Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

We continue our look at the Custom House Fire Brigade men who emigrated after the Burning with a Fingal man whose short life took him to London via Dublin’s Docklands and Kilmainham Gaol.

For a young man of his time, Chris (as he was known) appears to have lived an untypical settled life in old Dublin town. Records from 1911 to 1921 show he lived in the same house!

Yet that changed drastically after he’d taken the mailboat to England in his early twenties. He had several addresses in London in a few years before dying there at a young age.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Chris’s birthplace, Feltrim, is coloured blue (www.townlands,ie)

Early Life

Christopher Byrne had been born on 12 January 1898 in Feltrim, near Malahide, north Co Dublin still a rural area today. His parents John, a General Labourer and Mary née Beggs had 9 surviving children. Chris grew up with six brothers and two sisters all older than him.

UPDATE, January 2021: Gretta Smith is a descendant of the Byrnes. In a recent contact she says “they were evicted from their Labourer’s cottage in Feltim by their English landlord [and] this was what caused them to join the Republican movement”. We will hear other fascinating details from her further on below.

By 1901 the whole family had relocated to Cody’s Cottages off West Road in the Dublin Docklands and Chris attended the local East Wall school. By 1911 the family had shifted to St. Mary’s Road, off Church Road in East Wall. Son William was a Postman and the other grown-up males were working on the Liffey quays.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The Byrne family home (on right) as it is now.

After leaving school, young Chris also went to work in the port as a Goods Porter and Checker with the Midland & Great Western Railway.

The Byrnes, the Volunteers and the Rising

Chris joined E Coy, 2nd Battalion in 1915. During the Easter Rising the 18 year-old was detailed to help bring ammunition to the St Stephen’s Green garrison. Chris was retained there and subsequently was in the College of Surgeons until the Surrender and was made prisoner. Released in August 1916 after time in Stafford Jail and Frongoch, Chris may well have returned to Dublin with others from E Coy such as his older brother Joseph and Tom Ennis, also freed that month.

Gretta Smith has informed us that, in addition to young Christopher, older brothers Joseph (Gretta’s grandad) and William were active with Dublin Brigade and fought in the Easter Rising. The three East Wall Byrnes appear on the deported prisoner lists; Joseph, along with Chris, of 45 St Mary’s Road were sent to Stafford and William (who lived at 4 Smithfield Avenue, West Road) to Knutsford. We will return to the older Byrnes below.

In IRA Action

Chris Byrne rejoined his unit, attending parades and drilling and became a Section Leader. As the War of Independence progressed, he took part in armed patrols and was involved in an attack on an Auxy tender on Eden Quay in February 1921. It is said the family home was subjected to repeated raids and Chris had to go on the run. But he participated in the big 2nd Battalion attack on the Auxy base in the London & North Western Railway Hotel on North Wall, 11 April 1921.

And the following month he took part in the Custom House operation, was arrested and interned in Kilmainham Gaol. Here is a photo of him taken there.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Kilmainham Gaol Museum, Cyril Daly Autograph Book

Released from Kilmainham at the general amnesty in December 1921, Chris kept up his IRA involvement.

References in his Military Pension files (ref no. W24SP694) say that he was always available for duty and earned recognition as an active Volunteer.

Civil War Service

Chris Byrne enlisted in the National Army on 5 April 1922 at Beggars Bush, at the rank of 1st Lieutenant in the Military Police.

He served at Maryborough (now Portlaoise) Prison and then Tintown Internment Camp A at the Curragh. This posting may have come about because O/C Tintown was one of his old E Coy officers Capt. Michael Duffy (grandad of our pal, Group member Pete Duffy in Birmingham) who went on to become Provost Marshal of the Army. His rank was regraded to Company Sergeant – this was a fairly regular occurrence in the Army at the time. Ranks and organisation were a bit fluid!

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Record showing Company Sergeant Christopher Byrne at Maryborough Jail, 1922 (Military Archives)

Chris was demobbed on 7 March 1924, although as an NCO it is unlikely he was involved in the Army Mutiny. He was awarded an annual pension of £115 based on military service of eleven and a half years – almost half his lifetime at that stage.

A Nationalist Family

As mentioned above, we have recently been pointed to more information by family member Gretta Smith.

“My grandfather Joseph fought at the College of Surgeons”, says Gretta. “He served time in Stafford Jail and Frongoch. I remember he used to eat only soft or milky food because his stomach couldn’t digest anything else. He married in 1917 and moved to Boland’s Cottages, East Wall. He had a couple of small children by the time the Civil War started. I reckon my grandmother [Margaret née Moore], who was a strong woman, wouldn’t allow him participate.”

Gretta adds “[Joseph] wasn’t a fan of Michael Collins who was in Frongoch at the same time…. He said he had a bad temper and no sense of humour. The Dublin lads used to rile him so they could laugh at him going off on a rant.” Many Readers will recognise that as a commonly held view of The Big Fella’s demeanour in those early days. An impression which lasted a lifetime with some.

