At the age of 17 IRA Engineer Dan Rooney took part in the Burning.

Many decades later he told an old Custom House comrade of an event involving him during the attack. Something he believed had triggered the alarm call to Dublin Castle, unleashing the untimely intervention by crown forces.

Could that be in any way true? Or just the exaggerations of a teenager, as his granddaughter Sharon is amused to think?

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Background – Dan’s Battalion

The Engineers Battalion was formed from members of the 4 Dublin City Battalions who had particular technical skills or trades. It was numbered the 5th Battalion with four sections, like the ASU. At the Burning as a unit the Engineers had one vital and specific mission – to cut all Custom House communications links. The men involved accomplished their task and all withdrew safely. We will write about them another time.

However several Engineers participated in the attack as individuals with their home 2nd Battalion. Some became prisoners in Kilmainham, like Thomas Bates, Myles Doody, Jack Nolan and Dan Rooney, the only one to leave us part of his story.

The Story’s Source

Another man captured was Peadar O’Farrell (aka Peter Farrell), 2nd Lieutenant, D Coy, of 2nd Battalion. According to O’Farrell the story recounted here emerged from conversations in the late 1970s/early 1980s between him and Rooney.

Peadar O’Farrell appears an interesting character who went anti-Treaty during the Civil War (unusual for a 2nd Battalion man). He maintained a lifetime fascination with the Burning up to his death in 1989. Indeed, from correspondence we have seen, you could almost say his interest bordered on obsession with that spectacular operation.

During the 1970s O’Farrell was one of many Old IRA who met and later exchanged a series of letters with an American student at Loyola University Chicago. James McCormick (now living in California) wrote his M.A. History thesis on the Custom House Burning in 1983/84. We are delighted to be in touch with James who has been extremely generous with his research archive.

The O’Farrell Letters

Two letters from O’Farrell in 1976 and 1982 recount an intriguing story he claimed Dan Rooney had told him. In the first letter O’Farrell hints that an unnamed “young engineer had been taken along by Brigade O/C Oscar Traynor for a special duty but was taken over by Comdt. Tom Ennis“. He clarifies in 1982 this man was Dan Rooney, who reported in the Custom House to his O/C Ennis. Rooney was asked why he’d been mobilised. Responding that he didn’t know, the young lad was ordered to walk up and down outside Liberty Hall. He was to report anything unusual direct to Ennis.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Extract from letter of 11 Dec 1976 (Courtesy James McCormick)

After a while Rooney spotted eight DMP come out from nearby Store Street police station. He describes them marching two-by-two in four ranks (they actually did leave for duty like that). He hurried to inform Ennis and was told “Play safety, stick them up and bring them in here”. Rooney carried out his orders and the DMP men were corralled with the rest of the staff and civilians held in the Custom House.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Elaboration in later letter from Peadar O’Farrell (Courtesy James McCormick)

At the time of the second letter, Dan Rooney had not long gone to his grave convinced this action had caused the alarm to be given to the Castle. As he saw it, the incident had taken place in full view of the police station. He certainly found a receptive audience in O’Farrell anyway who termed it “another blunder by Ennis”.

A Few Doubts

However this writer believes it worthwhile to critically review the story. Some of these points are about detail, others more general.

Firstly, Rooney’s story could be viewed as fitting almost too well with O’Farrell’s theme – conspiracy theories, criticism of the Custom House attack plan and changes made to it; and some senior officers involved, particularly Tom Ennis. To this writer O’Farrell comes across as too pleased to have heard Dan’s conclusion. However, without further context from either of them – or others – the account can only be taken at face value as a genuine belief. After all, it must be respected that both were at the Burning and carried their own memories and impressions from that famous day. There is no justification for rubbishing those.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

A DMP ‘Giant’

Secondly, this writer has difficulty accepting that a lone teenager was given the task of quietly arresting eight tall, strapping and armed DMP men. Hard to believe one kid, even if armed himself, would be capable of such a feat.

The DMP were not all entirely passive at the time. However, we do not have full details of what Dan Rooney told Peadar O’Farrell. He probably never claimed he acted without back-up.

