Killing The Sacristan


st columba'sbrendan

From top: St Columba’s Church, Iona Road, Glasnevin, Dublin 9; The Irish Independent, November 7, 1986

Following our post on the Philip Cairns case and a follow up post on the death of John Horgan many have asked about a sacristan mentioned in the Cairns timeline.

Thirteen days after Philip’s disappearance the body of Brendan Houlihan was discovered in the Royal Canal in Phibsborough, Dublin 7

Brendan, 26, was attached to St Columba’s Chuch, Iona Road, Glasnevin, Dublin 9.

A sacristan arranges the liturgical books, vestments, and other items necessary in the celebration of Mass.

Brendan had been sacristan for eight years at St Columba’s and, before that, an altar boy. News reports described him as ‘quiet and shy’.

On the afternoon of his death Brendan had been checking the baptismal register for Philip Cairns’ name, according to then parish priest Monsignor Tom Fehily.

Monsignor Fehily was the curate in charge of Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979.

He was also well known for his work with Travellers. In 1975 he was instrumental in founding Trudder House, a refuge for Traveller children, in Newtownmountkennedy, County Wicklow.

Trudder House was eventually closed in 1995 and a Garda investigation commenced into allegations of child sexual abuse dating back to its founding.

The Cairns family and the Houlihans lived close to the church. Brendan lived, with his parents Michael and Bridie, on St Brigid’s Road while the Cairns lived on the parallel St Columba’s Road. The Cairns moved to Rathfarnham in 1978 when Philip was five.

Brendan left St Columba’s church on his bicycle at approximately 8.45pm on Wednesday, November 5, 1986, to deliver letters on behalf of Msgr Fehily to an unnamed family in the parish, according to the Monsignor.

Brendan’s body was discovered at 10am the next day, Thursday, November 6, in the Royal Canal at Cross Guns Bridge, Phibsborough, about two minutes’ cycle from his home.

Brendan had been beaten, stripped naked and gagged. His shirt was tied into a granny knot and placed in his mouth before he was thrown into the canal.

His body was discovered by businessman Des Kelly, of Des Kelly Carpets, according to reports in the Irish Independent and the Irish Press.

However during the eventual trial it was stated that the body was found by CIE workers while the inquest was told Brendan was discovered by gardaí with no mention of Mr Kelly.

In the afternoon, following the discovery of Brendan’s body, two brothers, John and Declan Kenna were arrested on a bus in Parnell Square, Dublin 1 for drunken behaviour.

A Garda detective later reportedly noticed one of the brothers wearing an anorak similar to that worn by Brendan when he was last seen.

That evening, at a special sitting of the District Court in the Bridewell prison John Kenna, aged 23, and Declan, aged 16, were charged with the murder of Brendan Houlihan.

Unusually, despite the savagery of the attack, both were freed on bail.

Then, in October, 1987, the murder trial at the Central Criminal Court before Justice Donal Barrington was stopped when Kevin Haugh SC, acting for the prosecution, told the court that the DPP had agreed to drop the charge of murder against John Kenna, who would instead plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter.

Declan Kenna would be only charged for the robbery of clothing and a watch.

The law of manslaughter then and now – as defined by the Law Reform Commission in their Report on Homicide (2008) – recognises two types of manslaughter.

The first is voluntary manslaughter, where there is an intention to kill but the accused is either provoked or acting in self-defence.

The second is where there is no intention to kill on the part of the accused, but they have caused the death of another person as a result of a criminal act carrying with it the risk of bodily harm or in circumstances where they were grossly negligent as to that person’s life.

No evidence was put to the court that either of the Kennas were acting in self-defence. Nor was there any evidence proffered that their attack had been provoked in any way by Brendan Houlihan.

On the contrary, Mr Haugh informed the court that the brothers set upon Brendan as he cycled along the banks of the canal. They had drunk a ‘gallon of cider’ and demanded money from the sacristan.

In circumstances where the accused, no matter how drunk, had first badly beaten up a man and then thrown him into the canal gagged, it is hard to see how it could be argued that they did not have intention to kill.

Plea-bargaining is not a feature of Irish law and why it appears to have been engaged in in this case is as hard to understand as the apparently motiveless attack on Brendan Houlihan.

John Kenna was jailed for 10 years while Declan Kenna was jailed for three years on the robbery charge.

Pics: Irish Independent archive; Google maps

Previously: Philip Cairns And A Trail of Disinformation

The Devil Is In The Details


Below is a detailed timeline before and after the death of Brendan Houlihan. We will correct any errors/omissions.

