The search for the last resting place of Shergar
It was the world's most famous racehorse when it was kidnapped by an armed IRA gang in 1983 and disappeared forever. Now a new BBC One Northern Ireland documentary reveals the thoroughbred is likely buried in a desolate bog in Co Leitrim. Laurence White reports
Letters written by an IRA supergrass to the Belfast Telegraph's late political editor, Liam Clarke, proved pivotal in the making of a new BBC documentary on one of Ireland greatest kidnap mysteries.
Award-winning filmmaker Alison Millar realised she had uncovered gold dust when she was shown the hefty sheaf of letters sent from Maghaberry Prison by Sean O'Callaghan to Mr Clarke.
"When I saw the names he mentioned, I knew right away that what he was saying in the letters was right," she says.
Others, including the IRA, argued that O'Callaghan, who died in a swimming pool accident in Jamaica last August, could not be trusted , given how he had spent a long period of his life as an informer against republicans.
Alison, who has been fascinated by the disappearance of Shergar since her early years, researched the existing material meticulously and found some of the so-called 'exclusives' less than accurate. "When you stripped away some of the veneer, you realised that there was very little underneath," she says,
"Thirty-five years after the horse was taken from its stable in Kildare, I wanted to do my own documentary, and the letters proved invaluable in pointing me in certain directions.
"After that, it was just a case of old-fashioned walking up laneways and knocking on doors and trying to track down people who had some connection with the case."
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In that, she was often assisted by Liam's widow, Kathryn Johnston. She says: "Sean wrote letters from Maghaberry to Liam on a frequent basis, sometimes two a week, during the early-1990s. And when he was released, he spent two of three weeks with us."
Sadly, Liam died suddenly before the making of the programme, but Kathryn is in no doubt he would have loved working on it, using his many contacts to bring fresh perspective to the mystery.
She says: "He would have been in the middle of it."
Alison adds: "The letters also set the context for the period, and when we were fitting the jigsaw together, we never found a piece missing. They contained names of people in the racing industry, which I knew were accurate from my own research, and that gave me great confidence in what he was saying.
"These were letters which set out not only what happened to Shergar, but also referred to the kidnapping of people."
Alison stresses that the programme, which is screened next week on BBC One Northern Ireland, is a documentary, not an investigation, but it obviously required much research.
From that, she was able to confirm that it was, indeed, the IRA who took the horse, killed it shortly afterwards and buried it near the Northern Ireland border.
The plot, hairbrained as it turned out, was to gain a ransom for the record-breaking Epsom Derby winner.
In a neat turn of phrase, Alison says: "They thought this horse would be their cash cow."
As racing fans prepare for this year's running of the Derby this afternoon, the name of Shergar is still remembered because of its record 10-length win in the race in 1981.
Along with triple Grand National winner Red Rum, it remains probably the most famous horse to come out of Europe in the last century.
But there was an important difference between the two. Shergar was retired to stud at the end of its Derby-winning year and immediately became the most valuable horse at that time.
Owner the Aga Khan sold 34 shares in the horse at £250,000 each and kept another six for himself, valuing it at £10m. Stud fees were set at around £80,000 for each time it covered a brood mare. Investors thought it was a licence to print money. And so it proved in the first year at stud, when it produced 35 foals.
But the next year - when 55 mares were lined up to breed from Shergar - everything changed. On February 8, 1983, an armed gang burst into the home of Shergar's groom at Ballymany Stud farm in the Curragh, Co Kildare, forced him to load it into a horsebox and drove off, creating a mystery even beyond the imagination of Dick Francis, the celebrated racing novelist.
It was several hours before the Garda were informed, but by then there were no clues. The gang had chosen the time for the snatch carefully. It was the time of horse sales in the area and the roads were full of horseboxes. Another would not cause any attention.
When the news broke, media from around the world descended on the Republic and three leading racing journalists were asked to come to Northern Ireland in a phone call apparently from the kidnappers.
