Bernadette Connolly and Fr Columba Kelly
This Summer, Broadsheet has focussed on a selection of cases from the past 60 years involving the disappearance or violent death of Irish children.
In each case, we look at the children involved, their disappearance, family background and the conduct and coverage of the investigation into their deaths.
Last week, we examined the 1961 murder of Tommy Powell. Today, we look at the killing of Bernadette Connolly in 1970.
On the afternoon of Friday, April 17, 1970, ten-year-old Bernadette Connolly disappeared from the small Sligo village in which she lived.
Four and a half months later, her decomposed body was found in bogland 15 miles away. Despite an intensive Garda investigation, no one has ever been charged with her murder.
Bernadette lived in Collooney, Co Sligo with her father Gerry, her mother Maureen, her older sister Ann (13) and her younger brother and sister Tommy (8) and Patricia (4).
Her parents, had spent the early years of their marriage in Birmingham but had returned to Ireland in 1965 as they thought it would be a safer place to bring up children.
A small town just off the Sligo to Galway and Sligo to Dublin roads, Collooney was best known for a battle which had taken place there in 1798, when a combined force of French troops and Irish rebels defeated a force of British troops.
The former Sligo General Sanatorium at Cloonamahon, just outside the town, was run by the Passionist Order as a monastery under the name of St Joseph’s Retreat.
The founder of the Order, St Paul of the Cross, was the patron saint of policemen and one of the tasks of the Passionists was to serve as Catholic chaplains to police forces, including the Gardai.
St Maria Goretti
The Passionists had also been instrumental in the canonisation of Maria Goretti, a twelve year old Italian girl who had been murdered during a sexual attack in 1890. On her deathbed she forgave her killer, who subsequently became a monk in expiation of his sins.
Among the monks were a number of young men who had recently been ordained, including future journalist Fr Brian D’Arcy as well as another young man, Father Columba Kelly, a former footballer from an Antrim family prominent in medicine, law and the Church.
Bernadette’s home at Doorla was close to Cloonamahon and both she and her sister Ann were members of the youth club run by the monastery for local children as well as regular attenders at novenas for Maria Goretti. Bernadette, a devoutly religious child, had a collection of religious medals and statues.
Interviewed in the Sunday Independent, September 8, 2002, Bernadette’s sister Ann said of Father Columba and his friend and fellow monk, Brother X, whose real name has never been identified:
“Sometimes when they were out on their walks they used to chat to us. They would have known us really well.”
At the time of Bernadette’s disappearance she was four foot nine or ten inches in height. She had dark brown eyes, freckles and curly red hair, redder at the front than the back.
She was very short-sighted, and wore glasses with deep pink rims. In addition to her interest in religion, she was a very keen Irish dancer and held a number of medals. For the previous Christmas, she had received a Raleigh Astronaut bicycle, which was her pride and joy.
The afternoon of Bernadette’s disappearance, April 17, 1970, was a particularly wet day. In the news were the crew of Apollo 13, who had had to abort their moon landing after the explosion of an oxygen tank and were just completing their safe return to earth, recorded live on television.
Bernadette, who was just up after having been unwell with an allergy the previous week, was dressed in a dark brown corduroy anorak with hood, dress with box pleats, blue shirt-type blouse, nylon tights, light brown woollen gloves and brown laced shoes.
Her mother, Maureen, needed some smoked haddock and potatoes and decided to send Bernadette to buy some from her friend, Eileen Molloy, who lived two and a half miles away in Lissaneena.
She gave Bernadette her purse containing 10s 2d to pay for the fish and asked her to make the journey on her new bicycle.
To get to Lissaneena, Bernadette would first have to cycle from Doorla in the direction of Collooney as far as the monastery.
Once she reached it, she could then choose whether to proceed by ‘the lake road’ linking the Collooney Boyle Road with the Collooney Tubbercurry Road running left alongside the monastery grounds and separated from them by a high embankment, or to take a short cut through the grounds themselves.
Bernadette’s last words to her mother, at 4.30pm, were ‘Bye Mom’. Shortly afterwards, she cycled past Kathleen Flynn and her son Oliver (12) who were delivering coal by donkey and cart.
