Irish Prison Service Whistleblower: The Strange Story of Sean O’Brien | Cassandra Voices

Irish Prison Service Whistleblower: The Strange Story of Sean O’Brien


To meet ex-prison officer Sean O’Brien for the first time I drove through a sparse landscape of family homes, outside the town of Clara in County Offaly. Miles of narrow roads ran through cold and wet pasture, bog, and occasional patches of woodland, typical of the Midlands.

We had been in touch over the phone,after the publication of my interview with barrister David Langwallner, entitled ‘Does Ireland still have a Problem with Whistleblowing?’ from June 2021.

On June 14, 1988, Sean O’Brien disclosed to the Department of Justice various wrongdoings he claims to have witnessed over his years of service in Portlaoise Prison. During his time as a prison officer, between 1981 and 1989, the Northern Troubles were raging, and what went on in the prisons was generally hidden from public view.

Behind locked doors, staff and prisoners alike endured a parallel conflict, requiring physical and psychological resilience.

As is already in the public domain, there was a “Heavy Gang” among members of An Garda Síochána operating at that time. There was also a group of prison officers who went by the same name operating in Portlaoise Prison, and which enjoyed the tacit support of prison management. They were notorious for ‘unconventional’ methods, embedded in the prison system.

Unsafe and alienating working conditions, widespread bullying from top prison officials, as well as being pressurised, Sean claims, to produce a falsified report about a shooting incident in which he was involved, all left their marks on his mental health. Like many others that served as prison officers, he still suffers from those experiences.

Portlaoise Prison.

The Prison

The Portlaoise high security prison complex is one of the oldest penitentiaries in the State. Built in the 1830s, it is still fully operational. Regarded as one of the toughest prisons in the world, it contains the notorious E-Block: a wing dedicated to dissident Republicans, predominantly ex-members of the Provisional IRA (PIRA) and the INLA.

Parallel to the prison’s official organization, during the Troubles prison officers had to understand and operate alongside the Republican’s own strict command structure. In the case of the E-Block, the prisoners’ relations with staff were filtered exclusively through the highest-ranking members of the PIRA. In 1988 that was Martin Ferris, who went on to become a T.D. for Kerry North between 2002-2020.

The history of Portlaoise Prison is chequered with multiple escape attempt, riots and blanket hunger strike campaigns. Allegations of prisoner mistreatment by a Heavy Gang first appeared at the Prison Officers Association convention of 1984.

On that occasion a delegate from Portlaoise Prison, Larry O’Neill told the Prison Officers’ conference in 1982: “If Hitler wanted generals today, he would find plenty of them in Portlaoise. After the war the Nazis said many of them were doing their duty and that is what the management in Portlaoise are saying today”.

Away from the public eye, the working conditions of prison staff, especially South of the Border, have rarely been covered. An official inquiry was carried out in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, but for reasons that remain unclear, Sean O’Brien’s testimony was excluded after he had initially been invited to testify. The resulting report falls short of exploring the extent of the human rights abuses that seem to have occurred behind the prison’s walls.

Irish Press, May 25, 1988.

PO Sean O’Brien

From a working-class family, Sean O’Brien began his career as a prison officer on February 16, 1980, aged twenty. The ‘job’ consisted of dealing with the most problematic, and in some cases dangerous, individuals in Irish society. Due to staff shortages, this work was mostly given to young and inexperienced men in their late teens or early twenties.

The training was basic, lasting just a few weeks, and involved a few meetings, active service in different prisons, physical exercise, and simple inductions on the regulations of the institution. None of this offered much value to someone beginning their work in the State’s prisons.

Sean clearly recalls spending his twenty-first birthday on duty with colleagues; as well as when he had to wear riot gear for the first time during a protest, despite having received no training for what to do in that event.

He also recalls working through the so-called ‘dirty protests’, when officers were forced to use power washers to clean inches of prisoners’ faeces off the walls; and when he was involved in, and witnessed, prisoners receiving unwarranted strip searches, punishment beatings and enduring conditions which he describes as contrary to the Geneva Convention.

After one such strip searches, he recalls the Governor at the time, Bill Reilly – a man with a reputation for being particularly hard on Republicans – telling him and the late Chief Officer Brian Stack, who was working with him at the time, to “bait them again,” after Stack told him they had completed the searches. Sean recalls being reluctant to obey the order as his arm was exhausted from already meting out such beatings.

As a result of such distressing episodes, Sean claims that many prison staff turned to heavy drinking to cope with the stress that the ‘job’ entailed.

We cannot ascertain the extent of the human rights abuses in Irish prisons at the time as a veil of secrecy, or outright omertà, still hasn’t been lifted. In all likelihood, many episodes have never been made public, as it would involve the State accepting liability for its shortcomings.

