Burning of Dublin Custom House

A news report appeared on page 5 of the Irish Independent newspaper on 25 January 1935:

‘… One of General Collins’ Squad, Mr Patrick J. Griffin Dead’.

In the brief obituary that followed it was revealed that Patrick who died at number 17 Fairview, Dublin had been a former Commandant in the Old IRA and National Army. A past member of Michael Collins’ Squad and one of the Irish Army officers taking over Beggar’s Bush Barracks from the departing British in 1922. Then the first Camp Commandant at Portobello Barracks. The final line of the short report intriguingly mentioned he was one of the [Army] officers who resigned in March 1924 and had since been working for the Department of Agriculture (as a Ships Inspector, we learned later).

Burning of Dublin Custom House

Paddy’s obituary

Burning of Dublin Custom House

Photo of the deceased in Irish Independent

Patrick J. Griffin was known to his friends as either Patrick, Pat, Paddy and/or ‘Specky’. He had died at just forty years of age from the great killer disease of that time TB (tuberculosis). He was our granduncle, the brother of our paternal grandmother Lily (née Griffin) Lee.

Specky had never married and had no children. The chief mourners at his funeral were his three sisters Minnie and Kathleen Griffin and Lily Lee, the only one who did have children. Four boys, his nephews Paddy, Brendan, Charlie and Paschal who are all dead now. But between them they had 26 Lee sons and daughters, Specky’s closest living relatives.

Until recently we knew very little about our granduncle or the part he played in the War of Independence and the early years of the Irish Free State. He was dead over a decade before any of us were born; and since our granny Lily died in the early 1950’s any direct link to his story was lost. Growing up in a pre-Google era, all we had to go on was vague family lore. A granduncle none of us had known who was supposed to have been a sometime aide-de-camp to Michael Collins; on the run from the Black and Tans; and whose German Mauser automatic showed up in the early 1980’s. That at least was the real article and had to be secretly handed in to the National Museum to get it out of circulation!

Patrick Griffin never gave a Bureau of Military History Witness Statement because that process had not started before his death. He did not leave an account of his life and his name seldom features in published material about that time in Irish history. Yet with painstaking work this account has been compiled with the intention of addressing this gap in the public record and of honouring his sacrifice and contribution to the achievement of Irish independence.

Paddy Griffin was born on 4 August 1894 at 139 North King Street in Dublin’s North West inner city. His father, also named Patrick, worked as a Labourer in a local brewery but died when Paddy was 11 years old in 1906 leaving his mother Mary to raise seven children. Four of them would later die of TB.

Burning of the Dublin Custom House

Minnie (probably) outside Griffin’s shop in Fairview. The Lee family.

She supported the family by running a small shop: first at 68 Prospect Avenue, Glasnevin next door to what was then and still remains the largest graveyard in Ireland; and later at 17 Fairview, a few doors away from the former Grand Cinema.

Burning of the Dublin Custom House

The teenaged Paddy shown as a worker living at home

In the 1911 census Paddy is 16 years of age and his occupation is listed as [Printing] Compositor. There is no record of him playing any part in the Easter Rising of 1916 but it is recorded that he joined the Irish Volunteers in January 1917. Some evidence points to his sister Minnie’s possible involvement in the independence movement. Why and exactly how Paddy and possibly Minnie became involved remains a matter of conjecture but it probably had a lot to do with where they were living and the social circles they moved in.

The Marino, Fairview and Clontarf areas were very active places with regard to Irish language, culture and politics from the first decade of the 20th century onwards. Eamon Ceannt (executed 1916) founded the Clontarf Branch of the Gaelic League who first met in St. Joseph’s school, Fairview and later in the Clan na hEireann Hall, 9 Philipsburgh Avenue. The Irish Volunteers trained in Father Mathew Park behind Fairview church and the Irish Citizen Army trained in Croydon Park also in Marino. Republican activists and young veterans of the Easter Rising Tom Ennis, Tom Kehoe and Jim Slattery all lived locally in rented accommodation on the top floor of Marino House. They were good friends with Paddy Griffin and probably with his sister Minnie as well. A small number of documents found recently belonging to Minnie Griffin, including a photograph of Jim Slattery, seem to suggest she was typing reports or communications related to her brother’s activities.

Paddy Griffin was assigned to “B” Company, 2nd Battalion Dublin Brigade. From January 1917 to April 1919 he undertook military training and drills whilst also working full time as a Compositor. Dublin Volunteers helped to marshal a general strike against conscription in April 1918. In the general election of December 1918, the Dublin Volunteers campaigned for Sinn Féin and stewarded their rallies. While there is no documented proof of Paddy’s activities during this time it is likely these were the types of things he was involved in as a Volunteer.

