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.
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.
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 and the grown-up males were working on the quays.
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 Volunteers and the Rising
He 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. He was retained there and subsequently fought 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 Tom Ennis, also freed that month.
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.
Released from Kilmainham at the general amnesty in December 1921, Chris kept up his IRA involvement.
References in his Military Pension files say that Chris Byrne was always available for duty and earned recognition as an active Volunteer.
Civil War Service
He enlisted in the National Army on 5 April 1922 at Beggars Bush, at the rank of 1st Lieutenant in the Military Police.
Byrne 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.
Chris was demobbed on 7 March 1924, perhaps suggesting some involvement with the Army Mutiny. But 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.
An immigrant in London
Sometime after, Byrne 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.
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 by 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.
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 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 kid brother in more than a decade devoted to his country’s independence. That is where the military pension file closes.
So Chris Byrne’s story does not appear to have a happy ending.
We are left to speculate whether the condition causing his death resulted from hardships during his IRA service. Irregular meals and poor food affected the health of many active volunteers. And 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 3 different versions of his last home address.
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.
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.