Sunday 19 January 2020


The gates of the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park. Picture: Ray Cullen
The gates of the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park. Picture: Ray Cullen
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

There is an old saying in newspapers that didn't hold true in late December, 1939 - that nothing much happens around Christmas time.

On the night of December 23 at about 8.30 a man in full military uniform approached the guard house of the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, where the Army stored its ammunition.

He was carrying what appeared to be a parcel, perhaps even a Christmas present. When the guard opened the door he was rushed and overpowered by a gang of armed men who quickly took control of the fort. Out of the darkness four lorries materialised and drove into the star-shaped fortress, perched atop St Thomas' Hill overlooking Islandbridge.

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The Magazine Fort, built by Lord Sackville, still stands today, barred and forlorn, falling down through decades of neglect. Although it is one of the last remnants of 18th century military architecture in Ireland, dating from 1735, it seems the ghosts of Christmas past haunt its hidden stone passages.

Unloved, its tiled roof is caving in, the stone and brick work crumbling; the iron barriers preventing entry are corroded with rust. The dry moat surrounding the two-acre fortress is overgrown with grass and sprinkled with litter.

Few go there now, apart from joggers and the odd curious tourist, taken by its commanding position which on a good day gives a clear view of the south city spiked with church spires and the hazy blue hills of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains in the distance.

From the other side it looks across the greenery of the Phoenix Park and its herd of grazing deer.

But that night in 1939, as the Finnish army repulsed the Soviets massing on their borders and Eamon de Valera enunciated Ireland's neutrality, a well-planned IRA operation was under way in the dark, isolated fort which for centuries had been a bastion of British rule in Ireland.

As the gang toiled, loading boxes of ammunition into the trucks, down below their confederates opened fire on Islandbridge Barracks (re-named Clancy) as a diversion. They also cut the electricity wires to prevent any warning of the raid seeping into the somnolent pre-Christmas city.

As each lorry was filled, it was driven down the steep hill and away towards Chapelizod. By the time the last one left almost a million rounds of ammunition had been cleared from the Magazine. As troops and gardai finally got to the scene, four armed men were arrested trying to escape from the park.

Despite the drama and gunfire there was only one casualty on the night, and he was probably the only real patriot at the scene. James Hewson, the gatekeeper at the Islandbridge gate to the park, had donned his ranger jacket when the lights went out, and as he examined the severed electricity cables, was hit over the head with the butt of a pistol and rendered unconscious.

In a previous life Mr Hewson was a member of the Connaught Rangers regiment of the British army and had taken part in the mutiny in India out of sympathy with the Irish population suffering from the brutality and reprisals of the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries in 1920.

He had been imprisoned for two years before being released and sent back to the newly formed Free State.

While the execution of the raid on the Magazine Fort appears to have been meticulous, its aftermath was chaotic.

It seemed the gang hadn't really believed they could pull it off, and once they had, there was no real plan as to how to dispose of their massive haul.

The following day two lorries were found, one in Ballymore Eustace and the other on the banks of the Royal Canal near Naas.

In the days after, boxes of ammunition turned up in disused outhouses and sheds in Hazelhatch, Allentown, Julianstown and Bettystown.

The story didn't make the Sunday papers and only began to seep out on Tuesday.

But even then the reporters, perhaps still dazed by the Christmas festivities, didn't make much of it.

But by Wednesday the raid was making front page headlines as the scale of the operation and the resulting government embarrassment became apparent.

The Department of Justice offered a reward of £1,000 for information about the perpetrators, while a military inquiry into the security breach was launched under Major General Brennan, Chief of Staff of the Army.

As well-known IRA men were rounded up in their dozens all over Leinster, the town of Naas, said one report, was "like a war zone" with Army and police imposing a 'ring of steel' around the town.

Worst of all there were long delays for those making their way to Leopardstown for the races as armoured cars blocked the roads and armed soldiers searched cars and horse boxes.

The Army would later claim that most of the ammunition seized was inferior stock, but the successful raid on the Fort pointed up how unprepared the Irish Free State was for the threats from within and without.

The Magazine Fort today is a sad sight.

It seems from looking through the rusted iron gates that at some point there was a plan to restore it. Is that plan forgotten, just like the raid on the eve of Christmas Eve in 1939?

Not so, it seems. The Office of Public Works may be at last about to embark on a much needed refurbishment of the Fort. We can only hope they get a move on because if it is left much longer it looks like it may just sink into St Thomas' Hill.

What are the lessons of that night 80 years ago? Perhaps the most pertinent is, beware of strangers bearing Christmas presents!

Sunday Independent

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