Frank McCann – “Keeping Up Appearances: Frank McCann and a Scandal that Rocked Irish Life”

This piece first appeared in the Sunday Independent in March 2005

Keeping up Appearances: Frank McCann and a scandal that rocked Irish life

In what retired detective Tony Sourke calls ‘the den of vipers’ that dominated Irish Swimming in the early and mid 1990s, none was quite as venomous as Frank McCann. Even by the standards of his notorious former colleagues George Gibney and Derry O’Rourke, McCann’s ruthlessness was breathtaking. ‘Everyone knew they were a bit odd,’ says one former official with the IASA, ‘but the news about Frank came like a bolt from the blue.’

It wasn’t just people in swimming who had no idea of the sinister forces that drove McCann. In the suburb where I grew up and Frank lived he was viewed as a slightly abstemious, hardworking family man. He didn’t drink or smoke and cut a stern, remote figure. Teachers at the school we both attended remember him as an unusually bright student, ‘who could easily have gone on to study medicine,’ had he not made a successful living as publican. Despite his occasionally cruel comments and high-handed nature, his in-laws mostly thought of him as a good husband to their sister Esther. ‘He seemed like a good father, a good provider’ says Pat O’Brien, McCann’s former brother-in-law. ‘He gave my daughter the creeps – she used to say ‘Uncle Frank’s a pervert’ – but I got on fairly well with him. Of course it all changed that night. Our lives have never been the same again.’

In the early hours of Saturday September 5 1992 Pat and his wife Flora were abruptly awoken by a loud rap on the door. As Pat clambered out of bed and hurriedly pulled his dressing gown around him, he began to fear the worst. This could only mean one thing. His young nephew, James, was terminally ill with bone cancer; something must have happened to him in the middle of the night. On the doorstep stood his brother-in-law, Frank McCann with his uncle Paddy, his brother Bernard and his sister in law Sue. There had indeed been a tragedy but not the sort that Pat and Flora were expecting. Frank told them that there had been a terrible fire at his house in Rathfarnham. His wife Esther and their soon to be adopted daughter Jessica, had perished in the blaze. ‘I couldn’t really take in what he was saying at first,’ remembers Pat. ‘My sister was dead. How could that be? ‘Then I looked at him and said ‘you did it Frank’’

‘I just blurted it out; I still don’t know why I said it. There was just something in his demeanour. It also seemed odd that he would see what had happened and get in his car to go and tell people. But really there was no concrete reason.’

Pat’s accusations were dismissed out of hand by those present in the house that night but in the coming days others would begin to notice strange McCann’s strange behaviour. Esther’s funeral was held the following Monday in her hometown of Tramore and Frank seemed to be unusually jovial. A massive contingent of heartbroken family and friends had travelled down from Dublin and there were many emotional scenes at the sight of little Jessica’s shoes on top of her tiny coffin. But McCann remained strangely unmoved. ‘He gave a great talk about Esther at the mass but he didn’t look like a man who had suffered a terrible loss. He was laughing and telling dirty jokes afterwards,’ remembers Marian Leonard, Esther’s sister. ‘He never put his arms around me or comforted me.’ To the astonishment of all present, shortly after burying his wife and child Frank McCann got in his car and drove back to Dublin. He had organised a surprise birthday party for his mother that night at his pub in Wicklow and saw no reason to cancel.

‘Nobody could believe that,’ remembers a former colleague, ‘but then Frank was always a cold, distant sort. And some people don’t show their emotions. I put it down to that.’ Marion Leonard was also unsure what to think. ‘I knew that when his own father died Esther had been concerned that Frank wasn’t grieving. She had urged him to go for counselling.’

That had not been the first time that Esther McCann had urged her husband to seek psychological treatment. In the years after they were married they had struggled to conceive a child. The two families were told that this was ‘because of Esther’s thyroid problem’ but she had confided in her sister Marian that there was in fact another reason. ‘She told me that Frank was not interested in having an ‘adult relationship’ with her. Obviously she took this to mean that he no longer found her attractive as a woman, but she was very committed to the marriage. She tried to make him go to couples counselling with her, but Frank didn’t like going’.

