The late Sean O’Callaghan could dish out violence, but not take the consequences. For the last two decades of his life he claimed to have become ideologically convinced of a neo-conservative anti-Republican stance in the late 1970s, and thus to have offered his services as an unpaid agent provocateur inside the IRA. All the evidence points to his having at some stage been detained, and having become an agent as an alternative to prison.
O’Callaghan claimed he acted to damage the IRA campaign. He would have done far more damage to it by speaking out publicly. As he famously noted, the IRA had a policy of killing informers so he risked a dramatic reduction in his effectiveness as a truth-teller of its ruthlessness and corruptions. He had the prestige given by military men to one perceived as a very effective operator. Republicans would have listened to his criticism. Speaking out would also have given him security: the IRA has never killed a former member for criticising it.
Certainly O’Callaghan’s record of saving his own skin at the expense of others ran counter to his claims of preventing violence. He had told three journalists on separate occasions that he shot John Corcoran through the back of the head in March 1985. Corcoran was a father of eight and low-level Garda informant in the IRA in Cork City.
He has also claimed to have been responsible for the Garda seizure of the Marita Ann off Kerry in 1984. This was carrying seven tons of military equipment, bound for the IRA. One of those arrested was Martin Ferris, currently Sinn Féin TD for Kerry.
The weapons had been transferred at sea from another boat, the Valhalla. This had sailed from Gloucester, near Boston. Patrick McIntyre, a Valhalla crew member, subsequently became an FBI informant. Boston gangster and FBI agent James ‘Whitey’ Bulger tortured and murdered McIntyre – then hid the body for 16 years. If O’Callaghan’s claim of giving information to the Garda about the Marita Ann is true, then he allowed an innocent man to die a horrible death to keep his cover.
In more recent years, O’Callaghan steered the group representing some families of Omagh bomb victims away from questioning the role of security-force agents in the 1998 bombing, which killed 29 people and a set of unborn twins. He looked after media relations in London for them.
O’Callaghan first appeared in Omagh around Christmas 1998, shortly after the bombing. He was only gradually introduced to selected members of the Omagh Support and Self Help Group, which at that time represented most of the families. Some were not told of his existence.
O’Callaghan was active in the IRA in Tyrone for around a year in the mid-1970s. His family in Kerry was steeped in Republicanism. He had joined the IRA, and badgered the leadership for permission to fight in the North. In later life, he claimed to have been inspired by James Connolly. Those who knew him at the time remember him as an a-political militarist Republican. He did find the sectarianism of the North a culture shock, though he greatly exaggerated this subsequently.
In Tyrone, he spent most of his time in areas of the mid and west of the county. He was well-liked on a personal basis, and known as ‘The Kerryman’. He was also a very efficient fighter: he could be relied on to carry out any task assigned to him.
He was also a cool customer. He shot RUC Special Branch officer Peter Flanagan in an Omagh bar in August 1974. Within a couple of weeks, police knew he was responsible. People detained for questioning were asked ‘Where is the Kerryman?’ At the same time, O’Callaghan’s shoes had worn out. He took a bus from Carrickmore into Omagh, went to a shoe shop, bought himself a pair of shoes, and returned to his safe house on the bus.
The pressure of life on the run in Tyrone told on him. His accent meant he stood out. He suffered some form of mental breakdown, and returned South. The IRA covered up the reason for his withdrawal.
After recovering in Kerry, he went to England for a couple of years. In 1978, he returned to Ireland. At some stage, he was ‘turned’, though where and when are unclear.
For the IRA in Kerry, the prodigal son had returned. He was promoted to senior level in Southern Command. He would have damaged the IRA more if he had told the truth about it rather than turning informer by Anton McCabe Sean O’Callaghan IRA murderer, police informer and teller of intermittent truths If O’Callaghan’s claim of giving information to the Garda about the Marita Ann is true, then he allowed an innocent man to die a horrible death to keep his cover September 2017 2 1 Kerry played an important role in the IRA campaign. Northern IRA members trained there. Kerry IRA members were active in the IRA’s campaign in England. O’Callaghan was doubly useful: his family being Republican meant he was trusted.
O’Callaghan’s actions were often those of a provocateur. During the 1981 Hunger Strike, there was widespread sympathy in Kerry for the ‘martyrs’, including from the Fianna Fáil and Labour organisations. Then, on the night one of the hunger-strikers was buried, O’Callaghan ordered the Tralee IRA to fire a volley of shots over the town’s courthouse. Members strenuously objected, saying it would cost them sympathy. O’Callaghan overruled them. The shots were fired, and the campaign in Kerry weakened.
Despite that, he kept the leadership’s trust. In 1985 he was elected to Tralee Urban Council, and killed the unfortunate Corcoran. However, some in the IRA suspected him. At the end of 1985 his nerve went and he disappeared from Kerry. A substantial sum of Sinn Féin money also disappeared. His flight caused controversy, with many saying he was a dedicated Republican who was being defamed.
In England, the security services resettled him. Like other former agents, he was at a loose end. His health problems recurred, and in 1988 he walked into a police station and admitted two murders in the North. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. However, his being in prison meant he was again useful to his handlers.
The IRA would not take him under its wing in Maghaberry, but he befriended non-aligned Republicans there. Prisoners used to carry a parcel of contraband on their persons. If they were receiving a visit, they would give the parcel to another prisoner for safe-keeping. Other prisoners’ parcels were small, but O’Callaghan’s was always large. Once, when he was in the visiting area, an inquisitive prisoner checked it and found two hacksaw blades. O’Callaghan has claimed to have foiled escape attempts: however, the blades were useless as Maghaberry was operated electronically.
On release, O’Callaghan was taken up by the right wing of the Tory party. He used the skills he had used with the IRA leadership, and told them what they wanted to hear. He wrote a self-serving book about his activities and has been lionised in the Sunday Independent. He also maintained some form of links with the security services.
Not all in those circles were enamoured of him. A letter from a PSNI Deputy Chief Constable was disclosed to lawyers for former Real IRA Chief Michael McKevitt during a Belfast court case. The senior policeman wrote: “His bizarre behaviour whilst in prison precluded the Crown from placing reliance on O’Callaghan as a witness”. As an agent, he identified some of the safe houses he used- but not others.
The longer O’Callaghan was away from the IRA and out of touch, the more he took to making exaggerated claims. For example, he claimed to have been at an IRA meeting also attended by murdered solicitor Pat Finucane – though he did not mention a matter of such importance in his book, but five years after its publication. He was skilled at planting such stories in the media.
O’Callaghan’s last years were blighted by depression and alcoholism, though he claimed to have finally beaten the booze.
I spoke to O’Callaghan twice, over a decade ago. The first occasion felt sinister. He rang me out of the blue, and informed me he “knew about me”. The conversation lasted about 20 minutes. Throughout, I felt he was weighing me up, probing for my weakness – so it could be exploited.
Certainly he made impressions, but the legacy of Sean O’Callaghan, like that of many of his ilk, is mixed and incoherent.