk for him.

Declan O’Callaghan runs Ballaghaderreen’s most visible and, until very recently almost certainly the largest, solicitor’s practice in the town, Kilrane O’Callaghan & Co. Photograph: Google
Declan O’Callaghan runs Ballaghaderreen’s most visible and, until very recently almost certainly the largest, solicitor’s practice in the town, Kilrane O’Callaghan & Co. Photograph: Google

Craig, though only 36, died of natural causes after suffering a heart attack. In due course, his estate for his widowed partner and their three boys was valued at €396,100. Like the Gallagher estate, the Connolly estate was handled by Declan O’Callaghan. Between August 2017 and November 2017, as Tracey and Craig’s friends were planning the February 2018 walk to raise funds for Croí, the heart and stroke charity, and Crumlin Children’s Hospital, €101,000 was withdrawn from the O’Callaghan managed account in which the inheritance was held. During the period the money was removed, O’Callaghan had authorisation to deduct just €21,000 in fees from the account, the High Court later heard. The €101,000 that was taken amounted to 26 per cent of Tracey and her children’s inheritance.

Learning of the case against O’Callaghan prompted Tracey Connolly to contact the authorities and swear an affidavit describing her relationship with the law firm and what she had authorised to happen – and what she had not. It was filed with the High Court on July 24th and appears to have had a salutary effect on Declan O’Callaghan who up to then was fighting to keep his solicitor’s certificate, his practice . . . and his reputation.

The so-called fees charged on John Paul Gallagher’s estate were branded “extortionate” by an independent solicitor who assessed what Jim O’Dowd had discovered. The fees bore no relation to work carried out and involved, in the solicitor’s view, “dishonesty”. In late May, O’Callaghan agreed to return some €80,000 to Tracey Connolly, admitting what he termed a “technical breach” in his taking the €101,000. In June, the High Court was told O’Callaghan had paid the €344,000 back; it was lodged into an account controlled by an independent solicitor, pending return to the estate of John Paul Gallagher. On July 30th, the High Court and O’Callaghan ceased resisting efforts to carry on. He did not oppose the suspension order sought by the Law Society and which was granted by Mr Justice Peter Kelly.

Not struck off

Under the order, O’Callaghan is prohibited from being a solicitor or applying for a practising certificate (though he was not struck off the register); he is banned from holding himself out to be a solicitor; and banned also from involvement in another legal firm which the judge said should not be identified by the media.

The final determination as to whether O’Callaghan remains thus prohibited, is restored to full status or is struck off the register completely depends on the outcome of the disciplinary hearing into his conduct.

Mr Justice Kelly also ordered that by September 10th, O’Callaghan must lodge €350,000 from his personal account into his firm’s client account; and the judge told him also to cash in a life policy and pay the proceeds into the client account.

A Law Society nominee, solicitor Brendan Steen has taken over the running of Kilrane O’Callaghan and only he was allowed sign any documents on behalf of the firm. Mary Devine-O’Callaghan has been replaced as practice manager by Mr Steen and Aoife O’Callaghan.

The judge said it was possible that Aoife O’Callaghan and her sister, Eimear, also a solicitor, could take over the practice once the matters under investigation were concluded. The Irish Times understands that close to 40 such matters, including the Gallaghar and Connolly cases, have been unearthed in the O’Dowd investigation and its fallout. People in Ballaghaderreen talk of there being more . . .

When approached at his home by The Irish Times and asked whether Mr or Mrs O’Callaghan would like to explain what had been “going on in the firm”, Declan O’Callaghan replied: “I would certainly not.”

He added: “That’s a matter of public record, what’s going on in the firm. It has been in court and has been dealt with. . .”

Told that some people were claiming to have lost money, he said: “There’s no client that has lost in our practice. Not at all. No question of that. It’s a question of a matter in relation to fees that were refunded to two clients and that’s it. There’s no question of any client being at any loss.”

Asked why money was not handled correctly in the practice, Mr O’Callaghan replied: “I’ve no other comment to make in relation to the matter. The matter has been before the courts, affidavits have been filed. I’ve set out my position and the matter. . . “I’ve retired from practice now. My practice has been transferred to my daughters.”

The case is back in the High Court on October 8th.

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