When Frank’s sister, Jeannette, became pregnant out of wedlock it caused huge consternation in the McCann family. Jeannette approached Esther and asked her to adopt the new baby, Jessica. After her fears that the decision had been reached too quickly were assuaged Esther excitedly agreed. She had longed for a child. She kept a diary, written in the form of a letter to Jessica, for the little girl to read when she was older.

Born on Mother’s Day and christened on Father’s Day – June 16th in St Aengus’s Church, Balrothery, Tallaght at 3pm with five other young men and women you were christened Jessica Mary McCann. I always said my first-born girl would be called Mary, well you are my first born, best girl and always will be.

July 30th 1992 – My darling daughter Jessica you have grown and become a beautiful child. You have been walking now for a little over a week and have given up holding on to the walls in search of a your own bit of independence. ‘Cup of tea’ and ‘up a daisy’ with constant talk of ‘Daddy’, ‘Oh Mammy’ and ‘Mammy’s baby.’

Lots of talk and every day brings new joys of every sort in sight, sound, speech and movement. Ten teeth to show for all the months of painful teething, which gave you such problems with infections of all sorts.

Nana’s little darling in everything you do, she never ceases to love looking at you and you can really amuse with your antics, including playing the piano with much style and seriousness. May next door will have to take you for lessons soon.

It’s been the hottest and driest summer in years.

The computer on which Esther had written these words was recovered, along with her own charred remains, in the days after the fire. All were agreed at this stage that there had been some sort of foul play. Frank’s theory was that the IRA had been involved in some way. At Rathfarnham Garda station he gave a long statement to Detective Inspector Tony Sourke and Detective Pat Treacy detailing the harassment he had supposedly suffered in the months prior to the deaths of Esther and Jessica. Threats had been daubed on the wall of his pub, the Cooperage, in Blessington and there had been dozens of anonymous phone calls to his home in Rathfarnham. ‘We took twenty one pages of notes, he was rambling in and out of tangents, laughing and crying,’ remembers Treacy.  ‘Tony and I looked at each other. A victim gives off a certain aura. There is genuineness when someone is in the throes of grief. We weren’t getting that from him.’

Based on what McCann had told them the two men began to search for a suspect. In the very early days of the investigation they received a call from a representative of the Adoption Board. She had some disturbing information. It had been brought to the Board’s attention that Frank McCann had fathered a child by a teenage girl in Terenure. The girl had been a swimming student in one of Frank’s classes. Her family had not pressed charges but when the mother of the girl heard that McCann was attempting to adopt a child she felt compelled to act.
In the presence of a solicitor the Adoption Board informed him that he was considered an unfit person to adopt a child and that, as it was the policy of the Board to inform both prospective parents why their application had been rejected, he would have to tell Esther that he had fathered another child.  Already it had become general knowledge in the swimming community that the young swimmer had become pregnant but, perhaps distracted by the brewing drama with George Gibney, nobody suspected that McCann was the father. Confident that he could keep this a secret McCann scornfully remarked to Marian Leonard that ‘the girl was a slut, anyone could have her.’

‘But this news would have hit Frank hard. He was very concerned with keeping up appearances,’ she remembers, ‘Frank always a judgemental kind of person. He was extremely proud of his position as President of the Leinster Branch of the IASA and he wanted to travel to the Barcelona Olympics with Gary O’Toole and Michelle Smith. He knew that if this came out he wouldn’t be able to show his face in swimming circles.’ The young swimmer eventually gave birth to a little boy and he was put up for adoption. In an ironic twist Father Michael Cleary, who had himself secretly fathered a son, was to act as mediator between the adoptive family and family of the young swimmer. He arranged that Frank pay £500 to the girl’s family for ‘medical expenses.’  Marian Leonard attempted to confront Cleary about his role in the adoption. ‘He fobbed me off, telling me that I wouldn’t understand and that I should read his book. He said he had more experience with such matters, which, in a way, he did,’ she adds laughing.