What prison officers endured as a consequence of this environment ought to become public knowledge to ensure it does not re-occur, and so that the necessary redress process is put in place to assist victims of the State’s past failings.


In 1988, Sean O’Brien was living in a housing complex built by Portlaoise prison for officers and other employees a few yards away from the main gate.

Every morning on May 18, after the customary substantial bowl of porridge and large mug of coffee, the shift began as usual with a security search between the first two gates. This was followed by a meeting at the ‘Parade’, the canteen room, where all the officers on duty lined up to be assigned their positions and tasks for the day by the Duty Chief Officer.

That morning a crowd of protesters and foreign media had gathered at the main street entrance in front of the prison on the Dublin Road. Patrick McVeigh, a member of the PIRA – known as Flash – was scheduled to be released that day. However, he was expected to be re-arrested by the Gardaí as soon as he stepped outside the main gate, before being extradited to Northern Ireland.

Tensions were running high in the prison at the time, and the issue had garnered considerable public attention. McVeigh was a political prisoner, and extradition laws did not cover prisoners with such status. Nonetheless, the extradition machine was in motion, as well as another machine attempting to find a way to save McVeigh from the extradition.

As Flash left the building, a crowd of his sympathisers greeted him at the gate, along with media reporters and a Garda van, with doors open ready to receive the newly freed prisoner. Why there was no other way to handle the exchange remains unclear.

Sean had elbowed his way in through the unfriendly crowd a few minutes before McVeigh was escorted to the Gardaí waiting for him outside the gate. From there he would be conveyed to Court to finalize the extradition.

At this point McVeigh somehow evaded his escort and began running along the inner perimeter of the outer wall in the hope of jumping out on to the Dublin Road.

Contrary to the Governor’s orders, his Deputy Mick Horan physically pushed Sean and illegaly ordered him into a shoot-to-kill area of the prison operated by the Army, shouting, “after him”. Sean obliged along with prison officer Frank Muldowney.

McVeigh had earned the nickname Flash from his speed of foot. He ran along the inner perimeter of the outer wall, reaching the place where, from the outside, accomplices were hanging off the wall to lift him out, where a motorbike awaited.

It was then that Irish Army personnel, stationed on the roof of the prison at all times, shot a sequence of five shots, which can be clearly heard from RTÉ footage of the scene.

Sean felt the reverberations through his body from the flying bullets which, he says, only narrowly missed him. On the ground a few metres away, shots landed in a puff of smoke. Adrenaline overcame fear, and he managed to stop McVeigh before he could leap out on top of the wall.

With the help of Muldowney, Sean brought him into the custody of two Gardaí, and he then made his way into the main prison building to resume his shift.

Apart from O’Brien’s testimony, as of November 2022, we came into possession of two additional eye witness accounts of the events.

One is from Martin Ferris himself. In a letter he writes:

From where I was watching in recreational room E3, a number of bullets hit the space between Officer O’Brien and McVeigh. Pat McVeigh attempted to climb the farm wall onto Dublin Road with the help of some supporters from outside and certainly, would have succeeded only for Officer O’Brien grabbing his legs and preventing his escape.

The second source says he witnessed bullets hitting the ground and bits of tarmac flying up around Sean, and that the distance from Paddy McVeigh was seven feet. However, he wishes to remain anonymous, unless an official inquiry is carried out into why this version of events has been consistently denied by the Department of Justice, the Prison Service, and the Department of Defence.

Cork Examiner, May 25,1988.

Half Sheet and the Governor

Not long after Sean had caught his breath, he received an order from the radio room of E-Block to report to Governor Ned Harkin’s office. As Sean was on his way there he recalls being praised and cheered by some colleagues.

He had just prevented an escape. That would surely lead to a commendation. Instead what welcomed him as he walked into the Governor’s office was a freshly typed false version of that morning’s events, which Sean was ordered to make a copy of in his own hand-writing, right then and there.

That version of events – insofar as Sean recalls – would have protected Deputy Governor Mick Horan, the officer in charge that morning of the release (and re-arrest) of McVeigh, and would attribute most of the blame to another prison officer Paddy Dunne, who was by then already being suspended, as a suspected accomplice to the escape.

Sean refused to comply then, and on dozens of occasions during subsequent days.

According to O’Brien’s protected disclosure:

The purpose of the Prison authorities ordering me to collaborate with their account as to ACO Dunne was to have him dismissed as not to shine a light on Deputy Horan who would have whole responsibility for Prisoner McVeigh escort on that day. Deputy Horan did not chase after the escaping prisoner. This is what Governor Harkins was covering up.

