Private Joseph Bergin, and a court case that shocked Ireland

On 14 December 1923 a group of children were playing in a field beside the Grand Canal in Milltown, Co. Kildare. The children noticed blood on a bridge over the canal and this was brought to the attention of a local man, who discovered a body in the water. The body was that of 23 year old Joseph Bergin from Glencondra, who was serving with the Military Police in the Curragh Camp. A post-mortem confirmed that he had been shot dead after a violent struggle. His wounds were consistent with a prolonged dragging along the ground, possibly from a car. The following day, at an inquest, the county coroner was told that Joseph had indicated to a comrade that he was heading to Dublin on the day that he disappeared to purchase a motorbike. It was noted that Joseph had money with him that he had saved carefully for some time. He was on duty in the Curragh until 6am on Thursday, 13 December, and left the camp, presumably en route to Kildare to get a train to Dublin but he was not seen alive in the Curragh again.

The early hour of his departure was put down to the assumption that he would have intended on getting an early train to Dublin, purchase his bike and get back to the Curragh before night fall. He left the camp on a borrowed bicycle. This bike was not found in either Kildare train station or in Newbridge, suggesting that he may not have reached either in the first place. Wild theories were speculated upon in the Kildare area and several of them made the national press. A version of Bergin’s character was discussed openly and rumours of Republican involvement were widespread.

Shortly after the identification of Bergin’s body, there was a sensational lead in Dublin. A car found near Dame St. on the same evening as the grim Kildare discovery which seemed unclaimed and had blood stains within was viewed by the Gardaí as potentially being the car that transported Bergin from his place of death to Milltown. A disused house on a farm in Guiderstown, Kildare, was investigated by police and the building bore all the hall marks of a grievous crime having taken place within. The investigation was one of the main news items in Ireland over the Christmas of 1923. The speed of new discoveries and the tone of the police statements which claimed that arrests were imminent gave every indication that the case would be quickly resolved and those responsible for Bergin’s death would be brought to justice.

However, there were no arrests. The case became cold and there were no further developments for an entire year. But a remarkable development on Christmas Eve 1924 brought the story back to the front pages. James Murray, a former member of the Free State army, was arrested in his home in Dún Laoghaire and was removed to Mountjoy Prison. A couple of days later he was brought before a judge and evidence was heard regarding the disappearance of Bergin and the subsequent discovery of his body. After an afternoon of hearing evidence, Murray was remanded for trial for the murder of Joseph Bergin.

It is not an overstatement to say that the ensuing trial of James Murray was nothing short of being the most extraordinary case heard in an Irish court in a generation. Proceedings opened with the going over of known facts and the established trail of events confirming the circumstances around Bergin’s final known movements. Policemen also explained the discovery of the disused house and what they found there. But the wider, more sinister picture of the death of Bergin emerged during the evidence of Private James Cleary, stationed in Portobello Barracks, in the transport section of the Free State Army. On the day of Bergin’s death, Cleary met with Colonel Michael Joe Costello, the director of intelligence of the Free State Army. Costello was with three other men, one of whom Cleary believed to be the accused, James Murray. Cleary was asked to drive the three men out of the barracks in a Ford touring car as far as the North Circular Road. At this point Murray said he would take over driving and Cleary handed the car over and the three officers left.

The following day, Cleary saw the car abandoned in Crown Alley, just off Dame St, in the heart of modern day Temple Bar. Cleary said that there was blood on the back seats and blood stained clothes scattered about within. Cleary made an attempt to clean off the stains but to no avail. When he made his discovery known he was promptly arrested and held in Arbour Hill for four months. Throughout his lengthy incarceration he demanded to know what he was being accused of, but he was neither informed of this, or was ever moved to a formal trial before he was quietly released without explanation. The very next witness confirmed that the car abandoned in Dublin was the same that had made track marks outside the abandoned house in Kildare. The courtroom was now buzzing with the potential exposing of a great conspiracy involving the army and the possible execution of one of their own.

Colonel Costello was next to give evidence. He opened by stating that he barely knew Bergin personally, but was keeping a very close eye on the young Camross man. He said that he suspected that Bergin was in communication with some Republican prisoners in Tintown Camp, where all Republican Civil War prisoners were held, and he wanted to investigate the claims. Therefore, he got the accused to interview Bergin. He corroborated the initial part of Cleary’s evidence with regards the acquiring of a car for a ‘special job’. The day after the acquisition of the car, Murray returned to Costello and he informed him that he had done well in interviewing Bergin and had obtained some important documents. Costello asked him to write up a report but it never reached his desk and when he heard that Bergin’s body was found he feared that the interview did not go as smoothly as Murray had indicated. But Costello would not be pressed on further details on his role in organising this ‘interview’. He claimed that he reported the matter to the National Army Chief of Staff and refused to answer any further questions, reserving his right to do so given his military position and his belief that the line of questioning was coming close to encroaching on national security matters.

