Bill Stapleton’s story is one tinged with some very good luck & some really bad luck. Bill was a man who risked all for his country & is remembered for his kindness to others. As someone once said to the author “You were never out of work if you knew Bill”. He had connections and he used them to help out others.
William James Stapleton was born in the Rotunda on 9th July 1897, the second child of James & Rose (O’Donohue) Stapleton of 37 York Street who went on to have four more children. James was a glazier, a trade which I am sure he was kept busy with in Victorian Dublin.
Bill was educated by the Christian Brothers at St Columba’s, Great Strand Street and later the famous school attended by many a future IRA man – O’Connell’s School in North Richmond Street. After taking the Intermediate Exam, Bill in his own words was taken from school to start working in his father’s building business which employed up to 10 men at a time. Young Bill worked with the carpenters and painters which we can assume was a general building apprenticeship.
James Stapleton was a man who would read books on Irish history after he finished his day’s work. He passed his love of his country to his son and often told Bill that he would join the Volunteers if he was a younger man, maybe dropping a hint as fathers do to their sons. Either way he planted the seed in Bill’s head which would lead him witness at close quarters some of the great moments in Irish history of the last one hundred years and make friends that would last a lifetime.
Bill joined the Volunteers in April 1915, serving in B Company, Second Battalion under Captain Tom Hunter (he also mentions future Custom House attacker Ned Lyons being a member when he joined). He attended first aid courses and was soon made Company medic. He soon got bored with that role and attended any lectures he could on the use of arms and was finally given a single barrel shotgun that he would go on to use in 1916.
In the Rising, along with Vinny Byrne & Tom Kehoe, Bill saw action in the Jacob’s Factory garrison under Major John McBride and Thomas MacDonagh. He served in several outposts & took part in a cycle patrol to Saint Stephen’s Green. After the surrender he was taken to Richmond Barracks where he lied about his age (he would have been released, if he’d told the truth). He was then taken by cattle boat to Knutsford Prison & and later Frongoch. Bill was released in the first batch of prisoners in August 1916.
After returning to Dublin he rejoined his old Company and helped set about rebuilding it. Their activities consisted of drilling and arms training as they had done before the Rising.
One of the most bizarre incidents involving Bill happened late in February 1918. He and his Company were told to parade in Croke Park at 6 o’clock in the morning; to wear old clothes; and to bring sticks along with them. Their mission was to hijack a consignment of live pigs that were ear-marked (pardon the pun) for the British Army. They intercepted the herd on Dorset Street, liberated them from their minders and drove them to a Corporation yard nearby. The animals were then slaughtered by two IRA men who happened to be butchers. While this was in progress the police surrounded the yard.
In the meantime Diarmuid Lynch, the Food Controller for the Dáil had made arrangements to purchase the pigs from the owners, so no crime had been committed. The dressed carcasses were then taken to Donnelly’s off Meath Street (maybe their factory in Cork Street was built later). Bill states his mother was frightened by his appearance when he got home at 2 am covered in blood. The main result of the action was the people of Dublin had pork & bacon in their shops – thanks to the IRA! A really good propaganda coup.
On 21st November 1920 Bill reported to Joe Leonard at 8.30 am at Baggot Street Bridge, to take part in the execution of a court martial officer, Captain William Frederick Newberry, at 92 Lower Baggot Street. Their target was successfully located, shot and killed, but the job turned into one of the more messy ones on that morning of Bloody Sunday. When Capt Newberry tried to escape the party bursting into his room he made for the window, leaving his ‘pregnant wife’ there unprotected. He was shot and his body remained lying over the window sill. Newberry’s wife is said to have later died in childbirth along with the newborn child as a result of her traumatic experience (There are several myths here; for one, the woman present was not Mrs Newberry…..).
After the IRA party had made their escape by ferry across the Liffey, Bill later went to Croke Park for the big Tipperary v Dublin match in the afternoon. When the RIC & Auxiliaries burst into the ground and opened heavy indiscriminate fire, Stapleton was standing beside a man who was hit by a bullet & got spattered with the victim’s blood.
Not long after Bloody Sunday Bill was made a full member of the Squad to bring the strength up to twelve men. Going back to his earlier trade of painting, Bill emblazoned the name George Moreland Builders on the Squad’s undercover base in Abbey Street. In early 1921 as a member of the Squad Bill shot Shankers Ryan, the British soldier who had informed on McKee and Clancy. A few months later he was also a member of the crew of the captured armoured car that entered Mountjoy Prison and tried to free Sean McKeon. At the Custom House he was one of the lucky ones who escaped, having been part of an outside covering group; he only managed to get a few shots off before having to withdraw.
After the Custom House burning the Squad and the ASU were joined together in a new unit called the Guard. Some new members were added to make up numbers. Paddy O’Daly was the Captain of this new unit & Joe Leonard & Paddy O’Connor each were in charge of a section. Bill served with the unit right up to the formation of the new National Army in Celbridge. He along with other ex-Squad members soon became liaison officers accepting handovers of barracks from the RIC and British Army.
