ch new (1) Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921Saturday the 28th of April 1917, was a day that would change 19 year old Johnny Wilson’s life forever. As reported in the Freemans Journal on Wednesday 2nd May, Johnny was sitting in the second circle of the Theatre Royal. A picture was shown of the Lord Mayor of London decorating a Scottish soldier with a D.C.M. Johnny was seen by Sergeant John Barton of the DMP to put his hand to his face & he then booed for a considerable time! With that, another man Thomas Cullen who was in the gallery started making “Expressions about Easter week (1916)”. When both men were taken to court Wilson stated that all his male relatives were in the British Army and that he would have joined if he was physically fit.

The only relatives of his that I could find who were in the army were two of his cousins; one was Thomas Wilson, he served in the British army but then swapped sides to serve in Casement’s Irish Brigade with the German Army. Johnny was sentenced to one month hard labour with Cullen getting two months.

After getting out of prison he joined the IRA in August 1917 at the time of Thomas Ashe’s hunger strike. He enlisted in the HQ of C Company 4th Battalion in Thomas Street under Captain J. Byrne, later under J. V. Joyce, drilling in the sand pits in Crumlin. He also would have attended classes on the use of various small arms etc. Worth noting is C Company were known to have been one of the most active companies in the 4th battalion during the War of Independence. Jim Harpur recalls in his Witness Statement an interesting operation C Coy were involved in at the Armistice parade in 1918 – their mission was to stop anyone taking pictures of the parade. Jim recalls seeing a camera being thrown into the river Liffey at Capel Street bridge followed by the operator! Tough times indeed!

In August 1920 Johnny was transferred to 3 Company Engineers. He states he was involved with raids for arms while serving with C Company. His life-long friend Dan Hannon served with the engineers at the same time, so this may have had something to do with his transfer.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Dan Hannon’s Wedding: Johnny Wilson best man (Marked X) Picture was published in the Evening Herald.

In December 1920 GHQ decided to form an Active Service Unit (Also see Mick Dunne & Ned Breslin posts) in the Dublin Brigade area. We will look into the ASU, as it was known, in much greater detail in the future (here), but in brief, Dublin was broken up into four Battalion areas; the idea was each battalion would pick twelve of its best men and arm them; they would then give up their jobs and become full time members of the IRA at a pay rate of four pounds ten shillings a week. They operated on a hit-and-run basis, normally attacking British army trucks or cars, also Black and Tan patrols. The idea was to inflict as much damage to the British as possible on a daily basis. Johnny took part in all actions by his company including ambushes on Wexford Street, Ormond Quay and Bachelors Walk – till his transfer to the Squad.
He was transferred to the Squad on 1st May 1921 and with Jim Harpur was arrested by Eugene Igoe just after they had dumped their guns in the ASU depot in Strand Street.They had spent the day trying to track Igoe & assassinate him before he arrested or shot any more IRA men. Both men were taken down a laneway near O’Connell Bridge and kept separated for questioning. Harpur feared they would be shot only a crowd formed on both sides of the lane. As luck would have it Harpur heard some of Wilson’s story & vice versa so both men after being taken to Dublin Castle managed to talk their way out of arrest.

image Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Jim Harpur sitting beside Johnny Wilson after receiving their ASU service certs, 1950

names-asuThe next major operation he was involved in was the capture of the armoured car in the abattoir, which was just at the North Circular Road end of Blackhorse Avenue. Paddy O’Daly talks about Johnny walking around the abattoir in Corporation overalls & cap with a water key posing as a water official; and wonders where he got the equipment & cap etc. We can reveal at this stage that Wilson’s brother Mick was a Dublin Corporation worker in the sewerage department, being also 5ft 7″. So I think we may have found the answer to Paddy’s question! The operation itself went smoothly for the first half; the IRA did manage to capture the armoured car & drive it to Mountjoy prison. Wearing British Army uniforms, they gained access to the Jail, the purpose being to free Sean MacEoin, under sentence of death. Unluckily MacEoin was not in the Governor’s office when the IRA made it in there.

Johnny took part in the attack on the Custom House and was arrested there by a Temporary Cadet Sparrow. Based on a very questionable statement later made by Sparrow, John Wilson and four colleagues were captured with loaded pistols which Sparrow states they threw away when they saw the two Tans coming towards them. Sparrow also states he shot and killed an IRA man inside the Custom House which is untrue. Being arrested with a loaded gun was an automatic death sentence,so Johnny was imprisoned in Mountjoy along with others on the same charge. He was released in January 1922 when the Treaty was ratified by the Dáil.

Johnny joined the National Army on 1st Feb 1922 with the rank of Sergeant Major and after a short period as barracks staff at Celbridge Workhouse, he was then stationed over the coming months in Naas, Athboy and Delvin, Co Westmeath. He was commissioned Lieutenant in April. When General McSweeney was taking over Baldonnell Aerodrome, he recommended that Lt.  John Wilson be promoted to Captain and Barrack Adjutant of the main base of the new Air Service, a great honour for the then 25 year old. He listed his unit at that time as 3 Coy 1st Eastern Division.

