One of the support facilities for the large British military garrison in Dublin was their own hospital, opened in 1913.
During the War of Independence many casualties were brought there – from both sides, crown forces and captured IRA. Among the latter were three Custom House Men on 25 May. A fourth was admitted later for emergency surgery. All of them survived.
The red-bricked hospital is part of the extensive former British military enclave west of Dublin city centre. It was designed and built by the Royal Engineers to replace a much older hospital on the site. Building started in 1902 in three stages. An interesting feature was a tunnel which connected the hospital via Arbour Hill Barracks to Royal (later Collins) Barracks. The entrance is located on Montpelier Gardens, off O’Devanney Gardens.
It was originally known as Arbour Hill Military Hospital. But before completion it was renamed King George V Military Hospital (‘KGVH’) to commemorate his 1911 coronation and visit to Ireland that July.
The Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) administered the hospital and it earned a good reputation in medical circles. KGVH went on to become a leading facility in Ireland for serious wounds and head injuries, based on extensive experience.
It was used for some of the 20,000 wounded soldiers, most originally from Ireland, evacuated here from the Western Front in WW1. The original capacity of 102 beds was quadrupled to cope with the demand.
KGVH may have treated some British casualties resulting from the Easter Rising, although this writer has not come across any military deaths there. No record has been found of it holding any ‘Rebel’ patients either.
Another war, an added use
During the Tan War, a new development saw the hospital catering for wounded combatants on both sides.
By its nature it was the obvious location for crown forces (military and some police) casualties in the Dublin and surrounding area.
But IRA wounded who were captured were also treated there. It made sense for the British. They could securely hold and concentrate political prisoners requiring serious medical attention within a military complex. It avoided the use of open-access civilian hospitals. In many of those facilities the medical staff were sympathetic to or supportive of the IRA. That meant wounded volunteers could be hidden away or smuggled out to safety.
So KGVH partly became a place of detention, with armed guards on wards containing Irish civilian prisoners.
This writer first realised that about 10 years ago when researching an RIC grandfather. Sergeant Stephen Kirwan was mortally wounded along with Captain Peter White of Swords Coy, Fingal Brigade in the same incident on 18 April 1921. The two men were brought separately to KGVH and died the next day. Family lore has it they were in ‘adjoining beds’ (Seems highly unlikely, but to the military both were civilians so may have been kept in the same ward).
The Custom House Connection
It must be acknowledged that all three appear to have received adequate treatment there. They left no hint in their MSP files of any lack of treatment or mistreatment in the hospital.
To be fair, the medical personnel in KGVH appear to have looked after all patients, friend and foe, equally well. Frank Teeling, wounded and captured on Bloody Sunday, underwent a successful major operation in KGVH for a bullet wound in his stomach. In March 1921 Sean MacEoin had a bullet extracted in KGVH by leading surgeon Sir William Taylor, consulting surgeon and colonel to the British forces in Ireland.
Another later case also involved a Custom House man. Tom Flood suffered an appendicitis attack in Mountjoy Jail on the eve of the Truce. Taken to KGVH he was operated on successfully and recuperated before being sent back to jail. Peadar O’Farrell (arrested at the Burning) went so far as to say the military hospital “had the best surgeons in Dublin”.
Of course Teeling, MacEoin and Flood were, to the British, “Dangerous and Important Prisoners” to be court-martialled for capital offences and executed. So, being cynical we could speculate that ensuring top medical treatment was a calculated military-political policy. Keep them fit for the noose (That is not to demean the surgeons’ ethics).
Outcomes for the Custom House Men
Sean Ward was medically discharged from KGVH on 9 June. Into custody at Mountjoy Jail. Out of the frying pan into the fire! He was held on charges under the ROIR.
He went back again to KGVH for an X-ray on 13 September before being returned to jail. Ward was released from Mountjoy on 8 December.
Unfortunately for Patrick McGlynn (F Coy, 2nd Battalion), his wound proved serious enough to require transfer to the Mater Hospital and amputation of his right foot. Hard to believe, but his situation might have been worse. It was alleged he was armed when arrested and would have faced a capital charge. However, he survived and actually joined the National Army in 1922 in a clerical role. We will tell more of his life story another day.
