Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Most of us interested in the War of Independence look back at the Old IRA with respect for teak-tough men. They took many risks, lived on the edge, went through hardships and in several cases survived serious wounds yet continued the fight. Jim Slattery was among the toughest of them all.

Custom House narrow escape

We have written previously about some men severely wounded at the Burning like Tom Ennis, Sean Ward, and Charlie McMahon. And Sean Doyle who despite a bullet though a lung managed to run all the way up Gardiner Street with encouragement from Jim Slattery, shot at Doyle’s side when escaping the building. Unlike his mortally wounded comrade, Slattery lived to tell the tale. His Witness Statement is very matter-of-fact about the incident:

“Nobody was keen on going out, but I was very anxious to go because I did not think I would stand a chance if I was arrested. I tried to get the lads to burst out with me. A few of them did, but the Tans opened fire when we got outside the door……. When we were about half-way across the square there was a burst of machine gun fire and I was hit on the hand…….. I got some ladies in Phil Shanahan‘s place to tidy me up. They took my gun and got me a cab……… I got my wounds dressed in the Mater Hospital and was there for nearly a fortnight.”

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Diagram showing extent of Slattery’s amputation (Military Archives)

Severe wound

From that account it is hard to believe Slattery’s shattered left hand and wrist had been amputated. And he was actually 2 months in hospital.

Many years later he added he was sent to the Isle of Man to recuperate (He was eventually fitted with an artificial hand and wrist joint). That was Slattery’s only gunshot wound, but the Custom House attack was far from being his first or last adventure during the Tan War and Civil War.

His WS gives a glimpse into his character. Not by what it says, moreso by what is left unsaid. Jim comes across as a modest man. He carefully credits other comrades involved in operations he was on and he never became boastful in later life unlike a certain few other old comrades. His account underplays the significant role he played in the campaign against British rule. Yes he does appear in quite a few photos of the Squad and became a bit of a poster-boy in the press early in the Civil War. Well, he was a photogenic guy and the Free State badly needed heroes. But by all accounts he was known as a man who did not hog the headlines. In any event, he deserved any accolades given during his long career of fighting, mostly in Dublin.

Origins

As the song goes “It’s a long way from Clare to here”. James Joseph Slattery’s journey began on 16 January 1897 in a little place called Derrynahilla, near Feakle in the Banner County. His parents Edmond, a Farmer and Norah née Hussey had 13 children, 10 of whom survived. Jim was the third son, so having no prospect of inheriting the farm he moved to Dublin in 1914 where he qualified through an apprenticeship as a skilled cabinet-maker. His military involvement also began at that young age when he took part in the Howth arms landing. 

From the Rising to the Squad

During Easter week he served as an NCO with the Volunteers at St Stephen’s Green and Jacobs. After the Surrender he was jailed in Knutsford and Frongoch. On his release and return to Dublin he joined E Coy, 2nd Battalion under Dick McKee. Slattery became a founder member of the Squad (pictured below with two comrades). Arguments still go on about what year that was, but Slattery (among others) says it was 1919 and is always credited as an original Squad man.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

A young Jim on right, Tom Kehoe on left (Vinny Byrne centre?)

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

L-R: Five of the early Squad – O/C Mick McDonnell, Tom Kehoe, Vinny Byrne, Paddy O’Daly & Jim Slattery.

Slattery had a key role in the Squad’s campaign against DMP G-Division detectives and other agents and spies including the major onslaught on Bloody Sunday (He was at 22 Lower Mount Street). The list of targets includes Det. Sgt Smyth, Detectives Hoey and Barton, the double-agent Molloy, financial/intelligence expert Alan Bell, railway official Frank Brooke, a policeman named Dalton and RIC Sgt Roche (sent to Dublin to identify IRA men from the country), the tout Shankers Ryan and others. He also took part in major ambushes and raids supporting Dublin Battalions, including King’s Inns Barracks and the destruction of military vehicles and stores at Parkgate Street.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Jim is 2nd from left with IRA comrades, Isle of Man

Slattery says he actually headed the Squad for a while after Mick McDonnell had been sent to the USA by Michael Collins. Himself and Tom Kehoe seem to have been joint-O/Cs at that time. They became two of three Squad group leaders (Joe Leonard was the 3rd) on the appointment as O/C Squad of Paddy O’Daly, whose release from internment at Ballykinlar was specially arranged. That led to a degree of frustration among some Squad veterans, particularly Kehoe; and some displays of ill-discipline off-duty. However, the Squad continued its deadly work.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Colonel Jim Slattery, Civil War 1922

Civil War

When the IRA split in early 1922, Slattery joined the new Provisional Government Army as a Commandant in the Dublin Guards. He was promoted to Brigadier and O/C Dublin Brigade in Tom Ennis’s 2nd Eastern Division. Jim saw early Civil War action in Dublin City, including the Four Courts, after which the press recognised his prominent role. He also took part in later campaigns in Cos. Limerick, Wexford, Mayo and Cork.