November 7, 1986: It’s reported that a ‘full-scale murder hunt’ is under way in Dublin following the death of 26-year-old Brendan Houlihan whose body was found partially clothed in the Royal Canal at around 10am on November 6.

Wearing just underpants and a shirt, Mr Houlihan, of St Brigid’s Road Lower in Drumcondra, had a shirt sleeve stuffed in his mouth when he was found by Des Kelly, of Des Kelly Carpets. His dark grey trousers and black leather jacket are reportedly missing.

It’s reported that he “was last seen alive around 10pm on Wednesday as he walked his bicycle near Crossguns Bridge, Phibsboro – only a short distance from where he was found”.

Elsewhere, it’s reported that Mr Houlihan “locked up the church around 9pm on Wednesday and went to deliver some church letters.”

Brendan didn’t have any money on him and the only items in his possession were the letters that he was delivering for the parish priest of St Columba’s Church, Iona Road, Monsignor Tom Fehily. These were reportedly found floating on the water around his body.

It’s reported that Mr Houlihan had attended evening mass on the night he died, but no time for the mass is given. It’s also said that he didn’t reach his destination before he died.

It’s also reported that Mr Houlihan’s parents called Monsignor Fehily at 1am on the morning of November 7 after he failed to return. Elsewhere it’s reported that after Mr Houlihan’s parents contacted the gardaí, a search of the area was carried out.

Mr Houlihan – the son of Michael and Bridie Houlihan and brother to Margaret, aged 22 – is described as a “gentle young man to whom the church was his whole life”.

Monsignor Fehily is quoted as saying:

“Nobody can remember him ever being unhappy. Today even children called here, hysterical. People are absolutely devastated. I have never seen such widespread grief and shock.”

November 8, 1986: It’s reported that John Kenna, aged 23, is charged at a special sitting of the District Court, in the Bridewell with the murder of Mr Houlihan.

November 13, 1986: John Kenna appears in Dublin District Court and is remanded to the Dublin Juvenile Court on November 17. It’s reported that he is charged with murdering Mr Houlihan between 7pm on November 5 and 10am on November 6. It’s further reported that John’s younger brother is also charged with the murder and will also appear in court on November 17.

November 22, 1986: It’s reported that, in the High Court in Dublin, a 16-year-old youth charged with Mr Houlihan’s murder is granted bail of 1,000 pounds, or two independent sureties of 500 pounds each.. John Kenna is freed on bail of 10,000 pounds.

December 6, 1986: A notice appears in the Irish Press in which the parents and sister of Mr Houlihan thanks those who shared in their loss. They extend special thanks to the Archbishop of Dublin Dr Kevin McNamara, his coadjutor bishops and Monsignor Fehily. The pupils of Iona Road School, who formed a guard of honour at Mr Houlihan’s funeral, the staff of CIE, the Gardaí and members of Dáil Éireann are also thanked.

October 20, 1987: It’s reported that the murder trial that was due to take place in the Central Criminal Court “came to an abrupt end when the State accepted a plea of manslaughter from one of two brothers accused of the murder of a sacristan [Brendan Houlihan].”

John Kenna, now described as 18, plead guilty to the manslaughter of Mr Houlihan before Mr Justice Donal Barrington and State prosecutor Mr Kevin Haugh, SC, told the court that, in accepting John Kenna’s plea, the State was entering a nolle prosequi [essentially dropping the charge of murder] against his brother Declan Kenna, aged 23.

It’s further reported that two brothers pleaded guilty to “the robbery of an anorak, a pair of trousers, a jumper, a pair of shows and a watch from Mr Houlihan on the same date.”

The two brothers are remanded in custody for sentencing.

October 21, 1987: It’s reported that John Kenna, now described as 24, is jailed for 10 years and given a concurrent four-year prison sentence for stealing Mr Houlihan’s clothes and watch. Declan Kenna, reported now as being 17, is jailed for three years after pleading guilty to robbery.

The Central Criminal Court hears Mr Houlihan was cycling along the banks of the Royal Canal when the Kenna brothers “who had consumed almost a gallon of cider and were drinking on the canal banks asked him for money”.

Mr Kevin Haugh SC told the court that John Kenna stripped Mr Houlihan of his clothes and used his shirt to gag him.

Superintendant Patrick MaGuinn, of Fitzgibbon Street, told the court that State Pathologist Dr John Harbison found “large areas of extensive bruising over all areas of Mr Houlihan’s body. He had suffered serious blows to the head and had six fractured ribs.” In addition “there were signs of asphyxiation and drowning and it appeared Mr Houlihan was in the process of asphyxiating when he was thrown or fell into the canal”.

While reportedly sentencing John Kenna, Justice Barrington says, “It is to say the least distressing that an innocent citizen could be going along the canal and meet somebody like you maddened by cider savagery.”

