Glasnevin is the resting place of many famous men who were revolutionaries, but fewer who later entered politics and only a handful who also played “foreign games”.
- Kevin Barry, rugby and cricket player, died too young to tick one box.
- Cathal Brugha ticks all three (his sport was cricket). But his political career was cut short in 1922.
- Dev is the most well-known and by far the longest-lasting of them (he played rugby at Blackrock College).
In comparison, the impressive careers in all three arenas of Oscar Traynor, O/C for the Custom House Burning, are largely overlooked.
Unlike de Valera, Traynor played sport at top level; fought in 1916; later served as a TD and Cabinet minister – but was also an active military leader on the streets of Dublin in the War of Independence and, up to his early capture, in the Civil War.
And, again unlike the Long Fella, Traynor is commemorated by Oscar Traynor Road in his native city and an annual FAI youth competition, the Oscar Traynor Trophy.
On his death in 1963, extensive obituaries were published. Combined with his BMH Witness Statement and Military Pension files, there is quite a good deal of information on the man’s life and times.
Commander at the Custom House
As many will know, Traynor was overall commander at the burning of the Custom House. He was observing the operation outside the main door at the Plaza with Paddy O’Daly when the Auxies arrived and gunfire erupted. According to his Witness Statement, Traynor made a hurried departure towards the Abbey St/Gardiner St junction where he was fired at and then ordered to halt by a tender full of Auxies which stopped near him:
“At this point I saw a young Volunteer jump out from the cover of the bridge supports and throw a bomb into the middle of the Black and Tans [sic] lorry, with disastrous effects to the occupants. I was later told that this Volunteer was Dan Head and that he was killed either then or some time later during the action.”
That intervention by a fellow soccer player enabled Traynor and O’Daly to get away. Shortly afterwards they learned that Tom Ennis, Traynor’s 2nd in command that day, had been badly wounded. He and O’Daly headed for the Ennis home in Fairview where Traynor gave first aid to the stricken man; arranged transport; and accompanied him to an IRA-friendly nursing home near the Mater Hospital.
So, where did this Dublin Brigade O/C come from? He wasn’t highly educated. He was a tradesman, not a poet, writer, professional or professed idealist like many leaders of 1916. He didn’t have a well-known public profile, nor was he a recognised public orator.
Oscar was born on 21 March 1886 at 32 Upper Abbey Street in the centre of Dublin, one of 3 surviving children of Patrick, a Bookseller and Maria Traynor (née Clarke) originally from Co Meath. He grew up with an older brother and sister. Two other brothers had died as infants.
Early Influences Blossom
The father Patrick was said to have been a Fenian and later a strong supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell who helped lower the famous man’s coffin into a Glasnevin grave in 1891; he also made a valuation of Parnell’s property after his death. Patrick ran a shop selling old books at 29/30 Essex Quay and later on Crampton Quay. He died at home at 27 Upper Dorset Street in 1899, leaving the young Oscar strongly influenced towards Ireland’s freedom.
In the 1901 census the family (in a house plus shop at Middle Gardiner Street) did not record any Irish Language proficiency. However, 10 years later at their home on Ballybough Road their form was completed fully as Gaeilge showing definite nationalist leanings. When he married in 1918, Traynor – and his bride – signed the register with the Irish forms of their names.
Early Working Days
An obituary in the Irish Press says Oscar went to school at St. Mary’s Place near the Black Church off Dorset Street, but had to leave aged 13½ after his father’s death. He was taken on by a renowned wood-carving firm and later served his time as a Printer & Compositor. Interestingly, his occupation is shown as Plumber in the 1901 census and Builder ten years later. He seems to have been something of a jack of many trades – but with skills all learned through apprenticeships and hard graft.
Star of a ‘Foreign Game’
The young Traynor also played soccer in goal for (then 32 county) Irish League side Belfast Celtic F.C. which he’d joined in 1910 from Dublin junior club Strandville. In 1912 he was a key member of the trophy-winning Belfast squad which toured Europe, playing exhibition matches against Germany and Austro-Hungarian Empire territories – Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary – winning 5, drawing one.
But he dropped his football career in 1914 for ‘something more serious he saw coming’, as he said himself…
The Volunteers and The Rising
Traynor joined the Volunteers Dublin Brigade 2nd Battalion in July of that year soon after the Howth gun-running. After the Redmond split he stayed with the Irish Volunteers and was elected 1st Lieutenant of F Coy in the same Battalion. He was soon admitted to the IRB, Liam Cullen administering the oath. His future brother-in-law Robert Gilligan was also an F Coy man.
