The missing postman
A dead man, but no body. The locals, who were the last to see him alive as they drank illegally in the local pub in Stradbally on Christmas Day, close ranks. The case would become a cause celebre and severely test Ireland's new police force, an Garda Siochana. Eventually, all 10 accused would be let off when the one local who seemed willing to break the code of omerta lost his bottle. Pat Flynn tells the extraordinary story of what remains one of Ireland's most notorious unsolved murder cases
Published 13/03/2011 | 05:00
A dark chapter in Stradbally's history once more came into the public domain following the release, in June 2007, of Garda files which related to the disappearance of Kilmacthomas postman Larry Griffin. The files were handed over to the National Archives by Justice Minister Michael McDowell.
As a youth growing up in the village of Kilmacthomas, Co Waterford, the story of the missing postman infatuated me; it still does.
Larry Griffin vanished without trace on Christmas Day, 1929. He was a married man with four children. Though living in Kilmacthomas, his daily round commenced in the village of Stradbally, approximately eight miles away. Prior to becoming a postman, he was a soldier in the British army and had seen service in South Africa and France during the Great War. On Christmas Day, 1929, he put on his postman's uniform, and left Kilmacthomas on his bicycle to bring the mail to Stradbally and the surrounding areas. In those far-off days, delivering mail on Christmas Day was part of a postman's duties. It was customary to offer the postman a drink, a practice appreciated by most, including Larry. When he didn't return home that night, it was incorrectly presumed that he had availed of too much Christmas cheer in Stradbally.
The missing-postman case became a cause celebre and a huge test for the fledgling and inexperienced Garda Siochana, which had come into being in December 1922.
On the following morning, St Stephen's Day, a local farmer found Larry's bicycle on the side of the road about a mile from Stradbally village. He notified the local gardai and an investigation commenced, headed by Chief Superintendent Harry O'Mara, Waterford. He appointed two superintendents and two detectives to assist him in the investigation. The first indication of something sinister came when John Power, a local man, told them that he had seen Larry Griffin and Garda Edward Dullea enter Whelan's public house at about 6.30pm on Christmas Day, via the back door. Griffin, he stated, was very drunk and was being assisted by the guard. He also saw a Gda Frawley and a Sgt Cullinane enter by the back door as well. Power joined the gathering in the pub and saw a number of locals, including Ned Morrissey and James Fitzgerald, enjoying the festivities. Another witness, 'Laurence O'Brien' gave a similar account, and also named those who were illegally in the pub.
Chief Supt O'Mara and the investigation team interviewed all the gardai based at Stradbally, but he considered the statements obtained from them to be unsatisfactory and even contradictory. Gda Dullea acknowledged that he had met Larry Griffin that evening, but insisted Griffin was not drunk. He said that he had accompanied Griffin out the Kilmacthomas road for about 100 yards and then returned to the village. He denied, as did all the other gardai, being in Whelan's pub that day.
James Fitzgerald, another local man, told the investigators that he had been standing outside Whelan's with Tommy Corbett, Jim Murphy and Patrick Cunningham at about 6.30pm, and decided to join the crowd in the pub. Fitzgerald named a large number of people, all locals, who were in the pub, including the local teacher, Thomas Cashin, and Ned Morrissey, who had a reputation as a bit of a pugilist. At some point, Larry Griffin dropped three half crowns and Morrissey picked them up and bought a round of drinks with them.
An inevitable argument ensued between Morrissey and Griffin the postman, quickly followed by some pushing and shoving. At some stage, Griffin fell and hit his head off a stove in the bar. He fell unconscious and never spoke a word thereafter. Paddy Whelan, the publican, became agitated and accused Morrissey of "killing the man in my house". Morrissey assured Whelan everything would be alright, saying, "We'll take Larry away and nobody will know about it." Whelan (the publican), Cashin (the teacher), Morrissey (the pugilist) and George Cummins (another local) put the body in the back of Cashin's car, the only one in the village. Morrissey accompanied Cashin in the car and the body was disposed of and hasn't been seen or located to the present day.
The Whelans would later deny that anyone was in their pub on Christmas Day, including the gardai, Cashin, Morrissey, Cunningham, Murphy, Fitzgerald and, indeed, Larry Griffin. Amazingly, Cashin was never asked to make a statement and never volunteered one, but his wife did, and gave him an airtight alibi.
General Eoin O'Duffy was the commissioner of An Garda Siochana and was also the leader of the Irish contingent who went to Spain to fight for General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. O'Duffy took personal charge and supervision of the investigation. The case was arousing nationwide interest and the media were having a field day covering the story. Waterford, and the country at large, was shocked when the entire Stradbally station party were transferred. Later, two of the gardai would be charged with Larry Griffin's murder.
On January 24, 1930, Supt Meehan and Sgt Murphy arrested Cashin and Morrissey. They were charged with the murder and disposing of the body of Larry Griffin. Cashin replied to the charges by stating, "I was not out of my house after 4pm that day." Both denied any involvement in the murder. On January 26 and 27, the entire Whelan family was also arrested. George Cummins and Patrick Cunningham were arrested along with Gda Dullea and Gda Murphy on January 4, 1930, and charged with murder and conspiring to dispose of a dead body to obstruct or prevent a coroner's inquest from being held. They denied the charges.
