john-byrne-pic Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Only known photo



After the mistaken identification of one body at KGV Military Hospital mortuary (see here), the remains were readied for funeral arrangements.

The error came to light, but the unknown corpse was moved to South Dublin Union. The DMP had taken photographs for subsequent identification attempts. Burial was being planned when, luckily, people searching for a missing man came across the body on 31 May.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921A female family representative told the press they were much annoyed it had taken almost a week before they had an opportunity of seeing the body. She stressed the victim had nothing whatever to do with the attack on the Custom House.

The deceased was her brother John Byrne of 14 Killarney Street. He passed the Custom House each day cycling home to dinner (as lunch was called in the old days) from work south of the river. During the gun battle on 25 May he was shot and died after some time on the plaza beside Beresford Place/Gardiner Street. This photo clearly shows a person (circled red) lying near a fallen bicycle (marked yellow) and may well be the unfortunate Mr. Byrne.

john-byrne-bike-on-plaza Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Custom House Plaza during the battle (Photo thanks to Peter McGoldrick)

John had been born at 29 Moore Street on 13 Mar 1894 to James Byrne, a Poultry man & his wife Ellen (Farrell), both Dublin natives.

Theirs was a large family giving us a glimpse of the tough lives and high mortality rates in the city of the times. The 1901 census records the parents and 6 children in a “Shop & Dwelling (2nd Class)” with 3 rooms. By 1911, the father was dead a year at just 49. His widow Ellen (48) worked as a Fish Monger & lived with her eight children, three under 10, at 18 Moore Street, recorded as a “Shop (1st Class)” with 5 rooms.

A really stark entry on the form shows a third of her 12 children born had died (She lost another in 1912, aged twenty-one).

At that stage John (17) was not in school or work.

The Byrnes moved from Moore St. before 1916. That was probably fortunate. Their old neighbourhood saw fierce fighting and several civilian casualties during the Rebels’ retreat  from the GPO and the continuing gun battles up to the Surrender.

In 1921 John was employed at Bailey’s poultry business in Rathmines. His mother had passed away in 1918 and he lived with his surviving siblings, all unmarried. John lost his life in a location he’d cycled through four times daily hundreds of times. Unluckily for him the day of the Burning proved the final time. His sister said he was 23. He was actually 27 but still a very young man.

john-byrne-pic Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

John Byrne, pic from Irish Independent

The military inquiry heard evidence of his eventual identification and the medical report on his wounds, caused by one or two bullets in the back. The verdict was “accidental death caused by person or persons unknown”. It is most likely he was killed by the heavy Auxy gunfire (This writer’s view). While that cannot be proven at this remove, see below.

The papers reported that the cortege at John Byrne’s funeral from the Pro-Cathedral was “large and representative”. He was buried in Glasnevin on 2 June, joined later by his brother James and sister-in-law Maggie. John’s inscription makes no mention of how or where he died.

Byrne headstone Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

The Byrne plot in Glasnevin – St Patrick’s Section FK129.

The final mention we’ve found of John is in a May 1922 newspaper report on claims lodged for malicious injuries suffered “during the Terror” alleged to have been committed by members of any of the several units of British forces in Ireland (Emphasis added by this writer).

“Miss Eileen Byrne makes a claim for £1,000 in respect of the death of her brother John Byrne, who was killed near the Custom House on the occasion of its burning on May 25, 1921”.

The outcome of the claim is unknown at this time, but it seems Ms. Byrne believed her brother had indeed been killed by the British.

Military service in James Byrne’s extended family (Courtesy of Pauline Moynihan, 1st cousin twice removed of John).

This Byrne family originated in Co Wicklow.

A granduncle from there, James Byrne (1822-1872) won the Victoria Cross in 1858 for his life-saving actions under fire at Jhansi during the Indian Mutiny. His medal is now in the Royal Ulster Rifles Museum in Belfast.

An uncle from Dublin, Augustine Byrne (1869-1952) fought in the Boer War and through WWI with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

As a complete contrast, a first cousin of John’s also named Augustine and known as Gusty or Gus Byrne (1899-1973), joined G Coy, 1st Batt, Dublin Brigade in 1917 and fought through the War of Independence. He was Pauline’s grandfather.

With that tradition of overseas soldiering in the family, it is a sad irony that John, a non-combatant, became the only one of this Byrne family to die in a conflict – in his own country and home town.


Des White

We are delighted that Pauline Moynihan (credited above), relative of John Byrne, laid the wreath in 2017 in memory of the civilians who died in 1921.