‘Pneumatic’ is not a word commonly used in relation to the Four Courts. However, for a brief period in the 19th century, the Sub-Post Office in the Four Courts was served by the longest pneumatic mail tube in the world.
The operation of this system of delivery, based on the transmission of letters and telegrams by air pressure within a tube, was summarised in the Freeman’s Journal of 5 September 1871:-
“a piece of paper rolled up in what is called a ‘carrier’ is pushed into a tube in the Sackville-Street Post Office… there is huge machinery in the General Post Office for managing these tubes, one of which runs to the custom House, one to College Green, and one to the Four Courts, and this last is the longest tube ever laid down… the clerk pats the carriers into the pneumatic tube; signals by wire to the receiving room that a message is going up, and before you count to ten down comes the signal that it is up.”
Very speedy indeed, but the system had its downside, not least the possibility of a confidentiality breach by persons processing the messages at either end. This possibility became a reality when, on the 13th May 1880, Mr St John Brenon sent a telegram from the Four Courts addressed to Mr Fay, Trim, confirming his willingness to run against Mr Tim Healy in the forthcoming Meath by-election.
According to the Belfast Morning News, 21 May 1880:
“On the 17th, the Monday following, Mr Brenon happened to be at the City Hall at a meeting which was being held there. He felt a man who was standing near him give him a slight pressure of the hand. This person was at the time totally unknown to Mr Brenon, and he did not respond to the gesture… A short time afterwards, however, a person – the person who had so pressed his hand, and who was the prisoner at the bar – came over to Mr Brenon, and evidently, from what took place, he thought that Mr Brenon was a certain Mr Healy, who happened to be, of all other persons, the person to whom the contents of the telegram should not be known… disclosed to him the contents of the telegram which Mr Brenon had himself handed in… Mr Brenon did not disclose to him that he was not Mr Healy, but he complained to the post office authorities…”
It was the prosecution’s case that Burton’s motivation was political; his alleged words to Brenon being:-
“Mr Fay is no friend of yours, he has put up a man to oppose you in Meath, I know it, because I am a telegraph clerk, and telegrams pass through me. I give you this information because I am a Parnellite but if it were known I would be ruined.”
It seems very strange that Burton – subsequently convicted and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment – would have mistakenly disclosed his crime to, of all people, his victim! Evidence, however, was also given that he had earlier communicated the contents of the telegram to others, and one suspects that one of these people either ‘ratted’ on him to Brenon, or deliberately identified Brenon to him as Healy so that the crime would come to light.
The alternative, of course, is that the entire thing was a set-up by Brenon (an alleged unsavoury character) to unjustly frame Burton – but what could possibly have been his motivation? Was Healy’s faction his real target and Burton merely collateral damage? Lost in the mists of time!