Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Three themes seem to recur in Phil’s story – Christmas time, railways and wars involving England.

  • His life began and ended during the festive season
  • Train stations determined his birthplace and how he died
  • The complicated relationship between Ireland and Britain had a huge impact on his life.

As a young lad, Phil may have dreamed of becoming a train driver, who knows. Instead, life brought him greater adventures in which he, literally, reached great heights.

After military service in three wars, Phil met his end in quite unusual and sad circumstances.


Philip Christopher Flynn arrived to Patrick and Kate (Donoghue) on 27 December 1899 in Swellan, Co Cavan. His middle name celebrated the holy feast day two days before, as was the custom.

The father worked as a Railway Ganger on the Midland & Great Western Railway, running through Swellan (part of Cavan Town) from Mullingar to join the Great Northern line to Clones.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
A familiar place to Phil in his youth (www.cavanwalkinghistory.ie)

Phil’s mother was Patrick’s second wife, he was a widower with 2 surviving children. The couple went on to have many more as the breadwinner’s job moved around the rail network.

The Flynns became very well-travelled. If they had followed GAA sports, their inter-county rivalries would have been spectacular. The family comprised 5 Brefni; 1 from the Royal County, 2 Rossies, 3 Tribesmen and a Jack!

Over the years, they lived in tiny places such as Hill of Down, Slaveen and Attymon – all train stops. In 1912 the father’s job brought them to Dublin City. They settled at Clarke’s Cottages, Lower Summerhill, where the last child, Vincent, was born in 1915.

Military Career

Phil’s granddaughter and Group member Margaret Pingram says he attended O’Connell’s Schools which produced a long list of republicans. He joined them in 1917, becoming a member of his local Volunteers, E Coy, 2nd Battalion on Intelligence work. Their area was the docklands where many railway lines terminated. Young Flynn worked as a goods checker there, so had good knowledge of British movements and weapons coming into the country. The rail yards and stores proved good hunting grounds for E Coy through raids for useful materiel or to destroy supplies for the military.

Tom Ennis’ E Coy was very active and Flynn took part in all their major operations, including the big April 1921 attack on the Auxy Q Coy base at the North Wall.

At the Burning and After

Phil was of course involved in the even larger Custom House operation. He became one of the many prisoners taken to Arbour Hill Detention Centre and subsequent internment in Kilmainham Gaol. His photo was among those taken in the place using the Custom House Fire Brigade’s secret camera. The image is preserved in Cyril Daly’s autograph book kept in the Gaol’s Museum.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Phil Flynn’s photo and autograph (Kilmainham Gaol Museum)

Flynn was released in the General Amnesty on the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 6 December 1921.

Civil War

When the IRA split over the Treaty in early 1922, Phil followed the line taken by the majority of 2nd Battalion whose O/C was Tom Ennis, fiercely loyal to Michael Collins and pro-Treaty.

Flynn became a Company Sergeant Major with the National Army’s Dublin Guards (Infantry), on Intelligence duties. He appears in the November 1922 Army Census at Marlborough Hall, Glasnevin, his entry noting he was “absent, on leave”. He stayed in the Army after the Civil War. Margaret tells us he served with GHQ under Col. (later Lt. General) M. J. Costello, Intelligence Director, National Army.  

Marriage and Family

In early 1924 he was in Reask, Co Cavan, just south-east of his hometown, Cavan. The address appears on the marriage record for Phil and his bride, Mary (May) Doyle of 15 Summer Place, Summerhill. His photo from that happy day, 24 January in the Pro-Cathedral, is shown below.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Phil in 1924 (courtesy of the Flynn family)

He was discharged from the Army that April. The newly-weds settled in Summerhill and started a family. Phil worked as a civil service clerk for many years but as time went by his family fell on hard times.

When The Emergency (WWII) occurred, Phil rejoined the Irish Defence Forces in a Quarter Master role. However, granddaughter Aishling Flynn says he was discharged with pay over an incident of a fairly minor nature.

In the spring of 1940, the Flynns lost both parents, Patrick and Kate within 7 weeks of each other.

Another Move, Another War

Two years later as the War still raged, Phil Flynn took a major life-changing decision. He went to Belfast and volunteered with the Royal Air Force, service number 1902201. Family lore says he walked all the way from Dublin; it was the only way he could make the trip because they were so short of money.

Flynn joined thousands of other men and women from neutral Eire who enlisted with the British military to fight the Nazis. There are probably almost as many reasons for them doing so as there were people involved. Some sought adventure, others wanted to fight for good against evil, there were those following vocations like nursing and a large proportion had economic motives.

Phil happened to join RAF Bomber Command in the same year it got a new ruthless and single-minded commander, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris. Most Readers will know the RAF flew night bombing raids over Occupied Europe. Having learned they could not find precise targets, Harris ordered relentless nightly area bombing of German cities.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
An RAF Lancaster over Hamburg, 1944 – such raids had started the year Phil joined up.
(Imperial War Museum’, Public Domain).