She was heading in the direction of Cloonamahon. This was the last sighting of Bernadette alive and therefore it is not possible to say what route she took when she reached the monastery. It appears, however, that she never arrived at the Molloys’ house in Lissaneena.
When Bernadette had not returned, as expected, by 6pm, Maureen Connolly sent her older sister Ann in search of her. Having arrived at the Molloy house, and found no sign of Bernadette,
Ann and one of the Molloy daughters, Patricia, went back along the lake road to see if they could find any trace of her.
They saw a bike lying behind the monastery embankment. When they went closer, they saw it was Bernadette’s.
Ann returned to her parents’ house and alerted them of her discovery. Maureen Connolly began phoning hospitals and doctors. Gerry went straight to the scene of the bike’s discovery, where he was met by Gardai from Collooney Station, who had been notified.
The bike was lying with Maureen’s purse beside it. The money she had given Bernadette to buy the fish was still in the purse. It looked like the bike had been thrown down in or into the field and the purse had fallen out of the basket in the process. Beside the bike and purse there was a footprint, which looked to be that of a man.
The search for Bernadette began immediately. An investigation was set up under Superintendent Tim Long, Sligo and Sergeant T O’Brien, Collooney. Gardai, aided by civilians, combed a 15 square mile area of woodland and fields and bog around Colloney.
The following day, Gardai with tracker dogs left Dublin for Collooney. By this time the searchers had expanded to include 200 Garda and Civil Defence forces.
The Garda sub-aqua team searched the lakes adjoining the lake road. Manure heaps were dug up and farmers were asked to search their own land. A questionnaire was circulated to people in the area requesting details of their whereabouts on the afternoon of Bernadette’s disappearance.
A cast was taken of the tyre mark and footprints found by her bicycle and the bicycle itself was examined for fingerprints.
Bernadette and her mother Maureen
Maureen Connolly, under sedation, was cared for by a number of local women. Father Columba Kelly also moved into the house to care for the family. When the local women left, Father Columba stayed.
According to Bernadette’s sister Ann:
“Father Columba moved into the house with us. Even when everyone else was gone, he stayed in our tiny, two-bedroomed house. Looking back now it seems abnormal that someone would stay on in such a small space for so long.
I remember even I thought it strange, but when I asked about it everyone said: It’s to support your dad. Brother X was around all the time as well”
As well as caring for the family, Father Columba offered to go through and investigate the sympathy letters for clues, bringing them to the Garda station if necessary.
On May 7, 1970, Gardai asked drivers of eight vehicles known to have been in the immediate vicinity of Bernadette’s disappearance at the relevant time to get in touch with them.
The vehicles listed were: a green mini pick-up trick; a grey or greenish grey van; a dark green van; a large dark coloured car; a large white or light coloured car; a large black car; a black Zephyr with roof rack; a green van (parked on Collooney-Boyle Road).
None of the eight drivers came forward, but a Garda inspection of Sligo-registered green Ford Escort vans identified such a van as registered to Cloonamahon monastery.
No one could account for its whereabouts between 4.30pm and 7.30pm that day. Nor could anyone account for the whereabouts of Father Columba during that period.
Most of the monks had been watching the Apollo splashdown on the monastery television set, but there were conflicting reports as to whether or not he had been among them.
A local garage owner, Mr McTiernan, told the Gardai that Brother X had called to his petrol station on the evening of Bernadette’s disappearance to fill up the monastery van – something which was denied by Brother X.
A second copy of a report compiled by Gardai in relation to the green van, which named both Father Columba and Brother X as persons of interest, was passed on to the Catholic hierarchy.
Meanwhile, the Connolly family, with whom Father Columba was still living, remained completely unaware that he was now a suspect in the disappearance of their daughter.
Around this time Father Columba told Bernadette’s father Gerry that he had seen a car acting suspiciously outside their home two weeks after the disappearance. He said that he followed the car for miles before losing the car at Ballinafad, Co Roscommon.