Early in the conflict the pro-Treaty Dublin press seemed to love Jim and other Custom House veterans like Tom EnnisPaddy O’Daly and Tom Flood. After the Four Courts battle, one paper ran this item featuring Slattery in exalted company whose names will be very familiar to regular Readers.

Irish Independent 4 July 1922

THE ARMY LEADERS – MEN WHO TOOK THE FOUR COURTS

The leaders prominent in the operations of the Army in Dublin are the same men who led the IRA in its operations in the city against the British. Commandant General Tom Ennis, who directed the operations of the infantry….. Brigadier O’Daly, who led the storming parties…… Major General Dalton….. Commandant J. Leonard, wounded in the storming…….. Brigadier Slattery, who effected the big capture of Irregulars in the Capel St. area, was one of the most active members of the IRA during the war, and was seriously wounded in the Custom House battle. Vice Commandant Tom Flood, who took part in the storming……..

Unlike O’Daly the other names are not tainted by later atrocities; and Slattery is even credited with interventions to prevent abuse of republican prisoners by some fellow officers at Portobello Barracks.

Slattery appeared in a couple of other photos in the pro-Treaty Dublin press, the one on right below showing him in an intriguing stance and position.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Slattery is 5th from left standing on the running board of “The Fighting 2nd” named for his original battalion.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

1922, occasion unknown. Is that Kevin O’Higgins in background, right?

The caption looks like pure Free State spin: “A Fine Army Type – One of the outstanding figures in the fighting now proceeding in the provinces is Brigadier-General Slattery. Skilful in tactics, dauntless in leadership and courageous in fighting, his present high position was won by meritorious service.” Nonetheless, the last sentence is true.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Jim Slattery – seated left – with Pat Moynihan, Joe Dolan; and standing – Sam Robinson, Tom Kehoe & Specky Griffin, 1922 (Military Archives IE-MA-ACPS-GPN-042)

On the scrapheap

As the Civil War ground on to its conclusion, factors outside their control occurred which took men like Ennis, Slattery and other prominent Tan War officers in the Army from former positions of hero to almost zero. Political machinations in government and military circles led to mutual distrust – almost to fear and loathing.

In early 1923 Jim was sidelined to GHQ Inspections, under Tom Ennis. They held rank and titles but had no real defined roles or powers. They were not alone in this limbo, many other senior pre-Treaty IRA men being similarly affected. All had been very close to the dead Michael Collins and were on Home Affairs Minister Kevin O’Higgins list of “wild gunmen wandering the country under no clear discipline or control“. In their frustration a small group met on 29 January 1923, forming the IRA Organisation within the Army to pursue their grievances. In addition to Slattery and Ennis the attendees were Major Generals Emmet Dalton, Liam Tobin and Tom Cullen; and Colonels Charlie Dalton, Frank Thornton, Pat McCrea, Joe O’Reilly, Kit O’Malley and Sean O’Connell.  Further meetings were held with other participants including Custom House veterans Paddy O’Daly and Specky Griffin and IRAO membership increased.

Mutiny!

The IRAO’s first action was taken on 6 June by sending a letter to William Cosgrave, President of the Dáil, seeking a meeting with him and the Army C-in-C Richard Mulcahy. Six of the officers mentioned above – Jim Slattery, Tom Ennis, Liam Tobin, Charlie Dalton, Kit O’Malley and Sean O’Connell –  signed it. Nothing of substance resulted, they were basically rebuffed. Their disaffection rumbled on in the background until February 1924 when further insult followed. Slattery and many other officers were reduced in rank – in his case to Major – in the Army re-organisation (designed to lower  massive Army numbers and costs). Early in March the IRAO grouping took open action, refusing orders, taking arms from barracks and a large number assembled armed in Devlin’s pub on Parnell Street, Dublin.

Jim Slattery took part in this mutiny which was resolved peacefully by GHQ and the “Army Crisis” came to an end without bloodshed. After the fallout settled, mutineers were offered the option to resign to avoid courts martial. Jim was allowed retire as a Colonel with effect from 29 March 1924. In recognition of his long-term military commitment he was awarded an Army pension covering 14 years service. He also received a wound pension.