The Lancaster Bomber

When that campaign began in 1942, the RAF had advanced bombers, especially the Avro Lancaster, a British WWII icon.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

The ‘Lanc’ was a four-engine heavy bomber usually crewed by seven. A formidable weapon at the time – 8 machine guns, typical bomb load over 6 tons, range 2,500 miles (4,300 km), top speed 280 mph (450 km/h), service ceiling 23,500 feet (8,160 m).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
One of the two Lancasters still flying today (https://www.flickr.com/photos/davecgray/9649901010/)

But German defences at the time were lethal – flak anti-aircraft guns, radar, searchlights and ground-controlled night fighter aircraft. Those threats began after crossing the coastline of Nazi-Occupied Europe. There were successive defensive belts, covering the bombers’ routes out and back. Other hazards included bad weather, engine failures and collision with other planes or high terrain.

Phil Flynn found himself pitched into that maelstrom.

Air Gunner Flynn

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Phil wore this style of badge on his tunic
(Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license).

Says Phil’s granddaughter, Group Member Margaret Pingram “My uncle told me [Phil] had a stint as a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber but didn’t finish his [tour of 30 operations].  His nerves got the better of him……..”

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
A thoughtful-looking Lancaster gunner.
(Photo CH 12776, Imperial War Museums, Public Domain).

Known as ‘Tail-end Charlies’, rear gunners had the lowest survival rate among Bomber Command crews. They manned a powered turret with 4 machine guns. Phil would have loved just one at the Custom House! But they were only rifle (.303 inch/17mm) calibre compared to a Luftwaffe fighter’s 20 or 30mm cannons, capable of shredding a bomber with a few shell hits.

The fighters were small, fast-moving and agile, very difficult targets. The big bombers lumbering on straight courses were all-too-easy to see and hit.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Gun turret of the type Phil operated (Wikiwand.com/en/Tail_gunner).

3,249 Lancaster bombers were lost in action or accidents. Overall, 45% of Bomber Command crew were killed. More than 55,500 lives, including 20,000 rear gunners. Average life expectancy was very short indeed.

There are some striking descriptions of rear gunners’ experiences (examples here and here).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Lanc rear gunner fully kitted-up (imgur.com).

They often felt the burden of protecting their crewmates from an enemy who usually attacked from behind and below. Eyes peeled at all times for danger, with lingering views of other planes going down and infernos below.

Most survivors became hardened to the horrors, but some were deeply affected.

Phil and the rest had to go through that night after night for 8 hours plus – if they avoided death, injury or bail-out and capture.

That was the scenario Flynn decided to leave.

Out of a Furnace…..

The following is not an attempt to justify his decision. The man needs no defending by the likes of this writer! I’ve read extensively about the bombing campaign and find it hard to grasp how so few bomber men did quit. So, some context for Phil Flynn’s decision to leave that battle may be useful.

RAF aircrew were volunteers, entitled to quit if they wanted – in theory. Yet, if you did, you were branded as LMF, a tactic devised by top brass to keep men fighting at all costs. So discipline was harsh. You would be immediately taken out of your squadron, usually demoted, assessed and, maybe, reassigned.

But let’s try looking at Flynn’s choice from his viewpoint. It must take guts to declare you can’t go on, knowing your reputation, career and pay will suffer. He showed a type of moral courage actively suppressed in a war machine demanding the British ‘stiff upper lip‘.

It illustrated not only his human frailty but humanity as well. After all, as a husband and father in his 40s, what good would dying a ‘reluctant hero’ do his family? He may also have worried he might break down on a bombing raid, causing death for himself and his crew.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Phil, seated extreme left, with his Lancaster crew (courtesy of the Flynn family)

He didn’t hide from a very uncomfortable personal reality and was honest enough to say “enough”.

Let’s not forget Phil Flynn had served in two previous conflicts. He had volunteered for RAF service and did actually fly some missions, each one potentially his last. He owes nobody any apology.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The rear gunner in this Stirling bomber was killed by a nightfighter, a fate Phil could easily have shared. (75nzsquadron.wordpress.com)

His War Continues

After leaving flying duties, he “was sent to Stornaway on the Isle of Lewis to work on the radar there.” (Margaret Pingram).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Phil’s new posting shown in red (adapted from https://www.vecteezy.com/Vectors by Vecteezy)

The RAF must have held Flynn in some regard as he was retained and posted to a responsible job while he recuperated from his traumatic bombing experiences. Even if it was in the very remote Outer Hebrides (RAF-style ‘punishment’?), but Stornoway played a role in the Battle of the Atlantic. Again, he was looking out for enemy aircraft. This time with radar, designed to protect far more people than his six former crewmates.

“He did get a good conduct medal while in the RAF.” (Margaret Pingram).

But, most importantly to Phil and his family, it meant he survived the war with honour.

… Via Peacetime…..

To quote his granddaughter Margaret again: “At the end of the war I think [Phil] went to Liverpool to help with the demobbing of men.”

