Harry Mount: The most tortured soul I ever met

Harry Mount: The most tortured soul I ever met

Can you ever forgive a murderer? Or – even harder – can a murderer ever forgive himself? That’s the dilemma you were faced with when you met Sean O’Callaghan, the repentant IRA killer who drowned last week while on holiday in Jamaica, aged 62.

By his own admission, O’Callaghan’s hands were drenched in blood. In 1990, he was sentenced to 539 years in prison for more than 40 crimes, including two murders. First came Eva Martin, a 28-year-old language teacher and member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, killed in a rocket attack, led by O’Callaghan, at Clogher army base in 1974. Then, three months later, he pumped nine bullets, in cold blood, into the body of Detective Inspector Peter Flanagan, the Catholic head of the RUC in Omagh.

O’Callaghan came to realise the evil of his acts and, in 1979, turned IRA informer. His intelligence put 50 IRA members behind bars, and led to the capture of the trawler Marita Ann, stuffed with weapons and explosives, in 1984. He even supposedly prevented the planned murder of the Prince and Princess of Wales at the Dominion Theatre in 1983.

I only knew him a little, after a royal pardon released him from jail in 1996. Nicknamed “Sean O’Semtex”, he helped advise the Daily Telegraph on IRA-related articles when I worked there.

He was exceptionally intelligent, extremely eloquent and funny, in an understated way, with a soft-spoken voice. Furiously chain-smoking, pipe-cleaner thin and given to heavy drinking, he was perpetually agitated. I’ve never met a more tortured soul – his eyes flitted left and right in a constant, agonised dance. He certainly hadn’t forgiven himself for his appalling acts.

It is not for me to forgive him. It is for the relations of Eva Martin and Peter Flanagan. And I certainly wouldn’t forgive him if I were in their shoes.

But it’s possible to explain his wicked acts of unspeakable violence, without justifying them. He was brought up in County Kerry, with an IRA father and uncle. At 15, he enlisted in the IRA, replacing school with bomb-making lessons. He carried out his murders when he was 19. By the age of 25, he had understood the catastrophe of his ways, and turned informer.

To understand all is not to forgive all. But to see this tormented figure and discuss his past frankly, was to understand more.


They’re planning to install a mobile phone mast on a church spire near my parents’ holiday cottage in Pembrokeshire.

I’m overjoyed. No more holding the phone out of the upstairs bathroom skylight to get a lone bar on my phone.

But is it ethical for a church to improve our mobile phone connections? I certainly think so. Most of us fritter away our time on our mobiles in pointless conversations and silly social media interchanges. But mobiles are also crucial for work and those emergencies in life where it’s the call on the phone that brings appalling but necessary news.

It’s also consoling for us church architecture fans that a medieval spire is still the tallest building for miles around. Even in these godless times, few temples to Mammon outsoar our greatest religious buildings.


“I wouldn’t mind seeing China if I could come back the same day,” said Philip Larkin.I quite agree. Not because I mind being away from home for more than a day. It’s the nights that kill me.

No hotel room – however grand – is as beautifully fitted to my specifications as my own bedroom. I’ve just spent one night in Penzance – an 11-hour return train journey – rather than risk a second night in a strange room.

The first hotel room I was shown in Penzance was opposite some sort of cooling tower, with a constant, high-pitched whine from a ventilation grille. The room I moved to didn’t have enough blankets, and I slept fitfully in the cold. Moving from the first bedroom to the second, I accidentally left my spongebag in the bathroom of the first room. Cue a nice barman at 11.30pm taking me up to the first room to unlock the door and retrieve my washing things.

My fault, I know. But it would never have happened at home – where my toothpaste is always in the same place, where the exact number of duvets and precise temperature have been carefully calibrated over years, where I don’t have to ask for the wifi code, where I can open the windows, where the minibar – or fridge – is stuffed with drinks at supermarket prices, where I don’t have to exchange pleasantries with a receptionist when I come through my front door.

Would I like to see China? Yes, as long as I can take my bedroom with me.

Harry Mount is editor of the Oldie Magazine