As they absorbed the information about the adoption, Gardai were beginning to uncover yet another disturbing episode from the life and times of Frank McCann. He left Templeogue College in 1976 to become a cooper, like his father before him. But that industry was declining dramatically and McCann’s business was in trouble. A freak fire at his premises in Walkinstown left Frank with an insurance payout with which he was able to buy a pub in Wicklow. Nobody could ever discover for certain what caused the fire but it was, in the words of one of McCann’s former teachers, ‘a successful accident.’

Frank’s properties always seemed unusually prone to disaster. In the months before Esther and Jessica died, 39 Butterfield Avenue was the scene of a highly improbable series of accidents. In July Esther awoke with a headache. The air in the bedroom was thick with the nauseating perfume of natural gas. She ran into Jessica’s bedroom, grabbed the child in her arms and ran out onto the lawn. She pushed the car down the driveway and drove to safety. Had she lit a match or even turned on the light, the entire house would have become an inferno. When the gas company came to investigate the leak they suspected that it was man-made and retained the segment of pipe for further investigation.
Shortly after the gas leak, Esther commented to her sister that the wires had been partially severed on her electric blanket. Even more mysteriously, when she fell asleep the blanket had not been on the bed. Another morning she awoke to find a mat, sodden with chemicals lying beside the bed. She had no idea how it got there. ‘I remember telling her that there had to be a logical explanation,’ says Flora O’Brien  ‘Wasn’t Frank the only other one in the house?’

In yet another suspicious incident Esther’s brakes suddenly failed as she drove towards Newland’s Cross. ‘I was furious,’ remembers Pat O’Brien. I went down to the guy who had serviced the car for her the week before and asked him was he trying to kill her or something. He told me that he hadn’t even touched the brakes.’ McCann, as ever, was well out of harm’s way when the ‘accident’ occurred.
‘It was all beginning to add up’ says Tony Sourke. ‘After months of extensive enquiries no other plausible suspect had emerged’. At this point McCann decided that the conspiracy theory needed a little colour, so he began to start sending Mass cards to himself signed ‘the Reverend Burns’. He also began to complain of police harassment.

The Gardai had conducted a series of experiments in the Phoenix Park to try to ascertain how the blaze had started. Together with a specialist explosives engineer they came to the conclusion that the fire had indeed been started deliberately. Tony Sourke arrested McCann at his pub in Blessington and he was brought to Tallaght Garda station on the afternoon of November 4, 1992. Two days later McCann made his statement of admission, claiming that he had started the fire by accident.

While the file was being prepared and sent to the DPP McCann voluntarily checked in to John of Gods. There he met and became lovers with a psychologically disturbed woman. The new couple discharged themselves and travelled to Waterford where they lived in her mobile home. ‘This woman had a rich uncle in Canada, who had been convinced that Frank was the victim of a miscarriage of justice’ says Marian Leonard, ‘Frank knew he’d need bail and that his own family wouldn’t put it up for him. He was still planning away, same as ever’.

Meanwhile, the condition of Marian’s son James was deteriorating. Esther had always visited him in hospital with Jessica and now her young nephew constantly sought updates on the progress of the investigation. On the morning of April 4 he asked his uncle Pat to find out whether the Gardai were going to be able to take McCann in again. Pat returned later that evening to tell him that they were confident that Frank would be rearrested in the next few days. James died that evening. ‘I think the news that they were closing in on Frank brought him some peace’ remembers his heartbroken mother.

On April 22 Gardai once again arrested McCann, this time in Tramore. He was brought to Waterford City and remanded in court until the following Monday morning. The woman with whom McCann had been living was rejected by the court as a bails person.

As this was now a murder trial it had to be held at the Central Criminal Court in Dublin. In the person of Paddy McEntee, McCann had the best legal help money could buy but, with the weight of evidence stacked against him, things were looking bleak. Once again Frank sought a dramatic and violent solution to his problems. In the toilets of Mountjoy prison he set fire to himself using an aerosol can. The tactic was successful. The trial had to be abandoned and a new trial date was ordered for June 10. This was the same day that Garda Jerry McCabe, an old friend of Tony Sourke’s from Garda College, was buried. Sourke wanted to go to the funeral but his determination to see Frank McCann finally face justice kept him in Dublin.

