How were the Irish crown jewels stolen from Dublin Castle?

A century ago the theft in Dublin Castle exposed a bunch of ‘unsavoury characters’ at the top of society. It was a scandal, says Caomhan Keane.

Stephen Swift (as Arthur Vicars) and Deirdre Monaghan (as Mary Farrell) in Speckintime Theatre's reenactment of the theft of the Irish crown jewels 100 years ago.

ONE hundred years after the theft of the Irish crown jewels from Dublin Castle, Speckintime Theatre Company are holding an ‘enquiry’. This is to determine just how they were stolen from one of the most heavily guarded garrisons in the then United Kingdom.

The 70-minute play will ask audiences to bear witness, as the onetime A-List of Irish society are hauled before the court to account for their part in one of the greatest heists in this country’s history. Staged in the Chapel Royal of Dublin Castle — 100 yards from where the jewels were taken — the play will end when the public (the audience) find one or more of the defendants guilty.

In fact, the main suspects are long dead, the scapegoat lies rotting in a bitter grave, and brown envelopes have replaced knighthoods as the reward for politically motivated collusion. But this inquisition raises still-relevant questions that could bate the red tops and scandalise the hoi polloi of any era.

Were the gems cast out of the royal collection by Queen Charlotte, who feared they were ‘hand me downs’ owned once by her husband’s whore? Did ‘gay orgies’ really take place at the seat of British power in this country? Was the theft covered up by King Edward the VII because his brother-in-law was having sex with one of the chief suspects? And was a curse cast upon the thieves? 394 precious stones, littered across maces and swords, the Irish crown jewels would be worth €14m today. The main component was the star of St Patrick — a broach the size of your hand, comprised of pink Brazilian diamonds, a shamrock of emeralds, and a ruby cross against a background of blue enamel.

After getting HRH’s knickers in a twist, the jewels were sent to Ireland, as most troublesome things were at that time, where they were broken up and reconstituted in the jewellers, Weir & Sons.

Ireland was awash with bad British pennies, from Captain Richard Gorges, sent home from the Boer War for diddling little drummer boys, to Francis Shackleton — brother of the explorer Ernest — a cash-poor swindler well-known for frequenting the wrong type of gentleman’s club. There was Lord Haddo, the party boy son of the then viceroy, the king’s official representative in Ireland, and Francis Bennett-Goldney, considered saintly, but revealed as a master thief after his death.

These are the men accused of being ‘unsavoury characters, indulging in depraved parties’ in the castle until late at night. The most distinguished member of their set was Sir Arthur Vicars, the Ulster king of arms, who was responsible for the Irish crown jewels.

On ceremonial occasions, such as a king’s visit, the jewels would adorn the viceroy. But legend has it they also got whipped out after cocktails in the castle, with Vicars once awaking from a stupor wearing the garlands. Haddo pocketed them as a practical joke, returning them when they were noticed missing. It was also rumoured that the jewels were regularly pawned off by the men to cover their partying lifestyle and bought back when they got their next stipend.

It’s no wonder, then, when the jewels were discovered stolen on July 6, 1907, that Vicars would get the chop. His incompetence aside, he burned with a lifelong grudge against his former friends, and the authorities, for making him the fall guy — and costing him his pension, when so many others had the means and motives to pull off such a heist. He called for a public Royal Commission to investigate — and publicly accused Shackleton, his housemate, of the theft.

But Shackleton was reportedly sleeping with the king’s brother-in-law, and the monarch, a raging homophobe, was petrified of a sexual scandal similar to the one another Irishman, Oscar Wilde, had caused just a few years before, when the Marquees of Queensbury called him a sodomite. Worse, the Eulenburg affair saw several prominent members of Wilhelm II’s cabinet accused of homosexual conduct.

So, none of the men were ever publicly investigated for their role in the incident. All files relating to the case went missing or were redacted, and it’s strongly been suggested that both Shackelton and Gorges were asked never to return to Ireland. It was Vicars who paid the ultimate price, losing a position to which he had spent his life ascending.

The men associated with the theft never associated with each other again, and many of them met with grizzly ends. Goldney died in a car crash in 1914. Pierce Gun Mahony — a nephew of Vicars — was shot through the heart in a hunting accident. Vicars was tied to a tree and shot by the IRA in 1921, while Gorges was struck by a train in 1944.

As for the jewels, they were most likely broken up and sold as individual pieces, though there is documentation that the Russians tried to sell them back to an uninterested government in 1927. While the Gardaí dug up areas of Three Rock Mountain, in Dublin, after a death-bed confession by a member of the IRA in 1983, £1,000 was offered as reward for their discovery at the time. It is still unclaimed.

Deeds of Deceit will run at The Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle from July 3 to 6, at 7.30pm. Tickets €6



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