Bernard O'Connor has retrained as a psychotherapist.

‘I’d never believed that human beings could be so inhuman to each other’

Feature interview

Bernard O’Connor may not resonate with many Cavan readers, but his face will be vaguely familiar as the band leader for many years marching ahead of St Michael’s Scouts Band ahead of throw-in at Ulster Championship matches. The former primary school teacher and driving instructor has released his memoir ‘Freeing the Truth’ recounting his torture in Castlereagh Holding Centre in Belfast over four days in 1972, and the momentous fall out from the case that followed...

Bernard O’Connor had broke.

It was little wonder. It was midnight and, sleep deprived, he had endured two cruelly long days of torture in the notorious Castlereagh holding centre.

“I was battered black and blue,” recalls the Enniskillen man. “I could actually see my left ear in the side of my eye, my head was that badly swollen out on that side from the punching and the thumping.”

He had broken at the hands of a superintendent – one of 38 RUC men to interrogate him in 22 different sessions lasting four days.

The gruesome episode had commenced at 5.30am January 20, 1977. “The arresting chief told me that they were arresting me under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for being involved in four murders, two armed robberies, and 24 explosions. I was very busy,” he sarcastically quips.

Having held out for two days, the superintendent was able to get Bernard to bend to their will.

“He was an absolute gem of an interrogator - for all the wrong reasons. But my God he was able to get into your head. Once you started listening to him, you were in trouble.

“He made up two murder statements alleging me to be involved in them, he wrote them in front of me. And I remember the opening sentence was: I Bernard O’Connor wish to clear the following murder off my chest.”

With deep knowledge of the investigations, the RUC were able to contrive a very convincing admission of guilt. Bernard refused to sign.

“When we take two statements in and say that you made these two statements voluntarily and then refused to sign them, the judge will definitely believe us. You will get about 35 years. Now, he says, is that what you want?

“I said I didn’t want to go to jail for anything, I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Threatened with that prospect superintendent then suggested that Bernard admit to a lesser crime – unwittingly giving a bomber a lift in his car from A to B, or “innocently” being a lookout for an explosion.

“You’ll get about three or four years jail for that, and you’ll get out on good behaviour in half of that time. And therefore, that will let us off the hook and you off the hook. Or else we’ll go in with these two statements and get you 35 years. Now you are an intelligent school teacher, which do you think is the proper thing to do? I began to think, ‘Jesus you know, this makes sense’.”

Bernard believes he came to the authorities attention due to his involvement in the civil rights movement from its inception in 1968. At that time, he was a young teacher in St Michael’s Primary School in Enniskillen and was outraged by the treatment of his community.

“We were really educating children to emigrate. There were no jobs. It was all discrimination and gerrymandering - you had to put your religion on the application forms for jobs and stuff like that.

“I joined the civil rights movement, with a heart and a half to really get things rectified.”

He recalls that the SDLP formed out of the Civil Rights Movement under such leaders as John Hume and Austin Curry, while the more radical wing produced the Republican movement.

“There was no IRA in the North at that time,” he recalled.

“This is what confused them. They saw me as being a very forceful and forthright character making speeches from civil rights platforms. And yet, I didn’t join the SDLP, and I didn’t join the Republican movement. So where did he go? Or what did he do? So they understood that I must have gone underground. That I must have been the intelligence or the brains, as they told me in Castlereagh, The Godfather.”

Bernard was one of three founding members of the scouts in Enniskillen in 1962. As bizarre as this may sound, he suspects that was a factor too.

“The other thing they resented big style was the Catholic Boy Scouts. They saw that to have Catholic boy scouts in uniform disciplined and marching and things like that, it was a breeding ground for republicanism. They thought that, they believed that,” he says, still incredulous. “It was totally the opposite.”

Bernard views his arrest as part of a wider policy introduced by RUC Chief Constable Kenneth Newman from England.

“His theory was that if he arrested enough people and put them through these interrogation systems in Castlereagh, that they would either get convictions or get information that would wipe about the IRA very quickly.

“They were putting through roughly between a 100 and 150 people a week through this torture chamber in Castlereagh.”

Torture chamber may sound like hyperbole, but as Bernard’s gripping, horror story unfolds, the term rings true.

