Updated, March 2020: Following the original article we were contacted by a grandnephew of Sean’s. Lt. Col. Oliver Dwyer was O/C 16th Infantry Group, Defence Forces just home after a tour with UNDOF, Golan Heights, Syria. Ollie very kindly shared much new material, now incorporated below.

Following the early deaths of Custom House men Patrick Reilly, Tom Kehoe and George Gray recounted elsewhere on the site, the next to leave this life was John (Sean) Dwyer, more usually known by his nickname ‘Joe Spivis’ or just ‘Spivis’.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Similarly to Gray, Dwyer passed away at a young age from natural causes and was buried with no publicity. It is not clear if his previous military service with the Dublin Brigade and Squad was recognised by many at the time of his early death in 1926.


John Joseph Dwyer (spelled Dwyre) was born on 8 September 1899 in the rural townland of Emlagh Beg, halfway between Castlerea and Roscommon Town, Co Roscommon. His father, also John, a small farmer and his mother Margaret, originally Keher, were both Rossie folks from the parish of Dunamon. Sean arrived towards the end of a family of 12 children, 9 of whom survived infancy. Incidentally their paternal grandad Luke Dwyer lived in the house with them until 1904 when he passed away close to 100 years of age. Sadly Sean did not inherit anything like that longevity.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Where Sean was born (From www.townlands.ie)

Moves to Dublin

Because of his place in the family, Sean was never going to inherit the family farm. Moving away in his late teens was the only prospect for him unless he was allowed stick around working the land for his father or eldest brother. That was rarely sustainable or tolerable in those days when everyone had to pull their weight. So, after finishing school locally Sean made his way to Dublin, probably post-1916, where he found work as a Pawnbroker’s assistant.

Joins the IRA

He became involved with the Volunteers as a member of H Coy, 1st Battalion. There is not a lot of information available about his activities, but what can be found in BMH Witness Statements and British sources is pretty interesting. Spivis was almost certainly involved in the cheeky, spectacular and bloodless King’s Inns raid by the full squad of H Coy on 1 June 1920. The 25-strong military garrison was disarmed and their weapons were captured. A certain Kevin Barry took part and carried away a Lewis machine gun or two. That led to the British withdrawing outlying small garrisons or sentries and concentrating their troops in the many large barracks ringing the city. The following year, who knows but it may also have had some residual effect when a decision was made to withdraw a small military guard in the Custom House not too long before the IRA attack on 25 May?

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Memorial plaque to Kevin Barry

Minor ambush, major legacy

However, the next operation in which Dwyer is specifically identified is historically far more significant because of the highly controversial aftermath and its impact on public opinion. That was the ill-fated ambush of a military party on 20 September 1920 at Monk’s Bakery, Church Street when, this time, Dwyer’s 18 year-old comrade Kevin Barry was not so lucky. Sean Dwyer and the other Volunteers involved managed to escape. But young Barry was captured and subsequently hanged to the outrage of Irish people at home, the diaspora overseas and others around the world watching the Irish situation (BMH.WS1154, from page 7).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Military raid report on Sean’s arrest

His first arrest

A few months later on the night of 26 November 1920, Sean was arrested with 3 housemates and co-workers during a raid by the Royal Berkshire Regiment on their lodgings above a licensed pawnshop owned by Mrs Catherine E. Mooney at 10 Lombard Street. The military discovered “two copies of An tÓglach and various other papers” – seditious literature to the British. Possession was an offence under the draconian Restoration of Order in Ireland Regulations (ROIR). The four men – Dwyer, Jack Cummins, Joseph Halpin and Joseph Donnelly – all Pawnbroker’s assistants – were remanded in custody in Mountjoy Jail. Sean was recorded aged 22 with brown hair, grey eyes and a fresh complexion. The four were later handed over to the the military and unconditionally discharged in mid-January 1921.

Active once again

Dwyer says in his Pension Application he joined the Squad after release from jail. He featured as a key participant in the IRA raid on Keegan’s Gunshop, at the corner of Chancery Street-Inn’s Quay on 28 March 1921 (BMH.WS1153). The opportunity came about owing to his occupation and his well-known curiosity. His Company Lieutenant Sean O’Neill accompanied Spivis when he went to pay his union dues on Easter Sunday (as you did back then!). The trade union office was above the gunshop and, climbing the stairs, they found piles of parcels which Spivis poked into and discovered were stuffed with shotgun cartridges. This they reported to their Battalion HQ and H Coy was detailed to commandeer the ammunition, 20,000 rounds in all. Next day, no less than fifty men were mobilised to take the materiel away and provide protection on its journey all the way to a dump beyond Phibsborough. This was on Easter Monday afternoon, the 5th anniversary of the Rising – a nice touch!

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Crown forces very close to raid target (OSI Maps)

Adding excitement was the location of the shop, not far from the Bridewell police station, base for DMP and a unit of Auxies. Within sight of the military guard at the gate of the Four Courts – during broad daylight. One IRA man engaged the sentry in long-winded chatter while Spivis was among the handful who took out the parcels and loaded them onto a van. Despite a close shave when six British Military Police passed by, the ammo was conveyed safely to the dump and all the IRA got away too (O’Neill also mentions an amusing incident on the way home involving himself, two comrades and, bizarrely, an Auxy wearing white rubber shoes!).

