After almost 70 years, the murder of Patricia Curran casts a long shadow

Magna est veritias et prevailabit

(Great is Truth and it will prevail)

—Cicero (?)

(Photo: Belfast Telegraph, Patricia Curran at centre)

In the early hours of 12 November 1952 the body of Patricia Curran, the daughter of a judge, was ‘discovered’ by her brother, Desmond, just off the driveway to the family home at The Glen, Whiteabbey. She had been murdered by being stabbed 37 times. Desmond on lifting her up thought that she breathed; she was brought by the family solicitor, conveniently on the scene, to the local GP where she was pronounced dead. Rigor mortis was present. Though it had been raining all that evening her clothes were quite dry; her belongings were neatly stacked nearby. There was little or no blood at the scene.

In 1950s N Ireland was largely free of ‘normal’ crime, and the murder of the daughter of a judge, a member of the local establishment was shocking, a tragedy that featured on the front pages of the local papers for a long time afterwards; a mixture of lurid fascination and titillation.

What then followed was a grotesque parody of the legal process. The judge refused permission for the RUC to interview his family for four days; and it was only a week after the discovery of her body before the judge permitted the RUC access to the family home. Patricia’s bedroom had been freshly redecorated.

The RUC took some 40,000 witness statements, but could not discover the murderer; in desperation they turned to Chief Superintendent John Capstick of Scotland Yard. His suspicions rapidly hardened around Iain Hay Gordon, a young, gauche, naive, jejune, shy national serviceman then based nearby at Edenmore.

In his lurid (ghost written) memoir, Chapstick described his interrogation of Iain Hay Gordon, saying,

I had to make that boy tell me the truth about his private life and most secret thoughts. Only then could I begin to believe him she he began to tell the truth about Patricia Curran. I hated to use what might well seem to be ruthless measures. I was never sorrier for any criminal than for that unhappy, maladjusted youngster. But his mask had to be broken.

To translate: Capstick gave Iain Hay Gordon the ‘third degree’, questioning him about his sexual fantasies, and playing on Gordon’s fear that his mother might think him a homosexual (a criminal offence in those days); Capstick implanted ideas into Gordon’s head; Iain Hay Gordon was, in the words of a later expert opinion, ‘brainwashed’. Iain Hay Gordon ‘confessed’, and at Capstick’s dictation wrote a confession. He had, it said, ‘blacked out’.

At his trial before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord McDermott, Iain Hay Gordon was found ‘guilty but insane’. He subsequently spent seven years in a secure facility at Holywell. Not being insane, he was given no treatment for this imaginary condition. He was released on the orders of Brian Faulkner, who required that he return to his native Scotland under an assumed name, which he did.

After his retirement, Iain Hay Gordon began a legal process to clear his name. He applied to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, but was initially turned down; a verdict of ‘guilty but insane’ is, in legal technicality, an acquittal. Only after the law was changed could he appeal again. His case was heard in the NI Court of Appeal in 2000, during which Counsel for the Crown admitted,

Without that confession would the verdict be guilty? The answer is no.

The Court of three judges ruled that the ‘confession’ was inadmissible; it was the only evidence pointing to Iain Hay Gordon’s guilt.

What exactly happened to Patricia Curran may never be known with certainty. The case is much more complicated than the simplified version I’ve described, much of the ‘evidence’ remains unclear.

Commentators think that Patricia returned to the family home around 5.30 pm on the evening before her body was discovered. She, having a distinct fear of the rather overgrown and sinister driveway may have been accompanied towards the home. It has been suggested that Patricia’s mother, disapproving of her daughter’s lifestyle, entirely conventional if judged by todays’s standards, murdered her. Patricia had had a gap year, unusually at the time, before starting her Arts degree at QUB. Judge Curran was playing poker at the Ulster Reform Club, from where, around 7 pm, he was urgently summoned; Desmond arrived somewhat later.

Commentators agree that Iain Hay Gordon was a scapegoat in an establishment cover-up; and that his conviction as ‘guilty but insane’ was a legal manoeuvre to prevent him having the ultimate (capital) punishment being imposed.

There is much more detail about the murder of Patricia Curran here. The story of Iain Hay Gordon’s acquittal is retold in newspaper reports here. Patricia’s story has be retold as a novel and here. The website has collected several newspaper articles here.


I make this plea to anyone who knows the present whereabouts of Desmond Curran, the only surviving actor of this ghastly tragedy; it’s rumoured that he lives in a monastery somewhere in N Ireland.

Surely the time has come for the truth of what happened to be told, time for the ghosts of the past to be slain, time to mourn your sister properly, and to remember the fate of Iain Hay Gordon.

Though no longer a registered medical practitioner, I am still beholden to the Hippocratic Oath, to which I am a subscriber, and which states,

Whatever, in the course of my practice, I may see or hear (even when not invited), whatever I may happen to obtain knowledge of, if it be not proper to repeat it, I will keep sacred and secret within my own breast.

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