Sir Arthur Vicars is executed by the IRA in Co Kerry and around his neck the IRA placed a placard bearing the inscription ‘SPY. INFORMERS BEWARE. IRA NEVER FORGETS’. Vicars, who played a pivotal (and probably negligent) role in the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels in 1907. Born in England, Vicars spent most of his life in Ireland where he was Custodian of the Irish Crown Jewels at the time they were stolen. Vicars was dismissed from his post as a result. The jewels were the insignia of the Illustrious Order of St Patrick, instituted in 1783 as the Irish equivalent of the Order of the Garter. The star and badge, made in the royal insignia and decorated with Brazilian rubies, emeralds and diamonds, were a gift to the Order of St Patrick from King William IV in 1831. Legend has it, the Irish Crown Jewels may have been sold to a Dutch pawnbroker, or to private collectors, or buried outside Dublin or even (according to an official document) offered for sale to the Irish Free State in 1927. To this day their whereabouts is unknown.
Four days before a visit by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra they were found to be missing, stolen from the safe, along with jewellery owned by Vicars’ mother, by persons unknown. The King had intended to invest Lord Castletown as a Knight of the Order, but angered by the theft he cancelled the ceremony.
Although under pressure, Vicars refused to resign and rumours were spread about his sexual orientation and wild parties at his office in the castle, with the objective of shaming him into leaving. It did not work, and he refused to appear at a Viceregal Commission, demanding a public royal inquiry instead.
He accused his second in command, Francis Shackleton (brother of Ernest, the Antarctic explorer) of the wrongdoing. However, Shackleton was exonerated by the commission, while Vicars was found culpable of failing to “exercise due vigilance or proper care” of the regalia.
On 23 November 1912, the Daily Mail published serious false allegations against Vicars. The substance of the article was that Vicars had allowed a woman reported to be his mistress to obtain a copy to the key to the safe and that she had fled to Paris with the jewels. In July 1913 Vicars successfully sued the paper for libel, who admitted that the story was completely baseless and that the woman in question did not exist. Vicars was awarded damages of £5,000.
Vicars left Dublin and moved to Kilmorna, near Listowel, Co Kerry, where he was known to regularly entertain members of the British Army. He married Gertrude Wright in Ballymore, Co Wicklow on 4 July 1917. He continued to protest his innocence until his death, even including bitter references to the affair in his will, as well as, condemned both the Irish government and King Edward VII for making him a scapegoat and shielding ‘the real culprit and thief’, whom he specifically named as Francis Shackleton. Because of the explosive allegations, this will was closed to researchers until 1976. Shackleton was convicted of fraud in 1913 for misappropriating a widow’s savings and following his release from prison he assumed the surname Mellor and died in 1941 in Chichester.
The IRA’s claim that Vicar’s was informing are disputed by his Valet Michael Murphy. Murphy in his own words was “associated with the IRA” and became a Captain in the Irish Army following Independence. In a statement he gave to the Bureau of Military history in 1955, he states “I do not believe he (Vicars) was a spy or got a fair trial.”
In May 1920 up to a hundred armed men broke into Kilmorna House and held Vicars at gunpoint while they attempted to break into the house’s strongroom. On 14 April 1921, he was taken from Kilmorna House which was set alight and shot dead in front of his wife. According to the communique issued from Dublin Castle, thirty armed men took him from his bed and shot him, leaving a placard around his neck denouncing him as an informer. On 27 April, as an official reprisal, four shops were destroyed by Crown Forces in the town of Listowel. The proclamation given under Martial law and ordering their demolition also stated:
For any outrage carried out in future against the lives or property of loyalist officials, reprisals will be taken against selected persons known to have rebel sympathies, although their implication has not been proved.