Sallins’ 1976 robbery saw Nicky Kelly, Osgur Breatnach and Brian McNally wrongfully incarcerated

On March 31, 1976, the mail train from Cork to Dublin was blocked and around £200,000 was stolen.

Shortly after, Nicky Kelly, Osgur Breatnach, Brian McNally, Mick Plunkett and John Fitzpatrick, all members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, were arrested on suspicion of carrying out Sallins’ robbery. And when insufficient evidence was gathered, the suspects were released and then immediately re-arrested.

During questioning, all but Mr Plunkett signed confessions, but later presented injuries which they believe were inflicted by Gardaí. Mr Fitzpatrick left the country ahead of a trial in the Special Criminal Court without a jury, where the men claimed they were beaten and intimidated by the Gardaí, but judges dismissed those claims.

One of the judges was in poor health and fell asleep regularly during the trial, and died soon after.

Mr. Kelly fled jurisdiction at the second trial, where Mr. Breatnach and Mr. McNally were found guilty and sentenced to between nine and 12 years in prison. Mr. Kelly was also convicted in absentia.

In May 1980, Mr. Breatnach and Mr. McNally were acquitted on the ground that their statements had been taken “under duress”. Shortly after, the Provisional IRA claimed responsibility for the theft. Mr. Kelly returned from the United States under the impression that he was a free man, but that was not the end of the saga.

Instead, he was incarcerated in Portlaoise Maximum Security Prison and spent the next four years proclaiming his innocence.

Nicky Kelly had been in prison for three years when he began his hunger strike on May 1, 1983.

Mr Kelly’s hunger strike continued for 37 days and became international news. He said he would have died but for the intervention of the Catholic Primate of All Ireland, Cardinal Tomás Ó Faiich.

His hunger strike led to a massive public campaign to have him released, and “Free Nicky Kelly” graffiti appeared across the country.

Folk group Planxty dedicated an album to him, and band member Christy Moore became a major supporter of the campaign, as did the Catholic Church. In 1992, Mr Kelly secured a presidential pardon from Mary Robinson and received €1 million in compensation. However, the state has never admitted any wrongdoing in his case.

He later became a county councilor and also served as mayor of Arklow. Mr Kelly came close to a Dáil seat in 2002, losing by a margin of just 19 votes. He lost his seat in the 2014 local elections.

Crimes and Confessions continues on RTE 1 on Mondays at 9:35 p.m. and you can watch on the RTE Player.

Elizabeth J. Harless