Declan Flynn: The Fairview Park murder that ignited the Irish Pride movement

One unseasonably warm evening in September 1982, The Rollers had one aim: to rid Fairview Park of “steamers”. Their crusade ended in a brutal murder that would change gay Ireland forever.

An old photo of Declan Flynn - a dark haired man with a slight smile

Temperatures languished in the high teens in the early hours of Friday September 9, 1982. It was unseasonably warm. While 32 year-old, dark-haired, stocky, Declan Flynn chatted to his friend Leigh Arundale in the Italian owned Fairview Grill, across in the park a gang of local youths – Robert Armstrong, 18; Anthony Maher, 18; Colm Donovan, 17; Patrick Kavanagh, 18 and a 14 year-old minor, who for legal reasons cannot be named – policed the tree-lined pathway parallel to the street. Their self-imposed remit… to rid Fairview Park of queers.

This Dublin neighbourhood gang, known as The Rollers, had patrolled the park for a period of about six weeks, and claimed to have cleared 150 homosexuals from the area since the previous summer. Their modus operandi involved hiding behind trees while one of the group sat on a nearby bench in an isolated area, waiting to be approached. 

A few of the gang claimed they had bashed “20 steamers” in the weeks leading up to September 9. Their first attack on that tragic night failed. That potential victim was armed with a knife and when they chased him he escaped, running on to North Strand Road. Their second victim, Declan Flynn wasn’t so well prepared or lucky. 

A few of the gang claimed they had bashed “20 steamers” in the weeks leading up to September 9.

Patrick Kavanagh, a former junior Dublin GAA player, sat as bait on the bench. The others hid behind trees with sticks, broken from the low branches of nearby trees. The gang alleged Declan Flynn sat down on the bench beside Patrick Kavanagh. Later while giving evidence, the 14 year-old claimed Flynn “put his hands on the fellow’s (Kavanagh’s) privates”. He also added: “I couldn’t see too clearly because it was so dark”. Robert Armstrong claimed he saw the two begin to scuffle and Kavanagh shouted, “Get the bastard!”

Declan Flynn ran across the grass towards the lit roadway. Ten yards from the roadway, opposite the still open Fairview Grill, one of the gang tripped Flynn up and set upon him, beating him with sticks, kicking him in the head, back and stomach until, according to the 14 year-old, someone shouted, “Scatter!” The gang split up and left a mortally wounded Declan Flynn lying on his side. 

John Sheridan, then a member of the Air Corps, and his friend Colm McGrane were walking home from town when they noticed an excited Robert Armstrong near Fairview Park. When they spoke to him they saw blood on his hands. Armstrong led the two men to where Declan Flynn lay injured, not far from the monument commemorating republican Seán Russell, a Fairview resident and leader of the Irish Youth Army. 

“I saw a shadow on the ground, but nearer, saw it was a man,” Sheridan testified later. “There was a slight gurgling noise.” Nearby, Sheridan and McGrane noticed some bottles, a stick and blood stains. Armstrong left the park as soon as he pointed out the body to Sheridan and McGrane. They tried to lift Declan Flynn but he was too heavy. They then left the park and attempted to call an ambulance. It was now 1.30am. Noticing a Garda car parked nearby, outside the old Fairview Cinema, they approached Gardaí Patrick Doyle and Declan Doherty. Together they went into the park.

Meanwhile, at nearby North Strand Fire Station, crew members Martin Le Strange and Jeremiah Kennedy had just returned to base from an ambulance case. At 1.45am, they were standing in the hallway when somebody called to the front door and told them an ambulance was needed in the park. Three minutes later a Garda escorted both men to where Flynn was lying on the grass, near the hedging to the left of the bandstand. 

“I remember it well,” Martin Le Strange says. “It was my first bad case, my first murder.” The night he came to Declan Flynn’s assistance he had been a crew member for just one year. “When we arrived on the scene the detectives (Doyle and Doherty) were already there. Declan Flynn was lying on his back. There was no sign of life, but he was still warm.” Two minutes later, at 1.50am, when Garda Michael O’Keefe arrived in Clontarf Station, Flynn was on a stretcher. O’Keefe accompanied Flynn in the ambulance, while the other Gardaí remained to preserve the crime scene. 