For more information on this part of Bill’s life click the link below as it goes into a lot of detail about the various operations he took part in during the War of Independence. http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0822.pdf
Bill’s next post seems to have been to Baldonnel (now Casement) Aerodrome from where he operated as a pilot’s observer in early 1922. On one mission his plane was shot at by a sniper and hit, but it managed to get back to base safely. He was serving with the Corps of Engineers in Tallaght Camp when he got married to Elizabeth (Dolly) Revell who lived in Tallaght village, but was originally from Leicester, England. The wedding took place in Rathfarnham Church on 1 March 1924, with Jim and May Stapleton as witnesses. He was then transferred to the Curragh Camp serving with the Training Corps of Engineers. He was one of the lucky ones to survive the Army reshuffle of March 1924 which saw a lot of ex-IRA officers being decommissioned. The only effect on him was demotion from Colonel to Major; such reductions in rank (for cost-cutting reasons) were quite common across the board for men who stayed with the Army.
Everything seemed to be going well, till he was suddenly dismissed from the Army along with Major Patrick Ahern on 3rd January 1925 (Dr. Ahern had been Director of Medical Services for the National Army during the Civil War and went on to have a long career in London as a doctor) . The reason given was involvement with other Officers and non-Commissioned Officers in a plot to cause dissatisfaction within the Army and against the new State; also membership of the IRAO. Bill pleaded his case swearing that he had nothing to do with any plot. He admitted having mixed loyalties during the Mutiny, but after talking to his commanding officer his loyalty was to the Army and the State. He applied for his military pension which he was entitled to for his service from 1915 to 1925 but was refused as he had been dismissed from the Army.
The only work he could then find was as a taxi driver. This job was not like it is now. Driving was almost an art form which meant hand-starting cars with a crank handle, then manually operating the ignition system and double-clutching crash gearboxes! In a letter he wrote appealing his pension he mentions working 3 days a week starting at 6 am straight through to 1 or 2 am the next morning. The money he earned for this hardship was around £2 a week. As a member of Collins’ Squad he had been paid more than double that weekly – four pounds ten shillings – four years earlier!
Later in 1925 he managed to get a job as Camp Superintendent on the construction of the massive new hydroelectric power station on the Shannon at Ardnacrusha. On 11 February 1927 the Army finally overturned his dismissal and accepted his and Patrick Ahern’s resignations; that opened the way to them getting full pensions.
Bill’s career seems to have gone from strength to strength from then. His main job was Chief Hostel Supervisor in the Turf Development Board later Bord na Móna , which meant he was in charge of the camps that housed the workers. He retired from that company in July 1961 as Advertising Manager and Public Relations Officer. He also sat as Chairman of the Industrial and Catering Management Association. He was appointed a director of Óstlanna Iompar Eireann, a subsidiary of CIE which managed its Hotel and Hostel interests. In 1971 it was noted in the Dáil that he was getting a remuneration of £200 pounds per annum in that capacity.
Bill was also a golfer and was a trustee of Clontarf Golf Club where he was also captain at one stage.
In 1977 his health seems to have declined and he lived his remaining years in a nursing home. He was a widower of many years at that time, as his wife Dolly had died on the 16th of June 1968.
William James Stapleton himself passed away on the 11th of March 1980 and is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery. May he rest in peace.
When researching this article, one thing sticks out about Bill Stapleton – he really did things his own way! He did not fall into any of the stereotypes a lot of historians like to label Old IRA men with. He did not hold any grudge against the English – his wife Dolly had been born in England. He did not take part in the Army Mutiny 1924; he proved he was a good soldier & would have stayed in the Army had his career not been cut short. He did not hit the bottle; and he worked with men like Todd Andrews and Dev who had taken the other side in the Civil War. He worked his way up to the top of Bord na Móna & held directorships in other semi-State companies. Bill Stapleton’s career really does fly in the faces of those who write the Squad off as a bunch of street gunmen and drunken psychopaths.
The Johnny Wilson Connection…
When I started research on my granduncle Johnny, I contacted his daughter Joan and one of the first things I found out was that himself and Bill Stapleton remained friends from their IRA days right up till Wilson’s death in 1955. Joan remembered Bill very visibly upset at the funeral of her dad. They would have met when Wilson was in the ASU and Stapleton was in the Squad to which Wilson was later transferred. Both men are known to have taken part in the capture of the British armoured car in the Abattoir on Blackhorse Avenue and the Burning of the Custom House not long afterwards. Both were very young National Army Captains at Baldonnel Aerodrome; & the two later served in Tallaght Camp: Stapleton as Colonel of the Engineers; and Wilson as Adjutant of the 24th Battalion.
In later life they worked together in Bord na Móna. That organisation’s internal newsletter ‘An Sleán‘ mentions them having Christmas dinner together in Edenderry Camp in 1944. http://www.heartland.ie/articles/droichead-nua-and-edenderry-christmas-1944