“He clocked me, he clocked me, he clocked me,”
The dying words of Pat Nugent, made to his colleague Declan O’Neill.
EIGHTEEN and 21 years of age when their brother Pat breathed his last, John and Martin Nugent are now in their 50s, still looking to find out what happened in Bunratty in the early hours of February 11, 1984. One thing is for certain, an incident there that morning brought about the death of their brother Pat. They believe that some people know what happened but they have never been open about it, never offered the Nugent family that much comfort.
It’s a case that has resonated for decades, with the uncertainty and tragedy mixed with the fact that two off-duty guards were involved, meaning that it really captured the public’s interest and attention, while the long wait of the Nugents for truth, let alone justice, would evoke empathy in the most detached of people.
In October of 1985, a jury at the inquest into Pat’s death said it was satisfied that he had been struck by persons or persons unknown, causing him to fall to the ground and that car no 643 KIE (owned by William Ryan, a well known chef from Shannon) accidentally hit him, causing internal injuries from which he died.
The incident had come in the early hours of the morning, at a party to celebrate the 40th wedding anniversary of Ryan.
While Pat died after being struck by the vehicle, what has not become apparent even now is how the 23-year-old hotel manager, who had been in charge of running the celebration, came to be lying on the ground and who he had been referring to in his dying words.
Pat was the oldest of the three brothers at 23 and all were very close, all still living at the family home in Feenagh, Sixmilebridge.
“He was probably in his last year of school when I started. He started working fairly young but all of us were very close, no question about it. He was always on the go; he’d be coming and going,” said Martin, when the two surviving brothers met with The Clare Champion on Monday afternoon.
On the morning of Pat’s death, two gardaí called to the house at 7.45am, to break the news. A father himself now, John says he feels it must have been particularly devastating for his own parents. “It’s the parents’ worst nightmare really. I think now I think more about what our parents went through.”
A teenager in 1984, Martin jokes that he thought Pat was very old, even though he was such a young man. On the day, he couldn’t process the enormity of the news being delivered.
“It doesn’t really sink in straight away, life is going along rosy, you’re as happy as Larry. It does take a while to sink in.”
Initially, they were just told that Pat had a heart attack but as time went on, it became apparent that the reality was more complicated and, in fact, sinister.
“The following Tuesday or Wednesday, we were told there was some sort of car accident and that he might have been driven over by the car. It was early days. We had to organise a funeral and there were people coming to the house.
“You kind of go into autopilot to a certain extent. You have to get things organised and we weren’t really aware of what was going on behind the scenes,” says Martin.
When they heard that he had repeatedly claimed he had been struck by a person, it was growing ever more troublesome. “They were his dying words, ‘he clocked me, he clocked me, he clocked me’. It was getting more complicated; suddenly it wasn’t a case of someone just getting a heart attack and dying.
“Instead of dealing with the simple sudden death of a close relative, you’re asking what’s this now?” he adds.
While the loss of a much-loved son was, of course, the real tragedy and source of distress for their parents, the circumstances accentuated their distress. “Regardless, they still had lost Pat; that was the hard part of it really. But a lot had to come out after this. A lot did happen and stuff came out,” says John.
Martin remembers information came dropping slowly and not from official sources. “It was the very thin end of the wedge. It was coming out in a very piecemeal way;from people that were doing a similar job to yourself.
“I remember one man who worked for The Irish Press and one who worked for The Cork Examiner; they told our father and mother more than anyone.
“They’d call now and again and say, ‘are you aware someone has said such and such’. They genuinely weren’t coming looking for a story, they were just filling us in. They were giving us more information than anyone else.”
The wrong man
In May of 1985 William Ryan, who had been hosting the party on the night, went on trial for manslaughter.
Following the trial, that substantive charge didn’t even go to the jury, so slight was the evidence, and the following Thursday’s Clare Champion summarised the judge’s view.
“Judge Timothy Desmond, who described the case as ‘very serious’, directed the jury to find the accused not guilty of manslaughter. The evidence did not justify the manslaughter charge going to them. Manslaughter involved a gross degree of negligence and from the evidence, he considered it would be unfair to have that charge put before the jury.”
Charges of dangerous driving causing death and of failing to keep his vehicle at the scene of an accident did go to the jury, however, and on both counts, Mr Ryan was found not guilty.
The two brothers attended each day of the trial in Ennis and feel that Mr Ryan, a celebrated chef, should not have been before the courts.
“John put it fairly well before; they got the wrong man,” says Martin.
That October, they went to Limerick for the inquest into their brother’s death.
It found that Pat had been struck by a person or persons unknown, causing him to fall to the ground and that car no 642 KIE (owned by William Ryan) accidentally hit him, occasioning internal injuries from which he died.
However, the verdict came with a rider, which called for further investigation into the death.
The following week’s Clare Champion reported, “The jury, however, added a rider which had been suggested by Mr Sean McBride, SC, for the next of kin. This read as follows: ‘The jury appreciates the fullness of the inquiries undertaken by the State authorities. However, the jury are far from satisfied as to the circumstances under which Patrick Nugent sustained the injuries which caused his death. Accordingly, the jury requests the Minister for Justice to have the matter further investigated.’
“The rider continued, ‘It is clear that Patrick Nugent died in circumstances where it is the duty of the State to vindicate his life and good name in accordance with provisions of Article 40 of the Constitution of Ireland’.”
Pat died in a small area around the Bunratty Folk Park and there were only a handful of people nearby, including Detective Garda Eugene Quinlan, Garda James Cummins and a man called Gerard O’Connor.