‘Asphyxia due to inhalation of blood following a criminal assault’ is the recorded cause of death on Declan Flynn’s inquest report

The journey from Fairview Park to James Connolly Memorial Hospital took eight minutes. “I think we overtook the Garda escort,” Le Strange says, but their haste and Martin Le Strange’s efforts to resuscitate Declan were futile. The ambulance arrived at the hospital at 2am. Flynn was pronounced dead at 2.20. 

A little later, at his home, the 14 year-old minor turned on the radio and learned of Declan Flynn’s death on a news bulletin. He then joined his friends who had gathered at the nearby Poplar Row Flats, Tony Maher’s home – a stone’s throw from Fairview Park. “Your man’s after dying on arrival,” the minor, white-faced and near to tears, told them.

‘Asphyxia due to inhalation of blood following a criminal assault’ is the recorded cause of death on Declan Flynn’s inquest report, dated April 27, 1983. The five-hour-long post-mortem examination performed by pathologist Dr James Curran, concluded: “this man sustained concussion as a result of a severe blow to the back of the head. He also sustained trauma to the nose, which caused bleeding into the main nasal cavity. Blood was then inhaled into the larynx, trachea and lungs”.

A blow from a blunt hard object was, in Dr Curran’s opinion, the cause of the wound to the back of the head. The facial injuries, he reckoned, could have been caused by blows to the face or possibly by falling to the ground. Externally the back of the body showed extensive black and blue bruising. There was a large scalp wound, on the left side, at the back of his head. This was a 4.5cm long and had a maximum width of 6mm. Flynn also sustained minor brain damage at the hands of his attackers. 

“An Innocent Kind Of Fella”

Declan Flynn was born on July 22, 1951, seven days short of his older brother Christopher’s first birthday. The family of ten children grew up on Dublin’s Swords Road on the north side of the city. Declan first attended Larkhill National School and then the (Christian Brothers) Primary School at Marino. He began his working as a general operative at Farmhand Services on Dublin’s Navan Road and subsequently worked as an auxiliary nurse for a number of years at St Brendan’s Hospital, Grangegorman. For a period prior to joining Aer Rianta, where he was employed for the two years leading up to his death, he worked with his father as a sign manufacturer. Declan eventually secured employment at Dublin Airport through the company’s (then) informal policy of supporting people with disability through employment. 

“Declan was a very soft, innocent kind of fella,” recalls Jim Collier, who at the time, interviewed Declan for his job. “His mother and the people who worked with him were very protective.” Jim remembers Declan as a very willing and very cheerful, though a bit slow. “He had the intelligence of a 12 year-old”. Declan worked in ground services, the trolley division and the airport’s cleaning sections. 

Declan drank in Belton’s a local bar on Collins Avenue, Donnycarney, several hours before his death. He was seen leaving the bar and heading towards Swords Road in the direction of his home some 20 minutes away. Around the time he was sighted at the Fairview Grill, the 14 year-old member of ‘The Rollers’ was stopped by a Garda near Donnycarney Church, a few hundred yards from Belton’s. The Garda in question told the youngster to go home. The boy, on his bicycle, did so. A few minutes later, cycling through Fairview Park, he met up with Armstrong, Maher, Donovan and Kavanagh. Robert Armstrong and Tony Maher were both in the army. Colm Donovan and Patrick Kavanagh, a former wages clerk, were both unemployed. The 14 year-old was the third eldest in a family of three girls and two boys. 

That sultry September night the lads were in Fairview Park with their girlfriends. That’s where everyone went at night. The girls left the boys in the park around 11pm. Later, following the attack, when Declan Flynn had been left to choke on his own blood, and before the gang learned he had died at James Connolly Hospital, Colm Donovan would wonder if they’d roughed him up a bit too much.

The gang split up again following the news of Declan Flynn’s death. Armstrong and Maher let themselves into Maher’s flat. Six months later they talked about how, that night, they sat there just looking at the fire.

“There’s not much to think about when you’ve just killed a bloke,” Armstrong told a reporter, “except what’s going to happen and when they’ll come for you.” 