Squad service

Sean was on duty with the Squad in the Custom House on 25 May 1921. He was among the 80-plus IRA men arrested, taken to Arbour Hill Detention Barracks and then interned in Kilmainham Gaol before the general release in December. According to Peadar O’Farrell of D Coy, Spivis shared Cell 34, Section 1 with Tom Kehoe. That turned out to be an ill omen, as both cellmates were to die within the space of a short few years.

Later life

What happened to Sean Dwyer for some time after his release from internment in 1921 appeared lost to history. There seemed no record of the man until the release of the Brigade Activity Reports on the Military Archives site. On a 1935 IRA list of Custom House prisoners, a John Dwyer was marked deceased. Another trawl through deaths revealed that life for him had gone full-circle. Having returned home to Emlagh Beg, Sean died aged 27 on 19 July 1926. A sad irony – in the middle of an Irish summer, a Squad veteran and survivor of two wars was killed by Influenza and Pneumonia. It seemed incredible. But confirmation came from his brother-in-law’s unusual name on the record. The man who died was indeed John ‘Spivis’ Dwyer.

Sean was unmarried but surely not unmourned.  He passed away surrounded by his parents and other close family (His elderly father John died within 2 years, while his mother lived to 1943). He was buried in Oran Cemetery and we now have a photo of his headstone. His inscription reveals he was known as Jack to his family.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Headstone at Oran, Co Roscommon (Oliver Dwyer)

It seem none of his old IRA comrades were there, nor any military honours at his graveside. At least they did not forget his part in the War of Independence and added his name to the membership rolls in 1935.

No trace of a newspaper death announcement or obit has been found. After the IRA career he’d had it seems scarcely credible his death went unreported in the press. But apparently so.

New Information

Now, thanks to Oliver Dwyer we can fill in the gap in Sean’s life. He enlisted with the 2nd Western Division of the National Army at Roscommon Barracks in January 1922. He served as a Captain during the Civil War under Comdt. General Tony Lawlor “all through the West of Ireland”. Spivis added he “got a serious injury there, to his head”. His demobilisation on 7 March 1924 was processed at Harepark Internment Camp (Curragh). He was awarded a gratuity and a military pension for 8 years service. Sadly, Spivis did not live to collect; it was paid, posthumously, to his father in 1927.

Sean Dwyer’s pension application also mentions being at Mount Street on Bloody Sunday 1920; the shooting of a spy (the porter Peter Doran) at the Wicklow Hotel; ASU and Squad ambushes during the Tan War; and the famous capture of the armoured car for the attempted rescue from Mountjoy Jail of Sean MacEoin on 14 May 1921. His references include tributes from fellow Custom House Fire Brigade men Mick Love and Peter Ratcliffe. Another, from Capt. M. Higgins, says He was a good man all through the trouble.

In civilian life Sean played GAA club football. A team mate was his brother Paddy, Oliver Dwyer’s grandfather. Paddy is pictured as captain of the 1918 Roscommon senior football champions, Donamon Stars. You may just make out the ‘IV’ embroidered on the jerseys, referencing the Irish Volunteers.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Donamon Stars GFC 1918 (Courtesy Oliver Dwyer)

Sean was a player in subsequent years when they retained the championship in 1919/20 and 1925. Oliver adds the last title was won against the Army Garrison team (3 Battalion) then stationed in Boyle (the unit is now based in Kilkenny).

Oliver also supplied a pension board statement by his grandfather which tells of the aftermath in Roscommon of his brother’s arrest at the Burning. The Dwyer home place was raided several times and threats made it would be burned and “the liver cut out of him”. He escaped thanks to a tip-off from a sympathetic local RIC man and survived by going on the run till after the Truce.

Another sad, untimely end for a Custom House Fire Brigade man. But we can end this story on a less depressing note.

That Nickname – Joe Spivis?

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Sean/Spivis page in the autograph book (Kilmainham Gaol Museum)

One of the first items connected to Sean Dwyer this writer came across was his photo taken in Kilmainham. He signed the page in Cyril Daly’s autograph book “John Dwyer alias Spivis or Spiers”. But there were too many John Dwyers and no sign of the other names in any records. That was where our friend John Dorins came in and simply Googled “Joe Spivis”. The result was surprising…..

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Jeff with Joe Spivis

Readers over a certain age may remember the Mutt and Jeff” American cartoon strip by Bud Fisher in some papers here. This writer does, but hadn’t heard the two main characters had a friend named – Joe Spivis! Seems he was ‘a bit of a character’, a funny mix of cleverness and innocence who always carried a wad of cash (Mutt & Jeff were always broke). The graphics don’t show up well, but these titles may give some hints.

  • Spivis must be related to the “Master Mind”
  • Spivis is Wise to the Slackers Mutt & Jeff
  • Spivis can be Fooled Once, but That’s All
  • Spivis Cashes In on Jeff’s Clever Idea
  • Spivis Believes Everything Jeff Tells Him

Now we know where the nickname came from, all that’s left to ponder is who gave it to him and why? Seems the answer will remain secret in the grave with Sean Dwyer and his old comrades.


Des White

Dwyers Still Flying the Flag

A still from RTE showing Lt. Col. Oliver Dwyer sending Paddys’ Day greetings to home.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921