Shergar and the Aga Khan
This month marks the 34th anniversary of the infamous kidnapping. One-time IRA operative Sean O’Callaghan claims a unique insight. Robert Mulhern met him
Cafe Koha is located down a narrow alleyway close to Leicester Square Tube Station. Set back from the tourist highway snaking up to Covent Garden, it’s a discreet meeting place to discuss the kidnapping of the world famous racehorse.
Shergar was stolen from Ballymany Stud beside the Curragh 34 years ago this month. The audacious kidnapping is an enduring mystery.
The cafe door swings opens and a lean, greying Sean O’Callaghan walks in and looks around. A waiter turns, smiles and offers a familiar hello.
The Kerry native extends his hand to shake, orders a Latte and then excuses himself for a quick cigarette.
O'Callaghan has lived in London for decades and he only visits Ireland occasionally. Claims he has made in his book, The Informer, have made him an enemy of some he once operated beside. However, it is a case of being careful about where he goes, not what he says in respect of this mystery.
In the absence of hard facts, the ex-IRA man’s version of Shergar's kidnapping has filled a big part of the void left behind by the horse’s disappearance.
O’Callaghan version has set the narrative even though much of he has said has never been substantiated.
Links he’s made between fellow republicans and Shergar have been roundly rejected. But it is known that the Tralee man was prominent within the IRA during the period of Shergar’s kidnapping and blame for the disappearance is laid squarely at the feet of the Provisionals.
O’Callaghan explains that he had conversations with IRA members who were present the night a horse box, van and car rolled out of the Kildare Stud carrying the World’s most famous racehorse and Head Groom Jim Fitzgerald.
“Oh it could have got very nasty,” says O’Callaghan. “They had guns, they were there to do a job and after that you wouldn’t know what could have happened.’
In his book O’Callaghan identified Rab Butler, Paul Stewart, Nicky Keogh and Gerry Fitzgerald as being part of the IRA unit that executed the kidnapping.
“They were the kind of people that would not have been experienced or calm enough to be able to handle a row,” he says now. “They could easily have started shooting."
This unit was tasked with seizing the horse and demanding a ransom after the kidnapping had allegedly been dreamt up in Portlaoise Prison by senior IRA man Kevin Mallon, whom he also identified in his book.
With the exception of Keogh, O’Callaghan says the team was inexperienced and, because of this, Shergar was doomed the minute things started going wrong.
“Me and Gerry Fitzgerald we knew each other for years,” he says. “We were all involved in the IRA in the south.
“I wouldn’t have known about Nicky Keogh. He wasn’t that long out of jail but I knew Gerry Fitzgerald and Stewart and Rab Butler and I also knew that Mallon was out and around and making waves, so if you sat me down in Dublin in 1983 I would have said 200 per cent that these were the people involved."
O’Callaghan says his suspicions were later confirmed by Fitzgerald.
‘It wouldn’t have been strange to have told me," he says. "He would have known I knew. He guessed I was with the England Department because I was off the scene too. It was in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin and sitting talking, and then he said about Shergar.”
O’Callaghan continues to claim that IRA commander Kevin Mallon masterminded the kidnapping and that the job would have been an easy hit for the Provisionals then desperate for cash.
“You weren’t going to have someone’s mother on RTE every two hours, crying,” he says. “It was a horse at the end of the day. That was how the IRA would have seen it.
“I remember being in Tralee with a bag with some clothes in it and followed to a pub. We put the bag under the counter and when the police came in someone said that’s Shergar there under the counter. It was a bit of a joke at the start but then
“If it worked out, the IRA would have gotten their three million quid and there would have been no Don Tidey kidnapping, or the attempted kidnaping of Galen Weston.”
O’Callaghan says that some of the IRA men involved in Ballymany in 1983 were present when a Garda sting operation scuppered the attempted abduction of Canadian businessman Weston, from his Wicklow home later that year.
Fortunately for Weston, he was playing Polo with Prince Charles in England when the dramatic shoot-out played out in Wicklow.
O'Callaghan offers an insight into the erratic thinking of the IRA at that time.
"It was a time when the IRA went crazy. I remember talking to an IRA guy who was fairly senior at the time and he said ‘that f**kin c**t Mallon. He’ll make a bollox of everything before he is finished.’”
Of course it's widely accepted that things started going wrong before the IRA’s ransom demand for Shergar had been made to the horse’s owner, the Aga Khan.
And that the kidnappers never counted on the horse being owned by a syndicate, not just the Aga Khan and negotiations quickly became impossible.
In O’Callaghan’s version of events, Shergar was injured at some point early during the kidnapping and the horse later died under a hail of bullets after negotiations broke down and the gang realised there would be no pay out.
“Some of them were cardboard cutout city guys from Belfast; they wouldn't have had a clue how to handle the horse,” he says.
He then believes other IRA members linked up with the original kidnapping unit and brought the horse to County Leitrim.
But 34-years later, in 2016, does O’Callaghan not find it strange not one of IRA members he alleges were involved in the kidnapping have been willing to go on the record about the mystery. Especially after all this time.
“I suppose there is no one else," he shrugs.
“The IRA in the south then was a small group then. Maybe 30 people.”
“They’d never break it,” he says. “There would be nothing in it for them to break it.”
Despite the kidnapping ending in failure, O'Callaghan says the IRA would have cased Ballymany Stud thoroughly before the operation.
And it is his belief that someone with IRA links accessed the stud in the months before the disappearance and notified the kidnappers of the opportunity. “It would be naive to think that someone from the IRA didn’t pass through the place in the months before,” he says.
And he is certain the top brass in the IRA would have been aware of the plot to kidnap Shergar.
“They wouldn’t have known the detail, they wouldn’t have needed to,” he says. “But they know what happened; that the horse was shot and the horse was buried! They would have gotten a report from the Army Council at the time.”
But 34 years and numerous interviews later O'Callaghan is consistent in his view that Shergar is buried in the quiet surrounds of Ballinamore in County Leitrim and that the remains will probably never be found.
“It’s as a quiet a part of the world as you can imagine,” he says.
“And it had a solid IRA support base at that time.”
Robert Mulhern is a London-based journalist contracted to RTE's Doc On One. To contact our columnist, email email@example.com.