Personal Memories of the raid on Magazine
Fort in Dublin
Capt. John 'Sean' Prendergast
In Conversation with Noreen
(January 2002, Carlow)
Capt. John 'Sean' Prendergast
Saturday evening 23rd December, 1939 - the Magazine Fort in the
Phoenix Park, Dublin - where all the ammunition of the Irish Army
was stored - was attacked and raided by the I.R.A. Over 1.2 million
rounds of ammunition were removed in no less than 13 lorries, over a
period of two hours. Responsibility for the security of the Fort
rested in the command of the nearby Collin's Barracks.
Capt. Sean Prendergast of Carlow was one of the officers in Collin's
Barracks on that fateful evening, when the phone rang, informing
them of the raid - this is his story.
'This is my story of what took place on 23rd December 1939. Now it
wasn't the best of times nor the worst of times, like our friend
Charles Dickens starts, but it was the eve of Christmas Eve - the
location of my story is in Collins' Barracks, North Side of the
About 9 o'clock that night, the 23- in the Officers Mess in Collins'
Barracks, a party was at its height - perhaps I should explain the
atmosphere at the party it was the middle of the phoney war and the
people there were singing "hanging out their washing on the
line" - good companionship, good cheer, piano and singing. At about
the phone rang in the Mess.
Suddenly there was silence, the pianist Austie Flood stopped playing
'Run rabbit run' on the piano. The Orderly Officer, John Jones, as
the Orderly Officer, took the phone call and whatever was said, he
replied "Look, I'll have to get my Commanding Officer's instructions
regarding this" and he handed the phone over to his Commanding
Officer, Michael Kilkelly. Michael Kilkelly was heard speaking very
audibly to whoever was on the other end of the phone and the
question he asked was:
"Lieutenant, how long are you in the Army?" Obviously we didn't hear
the reply - but he went on:
"You're three years in the army and you can't deal with a few effing
shots" -then he put the receiver back.
What was happening was. the Duty Officer from Collins' Barracks, who
made a tour of inspection each night of the various guards who were
sent out each evening from Collins' Barracks - usually two NCO's and
eight men to do duty in Barracks and places like the Magazine, who
hadn't got their own guards.
The one we are talking about this night is Island bridge
Barracks, which was Headquarters of the Engineers - non-com you
might say - the guard had arrived-5 o'clock that evening, the normal
time for change - took up duty in the Guard Room the duty officer
was checking up on each guard - checking all was well. When the
gates were opened and he was allowed in to Island bridge
Barracks and the gates closed behind him. He checked and found
every-thing was alright - they started to open
the gates to let him
out to go on his way when shots were fired from on top of the bridge
over the Liffey down at the gates, so he couldn't get out. This was
the gist of the phone-call that came into Collins' Barrack during
The responsibility for military institutions the North Side of the
River, at that
Christmas, lay with the Garrison in Collin's’ Barracks; as it was
the first year of the war practically all married officers with
families had got leave and the unmarried were left to
do duty for Christmas, in the normal way. Unfortunately, our
O.C, Micky Kilkelly -had a bit of a reputation in the army -we
thought at the time he was an old man – he’d-be about 45, he was
celebrating, as he was a single man. Quite a lot of officers who on
leave brought their wives to the mess for the party - cheaper
drinks, etc. - they didn’t know what was going on.
So, to make a long story short, the party continued - I was Stand-to
Officer, hadn't a clue what was going on - only the phone call. I
was relieved at 12 o'clock and went down to where my troop were at
stand-to in the Barrack Square and then I went off to bed. Got up
the following morning - I had arrangements made to get a lift down
to Carlow -I had a free day. It was the 24th December.
The person who brought me was the Provost Marshall in Brickens; he
had worked in Carlow as a young man before he joined the army,
Commandant Mick Lennon and he had a car. He dropped me in Carlow at
about 12 o'clock on Sunday (Christmas Eve). They were just coming
from Mass - I was barely home, when the civic guards arrived telling
me to report back immediately to Collins' Barracks in Dublin. I had
only just arrived - only just come from Dublin. They didn't know
anything - just there had been a big raid in Dublin and we were the
people responsible for it.
Took the train that evening back to Dublin. I was in civvies of
course, got back to barracks and into uniform and hullabaloo - we
were out all over the country for the next 4-5 weeks - searched all
over and started to get the ammunition back by degrees - Hazel Hatch
Station was the first place where there were eight or ten boxes.
Right up to February - each alternate night we used an armoured car
to do a circuit. Our circuit's headquarters was in Naas. We picked
up a civic guard making a crew of five - an officer, one NCO and two
drivers. With the armoured car, we made a tour each night from Naas
to Kilcock and came back round Edenderry into Naas and dropped the
guards round 9 o'clock in the morning and then back to Collins'
Barracks. Different routes were repeated every night. The rumpus had
nearly died down by the end of January 1940.
We had nearly started to forget about the Magazine Raid - but on
Saturday 17th February - we were looking forward to finishing at
12.00 midday, which we normally did on a Saturday. Austie Flood and
myself, who had been commissioned with me in 1935 in the Armoured
Car Corps, had made arrangements to go out, 1 was going to play
football and he was coming to the match.