Sinn Féin won the election in a landslide victory and declared Irish independence and the formation of its own Parliament, Dáil Eireann. All Volunteers took an Oath of Allegiance to the Dáil and the Republic in the Autumn of 1919. From this point onwards they began to refer to themselves by a new name, the Irish Republican Army or IRA.

Sometime after April 1919 Paddy Griffin resigned his civilian job and became a full-time paid Captain in the Irish Republican Army. He was in one of a number of units under the control of Michael Collins. The Squad was the unit Paddy chose to operate in. There is some confusion in the public record about how, when and where The Squad was formed and who was in it. There are a few possible reasons for this. Firstly, Collins as Head of Intelligence knew that most Irish Independence movements in the past (particularly those willing to employ violence) had failed because of spies working for the British crown. He therefore did not broadcast information about the internal structure and membership of his own organisation and this knowledge may well have died with him in 1922. Secondly, a primary source for this comes from the BMH Witness Statements most of which were given thirty years after the events they describe – when several of the key participants including Paddy Griffin were dead.

The Squad’s role was to initiate and participate in guerrilla warfare activities of intelligence gathering; raids for weapons, vehicles, supplies; ambushes; and attacks on and assassinations of enemy agents. A central function of The Squad was to counter British Intelligence activities. The Squad had an unusual place within the IRA, being part of no recognised unit, independent even of the Dublin Brigade and answerable only to Collins himself as Director of Intelligence.

Collins’ Intelligence Department assembled information on targets, British enemy agents, spies and detectives from ‘G’ Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Orders for ‘jobs’, or ‘pluggings’ as The Squad came to call killings, were given by GHQ Intelligence Officers Liam Tobin and Tom Cullen and occasionally from Michael Collins himself. In practice, the two units tended to blend into each other and Squad men occasionally found targets for themselves.

Burning of the Dublin Custom House

Specky with cigar at top right, with Tom Kehoe next to him.

In Paddy Griffin’s file in the records of Óglaigh na hÉireann Military Archives, Jim Slattery and Tom Cullen state in 1924 that he was a member of The Squad from an unspecified date in 1919 until the Truce. Jim Slattery’s witness statement (BMHWS0445) gives the following names as members of the original Squad, also nicknamed ‘The Twelve Apostles’: Mick McDonnell, Tom Keogh, Jim Slattery, Paddy Daly, Joe Leonard, Ben Barrett, Vincent Byrne, Sean Doyle, Paddy Griffin, Eddie Byrne, Mick Reilly and Jimmy Conroy.

Over time The Squad was strengthened and many of the following names are associated with it: Ben Byrne, Frank Bolster, Mick Keogh, Mick Kennedy, Bill Stapleton, Sam Robinson, Owen Cullen and Paddy Kelly from Co Clare. They were all employed full-time and received a weekly wage of £4 10 shillings.

Other names connected with The Squad and/or their operations are: Mick Love, Gearóid O’Sullivan, Patrick Caldwell, Charlie Dalton, Mick O’Reilly, Sean Healy, James Ronan, Tom Cullen, Paddy Lawson, John Dunne, Johnny Wilson, James Heery, Seán Lemass and Stephen Behan (father of Irish writer Brendan Behan).

Paddy Griffin was active as a member of The Squad from 1919 until his arrest at the Custom House in May 1921. As he did not make a witness statement there is no comprehensive list of his service record during the War of Independence. But by piecing together references to him in other witness statements a picture of the type of operations he was involved in can be made. These include William James Stapleton (BMHWS0667), James Slattery (BMHWS0445), Patrick McCrea (BMHWS0413), Patrick Lawson (BMHWS0667), Sean O’Neill (BMHWS1154) and J. V. Joyce (BMHWS1762).

An early and unrealised mission Paddy was part of was to rescue Kevin Barry from the hangman’s noose in Mountjoy Jail. A large Dublin Brigade group consisting of Paddy, Jim Slattery, Tom Kehoe and others including senior people like Michael Collins and Dick Mulcahy were present. They were assembled in different locations in close proximity to the prison in readiness to carry out the attempt but after GHQ had reviewed the plan, they considered that there would be too much “slaughter” and at the last minute the rescue party was ordered to stand down.

Specky was also involved in the Bloody Sunday operation on 21 November 1920. He probably acted as a look-out for the group sent to eliminate Captain G T Baggalley at 119 Lower Baggot Street. Baggalley, a barrister employed as a prosecutor under the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act 1920, had been a member of military courts that sentenced IRA volunteers to death. According to Pat McCrea (BMHWS0413), Specky’s group (which included Seán Lemass, later Taoiseach) were the first to complete their mission and to return to base. The Squad and other IRA men eliminated 14 British Intelligence agents that morning.

