A little over 60 years ago, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) managed one of the cleanest military heists in history. It took about six months to plan, along with an IRA volunteer who actually enlisted in the British Army, and a whole lot of luck, but the raid was incredibly successful and they pulled it off without firing a shot or spilling a single drop of blood. The idea to raid the Gough Barracks in Armagh began to take shape in January, 1954, when Leo McCormick (the training officer for the Dublin Brigade) visited the area and noticed that the sentry guarding the entrance had no magazine in his Sten gun. He correctly assumed that this was a regular practice – for some incomprehensible reason, the man guarding the gate to the barracks was always unarmed. It didn’t take long for the Dublin commanders to decide they would take advantage of that news and multiple trips were made to observe the sentry and the outside of the building. Charles Murphy made the formal decision to plan a raid, and he sent Eamonn Boyce to Armagh weekly on reconnaissance missions. They soon convinced another young volunteer named Sean Garland to head North where he enlisted in the British Army and got assigned to the barracks. Their inside man immediately began sending maps and intelligence back to the IRA headquarters where the highly secretive planning commenced. Garland continued to meet with Boyce and Murphy whenever they’d visit. They were finally allowed into the property when Sean was able to get a few visitor passes for the weekly dance that the barracks hosted. They arrived with a young member of Cumann na mBan named Mae Smith, and pretended to enjoy the dance. As the sun set Garland grabbed Mae and whisked her outside. Miss Smith was the perfect cohort and cover story. Sean’s fellow soldiers assumed that he was trying to seduce her, but the couple were actually touring the facility and mapping the grounds. They even managed to snap a few pictures. Originally the operation was going to take place at night, but Sean Garland informed them that the weapons would all be stockpiled for inventory on a Saturday afternoon, so after weighing the options, Murphy decided on a daytime, weekend attack. It was staged from a nearby farm in Dundalk where the volunteers managed to commandeer a cattle truck. There were nearly 20 men involved in the raid – but the plan had been kept so secret that many were unaware of what they were about to do until they were already loaded in the truck and on their way to the barracks. They waited inside the vehicle while Paddy Ford got out to ask the unarmed sentry about joining the army. The guard was in the middle of dissuading him from doing such a foolish thing when he noticed the gun in Paddy’s hand. He was forced into the guardhouse and tied up while another IRA man in a matching uniform replaced him at the gate and waved the truck inside. They parked it at the door of the arsenal. There were over 200 keys on the ring and the volunteers lost a little time as Boyce fumbled with them, trying to find the one that would unlock the door. When it finally opened Murphy ran up the stairs to subdue the soldiers who were there but had trouble getting his revolver out of his pocket. The soldiers refused to even raise their hands until another volunteer showed up with a bigger gun but soon enough they were bound and quiet as the IRA started loading all the weapons into their truck. There were a few more glitches in the audacious raid. A woman passing on the street noticed something was wrong and asked another soldier to investigate. He was subdued after he walked into the barracks but refused to be tied up until there was a gun at his head. He protested being manhandled, saying he was “an officer and a gentleman.” Another curious NCO tried to cut off their escape by driving a lorry in to block the exit, but was forced back with drawn weapons and also eventually subdued. The men ignored everyone they could as they loaded their treasure and only stopped to handle those who questioned what they were doing but by the end of the operation, nineteen soldiers and one civilian were helplessly tied up, unable to stop the IRA from collecting every weapon in the building. The whole operation took less than twenty minutes and the IRA men locked every door and gate they could find the keys for during their exit. The cattle truck held 340 rifles, 50 Sten guns, 12 Bren guns, a volley of smaller arms and ammunition, and all the volunteers when it was driven out. Miraculously, no one was injured on either side and the truck rambled off to the south with its heavy load. By the time the general alert was given, all of the guns and the men who had liberated them had all vanished. The bold raid brought international attention and a whole new volley of recruits to the Irish Republican Army. The ring of keys was later auctioned off in America in order to raise funds for them as well. It was hugely embarrassing for the authorities and the Army who tried and failed to downplay its ballsy success.
Good times, great oldies. Thanks again for a wonderful piece.
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[…] 1954. Mr Terence O’Conlon, Secretary, Philadelphia IRA Association, in a letter, says that the raid on Armagh Barracks caused a sensation in America, especially among the native population. The story broke on a Sunday […]
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