‘At first, watching the man on television, I was disoriented by his unfamiliar use of words. How could “grotesque”, uttered in a tone of emphatic relish, have somehow turned into a term of self-approbation? For a moment, I felt as if I might be falling victim to some obscure lexical disorder that turns words inside out. After a while, however, I was able to enter into the spirit of the thing and see how his mind was working. You see, the worse the situation that had arisen was the better Mr Haughey looked, in his own estimation. If the situation was Gubu – that is to say, grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented – then the greater the credit due to Mr Haughey, for dealing with it…’
So wrote the loathsome Conor Cruise O’Brien in 1982, coining an acronym that has passed into Irish media folklore. But the incident that Haughey was discussing (that of Malcolm Macarthur) is maybe only familiar to Dubliners of a certain age. I can certainly attest that, before reading A Thread of Violence, I was more familiar with the term ‘Gubu’ than the antics of Macarthur which would leave two innocent people dead, the resignation of the Attorney General and the Government of the 23rd Dáil hanging in the balance.
For those (like me) unfamiliar with the case, O’Connell does a great job of telling the story in very simple terms: an intelligent young man from landed gentry finds himself running out of money. Inspired by the spate of bank robberies carried out by the IRA, the Bugsy Malone gang (which included a young Gerry Hutch) and Martin Cahill, Macarthur decides that robbery is the only way to prop up his faltering bank account. Along the way he kills Bridie Gargan as he steals her car, murders Dónal Dunne with his own shotgun, tries to rob an acquaintance in Manderley Castle before hiding out in an acquaintance’s flat (who just so happened to be the Irish Attorney General at the time).
If this was to be adapted for the big screen, one might be tempted to soundtrack the whole thing with ‘Yakety Sax’ such is the air of farce that surrounds the whole episode (who, when they’re hiding from the police, uses the same taxi driver to deliver takeaways, sparkling water and Private Eye), but the loss of human life, not to mention the class element and the political repercussions, must be remembered at all times.
However, the big selling point of this book is that O’Connell has extensively interviewed Macarthur over the last year. Since his release in 2012, he (apparently) can be seen at various art and literary events in the city, particularly around Trinity College. As a result of seeing him about on a regular basis, coupled with his grandparents residing in the block of apartments that Macarthur was arrested in, O’Connell approached him for interviews.
For me, this is where the book becomes problematic.
Throughout, O’Connell expresses a myriad of emotions when dealing with Macarthur, ranging from sympathy to disgust to frustration. This feels very staged, as he made the choice to pursue a convicted murderer in the hope of an interview, and one quickly gets the impression that he sees Macarthur as someone he can use to demonstrate his moral and intellectual superiority. At one point, he even admits that he was hoping that Macarthur would be like Raskolnikov at the end of Crime and Punishment, denying him the satisfaction of an ending.
Not exactly the best reason for writing such a book.
Him and Macarthur seemed to have developed a decent rapport but, when it comes to discussing the murders, O’Connell notes that Macarthur seemed to become vague and contradictory in his (otherwise sharp) recollections and puts this down as him failing to accept his actions. However, Dr. Helen Morrison has described how it is typical for murderers to talk about going into a trance, carrying out their murders without seemingly realising they were doing it and then “waking up.” Indeed, I was waiting for O’Connell to bring this angle up but he never does.
While it certainly does not excuse or justify the murders of Bridie Gargan and Dónal Dunne, this could probably explain some of Macarthur’s reticence for discussing the murders as well as tidying up some contradictory evidence and helping the reader understand why he is seemingly able to see himself as an upstanding citizen of society.
When it gets to the subject of remorse, O’Connell finds it remarkable that Macarthur doesn’t allow himself to be stricken by remorse as (in Macarthur’s words) what good would that do? Once again, O’Connell demonstrates limited thinking. Dr. Colin Wilson, a long time “supporter” of Ian Brady, once revealed that Brady's favourite book was A Christmas Carol, because the idea of turning back time and becoming a different person appealed to him. Because of this, Wilson saw Brady as someone who had remorse for his actions but would not allow society the opportunity to see him so weak in the face of their hypocrisy, as more psychopaths were in positions of power in government than in jail.
Wouldn’t this have been an interesting line of thinking to put to Macarthur?
Ultimately, this is an enjoyable read, but don’t ever take O’Connell at his word when he discusses his thoughts. He knows just how exploitative this book really is and his claims of virtue ring hollow.
Mark O’Connell, 2023, A Thread of Violence: A Story of Truth, Invention, and Murder. Granta Books. ISBN-13: 978-1783787708
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.