The gang met again, the following day outside North Strand Fire Station. They went to Burgerland on O’Connell Street, seeing the murder reported in newspapers in shops along the way. Maher and Armstrong were picked up by the Gardaí at 8am on Sunday September 12. Tony Maher later spoke of the relief he felt when he heard his father answer the knock on the door. As he sat in the police car on the way to the station, thoughts of life in prison ran through his mind. He, along with the others, was charged with murder. 

The Gardaí returned to the Poplar Row Flats around midday to tell Mrs Maher her son had admitted the crime. The family of his girlfriend of six months stood the £5,000 bail, while Armstrong was remanded in St Patrick’s Reformatory until the following March. Later that day, Garda Francis Giltin of Raheny Garda Station, called to the 14 year-old’s home. The boy, accounting for his movements, told Garda Giltin about meeting the Garda in Donnycarney and cycling home through Fairview Park. He said the bike had since been stolen from outside his house. Garda Giltin said he thought a bike found in Fairview Park might be his. In response, the boy said he knew nothing about the killing. Garda Giltin then asked the boy to accompany him to Fitzgibbon Street station. 

At the station, the boy said he had seen Garda Giltin earlier that morning arresting Armstrong and Maher. The boy said he knew the two because he often saw them in the park. “Are they telling you everything about the killing?” he asked.

Maher’s statement was read to the boy, who said in reply, “I’m not a rat. I’ll tell you what I done, but I won’t tell you who was with me”. 

While Gardaí rounded up the suspects, relatives and friends arrived at the Flynn family home on Dublin’s Swords Road to offer their condolences. “Totally shocked,” was how Declan’s younger brother Colm described the family’s reaction. They had no understanding why Declan should have been singled out by his killers. 

They emphasised their son was not homosexual, but his murder placed the spotlight on the plight of gay people in Ireland. At this time Ireland had grown accustomed to an institutional form of queer bashing. Homosexuality was prescribed by statute under a piece of Victorian legislation, the Offences against the Person Act 1891. Prior to Flynn’s murder, gay law reform had last been mooted in the Dáil in 1977 by Dr Noel Browne. He asked the then Minister Justice, Gerry Collins, about his plans to reform the law. Collins replied, “There are other priorities which must be dealt with first.”

In the wake of the Flynn murder trial in March 1983, the Fianna Fáil opposition spokesperson on Justice, Mr Michael Woods, stated: “minorities, no matter who they are, must have the full protection of the law”. For the record, the hate crimes perpetrated in Fairview Park in the months leading up to Declan Flynn’s killing were known to Gardaí.

Representatives of the gay community had presented Gardaí with a dossier detailing descriptions and identities of those known to be involved. If a fraction of the effort expended by Gardaí in the speedy arrest of Declan Flynn’s killers had been deployed patrolling the park in the months prior to his death, Declan Flynn need not have died. And his five young killers could, perhaps, have been saved from their own excesses.

The Trial Begins 

The Fairview Park Murder trial began on Tuesday March 1, 1983. The Central Criminal Court, presided over by 65 year-old Justice Sean Gannon, heard how a teenage gang went on a “queer bashing rampage”.

The five youths were charged with murder. Four of the group, Armstrong, Maher, Donovan and Kavanagh, pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to manslaughter. Maher, Donovan and Kavanagh were remanded on bail for sentencing the following Tuesday, March 8. Armstrong was remanded in custody for the same date. The 14 year-old minor pleaded not guilty to murder at the commencement of his trial. 

The State’s case was prosecuted by Mr Seamus Sorohan SC, while Mr Kevin O’Higgins SC defended the 14 year-old. “One of the fellows tripped him (Declan Flynn) up. I had a skinny bit of a branch in my hand, the others had sticks as well,” the juvenile said in evidence. “I saw some of the fellows hit the man’s money from his pocket. I did not see a watch or a wallet. I ran out of the park and left my bicycle behind. That’s all I have to say.”

