The Great Train Robbery’s Irish mastermind
Half a century after the famous heist, one of the two survivors has spilled the beans on Patrick McKenna, a Belfast-born postmaster
The Ulsterman: Patrick McKenna. Photograph courtesy of the McKenna family/The Great British Train Robbery
Mastermind: Douglas Gordon Goody. Photograph: The Great British Train Robbery: A Tale of Two Thieves
On August 8th, 1963, when a 16-strong gang stole £2.6million – equivalent to £45 million, or €57 million, today – from the Royal Mail’s travelling post office, the perpetrators cannot have foreseen that the hijacking would become such a durable cultural cornerstone.
An audacious crime, the Great Train Robbery, for good or ill, is as bound up with the popular conception of 1960s Britain as Carnaby Street, The Italian Job and Merseybeat. It has been demonised, romanticised and dramatised. In a letter to the Telegraph in 1965, the author Graham Greene wondered: “Am I one of a minority in feeling admiration for the skill and courage behind the Great Train Robbery?”
But the same event has a strange, hitherto little-known Irish history. This week, 51 years after the London-Glasgow train was hijacked, the unseen instigator of the “Crime of the Century” has been named as a Belfast-born postmaster, Patrick McKenna.
This new information comes from Gordon Goody, who, together with Buster Edwards, masterminded the infamous heist. Additional and vital detective work was provided by the makers of a new investigative documentary, The Great Train Robbery: A Tale of Two Thieves.
McKenna has long fascinated amateur sleuths, who, for five decades, have wondered about the true identity of the “Ulsterman” who provided the gang with inside information and changed the date of the robbery to August 8th from August 7th, as the train would be carrying more money.
“He was introduced to me as Barry,” Goody says, speaking from his home in Spain. “And when I saw his name on his glasses case and discovered he wasn’t Barry, he wasn’t at all happy about it. He threatened to walk away. Buster and I had to promise we would never say anything. And we never did until now.”
Now 85, and living quietly with his wife Maria and five dogs, Douglas Gordon Goody is one of just two surviving members of the gang. He, too, is an Ulsterman. He was just three days old when his parents brought him to his mother’s native county of Tyrone. He remained there until he was 14, when he returned to London. “I grew up just outside Cookstown,” he says. “It was a very pleasant place to grow up.”
He first honed his skills stealing chickens and smuggling cattle across the Border. “My uncle was a cattle and horse dealer, among other things,” says Goody, who was sentenced to 30 years for his part in the Great Train Robbery but was released in 1975. “It wasn’t considered a serious offence at that time.”
He has fond professional memories of Ireland, including of a “semi-successful” bank job in Lisburn. “We got £4,500 that time,” he says, “But my mother was questioned over some jewellery, so I felt bad about that.”
Not all of his Irish expeditions were successful. He reads out a cutting from the Cork Examiner about a Bank of Ireland branch in the city.
“All the equipment was there,” he explains. “I brought detonators over from England. You couldn’t do it these days,” he says. “But when Buster and I arrived in Cork I wanted to get my suit cleaned. And I noticed as I was going in the door that someone was talking to Buster through the window of the car.
“Turned out the car was a day overdue. It was the guy from the car-hire place. He said, ‘Just come down to the office and we’ll sort it out.’
“And when we got there the gardaí were there. They put him before a magistrate and gave him a list of lawyers. He picked the only Jewish name on the list. He was fined £50 and told to get out of Ireland.”
The detonators and oxyacetylene were dumped in a bog and the pair got away.
Goody says he is going on the record as he’s getting ready to “shut up shop”. But some questions about the Great Train Robbery remain. Who among the thieves hit Jack Mills, the train’s driver, over the head? Goody knows it wasn’t him and is still angry that Ronnie Biggs claimed otherwise in his memoir. In 2012 “Big” Jim Hussey claimed to be the culprit in his deathbed confession.
Does that tally with Goody’s recollections? “I didn’t think he done that,” he says. “I’m not going to make a suggestion. It should never have happened. It wasn’t our intention to do any harm to anyone. A lot of people came in the door into the cab. So I’ll give it to the person who was behind me. But we were all wearing balaclavas. And it was dark.”
Now McKenna has been outed there are even more questions. His surviving family claim that the former postal worker, who died in 1992, had just £3,000 in his bank account when he died. Some, including the makers of The Great Train Robbery: A Tale of Two Thieves, have speculated that McKenna bequeathed his cut to Catholic charities.
Goody says that’s possible. But he wonders about “Mark” the “Dustman”, who failed to wipe down the gangs’ fingerprints and burn the hideout at Leatherslade Farm.
“I believe the Irishman was a religious man. But there’s another opinion. It was Mark who was supposed to burn the farm down, and he never done it. He f**ked us there. Maybe he f**ked the Irishman for his money. I couldn’t really say. The Irishman is just a distant memory for me.”
The Great British Train Robbery: A Tale of Two Thieves is on DVD, Blu-ray and download from Monday