Rathkeale: A small Irish town swollen by the proceeds of crime

The notoriety of Rathkeale – the home to the eponymous Rovers crime group – is unmatched by its population of 1,500

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The Independent Online

Every year when the Travellers return from overseas to their spiritual home of Rathkeale, the streets of the small Irish town become clogged with expensive cars and the pubs filled with free-spending drinkers recounting their tales of success.

The notoriety of the town – the home to the eponymous Rovers crime group – is unmatched by its population of 1,500. That number is swollen by several thousand more of the returning entrepreneurs who use their funds to buy property and increase the already stark divide between the Travellers and the settled community of the town.

Fifteen years ago, they travelled predominantly to Britain for work. Now in a global “starburst” of activity from Rathkeale, they go to Europe, Canada and Australia, before returning to the town in Co Limerick. “They come back to enjoy themselves and see their parents after being out in wilderness places,” Richard ‘Kerry’ O’Brien Snr, told The Irish Times last year.

The level of their success is marked by the size of the dowries during wedding season, the luxury of fittings in the new homes and the make of the new cars that drive through the streets, according to one resident, who declined to be named. “This is what people can’t understand: how can they fund those houses,” they said. “The best of stuff goes into them. There’s a lot of showmanship.”

At the height of the museum raids in Britain in 2012, property was changing hands in the town at a rate not seen during the era of the property bubble of the Celtic Tiger years, according to one councillor. A motion to the Limerick county council detailed “dubious cash transactions by nameless and faceless tycoons”.

A level of understanding of the source of some of those funds is provided in a policy briefing assessment by the European policing agency, Europol, about an “Irish mobile OCG” [organised crime group]. While members of the group specialise in stealing and trading rhino horn, their criminal talents are diverse and include involvement in drugs trafficking, tarmac fraud, counterfeit power tools, robbery and money laundering, according to the 2011 document.

The town itself, say residents, is largely crime free. Community workers say it will be 100 per cent Traveller in a decade because nobody else wants to live or do business there. The town’s community co-ordinator told a forum 80 per cent of private property in the town was owned by the Travelling community.

The gang

Richard ‘Kerry’ O’Brien snr,  arrested but never charged

The man described in court as the head of the O’Brien family is a self-proclaimed successful businessman and was the “largest distributor of cast-iron fireplaces” in Ireland during the building boom. He was arrested during the 2013 police operation to round up members of the Rathkeale Rovers but was never charged. He claims he is the victim of harassment by the Irish Gardaí and is suing Bloomberg Businessweek in the US over a story which he says falsely portrayed him as a “criminal mastermind”. Bloomberg declined to comment.


Top row, from left: Ashley Dad, John ‘Kerry’ O’Brien Junior and Terence McNamara. Bottom row, from left: John ‘Cash’ O’Brien, Michael Hegarty and Alan Clarke (PA)

John ‘Cash’ O’Brien, 68, convicted

Richard Snr’s brother and described by police as a top-tier international criminal with a conviction for a multi-million pound tobacco smuggling racket. O’Brien, from Wolverhampton, recruited the burglary team who raided the Durham Oriental Museum. Although he sought to stand aloof from the crime, he was included during the round of panicked phone calls after the burglars “lost” the multi-million pound haul they stashed on waste ground.

Daniel ‘Turkey’ O’Brien, 45, convicted

Richard Snr’s brother-in-law. In 2013 he was jailed for 16 months for stealing a rhino horn from an antiques dealer in Nottinghamshire.

He had agreed to buy the horn from the dealer in a McDonald’s car park in Newark, but instead snatched it and fled in a 4x4. The dealer, who was clinging to the car, was left with head injuries. While on bail – and a day after the Fitzwilliam raid – O’Brien cut off his electronic tag and fled the country for  18 months.

He spent time in Canada and Spain before he was arrested and returned to Britain.

Richard Kerry O’Brien Jnr, 31, convicted

The son of Richard Snr is considered a high-ranking figure in the organisation. He was one of two men jailed for  six months in the US in 2011 after being caught in an undercover sting operation in Colorado trying to export four black rhino horns to Ireland.


Top row, from left: Paul Pammen, Donald Chi Chong Wong, Richard Sheridan, Robert Gilbert-Smith. Bottom row, from left: Richard ‘Kerry’ O’Brien, Patrick Clarke, Daniel ‘Turkey’ O’Brien (PA)

John ‘Kerry’ O’Brien, 26, convicted

Another son of Richard Snr. When he was arrested in 2013, police found a black notebook with his fingerprint on the back of the last page. The book itself contained a number of references to museums around the world, including Durham’s Oriental museum. He had also telephoned the Hong Kong middleman Donald Wong in the immediate aftermath of the raid on the Durham museum.

Michael Hegarty, 46,  convicted

Married to Richard O’Brien Snr’s daughter, Kathleen. He was jailed along with Richard O’Brien Jnr for the Colorado rhino smuggling plot.

The police operation to track phones showed that Hegarty was at the centre of operation planning.

Richard Sheridan, 47,  convicted 

John “Cash” O’Brien’s son. The spokesman for the Dale Farm eviction protests and, along with his father, a convicted multi-million pound tobacco smuggler. He was jailed for a year in 2006 for the £9m duty evasion. When the conviction was brought up during his high-profile campaigning role, he told the Mail on Sunday: “I’ve already been punished for my crimes. I’ve done my time – this doesn’t need to be brought up.”