At Easter 1916, Traynor was out in Fairview before going to Sackville Street (Gilligan had been withdrawn for a special job, the attack on the Magazine Fort). He recalled seeing the fires spread on the street with a memorable quote about “the huge plate-glass windows of Clery’s stores running molten into the channel from the terrific heat.” He fought in the Metropole Hotel block which was set ablaze but defended strongly. At the Surrender Traynor was arrested and sent to Frongoch via Knutsford until released that Christmas Eve.
In the Centenary year of the 1916 Rising, the FAI very appropriately used an image of Oscar Traynor, 1912 goalie, for the cover of the programme for the friendly match versus Switzerland.
He rejoined the re-organising Volunteers and became Captain of E Coy in early 1918 but in June was arrested on a charge of Illegal Drilling (with Dick McKee, Frank Henderson and 2 others), getting 3 months in Dundalk Jail. He was recorded aged 31, height 5 ft 10 (178 cm), weight 148 lbs (67.2 kg) with brown hair, hazel eyes and a fresh complexion with a scar on his right cheek. His home address was 27 Bayview Avenue, Ballybough. He gave his occupation as ‘Traveller’.
Around that time Oscar was working as a Compositor for Mitchell’s of Capel Street where early copies of An tÓglach were printed – unknown to the English owner of the business. The Volunteers shortly set up their own printing works in Aungier Street, where Traynor occasionally assisted Dick McKee (also a Compositor) in printing the paper.
In Summer 1920 Traynor was tasked with the raid on the Rotunda Rink Mail Sorting office (replacement for the destroyed GPO). The Dublin Castle mails were successfully captured and passed to IRA Intelligence after a job that demanded absolutely precise timing within a tiny window of opportunity.
Rise up the Ranks
July 1920 also saw his election as Vice-O/C, Dublin Brigade, becoming a full-time IRA officer. After the murder of Dick McKee on Bloody Sunday 1920, Traynor succeeded him as Brigadier for the rest of the War of Independence. He had been appointed by Brugha and the Army Council but insisted on an election by his comrades, which he duly won. With that rank he himself became a member of the Army Council and got their agreement to formation of an Active Service Unit (ASU), in December. Paddy Flanagan was the initial O/C and the members were all full-time, paid £4 10s a week.
In the planning of the Custom House job, Traynor claims to have reconnoitred the building under the cover of carrying an official envelope.
He also says he proposed street barricades near military barracks to prevent Crown forces approaching the place but was over-ruled by Michael Collins. Traynor’s statements on the plan in general appear a little too laboured and even defensive. Was he attempting to justify his role after the event, given the loss of men suffered on 25 May and his failure to get what he wanted? You, the Kind Reader, can decide for yourself – see BMH WS0304, from page labelled 69.
In any event, it seems he and Tom Ennis disagreed over the plans and fell out badly from that point. They later became opponents in the Civil War. Nevertheless Traynor did not stint in his praise of Ennis’s 2nd Battalion’s highly active and effective role in the War of Independence. He regularly visited Tom while he recovered from his wounds at the Custom House. The two men are pictured side by side in the 1939 Dublin Brigade Review; and Traynor was a notable mourner at Ennis’ funeral in 1945. They may not have gotten on, but they served effectively together against the British. Traynor (like Ennis) was always recognised as dealing fairly with all and carried no Civil War grudges or bitterness.
Some Key Initiatives
He was instrumental in recruiting Emmet Dalton to the Dublin Brigade (another man who went pro-Treaty later); and oversaw the introduction of Tommy guns and training in their use. He was at a demonstration of the submachine gun for IRA top brass by Tom Barry in tunnels beneath Marino Casino the day before the Burning; and commanded the railway ambush near Drumcondra on 16 June 1921 when the weapon was first used in anger. History rightfully acknowledges him as a successful Dublin Brigade commander.
A Short Civil War
Traynor was of course a leading anti-Treaty man in 1922 although he proved unable to assist the Four Courts garrison and had to melt away. However he could not evade capture by Free State forces for long and was interned from August 1922 to January 1924.
A New Sphere
He entered politics as an abstentionist (jailed Republican in 1923, Sinn Féin in 1925) winning election twice before joining Fianna Fáil as a successful candidate in their 1932 victory. His first appointment was as junior minister (called Parliamentary Secretary in those days) for Defence.
He was then promoted to Minister for Posts & Telegraphs; and then Defence from 1939-1948. That covered the duration of The Emergency, which involved huge efforts to form, organise and train some semblance of military and civil defence forces for neutral Eire in a world aflame. Traynor, with Frank Aiken, directed those arrangements and ensured competent officers were employed, irrespective of past Civil War loyalty.
Crackdown on Republicans
There was also the dangerous conflict within the State with the then-outlawed IRA, led by former comrades of his like Sean Russell, resulting in internments, deaths on hunger strike, armed confrontations involving violent deaths of IRA and Gardaí and judicial executions by firing squad and hanging. In the goalkeeper’s hands of Traynor, the country was in as safe custody as possible.