The third question is would the arrest of the DMP men on the plaza actually have been visible from Store Street Station. Would it be possible to work out what was happening – assuming somebody in there was observing at the time? A modern street level view is shown below (Obviously the left-hand streetscape has undergone major changes over the past century). The police station had three floors so a higher perspective would have been available. The Reader is invited to form their own opinion.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Looking towards the Custom House from near Store Street Garda Station (2019).

Finally, the capture of 8 policemen is surely noteworthy. Yet it is not mentioned in any other IRA account from 25 May 1921. Nor did it emerge at the subsequent military inquiry.

Fact – the IRA did capture some DMP

But an incident of that nature did actually take place, involving 3 Store Street DMP according to themselves.

Sergeants James Hannon 12C and Martin Dreelan 16C plus one constable were ordered to the Custom House by the Station Sergeant at 1306 hours. Frustratingly their evidence at the military inquiry does not say why, but some suspicions must have arisen. Both sergeants stated that while crossing the plaza they were held up by a party of “16 to 18” armed civilians, disarmed, escorted inside and detained with the staff until the order to evacuate was given.

This is corroborated by another DMP Constable, Owen McDonald 36C. He was “on duty inside a doorway in the building when”, he claimed, “three men entered, pointed guns at him and pushed him behind a large press”. The IRA man detailed to ‘take care’ of McDonald at the Beresford Street door was none other than Jim Slattery of the Squad. In Slattery’s BMH Witness Statement, at 1255 hours he approached the constable and told him to go inside with him. This the man did reluctantly, only after being shown his gun. McDonald told the inquiry of seeing 2 or 3 other DMP among the crowd exiting after the main gun battle was over. Sergt. Dreelan said he saw and spoke with McDonald when the evacuation was in progress.

So we have the police themselves admitting to four of their number being detained. But not eight. Even allowing for any very unlikely cover-up of such a disgrace, it seems we can safely dismiss the claim of the larger number.

The IRA’s View

The event on the plaza is not included as a possible cause of the alarm among the theories put forward by the IRA. This writer has come across: a passing DMP cyclist going off duty; Inspector Feely of the DMP tipped off by a civil servant; and a senior civil servant who saw events at the Custom House. One of those supposedly made telephone contact with the Castle. However Custom House veterans who left accounts may not have wanted to highlight the possibility they shot themselves in the foot by acting so blatantly. And Rooney’s view does not conflict with the theories listed.

By the way, the fact that it took decades for Peadar O’Farrell to learn of Dan Rooney’s story reinforces something already obvious. IRA participants did not have a bird’s eye view of all the events at the Burning. All sorts of things were happening, so men went through wide-ranging experiences in localised areas inside and outside the building. They retained widely different impressions and memories.

Conclusions

In this writer’s opinion Dan Rooney’s view cannot be simply dismissed as the product of a teenager’s vivid imagination. By the time he told his story to Peadar O’Farrell, Dan was in his seventies and had had many decades to think over the events of 25 May 1921.

OK, Rooney may have exaggerated the importance of the incident. Nevertheless his view remains plausible. A round-up of three policemen by a group of civilians in broad daylight within sight of their barracks could well have triggered an alarm call from Store Street Station. Even if that wasn’t spotted from that place or elsewhere in the vicinity, it is very likely the failure of the 3 to return or report back to Store Street did raise concerns over happenings at the Custom House.

However it almost goes without saying it is highly improbable the origin of the alarm will ever be 100% identified at this remove.

Perhaps we can conclude – or debate – that:

  • Dan Rooney reported the approach of some DMP to the Custom House about 1306 hours;
  • Tom Ennis ordered their arrest;
  • Three DMP were captured on the plaza by an armed party of Volunteers, Dan Rooney among them;
  • The event may have been spotted from Store Street DMP Station or other place locally; and
  • It may have led to the alarm call to Dublin Castle at 1310 hours.

Hopefully this issue will stimulate some comments!