His next move was to Cork (with the draft, his own words). He took part in the fighting around the Macroom area. On the 15th of September he was part of a convoy under the command of Tom Kehoe that left Macroom along with Jimmy Conroy & Jim Slattery of the Squad. The purpose of the convoy to this day remains still unclear, tTom Kehoe mass card Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921here are three versions of what they where doing in Carrigaphooca that day. The first is they were heading to Kerry to link up with Paddy O’Daly, this seems most likely. The next theory is that they were scouting for Irregulars. The last was that there had been a report of a mine at Carrigaphooca. Whatever the reason, when they came across the mine, they made it safe. But when they attempted to move it, a trap mine under it & exploded badly injuring Tom Kehoe (he would die within hours) and killing six other soldiers.

Johnny then returned to Baldonnel again to the post of Barracks adjutant. He was transferred to Tallaght Camp in early 1923 as adjutant of the 24th Battalion. There was a request from Colonel Charles Dalton to have him transferred to the Special Infantry Corps which GHQ refused as he could not be replaced at that time. His last posting was again Adjutant of the 13th Battalion in Collins Barracks. He was decommissioned in March 1924 and, like most of the ex Squad men, was a member of the IRAO.

ASU 1939 pic cleaned up Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

ASU Reunion  J Wilson middle row 2nd from the left

Family life & Career

Born into the slums of what is now Dublin 8, John James Wilson was the first child of Thomas & Mary Wilson (Nee Scully). Thomas was a labourer in the cooperage department of the Guinness brewery, which meant the family has a steady income, while most of the men of the area were employed as casual labourers. In the 1911 census Mary Wilson states that she had nine children born alive, with five still living. One of the surviving children Peter suffered from mental illness and later died aged 29 in Portrane Hospital; another son Robert died aged six after being struck by a car at the Parkgate Street entrance to the Phoenix Park. Mary herself died while Johnny was in prison after being arrested at the Custom House. As her funeral cortege passed by Mountjoy prison, it stopped & Thomas whistled to let John know they were passing.

Johnny married Eileen McKenna on 28th August 1933 and they had three children.
When leaving the Army he stated he was going to start up a taxi business, but it’s not clear if he ever did. He worked as an insurance agent before joining a lot of his old comrades in the Sweepstakes. He later joined his life-long friend Bill Stapleton in Bord na Móna as a supervisor. The author was lucky enough to talk to a man who worked under him in Bord Na Móna. He remembered Johnny as a fair man who went out of his way to look after the men in his charge. He died in July 1955. Among those at his funeral were former colleagues Vinny Byrne, Bill Stapleton, Billy Corri, Tommy Donnelly & Ned Breslin.

Summing his life up along with the other men from the ASU and Squad maybe we might quote Othello “I have done the State some service; they know’t”.

J wilson centre Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Johnny Wilson Centre. Pic estd. 1952

The Policemen

Johnny Wilson had the bad luck to be arrested by two of the most well known policemen of the period & also the Auxiliary Thomas Sparrow. We will have a quick look at these three men as they will pop up again over the next few years as we tell the stories of more of the people who were at the Custom House Burning.

J Barton Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Sgt John Barton

As Detective Sergeant John Barton was lying on a ground after being shot outside what is known now as Pearse Street Garda Station, his dying words where “Oh God, what have I done to deserve this”. John Barton had been awarded the King’s Police Medal twice and seemed to be very enthusiastic about political work. He was one of the DMP men who picked out the 1916 leaders in the gym in Richmond Barracks. He is quoted as saying to Sean MacDiarmada as he picked him out of a crowd of men “Sorry Sean, but you don’t get away that easy, there will be six for you in the morning, I think”. Sean Murphy who was with MacDiarmada took that to mean he would face a firing Squad the next day. John Barton died aged 39 on the 29th of November 1919. A strange twist of fate – the men who shot him were members of Michael Collins’ Squad, the same unit that Johnny Wilson would later join.

Igoe Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Head Constable Eugene Igoe

Eugene Igoe – it’s hard to separate the man from the myth. The farmer’s son from Co Mayo was enemy number one to the Dublin IRA early in 1921. Igoe headed up a team of policemen that roamed Dublin city centre looking for IRA men up from the country. He had success, as Michael Collins swelled the Squad out to 21 men between March and May 1921 to try and take Igoe out. He and his team seem to have been all policemen who were run out of their stations down the country by the local IRA. The IRA called the Igoe gang the Murder Gang, but there seems to be little evidence of them murdering anyone. However, there is the case of IRA man Sweeney Newell. He was shot several times in the hips and legs while in custody near the Bridewell DMP station at the back of the Four Courts (Igoe was named by Newell as the shooter). Igoe married in Galway early in 1922 and seems to have lived his life out in the North of Ireland where he is buried.

Thomas Sparrow, the Auxiliary who arrested Johnny Wilson at the Custom House – not only did Sparrow arrest him he also fitted him up – said he saw Wilson & four other men dump their guns, fully loaded of course (a loaded gun, at the time, almost guaranteed a death sentence). Sparrow’s witness statement is  classic piece of comedy including capturing dum-dum bullets & killing a rebel inside the Custom House (No rebel was killed inside the CH). Thomas Sparrow was born in Dalston, London in 1895. His aunt was a postmistress. Sparrow followed her into the Post Office and was jailed aged 18 for stealing cheques from the letters he was delivering. He enlisted in 1914 in the British Army & ended up as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1919. He was an early member of the Auxiliaries who was involved in the burning of Cork and apparently was demoted along the line. He also seems to have disappeared in 1922. For further reading on him go to

Sparrow 11,Igoe 46 Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Thomas Sparrow (11) Eugene Igoe (46)

Gary Deering