“By far the most sensational armed robbery since the Baltinglass affair was perpetrated in Athy on the night of Friday, 5th December when three armed and masked men, having gained an entrance to the Post Office, held up the acting Postmaster and the Clerk who were at work on the accounts and robbed the premises of between £300 and £400 worth of postage stamps and £102 in cash”.
Under the headline, “Sensational Robbery in Athy” the Nationalist and Leinster Times of 13th December 1924 carried the story which would excite the public’s interest for months thereafter. In interviews I have carried out over the years I have frequently come across references to the Post Office robbery, but those who referred to it could only do so in very general terms. Indeed when some years ago I interviewed the widow of the acknowledged leader of the Post Office raiders, she had but sketchy details of what happened. The story can now be told and by a strange coincidence its telling in March 2005 comes soon after a chain of events in Northern Ireland which parallel in many ways what happened in Southern Ireland 81 years ago.
The Civil War between pro-treaty and anti-treaty sides had effectively ended in April 1923 with the death of the Republican Chief of Staff, Liam Lynch. Frank Aiken issued a cease-fire and a Dump Arms Order the following month, while at the same time De Valera issued a statement conceding defeat while claiming “military victory must be allowed to rest for the moment with those who have destroyed the public”. Over 11,000 Republican prisoners were taken, the majority of whom were incarcerated for upwards of a year. The bitterness of those years lingered on and the Free State government of W.T. Cosgrave did not have the allegiance or even the tacit support of many disgruntled Republicans. Bank robberies and Post Office robberies were a common enough occurrence in the immediate aftermath of Civil War hostilities. As it later transpired the Post Office robbery in Athy was carried out by anti-treaty men who supported De Valera and Sinn Fein. A year later De Valera would leave Sinn Fein and set up a new political party which would be called Fianna Fáil. The Post Office raid in Athy was intended to further embarrass the Irish Free State Government while at the same time contributing some badly needed funds for the Republican cause.
At about 11.20 p.m. on Friday night, 5th December, Richard Nagle, acting Postmaster and his Clerk, D.C. O’Leary were working in the public office of the local Post Office when they heard the latch of the side door being lifted. A few moments later they heard a man calling out, “put your hands up”. He was standing in the back door of the public office wearing a handkerchief over the bottom part of his face and pointing a revolver at the Postmaster. Two more men appeared, each wearing a black face mask and carrying a revolver.
The Post Office officials were forced into the Postmaster’s office where they were bound and tied to chairs. The first man to enter the Post Office appeared to be the leader of the raiders and it was he who took possession of the safe keys, opened the Post Office safe and took several bundles of currency and stamps which he put into a green canvas bag. When the raiders were about to leave, Nagle claimed their leader levelled a revolver at his back and for a moment he thought he was about to be killed. However, the masked raider drew back the revolver and suddenly doubling back the muzzle let a bullet fall out. He picked it up and replaced it in the revolver, warning the two Post Office officials not to move for ten minutes.
As soon as the raiders left O’Leary was able to loosen his ties and immediately telephoned the local Gardai who were stationed in their temporary barracks at the Hibernian Hotel [now Bradbury’s] in Leinster Street. Immediately 13 men in charge of Sergeant William Duggan and Sergeant Coogan turned out. Garda McNamara and Garda Keyes were amongst them and they arrived at the Post Office on bicycles. On arrival McNamara and Keyes were directed to take the road towards Fortbarrington in the search for the Post Office raiders. Cycling as fast as possible they came to the level crossing just beyond the present Pairc Bhride housing estate and hearing the sound of approaching footsteps they lay in wait. Within a few moments two men came running along the railway line who on hearing the Gardai call “halt”, answered with the volley of revolver fire. The two men continued running, pursued by Garda McNamara and Keyes while further shots were exchanged. Garda McNamara hit one of the men who was seen to stumble and run on for another 20 yards or so before falling to the ground. McNamara trained his gun on the injured man, while Garda Keyes chased the second man whom he eventually pulled to the ground approximately 100 yards further along the railway track.
The gun fire had alerted other Gardai who arrived on the scene and they helped to secure the arrest of the two men. The wounded man was brought by car to the Garda Station where he was attended by Dr. Jeremiah O’Neill and later that morning to the Curragh Military Hospital. The second man arrested was kept overnight in the Garda Station and the next day brought before a special Court in Kildare where he was remanded in custody. In a subsequent search of the area where the men were arrested, a .45 Webley and a Colt revolver were found, as well as spent shells and £150 worth of stamps. It later transpired that two of the raiders on leaving the Post Office went by Convent Lane through the grounds of the Dominican Church and across the field onto the railway track. Where the third raider went remained a mystery, as did his identity, but recent research has helped to throw some light on both questions which will be dealt with next week.
The Military arrived from Carlow at 5 o’clock the following morning, approximately 5½ hours after their assistance had been sought and long after the crime had been solved, or more correctly, partially solved. The inefficiency of the Military was the subject of much criticism in the local papers and I cannot but smile at the similarities between then and now as regards Athy’s reliance on backup from the Carlow authorities when it comes to dealing with local crime.
TO BE COMPLETED NEXT WEEK