James Fitzgerald, who had named everyone who was in the pub that day, was regarded as the most important witness for the State. He was put into a kind of garda protection programme, which was unheard of in those days. Today, it may seem incredible that the then Minister for Justice directed the gardai to maintain Fitzgerald as a state witness in Waterford Garda Station, with the cost not to exceed three shillings a day.
The searches for the body were intensive. The abandoned copper-mine shafts in Bunmahon were unsuccessfully searched. The services of a diver from 'Liverpool' were obtained, but he got cold feet and refused to dive into the 50ft-deep water as he said it was too dangerous. The foreshores at Stradbally and Bunmahon were dug up, as were all new graves in the area. Due to the case's notoriety, Stradbally village, to the disgust of the locals, became a tourist attraction.
All the gardai who had served at Stradbally when the murder occurred were taken to Garda Headquarters in Dublin, with the avowed intention of Commissioner O'Duffy and his staff breaking one or more of them. The interrogation team consisted of Deputy Commissioner Coogan, Chief Supt Harrington, and Supt Jones. Chief Supt O'Mara was present, but took no part in the interrogations.
O'Mara later gave an account of the interviews: "They were questioned, coaxed, abused, and a round ebony stick was brought into play in such a cruel manner that the yells could be heard in the nearby Phoenix Park." O'Duffy also interviewed them and later boasted, "I promised them with promotion if they assisted, and with dismissal and murder charges if they didn't." The guards wouldn't budge, and stuck to their guns. After O'Duffy had directed O'Mara to arrest Gda Dullea and Gda Murphy, he was politely informed by O'Mara that if he was to comply, it would place him in an invidious position as he would be obliged to give evidence at any subsequent trial of the ill treatment meted out to the gardai during their questioning. O'Duffy, seeing the potential personal difficulty for himself, directed Supt Meehan to arrest them.
O'Duffy was becoming frantic and decided to seek the services of the Bishop of Waterford. The bishop was adamant in his refusal to address the Sunday Mass congregation at Stradbally, seeking their services and any information they may have had to assist in solving the murder. However, the bishop relented after much persuasion from O'Duffy, and complied with the request. O'Duffy believed an elderly nun in Stradbally could be his saviour when she told him that Tommy Corbett knew the true story. O'Duffy secured the services of one Inspector McNamara and told him, "I want you to get it out of Corbett, one way or another." The inspector failed miserably.
On February 7, 1930, all 10 defendants appeared before Judge FJ McCabe at Waterford District Court. The main witness for the state was Fitzgerald, and the prosecution case rested almost entirely on the evidence he might give. Mr Finlay, prosecuting on behalf of the State, realised that Fitzgerald was deviating seriously in the evidence he was giving from that contained in his statement to the gardai. Finlay sought, and was granted, an adjournment until February 21, 1930. At the adjourned hearing the case was once more adjourned to March 7, l930. At that court, Mr Finlay told the judge that he had sought the adjournments in the hope that the body would be found. As the body had not been found, he informed the court that the charges against all the accused were being withdrawn. This brought thunderous applause from those present in the packed courthouse.
James Fitzgerald had given the impression of being self-assured and confident prior to entering the witness box. He looked long and intently at his friends and neighbours sitting in the body of the court. He appreciated that the evidence he was about to give had the potential to send his friends to jail for life or even guide them towards the gallows. Fear and trepidation took the place of confidence and composure; he failed to deliver and with his failure went the State's case.
On a charge of murder, the fact of death is provable by circumstantial evidence, whether or not the body has been found, but there should be no grounds for reasonable doubt. To constitute murder, the killing must be committed with malice aforethought -- "aforethought" does not necessarily mean premeditation, but it implies foresight that death would be or might be caused.
The killing of Larry Griffin could not have been intentional or with malice aforethought. It was simply an altercation between drunken men in a pub on Christmas Day; a day like Good Friday when presence in a pub or the consumption of intoxicating liquor in a pub is totally forbidden. The patrons included members of an Garda Siochana, the local teacher and numerous locals. It is evident that panic rather than common sense took over after Griffin struck his head off the stove in the pub and lapsed into unconsciousness. Just where or when he died remains, to this day, a mystery.
The solidarity of the local community, and in particular those present in the pub that Christmas Day, is nothing short of incredible. It was acknowledged that many of those present in the pub knew where, when, and how Larry Griffin's body was disposed of. What is equally certain is that few people, if anyone, outside the catchment area of Stradbally had this information, then or since. It remains one of the country's most bizarre and talked-about murder mysteries.