Return to The Cabinet
When Fianna Fáil won back power in 1951, Traynor returned to the Defence portfolio up to 1954. After another period in opposition, he held the Justice ministry from 1957 to his retirement in 1961. In all he won election 12 times, narrowly lost once and sat in 10 consecutive Dáils. He is the longest serving Minister for Defence in the history of the State.
Sporting Links Continue
Traynor also kept up his lifelong interest in soccer, becoming President of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) in 1948 and leading the official FAI delegation at the famous 2-0 win over England at Everton’s Goodison Park in Liverpool the following year. He stayed in that position until 1958 at least. At his death he was FAI Patron.
The Buck Stops Here
Oscar Traynor didn’t shy away from further hard decisions or controversy when necessary. In the late 1950’s during the IRA Border Campaign he signed internment orders against members and suspects, calling their activities ‘regrettable’ and a danger to public peace and safety. In 1960 he guided through controversial new drink licensing laws against strong and loud opposition from rich vested interests.
In the sporting arena he didn’t flinch – or enter into public argument – when the formidable Archbishop McQuaid condemned Ireland playing Communist Yugoslavia at Dalymount Park in 1955. He must have been delighted when 20,000 watched the game. Traynor stood up for the principle of friendliness and fairness; and for separation of sport and politics (let alone religion!) – now a basic rule in most international sports bodies.
Custom House Memorial
He never forgot his Old IRA comrades either. Oscar attended Old IRA reunions on many occasions, commemorating 1916 and the Tan War. He was a regular at the annual Old Dublin Brigade mass in Dublin Castle.
At the 1956 unveiling of the memorial statue at the Custom House, Traynor as former Dublin Brigade O/C placed a capsule in the plinth containing the names of all the 2nd Battalion and Cumann na mBan members. Over the years, he wrote many articles on the Custom House attack for various newspapers.
In business, Traynor was a Director of Fodhla Printing Company which published many republican works; and a Director of Irish Press Ltd. He retired from public life in 1961 due to advancing age and declining heath.
In private life, Oscar was married to Northside Dubliner Annie Coyne in 1918.
They had a son and two daughters and the family lived in Clonmore Road, North Strand and later, on Dollymount Avenue. This writer recalls as a kid my late father Frank pointing out many a famous Old IRA man living in our locality and respectfully greeting “Mr This” or “Comdt. That”. But to this ignorant child of the ‘50’s dragged up on WW2 comics Mr Traynor did not look fierce enough for a soldier. He appeared more like a civil servant, as my Da was. To me, both were old-fashioned gents. Courteous, a little formal, no back-slappers. Hard-working, a bit quiet – unless annoyed. Serious, with strict principles. The two of them were also lifelong Pioneers (tee total); skilled with their hands. And staunch Dev and FF supporters in their different ways!
There was never any taint of abuse of position or corruption associated with Oscar Traynor, T.D. He was an old-fashioned, honest politician. For me it has been a pleasure to meet Oscar’s nephew Donal Gilligan, another old-style Dub gent, at recent commemorations of the Burning. Sadly Donal passed away in 2016, RIP.
Oscar Traynor, a married Company Director aged 77, died at home in Dollymount on 14 December 1963. He was buried in Glasnevin’s Republican plot with full military honours. President de Valera paid a glowing tribute: “His character was one of the finest I have ever known – sincere, direct, truthful, just and courageous…..” adding that Traynor was a friend, colleague and comrade he’d been privileged to know; and one of Ireland’s most devoted sons.
An Honourable Woman
Oscar’s wife Annie seems to have shared his values and principles. After receiving an application form for the 1971 Army Widow’s Pension scheme the lady replied she did not intend to apply as she was in receipt of a pension sufficient for her needs. We could do with such selfless civic spirit today. Annie died in 1976 and was buried beside her husband in Glasnevin’s Republican Plot.
Ironically Traynor, as Minister for Justice, had a certain junior minister who later boasted of having done this State some service – self-serving and shameless posturing to cover corruption and greed, as we now know. Such a claim, if ever made by the modest Oscar Traynor, would have truthfully summed up his public life.
When he announced his retirement in the Dáil in 1961, it was reported he sat down to sustained applause from everyone present. He was both respected and popular with deputies of all parties.
These days we may be very cynical about all politicians; and regard “Don’t speak ill of the dead” as an outdated custom (never really honoured anyway!). Some may think the late lamented Irish Press could only have said good things about one of Dev’s men and a Director of that paper, on his death. Nevertheless the editorial tribute to Oscar Traynor from the Press of 16 December 1963 seems a fitting way to end this post:
“Not only did he earn the respect of his comrades in arms and later of the men he worked with in public life, but also the respect of those who were opposed to him. He had opponents, but no enemies. In friendship kindly and devoted, in his life’s work a man of principle….”.