Frank McCann – the swimming coach who killed his wife and child to hide a sordid secret

As he awaited a verdict, Frank McCann sat in the courtroom engrossed in a book about “the perfect murder”.

he book, ‘Total Eclipse’, was described as “gripping” and “creepy” which could easily be words attributed to McCann’s own story.

He had played the part of a distraught husband himself as he tried to get away with killing his wife Esther and the 18-month-old child they planned to adopt.

But as the evidence about what happened on September 4, 1992 became clearer, his own story crystallised into an Irish Independent headline: “A swimming superstar and caring father but in reality a monster”.

This week observed McCann back on the streets of Dublin having served almost 30 years for double murder.

He is up for parole later this year, something that terrifies Esther’s family who believe he is “an actor and a manipulator until something doesn’t go his way”.

The most important names in this article are not the household ones. They are Esther and Jessica McCann, who will be 30 years dead next month. But other names to feature include George Gibney, Derry O’Rourke and Fr Michael Cleary.

Frank McCann was a highflyer in Irish swimming circles who valued his reputation more than his wife and child’s life.

The month leading up to the fire at his family home in Rathfarnham were a busy time for the publican.

In June 1992 he was a senior official on an international swimming outing to Florida before the Barcelona Olympics. The team included top athletes Gary O’Toole and Michelle Smith.

At home he and Esther were in the process of trying to formally adopt his sister Jeanette’s child.


Publican Frank McCann is led away from the Central Criminal Court having been found guilty of the murders of Ester and Jessica McCann. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

Diary entries reveal how Esther had helped care for Jeanette in her final weeks of pregnancy and was in the Coombe for Jessica’s birth.

It had seemed the ideal solution for the couple who desperately wanted a child and for the single mother who still wanted to see her daughter grow up.

“We were thrilled and a little worried that maybe Jeanette had made her decisions too quickly. She, however, felt that it was the best possible arrangement for you and that she was certain we would be good parents to you,” Esther wrote at the time.

But unbeknownst to Esther, the adoption process would bring a secret to the surface.

Her husband had fathered a child with a 17-year-old swimming student with special needs, and this baby, born just three months after Frank and Esther’s wedding, had been adopted with the help of Fr Michael Cleary.

The cleric later told Esther’s family that he had used her as leverage to get financial help for the teenager.  

When someone known to the teenage swimming student became aware that McCann was looking to adopt Jessica they reported his secret to the authorities, knowing it would bring his personality and fitness to be a father into question.

Esther noticed delays in the adoption application but died before finding out the truth.

Neither was she aware of the sex abuse scandals that were about to unravel about George Gibney and Derry O’Rourke whom she would have welcomed into her home on occasion.

One of Gibney’s young victims has since recalled that she met with McCann in his role as President of Leinster swimming to raise concerns.

“He said that he ‘hoped to f**k’ that it did not break while he was president,” the victim said.

In 1993, Gibney was charged with 27 counts of indecent assault and unlawful carnal knowledge but left the country and has never served time in jail.


Esther, wife of Frank McCann, his niece also Esther and baby Jessica. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

Derry O’Rourke served nine years of a 12-year sentence for a string of sexual abuses on girls as young as 10 years old.

At the time of the fire, McCann was reportedly having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl.

By the autumn 1992, Esther was concerned at how long it was taking the Adoptions Board to reach a decision. She repeatedly rang for news and was eventually given an appointment for September 7 to discuss the case.

Esther told her sister that she planned on having it out with Frank over unexplained delays. He knew the net was closing on his double life but rather than risk public humiliation, he plotted to kill.

Three days before the appointment he set up a gas cylinder and a blowtorch in the house on Butterfield Avenue and went to work in his Blessington pub.

The lifeless toddler still had her soother in her mouth when the fire crew got to her. Esther was found on the landing making a vain bid to reach Jessica. McCann arrived at the scene and played the role of a concerned husband perfectly.

During the Garda investigation, McCann attempted to blame someone with a personal vendetta against him, or even on his wife, whom he claimed might have been smoking in the house and started the blaze. 

In the run-up to the killings, he had concocted a series of fake threats against him and daubed paint on his pub that said, ‘Burn, you bastard’.

It transpired he had made three other unsuccessful attempts to kill them, including one where the brakes on Esther’s car failed.

Jeannette’s boyfriend never saw his child, but he brought a wreath to her funeral. Apparently at McCann’s request he was asked to go to the back of the church.


Extended family of Ester McCann outside court. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

McCann was arrested and charged in April 1993. His first trial was suspended when he used a bottle of cologne to set himself alight in the courthouse.

The second trial was in 1996 where McCann was found guilty and sentenced to two concurrent life sentences. 

The headline of the front of the Irish Independent on August 16, 1996 read: ‘Life for heartless fireball murderer’.

Over the decades Esther McCann’s family have always dreaded the day he would be released. 

This week we photographed McCann (62) walking alone and unsupervised from Mountjoy Prison to a charity-run training centre in the south inner city where it is understood he is doing a course to assist people with a criminal conviction.

“He’s a cold-blooded murderer. How he can be allowed to walk the streets of the city is incomprehensible. He’s not even tagged. He was given a life sentence, and a whole-life sentence seems right for anyone who has killed a child,” said Esther’s sister Marian Leonard.

“He looks strong and fit. It’s frightening. It’s like he’s been in a time warp. We’ve all aged but he looks like he stepped out of a gym,” she added.


Esther McCann with niece Esther and Frank McCann. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

It is understood McCann is due before the Parole Board later this year and feels his eventual release is near.

But Marian Leonard and her daughter, who is also named Esther, have said they feel he should never be freed.

Esther said she feels nervous when she is in the city now that McCann has been given more freedom.

“I’m jumpy. I’m looking over my shoulder. I’ve started to limit my movements with my friends in the city now,” she said. 

On one morning this week McCann left Mountjoy morning dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and light jacket, and strolled past the Mater Hospital and down a network of streets in the north inner city that brought him past the Garden of Remembrance and onto O’Connell Street.

Nobody recognised him as the double murderer whose actions shocked the country nearly three decades ago.

He then spent nine hours at the training centre before walking back to the prison via a slightly different route.

When approached by he refused to answer any questions on his plans when released and if he had any remorse. 

McCann spent much of his life sentence in Arbour Hill Prison where he gradually gained more freedoms such as being allowed to work in the gardens and cleaning out the officers’ areas. 

In March last year he was moved to the Progression Unit in Mountjoy, and although it was seen as a further step towards his release McCann was not happy about the move and barricaded himself into his cell.

“We are told he is a model prisoner, but it has been seen that when something upsets him he becomes unpredictable and shows his true colours. He is an actor and a manipulator until something doesn’t go his way,” said Marian.

The final entry in Esther McCann’s diary was made exactly 30 years ago today on July 30, 1992.

It read: “My darling daughter Jessica, you have grown and become a beautiful child. You have been walking now for a little over a week and have given up holding onto the wall, in search of your own bit of independence. Cup of tea and ups a daisy with constant talk of Daddy, oh Mammy and Mammy’s baby. Lots of talk and every day brings new joys of every sort…”

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