In the early afternoon of 6 August, 1970, 15 miles away from where Bernadette was last seen, and close to the place where Father Columba claimed to have lost the mystery car, farmer’s wife Margaret O’Connor, from Boyle, Co Roscommon, was cutting turf with her husband on the side of the Curlew mountain when she was struck by a smell coming from a nearby drain.
She initially thought it must be a dead sheep; however on closer inspection she saw crows circling and when she looked into the three foot drain she saw what appeared to be partly decomposed fragments of the body of a child – subsequently identified as Bernadette.
The remains had originally been hidden in undergrowth, discovered only after vermin had dragged them into the open and the drain level water had dropped.
Due to decomposition, there were no internal organs left, which made it difficult for pathologist RB O’Neill to estimate the date or cause of death.
Also in the drain were shredded pieces of clothing, the fabrics of which corresponded with Bernadette’s anorak, blouse, vest and pinafore, though there was no sign of her other garments or her shoes or spectacles, which she had been also wearing.
A number of miraculous medals, identified as Bernadette’s, were also present. The area where the body had been found was isolated, the drain being between two turf banks adjacent to a byroad, little more than a dirt track, connecting the Boyle-Ballymote and Boyle-Sligo road.
It fell just outside the scope of the 15-mile Garda search area.
The former Passionist retreat centre in Cloonmahon, Co Sligo
On August 10, 1970, Bernadette was buried in Collooney. Former fellow members of the Mary Healy School of Dancing, dressed in their Irish dancing costumes and carrying bouquets of roses, walked in silent tribute behind her coffin, followed by members of the Collooney Girls Band and children from Lackagh National School.
The priest delivering the homily, Father O’Grady, described Bernadette as a second Marie Goretti, saying that while they all mourned her death they should remember she was undoubtedly happy in heaven.
According to the Evening Herald:
“Local people believe that whoever was responsible for the murder had a first hand knowledge of the area and that after whisking the child from a backroad near her home at Doorla in April 17, he kept to the twisty bog road across the Curlew Mountains before throwing her body into a bog train at Limnagh just four miles outside Boyle.”
Meanwhile, Father Columba Kelly, who had initially left Collooney in June for a retreat at Ranafast, Co Donegal, was no longer in the country. The Passionist Order had sent him to Botswana.
Bernadette’s sister Ann states regarding Columba’s departure:
“ For a man who was constantly by my father’s side and living in our home, he never once contacted us again. This was the very priest that brought my family to Knock when the search was on for Bernie. This is the man who said a private mass for us.”
Privately critical of the investigation, the Catholic hierarchy refused to allow further questioning of the Cloonamahon brothers about Bernadette’s disappearance.
A subsequent Garda report, quoted in the Evening Herald of December 3, 2009 stated regarding the monastery van:
“This van is not satisfactorily accounted for during the period of 4.30 to 7.30p.m. Since the investigation has resumed, suspicion has hardened towards the Monastery van having been seen on the Lissaneena Road on that afternoon.
We are not entirely happy about the Cloonamahon Monastery van. However, in the absence of more tangible evidence, there is relatively little that can be done by way of inquiry regarding this van – irrespective of what our feelings are.”
The Gardai approach to the investigation in Boyle was similar to that adopted in Collooney. Questionnaires were handed out, tracker dogs used, bogs combed out and 800 men and boys – every man over 15 in Boyle – fingerprinted.
On RTÉ a film of the Apollo XII splash down which had occurred the day of Bernadette’s disappearance was shown in conjunction with an appeal for her killer in the hope that it might jog people’s memories.
On October 28, 1970, the Irish Press carried an interview with Gerry and Maureen Connolly in which Gerry expressed gratitude to the Passionist Fathers for their help following the disappearance, stating that
“We would never have got through that time without the help and kindness of the Passionist Community in Cloonamahon. They never left us night or day. One of them actually slept with me for a few weeks in case I would crack up.
They gave us all our meals during the weeks of the search and fed great numbers of the searchers. Neither of us could have lived through that time without them.”
On April 11, 1971 Maureen Connolly, interviewed, said:
“Every day I ask myself why did it have to be Bernie – why did it have to be her. She was so mild and gentle. I have put most of her things away. That’s her tea set on the shelf and those are her statues and her Rosary Beards. And her little dollies also.