The missing-postman case continued to reverberate even after the murder charges were dropped and the 10 men and women had, sensationally, walked free from Waterford District Court. On March 7, l930, a conference was held at Garda Headquarters to discuss the collapse of the case. O'Duffy suggested that Fitzgerald's statement was obtained as a result of third-degree methods being used. O'Mara told him that he, personally, had taken the statement and that third-degree methods were definitely not used. O'Duffy, true to form, threatened O'Mara with dismissal. He turned to O'Mara and directed him to have all freshly made graves opened and examined. O'Mara saw this as grotesque and unnecessary, but his protestations only enraged O'Duffy further and caused him to threaten O'Mara with a transfer to Donegal. The graves and coffins were opened, much to the annoyance of the relatives and locals, but no trace of Griffin's body was found.
Supt Hunt, based in Galway, was appointed by O'Duffy to continue the investigation. He had a reputation as a hard man and one who was successful in most investigations he took charge of. Almost immediately, Hunt got up the noses of the locals and in particular that of the local priest, Fr O'Shea, who had tired of incessant intrusions into his house. Fr O'Shea eventually ordered Hunt out and forbade him to return. Erstwhile star witness James Fitzgerald became Hunt's main target. He brought him on a number of occasions to Kent's pub in Kilmacthomas, where he plied him with copious amounts of drink in a fruitless attempt to get him to say he was forced to sign his statement. O'Duffy appears to have been determined to pin blame for the mystery remaining unsolved on the garda officers involved in the investigation.
On March 6, 1930, O'Mara met Supt Meehan and Supt Hunt, and was informed by them that O'Duffy was furious about allegations that gardai had abused and ill-treated Tommy Corbett. They informed him that Corbett was alleging that Insp McNamara and other detectives had brought him to the cliffs, clattered him with their revolvers, taken him to a mine shaft and lowered him, with a rope, into it. O'Mara informed them that O'Duffy himself was responsible, and had ordered the inspector to do his bidding and was now condemning him for carrying out his instructions. O'Mara was so disgusted with the whole affair that he threatened to resign. He was convinced by a priest friend not to give in to such thuggery.
Supt Keenan later told O'Mara that, during the meeting with Supt Meehan and Supt Hunt and himself, O'Duffy had tried to get them to say Fitzgerald's statement had been forced out of him and that O'Mara had had a revolver on the table at the time of the interview and kept clicking and pointing it at Fitzgerald. O'Duffy also alleged that Tommy Corbett had been tortured beyond recognition on the orders and in the presence of O'Mara. Keenan wasn't prepared to go along with O'Duffy's ranting and didn't. O'Duffy became incensed with Keenan's attitude and ordered him out of his sight and told him he would dismiss him from the force, a threat he did not follow through on.
O'Mara confronted O'Duffy at the Garda Depot on March 12 about O'Duffy's allegation that O'Mara had threatened Fitzgerald with a revolver when his statement was being taken. The exchanges were heated, but O'Mara was determined and fought his corner with the one he regarded as a bully. Eventually, O'Duffy pulled rank when he realised he was losing the very dangerous verbal exchanges; he told O'Mara to get out or he would have him arrested. O'Mara saluted and left the office.
At a Confirmation ceremony in Ballylaneen church, near Stradbally village, the Bishop of Waterford told the congregation, "I came here today not to denounce anybody but, having discussed that sorry affair with my fellow bishops, I have to hang my head in shame. Is it possible that, whether the postman is alive or dead, nobody knows anything about him? I think not." He appealed to the parishioners to help clear up the sorry mess. His promptings fell on deaf ears.
The Whelan family later took civil proceedings against O'Duffy and the other garda officers involved in the investigation. They were awarded £1,740. The action also included the Cork Examiner and the Waterford News. Other civil proceedings followed and were also largely successful.
It is amazing that none of the defendants cracked under interrogation, despite being kept in custody and separated from their co-defendants for five weeks.
At least 20 persons were present in Whelan's pub when the murder was committed, but not one of them ever told the true and complete story of events as they occurred on that fateful Christmas Day. Cashin and Morrissey knew where the body was disposed of, and it's more than likely many others did also.
The investigation and collapse of the trial was raised in Dail Eireann on March 12, 1931, and the Minister for Justice Mr Fitzgerald Kennedy informed the house in response to persistent questioning, in particular from Mr Little, that "the conduct of the police investigation in this case, was marked by two regrettable incidents, viz: 1) The failure of the gardai stationed in Stradbally to report the matter at once and to give all possible assistance; and 2) The over-zeal of some members of the gardai who were subsequently called in to assist in the investigation."
Mr Little asked the minister if he was aware that there was a whole parish under the unproved charge of murder. The minister replied, "No. I am not." The Government refused requests for an official enquiry. To the present day, discussion about the missing postman in the village of Stradbally is not encouraged or tolerated. It is incredible that the crime is still shown in Garda records as an unsolved murder.
Pat Flynn is the author of 'Catherine and Friends: Inside the Investigation into Ireland's Most Notorious Murder', published by Liberties Press. The superintendent in charge of the Catherine Nevin case, Flynn tells the story of the infamous murder and the allegations of contract killers, extra-marital affairs, fraud and links to Republican organisations
Sunday Indo Life Magazine