The evidence of Costello stunned the galleries. After a lengthy delay involving the Army’s legal team, the next hearing of the trial resumed in June 1924. Colonel Costello was once again the prime witness and the evidence proved to be no less remarkable than before. Despite agreeing with James Cleary’s evidence in the first hearing, Costello now refuted Cleary’s earlier evidence that Murray was accompanied by two other men on the morning he retrieved a car for the so-called ‘special job’. Costello claimed that the area where the car was parked was frequented by members of the public and that Cleary could easily have mistaken two innocent bystanders as being in Murray’s company. He later said that owing to the huge number of men in the army intelligence department, he wouldn’t know all the men involved. He also stated that, once it was apparent that Murray’s interception of Bergin had resulted in his death, he attempted to contact Murray but he could not be found. Murray had in fact fled to Buenos Aires in Argentina. Murray was officially dismissed from the army due to being away without leave and Costello stated that he did not see Murray again until the beginning of the trial that January.

Mr. Gleeson, prosecution for the state, then asked Costello the following;

‘If the prisoner comes up here and says he went away on your suggestion and that you actually paid his expenses for going away will you deny it?’

‘I will, certainly. It is absolutely false’ replied Costello amidst an increasing murmur from the galleries.

‘If he swears he did in fact go to Argentina with money provided by you will you deny it?’ pressed Mr. Gleeson.

‘It is absolutely wrong’ replied a defiant Costello.

‘And that when he heard he was mixed up in this business he came back from Argentina to have it out with you’ suggested Gleeson.

‘It is absolutely wrong’ repeated Costello.

The presiding judge, Mr. Justice Hana, quickly recognised the inference from Gleeson’s questioning, as did an increasingly staggered press section in the gallery. Hana asked Gleeson ‘Is it suggested Colonel Costello was in league with Murray to conceal the murderers?’

‘It is’ confirmed Gleeson.

‘I take it you do not suggest that Colonel Costello was any party to the murder of the boy?’ replied the judge.

‘Oh no!’ said Gleeson, careful not to have any piece of his questioning ruled out of order.

Gleeson then moved to read four letters which were written by Murray and were allegedly received by Costello. All the letters had aliases and used code words for certain individuals. These aliases and code words were subsequently explained by Gleeson and the following extracts have the correct names inserted for clarity’s sake. The first letter read;

I have been thinking over the advice of attempting to deal directly with the President (Douglas Hyde, President of Ireland) and the Minister for Defence (Richard Mulcahy TD) regarding my case. Of course this would have to be very carefully thought over before any move is made and would only be necessary in the event of there being no prospect of my returning to military duty, say during the next year. My plan is roughly to get a reliable clergyman to see President Hyde and find out his views on the case, also do likewise with Richard Mulcahy.

Then as the thing would develop I could place copies of all captured stuff before them with a statement to the effect that Joseph Bergin was tried by court-martial and found guilty on his own statement.

All of this would necessarily be done under a promise of secrecy and in the event of them not being willing to reinstate me they would make an offer of a settlement of some description…

My position is that were it not for the fact that you would get yourself mixed up in the thing I would be perfectly willing to place the full facts of the case before the public and accept their judgement no matter what sacrifice it might entail.

Having expressed these views I think it would be a very good thing if you met me [in Argentina] any time at your own convenience and discuss the matter fully, exploring every channel which might be useful towards fixing the thing up as I am sure a settlement would strengthen your position as much as mine and if they made an offer no matter how little it would give us a lever as they would have hopelessly compromised their position and would have to give way to my demands for a settlement.

Murray concluded the letter by asking Costello questions regarding how much was known about his whereabouts, whether a detailed photograph of him was being circulated and whether official records relating to him could be destroyed.

The evidence that Costello was involved in the cover-up of Joseph Bergin’s death was mounting. Defence for Murray alleged that Costello had made a series of payments in relation to Murray’s transport to Argentina and also to Murray’s wife. But such payments could not be proved as Mr. O’Connor, secretary to the Ministry of Defence, stated that the details that were being sought could not be given as they would be inimical to the public interest.

Michael Murray, brother to James, gave further evidence implicating Costello. Michael claimed that Costello had told him that ‘shortly after the murder’, Murray’s wife would be paid by Costello’s department. He went on to say that Costello gave him £50 to go to Glasgow, where Murray went to straight after the murder. Another man in Glasgow had already given £100 to Murray, by way of Costello. Both brothers used the money to go to Argentina. Michael also claimed that Costello had told him that Murray should flee to America after the murder but that he refused.

