Part 1: Background and Context

Like so many other Irish people, some Old IRA members took the well-worn path of emigrants in the 1920s and 1930s.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

We have previously written about two men involved in the Burning who left for the USA. And mentioned Mick McDonnell, a former comrade (and half-brother of Tom Kehoe) who also went there. All three emigrated in very different circumstances.

Let’s take a look at the other Custom House prisoners who left Ireland in a mini-series of articles.

Just to put things in context, here is a very simplistic overview of the times involved (This writer is open to expert comments or corrections!).

The Irish One-way Ticket – Leaving the Old Sod

It hardly needs saying that Irish Independence did not change the continuing reality for thousands of Irish folk forced overseas for a decent life.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
An image closely associated with Ireland from bygone eras

Mass emigration, featuring icons such as coffin ships, steerage berths and the cross-channel mailboat, had been a fact of life on the island of Ireland for many generations before 1922.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The mailboat leaving Dun Laoghaire (NLI)

There was also a long history of defeated ‘Rebels’ – political refugees – being exiled or leaving the country. Famous episodes included the Flight of the Earls (1607), the Wild Geese (1691), the Young Irelanders (1848) and the Fenians (1860s). In the late 1800s the favoured destination became America where John Devoy, Joe McGarrity and others in Clan na Gael worked to support Irish independence. This continued into the 20th century. One notable republican who left for the USA after the 1916 Rising was Liam Mellows. And of course Ernie O’Malley travelled there in later times.

New state, added problems

As the Free State struggled into being, one massive problem was economic. The country was broke after the calamitous Civil War. Further destruction of property and infrastructure had been heaped on that caused during the war with Britain. Re-building was essential and thousands of compensation claims had to be settled.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Cork city centre in ruins following reprisals by crown forces, December 1920
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Small part of damage to O’Connell Street, Dublin caused by National Army
Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Train derailed by anti-Treaty IRA, Co Wexford 1922

As a result, the government needed to borrow heavily. The Budget was in deficit until 1931. Other costs to the exchequer were World War I debts and land annuity payments enforced by Britain under the Treaty. Revenue collection was difficult, in some districts impossible. Lawlessness and land agitation afflicted several areas.

This chaos added to traditional economic weaknesses in the 26 counties. Centuries of British rule had resulted in a historic lack of investment, suppression of certain activities (e.g. fishing) and a tiny industrial base. Agriculture had its share of problems too. In addition, the country had few recognised natural resources and little indigenous wealth.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Railway Street in “Monto”, Dublin inner city

Living conditions in the squalid Dublin tenements remained appalling. Rates of unemployment and poverty were extremely high. Many families had lost breadwinners in the Great War, 1916, the War of Independence or Civil War. Times were tough and wages low for ordinary working folks. In rural areas things were not much better. In fact in 1925 there was almost a famine in the west where some people actually died from malnutrition.

Also, the economy suffered as many affluent unionists, former crown servants and RIC left the country, taking their money or pensions with them. The spending power of the British garrisons was also gone. Freedom came at a price in more than blood!

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The Cabinet of Cumann na Gaedhal – that party ruled the Free State from 1922-1932

Finally, rigid economic policies – including austerity – applied by Cosgrave’s arch-conservative government further stalled the economy leading to recession.

Sinn Féin? Ourselves Alone in a World Gone Mad…..

So that combination of circumstances meant economic stagnation and extremely limited employment prospects. That was before even bigger concerns emerged – the Crash of 1929 and the worldwide Great Depression.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
First Fianna Fáil cabinet, 1932

Then Dev’s Economic War with Britain in the 1930s made things worse.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Start of trade war, 1932

It produced the classic Irish catchphrase this writer’s father enjoyed using all his life – “Burn everything English except their coal”. The trade war ended in 1936 when both sides scrapped punitive tariffs on each other’s exports. Neither had won a definitive victory but ordinary folks in Ireland and Britain had been hit while it lasted.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Trade war end, 1936

Not too long after came The Emergency. Irish economic woes increased. Industrial wages fell, food prices rose and some items were rationed or disappeared from sale. But WWII provided even more reasons or opportunities to leave Ireland. Work in British factories or service with Allied forces attracted many thousands. The population of independent and neutral Eire, while spared the worst horrors experienced elsewhere, learned we could not stand aloof from global economic and political forces. As a small, open economy, the country remains, to this day, highly sensitive to external forces.