Daniel Rooney

Whatever about theories, one definite fact about young Rooney at the Burning is his arrest to face over 6 months detention. His photo appears in the autograph book kept by Cyril Daly (now held in Kilmainham Gaol Museum).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Daniel’s page (right) in Cyril Daly’s autograph book (Frank Carbery on left). Kilmainham Gaol Museum.

Dan was born on 6 August 1903 at the Rotunda Hospital as the first and only son of Daniel (a man of many trades over the years) and Margaret Keating of 11 Oriel Street. Growing up he gained two little sisters. The family, which included his paternal grannie, moved to Jane Place, then Newfoundland Street and later Nixon Street – all in Dublin’s Docklands. Over those years his father worked in Iron Foundries, as a Sailor and then a Crane Operator.

After schooling, Dan became a plumber. He also joined his local IRA Dublin Brigade 2nd Battalion, later assigned to the 5th (Engineers). Following his Tan War adventures when the 1922 Split came he went pro-Treaty, enlisting in the National Army at Marlborough Hall on 21 March. He is recorded as a Sergeant, Engineers Corps, Beggars Bush in the November Army Census. His home address was his parents’ house at 3 Walsh’s Terrace, Nixon Street, North Wall. The same as he gave when arrested in 1921.

Back to Civilian Life

After the Civil War Dan resumed his occupation of plumber while residing in Croydon Park, Marino. In June 1928 he married Mary Gilligan from his old locality, the Docklands. The couple had two sons and a daughter but sadly enjoyed only 10 years of life together. In 1938 Mary Rooney died from cancer aged just 31. That followed soon after the loss of Dan’s father in 1936 (His mam lived on to 1964).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Dan with his two sons on O’Connell Street. No, the men in uniform behind them are not DMP or Garda! Courtesy  Sharon Rooney.

Dan lived on Brian Avenue in Marino where as a widower he raised his small family. He never remarried yet each year he managed to take his kids on holiday to Kinncasslagh, Co Donegal. His granddaughter Sharon fondly remembers herself and her parents joining Dan in spending ‘holliers’ there and thoroughly enjoying them. The family continue to visit the place regularly. Sharon admires her grandfather Dan greatly for the fantastic job he did as a lone parent in rearing her late father Don, uncle Brendan and auntie Mabel; and also for his part in the War of Independence as a youth.

Dan Rooney went on to become a vocational teacher, lecturing on plumbing in Bolton Street Technical College until his retirement on pension.

Apart from Peadar O’Farrell, Dan kept in touch with other Old IRA comrades and attended commemorations such as one held at Kilmainham Gaol in 1970. Several other Custom House men appear with him in these great photos from the occasion.

Old IRA veterans in the stone-breakers yard, Kilmainham Gaol in 1970. Dan Rooney is 7th from left in the sheepskin coat (white lapels). Billy Doyle, Anthony Foley & Sam Robinson also appear (Courtesy Daniel Breen)

From left – 3rd Billy Doyle, 4th Anthony Flynn, 5th Sam Robinson & 7th Dan Rooney (Courtesy Des Flynn).

During the heavy snows in the severe winter of 1982 Daniel passed away aged 79 at St Vincent’s Hospital, Elm Park. His death notice recalled his active service with the Old IRA 2nd Battalion Engineers and his career teaching in Bolton Street. On 16 January he was laid to rest alongside his late wife in Glasnevin Cemetery (Plot HL141, St. Patrick’s section).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

The Rooney headstone

Sadly Dan took to the grave his experiences at the Burning without leaving a personal account. But his recollections and conclusions survive in Peadar O’Farrell’s writings.

More importantly, Daniel Rooney’s life and contribution to the struggle for independence are still fondly remembered by his descendants like granddaughter Sharon who attended Commemoration 2019 and her son Daniel, a member of our Facebook Group.

Des White

*With a nod to ‘The Fireman’s Tale’ (Kilmainham Tales Teo), the excellent book by our friend and Group member Las Fallon about Dublin Fire Brigade’s special part in the Burning. We hope to publish an article by Las in the near future.