Justice came late for scapegoat airman

By Liam Murphy

The murder of Patricia Curran (19) in November 1952 sent shockwaves all over Ireland and beyond. By the end of the year the RUC were being criticised for lack of progress in finding the killer and by this time had enlisted the help of Scotland Yard who sent over Superintendent John Capstick – known as a hard man – and Detective Sergeant Dennis Hawkins. Almost 40,000 statements were taken and every male over the age of 16 in the Whiteabbey district was fingerprinted.
The body had been discovered 40 yards from her home some hours after her death and although her body was soaked in blood from 37 stab wounds there was no blood on the ground where she lay. It had been raining for most of the night yet her clothes were dry. It also transpired that the dead girl’s father, Judge Lancelot Curran, did not let the RUC into the Curran home until a week after the murder.
Patricia Curran’s brother, Desmond, a barrister, attended the local Presbyterian church. He was a member of a crusading religious group. He met up with a young Scot named Iain Hay Gordon and invited him to dinner in the Curran home. He had hoped Hay Gordon would join his group but his efforts were unsuccessful. Hay Gordon was 20 years old, an RAF technician barracked at nearby Edenmore.
In mid-January Desmond Curran told Capstick that Hay Gordon was very knowledgeable about the murder and was asking questions about it. Capstick wrote in his autobiography that Curran also told him that Hay Gordon had confided to him that he liked to use knives. Capstick claimed Desmond Curran believed that Hay Gordon had killed his sister.
Capstick arrested Hay Gordon and began an intensive interrogation. Gordon later divulged that he was interrogated by the two Scotland Yard men in a very small room for up to eight hours at a time and that he had little food or water. No solicitor was present and an RAF officer was refused permission to be present.
Capstick had been tipped off that Hay Gordon had homosexual tendencies. Homosexuality was against the law then and homosexuals tended to be very secretive. Hay Gordon was said to be a very shy, timorous being. Capstick told him he would inform his mother. Since he was from a very conservative church background, this put great fear in Hay Gordon and he said he would sign a confession. Capstick and Hawkins then began constructing the statement. The wording of it is very interesting.
“I walked up the lane with Patricia Curran”, “I believe I did this” or “It seems that this is what happened…” It was as if he was told the chain of events and he believed he had done it. Iain Hay Gordon duly signed the confession and was charged with murder. The wheels of justice turned remarkably quickly and the trial opened on March 2, 1953. The presiding judge was Lord Justice John McDermott, a close friend of Lancelot Curran. There was difficulty in getting a defence team. Eventually Mr H.A. McVeigh QC, also a close friend of the Curran family, agreed to take the case on condition that he did not have to cross-examine any of the Curran family. Incredibly, these constraints and conditions were permitted.
The defence argued that the confession was false and that it should not be accepted by the court. Lord Justice McDermott disagreed and admitted the confession. He also rejected the argument that the confession was fraudulent, vague and lacked proper detail. He further rejected the argument that the confession was improperly secured. The defence then conceded that their client was guilty but insane. It has to be remembered that the death penalty for murder was still in existence and this was a means of avoiding execution. The jury duly returned a verdict that Hay Gordon carried out the murder but that he was insane at the time.
Iain Hay Gordon was sent to Holywell Mental Hospital near Antrim. It must have been a traumatic experience for someone who wasn’t mentally ill and who believed himself to be innocent, to be locked up among what were then referred to as lunatics. He adopted a strategy to overcome this, believing that he would be released any day. After seven years in Holywell the Minister of Home Affairs, Brian Faulkner, came up with a cunning plan. He told Hay Gordon that if he agreed to adopt a new name he would send him back to Glasgow. In 1960, ‘John Cameron’ was put on a flight to Glasgow. For many years Hay Gordon kept his head down.
In 1995 the new Criminal Cases Review Commission was made aware of the case by a campaign group spearheaded by a friend of Hay Gordon, Bobby Devlin. MPs were lobbied at Westminster and eventually an appeal was granted. This took place in 2000, by which time Hay Gordon was 68 years of age. The prosecution conceded that they could no longer accept the confession and Iain Hay Gordon was pronounced innocent 48 years after he was charged.
He died two years ago. Patricia Curran’s mother, Doris, died in 1975. Lancelot Curran was the judge during the trial of Robert McGladdery in 1961 for the murder of Pearl Gamble. Despite protesting his innocence, he was convicted and hanged, the last person to be hanged on Irish soil. Lancelot Curran died in 1984.
The Protestant firebrand Desmond Curran converted to Catholicism five years after his sister’s murder and was ordained a priest in Rome in 1964, an event attended by his father, a member of the Orange Order. After his ordination Desmond went to South Africa to minister in a township.
So who killed Patricia Curran? It remains a mystery. If you ask any of our senior citizens you will probably get an opinion. Many of them will tell you they knew someone who had inside information.
County Inspector Albert Kennedy, who initially headed the inquiry, wrote at the time: “It was decided to pursue every other line of inquiry before allowing our thoughts to concentrate on something which seemed too fantastic to believe, namely, that the Currans were in fact covering up the murderer and telling a tissue of lies.”

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