He remained in the RAF in a clerical role, continued to live in England and visited his family in Summerhill annually on leave for Summer holidays and Christmas time.

…Into a Different Fire

Phil’s native Dear Old Dirty Dublin may not have been a paradise in those post-war days, but Britain was in some ways worse. They may have ‘won the war’ but the country was bankrupt, owed huge war debts, had massive housing shortages (half a million destroyed in air raids), high unemployment, thousands of de-mobbed servicemen and women looking for work and huge social upheaval. Plus, Irish living in Britain then were not exactly welcome, even if they had served during the war. It was a time of austerity and economic restraint too. And the Empire which had made Britain a superpower really began to crumble with India’s independence in 1947.

After all the suffering, deprivation, destruction of cities and loss of life during the conflict, the peace was still tough for ordinary folks in Britain. For example, food rationing continued and good quality meals were not always available, especially in cafes. Possibly the key factor in Phil Flynn’s fate?

The Beginning of His End

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Philip Flynn, summer 1948 (courtesy of the Flynn family)

Phil had been home in the summer of 1948. A few months later, in Christmas Week, he began a familiar journey he’d taken for many years – to spend the festive season at home in Dublin. A train to Holyhead and boat for Ireland. He was no doubt looking forward to seeing his wife and family, bringing presents home and sitting down to a hearty, home-cooked Christmas dinner. His granddaughter, Group member Aishling Flynn recalls her grandmother May, Phil’s widow, always making sure they had a good meal and treats at Christmas.

On Phil’s way home he ate fish and chips at a London railway station. He didn’t feel well after but continued on to arrive home on 23 December. However, he was still feeling unwell.

A Fatal Meal

In fact unknown to anyone, something lethal had affected him. On St Stephen’s Day he passed away at home, 29 Summer Place, Summerhill. An inquest found he had died as a result of “poisoning from food eaten in England sometime prior to 23 December”. The Dublin papers reported the tragedy.

The Last Christmas

Philip Christopher Flynn was one day short of his 49th birthday. What should have been a time of great family excitement and celebration – his homecoming, Christmas and birthday – turned into devastation for the family. Their death announcement paid tribute to the Aircraftman Grade 1 of Volunteer Reserve, R.A.F. and late member E Coy, 2nd Batt, Dublin Brigade. His requiem mass was held in the same church where he and May had married 24 years previously, the Pro-Cathedral. He was laid to rest in Glasnevin Cemetery on Wednesday 29 December.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Phil and May Flynn’s headstone in Glasnevin, plot WF70, St Paul’s section

Coincidences and Ironies

We have seen how Phil’s dates of death and birth were consecutive and that railways featured in both events. Unusual.

He was associated with two icons of conflict in different spheres. At home in Ireland the Burning of the Custom House; and two decades later over Europe in the Lancaster bomber. Remarkable.

But there were also a few sad ironies in his life and death.

He’d been a kid in Dublin when the Proclamation was read in 1916. But sadly he did not survive to see the Free State/Eire declaring itself a Republic and quitting the Commonwealth (in the year after his death). Hopefully, Phil would have been happy about that. After all, he’d followed Collins’ pro-Treaty philosophy of Freedom to Achieve Freedom which eventually produced some political result. In name anyway.

The saddest twist was that a man who’d survived military service in the War of Independence, Civil War and World War II was laid low by an ordinary, normally enjoyable meal.

He’d relied on England for his livelihood for some years, only for something as ‘classically English’ as fish and chips to prove fatal.

And, after enduring war and austerity in the 1940s, his early death meant he missed out on the prosperity which Britain enjoyed in the following decade.

Remembrance and Legacy

May Flynn brought up her family as a widow and moved to live in Finglas. She passed away in 1986. The family continues to keep her and Phil’s memory alive and we are delighted that two granddaughters are stalwart members of the Commemoration Group since its beginning. Margaret Pingram and Aishling Flynn regularly attend the annual event at the Custom House and proudly laid the wreath for the deceased IRA in 2013.

The week just passed marked 120 years since the birth of Philip Christopher Flynn and the 71st anniversary of his death.

Food for Thought, Maybe…

As we enjoy our Christmas holidays in peaceful times, maybe we can join with Phil’s descendants in raising a toast to his memory. Life today is far from perfect. But we enjoy our freedom. Without the bravery and sacrifices of volunteers like Phil Flynn, our country, Europe and the world might be far, far darker places under jackboot rule. And we definitely wouldn’t be reading stories like this.

Des White

Thanks to Margaret and Aishling for photos and assistance with this article. All opinions and any errors/omissions above are solely those of the writer.

BTW: Just in case anyone hasn’t guessed, the counties referred to by nicknames above are: Cavan, Meath, Roscommon, Galway and, last and greatest, Dublin.

Season’s greetings and best wishes for the New Year to all our Readers. And a big thanks for your support, comments and interest – from all the Team.