Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Paddy Flanagan, does the name ring a bell? To most people reading this it may not. If I said Frank Flood? Or Mick Dunne? Those names might be familiar, with Frank Flood being executed in Mountjoy prison during the War of Independence and Mick Dunne blown to bits at Knocknagoshel in an incident which led to the Ballyseedy massacre. All three men were members of the ASU, Dublin Brigade – in Flanagan’s case he was the leader of the unit. So why does Paddy Flanagan seem to be forgotten? His name will pop up in front of hundreds of researchers in the next few years as relations of ASU fighters try to piece family legends into truth.

Let’s look into this man who in his short life left a mark on Irish history. Nobody can deny he played a major role in the British leaving Ireland but yet he seems to have been mostly written out of accounts of the revolutionary years.

Patrick Flanagan was born in the market town of Portumna, County Galway on 24 January 1892, the first child of Thomas and Bridget Flanagan (née Burke). Patrick seems to have had a decent start in life with a tradesman father (Carpenter) which would have meant a decent standard of living. The 1901 census shows the family living at 9 New Line Road, Portumna with a second child Norah aged 5 at the time. The mother’s occupation is entered as House Keeper. The Flanagans were still living there in 1911 but Paddy had already moved out to work elsewhere.

Following his father into the Carpentry trade as was normal in those days, he moved to Dublin, joined the Volunteers in 1914 and was well established by the time of the Rising. Being a member of C Company, 3rd Battalion, he served in Boland’s Mills armed with a Howth Mauser Rifle and fought in various outposts around the Grand Canal Street area. When the Boland’s garrison surrendered the men were transported to Wakefield Prison in England and later Frongoch. Flanagan was released in August 1916 and went back to his old unit.

Taking a leading role in reorganising and re-equipping C Company, he was duly elected Lieutenant in 1917. It did not take long for him to end up back in prison. At Whitehall, Kimmage in November 1917, he was arrested by the Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.) with 13 other Volunteers and given 2 months imprisonment for illegal drilling. After being sentenced, he gripped the dock and would not let go shouting “Up the Republic!”

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Paddy’s 1917 jail record. They recorded his red hair, blue eyes, height and weight – and also that he was jailed in Wakefield after the Rising.

After serving his time he was promoted to Captain of  C Company in 1918. He then had another run-in with the R.I.C. in the Dublin Mountains. Rather than give an edited version of the story, here it is in the original words of Seamus Kavanagh (WS 1053) – and quite unusual it is too!

“At this time Captain Flanagan was “on the run” and he was also out of work and as was usual with him on such occasions he lived in the Camp until he commenced work again and found fresh “digs”. So shortly after [2nd Lieutenant Seamus] Grace being wounded, Captain Flanagan was awakened one morning to find an R.I.C. Sergeant in the tent and a Constable posted at the door. The Sergeant, having taken Paddy’s gun from beneath the pillow before awakening him, played with him for a while like a cat with a mouse, asking him “had he any arms?”, and making passes around the bed and towards the pillow. He finally produced Paddy’s gun and asked him did he (Paddy) recognise it? Paddy saw at once that the game was up, and sizing up the situation, he dealt the Sergeant a blow knocking him over the bed. He then charged the Constable at the door. The Constable grabbed at him, but as all Paddy had on was a shirt, he slipped out of that and away with him over the hill at the back of the tent, in the nude. He ran through a couple of fields until he came to a gate leading on to the road. Having jumped the gate, he found himself facing a girl. He turned to get away from her when he heard her up the road screaming as she ran from what she probably thought was a mad man. Paddy then succeeded in getting into Mr. Casey’s sandpits where that good man fitted him out with some of his son’s clothes.”

November 21st 1920 will always be etched into Irish history. Known as Bloody Sunday it was the day the IRA hit the British Secret Service its biggest blow in Ireland or maybe anywhere up till that point, leading crown forces later to shoot fourteen innocent people in Croke Park as payback. One IRA target that morning was number 28 Pembroke Street Upper, a boarding house favoured by British officers including a couple of Intelligence officers. Paddy Flanagan led the raid which included men from the 3rd Battalion including George White and Andy Cooney; and a young Charles Dalton was the IRA Intelligence officer. After entering the building the men split up into two teams, one led by Paddy Flanagan. His team worked with ruthless efficiency and he is credited with the deaths of Captain Price and Major Dowling. Overall, three officers died and three more suffered injuries in no. 28. The house was described as looking like an abattoir after Flanagan and his men left. The death toll would have been higher only for the nervousness of some of the shooters.

After the success of the Pembroke Street raid and other actions which included disarming 2 RIC men who tried to arrest him in the Dublin Mountains and the first attack on the new Auxiliary Police force in Liffey Street, Paddy Flanagan was picked to lead a new unit. The idea behind it was to harass the British on a daily basis. The members would be full-time volunteers paid four pounds ten shillings a week (around €280 in today’s money). The new combat team, the brain child of Oscar Traynor, would be called the Active Service Unit or ASU for short. It was made up of four companies with twelve men in each, drawn from each city Battalion. Their first action was an attack on the Ormond Quay/Bachelor’s Walk area of the quays which Paddy Flanagan planned and led from the front. It was a complete success with Auxiliary trucks attacked and the men withdrawn safely. But after that first success the ASU suffered its biggest blow a couple of weeks later on 22 January when an ambush in Drumcondra went terribly wrong. ASU No 1 was surrounded, leading to the death of one man, Michael McGee, and the capture of five others – four of whom were later executed. More men were recruited into the ASU including Tom Flood who took the place of his brother Frank, hanged for his role as section leader at Drumcondra.