In response to Sean’s refusal to provide a false testimony, threats of dismissal such as “leave your uniform at the gate on the way out” from the Governor Ned Harkin became more and more frequent.

From then on he was not allowed to work on the landings where the prisoners were held. This meant that he was left doing nothing during shifts; waiting in a backroom for the end of the day to arrive. Day after day.

In that situation the first indications of deteriorating mental health became evident. This included frequent nightmares and strong paranoia, which started to make his days unbearable.

Sean knew that he wasn’t meant to catch McVeigh, and besides it would be normal to expect animosity towards him from some Republican prisoners. On top of being bullied for carrying out his job, he sensed a target on his back.

As Martin Ferris, in the aforementioned account, dated 12 November 2022, writes:

Tensions were high within the prison in the aftermath of this incident, and I, as the spokesperson for the republican prisoners, suggested to prison Governor Harkins that Officer O’Brien should not return to the prison landings until things calmed down. I personally never saw prison officer Sean O’Brien within the confines of Portlaoise Prison from that day forward.

It was at that stage that he asked the Prison Officer’s Association Representative Noel Touhy for assistance. He was told that it was not possible for the prison to dismiss him in that fashion. The Association was already pressurising the Department of Justice to reinstate Paddy Dunne, and trying to bring to light the dynamics at play in the attempted escape.

The Department of Defence consistently denied that the shooting could have endangered an officer on duty, as reported by the Cork Examiner on May 25, 1988.

Cork Examiner, May 25, 1988.

As recently as July 2022, Brian Stanley T.D. and Chair of the Public Accounts Committee asked the Minister for Justice “if there are any files being withheld for national security reasons that relate to the attempted escape of a prisoner on May 18 1988 at Portlaoise prison.”

The Minister responsed: “I am advised that the record in question was previously considered as not suitable for release by the Irish Prison Service.” (05/07/2022, Question number: 539, Question Ref: 36042/22)

The Office

On June 14, 1988, Sean O’Brien attended a meeting with Noel O’Beara in the Department of Justice in Dublin in order to: ‘[…] make them aware that the “Prison Administration” in Portlaoise Prison were ordering me to make a false report surrounding Assistance Chief Officer (ACO) Paddy Dunne’s involvement in the escape, to have him dismissed.’

Prior to the meeting, Sean O’Brien says O’Beara shook his hand and congratulated him, stating words to the effect of “you are going to get a medal, what type we don’t know, as one does not exist yet. The equivalent for the Gards is a Scott medal. You are the first prison officer to capture an escaping PIRA prisoner.”

But by this stage O’Brien was feeling his options were running out. The office to which he had been invited felt wrong from the moment he entered. He found no sign of personal effects – a family portrait, postcards, a sporting trophy or anything of that sort – such as one would expect in a regular office.

Despite a suspicion of being recorded without his consent, Sean gave as many details as possible, as well as disclosing the many wrongdoings he had witnessed during his years of service.

Essentially, he blew the whistle on what his superiors wanted him to do, and the wrongdoing within the prison system, while O’Beara listened and took notes. The meeting ended with a promise the matters would be investigated.

Sick Record

After this meeting, Sean O’Brian patiently waited for a change in his circumstances. Then he went on sick leave on September 12, 1988, for a stress-related illness. At that point his previous poor attendance record, in part due to a certified injury he had received while on duty, suddenly became an urgent matter within the Department of Justice and Prison Service.

Sean had already been referred by the Prisoner Governor and the Department of Justice to a psychiatrist (who also wishes to preserve his anonymity). He visited for the first time on September 8, 1988. This resulted in the first suggestion of a diagnosis of post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD), following the shooting incident.

Nonetheless, behind the scenes, in a correspondence between the prison welfare office and the Department of Justice, his dismissal was being considered; while the full diagnosis of PTSD, resulting from a consultancy sought by the Prison Management itself, was completely ignored.

Correspondence which we have obtained includes a letter dated February 13, 1987, one year prior to the shooting, where the prison management tell Sean O’Brien that although the Minister had considered his dismissal, he also ‘noted the improvement in your sick leave record.’ It also states that his ‘late attendance has been unacceptably high since September 1986,’ and that his case will continue to be closely monitored.

Any management is likely to deal with a poor attendance record, but Sean O’Brien’s prior record seems to have been used to inform a response to his attendance after the shooting incident. It blatantly ignores the diagnosis of PTSD, or any other duty of care mandate that the prison service welfare office would have, or ought to have, had at the time.

