State Papers: Garda killer’s 1985 death sentence commuted

Cabinet thinking on Michael McHugh revealed in Michael Noonan’s memo

Details of a government decision to commute the death sentence of a “highly intelligent” man who murdered a garda in 1985 are contained in one of the files released under the 30-year rule.

In December 1985, the cabinet was asked by then minister for justice Michael Noonan to commute the death sentence imposed on Michael McHugh for the murder of Sgt Patrick Morrissey in Ardee, Co Louth, in June of that year.

McHugh and his co-accused Noel Callan were released from prison late last year after serving 30 years, even though their death sentences were commuted on the basis that they would serve a full 40 years without remission.

Fired a shot

Noonan’s memo to cabinet described how on the morning of June 27th, 1985, McHugh and Callan robbed £28,288 from the employment office in Ardee and escaped in the manager’s car.


The gunmen fired a shot inside the office before making off. A shot was also fired at a passing Garda patrol car with two uniformed gardaí in it.

Meanwhile, Sgt Morrissey, who had driven in his own car from his station at Callan to Ardee for the District Court sittings, heard of the events and joined his two uniformed colleagues in the patrol car, according to the memorandum.

The three gardaí gave chase. Having found out that the stolen car had not yet passed through Tallanstown, they set up a checkpoint.

Shortly afterwards, two men riding a motorcycle crashed through the checkpoint at speed.

They were chased by the gardaí and the motorcycle crashed into a car at nearby Rathbrist crossroads.

“Two gardaí ran to the assistance of the driver of the car and Sgt Morrissey set off after the raiders who had run towards Rathbrist House.

He pursued them up the driveway of the house and called on them to stop.

Shot him in the face

“Michael McHugh turned and fired, wounding Sgt Morrissey in the leg. As the sergeant lay on the ground one of the gunmen shouted at him to get up.

The sergeant was unable to do so. As he tried to prop himself up, McHugh shot him in the face,” said the memo.

A note on McHugh in the memorandum was partly redacted by the Department of the Taoiseach on November 1st, this year on the grounds that it could cause distress, defamation or danger to living persons and could represent a breach of statutory duty or information given in confidence.

A large force of gardaí backed by the Army and Air Corps began a major search and Callan was found hiding in a ditch. A short time later McHugh was arrested in a barley field.

Sentenced to death

The two were found guilty of the capital murder of Sgt Morrissey at the Special

Criminal Court

on December 3rd and sentenced to death. The date for their execution was fixed as December 27th.

Callan appealed the sentenced but McHugh refused to lodge an appeal.

“From his defiant attitude towards the court after being sentenced, when he gave a clenched fist salute, the indications are that he is unlikely to do so,” said the memo.

It added that McHugh, a native of Crossmaglen, Co Armagh, was regarded as being “highly intelligent and reckless in the extreme when committing crime”.

Noonan’s memo pointed out that in each of the four cases where the death sentence had been imposed for murdering a garda in the years before 1985 the president, on the advice of the government, had commuted the sentence to 40 years penal servitude.

“The government decision to advise the president to commute the sentence was arrived at on the understanding that the full 40 years be served without remission,” said the memo.

Both men had their sentences commuted to 40 years.

In 2013, Callan took a case to the Supreme Court and won a decision to have a quarter of his sentence remitted. McHugh automatically benefited from the same decision.

McHugh was released from Portlaoise Prison on December 1st after serving 30 years. Callan was freed from Castlerea Prison the day before.

The family of Sgt Morrissey, who was the father of four children, strongly criticised the decision to allow his killers to walk free 10 years ahead of schedule.

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins is a columnist with and former political editor of The Irish Times

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan is Features Editor of The Irish Times