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Irish Eyes

By Mattie Lennon

Ballyagran to Bayside

When I phoned William Geary at his Bayside, New York apartment I was about to hear a fascinating story from the man who has lived in three centuries.

William was born on Monday 28th February 1899, at Cloonee Cottage, Ballyagran, Co. Limerick to Patrick and Helen Geary. The "cottage", which stood on 65 acres of land, was a two-storey thatched house. The garden boasted a greater variety of rare trees, shrubs and flowers than any other in the district.

He had what he describes as "a very sound basic education" at Ballyagran National School, where Mr.Daniel quill was Master. He left school aged 14 and his uncle, Michael Geary, later paid for his tuition at the Atlantic Wireless School, Caherciveen, Co. Kerry. On Saturday 23rd August 1919 he passed out as a Wireless Operator with a First Class Certificate issued by The British Post Office. The Marconi Company, London, which had exclusive rights to supply the equipment and operators on British Merchant ships, called him for employment.

On Monday 09th February 1920 William signed on the "City of Birmingham" (Ellerman Line) at Newcastle-on-Tyne. The ship was a tramp steamer, 5,000 tons gross tonnage, and could not carry more than six passengers. It stopped at Middlesboro, Yorkshire and one night, perfectly sober, William, unused to Docks, made involuntary contact with the water. He said "The Burberry raincoat kept me afloat and with help I was rescued".

Among the places visited by the young Limerick man were; Capetown, Durban, Beira, Port Elizabeth, Bombay, Philadelphia and New York. Madras, Calcutta and Rangoon contrasted sharply with the rich pasturelands of East Limerick.

While there was " a boy, a girl and a ploughman" employed at Cloonee Cottage William wasn't used to being waited on hand and foot. On the "City of Birmingham" he was in for a culture shock. A man was assigned to him and his fellow Wireless Operator, Kelso. This man's duty was to polish their shoes, shine their buttons, bring them tea on watch and serve their meals in the saloon.

William was amazed at the discipline aboard which gave him a sense of security in all weather. The Captain rated his work "very good" but there being a recession he was discharged. On Friday 21st January 1921 he signed off, In Liverpool, and returned home.

During this troubled time he worked on the farm and drilled the local volunteers. Though he said later "In Ballyagran there was not much excitement".

At the suggestion of a neighbour, James Walshe, he cycled to Charleville on Monday 02nd May 1922, took the train to Newbridge, Co.Kildare and joined the Garda Siochana. His number was 938. In August, as one of 400 recruits, he went by train to Dublin where they were met by General Michael Collins and Garda Commissioner Michael Staines.

The British Army marched out of Dublin Castle and the Garda contingent took over. They were in civilian clothes and carried no arms. In September, William and a large number of others were assembled in a large room in the castle where Superintendent Muldoon gave them dictation. As a result William was promoted to Acting Inspector in October, five months after he joined up.

Shortly after his promotion he was sent, with Sergeant Conboy, an ex-RIC man, to Clones, Co. Monaghan in charge of 22 men. Within a week, with a Sergeant and five men, he took over the vacant RIC barracks in Ballybay. While in County Monaghan he served in Monaghan Town and Carrickmacross before being promoted to Superintendent in October 1924.

He later served in Templemore, Co.Tippereary.

On Wednesday 10th February 1926 he took up duty as Superintendent in Kilrush, Co.Clare. Kilrush was the District Headquarters of Barracks at Carrigaholt, Kilkee, Doonbeg, Kilmihill, Killadysart, Labasheda and Knock.

The number, of Sergeants and Gardai, under his jurisdiction was about fifty. In his own words " Kilrush District was at the that time very lawless but, as time went on things settled down as most of the country did, so, by June 1928, one could say that normalcy had been restored."

* * *

On Saturday 16th June 1928 superintendent William Geary was summoned to Ennis to meet his superiors; Garda John McLynn drove him. He had heard that Deputy Commissioner Eamon Coogan was making an inspection of County Clare and William thought he might be complimented on the improvement of conditions in West Clare. He left the Chief Superintendent's Office and was brought to Carmody's Hotel.

Sitting at a table in a room in Carmody's was Commissioner Eoin O'Duffy, Deputy Commissioner Eamonn Cogan and Chief Superintendent David Neligan.

The Commissioner addressed him; " Mr.Geary we have evidence that you took one hundred pounds for information you gave to Republicans........I have your signature in receipt of money and can you explain that?"

