Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Athy Post Office Robbery December 1923

The Athy Post Office robbery which took place on Friday night, 4th December 1924 resulted in the arrest of two local men who were captured while attempting to escape along the railway line leading to Wolfhill.  Michael O’Rourke of Canal House, Athy and Frank Gibbons of Woodstock Street were brought to the Garda Station in Leinster Street from where Gibbons who had been wounded was transferred to the Curragh Military Hospital.  On Saturday morning O’Rourke was brought before a special court in Kildare where he was remanded in custody. 

In the meantime the third raider was being sought by the Gardai and on information laid against him by the acting Post Master, Patrick Magee, a Postal Clerk was arrested on the following Sunday evening.  Magee was from County Down and had been in Athy for about three years.  On the following Tuesday both O’Rourke and Magee were brought before the local District Court where charges were preferred against them and they were remanded in custody.

On 17th January 1925 the Nationalist and Leinster Times carried a report on the application before the local District Court to have Patrick Magee returned for trial on a charge of stealing and carrying away a quantity of stamps and cash to the value of £460, the property of the Post Master General.

Magee was represented by P.J. Byrne, a Carlow Solicitor who put up a masterly defence for his client.  In his cross examination of the State witnesses Byrne concentrated on the inconsistencies in the claims made by the Acting Post Master and the delay by the Gardai in acting on the information concerning Magee’s alleged involvement in the raid.

Magee claimed that at the time of the robbery he was in his lodging house in the company of four other lodgers.  Richard Nagle, the Acting Post Master, gave Magee’s name to the Gardai investigating the crime, but under cross examination from P.J. Byrne he claimed to have told the Gardai that “the third man was like Magee”.  The fact that the three raiders were masked did not deter Nagle from giving evidence against Magee.  However he was in some difficulty when stating he informed the Gardai of Magee’s involvement shortly after the raid took place.  Sergeant Duggan’s notes of the interview conducted that same night confirmed that neither Nagle or O’Leary could identify any of the raiders.  However, persisted in his claim to have identified Magee and stated “I believe I told Sergeant Coogan”.

Miss O’Connell and Miss Luttrell, both of whom worked in the Post Office, gave evidence that on the day following the raid they spoke to Nagle about what happened and he said he did not know the third man “but if I saw him again I would recognise him”.  At that stage both Gibbons and O’Rourke had been arrested and identified.  Nagle claimed in Court not to have mentioned Magee’s name to the women as “Miss O’Connell is friendly with Magee”. 

Sergeant Coogan when called later in the day confirmed that only himself and Sergeant Duggan entered the Post Office on the night of the raid and both Nagle and O’Leary said they did not know any of the raiders.  However, Sergeant Coogan went on to say that later that night after O’Rourke and Gibbons had been arrested he spoke to Nagle and that the acting Post Master was of the opinion that Magee was the third man.  Under cross examination Coogan acknowledged he did not write down this information but merely passed it on to Sergeant Duggan.  The Gardai did not act on Nagle’s claim until Sunday evening when Sergeant Duggan called to Magee’s lodging house at 7.00 p.m. and arrested him.  This delay and the inconsistencies in the prosecutions case against Magee left the presiding Judge with no option but to refuse to send the Post Office Clerk forward for trial.

An immense crowd had gathered at the Courthouse for Magee’s trial and one of the interested spectators was the local Parish Priest, Canon Mackey.  At the conclusion of the case Canon Mackey congratulated P.J. Byrne on his very able defence of his client.  Mackey had been a staunch supporter of voluntary enlistment in the British Army during World War I but subsequently took a strong anti-conscription stance.  His interest in Magee’s case might indicate clerical support at local level for the Sinn Feiners.

On Wednesday 1st April 1925 the trial of Michael O’Rourke and Frank Gibbons took place at Green Street Courthouse, Dublin before Mr. Justice Sullivan.  When charged both men, who were not legally represented, pleaded “not guilty”.  Richard Nagle, the acting Post Master gave his evidence of what happened on the night of 4th December at Athy Post Office and on conclusion he was cross examined briefly by Frank Gibbons.  Garda McNamara next gave evidence and he was followed in the witness box by Garda Keyes, Sergeant William Coogan and Sergeant William Duggan. 

The prisoners refused to make any statements and the presiding Judge addressed the jury following which they withdrew and returned within an hour and a half with a guilty plea on the first count of robbery.  The second charge of firing on the Gardai with intent to do them bodily harm presented some difficulties for the jury who wanted to find the men guilty of “evading arrest”.  The Judge would not accept that verdict and sent the jury out again when after a further half hours deliberation they returned the verdict of “shooting for the purpose of evading arrest”.  The Judge again refused to accept that verdict whereupon the jury foreman stated that the jury could not agree, “as there is no evidence to show that these men fired the shots at all”.  Both Frank Gibbons and Michael O’Rourke were sentenced the following day to seven years penal servitude.  The Judge imposed what he felt was a heavy sentence, having regard “to the times in which we live and to the fact that bank robberies were rife”.

I believe that some of the stamps from the Post Office robbery were hidden by the third raider under floorboards in the house of Mrs. Margaret Haslems at the corner of St. John’s Lane.  He was never identified but I believe he was an active member of the local I.R.A. who left for America soon afterwards and never returned to Ireland. 

The Post Office raid of December 1924 was one of the last acts of civil disobedience by the local I.R.A. in this area and marked the end of the armed conflict which commenced with the War of Independence and continued throughout the period of the Civil War and beyond.

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