“I still think that she’s going to walk in the door to me. They say time heals all wounds but I don’t know. Not a day goes by but I cry my heart out for her. She was such a religious little girl. She would make me say the Angelus out loud with her and would never let us forget to say the Rosary at night.”
Later that year, the Bernadette Connolly Memorial Trophy, named in Bernadette’s memory was presented by her Irish dancing teacher, Mary Healy at the Feis Ceoil.
In October 1971, Superintendent Long died at the age of 55. He was still actively engaged with the investigation at the time of his final illness.
The inquest into Bernadette’s death was held in December 1971. It found that her remains had been found at Limnagh, Ballinasad on the 6th August 1970; that she had been dead for a period of approximately three months at that point and that the cause or causes of her death were unknown.
The Coroner, Mr PK Johnston, emphasised that the inquest verdict did not bring to an end the Garda investigation, which remained ongoing.
On March 30, 1974, it was reported that an English sex offender was being investigated in relation to Bernadette’s disappearance – a report subsequently dismissed by Gardai as ‘pure fabrication’.
The same newspaper article referred to the distress of the Passionist Community in the Monastery of Cloonamahon about disturbing rumours and gossip about its involvement with the disappearance.
Fr Ephraim Blake CP, Superior of Cloonmahon, is quoted as saying:
“The Community was very hurt by the malicious rumours. We want our name cleared and any rumour that we harboured a murderer quashed. Anonymous letters were sent to the Gardai. the most amazing rumours, such as the one that we fed Bernadette’s body to the pigs, were spread.
Some of the monks still get very upset when the subject is mentioned. The interrogations have left a scar and the community would be most glad if the culprit was found.”
In 1998, journalist Stephen Rae, in his book Murders in Ireland, highlighted the suspicions of Gardai regarding the monastery green van and the involvement of Father Columba and Brother X in Bernadette’s disappearance.
Father Columba died in Ramotswa, Botswana, on the 26 January, 2001. In the years before his death, he returned to Ireland on a number of visits.
According to Stephen Rae, Garda Detective Superintendent Dan Murphy intended to arrest Fr Columba during one of these visits, but died himself of natural causes before he could do so.
A senior detective quoted in the Evening Herald on December 3, 2009 gives a slightly different account of this attempt:
“I got this instruction [from Dan Murphy] to re-open the file, to bring Fr Columba in. I had been told that Fr Columba was in Mount Argus and was told to prepare my interview. The night before I was told to forget about it, I was told this was coming right from the top.”
Sunday Independent journalist Brighid McLaughlin, on the other hand, had no difficulty in locating Father Columba on one of his visits home.
In the course of their meeting. Father Columba – a brother of High Court Judge Cyril Kelly, who subsequently resigned following the Philip Sheedy affair – warned Ms McLaughlin about his powerful connections.
He admitted having known Bernadette, describing her as “a wonderful dancer. We had concerts on Sundays and she used to dance.”
However, he denied having killed her. According to Father Columba, Bernadette had been abducted, raped and murdered by the security forces.
“I heard there was a consignment of guns for the IRA coming to the area of Cloonamahon around the time she disappeared. I would say the child was kidnapped in order to get the area searched for arms and things went wrong. I think the security forces could have abducted the child.”
When asked about his whereabouts on the day of her death, Father Columba stated:
“I was just a student priest. I didn’t remember where I was on the day. One brother told me I was in bed. I wouldn’t remembered where I was only that the brother told me.”
Earlier that day, he stated, he had used the monastery van to pick a brother up from the bus and subsequently left the keys on the ledge outside the monastery kitchen.
Ms McLaughlin also made contact with Brother X, who confirmed that he had been fingerprinted twice. When asked whether he had been in Mr McTiernan’s petrol station that evening, he replied:
“It may have been me… I don’t want to hear or talk about it. I didn’t lie in a sense. I didn’t know what time it was. I had nothing to do with Bernadette Connolly’s murder. I was at the petrol station just getting petrol.”
According to Brother X, Mr McTiernan may have got the time of his visit to the station wrong. As regards Father Columba, Brother X told Ms McLaughlin:
“I don’t know that he didn’t do it but I don’t believe he did.”
