Garda murderers freed from jail after three decades

Martin McHugh and Noel Callan shot Sgt Patrick Morrissey dead in Louth in 1985

Two men convicted of murdering a Garda sergeant in a botched armed robbery in Co Louth 30 years ago have been released from prison after a legal battle.

Armagh man Martin McHugh and Noel Callan, from Co Monaghan, were convicted by the Special Criminal Court in December 1985 of the murder of Sgt Patrick Morrissey (49) at Rathbrist, Tallanstown, on June 27th, 1985, following an armed robbery at Ardee Labour Exchange.

McHugh was released from Portlaoise Prison on Tuesday while Callan was freed from Castlerea Prison on Monday.

Sgt Morrissey was initially wounded by McHugh, before he shot the unarmed garda in the head.


The men were sentenced to death, later commuted by the president on advice of the government to 40 years penal servitude, as is standard in cases where gardaí have been murdered.

Callan earlier this year secured the right to avail of 25 per cent remission, an automatic entitlement of every prisoner in the system. While sometimes referred to as “time off for good behaviour”, it is not dependent on conduct in prison and does not have to be earned.

Death sentence

The State did not believe Callan was entitled to the remission, arguing he was in a special category of prisoner because he had been initially sentenced to death. The State had ultimately argued before the Supreme Court that Callan was not serving a "sentence" at all but rather "a commutation". The State argued commutation was granted on the basis of no remission.

Callan lost his case in the High Court but his Supreme Court appeal was successful. The ruling meant the Supreme Court declared him to be a prisoner serving a sentence of imprisonment to whom 25 per cent automatic remission applied under the Prison Rules.

Once he had secured that ruling his 40-year jail term was reduced to 30 years and he was due for release at the start of this month. And because McHugh was convicted of the same crime, he benefitted from the ruling in the Callan case. He also had his sentence reduced by 25 per cent with a release date of early December.

McHugh took a case recently seeking immediate release on the basis he should have been credited with time he served in prison awaiting trial but was unsuccessful.

Callan was aged 22 when convicted and McHugh was then aged 23.

The robbery the men carried out was instigated by McHugh, who approached his younger colleague with his idea to rob the Ardee Labour Exchange. Once they had taken £25,000, the pair fled the scene in the manager’s car before switching to a motorbike.

The plan quickly went awry. Sgt Morrissey (49) pursued the two men as they made their escape, and at a place called Rathbrist Cross they crashed the motorbike into an oncoming car, leaving Callan injured.

He made his way up a laneway to a farmhouse; as he reached the house he heard a shot. About two or three minutes passed. Then he heard a second shot.

The men’s trial heard the first shot was fired by McHugh and hit Sgt Morrissey in the leg. After what the trial judge described as “an appreciable interval”, McHugh walked up to the injured garda and shot him in the head.

Both men were convicted of murder because they had set out with common design to carry out that raid and so both shared equal responsibility for the outcome of their conspiracy.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times