It’s further noted, “The judge told Declan Kenna that he had taken into account the fact that he was only 16 at the time of the attack and that his role had been minor.”

The court also hears that CIE workers found Mr Houlihan’s body.

December 4, 1986: An inquest into Mr Houlihan’s death, before Dr P.J.Bofin, hears that Mr Houlihan was found by gardaí and that “a granny knot in the shirt had been tied round his head and stuffed in his mouth. He had suffered broken ribs and a head injury”.

Dr Bofin recorded a verdict of death due to asphyxia and drowning.

In addition, it’s reported that “The court was told by a Garda that two people had been jailed in connection with the incident – one had been jailed for manslaughter for 10 years and another for four years, on a charge of robbery.”

April 24, 1988: It’s reported that “18-year-old” Declan Kenna who “was serving three years for a combination of offences, including robbery and was due for release next October” escaped from Mountjoy Prison on the night of April 23 during a prison officers’ strike.

It’s reported that he was carrying army identification at the time and that he must have had to produce the identification he was carrying at least twice before he got out of the prison. he is arrested later that day at his family home in Ballyfermot.

April 20, 1990: It’s reported that Declan Kenna, reported to be in this twenties, has been stabbed in the face with a kitchen knife after a row at his home on Cremona Road in Ballyfermot. Unnamed “local gardaí”, who were reportedly “earlier called to a disturbance at the house” are quoted as saying, “A bitter feud was behind the incident. Mr Kenna lost a lot of blood and was quickly taken to St James’s Hospital”.

Pic via Irish Independent archive

Sources: BBC, RTÉ The Irish Examiner, The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, The Irish Daily Mail, Newstalk; The Irish press and Evening Press; Evening Herald, The Sunday World, Sunday Independent;  Court transcripts; Irish Newspaper Archives

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41 thoughts on “Killing The Sacristan

  1. mikey

    Philip Cairns disappearance., A local pedophile, a local clergyman.
    The Guards had their suspicions but did not investigate, why?
    Now they are more than happy to blame a dead man. The whole thing stinks.

  2. Veronica Franco

    Long-time lurker but novice commenter I am enjoying these Broadsheet Investigates pieces. Please keep them up. I remember Trubber being set up and Charles Haughey speaking out in support of it, had he any idea what was going on I wonder?

    I am commenting because in a previous article by Broadsheet there is a reference to Frank Mullen, the Dalkey Garda who has denied accusations child abuse there is a reference to him having been involved in the Macushla revolt. Broadsheet does not mention it but Fehily and Haughey were also involved in this revolt with Mullen and met with him. As stated on

    “On Sunday night, Frank Mullen was asked if he would go and talk to Archbishop McQuaid, who had offered to mediate in the dispute. He agreed. He went to meet the Archbishop and his secretary, Fr. Fehilly; later a Monsignor. McQuaid wanted the Gardai to postpone all further action and promise to “look after the welfare of the Gardai”. In the end, Justice Minister Haughey was contacted and he eventually settled the dispute”

    Although the spelling of the name is slightly different it seems to be the same priest as he is also mentioned in biographies of McQuaid.

    Interesting! more to come no doubt!

    1. Sibling of Daedalus

      Full credit, Veronica for that link.

      I tried to research the name of the party in question myself just now and all I got was the priest in Ross O’Carroll Kelly. :-(

      Dublin may have been a small place in those days but it is interesting to recreate the various links between different groups (gardai, church, social workers) and how they may have arisen.

      The level of paedophilia in ireland in the 70s, 80s and even 90s was so high that it’s hard to believe it all occurred spontaneously by different individuals with no knowledge of what the others were up to.

      A timeline on Tubber House would be interesting…

  3. Buswells Babe

    Des Kelly was selected by the Dublin Diocesan Committee to lay the carpet for the Papal Visit.

    He subsequently purchased it back as a memento.

    In fact I think it may have been displayed (only a part, obviously) in Kelly’s Carpets Head Office at Crossguns Bridge at one point.

    I thought Des was dead until I saw him mentioned in a story about the Legion of Mary recently.

    Revenue settlements a pre-condition for entry to any religious group of influence in Ireland, it seems.

    1. Sirtuffyknight

      Des Kelly is involved in running of Legion of Mary’s Morning Star Hostel, according to a Dublin Inquirer article. His brother Eamon was a major gangland figure, referred to as the Godfather in the Sun.

  4. Liam Deliverance

    Excellent work again Bodger. Keep it coming. Also thanks to Veronica for adding an interesting angle to the discussion. Also as Sibling of Daedalus says, links may exist between various people from these decades and although they are somewhat tenuous links today it only takes a small thing to jog someones memory as Veronica has shown.