The courtroom crackled with tension as the new trial got underway. McCann sat elbow to elbow with the Leonards and the O’Briens. ‘My mother looked at him and said ‘why did you do it, Frank,’ remembers Marian Leonard. ‘He just looked away and stuck his nose in the air.’ McCann took umbrage at the fact that he was to be referred to as ‘the defendant’ during the trial, as this seemed to him to indicate that he may have done something wrong. ‘It was that kind of petty detail that those educated lawyers spent their time arguing over on his behalf.’ Remembers Marian Leonard. ‘It was ridiculous.’ As the ringmaster in 1992’s biggest news story Frank briskly directed his legal counsel and showed disdain for junior Gardai. ‘McCann was all business. He was patient, belligerent, insistent’ recalls Tony Sourke.

The murder trial was the third longest in the history of the state. After all the false starts and with the public watching closely Sourke and Treacy were deeply anxious to secure McCann’s conviction. ‘It was hugely nerve wracking’ remember Sourke. ‘I have never been though anything like it before or since.’

On  August 15, 1996 the jury found Frank McCann guilty of the murders of his wife Esther and baby Jessica. They had accepted the state’s contention that his motive for the killings was his difficulty with the Adoption Board and concern over loss of face . There were cheers and tears of joy in the courtroom from members of Esther’s family as McCann received  two life sentences from Judge Carney.

As he was lead away in handcuffs McCann still had numerous debts outstanding, including Esther’s funeral expenses, which he had never paid. In an unprecedented legal action Bridget O’Brien, Esther’s mother sued McCann for a beneficial interest in 39 Butterfield Avenue, where her daughter and granddaughter were murdered. The action was similar to the one that Nicole Brown’s parents took against OJ Simpson after he was acquitted. ‘It was about the principle, not the money’, says Marian Leonard. ‘We didn’t believe that Frank should profit from the cold-blooded murder of my sister.’

McCann launched an unsuccessful appeal to the High Court in 1998. Curiously, one of his grounds of appeal was that Gardai had allowed his brothers too much access to him while he was in custody. McCann it seemed was no longer on speaking terms with the family that had tried to support them and now he was using their supposedly insidious presence as a means of having his conviction quashed. One of his brothers would go on to change his name by deed poll. His sister Jeanette told me ‘I’ll never forgive him for what he did.’

While in prison McCann has earned a Ph.D. and recently made a point of meeting fellow Arbour Hill resident Ray Burke who, according to one source, ‘he considered to be on his intellectual level’. An official from the Department of Justice recently contacted Marian Leonard to tell her that McCann’s parole hearing would be held ‘in the next few months.’ She is terrified at the prospect. ‘I would fear for my life if he is ever released’ she told me. ‘If someone gets in Frank’s way – and that includes you Donal – he gets rid of them. I am concerned that he will have that parole board wrapped around his little finger. He is phenomenally calculating. The first attempt on Esther’s life with the gas was carried out the night James was taken into hospital for a lung operation. He knew we would all be too distracted with grief to realise what was going on.’ She is hopeful that even if McCann is released he can be rearrested on the steps of the court for the sexual assault of the young swimmer, for which he has never been charged.

It is nearly ten years since his conviction and still not a week goes by that McCann’s name is not mentioned in the households of his former friends and family. ‘We’ll never forget it’ said one former supporter of Frank who declined to be named. ‘It had a huge effect on our lives. The stress of it all destroyed my wife’s health.’ It’s no surprise to Tony Sourke that his possible release has reignited public interest in McCann. ‘He was the most devious psychopath I ever dealt with,’ Sourke told me. Marian Leonard ruefully admits that McCann would be deeply satisfied that people are still obsessed with his misdeeds. ‘It’s him people talk about’, she adds, her eyes bright with tears, ‘but its Esther I think about every day. I can’t believe I’ve got this old without her.’

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~ by Donal Lynch on March 31, 2008.

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