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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)


Capt. John 'Sean' Prendergast

Carlow


Personal Memories Of Magazine Raid December, 1939

Capt. John 'Sean' Prendergast

In Conversation with Noreen Whelan

(January 2002, Carlow)

 Personal Memories Of Magazine Raid

 
Capt. John 'Sean' Prendergast

Introduction

On Saturday evening 23rd December, 1939 - the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park, Dublin - where all the ammunition of the Irish Army was stored - was attacked and raided by the I.R.A. Over 1.2 million rounds of ammunition were removed in no less than 13 lorries, over a period of two hours. Responsibility for the security of the Fort rested in the command of the nearby Collin's Barracks.

Capt. Sean Prendergast of Carlow was one of the officers in Collin's Barracks on that fateful evening, when the phone rang, informing them of the raid - this is his story.

'This is my story of what took place on 23rd December 1939. Now it wasn't the best of times nor the worst of times, like our friend Charles Dickens starts, but it was the eve of Christmas Eve - the location of my story is in Collins' Barracks, North Side of the River Liffey.

About 9 o'clock that night, the 23- in the Officers Mess in Collins' Barracks, a party was at its height - perhaps I should explain the atmosphere at the party it was the middle of the phoney war and the people there were singing "hanging out their washing on the Siegfried line" - good companionship, good cheer, piano and singing. At about half-nine, the phone rang in the Mess.

Suddenly there was silence, the pianist Austie Flood stopped playing 'Run rabbit run' on the piano. The Orderly Officer, John Jones, as the Orderly Officer, took the phone call and whatever was said, he replied "Look, I'll have to get my Commanding Officer's instructions regarding this" and he handed the phone over to his Commanding Officer, Michael Kilkelly. Michael Kilkelly was heard speaking very audibly to whoever was on the other end of the phone and the question he asked was:

"Lieutenant, how long are you in the Army?" Obviously we didn't hear the reply - but he went on:

"You're three years in the army and you can't deal with a few effing shots" -then he put the receiver back.

What was happening was. the Duty Officer from Collins' Barracks, who made a tour of inspection each night of the various guards who were sent out each evening from Collins' Barracks - usually two NCO's and eight men to do duty in Barracks and places like the Magazine, who hadn't got their own guards.

 The one we are talking about this night is Island bridge Barracks, which was Headquarters of the Engineers - non-com you might say - the guard had arrived-5 o'clock that evening, the normal time for change - took up duty in the Guard Room the duty officer was checking up on each guard - checking all was well. When the gates were opened and he was allowed in to Island bridge Barracks and the gates closed behind him. He checked and found every-thing was alright - they started to open the gates to let him out to go on his way when shots were fired from on top of the bridge over the Liffey down at the gates, so he couldn't get out. This was the gist of the phone-call that came into Collins' Barrack during the party.

The responsibility for military institutions the North Side of the River, at that Christmas, lay with the Garrison in Collin's’ Barracks; as it was the first year of the war practically all married officers with families had got leave and the unmarried were left to do duty for Christmas, in the normal way. Unfortunately, our O.C, Micky Kilkelly -had a bit of a reputation in the army -we thought at the time he was an old man – he’d-be about 45, he was celebrating, as he was a single man. Quite a lot of officers who on leave brought their wives to the mess for the party - cheaper drinks, etc. - they didn’t know what was going on.

So, to make a long story short, the party continued - I was Stand-to Officer, hadn't a clue what was going on - only the phone call. I was relieved at 12 o'clock and went down to where my troop were at stand-to in the Barrack Square and then I went off to bed. Got up the following morning - I had arrangements made to get a lift down to Carlow -I had a free day. It was the 24th December.

The person who brought me was the Provost Marshall in Brickens; he had worked in Carlow as a young man before he joined the army, Commandant Mick Lennon and he had a car. He dropped me in Carlow at about 12 o'clock on Sunday (Christmas Eve). They were just coming from Mass - I was barely home, when the civic guards arrived telling me to report back immediately to Collins' Barracks in Dublin. I had only just arrived - only just come from Dublin. They didn't know anything - just there had been a big raid in Dublin and we were the people responsible for it.