Joseph was not active after 1916 (according to his Military Pension files, ref. no. MSP34REF2203). Nevertheless his loyalties were clearly shown when his first son with Margaret was named Sean Heuston Byrne. The couple went on to have four more children and later lived on Thatch Road in Whitehall, Dublin. Joseph had been a Sawyer in his younger days and later worked as a Wood Machinist before retirement. “My grandfather died in 1966”, says Gretta. “I was too young then to take his stories on board”.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The resting place place of 1916 Man Joseph Byrne and his wife Margaret (Gretta Smith)

Joseph Byrne (71) was interred in Balgriffin Cemetery near Portmarnock, north Co. Dublin. At least he had lived long enough to see the 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1916 Rising in which he’d fought.

“Christopher was involved in the Custom House along with his older brother William. I know William went on to join the army and was always called ‘The Commandant’ (Gretta Smith).

William (born 1882) was by a good few years the senior of the three Byrne Volunteers and by 1906 had married Annie Montgomery. They had seven children before 1916 (two more followed and 8 in all survived childhood). He worked as a Postman, then for Dublin Port & Docks and joined the Irish Volunteers on its formation in 1913. During the Rising he fought in the O’Connell Street area under Captain Weafer (KIA)..

William was a Lieutenant with E Coy, 2nd Battalion and was elected as Coy O/C, replacing Tom Ennis who moved up to Battalion O/C. Captain Byrne took part in major Tan War local actions such as the destruction of military stores on the docks and the attack on the Auxy base on the North Wall (with younger brother Chris). He was also involved in planning the Custom House operation the following month.

He served through the Truce and in 1922 joined the National Army. Captain Byrne was in the city centre fighting at the outset of the Civil War. Later he was on GHQ staff under Gearóid O’Sullivan as a Courtmartials Officer. He later served in Collins barracks, Cork city until his resignation from the Army in 1928 at the rank of Commandant.

William Byrne lived with his wife and family in Marino, Dublin where he died suddenly in 1944 at the age of 61. He was buried in St. Dolough’s Cemetery, Malahide, north Co Dublin (Military Pension Application reference 24SP4820).

Chris Byrne, an immigrant in London

Sometime after leaving the Irish Army, Christopher decided to move to England and by 1929 was boarding at a Mrs Morrison’s, Kennington Oval, London SE11. Afterwards he seems to have moved around a bit, not managing – or choosing – to settle in one area.

In early 1932 his address was Lena Gardens, Hammersmith, W6. Not much later he shifted again, this time to Sutherland Place (or Terrace), SW1. Sadly that was to be his penultimate move.

On 10 August that year Chris Byrne took seriously ill. Brought to hospital on the Fulham Road, his condition – a bleeding ulcer – caused such concern that his family in East Wall was immediately wired with the bad news.

Family Support

It is touching to read that one of his brothers, Thomas, travelled over the following day and remained with Chris as he lay in hospital. But nothing could be done to save the younger Byrne and he passed away on the 17th. Five days later Thomas attended the burial of his kid brother in the private grave he’d purchased – plot 5202, St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green, NW10.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Kensal Green Catholic Cemetery ( http://himetop.wdfiles.com)

Christopher Byrne’s death record shows his age as 30 (he was actually 34), status unmarried, occupation Hotel Kitchen Porter. He was survived by five brothers, all living back home in East Wall.

Thomas Byrne settled Chris’s affairs. In later years he applied for the 1917-1921 Service (‘Tan War’) Medal earned by his late brother in more than a decade devoted to his country’s independence. That is where the military pension file closes.

Conclusions

So Chris Byrne’s story does not appear to have a happy ending.

We are left to wonder whether the condition causing his death resulted from hardships during his IRA service and jail time. Irregular meals and poor food affected the health of many active volunteers and conditions in captivity were harsh. And it is not known if his emigration came from disappointment with how his country turned out. Or simply and sadly down to economic necessity. Despite his sacrifices, the Free State became an economic basket case.

It looks like Chris may have led a lonely existence in London, shifting from one rented room to another in a huge city in a strange land, the base of his old foes. Showing how anonymous and unconnected he was there, records give three different versions of his last home address.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
(www.irishmedals.ie)

Perhaps the man was suffering from PTSD? Or was it a legacy of his former life on the run and he needed to keep on the move? Or was he sick for a long time, knowing he was living on borrowed time?

But that is just speculation and is not a judgement of Chris Byrne nor meant to suggest his life was tragically futile. His role as a Custom House Fire Brigade Man alone is worth far more than that.

Hopefully the family did receive his Tan War medal as a memento of their lost brother’s contribution to the Cause. They seem to have been rightly proud of Chris and still are to this day.

After all, in his own way as a soldier, he did help achieve Irish independence. What others did or didn’t do with the country’s freedom was beyond his control.

Gretta Smith is determined that the memory of her granduncle Chris, along with her grandfather Joseph and the other brother William, will not fade away. “Hopefully we will manage to visit Christopher’s grave and pay him the respect that he deserves.” We join in that sentiment and hope.

RIP, the Byrnes from Feltrim, north Co. Dublin.

Des White

Many thanks to Gretta Smith for adding substantially to our knowledge of her family’s part in the Struggle for Independence.