A former post office employee who stole over €23,000 in old age pension payments from 91 customers has been sentenced to three years in prison, with 18 months suspended.

Paula Underwood (56) of Oakleigh, Drogheda Street, Balbriggan, pleaded guilty to the unlawful use of a computer, with the intention of making a gain for herself, at Donabate Post Office between July 2008 and October 2013.

Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard that Underwood held back certain weekly payments to pensioners and over the course of 156 transactions, stole a total of €23,213 in five years.

The court heard that when the theft came to light, An Post refunded all the monies to the affected customers. It sent letters to each pensioner, blaming its IT system for the payment errors.

An Post held the postmaster at the time, Mr Neill Smith, liable for what had happened, and made him draw up a repayment plan for the entire sum.

The court heard Mr Smith paid an initial lump sum of €5,000 to An Post and since then had made deductions from his weekly earnings, with about €6,000 remaining to be paid.

In a victim impact statement read out on his behalf, Mr Smith said he felt betrayed by Underwood’s actions and that she had preyed on customers who were old and vulnerable, some visually impaired or with health issues.

Mr Smith said he had been very proud of his post office and that his customers trusted and confided in him, some of them asking him to read their post to them.

He said it “really hurts” him and had significantly impacted on his health that Underwood abused her position of trust, tried to blame another staff member, deceived him and never apologised.

“I knew people had been defrauded but could not say anything to them. All An Post did was send out letters to people, making excuses about the IT system, while demanding that I set up a repayment plan,” wrote Mr Smith.

Mr Smith intended to retire in 2014 but due to the financial pressure of the repayments, stayed working until October 2018. He is currently on home dialysis awaiting a kidney transplant.

Sentencing Underwood, Judge Pauline Codd said the crimes were despicable breaches of trust committed against elderly persons.

She said Underwood showed no evidence of any remorse or insight and her behaviour involved a significant degree of scheming and planning.

“It strikes me that Mr Smith is a very good and decent man who’s been put to a lot of trouble,” said Judge Codd.