Took the train that evening back to Dublin. I was in civvies of course, got back to barracks and into uniform and hullabaloo - we were out all over the country for the next 4-5 weeks - searched all over and started to get the ammunition back by degrees - Hazel Hatch Station was the first place where there were eight or ten boxes.

Right up to February - each alternate night we used an armoured car to do a circuit. Our circuit's headquarters was in Naas. We picked up a civic guard making a crew of five - an officer, one NCO and two drivers. With the armoured car, we made a tour each night from Naas to Kilcock and came back round Edenderry into Naas and dropped the guards round 9 o'clock in the morning and then back to Collins' Barracks. Different routes were repeated every night. The rumpus had nearly died down by the end of January 1940.

We had nearly started to forget about the Magazine Raid - but on Saturday 17th February - we were looking forward to finishing at 12.00 midday, which we normally did on a Saturday. Austie Flood and myself, who had been commissioned with me in 1935 in the Armoured Car Corps, had made arrangements to go out, 1 was going to play football and he was coming to the match.

About 10 o'clock in the morning, I was sent for by the O.C. of the Barracks who was Major Corrigan - he was O.C, of the 5th Battalion and O.C. of the Barracks - he said "Prendergast, you're not to leave today, you and Lieutenant Flood - you may be required for duty this evening".

About 3 o'clock, we got word: "your troops may be required for duty this evening" When I say 'troop' - in the cavalry we were troopers.

I was 'A' Troop Commander and he was 'B' Troop Commander. A and B Troops about 38 men with armoured cars and bren-gun (Ford Scut Trucks). We still hadn't a clue. We were told we may be moving out about 9 o'clock -so at 10 past nine, we were told to move down in convoy to Parnell Square, to block off every entry, about five entries into the Square - the Civic Guards came with a military escort straight into the Meath Hotel and when they went in the fifteen lads who were there showed no resistance and came out -they were brought into a Guards Barracks and ended up in military custody.

Part 6 of the Offences against the State Act 1939 was re-enacted in the Dail - the Emergency Powers Act was invoked (i.e. powers to intern suspected persons without trial) - these lads were held and went on hunger strike and two of them died on hunger strike, Tony Darcy and Sean MacConghaola, in Brickens Hospital, the Military Hospital attached to Collins Barracks, on Military Hill. Strange as it may seem, it was one of the longest hunger strikes - one of them can't remember which -lasted almost 73 days.

The upshot of the Court of Inquiry, as far as we could gather, was our O.C. was dishonorably discharged from the army as was Orderly Officer 2nd Lieutenant - also dismissed was Captain Curran who was Officer in Charge of the Magazine, who happened to be out at confession when the raid occurred. He was elderly, returned to duty for a day -but when the 1948 Coalition came in, he got all his rights and pension returned. This then was the story from Collins' Barracks on 23rd-December 1939 - as far as I know it never appeared in public. I think Lt. Jones was also recalled to army service by the then Government.

After the raid in the Meath Hotel - a week or so later a new O.C. arrived. He was Capn. Tom O'Hanlon, whom we all knew well. He was a Cavalry Officer and in the Cavalry School. Unfortunately the man who was dismissed - Micky Kilkelly, a Commandant was a Company Commander in 3rd Battalion, knew absolutely nothing how a mechanised unit should have been run, nor did he try to bother.

It was unfortunate for him. He had been in the Free State Army from the outset and had a vague attachment to Colons' Crew in Dublin, Bloody Sunday and all that. I'm not sure of my grounds on that... he was typical Dublin, never lost his Dublin accent, one of the most contrary. Stories about him all over the army and I think the Infantry and Curragh Battalion were glad to get rid of him - vacancies rarely occurred - he was due advancement and he was transferred from the Infantry to the Cavalry.