According to Jim Slattery (BMHWS0445), in February 1921 himself and Paddy along with Frank Bolster, Ben Byrne and Ned Kelleher were selected for a mission to execute three police officers from Dublin Castle, RIC Constables Hoey, Greer and MacDonagh. It is not clear what the specific intelligence was on these officers but operations like this were designed by Collins to make the streets of Dublin unsafe for RIC detectives, to make it difficult for them to operate openly in the city. The grim story of the shooting was dramatically reported in the Irish Independent on 24 February 1921:

“There were many persons in Parliament St. when the sudden attack was made upon the constables. About 1.30pm three men of tall and powerful build were observed walking leisurely along Parliament St. in the direction of Grattan Bridge…. A number of men suddenly appeared and formed in semi-circular order around the three pedestrians. Shot after shot was discharged, and two of those attacked fell to the ground, apparently riddled with bullets. Pools of blood marked where they fell… During the first deadly fusillade [Constable MacDonagh] escaped with only a wound in the leg. He rushed across the road towards Mr Honan’s tobacco shop. As he was entering the door about six shots were discharged almost simultaneously at him…”

Constables Hoey and Greer died at the scene while MacDonagh died later in hospital. This newspaper report paints a graphic picture of the awful reality at a micro level of how the War of Independence was often fought on the streets of Dublin.  Brutal actions, regularly committed by the hated Black and Tans, the Auxiliaries and other British forces were regularly met by equally brutal reactions and strategic killings by the IRA – and Collins’ Squad in particular.

A few months later on 14 May 1921 it is recorded that Paddy was a look-out along with Charlie Dalton as part of the IRA group that captured an armoured car at the Dublin City Abattoir in a failed attempt to rescue Sean McEoin from Mountjoy Jail where he was under sentence of death.

Ten days later on 25 May Paddy was involved in burning the Custom House, headquarters of the Local Government Board for Ireland and strategically important to the British administration. The operation, involving over 350 IRA volunteers, was a propaganda coup for the republicans but is considered by some a military disaster for the IRA in Dublin. A force of British Auxiliaries quickly arrived and a gun battle erupted. Five IRA volunteers were killed, along with four civilians (one by an IRA man), and over 100 volunteers were captured, including Paddy Griffin. He was interned in Kilmainham Gaol until the general amnesty and release of prisoners on 8 December 1921, two days after the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed.

Early in 1922 Paddy became a member of the newly formed Irish Free State Army. He held the rank of Staff Captain and was assigned as second in command to oversee the evacuation of the British Forces from Beggars Bush Barracks on 22 February. He was also on duty at Portobello Barracks when it was handed over to the Provisional Government forces.

Standing L to R: Sam Robinson, Tom Kehoe, Paddy Griffin. Sitting, from left: Jim Slattery, Pat Moynihan, Joe Dolan. (Military Archives)

Burning of the Dublin Custom House

Specky on the right, in Henry St, Dublin – appropriately beside the National Army armoured car named Custom House.

Paddy like the rest of his comrades in The Squad supported Collins and the pro-Treaty side in the Civil War.

In July 1922 he was promoted to Commandant and after the fighting in Dublin City he was in the expeditionary force that was assaulting anti-Treaty IRA forces in Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Wexford.

Burning of the Dublin Custom House

Specky aboard ship during the Civil War with Eoin O’Duffy (The Lee family).

Following Collins’ death in August and Tom Kehoe’s in September, the war descended into a bitter and vicious conflict with atrocities committed by both sides. Over 1,000 people were to die before it ended in May 1923 when Frank Aiken, O/C of the anti-Treaty side, ordered his remaining fighters to “dump arms” and return home.

With Collins dead, the group in the army including Paddy Griffin who had been closely associated with The Squad and GHQ Intelligence began to feel increasingly marginalised. They felt the sacrifices they had made during the War of Independence and Civil War were no longer respected.

The focus of their discontent was the new Commander-in-Chief Richard Mulcahy and his Army GHQ staff. Mulcahy, who was also Minister of Defence, began to see Collins’ old group as a rogue force who needed to be brought in line with military discipline under his leadership.

In January 1923 the group formed their own organisation, the Irish Republican Army Organisation (IRAO) or Old IRA, within the Army. Four of the main leaders were Liam Tobin (Head of Intelligence), Charles Dalton, Frank Thornton and Tom Cullen.  They believed Mulcahy and a small clique around him of former IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) members were controlling the Army for their own advantage. They also felt that the Army and government were not following through on Michael Collins’ aim to use the Treaty as a stepping stone to an all-island 32 county republic.

