Illegal games, con artistry and a ‘mystery’ death: crime and misfortune at Harbour Court

A lane in Dublin city centre is to be closed to the public due to persistent antisocial behaviour - it has some murky mentions in The Irish Times archive going back decades

Headlines crime Harbour Court Dublin

The man was unconscious when he was found at Harbour Court in Dublin. It was about 7pm on September 10th, 1941. A deep cut in his head bled “profusely”, and he was taken by Fire Brigade ambulance to Jervis Street hospital. He died the next day.

Gardaí were unable to immediately uncover anything that revealed what happened to the man, later identified as William Elliot of North Great George’s Street. They did make one discovery worthy of reporting: “Gardaí from Store Street Station, investigating the mystery of the death yesterday, found a Yorkshire terrier, Elliot’s inseparable companion, searching for its master nearby. There were no clues to show how the man had received his head injuries.” So concludes the short report on the case in The Irish Times on Friday, September 12th that year, branding the incident a “mystery”.

Police would soon arrest a bus conductor in his 20s named Buckley and charge him with Elliot’s manslaughter. Under the headline “Bus man on trial”, one of the more detailed accounts of what happened appears in a court report on January 28th, 1942. The court heard that Elliot – described by one witness as harbouring “a dislike to bus men” – followed Buckley and struck him with a dog lead. Buckley had either pushed or struck him, depending on the witness, and Elliot fell backwards to the ground. Buckley was found not guilty.

Elliot’s death record lists his age as about 65 years, and the cause of death as “shock and haemorrhage following injuries received from a push”. The case marks just one mention of Harbour Court in unfortunate circumstances throughout The Irish Times archive. Some 90 years later, the back street, it was agreed this week, is to be closed off to the public due to persistent antisocial behaviour, drug use and dumping.

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Many benign mentions of the place pop up throughout past editions of The Irish Times – lots of job postings for roles including bookkeepers and typists, and one for “a cellar man with thorough knowledge of the care and handling of wines”. Less benign was the theft of a Canadian tourist’s handbag in August 1960, after which the perpetrator – who snatched the bag as he gave Mrs Phyllis E Wallis advice about the number 10 bus – was jailed for two months, both for the theft and assaulting a garda.

The more complex criminal cases mentioning the lane include the story of a man named Weymes, who reports indicate was a gambling addict and “capable trickster”, and who was jailed in July 1947 for a variety of cons he pulled.

One of Weymes’s scams was to fool Mrs A M Doyle, with an address at Harbour Court, out of £4 10s, falsely claiming he needed the cash to get his taxi fixed. More audacious was his heist of more than 10,000 cigarettes from John Player and Sons. Weymes had phoned the company pretending to be the Archbishop of Dublin Dr Barton, in desperate need of a consignment of cigarettes at short notice for a ladies’ sale of work. Weymes – posing as a messenger – showed up to collect the cigarettes, and off he went.

Following the death of his wife of 17 years four years beforehand, the court heard the father-of-five “had seemed to become a broken man, wandering around doing odd work”.

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Harbour Court was the central setting for another uncovering of murky money matters when police began clamping down on illegal games at a number of amusement places on the street in the mid-1950s.

At about 11pm on February 10th, 1955, Superintendent D Brosnan entered Arko Amusements, Harbour Court, with a number of other officers. On the first floor, the police saw about 40 people sat around a structure used to play “Skilbol” – or “Skillball”. Two plain-clothes gardaí sat among them.

After being cautioned, the proprietor, 50-year-old Alphonso Arcari, claimed he had already told police about his “little game of skilbol”. He was no stranger to tension with the authorities over games: he had been fined previously for hosting the banned game “pongo”, and Arko Amusements was once a venue for arcade owners to meet when they banded together in 1952 after slot machines were outlawed.

Gardaí seized cards, balls, boxes, a chart, a net, an iron frame, some cork disks and more than £26. Arcari landed in court on charges of having conducted the business of a gaming house, and hosting the illegal game.

A fair and crucial question arises: what on earth is skilbol/skillball, and why did the police care that it was played?

The game, reports said, bore a very close resemblance to pongo. For those new to pongo (most of us, you’d guess), an Irish Times explainer on New Year’s Eve 1952 reveals the game was similar to what we know as bingo – “tombola” “house” or “housey-house” back then. In Ireland, played for money in a public space, that was barred as a game of chance.

By adding the throw of a ball into boxes depicting numbers, rather than pulling numbers from a bag, pongo was created and an element of skill was introduced – an important distinction. Pongo, back then, was quite a big deal. For a period in the early 1940s, a “pongo craze” gripped the southern counties, according to an Irish Times piece in 1941: “Cork had 23 games alone. Most of them were crooked, and incidents were reported of the turning-out of lights at moments opportune to the management…”

Pongo had been outlawed by the time authorities paid Arko Amusements a visit in February 1955. Arcari’s defence argued “skillball” was a game of skill and different from pongo. For good measure, Arcari told the court he employed 14 Irish nationals. He also served cake and sandwiches.

Despite the refreshments, Arcari was convicted on the charge of allowing the illegal game to be played and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment, later reduced to a hefty fine. Where at one point he had paid £2 for a pongo violation, this time, according to an Irish Times report on May 27th, 1955, the ante was £200.

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