“I’d never believed that human beings could be so inhuman to each other. I never believed that torture could have happened to people in Ireland. Couldn’t have believed that people were put through this kind of system and stripped naked and tortured the way I was. I couldn’t believe that you could be made run about with underpants over your head and them kicking the legs of you and sneering, making jibes at your testicles and stuff like this. You know, it’s so inhuman the whole process they put you through, you become nothing more than a dog. They made me get down on the floor and pick cigarette butts off the floor with my mouth and put them back in the bin that they were after throwing on top of my head. And I did that.

“They had you so much in their control that it didn’t matter what they asked you to do. You did it.

“Out of fear, and also: if I do this, they mightn’t kick me or mightn’t abuse me as bad as they’re doing.”

The tactic that proved most successful in Bernard’s case was the warped deal the superintendent was cutting with him: Sign a statement admitting to a lesser crime or face a judge with the RUC claiming that he had made admissions to murders but then later refused to sign them.

“One of them came back with a fish supper and they shared it with me, they were getting very nice to me because they knew by my body language that we are winning with this guy.

I “was eating this stuff and I thought, ‘don’t - don’t do anything, just don’t. Don’t do anything. You know, you’re not going to sign anything that’s not true’.”

He managed to convince them he was “massively confused”, incoherent with sleep deprivation and unable to hear, and persuaded them, if they let him sleep, he would look again at the statement in the morning. With rest, he was somehow able muster the resistance required to stand his ground.

“They came back the next morning, all keyed up ready to sign the statements. And I said, ‘listen, I’m making no deal with anybody’. I said, ‘This isn’t about deals, this is about the truth’. They went clean mad.”

The interrogations proceeded until a defining moment in the episode the following day. Frank Maguire, the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, made an appointment with the ordinary police running the RUC station at Castlereagh for an Enniskillen doctor to examine Bernard.

“In the middle of an interrogation on a Saturday afternoon, the interrogation room got a knock, and there was a uniformed policemen and announced to the other two boys, this guy’s doctor is here to examine him. You should have seen the look on their faces!”

When he was finally released, Bernard employed a solicitor and made a complaint to the RUC. With the ordeal fresh in his mind, he gave detailed statements on every interrogation to which he was subjected. Within a few months, the RUC dismissed his claims with a curt response that there was insufficient evidence. O’Connor wasn’t finished though.

“I personally took a civil action through the high court against them for the torture and the inhumane treatment and the wrongful arrest. I was the first person ever to win a cases against the RUC,” he said, noting that the medical examination by his doctor was a decisive factor.

“That was a major historical turning event in Northern Ireland,” he said of winning the case. “As a result of that, changes had to take place in the interrogation techniques. They had to install cameras in every interrogation room - they called them the O’Connor Cameras,” he says with a laugh of satisfaction.

An hour-long BBC documentary exposed what had happened to Bernard to an audience across the water; and Amnesty International took a greater interest.

However the case and fall-out wasn’t the happier ever after conclusion to the Castlereagh episode.


The security forces proceeded to harass and abuse Bernard and his family. He was also the subject of a murder bid by security force members - a UDR man and a British soldier - acting under the facade of loyalists. They had seemingly planned to murder him on Easter Sunday 1985, but instead of following his usual routine of taking a particular person for a driving lesson, he had fortunately cancelled that appointment so he could go to Croke Park to watch the national league final.

“If I had taken that driving lesson that Sunday, I was dead,” says Bernard.

Thwarted, the men instead murdered innocent catholic, Martin Love, as he walked home from the pub that same night, shooting him five times. The killers were caught nearby as they tried to flee.

“In their pockets they found all my details,” says Bernard.

He had a mental breakdown and his marriage also disintegrated.

“Eventually my wife cracked and she blamed me for the whole lot,” he suggests.

He did manage to rebuild his life, however. He retrained as a psychotherapist and discovered renewed personal and professional happiness. The book is very grim in places, but it needs to be told,” said Bernard who is now aged 79 years. “This is showing that this is what happened people in Northern Ireland. This was what happened to people who had nothing to do with the conflict at all, bar the civil rights movement. I spent all my time with Boy Scouts in Enniskillen, I didn’t spend it with units of IRA.

He adds: “At this stage in my life, I said I need to tell this, I need to get this out there, and show that it doesn’t matter how bad life can get, or what you’re put through, you still can come out the other side and do good.”

Freeing the Truth’ will be launched in the Crover Hotel, Mountnugent, at 7.30pm on Friday November 5, when there’ll be an opportunity to hear from guest speakers, and Bernard talk about his experiences. Copies are available for sale at the lunch time launch, priced €15, and also available on Amazon and Kindle.