William was not shown the alleged signature and David Neligan later denied O 'Duffy's claim.

Chief Superintendent Neligan examined the contents of his pockets before taking him into an adjoining room. " I told him I took no bribe. I wept in that room. Putting us together may be in the hope that I would confide in him as we were Limerick men and worked in solving the Roscrea bank robbery..........".

Later that evening, having been taken to Kilrush where his office and lodgings were searched, he was brought back to Ennis and suspended from duty forthwith.

He was ordered to report to the Depot in Dublin on Monday 18th June. During his stay in the Depot (expecting a Court of Enquiry to be held) he slept and had meals in the Officer's Mess. Superintendent Michael Higgins was his only visitor; they had served together in Co. Tipperary.

There was no Court of Enquiry, charges, disciplinary hearing or trial.

On Monday 25th June 1928 Superintendent William Geary was dismissed by the Executive Council, Irish Free State.

Chief Superintendent Neligan told him that if he cooperated he would be given a job with the government.

William, later said "Being innocent of the allegations made against me, I could not in good conscience fabricate some story to avail of the offer......... the scars inflicted on me by the unjust dismissal......cannot be erased unless my innocence is acknowledged ........" He told Neligan "I was not involved in bribery". "I said before leaving that he would find I was not guilty. That was the last I saw of him".

A subsequent notice in the Irish Independent stated that William Geary had been "dismissed for the good of the service".

He went home to Cloonee and was warned "William, do not trust Neligan".

In his memoirs William Geary says of Neligan " He was tall, lanky with a thin face and before joining the Garda Siochana, held a Civil Service job under the British and was an IRA spy. He was a key figure in the case as Chief Superintendent, Detectives.

"He could have cleared my name but I believe he was pressured to keep quiet and, besides, it would be nearly impossible to expect him to admit that he made a tragic mistake resulting in my ruination. The Government too had a direct financial stake for a cover-up and David Neligan, willing or unwilling, helped".

William immigrated to the USA in November 1928, vowing not to return until his name was cleared. He continued to protest his innocence from New York. In 1934 he presented his case to the Minister for Justice, P.J.Ruthledge who replied that he had been "dismissed on very clear evidence".

The son of Cloonee continued the brave fight while getting on with the rest of his life. Conscious of his lack of formal education he went to night school in New York and obtained a high school diploma from The George Washington Evening High School.

Later he went to Columbia University, for one semester, taking French.

His first year in New York was spent working in Bloomingdale's and with a furniture company collecting bills. In 1929 he was "hired by Con Edison" where he went from digging trenches to being a Business Representative, retiring after 38 years. The only break in his service with Consolidated Edison was during his term in the American Army. He was drafted on Thursday 20th August 1942 and rose to the rank of T4 (Sergeant).

His application for admission to Officer Candidate School, Duke University, North Carolina was approved. However his honourable discharge on Wednesday 24th March 1943 prevented his going.

One day in 1942, while wearing the uniform of the United States Air Force, in Long Beach, California, William remembered a wet October night in 1922. While serving as Acting Inspector in Ballybay he, and Garda Coen, rode bikes through the Monaghan countryside to have their fortunes told by a woman. "She told me that I would wear another uniform".

While in the army he married Margaret Shryane from Rooskey, Co. Roscommon on Wednesday 10th February 1943. They had two daughters.

In a letter to William dated 11th June 1971 David Neligan wrote" I accept unquestionably that you never received money". And in a further letter on 21st June he said "I am the man who got you dismissed on what seemed at the time impeccable evidence and it is up to me now, even at this late stage, to try and clear your name". However in a TV programme he stated that he wrote the letter because William Geary was "pestering" him and that he (William) was "guilty as Hell".

In a further letter to William dated October 14th 1972 he claimed that the evidence came "from an unimpeachable source, the origin of which I am not at liberty to disclose". Later, Gerry Collins, as Minister for Justice, wrote to William. "Mr Collins dismissed Mr. Neligan's statement as weak".

Mr. Collins who was a TD for Limerick at the time, spoke to people in Clare and informed William of the result. " The information I received from them was that it was rumoured (and believed locally in certain circles) that the then local IRA had deliberately taken action which misled the Garda authorities into thinking that you were associated with them. However when I tried to check the basis of the rumour the answer was always that only a tiny number of people would have known whether it was true".

In 1984 Justice Minister, Michael Noonan (another Limerick man) refused to reopen the case but the Labour Party research office found a file (S9051), which contained all the relevant details of William's dismissal. The file was not available for public reading.