    Is there any reason why Mr Houlihan was looking up Philips record, was that a normal thing to be doing?
    Also why is there some confusion about whether Des Kelly or CIE workers or Gardai found the body, seems odd to have made a mistake in the reporting, and if Mr Kelly did find the body why report that it was un-named CIE workers, or indeed Gardai?
    The lads that were arrested, was it actually Mr Houlihans jacket, or did it just look like it as the article says?


    1. Errol Gunne

      Hard to believe that the guards were eagle-eyed enough to spot what was presumably a very ordinary anorak.
      But then again they did find the body of John Horgan in his neighbour’s attic approximately 30 minutes or so after arriving at the scene of his disappearance without even a search warrant….


  5. Paddy

    Also, I wonder are either of the Kennas still alive? And on another issue, the McLoughlin neighbour of the Cairns family who went missing, was his body ever found?

    1. Buswells Babe

      Declan Kenna escaped from prison during a warders’ strike, and was recaptured the next day. He was subsequently stabbed in the face in a family row in 1990.

      I can find no trace of John Kenna after his sentencing.

      Another Kenna brother, Noel, was convicted of robbery at knifepoint in 1998. He subsequently died in 1994 following a drunken fight in a bank lobby.

      Richard Kenna was convicted in 1990 after attacking a couple in the Phoenix Park.

      They all lived at Cremona Road, Ballyfermot.

      1. Buswells Babe

        Oops sorry, 1988 not 1998 for Noel’s conviction.

        Very sad lives but not half as sad as that of poor Brendan Houlihan.

        1. Buswells Babe

          The man who lived next door to Philip was John McGloughlin I think, not McLoughlin.

          And no I don’t think his body was ever found.

          His wife died recently, her death notice describes her as having a new partner, Mark Humphries.

          1. Bodger

            Buswells Babe, John McGloughlin’s car was found on Howth Head. He was a civil servant. I have no more details as yet.

          2. Buswells Babe

            Thanks very much Bodger for this and for the articles, very illuminating.

            I will continue to post anything relevant I find in the archives in the comments on your posts when I can, if you or any commenters would like copies of sources for the references I am always happy to email them.

  6. Louis Lefronde

    Very strange set of circumstances where in the absence of evidence of provocation or self-defence, the DPP accepted a plea for manslaughter. Another great article from Broadsheet, well done.

  7. Buswells Babe

    A poem by Brendan Houlihan, published in the Captain Mac page of the Irish Press on Wed, 12 November, 1969.

    Brendan was a regular contributor to childrens’ pages in newspapers and also wrote poems on sport.
    ‘The Bishop’

    Every Bishop rules a diocese
    To ceremonies he usually goes
    He also goes to football games
    And in the ball he throws
    He makes rules and regulations
    That must suit all his flock
    He often travels far and wide
    And everywhere he gets one big ‘clap’

    Why has Brendan’s death been forgotten?

    1. Errol Gunne

      So so sad. Desperate. How awful for his parents for him to die in such odd circumstances, and for his murderers to effectively be given a plea-bargain (which I thought was not allowed under Irish law?*)

      *Legal Coffee Drinker?

      1. St. John Smythe

        or sad for his murderers to have never been brought to justice, depending on what the truth of the matter might be

  8. Veronica Franco

    Thank you everyone for the kind words.

    Just on another point, the Benjamin Black Quirke series by John Banville makes constant reference to paedophile rings in Ireland in the 50s involving many well established people which took place in orphanages and industrial schools.

    John Banville wrote a book about Malcolm McArthur ‘Body of Evidence’ and I am wondering if he could have got the idea researching this book.

    The reason I say this is because I have just finished reading a book by a solicitor in Limerick, John Devane, about paedophile rings operating in Limerick and Dublin in the 1970s and 80s. According to Devane, who was abused as a child by these rings, a lot of very well connected people were in them. They had house parties involving young boys (I am sure there was an equivalent for girls) The book is called ‘Nobody Heard Me Cry’ and I got it on google books.

    I also remember a story about a priest dying in a gay sauna in Dublin some time in the 90s. I think another priest was present and may have given him the last rites. The dead priest was from Templeogue/Ballyroan.

    1. HandMeDown

      Second or third hand at this stage, but there’s a c’n’p from the Irish Times here

      Original, possibly.

      AS MANY as 20 Catholic priests are regular visitors to the gay Dublin sauna club where an elderly priest died suddenly over the weekend, the owner of the premises, Mr Liam Ledwidge, told The Irish Times last night.

