By Nick Harris
SJA Internet Sports Writer of the Year
4 June 2011
The winner of this afternoon’s Derby was Pour Moi, ridden home by Mickael Barzalona, aged just 19 and the youngest jockey to have won the race since Walter Swinburn.
In 1981, Swinburn, also 19, was aboard Shergar as the Aga Khan’s star horse won at Epsom by 10 lengths and easing up after a performance for the ages.
In February 1983, Shergar was kidnapped for ransom by the IRA, who killed him when the abduction went wrong and buried his body in a bog in the north of County Leitrim.
That’s the way I was told it, in more or less the same fashion, by three different people who had been in or around the IRA, including at the time of the kidnap.
I heard their stories – one in Belfast, one in Dublin and one in London – while I was researching a story in the mid-1990s about the life and death of Shergar for my employer at the time, a Japanese newspaper, the Hokkaido Shimbun (nicknamed Doshin).
The third source, an Irishman I met in London, was a former IRA member turned informer, Sean O’Callaghan, who subsequently published a book about his life – and about his knowledge of the Shergar kidnap.
While looking through an old file of notes and documents the other day, I found the full transcript of the interview with O’Callaghan, in which he also talked about his role in thwarting a bomb assassination attempt on Prince Charles and Lady Diana at a London theatre in the 1980s.
O’Callaghan named the people he said had kidnapped and killed Shergar, including the alleged ringleader. This plotter-in-chief, said O’Callaghan, was a senior IRA figure called Kevin Mallon. Mallon was a convicted killer at the time of the kidnap, and had gained notoriety in 1973 for an audacious prison escape by helicopter.
Mallon has denied kidnapping Shergar, and of course nobody has even been held to account for the horse’s disappearance.
In my old notes, I have a list of the IRA army council members from the time – as alleged by O’Callaghan, who said they would have sanctioned the Shergar plan – and the names of the others involved when Shergar went missing.
I was working in the Hokkaido Shimbun London office, covering politics, economics, European affairs and whatever else we thought would interest our readers back ‘home’ when I met O’Callaghan.
We arranged a first meeting – via an Irish journalistic contact – somewhere ‘safe’ for O’Callaghan to scope me out, in an Italian deli somewhere off The Strand if memory serves me correctly. O’Callaghan was concerned he might be killed at any time.
When he was satisfied it was all fine, he agreed to come into the Doshin office, which was then located in a block on the corner of Trafalgar Square, to meet my editor and conduct a long interview.
The senior editors back in Japan were most interested in the Diana plot (Diana sold a lot of papers everywhere), and in stories about Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and of the chances of a transition to a peaceful and possibly united Ireland one day, and of O’Callaghan’s life on the run.
I wanted to know who kidnapped Shergar. And why. And what happened to him. And where he was buried. O’Callaghan was never specific about that, not to within a field or even a village, because I don’t think he ever knew, or knows. But he certainly felt it was somewhere in north County Leitrim.
The IRA rationale for going after a horse was simple: to get a lot of money to fund their activities in a way that wouldn’t alienate the public in the same way that kidnapping humans might.
“Mallon came up with the idea of kidnapping Shergar on the basis that people would not feel too put out about a horse,” O’Callaghan told me. “In fact he thought that if [Shergar’s co-owner] the Aga Khan could be persuaded to pay several million pounds, the public might actually think that [wealth] to be quite grotesque.
“The other benefit was that a horse wasn’t going to have a mum or a dad or a son on the television, crying for the fact they’d been kidnapped. The problem was that the kidnappers messed it up.”
The theory of IRA involvement was firmly established a year after the kidnap. On 6 February 1984 – or 363 days after the horse’s appearance – the ownership consortium, including the Aga Khan, released a public statement saying they felt “the chances of Shergar still being alive are remote”.
The owners, who had not paid the £2m ransom demanded at the time of the kidnap – which happened on the evening of 8 February 1983 – believed Shergar was still alive until 11 February 1983, if not later, and was still in Ireland on that date. The kidnappers had taken a photograph with Shergar together with a copy of a newspaper dated 11 February 1983. But after that, nothing, and the owners said in early 1984 they believed reports that the IRA had killed the horse.
In the year since Shergar had gone missing, the IRA had attempted or succeeded with other (human) kidnaps. They failed in a plot to kidnap the Canadian food tycoon, Galen Weston, then resident in Ireland, in August 1983, but succeeded in kidnapping and holding one of Weston’s supermarket executives, Don Tidey, in November 1983. Tidey was found alive three weeks later in woods near the town of Ballinamore, in County Leitrim.
O’Callaghan told me – and numerous others have since made the same claim – that the kidnappers later involved in the Weston and Tidey cases were the same group who took Shergar. We might never know for sure.
The one discrepancy between O’Callaghan’s account of Shergar’s death and other accounts since is the precise timing of the horse’s demise. O’Callaghan told me the horse was injured quite soon after being taken, and while the injury wasn’t serious, it made handling Shergar more difficult. Injury was also thought to have reduced the chances of a ransom being paid.
O’Callaghan’s version of events – that Shergar was killed within two or three days of being kidnapped – was consistent with a photograph purporting to show the horse alive on 11 February 1983, but not later. Certainly the story we filed for the Hokkaido Shimbun in the 1990s had that version of events. It had been supported – with a cohesive if not exactly similar timeframe – by the sources in Belfast and Dublin.
Subsequently, it has been reported, most recently and most graphically by the Sunday Telegraph in 2008, that Shergar wasn’t injured at all, just slaughtered at the end. That report said Shergar was machine-gunned to death in a remote stable after it became clear no ransom would be paid.
I simply don’t know the full, definitive, true story. I often wonder who does.
I do know three people with connections told me that the IRA kidnapped and killed the horse that left the rest of the 1981 Derby in his wake.
And his body is in a bog, somewhere in north County Leitrim.