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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Then Dev’s Economic War with Britain in the 1930s made things worse.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Christopher Byrne, 45 St Mary’s Road, East Wall;
- John Doyle, 111 Philipsburgh Avenue, Fairview;
- Philip Flynn, Clarke’s Cottages, Lower Summerhill Bridge (he actually died during a visit home);
- Thomas Henry Maguire, 45B Buckingham Buildings; and
- Peter Paul O’Brien, 43 Upper Wellington Street.
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.
But North America was the main destination for emigrating Custom House men. At least eight made new lives for themselves in the United States:
- Jim Conroy, under an alias.
- Richard Downes, 11 Emerald Street, Seville Place.
- Michael Duggan, 500 North Circular Road.
- Dan Finlayson, 15 Northbrook Terrace, North Strand Road.
- Frankie Freyne (alias George Lewis, 6 St. Joseph’s Terrace, Philipsburgh Avenue).
- Robert Halpin, 24 Summerhill Parade.
- Thomas Kilmurry, 2 Luke Street.
- Bernard McGrath, 9 O’Sullivan’s Avenue, Ballybough.
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.
*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.
Comment by mel — December 8, 2019 @ 11:11 am
Des, excellent piece, thank you.
Sad but true how poorly treated the men and women were treated by the subsequent regimes in later years, hugely stoking the divisions between former comrades in the field.
I think the address for Bernard McGrath, O’Sullian Avenue is a cul de sac, off Ballybough Road
Comment by chcadmin — December 9, 2019 @ 8:13 pm
You are of course correct about the location of Bernard’s old home, I’ve changed it in the text.
All the best
Comment by Des G — December 8, 2019 @ 8:12 pm
Great article. Some observations:
It hardly seems fair to blame the treaty-based state for a reluctance to offer employment to persons who professed that state to be illegitimate and better replaced with the proclaimed republic.
Mt de Valera did his followers no good by proclaiming in March 1922 that to be a follower of his was to be prepared to “wade through the blood” of anyone associated with the treaty-based state. This, I suggest, created the proclamationist fanatic in the minds of many who did not identify as ideological republicans.
Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, the latter belatedly, seemed to grasp that declaring political independence did not, of itself, produce the circumstances for economic independence. De Valera, who by 1932 was cushioned by millions purloined from sympathisers in the USA, never seems to have grasped this fundamental reality.
England was arguably a ‘straw man’ in de Valera’s quixotic, delusional, economically self-harming ‘economic war’. The real enemy, those upon whom he most wanted to visit suffering, were members of the class that had dared to support the treaty-based state in the decisive General Election of June 1922 and had dared to support the Cumann na nGaedhal government thereafter.
de Valera, the author of the Custom House débacle, insisted during the treaty negotiations that it was better to go back to war, even without the means to wage war, rather than agree to anything less that acceptance of the proclamationist ultimatum. That remains the most profoundly, utterly, unambiguously immoral position ever adopted by an Irish elected public representative.
Comment by chcadmin — December 9, 2019 @ 8:28 pm
Thanks for your interesting inputs.
I tried to keep away from too much criticism/justification of all sides and adding too many personal opinions in the piece. Otherwise I’d still be writing it!
Reconciliation was not on the official agenda after the Civil War, so the approach adopted on military pensions is totally understandable. The Free State might have even faced a real (bloody) military coup if they had rewarded the anti-Treaty folks for pre-Truce service at the time.
As for Dev, IMHO he will always sharply divide opinion for as long as he’s remembered. Just as he did during most of his (over-) long career, as you have well illustrated.
Comment by Mike — December 9, 2019 @ 9:12 pm
Thank you, an enlightening article indeed. My father was under arms with Na Fianna Eireann with the Cork City Volunteers on Easter Sunday 1916. Little was mentioned of the years regarding war of independence or the civil war at home. I believe he was Anti-Treaty although I have little to support my belief. He came to the US in 1927 and never returned to Cork until 1959. I have no reason to believe he was “on the run” but always thought he’d seen or did something that burdened him to the day he died. He was responsible to family and provided for us during some very tough times only to die of too much smoking and drink. There are conversations I’d love to have with him today that I was too busy dealing with my own issues then. He never spoke of his involvement to family or friends – his silence is understood now after many years. It’s something I came understand dealing with my own war (Vietnam) many years after when the “quiet time” of life settled in. He passed a year after I returned and his silence and my restlessness were irreconcilable thus we never shared what we seen or did in our youth. It took me 45 years to reconcile my issues – I don’t think he had that opportunity. RIP.
This article helps me understand somewhat the period that allowed him to make the decision that allowed our family to enjoy the gifts of freedom we enjoy today. Both Mom and Pop became naturalized US Citizens in the 1930’s. We always hold our Irish roots dear to our hearts. Up-Cork! I will bookmark this for further research.
Thank you again.
Comment by chcadmin — December 10, 2019 @ 10:39 am
Thanks very much for your thought-provoking inputs.
As I’m sure you know, your father was far from alone in keeping his Old IRA experiences to himself.
The vast majority of the veterans of those times spoke only to old comrades – if they spoke at all of what they went through.
You have an added personal insight into that, after your own war experience. Something that lucky ‘armchair’ guys like me who never had to fight a war can only fail to fully understand.
Delighted to hear a little bit about your Dad’s life and your background (I’ve West Cork roots myself so I’ll only whisper Up the Dubs, haha).
You may have already checked out the online military archives about your father, but we’ll drop you an email to suggest a few ideas if that’s OK.
Take care and thank you for your interest.
Comment by Steve — December 10, 2019 @ 12:01 am
A good read thanks
The Redmonds also suffered because of WW1 despite Willie Redmonds death his family were discriminated against by the republic successive governments
One of his relatives here still in the UK
Another sad viewpoint from that era
Comment by chcadmin — December 10, 2019 @ 10:12 am
Thanks for that comment.
Although beyond the scope of our subject matter, you make a valid point.
John Redmond is still demonised by many in Ireland today.
Sometimes you’d wonder if there were many winners at all out of that period of Irish history – apart from the members of a couple of existing political elites/dynasties.