For more than 30 years, David McDonald worked in Ireland’s biggest prisons. He started out in 1989 at Mountjoy, before returning to his hometown two years later to Portlaoise Prison, which — due to the presence of IRA and other subversive prisoners — was then the most secure jail in Europe. He then moved on to the new Midlands P rison, where Ireland’s emerging class of serious gangsters were housed.
n a new book, Unlocked: An Irish Prison Officer’s Story, he describes encounters with some of Ireland’s most notorious criminals.
After two years or so in The Joy, I put in for a transfer. It was granted within two days. I was heading back home to ‘The Bog’, the name by which we knew Portlaoise in the prison service.
Despite the impact of the prison on the town, I hadn’t a clue, growing up, what it was like behind the high walls. Even my own dad knew next to nothing about it, despite being a regular in the prison club, where he played darts. What went on behind the walls stayed among those who worked there.
While The Bog was guarded as if it held some of the most dangerous criminals in the world, the regime inside the walls of the compound was like no other prison. Portlaoise did not have the classical design: a circle and spokes of a wheel. When I arrived, just two blocks — E and D — were operational. These were separate buildings in the compound. E block held the subversives and the heavies. The main subversive group was the Provos, kept on E3 and E4 landings. E2 was for the INLA and others who were non-aligned to the main subversive groups.
On E1, the landing at ground level, there was the crowd we called the heavies. These were the most serious ordinary criminals around at the time. It was decided they should be housed in Portlaoise due to the extra layers of security. Among them were crime gang leader John Gilligan, serving a long sentence for drugs offences, and his associate Brian Meehan, who was convicted of the murder of Veronica Guerin, the Sunday Independent journalist shot dead in June 1996.
In the early 1990s, Gilligan’s gang was reputed to be the biggest importer of cannabis into the State. Guerin’s investigative work exposed their activity. At one point, she confronted Gilligan at his home on a stud farm in Co Kildare, where he assaulted her viciously. He was due to go on trial for that assault when Veronica was murdered.
While he was found not guilty of her murder, his right-hand man, Brian Meehan, was convicted. Meehan was reputed to have driven the motorcycle used in shooting Veronica dead on the Naas Road. Another gang member, Paul Ward, was also found guilty, but ultimately that conviction was set aside.
Gilligan arrived in Portlaoise after being arrested in the UK. He was, from the word go, Mr Charlie Big Potatoes on E1. It was obvious he had access to plenty of money and if money talks in general society, then it sings like an angel in prison. He was, particularly in the early years, adept at splashing out to feed a good shower of the inmates on E1 with the odd steak. He also had plenty of female admirers. They used to visit separately from his own wife, who was also a regular visitor. Often, Gilligan would ask that sums of money be taken from his account and given to one of the visiting women.
His status as top dog was enhanced by his physical power. He was a small man but, by God, was he powerful. I saw him in action, once or twice, and there is no doubt that in his prime he would have been difficult to get the better of in any sort of a fight.
When it suited, he could turn on the charm. At times, you couldn’t shut him up. Whenever he was brought to Dublin for one of his court appearances, all he talked about in the back of the van was the horses. A little interaction is grand — it breaks the journey and eats into the boredom — but Gilligan just wouldn’t give it up. It was as if he was trying to torture us with his knowledge of the runners and riders at some racetrack in the heart of England one rainy day the previous September.
He could spend hours in the company of an officer and be his best pal, full of amiable chat. And then, that evening, if something blew up on the landing he could just as easily attack the same officer and be every bit as vicious as his reputation suggested. Violence was never far away with that man.
Once, thankfully, he used his power to my advantage. One day, I was on E1, at the bottom end of the landing, and something kicked off up the other end. Around nine or 10 prisoners got violent and began throwing pool balls and generally lashing out. The way it unfolded left me effectively trapped with a gang of these men in the mood for trouble. I remember looking up the landing and thinking “I’m f**ked”.