About 10 o'clock in the morning, I was sent for by the O.C. of the
Barracks who was Major Corrigan - he was O.C, of the 5th Battalion
and O.C. of the Barracks - he said "Prendergast, you're not to leave
today, you and Lieutenant Flood - you may be required for duty this
About 3 o'clock, we got word: "your troops may be required for duty
this evening" When I say 'troop' - in the cavalry we were troopers.
I was 'A' Troop Commander and he was 'B' Troop Commander. A and B
Troops about 38 men with armoured cars and bren-gun (Ford Scut
Trucks). We still hadn't a clue. We were told we may be moving out
about 9 o'clock -so at 10 past nine, we were told to move down in
convoy to Parnell Square, to block off every entry, about five
entries into the Square - the Civic Guards came with a military
escort straight into the Meath Hotel and when they went in the
fifteen lads who were there showed no resistance and came out -they
were brought into a Guards Barracks and ended up in military
Part 6 of the Offences against the State Act 1939 was re-enacted in
the Dail - the Emergency Powers Act was invoked (i.e. powers to
intern suspected persons without trial) - these lads were held and
went on hunger strike and two of them died on hunger strike, Tony
Darcy and Sean MacConghaola, in Brickens Hospital, the Military
Hospital attached to Collins Barracks, on Military Hill. Strange as
it may seem, it was one of the longest hunger strikes - one of them
can't remember which -lasted almost 73 days.
The upshot of the Court of Inquiry, as far as we could gather, was
our O.C. was dishonorably discharged from the army as was Orderly
Officer 2nd Lieutenant - also dismissed was Captain Curran who was
Officer in Charge of the Magazine, who happened to be out at
confession when the raid occurred. He was elderly, returned to duty
for a day -but when the 1948 Coalition came in, he got all his
rights and pension returned. This then was the story from Collins'
Barracks on 23rd-December 1939 - as far as I know it never appeared
in public. I think Lt. Jones was also recalled to army service by
the then Government.
After the raid in the Meath Hotel - a week or so later a new O.C.
arrived. He was Capn. Tom O'Hanlon, whom we all knew well. He was a
Cavalry Officer and in the Cavalry School. Unfortunately the man who
was dismissed - Micky Kilkelly, a Commandant was a Company Commander
in 3rd Battalion, knew absolutely nothing how a mechanised unit
should have been run, nor did he try to bother.
It was unfortunate for him. He had been in the Free State Army from
the outset and had a vague attachment to Colons' Crew in Dublin,
Bloody Sunday and all that. I'm not sure of my grounds on that... he
was typical Dublin, never lost his Dublin accent, one of the most
contrary. Stories about him all over the army and I think the
Infantry and Curragh Battalion were glad to get rid of him -
vacancies rarely occurred - he was due advancement and he was
transferred from the Infantry to the Cavalry.
Once Tom O'Hanlon took over we started to operate as a Cavalry Unit.
But we were still to be punished. Overnight, in early May of 1940
without any warning, we were moved from Collins' Barracks, Dublin to
Collins' Barracks Cork where Major General Costelloe was O.C. That
was our punishment... we didn't get back out of it as a unit to the
Curragh until 1943 or 4.1 got my promotion in October/November 1941.
I was promoted from 2nd Lieutenant to Acting Commandant at the
formation of the 7th Motor Squadron.
"I suppose in the whole history of armies since the world
began there was never such a disaster as the picture of an army
losing all its ammunition, without as much as a blackthorn being
Kevin O'Higgins T.D., opposition spokesman. 3rd. Jan. 1940 -
Debate on Emergency Powers (amendment) Bill. (Column 1415 vol. 78
No. 40 -Official Debates)
Military Archives G2/X/0223
MAGAZINE FORT RAIDED
Over 1,000,000 Rounds of
FIFTY MEN AND FOUR LORRIES
GUARD OVERPOWERED AND BOUND
THE National Arsenal, known as the
Magazine Fort, in the Phoenix Park, Dublin was broken into by armed
men on Saturday night and over 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition
During the raid, which was carried out by
between forty and fifty men, a gatekeeper, Mr. James Hewson,
received a severe head injury and is in a critical condition in
Three men, who were arrested later in the
Park by military forces from Island bridge Barracks, and who are
alleged to have had revolvers in their position, are lodged in Arbor
Hill Prison. One of them is named McDonnell, and is a native of
Balldoyle. The others refused to give their names or any particulars
about themselves, but are said to belong to Dublin.
The military guard at the Magazine have
been placed in detention.
Several shots were fired following the
raid, but no one was injured by the fire.
The affair was perfectly planned, and the
precision with which it was carried out enabled the raiders to use
four lorries to carry off the ammunition - over two hundred cases of
it, with five thousand rounds in each case - and get away before any
alarm was raised.
Four Hours' Work
And this, after overpowering the guard -
corporal, acting corporal, and eight other ranks -with quiet
efficiency and within a few seconds; possessing themselves of the
keys of the ammunition vault, and laboriously loading the heavy
cases into the lorries. It took the men the greater part of four
hours to carry out the task - from about 8.30 to midnight - and
during that period there was nothing to arouse the slightest
suspicion on the part of the military authorities in the
Island bridge Barracks, little more than 500 yards away.
The Irish Times - Tuesday. December 26,