Once Tom O'Hanlon took over we started to operate as a Cavalry Unit. But we were still to be punished. Overnight, in early May of 1940 without any warning, we were moved from Collins' Barracks, Dublin to Collins' Barracks Cork where Major General Costelloe was O.C. That was our punishment... we didn't get back out of it as a unit to the Curragh until 1943 or 4.1 got my promotion in October/November 1941. I was promoted from 2nd Lieutenant to Acting Commandant at the formation of the 7th Motor Squadron.

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"I suppose in the whole history of armies since the world began there was never such a disaster as the picture of an army losing all its ammunition, without as much as a blackthorn being used" -

Kevin O'Higgins T.D., opposition spokesman. 3rd. Jan. 1940 - Debate on Emergency Powers (amendment) Bill. (Column 1415 vol. 78 No. 40 -Official Debates)

Military Archives G2/X/0223


MAGAZINE FORT RAIDED

Over 1,000,000 Rounds of Ammunition Taken

FIFTY MEN AND FOUR LORRIES

GUARD OVERPOWERED AND BOUND

THE National Arsenal, known as the Magazine Fort, in the Phoenix Park, Dublin was broken into by armed men on Saturday night and over 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition removed.

During the raid, which was carried out by between forty and fifty men, a gatekeeper, Mr. James Hewson, received a severe head injury and is in a critical condition in Steeven's Hospital.

Three men, who were arrested later in the Park by military forces from Island bridge Barracks, and who are alleged to have had revolvers in their position, are lodged in Arbor Hill Prison. One of them is named McDonnell, and is a native of Balldoyle. The others refused to give their names or any particulars about themselves, but are said to belong to Dublin.

The military guard at the Magazine have been placed in detention.

Several shots were fired following the raid, but no one was injured by the fire.

The affair was perfectly planned, and the precision with which it was carried out enabled the raiders to use four lorries to carry off the ammunition - over two hundred cases of it, with five thousand rounds in each case - and get away before any alarm was raised.

Four Hours' Work

And this, after overpowering the guard - corporal, acting corporal, and eight other ranks -with quiet efficiency and within a few seconds; possessing themselves of the keys of the ammunition vault, and laboriously loading the heavy cases into the lorries. It took the men the greater part of four hours to carry out the task - from about 8.30 to midnight - and during that period there was nothing to arouse the slightest suspicion on the part of the military authorities in the Island bridge Barracks, little more than 500 yards away.

The Irish Times - Tuesday. December 26, 1939


Source: Carloviana December 2002 No. 51 pages 50 to 53

John 'Sean' Prendergast died in September 2009.

 A lifelong de Valera and Fianna Fail supporter, Sean served as County Councillor and Town Councillor for many years. He was born at Evergreen Lodge, (now demolished) Cox's Lane. His family operated the firm "Carlow Woodworkers". His brother Pearse Prendergast of Rathnapish, died a few weeks ago (7th July 2012) at the age of 95. Pearse was the last survivor of the famed Carlow Septet founded by Aidan Murray to raise funds for the building / re-erection of St Clare's Church in Graiguecullen. (see picture #76 "Carlow in Old Picture Postcards Vol 2.").

Left to right: Pearse Prendergast, Billy O’Connor, Stan Reynolds and Jack Kirwan.
Seated:  Tom Meighan, Aidan Murray and Joe Donohue.

Source: Michael Purcell 2012


The death has occurred of John (Sean) Prendergast of (formerly) Evergreen Lodge, Carlow. Dearly loved husband of the late Ann and loving father of Mary (Davidson) and the late Margaret Rose, brother of Pearse, Betty, Ita and the late Eamon and Maura, and loving grandfather of John and Catherine. Deeply mourned by his loving family, son-in-law Vincent, sister-in-law Eva' extended family, relatives and friends.

Source: Carpenter Brothers Funeral Directors


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