Robert Armstrong’s statement, read to the court, claimed that when he saw blood coming out of Declan Flynn’s mouth he turned him on his side, so he wouldn’t choke. He also claimed he ran to a phone to dial 999 for an ambulance. No call was logged at Fire Station HG, and Martin Le Strange reported a passer-by calling to the front door of North Strand Fire station to raise the alarm. Armstrong also claimed when he called his mother the day after the killing, to tell her what he had done, she told him “to try and cover yourself; you’re a fucking eejit – I knew it would happen someday”.

In his statement Maher claimed: “A few of us had been queer bashing, for a few weeks”. He said he took £4 from the victim’s pocket. “We didn’t mean to kill Mr Flynn,” he said. “I thought he was gay and in the park to meet other gay people.”  

Patrick Kavanagh, who stole Flynn’s watch, told the court it was his first time to be involved in an attack in the park. He said he thought they had made a mistake attacking Flynn, believing they may have jumped to conclusions because of the incident with the man immediately prior to Mr Flynn’s arrival in the park. Kavanagh added that he was “frightened by the incident involving the knife”.

Mr Paul Carney SC defended Armstrong. He asked for leniency, citing that his client took such steps as he could to summon an ambulance and to seek help. Mr Carney added that his client realised the seriousness of the situation, and as a result would not be able to remain in the army.

Mr Patrick McEntee SC defended Maher, Donovan and Kavanagh. He claimed that “young people are bombarded with a shower of propaganda about various minorities including homosexuals”. The conduct of his clients, he claimed, was untypical of them as individuals and of the families from which they came. “What they did was abominable and based on prejudice which they now see was misplaced and misjudged on the night of the incident.”

Before the jury retired to reach a verdict Mr Kevin Higgins told them that the case was “one of the saddest and most tragic that had ever come before the court. There would be no attempt on the part of the defence to justify queer bashing, whatever that was, or behaviour in any manner against anybody, no matter what their inclinations or sexual tendencies”. He also questioned how much reliance the jury could place on a statement made by a 14 year-old boy in front of “two big detective Gardaí”.

In his summing up, Mr Justice Gannon directed the jury not to find the 14 year-old guilty of murder, by reason of insufficient evidence. The jury took three hours to return a verdict of guilty of manslaughter but recommended that Mr Justice Gannon be lenient in his sentencing. The juvenile was remanded in custody until the following Tuesday when he was sentenced along with the other four youths, who had all pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the same charge. 

Faith In Justice

On Tuesday, March 8, 1983, almost six months to the day of Declan Flynn’s death, his five killers were handed down suspended sentences by Mr Justice Sean Gannon, at Dublin’s Central Criminal Court. Both Robert Armstrong and Tony Maher were sentenced to five years penal servitude, suspended for five years. Colm Donovan was sentenced to four years, suspended for four years. Patrick Kavanagh was sentenced to two years, suspended for two years. And the 14 year-old minor was sentenced to 12 months, suspended for 12 months. Mr Justice Gannon added if any of the five got into trouble again, they would have to serve their sentences. 

“They walked out of the court free, but my son cannot walk out of Glasnevin cemetery,” was Christopher Flynn, Declan’s father’s reaction following Mr Justice Gannon’s decision. “I was very hurt by the case,” Chris d’Arcy, Declan’s former work supervisor at Aer Rianta says. “To be honest, I lost faith in justice. Some priest and a GAA official talked up for some of the attackers, going on about their good characters. They shouldn’t have done that.” 

In his summing-up of the Fairview Park case, Mr Justice Gannon stated, “They (the jury) gave a pretty clear indication, as representatives of the community, that the community was horrified at the crime and look on it as a very serious one. They indicated it was one which should merit severe punishment.” He told the defendants, “Each of you is liable to a life sentence. The death of Declan Flynn was caused by violence, the concerted violence of all of you. It’s evident from the nature of the incident and the manner in which it was caused that it could not be construed by the jury as an intention to kill”. 

Mr Gannon added that it wasn’t an isolated incident, and he hoped it was the last of a series of incidents which involved violent crime to persons based on intolerance. “Criminals you are,” he told the defendants. “The jury and community feel where groups are involved in criminal activities the judgment is more likely to be severe. While I must demonstrate the abhorrence of the community by imposing sentences, I don’t think it necessary that they be served immediately by detention”.

