Michael C Stephenson pic Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Another man to have a remarkable escape at the Burning, Michael Stephenson was a member of Dublin Brigade ASU.

Attempting to evade arrest at the Custom House to the East side (towards the North Wall quays down river) he was wounded and as a result fell into the Liffey. He would probably have drowned but for a quay coalman who pulled him from the water using the reins of his horse.

On 2 June, about a week after the Burning, Stephenson was captured in a raid by Auxy F Company, using 3 tenders of Auxy Cadets and an armoured car, on the ‘barracks’ (depot) used by centre city ASU men at 17 Great Strand Street (See BMHWS0127). It was actually located on the upstairs floor of his own tailor’s shop!

Raid Report - Michael Stephenson Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Raid Report

The Auxy report says he was found trying to throw away a coat containing a copy of An tÓglach. It also lists other interesting items found which the British took away. Note also the reference to Capt. King, a notorious senior figure in the dark forces of the crown active in Dublin during the Tan War. Family lore says the Auxies found a Peter the Painter (Parabellum) automatic with 12 notches on it and credited Stephenson with those achievements. They were settling the score when a British Army officer intervened and saved him from a worse beating, or even death.

Michael was taken to the Guardroom in City Hall (then occupied by crown forces), a very dangerous place where Dick McKee, Peadar Clancy and Conor Clune had been brutally murdered in custody on Bloody Sunday. However, he survived.

Remarkably there followed more paperwork about the loss of Michael’s coat than on the man or his arrest! While shooting “Shinners trying to escape” or under cover of darkness was condoned, apparently the crown regarded loss of personal property as serious enough for investigation…

Stephenson - Lost Coat Report 2 Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921  Stephenson - Lost Coat Report Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Stephenson, of 5 Grace Park Avenue, Drumcondra, was found guilty by a court martial of 3 offences under the Restoration of Order in Ireland Regulations (ROIR) and given 5 years penal servitude (with two remitted). He served time in Mountjoy Jail where the records describe him aged 23; married; 5 feet 7 inches in height; weight 10 and a half stone; with brown hair, blue eyes, a fresh complexion with two warts on his left cheek. He gave his occupation as Tailor. His wife May was actually pregnant at the time and delivered their first baby, named Mary Gabriel (Maureen), on 5 September while Michael was still in Kilmainham.

Michael Christopher was born at 33 Marlboro Street, Dublin on 18 December 1898 to Matthew Stephenson, a Printer and Julia Ellen née Kearney. He was second of the five children his parents had before his mother’s early death in 1910. He went on to become a Tailor’s Cutter and later was a Tailor in his own right. In August 1916 Michael stood as best man for his elder brother Jack at his wedding in St Michan’s (Catholic) Church, Dublin. Their father had remarried but passed away in 1919.

Mick himself got married in the Pro-Cathedral on 24 November 1920 to Mary Gabrielle (or sometimes Mary Josephine), aka May Dunne. They went on to have three more daughters (Pauline, Ita and Patricia) following their enforced separation while Michael was locked up and the subsequent Civil War.

IRA Career

According to his family, Michael had been influenced to join the Volunteers after witnessing the Rising. That October he became a volunteer with C Coy, 3rd Battalion under O/C Paddy Flanagan. He took part in company parades; arms raid on King’s Inns; burning of the Income Tax Office, Dawson Street; and the execution of British intelligence officers in the Pembroke Street area on ‘Bloody Sunday’ (21 November 1920). The following month Michael Stephenson transferred to the Dublin Brigade’s Active Service Unit (ASU) at the formation of that unit, again under the command of Flanagan. He was attached to No. 3 Section. Mick took part in “all attacks carried out” by his section including the burning of The Custom House. What followed has been covered above.

After release from detention in January 1922 on the Amnesty marking ratification of the Treaty, he joined the National Army on its formation, enlisting in the Dublin Guards at The Plaza Hotel, Gardiner’s Place before going to do garrison duty at Celbridge Workhouse, Co Kildare.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Stephenson was with the contingent of troops taking over Beggars Bush Barracks from the British on 1 February. He was ranked a Corporal and appears in the photo above at the head of the left-hand column.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Crop from Beggars Bush photo dated 4 Feb 1921

He was later promoted to Lieutenant-Commandant and was based in the Bridewell police station when the assault was made on the IRA-occupied Four Courts in June. Stephenson was reported as looking like a coal man or coal miner after the explosions and fire there (Thanks Diarmuid O’Connor).

In May he was pictured with fellow Army officers at Portobello Barracks. Unfortunately there is nothing recorded about his service during the Civil War.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Mick Stephenson is no. 12 in the 2nd row

In the Army Census (November 1922) his home address was shown as Serpentine Avenue, Ballsbridge, with his wife Mary Gabrielle (May) as next of kin. He was serving as Lt. Comdt. and O/C 29th Battalion at Gough Barracks, Curragh. In 1927 he was transferred to Cork and entered the Army Reserve in 1929.

Mick received a Military Pension for seven years recognised service worth £105 per annum.

The Stephenson couple and their four young daughters eventually settled in Kilbarrack on Dublin Bay’s Northside.

Obit1 Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Sadly Michael died in hospital on 8 November 1938, a month before his 40th birthday, after a short illness. He had worked for the Irish National Assurance Company as an insurance inspector.

He is buried in St Fintan’s Cemetery, Sutton beside his widow May who never remarried. The lady died in Terenure at the great age of 98 in 1998 – incredibly, exactly 60 years to the day after her husband. She had had to wait until 1972 to receive a military widow’s pension. The Stephensons’ daughters have all since passed away (the last, Mrs Maureen Fagan, in 2017 aged 95), but are survived by grandchildren and great-grandchildren who keep their memories going.

An online article including audio was posted on 7 April 2015 by Michael Stephenson’s great granddaughter Zoë Fagan. The photo at the start of this piece was copied from that source.

Unfortunately attempts to contact the writer did not succeed and the link no longer works. However, the podcast can be listened to below.

Des White