Shadows Over Former Gunmen

Former Pre-Truce (Old) IRA, in particular, were badly affected in the aftermath of the Civil War. Most pro-Treaty Tan War veterans serving with the National Army were quickly demobbed, albeit with pensions for most. Some were looked after with state jobs. But anti-Treaty men were left to fend for themselves, many after suffering hardships during internment.

Former IRA members (and Cumann na mBan) were effectively rewarded or deprived by successive Irish governments. Military pensions or government patronage like public service jobs, could either be available or closed off, depending on which faction was in power.

After Fianna Fáil took over in 1932, anti-Treaty IRA men and women were finally entitled to pensions under the 1934 Military Pensions Act. On the other hand, some pro-Treaty men lost public service jobs after the regime changed. But all that came too late for many ordinary soldiers on both sides of the Treaty divide, even some neutrals. They had already fallen on hard times, some in poor health from the Tan War. There were several very stark and tragic cases among 1916 men, as outlined here.

Political or Economic Refugees?

Obviously individual cases differ but it is likely one or both of those considerations affected the men we will look at.

At one end of the scale, a small number of Old IRA had difficulties adapting to peacetime and made bad decisions leading to crime and, in a few cases, convictions and jail. They may have felt very uncomfortable in Ireland or were actually wanted men.

Many more just could not find any regular work to support themselves and their families. In a case familiar to this writer, James ‘Red’ Wilson*, a Mendicity 1916 veteran, Fingal Brigade Tan War volunteer and National Army NCO was forced to move to England on the eve of WWII to maintain his family in Santry. His first job was building RAF bases. The Wilsons were separated, except for brief annual holiday visits, for more than 30 years till he managed to retire and return home in 1962 (Only to die in a road accident five years later). James Wilson was far from the only Old IRA man forced through such an experience.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
James ‘Red’ Wilson (1897-1967) and National Army comrades post Civil war (courtesy Emmet Wilson)
Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Those impressive awards could not pay the bills in the Free State (courtesy Emmet Wilson)

For others, fighting old comrades may have been too traumatic for them to stick around. In some cases, it may have been too dangerous. They were violent times and old scores were being settled. For example, having returned after the end of the Civil War from a brief exile in England, anti-Treaty man Noel Lemass met a terrible end at the hands of Free State agents.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
A notorious murder of an anti-Treaty IRA man by dark forces of the Free State, 1923

Some Republicans may have been sickened at the sight of Free State ‘traitors’ in power, while others refused to live under any other law than the Republic for which they’d fought.

And even some pro-Treaty men felt disillusioned with the new state. This had first manifested itself in the 1924 Army Mutiny, emerging again later with the growth of the Army Comrades Association, the reactionary Blueshirts.

You could say quite a few found Ireland was No Country for Old IRA Men.

Impact on the Custom House Fire Brigade

Of course the men who had carried out the Burning were not immune to the problems outlined above. Of the 98 Custom House prisoners, 13 took the boat across the Irish Sea or a liner to the New World.

As far as we know the following left Ireland for Britain to live and work there till the end of their days:

It seems a sad irony their adopted land had to be that of their old foes. Worse, when they arrived, hostility towards Irish immigrants was common among many English as a fall-out from the War of Independence and, later, Eire’s neutrality in WWII.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
A typical transatlantic ship, this one taken by Custom House Man Michael Duggan in 1926.

But North America was the main destination for emigrating Custom House men. At least eight made new lives for themselves in the United States:

One other man captured on 25 May 1921 is known to have died while living overseas and was buried in his new home, Spain – Cecil Malley (possibly the least well-known active brother of Ernie O’Malley).

That adds up to a total of fourteen, representing one in seven of the Custom House prisoners who are buried overseas (Two or three others did pass away across the water during visits but were resident in Ireland and are buried here).

This mini-series will begin with the men who moved to our neighbouring island.

Chris (Christy) Byrne from East Wall will feature in the first story.

Des White

*James Wilson shot this writer’s grandfather, RIC Sgt. Stephen Kirwan 58582, in an ambush at O’Connor’s Pub, Ballyboughal, north Co Dublin on 18 April 1921. The policeman and Swords Coy IRA Capt. Peter White (no relation) died of wounds the day after the incident. 96 years later I met Emmet, the son of James Wilson. But that’s another tale…. D.W.