The report from the inquest published in The Clare Champion shows that when Chef Ryan was asked if Pat could have been assaulted in trying to separate an alleged argument between O’Connor and Quinlan, he said, “It crossed my mind as a possibility but not then. It was afterwards when I sat down at home thinking about the whole thing.”
The Champion report also said, “Under further cross-examination, Chef Ryan said that Garda Cummins had come to his house and said there was nothing to worry about. He got a telephone call from Garda Quinlan saying that Pat was dead and everything would be alright.
“The witness recalled Gerard O’Connor, who had been at the party, coming to his house about 9pm that evening. He was extremely agitated and very pale and he said, ‘there is nothing to worry about. I have told them nothing.’
“Witness asked O’Connor ‘What have you to tell them? Whatever you have to tell the guards tell them’.”
Garda John Talty also gave evidence at the inquest about his recollections from the night and again the reports from the time are striking.
“Garda Talty recalled that soon afterwards, Garda Jim Cummins put his hands together and said words to the effect ‘I think you are coming for me’. Witness did not know what he meant. He might have been messing at that stage but witness did not really know.”
The report said that Talty had been “totally aggravated by their lack of co-operation and felt that he was being treated like an idiot”.
Detective Garda Quinlan was reported to have said to Garda Talty, “do the best you can for Jim’s sake” or “for Cummins’ sake”.
Asked about putting his hands out, Garda Cummins said, “It must have been a silly joke. I cannot remember it happening.”
Detective Garda Quinlan denied attempting to suppress evidence by asking Garda Talty to “do your best” for Cummins.
Explaining why he did not make a statement for over two weeks after the events of the night, Detective Garda Quinlan claimed he “delayed in making a full statement until February 27 because of the scandalous rumours and allegations that were circulating in the Shannon and Sixmilebridge area”.
The report also said that he had taken legal advice a couple of days after the incident and took sick leave a week after it.
“The trial really got us no further, it was a non-event. The inquest certainly answered some questions but it raised more questions,” says Martin.
“The crux of it is what was Pat doing on the ground in the first place? There’s never been an answer to that and then you tie into it that his dying words were, ‘he clocked me, he clocked me, he clocked me’,” John adds.
In 2015, the family were told that their case would be looked at through an inquiry, which came to a conclusion earlier this month and the judge is set to submit his report to the Minister for Justice by the end of September.
However, John says it is very unlikely that it will cast much more light on the events of that night because to do so would be beyond its terms of reference.
“It’s looking at the practices and procedures of the gardaí, looking at what they did or didn’t do but not looking at what happened to Pat.”
Martin says that after getting legal advice, the family felt they may as well help the inquiry, despite not expecting it will help them get answers.
“We spoke to some legal people, who have gone on to represent us. They said the inquiry would go ahead with or without us, so we’re as well off, rather than throwing our toys out of the pram and saying we’re not engaging, we’re as well off to go with it, and who knows, it might throw up something.”
One positive thing was that a member of the gardaí addressing the inquiry made an apology to the Nugent family.
Of course, that was much too late for the brothers’ late mother and father, who were shattered by the death. “We are older now and we have children and we understand it more. The father that morning, after half an hour or so, he sat at the table with his head in his hands and he started sobbing. He had his head in his hands and he was saying, ‘Poor Pat, poor Pat, what happened him’,” says John.
He had been a farmer but rented out the land soon afterwards. “He lost interest in it, really,” Martin recalls.
The impact was possibly even more serious on their mother. “He was a bit more vocal. She was worse maybe about it, she kept it inside,” John adds.
Both John and Martin are very affable and talked for a long spell about the tragedy. There was no anger apparent from their demeanour but John says it is there, under the surface.
“Ah, we are a bit [angry]. I think we are a small bit. I think our father felt fairly bitter about it. He used to tell the guards that Pat was murdered. There’s still no answers.”
Martin says they have tried not to let bitterness set in. “It would get you nowhere. There are times you would feel peeved about it alright.”
The two certainly don’t seem to be the type to ever wallow in self-pity. “There are sudden deaths up and down the country every day of the week but there’s a deeper element to this. It’s not just a simple car accident. We don’t want to sound like we’re saying ‘look at poor us’ but something happened that night that hasn’t come out yet. I’d be fairly convinced that people know what happened but they seem to be keeping it to themselves, so far anyway,” says Martin.
Their father is dead 20 years now but campaigned and fought for the truth to come out for the last 15 years of his life and his surviving sons are doing the same now.
They have had plenty of support from members of the public and even one juror from 1985 once got in touch to tell them how much he would like to see them receive justice.
While they have forged their own paths in life since 1984, they are still very aware of the brother they lost.
“It never goes away, funnily enough. You don’t wake up in the morning thinking about it but like the death of anyone, you don’t forget about it. It’s there in the back of your mind,” says John.
For Martin, it’s on special occasions that the loss is felt. “If there are big family events, you’d be aware there is a man missing. You’d often think what would he be doing now?”
The family don’t necessarily want to see people punished but they desperately want to know the sequence of events that led to Pat’s death, Martin concludes. “To know what happened on the night would be the priority; it’s up to other people to go through whatever process has to be gone through, if there was wrongdoing. If people would tell the truth, we’d leave it at that.”
Having lost a brother way before his time, with decades of campaigning and wondering behind them, with two late parents gone to the grave who never got any answers, the Nugents deserve at least that much.