A cast of famous names appears in his pension referee list. For example David Neligan – “The applicant had a very good record of service in the IRA and was looked upon as one of the most active Volunteers in the City during the campaign” (witnessed by Ned Broy). Michael Duffy, former Captain of E Coy and National Army Provost Marshal, wrote “…I know [Slattery] to be one of the best fighting Volunteers in Dublin.” But there is a longer list of his O/Cs over the years who were no longer around to provide references. Capt. Thomas Weafer, Thomas MacDonagh, Dick McKee, Mick McDonnell, Tom Kehoe – all were dead or out of the fight by the end of 1922. But Slattery had survived, despite his serious wound and damage to his general health.

Later life

With the loss of one hand Jim could never use his fine wood-working skills again. Dumped by the Army, he subsequently moved back to farm at Bodyke in his native county. He returned to Dublin in 1931 when he married Mary A. Kelly from Fairview. The couple had probably met back in 1924 while Slattery lived at Specky Griffin‘s mother’s house in Fairview. The Slatterys then bought a farm at Daars, Sallins, Co Kildare where they settled and had five children.

Jim kept in touch with his old comrades and was among those attending a 1948 dinner and presentation in honour of Mick McDonnell, first O/C of the Squad, on a return visit from his new home in the USA.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Slattery is seated on extreme right, Mick McDonnell is seated centre (The other men are listed at end below*). DF Archives on flickr.

Slattery kept a low profile as the years went by and did not feature in the media, enter politics or publish any memoirs (he did do one interview with our contributor James McCormick). But his old comrades and county-men did not lose their respect for his military service. One of two 1968 articles in the Sunday Independent and Evening Herald described him as “ramrod straight at 70” when he attended a special presentation by the Claremen’s Association in Dublin of an inscribed family crest. He told the reporter he had left his farm “for one night only”. There are some inaccuracies in both articles but they do Slattery no disservice.

He recounted his admiration for Mick Collins, who he saw for the first time passing by on his famous bicycle in Mountjoy Square. A few weeks later he’d joined Collins’ Squad and fan club. “Michael Collins was the kind of man it was easy to trust. He had a sense of purpose, confidence and dedication. If he ordered something to be done there was always a sound reason for having it done.”. The article described Slattery as a man “whose reticence and unassuming character have kept him and his record out of accounts of the Anglo-Irish war“.

He may have liked to live quietly at home in later years, but he did attend various other commemorations and reunions. Here are two pictures of an elderly but spry looking Jim Slattery.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Jim, centre with Dick Mulcahy (right) and Mgr. Hamilton, Nenagh, Co Tipp at the 1968 dinner.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

With East Clare Brigade, 1968 – Jim is seated on extreme left. Clare Library

In May 1973 Jim Conroy and Vinny Byrne dropped in to see him during Conroy’s last known visit to Ireland. No doubt there were some great tales swapped among such famous Tan War company. Conroy wrote on the back of the photo “With best wishes to my good friend, Jim Slattery“.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Jim Slattery (2nd left), Vinny Byrne & Jim Conroy, Sallins, May 1973 (courtesy of Dan Moore via Gary Deering)

Jim had become a widower 10 years before, in 1963. He passed away himself on 11 November 1974 at the age of 77 and was buried in St. Corban’s Cemetery, Naas, Co Kildare. In keeping with his low profile, the Clare Champion was the only Irish newspaper to publish an obituary marking the end of the remarkable life of the quiet, smiling assassin from East Clare. To this writer, that was a surprisingly poor national response to the death of an outstanding Irish fighting man who gave so much service – and one hand – to his country.

But a famous old military proverb says “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away“. Maybe Colonel James Joseph Slattery would have preferred to go that way.

Des White

[Dedicated to the memory of another special Clare person – Maggie (O’Sullivan) White, 12 Oct 1953 – 7 Dec 2001].

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*Footnote – Men in 1948 photo above:

Standing (L-R): Frank Bolster, Ben Byrne, Frank Saurin, Joe Guilfoyle, Pat McCrea, Barney McMahon, Charlie Dalton, Joe Leonard, Sean Ó Tuama and Jimmy Shiels.

Sitting: Vinny Byrne, Piarais Beaslaí, Michael McDonnell, Frank Thornton and Jim Slattery

All had served with GHQ Intelligence, the Squad or Dublin Brigade.