Sure enough, I was spotted within seconds. The man who saw me looked, in that instant, as if all his Christmases had come at once. This was Paul Ward. He had a large chiv in his hand — which is a home-made knife in which razor blades are melted into toothbrush handles — and he came towards me. I knew that if he got stuck in, four or five others were likely to join him. But as he approached, Gilligan let out a roar at him. Ward said something back, but Gilligan became more adamant, telling him that I was not to be touched.
Gilligan actually saved my bacon. Ward backed off and, within minutes, the stairgate was opened, some officers poured in and things were brought under control. Why did Gilligan do it? We certainly weren’t buddies, but I’d had dealings with him.
I believe the real reason he brought Ward under control that day was just to demonstrate he had the power to do so. He was, in his own way, letting me know that he had the power, that he could decide who got a hiding and who didn’t, that he ruled the roost on E1 landing. While he saved my bacon that time, I have no doubt that if I was standing at the gate of the prison, the only barrier to him escaping, and if he was armed, he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot me.
For a long number of years, Gilligan ruled the roost on E1. But following a controversy over a prisoner phoning Liveline on RTÉ Radio in 2007, a new governor was brought in who clipped his wings.
Ned Whelan was a no-nonsense type of governor. He was known as ‘Nike’ after the company’s advertising slogan ‘Just Do It’. Before Ned came in, whenever Gilligan was meeting the governor there was a chair there for him to settle into for a conversation. Ned got rid of that chair. He told Gilligan that he would stand before him when they were interacting. That was just a small gesture, but it was one that came to typify Ned’s dealings with the man who thought he was the real power on E1.
Brian Meehan never gave me any trouble. He was always polite, and always crafty. If he wanted something done — another prisoner assaulted or whatever — he got somebody else to do it for him. He was a flash character, too; he wore a Rolex watch valued at around €60,000.
I remember his partner bringing in their son as a baby, soon after he began his sentence. Years later, the same baby was visiting as a grown man. That’s just an indication of how long some of these men are in prison, what they miss on the outside, and how the world merely carries on while they lead a kind of suspended life. When I suffered a loss of my own, I saw a particularly human side of Meehan. In 1999, my brother, Matthew, was killed in a road accident.
Matthew was a prison officer as well, based in Mountjoy. The accident happened one morning as he and some colleagues were on their way to Dublin from Portlaoise, where he lived. I took the death badly. We were the only siblings in our house and had always been close.
As with many of my generation, I didn’t deal with the grief in any proper way and instead drank more than was healthy for a few months.
Soon after Matthew’s death, I was out at the general office one day when Meehan was being escorted by two officers.
I have no idea why he was there, but when he saw me he walked over and put his hand out, offering sympathy for my loss. I hesitated to accept his hand. We were in view of other officers, and I didn’t know how it would be perceived — and frankly, I was a bit taken aback — but I did then shake hands with him.
“It’s a stressful time for you,” he said. “If you’re on E1, believe me, you’ll be as safe as houses.” He was letting me know that I wouldn’t get any trouble on the landing. Nobody would be using the bereavement to have a go at me or anything like that.
The episode was unsettling. As with Gilligan, I believe that if I stood between Meehan and freedom, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill me if he felt he had to. And yet, he was also able to show he had a human side.
Patrick ‘Dutchy’ Holland
The man who was believed to have actually shot Veronica Guerin was Patrick ‘Dutchy’ Holland, another member of Gilligan’s gang. He was a career criminal and had associations with all kinds of subversive groups. He was arrested in 1997 and, on foot of statements from one of the gang who had turned State’s witness, he was charged with the murder.
The charge didn’t stick, but Holland was also charged with drugs offences for which he was sentenced to 20 years, though this was reduced to 12 on appeal. If you didn’t know his true nature, you’d let Dutchy Holland mind your grandchildren. In prison, he came across as the nicest person imaginable, a grandfatherly type of figure.
You could have any kind of a conversation with him about any subject and he would engage fully. On a day away in court, you could talk to him about politics or football or foreign travel, and he was well versed in everything. There would be no pulling at the cuffs, as you’d have with some of them, or trying anything silly.
