It was a death that shook the people of Galway to the very core – the murder of a wages clerk in a botched robbery in the heart of the city, carried out by a gang with links to the IRA.
“People were very frightened,” recalls retired Garda Detective, Christy Reilly, 40 years after the death of Jerome O’Connor on August 15 1974.
“They couldn’t believe that such people were living in their midst.”
Galway was not devoid of crime, he hastens to add, but this was unprecedented.
It was a Thursday morning, the Feast of the Assumption, and the Connacht Tribune newsroom was quiet.
The weekly paper was ready to be printed and most of the staff had gone to Mass, leaving two cub reporters behind in the offices on Market Street.
At the same time, Sisks Construction had sent two employees to AIB Lynch’s Castle to collect the weekly wages – £1,557 in cash.
Mick Fleming waited in the driver’s seat, as Jerome O’Connor (52) went into the branch. When he emerged, he was confronted by two young men – one with a sawn-off shot gun – who tried to pull the bag from him. But he resisted, the gun went off in the struggle, which tore into an artery with fatal results.
The attackers made off with the money and separated. One ran up Abbeygate Street and along Market Street, pursued by Mick Fleming.
“We heard commotion outside, we heard shouting and screaming,” recalled former Tribune reporter, Brian McDonald, who was just one week in the job at the time.
“One was wearing a dyed black/navy FCA coat, which were popular at the time. Something was sticking out of it, which turned out to be a shotgun.”
The man aimed the gun at his pursuer, before abandoning it and the coat in the grounds of St Nicholas’ Church, and getting lost in the crowd. However, he left behind significant clues that helped to piece together the puzzle for Gardaí.
“There were two keys in the pocket . . . and I and another detective were assigned to check the houses where the suspects might be,” says retired Detective, Brendan Moran.
They believed that the perpetrator would not have run along Market Street unless he had a valid reason for doing so.
“We carried out a survey of the houses, and the key fit in a lock of a house (now occupied by the Vincent de Paul Society), which was let out as flats,” he adds.
“We waited inside the house until the occupant came back at 11.30pm. He knocked at the door, and (when questioned) told us his keys had been stolen at work.”
Gardaí did not believe the story but, at the same time, accepted that he was not directly involved, as he had been working in a restaurant at the time of the murder, and had likely just provided a safe house. This led to the first arrest, of John Duffy (24) from Charlestown that night.
Thursday’s edition of the Connacht Tribune was recalled and the front page was totally rewritten – unusually, by today’s standards – naming the dead man, and featuring the eyewitness account of the reporters.
Specialists and Garda forensic experts from Dublin were brought in immediately, roads out of the city were closed, and hotels and guest houses came under scrutiny, as the search for those responsible began in earnest.
“The most intensive Garda operation ever mounted in the Galway area came to a climax at the weekend with the detention of 10 people, and the finding of an arms cache in a number of city houses,” the following week’s Connacht Tribune reported.
Vincent Daly (17) from Northern Ireland was the second to be arrested, in an early Saturday morning swoop on another flat.
He was no stranger to Gardaí in Galway, having been arrested the previous Friday night for upsetting stalls, which were set up in advance of the weekly Saturday market.
“He was a very vicious young man,” recalls Christy Reilly.
Others were arrested during the course of the three-day search, and the following Tuesday, “an unprecedented security screen” surrounded Galway Courthouse for the appearance of six men and one woman, charged in connection with the payroll robbery and death of Mr O’Connor.
“Troops from Renmore Army Barracks, armed with sub machine guns and automatic rifles, assisted a force of 40 Gardaí in scrutinising people entering the courthouse,” reported the Connacht Tribune of August 23 1974.
“Some troops were also positioned on the roofs of nearby buildings. A crowd of about 500 bystanders gathered at 11am to watch the seven defendants arrive from Limerick by CIE coach – it was escorted from Limerick Jail by four army jeeps, containing armed personnel and each of the male prisoners was handcuffed to a Garda, while the woman was handcuffed to a ban Garda.”
Daly and Duffy were charged with murder, as was Peadar De Burca (37) of Rahoon Park, an unemployed vocational teacher.
The others were charged with robbing Mr O’Connor of £1,557 were: Angela Duffin (24) and John Harpur (28) with addresses in Belfast; Stephen Joyce (20) of Walsh’s Terrace, Woodquay, a trainee with AnCO; and John O’Mahony (22), of Ennistymon and ‘St Anthony’s’, Market Street, a hotel porter.
Peter O’Toole, a 26-years-old farmer from Leegaun, Moycullen, and Sean Diviney, of 10 St James’ Crescent, Mervue, were each charged with the possession of firearms without certificates.
While there were said to be about four guns involved in the botched robbery, the search for the one that had dealt the fatal shot on Jerome O’Connor required the help of O’Toole, assisted in no small way by Sergeant Pat Anglim.
“I was a Garda in Moycullen in my younger days, so I knew the O’Toole family,” he says.
“Peter wouldn’t talk (after being arrested), but then he told me he’d say where the gun was. He was handcuffed to me and taken to Rahoon – there were no flats then, just fields and stone walls – and he pointed out a stone in a wall, the revolver was hidden behind it. He knew exactly where it was.”
Statements from the Galway branch of the Official Republican Movement, and the Galway Command of the Provisional IRA, both disclaimed any responsibility for the robbery. The latter said that no member of Óglaigh na h-Éireann was involved in the crime, and extended sympathy to Mr O’Connor’s family.
In January 1975, O’Toole received a two year suspended sentence from the Special Criminal Court for possession of the gun used, and to having the .22 revolver without a firearms certificate on August 17 1974.