The ASU in its short life during the War of Independence certainly lived up the word active in its name. They mounted at least one attack in the four Battalion areas each day. But the casualty rate was huge with around 35 of the original 50 either dead or in prison 6 months after its inception. By the time of the Custom House attack (which Flanagan took part in and escaped), the effects of leading this unit were starting to show with Paddy seen to be losing his temper in front of his men. Nerves of steel can only last so long.

Towards the end of May 1921 (it’s not clear if it was before or after the Custom House operation) Paddy Flanagan ordered some men to ambush a British Army lorry in Drumcondra. The men said they would only do it if Flanagan led them on the job as they saw it as a suicide mission. Paddy declined, so the men then refused to carry out the ambush. Two were court-martialled by the IRA and found guilty, being fined three weeks wages. During the proceedings the accused pair laid a counter charge of cowardice against Paddy Flanagan. That was investigated by GHQ and strongly rejected on the grounds that it was not the role of O/Cs at any level to lead every single operation, nor were they expected to do so. Paddy Flanagan was exonerated, but his days of leading the ASU were finished.

First off, the ASU was largely destroyed after the Custom House and the Squad was also severely depleted. The two units were amalgamated to form a single new one, The Guard (some of the men, particularly new members, still refer to it as the ASU in statements etc).

Secondly, since Squad Captain (Paddy O’Daly) and ASU Captain (Paddy Flanagan) had both escaped arrest at the Custom House, there were two officers of equal rank for a single unit. Given the shadow of the charge of cowardice over Flanagan it was felt there would be unease among the men if he were to lead the Guard. O’Daly was appointed.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

One of the headlines after the killing of Byrne (Irish Independent)

Another factor against Flanagan was getting on the wrong side of Micheal Collins on two occasions. The first involved a spy called Hoppy Byrne, shot by the IRA but not killed. Flanagan was ordered to finish the job. The problem was his men went into Jervis Street Hospital, put the wounded Byrne on a stretcher, took him downstairs and shot him dead in a yard just outside A&E – in full view of the hospital and its staff! Collins and others in GHQ were appalled. It was a PR disaster and risked alienating medical staff who had been very helpful to the IRA.

The second time Paddy incurred The Big Fella’s wrath was when a military cordon was thrown around Charles Street to carry out raids and searches. Collins needed a diversion to help someone break out but Flanagan, in Collins’ view, did not act fast enough.

So Paddy was transferred by Brigade O/C Oscar Traynor back to C Company, 3rd Battalion. But this apparent demotion, not intended as such, did not last long as Joe O’Connor, Battalion Commandant was delighted to have Flanagan back, rating him one of the top officers in the Battalion. It could not have worked out better as O’Connor immediately promoted Flanagan to Vice-Commandant, where he stayed up till the start of the Civil War.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

George White, close friend & best man at Paddy & Eveline’s wedding.

On 13 April 1921 Paddy had married his fiancée Eveline O’Brien in the Church of the Immaculate Lady of Refuge, Rathmines with George White (ASU) as his best man. Paddy gave his occupation as Foreman Carpenter. The bride had been active during the War of Independence with Cumann na mBan, acting as a messenger and transporter of weapons for her future husband’s 3rd Battalion Company and later the ASU. She mentions in an interview in April 1937 that she carried guns to be used on Bloody Sunday and the burning of the Custom House. She also took on the role of paymaster to the ASU delivering the wages to each of the men every Thursday.

Around early June 1922, George White’s uncle took ill in London and George decided to go there and see about moving the business to Dublin. He asked Paddy to go with him to help and while in London the news reached them about the Four Courts being attacked by Irish Provisional Government Troops. White recalls in his Witness Statement that Paddy Flanagan broke down and cried saying “My God, They are mad”. The two returned home where Paddy was picked up by the authorities and interned. Early in 1923 he was out of prison and trying to put together a unit to fight the Free State. But the Executive IRA command would not give the go ahead, believing it pointless to continue the fight in Dublin at that stage. So that was Paddy’s fighting days over.

Returning to his civilian occupation Paddy’s family grew with the births of his five children Desmond, Eveline, Thomas Patrick, Thomas Bernard and Margaret. The family moved around, eventually settling in in Oakley Road, Ranelagh. Late in 1934 Paddy’s health took a turn for the worst. After a stay in hospital suffering from stress related illness he passed away on 10 February 1935, cause of death Cerebral Haemorrhage.

His funeral from Whitefriar Street church to Glasnevin was very well attended; over 300 Old IRA took part and the firing party led by Oscar Traynor was made up of 12 ex-ASU men. Paddy Flanagan was laid to rest in Plot JH132.5, St Bridget’s section.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Paddy’s headstone in Glasnevin (courtesy of Nicky Kehoe)

Following his death Eveline fought a tough campaign to have his early death attributed to his continuous active military service from 1914-1923. She battled even harder then she had in the War of Independence. But despite letter after letter and reports from some of the top doctors in Ireland, the government would not concede that his death was due to his service. Reading her pension file you can see a strong woman fighting for her family, then a glimmer of light shines as she gets employment with the Hospitals Trust (The Sweepstakes). Something that has been lost sight of over the years is the fact that many families would have starved if not for the Sweepstakes giving employment to widows of Old IRA men or the veterans themselves who found it impossible to get employment in 1930s Ireland. Later in life Eveline worked as a Probation Officer in the Juvenile Courts which I am sure helped change the fortunes of the family. Eveline passed away on 28 October 1968 aged 67, after years of bad health.

I would like to dedicate this biography to the memory of Paddy and Eveline Flanagan, may they both rest in peace.

Gary Deering