Ms McLaughlin detailed her meetings with Father Columba and Brother X in an article in the Sunday Independent of September 8, 2002.
In the same article, Bernadette’s sister Ann detailed the family’s dealings with Fr Columba following Bernadette’s death, saying of her father Gerry:
“Dad was convinced it was Father Columba who murdered Bernie… At that time it was unheard of that a priest would be accused of anything.”Nobody would suspect that they would do anything.
Bernie would never go with a stranger but if one of the priest offered her a lift she would have taken it. She would have trusted them.”
Fr Brian D’Arcy
Fr Brian D’Arcy, himself a monk in Cloonamahon at the time, says in the same article of Father Columba:
”His heart was as big as a mountain, but, while his recollection of reality had a lot to do with his imagination. Put it like this, he wasn’t the most prudent of men. I never thought Columba was guilty – absolutely not.
I thought his IRA story was a load of bullshit and I told him plainly that I would have been horrified if anything had been done to stop the investigation. As far as him being in the television room, I remember him being there.”
On December 3, 2009, following the publication of the Murphy Report, the Evening Herald, now edited by Stephen Rae, reported on allegations by unnamed Garda officers that Church pressure had stymied the investigation into Bernadette Connolly’s death.
The same month, Commissioner Fachtna Murphy appointed Assistant Commissioner Kieran Kenny to review the investigation into Bernadette Connolly’s death.
When the file was re-opened, it was discovered that vital evidence – Bernadette’s bike, her mother’s purse and the religious medals round her neck when her body was found – had disappeared and that the footprint found beside her bicycle had not been adequately preserved.
Responding to this news, Bernadette’s sister Kerri said:
“The first injustice was that Bernadette was murdered. The second was that it wasn’t investigated properly. They did solve murders back then so why not our Bernadette’s? Why did the Church intervene and send the prime suspect, that priest, away?
My father, up until his death 10 years ago, said he was 99% sure who did it but it was the 1% he was scared of. I feel this main suspect is guilty. If I’m wrong I’m wrong but why did the Church interfere and send him away?
If he didn’t do it then tell us and find out who did, reinvestigate. Bernadette deserves that much. There have been far too many unanswered questions. We are left in limbo.”
In 2004, the Passionist Provincial Father Martin Coffey said he regretted the pain the case had caused to all concerned:
“The Connolly family have suffered grievously. Father Columba Kelly’s family were shocked at his sudden death a few years ago and they suffered much pain.
At the time of the incident I understand that Columba Kelly was still a student priest so I wonder how he could have stayed with the family.
It is sad that this allegation is now coming against him when he is not in a position to defend his good name but I have great sympathy for the Connolly family and hope their pain will come to an end”.
In 2010, Justice Minister Dermot Ahern reported to the Dail that there was no evidence that the investigation into Bernadette’s death had been inhibited or impeded in any way by outside pressures.
Subsequently, Father Brian D’Arcy told the Sligo Champion that:
‘Some garda’ had wrongfully tipped off a journalist that Father Columba Kelly was a suspect in Bernadette’s murder, saying that “somebody pointed the finger at the monastery, and that was very unfair both to the Connolly family and the men involved”.
A Sligo Garda source branded the claim ‘absolute nonsense’, saying that ‘the gardai never told the Connolly family that Fr Columba Kelly was a suspect.
Fr D’Arcy told the Sligo Champion that he stood by his claim. The same article states that the probe and subsequent ‘cold case’ review has categorically ruled out any involvement by Father Columba.
To date, no further progress has been made towards identifying Bernadette’s killer.
The case of Bernadette Connolly bears similarity to that of Mary Boyle – another young girl who disappeared in North-West Ireland seven years later.
In Bernadette’s case, however, her body was subsequently found and there was real evidence left behind at the scene of her disappearance, which should have yielded clues to what had happened.
That it remains a mystery is even more inexplicable than the failure to resolve the disappearance of Mary Boyle.
Last week: Tommy Powell And A Wall of Silemce
Previously: Philip Cairns And A Trail Of Disinformation