Meanwhile, a bench warrant had to be issued for the arrest of de Burca, who failed to turn up for trial. On the first day, the remaining six defendants all pleaded not guilty.
The court heard that on the night before the death, all the accused – except O’Toole – met in De Burca’s house, where the final arrangements about the robbery were made.
It was agreed that Daly and Duffy would be armed, that they would snatch the payroll and run away. Later that night, at Joyce’s house, Daly was given a .22 revolver and Duffy a sawn-off shotgun. Duffy spent that night with O’Mahony at his flat on Market Street. Harpur and Duffin resided at a place called McGlynn’s, and Daly stayed with de Burca in Rahoon Park.
The next day, Daly attacked Mr O’Connor who was struck down by the gun as he tried to get into the car. Daly snatched the bag and the pair ran away, but they were pursued by a number of people.
At the corner of Church Lane, Daly handed the bag to Harpur, who made off with it in a tartan holdall bag. Further down the laneway, Daly threw away the red anorak he had been wearing and went into the Augustinian Church, where Mass was being said.
He stayed there for some time, after which he went to a house in Rahoon Park. Meanwhile, Duffy threatened the people who were following him before running onto Churchyard Street. On the way, he discarded his coat and gun at St Nicholas’ Church.
In a pocket were found a book, with Duffy’s palm print, and a set of keys to O’Mahony’s apartment, where he (Duffy) had spent the previous night.
Harpur had asked Duffin to collect the money, she put it into a case and left it on a footpath, where it was collected by someone else.
The money was never returned to Sisks, the court was told, having been passed along through a chain of persons.
On the second day of the trial, Daly and Duffy pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and were each sentenced to 10 years penal servitude.
The State had accepted that Duffy and Daly did not intend to use their firearms, and that jostling could well have caused the gun to go off. A Garda forensic examination had found that the revolver was defective.
Harpur was given seven years penal servitude for the armed robbery of the money and five years concurrent penal servitude for conspiracy to commit the crime.
Joyce was given three years penal servitude on charges of conspiracy to commit the robbery and with having the two guns with intent to enable others to endanger life. He was given a further three years concurrent penal servitude for having two detonators, safety fuse, and ammunition in his possession on August 16, 1974, and two years imprisonment for having guns without firearms certificate.
O’Mahony was also sentenced to three years penal servitude for conspiracy to commit the robbery.
Duffin received a suspended two-year sentence on each charge of conspiring to commit the robbery, and receiving the money knowing it to be stolen.
Superintendent Gerard Colleran agreed with Seamus Sorahan, senior counsel for Duffy, Duffin, O’Mahony and Harpur, that O’Mahony’s part in the incident appeared to have been confined to giving Duffy a night’s lodgings, and giving him the keys of his flat. He had probably taken no active part in planning the robbery, he said.
He also accepted a suggestion by Mr Sorahan that there were some people not before the court who were “higher in rank” than the accused in designing the robbery, and that Duffin had been brought into the affair through her connection with Harpur.
Daly’s senior counsel described as “terribly bad luck” that the gun had gone off, adding that nobody regretted the outcome more than his client.
He said Daly had been “inveigled into this escapade. He had been handed the gun and anorak the night before the incident, and he did not even know whether the gun was loaded or unloaded. There was no safely catch on the gun.”
It was put to the court that the defendants had no real motive of personal gain, that they had become involved through ideological factors; Harpur was said to have been “an important cog in the wheel”.
Peadar De Burca breached his High Court bail, and evaded arrest for 17 years, before being arrested in March 1991 at his wife’s home in the city.
He pleaded not guilty to murder, robbery, and to having two guns with intent to endanger life.
The following June he walked free, however, after the Special Criminal Court ruled that he had been illegally detained by Gardaí at the time of his initial arrest in August 1974. He died six years later, in July 1997.
Jerome O’Connor’s wife, Noreen, gave an interview to the City Tribune in June 1991, to say that she bore no grudges against those responsible, and was happy that this chapter of her life had closed with the completion of the trial.
She recalled the moment she was given the news that her husband of six years was dead.
“A priest and a Garda came to my sister-in-law’s house (in Cork) to tell me the news. They tried to break it to me gently. They told me they had bad news . . . that my husband had had an accident and that he was very bad. I thought it was a car crash. They didn’t want to tell me he was dead.
“I was sedated by doctors and, looking back on that now, I realise how wrong it was to be sedated for the funeral and the days that followed. It only delayed the shock and the realisation that a man who had been good to me . . . had never harmed anyone in his life . . . was gone.
“I was devastated. I came up from Cork in a taxi and when I got to the house in Galway and saw all the neighbours and my own family crying their eyes out I knew it was true.
“He was the type of man who lent many the person a pound note when a pound was valuable. We had good times and we had travelled a lot and it is these memories that kept me going for the lonely 12 years until I made a new life for myself.
“What used to make me angry was how much money was spent on transporting those involved in his killing, in protecting them and in bringing them to different court hearings, when I was left to cry my eyes out without any support. The real victims of these tragedies are always forgotten.
“The unfairness of what is called justice in this country also disappoints me. I suffered a long time. It took me a long time to recover, I suppose I will never recover really because that day, Thursday, August 15, 1974, The Feast of Our Blessed Virgin, ruined my life.
“Time does heal but I will never forget that day or the lonely years that followed. But I believe in forgiving and in not bearing grudges. The re-opening of the trial brought the whole nightmare back, but I’m glad it’s over now,” Mrs O’Connor said.
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