He was very mannerly, without being over the top. Unlike many prisoners, you felt totally at ease in his company. He was never in any sort of trouble. If something kicked off on the landing, he would simply go back into his cell and have no part of it.
The biggest problem with Dutchy was that you had to keep reminding yourself he wasn’t just a prisoner but probably the most dangerous criminal in the whole of The Bog.
This was also the man about whom John Gilligan is reputed to have said he was the only person he feared. Holland was a cold-blooded killer. Despite his amenable exterior, no prisoner would ever try it on with him. Despite his outward appearance, you never knew what he was like behind closed doors, where he would be organising for other prisoners to do his dirty work for him.
It was nearly unbelievable, yet all too real, that this man was some class of a sociopath who killed people for money. He was released from Portlaoise in 2006, and resumed his former ways. A year later, he was arrested in England on suspicion of planning the kidnap of a businessman for a £10m ransom. In 2009, he was found dead in his cell in Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight.
Among those who were classed as subversives there were a few whom I got to know. The most fascinating of these was Dessie O’Hare, who was known as the Border Fox from the days when he was a notorious criminal operating under various flags of convenience. He had been responsible for some horrendous crimes and was lucky to still be alive.
In Portlaoise, O’Hare was kept in the basement under E block — the Base, as we called it. Once a subversive was sentenced by the Special Criminal Court, he would be brought to Portlaoise and kept in the Base until such time as the officer commanding the IRA — or the INLA on E2 — decided whether or not he would qualify to be housed on their landing.
This might involve waiting to hear from their own organisation on the outside, and during that time the newly sentenced prisoner would await his fate. O’Hare was in the Base, for the greater part, on his own. I got to know him through bringing him to the library on E4 landing. That was an ordeal in itself. He could only be brought there when everybody else was in their cells, usually during the teatime lockdown after 4.30pm. I’d have to check with the ACOs that there was nobody at all in sight — including cleaners — on the route from his cell up to the library.
It was a two-way thing. O’Hare was deemed highly dangerous and volatile. If he encountered somebody against whom he held a grudge — usually going back to his days outside — he could attack. Equally, there were many among the regular subversives who had it in for him. The most lasting memory of my interaction with O’Hare is the hassle we always had in moving him.
When I first encountered him, he wasn’t speaking to anybody. He communicated only through notes. Soon after, there was an incident in which he wrote to the class officer that he didn’t like beans, yet he was given lashings of beans every day at teatime. I don’t know whether or not it was the quality of O’Hare’s handwriting, but the word went to the kitchen that he did like beans, so he got even more the following evening. He went bananas when his food arrived, under the impression that he was being goaded.
He sent for me and explained — in writing — what had happened. I was there, responding to him by talking, and him coming back with his scribbled notes. Anyway, I passed on the word as I understood it, and the following day there were no beans. I went down to see that everything was OK, and he passed me a note on which was written “We sorted”.
There was only one time when things got heated between us. The day after Veronica Guerin was shot dead, we were in the library and I remarked that what had happened was shocking.
“She deserved it,” O’Hare replied. That got my blood up. The whole country was outraged at the murder of a young mother who was just doing her job, and I was no different. I challenged him and told him he was out of order, but he came back at me with more of it.
I had a choice then. Do I keep ramping it up — or was it worth it? Where could it lead with this unstable individual, who was considered so dangerous that he had to be removed from the whole prison population?
I backed down. What was there to gain by trying to argue about basic morals with this man? Things never got worse than that with him. He never threatened me, and he trusted me. Despite that, not once did he ever talk about the things he’d done, nor did he ever broach the possibility of regret.
O’Hare was released in 2006, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, having served 18 years of his 40-year sentence. In 2019, he pleaded guilty to false imprisonment of a family in their home and to leading what the court heard was a “disturbingly violent” attack on another man. By then aged 63, O’Hare was sentenced at the Special Criminal Court to 10 years in prison with the final three suspended.