The Labour Party report states; "There is evidence of a virtual witch-hunt against civil servants, down to grade clerical officers, Garda Siochana, Army Personnel etc".

In 1987, when Gerry Collins was again Minister for Justice, William established that file S9051 was held in the Department of the Taoiseach. In 1991 after he contacted Charles Haughey and President Robinson a letter arrived at his home. It was from Ray Burke, Minister for Justice, claiming that the Department had located a further file, which contained more information about his dismissal. The letter said: "Not only does it not contain anything that would help you to advance your case, but there would be a genuine concern that the release of the papers would tend to set your case in a less rather than more favourable light".

This enraged William who replied, "I have been treated unfairly, denied civil rights, given no access to allegations, the Department of Justice acts as judge and jury".

William Geary's tenacity paid off. In 1999 the Taoiseach's office released the papers to his godson Judge John Collins of New York.

The file included copies of two encoded letters allegedly intercepted in the post. It must be remembered that neither letter was written by or addressed to Mr. Geary.

Also in the file was a report from Eoin O 'Duffy in which he wrote "It was considered, however, that we could not make use of the evidence we had in open court..........we could not very well publish the manner in which we got the coded message deciphered.............a person who would descend so low as to sell secrets entrusted to him as an officer of the police force of the State, is a criminal of the vilest type and richly deserves capital punishment. (The question of including such a provision in future legislation is worthy of serious consideration".

(Five years after O 'Duffy wrote that report he was dismissed as Garda Commissioner. When De Valera was returned to power in 1933, within two weeks, he dismissed O 'Duffy because "he was likely to be biased in his attitude because of past political affiliations". O Duffy was offered an alternative position in the public service at the same salary. But.....like William Geary.....he refused. He was elected leader of the Army Comrades association and immediately changed its name to the National Guard ("The Blueshirts"). He became president of Fine Gael, resigning in 1934. His interest in European Fascist movements led to his organising the Irish Brigade and in 1936 he "sailed beneath the Swastika to Spain").

As far back as 1986 William had signed a statement waiving all rights to back pay and compensation. All he wanted was his good name restored.

It was a long road from Tuesday 19th June 1928 when, while being held a virtual prisoner in the Depot in Dublin, he had written to his superiors: ".......I have no fear of consequences as my conscience is clear........I have no reason whatever to hold down my head, and the people who now point the finger at me and say 'Traitor' may live to regret it. I am not a traitor..........nor any of my family connections either."

* * *

On Thursday 22nd April 1999 "following a lengthy review of his case" the Irish Government completely exonerated William Geary. Justice Minister, John O Donoghue made a statement clearing Mr. Geary's good name and restoring his honour. Mr.O'Donoghue said ".......this new Ireland wants to say sorry to him for what happened". He was granted a full Superintendent's pension of 17,500 per annum and an ex-gratia payment of 67,500. William was overjoyed at his exoneration after 71 years. He told journalists "All I ever wanted was my name cleared......there was a burden on me.....I had to keep my past a complete secret..... I think the Lord preserved me for this day."

In November 1999 William had a chance to personally thank Mr. O'Donoghue. The Minister requested a meeting with him in Manhattan. William said that the request was" the most gracious thing possible"

* * *

His stubbornness has kept him in exile for three quarters of a century. It also ensured that he would hold on to his Limerick accent and kept him in touch with all things Irish. He has been a member of the Limerick Men's Benevolent and Social Association since 1932; serving as it's President 1936-7 and 1940. He was also Secretary of the Robert Emmet Club, Clan-na -Gael until it dissolved.

On Friday 15th. September 2000 he was elected to the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in New York.


At age 105 William can look back with rational honesty on the wrong that he suffered. " My dismissal from the Garda Siochana was a terrible blow, changed my life.........deep down inside there remains the memory of the injustice I suffered".

His philosophical approach to life enables him to refrain from badmouthing those who ruined his life." I like quality, precision and I try to adhere to a high standard of conduct, keeping to myself anything disparaging of people......".

Readily acknowledging his former naivety he says" I was an ass to believe that the Garda Siochana would make an effort to clear the name of one of their own men".

There is a total absence of bitterness as he says "God has been most gracious to me in every way and I must not forget 'How incomprehensible is his judgement and how unsearchable his ways'."  

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Reader Comments

Name: Jacque MacGibbon Email: jacquie@charter.net
Comment: Justice does prevail ... even if it takes such a horrendously long time in triumphing!

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