While Armstrong and Maher, the more senior of the group, had been involved, along with Donovan, in similar attacks, Justice Gannon believed they appeared to have sufficient sense to regain “a responsible appreciation of the circumstances”. Donovan, Justice Gannon held, was “more easily led than initiator”. Kavanagh had not been involved on previous occasions. And there was evidence of his good character. The evidence had indicated the juvenile’s involvement was “very little more than nominal”. Justice Gannon added that he (the juvenile) would “have to adjust his ways at a very early age and the sooner the better”. 

Gannon was right about the community abhorrence at the crime. Not to mention his sentencing. The controversy surrounding the suspended sentences in the Fairview Park case focused public opinion on the apparent lack of consistency in the sentencing in our courts.

At the time when custodial sentences were given for crimes against property, the public found it incomprehensible suspended sentences could be given to convicted killers.

The bench responded to Justice Gannon’s series of suspended sentences with silence while a spokesperson for the Association of Garda Sergeants complained, “What is the use of sending them back to their parents when parental control has obviously broken down? What sort of control is being exercised in their homes if 14 and 18 year-olds can beat a man to death?” 

On Trial in the Dáil

An emergency Dáil debate on the matter took place on Thursday March 10. It claimed widespread concern about the way the laws passed by the Oireachtas were being applied by the courts. ‘Judiciary Go on Trial in Dáil’, newspaper headlines read, and the judiciary were found guilty of “incomprehensible and bewildering inconsistencies”. 

Fianna Fáil Deputy Mary Harney, the second last of a dozen or so speakers, challenged Justice Minister Mr Michael Noonan to seek Mr Justice Gannon’s resignation. “We must be seen to take action and you (the minister) must talk to the judge and let the people see you mean business,” she said. Even outspoken homophobe Brendan McGahon, Fine Gael, called for Mr Justice Gannon’s removal from the Bench. Bertie Ahern, a TD for the Fairview area at the time, recalls a community meeting he attended shortly after Declan Flynn’s death. “The deceased’s father and brother were there and had lost control of themselves.” Aherne tried to reassure them. “Justice would be done,” he said. 

Proinsias De Rossa of the Worker’s Party expressed concern “that a queer bashing motive might, in some way, be seen to lessen the crime”. The Gardaí would subsequently deny they had ignored reports of criminals operating in Fairview Park prior to Declan Flynn’s death.

An official spokesperson at the time denied that an internal enquiry would be carried out by the Commissioner’s Office into the allegations. But senior Gardaí in the district did meet and were, among themselves, satisfied that any reports of vigilante gangs were properly checked out.

Mr Justice Sean Gannon never publicly commented on his controversial ruling. Several months after the Declan Flynn trial he handed down a custodial sentence for the robbery of a handbag.

But whatever the wisdom of his decision, the aftermath proved revolutionary for gay Ireland. Whether Declan Flynn was gay or not was immaterial to the fact that he was identified as such by the men and boys who attacked him. On the night they were handed down their suspended sentences, his killers were welcomed by friends with a torch light match to Fairview Park. This act of triumphalism was rightly interpreted as an act of the ultimate bad taste. It added to the prevailing despair of people who felt let down by justice and the impotence of politicians to act on the matter.

A protest march was organised, and it would become the catalyst for a kind of gay visibility never seen before in this country. On Saturday March 19 hundreds of gay men, lesbians and their supporters departed Liberty Hall and walked right through the killer’s neighbourhoods on their way to Fairview Park. One banner read, ‘Parents of gays love their children’. This was the first recognition on a mainstream level that being gay had a valid existence in Ireland. Before the Declan Flynn trial, homosexuality was pushed so far under the carpet, it wasn’t even acknowledged.

It took a brutal murder and the legal system’s subsequent belittling of it to finally catapult gay Ireland out of the closet, and get gay men and lesbians acknowledging themselves in the public eye. For the first time ever, we stood up and said: “Enough is enough”.

It may have taken another decade before the Offences against the Person Act 1891 was repealed, but the long road towards reform began on that horrific night in September 1982. 

This article appeared in GCN Issue 343 – The Pride Edition

© 2020 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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