But this turned out to be an elaborate hoax and the real negotiations were going on between
the gang and the Aga Khan. Although there was some dissent, the members of the syndicate owning shares in Shergar refused to countenance paying over any money and, shortly afterwards, all contact was ended and the mystery deepened.
Alison, through her old-fashioned journalistic techniques of following up every lead, gained interviews with two leading IRA figures, one of whom appears in the film. The other - "a very senior IRA man" - agreed to talk to her off the record.
"He was a gentleman and he even gave us his mobile telephone number. More importantly, he was also able to confirm a number of different details."
The other IRA figure was Kieran Conway, a one-time intelligence chief of the organisation, who had rejoined the organisation after the 1981 hunger strikes.
"He has always refused to speak openly about his time in the IRA, but he spoke to me as an 'expert' on the IRA's kidnapping strategy," says Alison.
"Two years earlier, supermarket owner Ben Dunne was kidnapped by the IRA and a ransom was paid.
Then, after the Shergar fiasco, another supermarket boss, Don Tidey, was also kidnapped and a ransom demanded.
"Conway was able to confirm to me that these were not coincidental events, but part of a strategy by the Provisional IRA to raise much-needed money for arms.
"After the 1981 hunger strikes, the IRA had increased in strength and support, but desperately needed more funds. Bank robberies, or hold-ups of cash in transit, was becoming more and more difficult and a new strategy needed to be found. This was it and it was approved by the IRA army council, according to our sources."
One of the central figures in the documentary is former equine vet Stan Cosgrove, who was also a shareholder in Shergar. In 2004, he vowed never to talk about the incident again, but Alison managed to get him to speak to camera.
His reluctance to talk is understandable. In the wake of the kidnapping, he was the victim of a scam in which the Garda appears not to have been blameless and which cost him many thousands of pounds.
A mystery man said he had information the horse was still alive and he could pinpoint where it was being held.
If that was not bad enough insurers refused to pay him out, insisting there was no proof that the horse was, indeed, dead.
His son, James, an insurance claims expert and a family friend, knowing of O'Callaghan's information on the kidnapping, went to visit him in jail in Northern Ireland and, even though he passed on letters saying Shergar was dead, these were not accepted as proof.
But having established beyond doubt that the horse was killed by the IRA - though Alison is unable to confirm some reports which said that it was machine-gunned to death after breaking a leg and becoming unmanageable - there remained the question posed by the title of the documentary, Searching for Shergar.
Where is the animal buried? Alison has no doubt. Along with Kathryn, they have obtained information from seven or eight sources that the remains of the iconic thoroughbred lie in a bog in Co Leitrim.
They have narrowed the field, in a manner of speaking, down to a small townland called Aughrasheeling, not far from Ballinamore, and less than 10 miles from the Northern Ireland border.
Aghrasheeling translates as "meadow of the fairies", but are people still spinning fairy stories?
When Alison set out to make the documentary, she figured that 35 years after the kidnapping and the new atmosphere in Ireland - at that time the Troubles were at their height - tongues may have been loosened and people would be more willing to talk about the incident.
That is certainly not the case around Ballinamore. "People know where Shergar is buried, but the rehearsed silence is unbreakable."
They approached several locals, but each time was stonewalled when the conversation turned to the horse.
However, she has happier memories of making the documentary. She draws out of her handbag during our interview a horseshoe given to her by the retired farrier who used to shoe Shergar every month.
And she further uncovered a piece of evidence hitherto unknown to the public - that the kidnap gang dropped a magazine from a sub-machine-gun when fleeing from the stud farm.
Indeed, it could well have been from the weapon used to terrorise the groom's family until the gang made their getaway.
And finally being able to touch all that remains of the wonder horse apart from memories - a little bunch of hairs plucked from its mane and tail shortly before it was kidnapped and given to two young visitors who came to photograph Shergar one day.
Those hairs would be invaluable DNA evidence if any remains of the animal are ever found.
Searching for Shergar, BBC One Northern Ireland, Thursday, June 7