In 2020, when I was retiring, I did my last hurrah in Portlaoise and the Midlands, just going around to say goodbye. O’Hare was the last prisoner I visited. He was an ordinary criminal by then, on E1 landing with the heavies, no longer part of the subversive set-up, which had been totally transformed over the previous 20 years. I had worked with him for so long, and when he came back in the previous year, I’d met him again. So now it was time to say goodbye.
He met me on the landing and invited me into his cell. He offered me a cup of tea, but I declined. “I’m out the gap,” I told him. We chatted for a while — his silent phase was a distant memory by then — we shook hands and I left.
At the turn of the century, crime in Limerick, and particularly the drugs trade, featured one of the most notorious families to come out of the city: the Dundons. Gardaí were of the opinion that they brought a whole new viciousness to the scene in the city.
Dessie Dundon was just 20 when he began his life sentence in 2003 for the murder of a rival gang member, Kieran Keane. In my experience, he was the most human of his family. His brother Wayne was particularly vicious, and John Dundon was beyond relating to on any level, as far as I was concerned.
Dessie knew how to use his fists. Once, when I had him in on the punishment landing on C block, I was in a cell with him when he punched the wall twice. I remember thinking, If that was my head, I’d be a dead man. On another occasion, I saw him and Warren Dumbrell in a fist fight. I can safely say he was the only man I ever saw get the better of Dumbrell in that kind of situation.
Early on in his sentence, Dessie was under some threat from rivals, and he formed an alliance with a Lithuanian gang led by a man called Gintaras Zelvys. These Eastern Europeans were serious muscle. At one stage, every time Dessie left his cell he was accompanied by two of the Lithuanians.
This association led, in turn, to an alliance between the two gangs on the outside. He would often ask for large sums of money to be transferred to his girlfriend who visited him regularly. Most of the time, we’d block that because we suspected the money was going to be used for criminal activity.
One day, Dessie’s girlfriend arrived at the gates in this big car with two Lithuanians who could have passed for bodyguards. After that, we decided it was too much. We had him transferred out of D division, removing him from the Lithuanians.
These Limerick gangs had a fairly free rein. The whole visiting regime had been adapted to accommodate them. All of that changed.
Plans got under way for the establishment of a new unit which would have overall responsibility for security. It was to be called the Operational Support Group (OSG), and it would be my home for the remainder of my career in the Prison Service.
Breaking up gangs meant there was going to be more peace and, crucially, less of a threat to other prisoners and to staff
We kept tabs on the phone activity in A block by some of the gang leaders there, such as Wayne Dundon.
Sometimes, we would notice a signal showing up for incoming traffic. That would confirm that he had a phone, but the choice was to go in bull-headed or wait. So, we waited until he turned the phone on, long after lockdown. Surprise was really important here. If he had any indication that we were about to burst in, he would delete all the messages and, if luck was really on his side, deposit the phone up his back passage. If he managed to do that, there was little we could do to locate it.
Today, Christy Kinahan is a well-known figure because of the international crime cartel he heads up, or at least did.
When I dealt with him, Kinahan was serving a sentence in Portlaoise for drugs offences. He must have been taken very seriously at the time, since he was housed in our prison rather than Mountjoy, but he was a model prisoner.
He was polite and straightforward and always trying to better himself through education.
In particular, he had an interest in learning foreign languages. A few times, he asked to have a word with me in his cell, to explain that he was doing a particular course and wanted to get a book on this or that from the library.
As with any other prisoner, I assessed what he wanted and decided whether or not it could be provided. When it couldn’t, he would simply ask why and then accept the outcome. I don’t think I ever saw him angry — and most certainly never violent. He was a model prisoner.
Am I surprised by what he appears to have become, once he served his sentence? Not a bit of it. The way he handled himself in prison suggested a high intelligence, including emotional intelligence, an attribute that is rare among prisoners.
He knew what he had to do, to get to where he wanted to go. And it would appear that he arrived there and became enormously wealthy and powerful as a result.
Unlocked: An Irish Prison Officer’s Story, by David McDonald with Mick Clifford, will be published on Thursday by Penguin Sandycove
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/what-the-prison-officer-saw-a-life-among-criminals-41827887.html What the prison officer saw: a life among criminals