State papers: Garda pilgrimage to Rome in 1956 left trail of unpaid bills

Government resisted pressure to settle debts after learning gardaí had paid British travel agency

The Garda branch of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association travelled with their families to Rome in September 1956, where they were granted an audience with Pope Pius XII. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

The Garda branch of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association travelled with their families to Rome in September 1956, where they were granted an audience with Pope Pius XII. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

A Garda pilgrimage to Rome left a trail of angry hoteliers and bus operators in its wake after the Italians were not paid for their services, State papers released from 1956 show.

The Italians repeatedly threatened to “raise a scandal” in the press that would cast the Irish police force in a bad light if they didn’t get their money but the Garda group laid the blame squarely at the door of the British-based travel agency, which later went out of business.

The trip was organised by the Garda branch of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association and they travelled with their families to Rome and other cities, in September 1956. The group of more than 100 people was granted an audience with Pope Pius XII and visited police headquarters in Rome during their stay.

It will be observed that the sums of money involved are very large and it is embarrassing that the matter has been taken up through the official channels

Two months after their trip, the Irish diplomat in Rome, Denis Devlin, contacted the Department of External Affairs – now Foreign Affairs – attaching a note from the Italian ministry of foreign affairs, referring to unpaid bills. Bus companies and boarding houses were owed more than one million lire, and by the time all creditors had come forward, the final bill had risen to more than six million lire. This converts to more than €3,000 but does not take into account inflation since 1956.

“It will be observed that the sums of money involved are very large and it is embarrassing that the matter has been taken up through the official channels,” Devlin wrote.

Devlin, who was also a poet of note, said his office had been unable to contact the group for more than three days after they arrived because they did not stay in the accommodation booked for them.

A letter from the boarding houses stated that the representative, from Cathedral Travel Ltd in London, did not settle the bill on departure but said the money would be arriving within 15 days. The hoteliers accepted his word because police officers were involved. But the payment never arrived.

‘How embarrassing’

In further correspondence with the department, Devlin noted “how embarrassing this story is for the good name of the country here”.

The Italian businesses increased pressure for payment as the weeks went on and the diplomat said the office was being “besieged” by creditors. While the non-payment might not be the fault of the Garda group, “the Irish police are regarded as the persons responsible and the reputation of Ireland has not been done any good by this visit.”

It then emerged that Irish businessman, and former Olympic sailor, Edward Kelliher had introduced the travel agency to the group as he was a director of the company.

It is obvious that the aim of the Italian authorities is to put pressure on the Irish Government to pay up for fear of unwelcome publicity

Kelliher wrote to the head of the Garda group to say that Cathedral Travel Ltd seemed to have left “a trail of unpaid debts across Europe” and he had no option but to ask for a receiver to be appointed. He wrote of his “extreme regret” and gave his “deepest apology” for having introduced the company to the group and said he was “completely taken in” by the agency’s assurances about its financial situation.

Kelliher said he was also owed money. “In my wildest dreams I never envisaged the firm going from a position of having ample cash on hands in the Spring to this sorry fix.”

The Garda group produced receipts showing they had paid £7,140 (more than €9,000) to the travel agency to cover the entire trip, before they left Ireland. Garda commissioner Daniel Costigan told the Department of External Affairs the Garda branch of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association had no funds. “Its members had to strain their private resources to go on the pilgrimage to Rome and they cannot be expected to make good the debts left unpaid by the travel agents.”

Gardaí travelled to Scotland Yard to investigate the case and concluded there was very little likelihood the money would be paid to the Italian businesses. There was a suggestion the Garda might do a whip-around, but this was rejected by the Garda representative body.

A senior Department of Justice official took a firm line on the pressure being applied from Italy and said gardaí would not be “bullied or blarneyed into acts of heroic virtue” by paying the debt. “It is obvious that the aim of the Italian authorities is to put pressure on the Irish Government to pay up for fear of unwelcome publicity. There is, in my judgement, nothing to be done but to resist this pressure and hope that the matter will blow over.”

And that’s what appears to have happened, as references to the matter ceased soon after.