Costello staunchly denied receiving or replying to Murray’s letters and also denied giving money to Murray either directly or indirectly. But, afterall, it was not Costello who was on trial. After four days of extraordinary accusations, implicating the senior command structure of the Army, the jury retired and deliberated for twenty five minutes. They emerged and returned a guilty verdict on Murray. Murray was sentenced to hang on 2 July 1925.

Murray said the following by way of a final statement;

I merely wish to say that I am innocent, and to state that I have been made the scapegoat for this crime of which I am innocent. I only hope that the officers who have sworn my life away will be as prepared to meet their God when they come to meet Him, as I am to meet him now.

Murray subsequently appealed the decision of the judge and it was amended to a life sentence of penal servitude.

On 21 April 1926, as Murray was serving his sentence and the story was beginning to fade from the memories of most, another ex-Army officer, Joseph Mack, was charged in connection with Bergin’s murder. On the first day of the trial James Cleary, the soldier attached to the transport section in Portobello Barracks, gave evidence that Mack was one of the individuals that was with Murray on the night Costello ordered Cleary to give them a car. However, on cross examination Cleary was found to contradict himself on several accounts. The following day the presiding judge ordered the jury to find the defendant not guilty as he felt that it would be unwise to allow a verdict to be reached in light of Cleary’s evidence and further evidence placing Mack away from the place that Cleary had placed him.[1]

This was where the saga ended. Whatever actions or help that Joseph Bergin was carrying out within the Curragh Camp regarding Republican prisoners, his virtue as a man was never in doubt. Whilst prisoners were on hunger strike during 1923, Bergin’s kindness and humanity towards them was never forgotten.[2] His death was very similar in nature to that of Noel Lemass, elder brother to future Taoiseach, Seán Lemass. Lemass was abducted, tortured, and shot in a manner that closely resembled the treatment meted out to Bergin a few months later. Indeed, during James Murray’s trial, the finger of blame for Lemass’ murder was pointed squarely in the direction of the Free State Army’s Intelligence body.

Colonel Costello retired from the Irish Army in 1946 and then became director of the Irish Sugar Company. He transformed the ailing company from a crippled body that employed 700 seasonal workers to a successful company that had 5,000 employees. He died in 1986 at 82 years of age. The extent of his role in the torture and murder of two young Irish men, one the brother of a future leader, the other a humble young man from Glencondra, will never truly be known.

In May 1928 a plaque was unveiled at the site of the discovery of Bergin’s in Co. Kildare by Moss Twomey, IRA Chief of Staff. Twomey, in a barely veiled reference to those caught up in the cover up of Bergin’s murder said ‘”Forget the past," had been cried out by those now in high positions whose records were an embarrassment to them and who now wished to be counted as gentlemen’.[3] On 21 October 1945 a new gravestone was erected in Camross graveyard honouring Bergin. It received full prominence, just outside the entrance to the church. The monument was erected by the Laois National Graves Association and a graveside oration was given by Michael O’Kelly from Roscommon;

To the nation as a whole, and to Republican Ireland in an especial manner, the graves of their martyred soldiers were more precious than mines of gold, or ten thousand fields of corn, or the cattle of a thousand hills; more ennobling than palatial cities stored with the triumphs of war and art; more supporting in the darkest hour than colonies, fleets or armies, because it was from the tombs of great men that succeeding generations had always kindled the lamp of freedom. Pearse saw that the graves of those who died to make this land a nation of free men held an incalculable value for us. Standing over a Fenian grave, in one of Ireland's darkest hours, with prophetic vision, he said “As long as Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree will never be at peace”.[4]

[1] The evidence from the trials of James Murray and Joseph Mack are taken from the pages of the Irish Times and Irish Independent.

[2] The Wolfe Tone Annual of 1937 made particular reference to Joseph Bergin and his kindness towards prisoners in Tintown Camp. The author, apparently a former prisoner who was the recipient of this kindness wrote; ‘We record here the death of Joe Bergin, of the “Free State” Military police, because we and others experienced kindness at his hands during the Hunger Strike of 1923, when he was stationed at Tintown 3 on the Curragh of Kildare. We record it also because it illustrates the savage methods employed by men who allowed themselves to fall into the power of the English and then struck wildly at all but their captors … And these murderers were the “Christian Soldiers” of a “lawful Government.” There was no condemnation of this terrible deed.

[3] Irish Press, 23 May 1938.

[4] Leinster Express, 27 Oct. 1945.