A letter, dated March 29, 1989 directly from the Department of Justice, outlines the reasons why it cannot any longer accept the standard of the previous evaluation of a ‘marked improvement on an already atrocious pattern of sick absence.’

It continues by saying: ‘The result, if such a standard became the norm, would be to push the cost of absenteeism in the Prison Service from its present £3m. (approx) per annum closer to £4m.’

Thus, despite referring to sick absence, there is no sign of any attention to his medical condition to be found in this letter, which reads like a preparation for a dismissal.

In a subseqent letter, dated April 14, 1989, O’Brien’s dismissal was actively being sought. The prison’s Personnel Section writes to the Chief Medical Officer that:

It would be helpful if a definite medical opinion could be obtained as regards to the absences relating to the officer’s metacarpal injury as the orthopaedic surgeon does not appear to have totally ruled out the possibility that this injury could be a recurring one.

This injury occurred in 1983 and since then he had required recurring treatment and suffered constant pain. Thus, some of the absences being used to prove his poor record seem to have been a direct consequence of this injury.

The letter ends with a pointed request:

Perhaps you would confirm that Officer O’Brien does not have an on-going health problem. It would be appreciated if you would also say if you agreed that absenteeism is the problem in this case.

Apart from the recurring physical injury, the year between the shooting incident and his dismissal is constellated with absences, arguably caused by his deteriorating mental health.

Debilitating insomnia, extreme paranoia, crippling anxiety, flashbacks; all these symptoms have led to a diagnosis of PTSD, but again there’s no sign of a duty of care wherein the psychological damage received while on duty is recognised.

Instead, on May 23, 1989, at approximately 3pm, a knock arrived on the door of O’Brien’s parental home. It was Senior Prison Officer Mick Horan and Garda Sergeant Kevin Ford. They are looking for Sean and Hugh O’Brien (Sean’s brother, also employed at Portlaoise Prison) to tell them that they were both being dismissed. They are asked not to turn up at work the following day. His parents are instructed “to tell Sean to leave his uniform at the gate”.

So Sean O’Brien and his brother were dismissed from the Irish Prison Service with a verbal notice delivered to their bewildered parents, without any official document being issued by the Cabinet of the Irish government.

Following this we discover from the letters obtained from St. Patrick’s Hospital that the prison’s chief medical officer John Geoghegan did not even see Sean O’Brian before his dismissal had been finalized. And we find more indications that his mental health injuries suffered while on duty had been completely ignored by the Prison Service in considering such a dismissal.

The Void 

At the beginning of my interaction with Sean O’Brien, I timidly inquired about the long period running from his dismissal in 1989 to 2017, when he was approached by the former President of the Prison Officers’ Association P. J. McEvoy, who instructed a solicitor to pursue his requests for a Duty of Care under the 1956 Regulations, and recognition for his actions on duty, at a point when Sean’s mental health inhibited him from pursuing the case.

During that period, Sean O’Brien claims he was not in the right mental state to follow up on his case. It seems he let it slide. What he had endured by then in terms of psychological distress he is reluctant to recollect, apart from to liken it to hell.

After his dismissal, an alter ego emerged in his personality. All we know is that this alter ego opened a security firm with his brother and that at some point in 2007, he landed a helicopter onto the roof of a shopping centre, in his own words, to “collect a set of keys”.

The Missing File

The proceedings against the DOJ that began in 1991 were interrupted in 2008 when O’Brien’s solicitor, David O’Shey was placed under arrest.

Then, O’Shey’s documents, including those in relation to the case of Sean O Brien vs The Department Of Justice no.14045P, came before the Law Society.

Since then the file has disappeared without a trace.

It was only in 2017 that he was able to instruct another lawyer to pursue the case. By the time he served a notice of an intention to proceed, in 2019, twenty-six year had elapsed.

Thus far, efforts made by his new solicitor, Kevin Winters to find the file have been unsuccessful.

In the Court of Appeal Judgement, delivered on 27/01/2022 we read that ‘witnesses for the defence (Minister for Justice) cannot reasonably be expected to give evidence that could be regarded as reliable after such an interval.’

The Minister of Justice again denied many of the claims made by Mr O’Brien, including that he recaptured a prisoner who escaped and that he suffered PTSD after nearly being hit by bullets shot by the Irish Defence Forces, which also continues to deny responsibility.

Over the last few years, the case has gained a certain amount of media coverage, mainly concerning the dismissal and sick days. However, very little attention has been paid to Sean O’Brien submitting a protected disclosure to the same Minister of Justice two months after the shooting incident denouncing grave misconduct.

Nor has anyone considered that although O’Brien’s attendance record was certainly not exemplary – 682 days absent between 1980 and 1989 – some of these were due to an injury on duty which occurred in 1983: a fractured hand, and subsequently from 1988, symptoms of a psychological nature.

