Cold case: Killed in the line of duty

Garda Review Cold CaseNo one was ever convicted for the murder of Guard Thomas Dowling in 1925, James Durney examines the details of the case.

It is not only in the present day that garda personnel are at risk to violent criminals. From the very foundation of the State in 1922, members of the police force have been under violent attack with the ever present risk of serious injury or death. On December 28th 1925 a patrol of two Civic Guards, Thomas Dowling and John Cahill, was attacked by a party of men lying in ambush near Fanore, in Co. Clare. Guard Thomas Dowling was shot dead, while Guard Cahill escaped without injury. 

On the evening of December 28th the two guards went to the house of Joe McNamara, at Dereen, where they played cards until about 9.45pm. It was on their return journey to Fanore barracks that they were ambushed. Inquiries on the scene of the murder show that the crime was committed under circumstances of exceptional callousness and deliberation. Guards Dowling and Cahill were returning to their station after being out on a cycle patrol, when at a bend in the road adjacent to their station a volley of four shots was fired at them from a rifle and shotgun.

A full charge struck Dowling in the right side, and he fell to the ground with a moan. Cahill asked him if was he hurt, but got no reply, and then three more shots were fired at them. This was followed by the click of a rifle bolt and Cahill cycled on, unaware of the fatal result of the volley. Having got some distance he looked back and saw two men inside a wall, one with a weapon in his hand. He cycled on to the station, reported the affair and cycled for the priest and doctor, then proceeded the ten miles to Ballyvaughan to report to the superintendent.

The ambush had evidently been arranged with great deliberation. The assassins had fixed up stones as seats whilst waiting for the arrival of their victims. The road was only about 14 feet wide, and from a distance of a few feet the fatal volley was discharged. Dowling’s wounds showed that precautions were taken to ensure that it would be fatal. The shot had been taken out of the shotgun cartridges, and replaced with pieces of broken metal pot reduced to the size of slugs. Two separate gunshots had entered the body, and 35 pellets were found in one wound and 25 pellets in another. Four empty cartridge cases, one of which had the word ‘slugs’ written on it, were found at the scene. A case filled with slugs and an empty rifle case were also found.

“Nobody was ever convicted for the murder of Guard Thomas Dowling, a man who had given so much in his short life to his country…”

A native of Ballyragget, Co. Kilkenny, Dowling was due to be married to a young Castlecomer woman. The Kildare Observer, of January 2nd 1926, reported that Dowling was: ‘A man of fine physique, he had been a lieutenant in the National Army, and served with distinction during the Black-and-Tan regime.’

Dowling was prominently identified with the Irish Volunteer movement  in Co. Kilkenny from 1918. After the signing of the Treaty he joined the National Army and was soon promoted to lieutenant in the engineers. He was severely wounded in a major ambush at Woodrool, near Clonmel. In November 1924 Dowling joined the Civic Guard and was stationed at Fanore, Ballyvaughan, in one of the wildest and most remote parts of Clare.

The Kilkenny People reported that: ‘The murdered Guard is a son of Mr. John Dowling, carpenter, High Street, Ballyragget. He was a very popular young man and the deepest sympathy is felt in Ballyragget and district with the Dowling family, who are most respectable people, while there is intense indignation at the shocking and unchristian outrage of which this fine young Irishman was the victim.’

Fanore is situated on the shores of the Atlantic, near Black Head, about 30 miles from Ennis. For years it had been the centre of serious unrest. The prevailing disorder was for a long time aggravated by a regular traffic in poteen carried on between the mainland and the Aran Islands. A soviet controlled local affairs in 1921 and 1922 and up to 1923 cattle-driving was rampant. Hundreds of decrees for malicious injury were granted in respect of outrages in the area. From then on the activities of the Civic Guard were entirely confined to putting an end to the illicit traffic in poteen in which they were quite successful. However, those responsible for the illegal trade were not about to take the law-enforcement success lying down. 

The funeral of Dowling was held in his native Ballyragget. All business houses were closed and blinds drawn as the funeral procession passed along from the parish church. The cortege was led by the Civic Guard Band, from the Depot. The Dead March was played all through the town. About 40 men of the Co. Kilkenny Civic Guard brought up the rear of the funeral and a long line of motor cars and other vehicles followed. Deputy Commissioner Coogan marched with the other officers in front of the hearse; a party of guards forming a guard of honour. When the coffin had been lowered in the grave The Last Post was sounded, the mournful tones calling up memories of dead comrades.

Interviewed by a Kilkenny People representative, John Dowling, the father of the deceased said: ‘I have to say that the people of Clare whom I met could not show more sympathy than was shown to me. All I have to say about the crime is that I have no enmity against those who murdered my son. They must have been mad. I forgive them from my heart.’

Armed military assisted detectives and Civic Guards in scouring the district for the murderers of Guard Dowling. Three young men were arrested in the local area and charged in connection with the crime. The accused, who were all about aged 20, were John ‘Sonny’ O’Connor, Patrick Conway and Augustine Linnane. They were charged with murder and conspiracy to murder at Ennis court. The three had been seen at Sarah O’Donoghue’s pub about 9pm on the night of December 28th. The pub was within 150 yards of the ambush site. The three men were later seen again together at a dance. The jury disagreed in the case of Augustine Linnane and he was released without charge. John O’Connor and Patrick Conway were sent forward for trial.

In giving evidence Superintendent C. Brady, Ballyvaughan, stated that he had searched O’Connor’s house at 1am on the night of 28 December and found the accused in bed with his brother, Thomas. On January 2nd he again searched the house and found in a box two empty cartridge cases. Neither O’Connor nor any other person living in the house had a permit for arms and ammunition. At the trial Patrick Conway said he was forced by threats to join the ambush party and although present at the murder scene he did not fire at the guards. He claimed he was brought into the crime by the threats of two other men, named Connell. Conway also made a startling admission that John O’Connor had asked him to assist him in murdering a member of the Metropolitan Police Division home on leave and that Guard Dowling was not the intended target. He later withdrew all statements and was acquitted of all charges. John O’Connor’s brother and sister testified that he was at home at the time of the murder and he was also acquitted and released. Nobody was ever convicted for the murder of Guard Thomas Dowling, a man who had given so much in his short life to his country. 

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