Around the beginning of March 1923 Paddy Griffin was directed to take up duties as second in command at Portobello Barracks. On 10 April he wrote to the commanding officer in Portobello to express his dissatisfaction, explaining “I am not yet gazetted and have spent four of the past five weeks in Islandbridge Barracks”. He finished by tendering his resignation from 11 April. The army subsequently did not accept that resignation.

For the remainder of 1923 into 1924 a hostile stand-off continued between Mulcahy and Army GHQ on one side and the IRAO on the other. The government were concerned the situation could escalate into another civil war.  Meetings were held between the IRAO, the Army Council and a government sub-committee including (President of the Executive Council) W.T. Cosgrave, (Minister for Industry and Commerce) Joe McGrath and (Minister for Home Affairs) Kevin O’Higgins. Ultimately these meetings failed to resolve differences. This led Richard Mulcahy to state his intention to have the IRAO group arrested and court martialled.

The whole issue came to a head on 18 March 1924 when the army GHQ received information that the IRAO group including Paddy Griffin were meeting in Devlin’s Public House in Parnell Street, Dublin (a meeting place Michael Collins had used in the past). When the Army moved to make arrests they learnt there were a number of armed men inside who had barricaded the stairs and taken up positions in the roof. It is believed that this enabled the group’s leaders Liam Tobin and Charles Dalton to escape across the rooftops. After a tense stand-off over a number of hours the IRAO group agreed to lay down their arms and surrender.

Burning of Dublin Custom House

Commdt Griffin was named as one of the officers arrested on the roof at the ‘siege of Devlin’s Pub’.

The government was not happy and believed Mulcahy and GHQ had acted against its wishes by escalating the situation to a point where violence may have occurred. In turn Mulcahy and GHQ Council felt betrayed and resigned. The IRAO group including Paddy Griffin realised they had no future in the Free State Army and they also resigned. The dispute became known as the Irish Army Mutiny. It ended the involvement of secret societies and small interest group cliques in the Army and placed it firmly under civilian authority from 1924 onwards.

Whatever negotiations took place after the Mutiny it would appear that individuals were looked after. They avoided courts martial and were helped re-integrate into civilian life. In Patrick Griffin’s case, he was awarded a military pension and appointed to a civil service job in the Department of Agriculture as a Ships Inspector in Dublin Port.

Burning of the Dublin Custom House

Paddy in his garden. The Lee family.

We know nothing of his civilian life in the years that followed but imagine it could never have lived up to the excitement, danger and intensity of the years that had gone before. He passed away only eleven years after leaving the Army, at the very early age of 40.

Burning of the Dublin Custom House

A who’s who of Custom House Men at Paddy’s funeral

His funeral on Saturday 26 January 1935 was attended by many of his former comrades. At the request of the Old IRA honour guard the Department of Defence supplied revolvers instead of rifles for the three volleys fired over Paddy’s coffin draped in the tricolour. He is buried in the Griffin family plot in Prospect Cemetery, Glasnevin.

Joe, Tony and Peter Lee – Grandnephews of Paddy ‘Specky’ Griffin.


The headstones and inscriptions on the large Griffin plot in Glasnevin had sadly been incomplete and fallen into disrepair. Many names of those interred there were not shown. An initiative was launched by their descendants to properly commemorate their ancestors. After research by Tony Lee and thanks to contributions by family and a group of friends and interested supporters (mostly from Fingal where the Griffins originated), a new headstone has been erected and the plot reinstated.

A small and dignified ceremony was held in late April 2023 at the site. It was a bit wet and the skies were leaden but that did not dampen the enthusiasm of the many attendees representing several Griffin generations and many others.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Some of the proud extended Griffin family with Collins 22 Society re-enactors at the newly unveiled headstone in Glasnevin.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Jim Langton and pals at the grave.

A re-enactor group (from the Collins 22 Society) were also there and, with an oration by Tony Lee, all paid deserved tributes in memory of his granduncle Specky and deceased members of the extended Griffin family.

On the way to the exit, we were given a fascinating talk about the origins and ups and downs of the Griffin family – and lots of connected stories – by their relative and history buff Peter Rooney, Fingal Old IRA Commemorative Society.

Yours truly was privileged to have represented the Custom House Commemoration Group. It was an honour and pleasure to meet so many lovely people, young and old, who keep memories of family and fallen Irish Heroes alive despite other pressing worries and concerns “In This Crazy World” (Thanks Christy Dignam, RIP).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Some more of the attendees including Peter Rooney and cousins.

Happily there is now a fitting memorial to Patrick ‘Specky’ Griffin, Custom House Fire Brigade and Squad Man. Who loved the camera – and it loved him! (Thanks, Gary Deering)

Des White