It would undoubtedly be difficult for any court of law to establish precisely what happened well over thirty years ago in such a complex and volatile environment, but this story seems to contain another lesson.

For many whistleblowers who feel that they have been wronged one of the most difficult challenges is simply to let go. To move on. The obsessiveness associated with their behaviour is often due to a lack of closure.

That Sean O’Brien is still pursuing a judgment in his favour thirty years on from his dismissal reflects this condition.

Only after an attempt is made by a State agency to delve into the historical context of these events can a sense of closure be achieved. A proximate attempt to do so by the Prison Service is what can be found in the Final Report of the Portlaoise Prison Staff Welfare Programme.

This a project carried out by the Prison Service, which recorded the testimonies of almost two hundred Prison Officers who served between 1973 and 1989.

Here we read that:

Portlaoise gave rise to practices that could only have existed in that particular context and the challenges it presented

In that time Knowledge and awareness of the lasting impact of occupational stress, of role ambiguity and role overload and of requirements for healthy, sustainable work practices have been transformed. Such knowledge and awareness were not widely available at the time. It is important to avoid judging the past solely in terms of present-day knowledge.

Thus, from this official source we learn that the working conditions were, indeed, unsuitable and outright damaging to officers.

It is reasonable to say we should not cast moral judgement on past practices during war time, but it still only seems fair that there should be compensation available for breaches of a duty of care that applied at that time.

Some respite from the silence that still engulfs this traumatized country should be available. Such is the long tail of war. You still see it slithering through the streets, long after the last shots have been fired.

Regarding the shooting incident, it is instructive to examine the Irish Army’s Rules of Engagement from this period (below). This differentiates between warning and containment shots. The first, as one would expect, are ordinarily fired into the air, posing no danger to anyone’s life, while the second ‘will be fired near to the person concerned,’ but ‘NOT’ ‘into locations where innocent persons would be endangered.’

Based on Sean O’Brien’s account, corroborated by other witnesses, it would appear that these Rules of Engagement were breached, including a prohibition against firing at a target that is running away.

The Irish Army’s Rules of Engagment/ Use of Force in effect in 1988.

Conclusion: Whistelblowing in Ireland

The title image for this article, was taken towards the end of our first in-person encounter. The names of the dogs are Squirt at the front, Maxine on his right arm and Freddy – who was the most protective of Sean as I recall – Beauty hiding in the background and Mighty Man, named in honour of Noel Tracy TD. Treacy has always been very supportive of Sean. Apparently he always started and ended a sentence with “Mighty Man” when talking to anyone.

Having the company of dogs has been an important coping mechanism for O’Brien, while he deals with the effects of PTSD to this day.

We can say that the context of the Troubles legitimately required a certain level of secrecy. There’s obviously more then meets the eye to the events that ultimately led to the non-extradition of McVeigh, which Margaret Thatcher herself was very keen to achieve.

The Department of Defence, to this day, refuses to release the records in relation to the shooting incident, requested through a Freedom of Information Request in 2016, saying:

The release of this information may potentially compromise the security of the Defence Forces in preparation for peace and security operations at home and overseas.

Meanwhile, the first legal file in relation to O’Brien’s case has disappeared without a trace.

Whistleblowers suffer repercussions all over the globe, but Ireland’s reputation for mistreatment of whistle-blowers has worsened inexorably.

In 2021 Ireland’s Protected Disclosure Act undertook reforms to comply with a European Directive. Even then, according to some stakeholders, the new legislation still falls short of providing adequate protection from the inevitable repercussions of such a radical act.

Beyond the legal frameworks, better outlined in David Langwallner’s article “Whistleblew in the face”, which appeared in Village Magazine in November, 2021, the corrosive effects on a whistleblower’s mental health is often overlooked.

All too often, when an instance of whistleblowing reaches the mainstream media, these negative mental health consequences are used implicitly to discredit the disclosures. One of the first questions the media tends to pose to whistleblowers is “Why did you do it?”; followed by: “Would you do it again, knowing the consequences you would face?”

Both questions, somewhat deviously, shift the focus away from any wrongdoings that have been exposed to the action of whistleblowing itself; subjecting the whistleblower to moral scrutiny. Those kind of questions seem designed to suggest a hidden motive for why an individual has become a whistleblower.

Being subjected to such questions – including from oneself – might lead most of us to assume a defensive posture. Over time one may construct an elaborate justification for one’s action, as if the disclosure was itself a crime, and not, only, a testimony to a crime.

With thanks to Ben Pantrey for editorial assistance.


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