      He said that Father Liam Cosgrave (68), who apparently died of a heart attack early on Saturday morning, was a regular visitor to the Incognito sauna club, on Bow Lane East off Aungier Street, for man years.

      Meanwhile the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Desmond Connell, said yesterday that he was “shocked and saddened” by the circumstances of Father Cosgrave’s death. In a statement, Dr Connell said the death of the curate was a tragedy. “The circumstances of his death have shocked and saddened us all and make his death even more tragic.”

      The Incognito’s owner, Mr Ledwidge, said the Baldoyle curate, who was a member of the Montfort Fathers, was just one of a number of priests who frequented the premises. “We do have a lot of priests visiting, around 20 of them. Of course they wouldn’t all congregate at the same time and they don’t form a higher proportion than any other profession. They don’t wear their clerical collars, but over the years you do get to know what people do,” said Mr Ledwidge, a partner in the club which opened 12 years ago.

      Mr Ledwidge said there were 70 men in the club when Father Cosgrave was found in a collapsed condition outside one of the private cubicles, in a downstairs corridor, by another client at 4.30 a.m. The majority of the men left the premises prior to the arrival of the Garda.

      Reports in some newspapers that the priest had been taking pills at the time to stimulate sexual arousal were denied by the club manager. `I have never, ever known the man to take anything like that. It isn’t true,” said the club manager, Mr Stepen McCormack.

      Other reports that gay men engaged in sexual activity in the club’s private rooms were also denied by Mr Ledwidge. “Sexual activity is a matter for themselves, although we don’t encourage it. The club is supervised and usually if two people meet they go on elsewhere. We don’t allow sexual activity in the cubicles.” A post mortem is expected to take place today.

    2. Spaghetti Hoop

      The priest was a Father Liam Cosgrave, and from Baldoyle, not Templeogue. Shocking as it was at the time, there were no links to child abuse and still none.

      1. Veronica Franco

        So sorry I must have confused Baldoyle with Ballyroan.

        I didnt mean to imply that gay sauna=paedophile sauna, very sorry if my comment above gave that impression, I think I may have mixed the priest up with another priest who was mentioned in the Cooke story as being part of the possible Philip Cairns paedophile ring. I can’t remember his name. Bill something possibly.

  9. rory

    Hi Bodger, I was wondering what you think happened?
    I’d also like to know what you think happened in relation to the death of John Horgan, and how that connects to this post and Cairns death.

  10. Tish Mahorey

    Des Kelly Carpets made a lot of money out of the fact that most council houses had the same floor plans and room sizes.

  11. K. Henry

    What if poor Brendan had become privy to some knowledge regarding the allegations of child sexual abuse which are said to have existed in Trudder house since it’s founding, or indeed wider child abuse allegations in the area (potentially even involving Philip Cairns, or Eamon Cooke) and had reported these to a ‘respected member of the community’ that he had expected would help him?

    What if instead of resolving to help the child/children in question and report the crimes, the person which Brendan sought fit to report such allegations to, was in fact involved in abuse? What if they arranged for Brendan to be ‘gotten rid of’, which might explain the strange placement of an item of clothing in his mouth (it doesn’t pay to ‘talk’ or ‘speak out’ meaning…)? A message to other people who may have considered speaking out against these things? A warning not to?!

    Perhaps two young men from a seemingly ‘rough’ background could be paid or coerced into commit such a crime, or perhaps his death was accidental and a ‘simple beating’ was intended to suffice to ‘keep him quiet’. He was very severely beaten before drowning. It surely would not have been difficult to arrange for Brendan to go to such an area where criminals lay in wait (that particular spot of the canal was one children and teens were told to avoid as the ‘cider drinkers’ were there) on the proviso of parish business to be carried out/deliveries, etc.

    As a young man in the church, and much beloved by all apparently, it wouldn’t seem to be a huge step to imagine some poor abused child would tell Brendan about abuse they had suffered and look for his help.

  12. Paddy

    This might be completely off the point, but following the recent stabbings at the Hell Fire Club and on learning that this area was patrolled in the days after Philip Cairns’s disappearance, I read up a bit about the place. There is a story, and it could be just that, that a plumber found skeletal remains there in 1970. It is said that they were “dwarf-like” and it is believed a dwarf may have been sacrificed there in the 18th century. But this sounds more like a made up ghost story. If indeed, there were skeletal remains found there, was there a post mortem carried out on them to find out whether it was a child and to find out how long the skeleton was actually there? There seem to be no official reports from the time of a skeleton being found there. I wonder could Bodger help out with this? It’s probably just an urban myth but the accounts that a plumber found the remains is quite specific.

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