An Irishman's Diary

The most colourful unsolved crime of the dying century, the theft in July 1907 of the regalia of the Order of St Patrick, the…

The most colourful unsolved crime of the dying century, the theft in July 1907 of the regalia of the Order of St Patrick, the so-called Irish Crown Jewels, is recalled in The Magpie Tendency, published privately by Audrey Bateman at Whitstable, Kent.

This attractive little book is less an account of the raid on the Office of Arms in Dublin Castle 92 years ago than a biography of one of the shadowy figures in the drama, Francis Bennett Goldney, Mayor of Canterbury. Irish readers will turn to the author's extracts from the report of the Viceregal Commission on the loss of the "Crown Jewels".

As Athlone Pursuivant, Goldney was one of the quaint heraldic functionaries in the Office of Arms, retained by the Ulster King of Arms, Sir Arthur Vicars.

A conscientious public servant, Vicars recorded the names and pedigrees of the good and the great in the land, and played a part in organising State ceremonies. He was also responsible for the custody of the paraphernalia of the Order of St Patrick, including the Grand Master's jewelled star and badge, valued by the Dublin Metropolitan Police at £30,000, or an incredible £2 million-plus in today's money.


Inspected safe

The jewels were last worn by the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Aberdeen, on March 15th, and were then secured in a safe in the Office of Arms. They were intact when Vicars last inspected the safe on June 11th.

When it seemed to the culprits that the theft might not be discovered in time to realise their plan to embarrass King Edward VII on his Irish visit in July, the Bedford Tower was impudently revisited and clues planted that should have alerted Vicars that something was amiss. It was purely by accident that the discovery was made on Saturday, July 6th.

The Scotland Yard detective called in by the DMP, Chief Inspector John Kane, was baffled by false trails. It was "grotesque that an outside thief who had secured his booty would be so particular".

The popular story of the Crown Jewels as a coup de maitre by international diamond thieves never made sense. A quarter-of-a-century ago, detecting political undertones, I followed this trail.

An early clue in the old State Paper Office confirmed my suspicion of a subversive plot. In 1927, Senator the Earl of Granard, Knight of Patrick, approached President W.T. Cosgrave on behalf of his peers in Northern Ireland who were seeking to resurrect the Order.

A document recording their meeting revealed that the "Castle Jewels" were for sale and "could be got for £2,000 or £3,000". Cosgrave was "prepared to recommend their purchase" to prevent the regalia from being "used either as a means of reviving the Order or to pass into any hands but that of the State".

In an article in the Garda Review in August 1976, I speculated that the raid on the Office of Arms was planned and executed by nationalists, influenced by Arthur Griffith's dream of a dual monarchy.

The history of the 1920s throws up the remarkable coincidence of news of the jewels surfacing as spoils of war at a watershed in Irish constitutional politics.

The late Michael McInerney, political correspondent of The Irish Times, in an occasional series on Fianna Fail, recorded the expenditure in 1927 of £3,000 for a fleet of motor cars. At the time, as Sean Lemass recalled, "we hadn't a penny between us".

Penniless organisers

Denied access to Sinn Fein funds, the pragmatists among the penniless organisers would have regarded as a godsend the gift of the St Patrick jewels in the custody of some old political activist sympathetic to the aims of Fianna Fail.

In his dealings with Lord Granard, Cosgrave would hardly have been unaware of a Fianna Fail interest. His willingness to co-operate was early evidence of his determination to facilitate the entry of his republican opponents to Dail Eireann.

Cast in the role of scapegoat, Sir Arthur Vicars became the victim of a whispering campaign impugning his moral character.

When pursuing my research in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, I read, among the correspondence placed at my disposal, of Lord Aberdeen's dismay at "very disagreeable disclosures" in a secret police report: "scandalous conduct of that particular sort about which every now and then some painful reference is made, and which has at times been such a source of anxiety in some of our public schools."

Vicars was ably defended by his half-brother, Major Peirce Charles de Lacy O'Mahony, of Grangecon, Co Wicklow, relying on the evidence of Athelstane Wolseley, principal clerk in the Land Commission, and church warden of St Bartholomew's, Ballbridge. As young men, Wolsley and Vicars had been paying guests of the scholarly Canon Richard Travers Smith at the Vicarage, Clyde Road.

"I cannot conceive anyone bringing such an accusation against your brother . . . except for the purpose of blackmailing or from some malignant motive . . . I know what a high opinion [Canon Smith] had of your brother."

It is instructive to compare the hounding of Vicars with the treatment of Roger Casement in 1916. "You could go nowhere in London at the time without hearing this scandal whispered," Mrs George Bernard Shaw recalled in 1927.

Gentleman and scholar, Sir Arthur Vicars, was assassinated by the IRA in April, 1921. His murderers then burned to the ground the old Mahony home at Kilmorna, Co Kerry, to which with his wife, Gertrude, he had retreated in search of peace in a hostile world.

Royal prerogative

The demarche in 1907 thwarted the Crown of St Edward in its intention to exercise the royal prerogative on Irish soil: the investiture of Lord Castletown as a Knight of Patrick was cancelled by the king on hearing of the raid on the Office of Arms.

The St Patrick jewels fell into safe hands in a grand design for the resolution of the Irish question. Tragically, the spoils of the constitutional initiative by monarchists in sympathy with non-violent Sinn Fein became part of the flotsam and jetsam of bloody revolution less than a decade later.

It is probable that President Cosgrave 72 years ago quietly restored the regalia to their rightful owners at the Office of Arms. Having been instrumental in advancing the cause of peace and reconciliation after the Civil War, might the highly symbolic jewels be used to build a bridge in the Ireland of the Good Friday Agreement?