On 16 October 1920, Peter O’Carroll was shot and murdered in Dublin. From the perspective of Peter’s grandson, comedian Brendan O’Carroll, it’s a killing shrouded in mystery. What precisely happened that night? Why was Peter killed? Who pulled the trigger?
“I know little snippets here and there,” says the creator of Mrs Brown’s Boys at the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, “but not enough to be able to go: ‘This is the definitive truth.’”
Over the next few days, this will change radically as Brendan returns to Dublin and learns not just what happened, but even puts a name to his grandfather’s killer.
It’s a story with its roots in the Irish War of Independence (1919-21), when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) used guerilla tactics to oppose British rule in Ireland, a conflict that would ultimately lead to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. Brendan had long thought Peter was the victim of “a casual shooting” by soldiers in a time of violence.
However, as he reads an old newspaper report of the killing, it’s clear this isn’t correct. Peter was shot in the early hours of the morning at his hardware shop. This was a deliberate killing, a hit. And why was there a note at the scene of the crime, apparently from the IRA, accusing Peter of being a “traitor to Ireland”?
This wasn’t true. Rather, Peter was assassinated by the British Auxiliary Division, a unit made up largely of former British soldiers that conducted clandestine paramilitary operations. The note was an attempt to smear Peter. It didn’t work. He was honoured with a nationalist funeral.
His widow, Annie, wrote to the Dublin Corporation, the city government, in part to defend her husband’s reputation: “I seek not vengeance, I only ask for justice and truth.”
More than 90 years later, truth gradually begins to emerge as Brendan investigates the killing. One curious facet of the slaying, for example, was that Annie didn’t hear a shot. This seems likely to have been because Peter was killed with a ‘subsonic’ pistol that wouldn’t have made much noise.
This tallies with accounts of another murder from the era, the slaying of nationalist politician JA Lynch at the Exchange Hotel when, according to a newspaper report, “No sound was heard, not even by the occupants of the adjoining rooms.”
Documents from the 1950s, especially the testimony of an IRA double agent who both worked for and spied upon the British authorities, David Neligan, reveal more about these assassinations. Peter, it seemed was executed because his sons, IRA volunteers, wouldn’t surrender. Astonishingly, the same document names Peter’s killer: Major Jocelyn Lee Hardy.
The IRA would later kill members of the Auxiliaries on what was dubbed Bloody Sunday, but Hardy escaped. More than this, he thrived. A decorated veteran of the Great War, Hardy became a banker and a writer. “That’s the last face my grandfather saw… Jesus, he’s some bastard,” says Brendan, when he’s shown a picture of Hardy. His grandfather, Brendan thinks, knew he was going to die, but had to accept his fate or give up his sons.
At his grandfather’s grave, an intensely personal journey into the past is at end, and Brendan reflects on his grandmother’s wish for justice and truth. “We’re beyond justice I think, at this stage,” he says, “but at least we got the truth – and a truth I never expected to get, never.”