Charlie McMahon’s head wound was on a totally different level. He had a metal plate inserted in his head at KGVH and spent months there. Accounts of how he left differ – either through medical discharge or escape. His injury was not fully resolved until 1925 in a Dublin civilian hospital.
To a layman like this writer, none of the IRA men listed appear to have suffered complications or bad outcomes as a direct result of their treatment in KGVH.
The Custom House Fatalities
The remains of the four IRA and three of the civilians killed at the scene of the Burning on 15 May were also taken to the military hospital, arriving about 2 pm. The fourth civilian, Housekeeper of the Custom House Francis Davis, was still alive on admission but expired at 7 pm that evening. All the bodies but one were identified in the hospital morgue (The exception was John Byrne).
Military Inquiries In Lieu of Inquests
Martial law was in force in Dublin and the normal Coroner’s Inquests with civilian Juries had been suspended. They were replaced by Military Courts of Inquiry In Lieu of Inquests. Three British officers were appointed for each inquiry by a senior commander.
For the Custom House deaths, the inquiry tribunal was formed by of Capt. A. G. Heales, 2nd East Surrey Regiment, Lieut. P. W. Wright, 1st Lancashire Fusiliers and 2nd Lieut. G. Whitaker, 3rd Rifle Brigade.
The inquiries were held in KGVH over two days, Friday 27 and Saturday 28 May, attended by relatives of the deceased, witnesses and press representatives.
Brief Overview of Evidence
For each of the deceased, a close relative gave evidence of identification. Mrs Sidney Reilly suffered that ordeal twice, two of her sons having been killed. Medical evidence was provided in all the cases by by Capt. R. F. Bridges, RAMC. In addition, there were 13 witnesses (4 DMP, 2 Auxiliaries, 1 military and 6 civil servants). Most gave general accounts of events after the IRA occupation of the Custom House. The Auxies did supply more details but in highly ‘imaginative’ stories.
Remarkably, there was no eye-witness to any of the fatal shootings among them all. However, Mrs Bertha Davis saw the immediate aftermath of the mortal wounding of her late husband. And A. E. Wilson, LGB clerk, next to a colleague when fatally shot by an Auxy, saw the victim fall without realising why or who he was until later. No witness could identify any of the IRA attackers. An RAMC Corporal who attended the bodies testified to finding six rounds of ammunition on the body of Ed Dorins and a “plan or sketch” on that of Paddy O’Reilly.
The military court decided all 8 deaths resulted from gunshot wounds:
- Three judged as justifiable homicide by crown forces in the execution of their duty – Ed Dorins, Paddy and Stephen O’Reilly, all IRA;
- Three accidental caused by persons unknown – John Byrne and James Connolly, innocent civilians; and Dan Head, IRA;
- One accidental caused by crown forces – Mahon Lawless, LGB clerk; and
- One – Francis Davis, Custom House employee – wilful murder by person unknown.
After each finding was announced, the individual bodies were released to the families for funerals (NOTE: IRA man Sean Doyle who died on 31 May of wounds received at the Custom House is not listed above. His death occurred in the Mater Hospital).
The rest of the non-combatants wounded at the Custom House were taken to KGVH as well. All were civil servants or legitimate visitors on business. Most had minor injuries and were quickly discharged. Any with more serious injuries were dispersed to civilian hospitals after their bone fides were established. One, William Geary of the Local Government Board, had been hit in the elbow by an Auxy bullet. Shortly after admission to KGVH he requested his transfer to Jervis Street Hospital (Irish Independent 26 May 1921). Possibly the poor man had had enough of the ‘tender mercies’ of crown forces that day to last a lifetime.
It is not known if the half-dozen Auxiliaries wounded were also taken to KGVH. If so, they must have been kept well away from their IRA opponents! However, it seems more likely they went to civilian hospitals, or possibly Marlborough Hall.
KGVH was handed over to Free State control in 1922. It was renamed for Saint Bricín of Tomregan, Co Cavan because of his skill as a surgeon in 7th century Ireland. It went on to be used by the Defence Forces over many decades. One notable ex-Army man who died there, in 1973, was the same Lieut. General and former Chief of Staff Sean MacEoin mentioned above. St Bricín’s remains to this day a Defence Forces military facility run by the Army Medical Corps. It is now primarily used for minor injuries and medical examinations.
In the 1940s the Sixth Company Engineers built a separate isolation hospital for use by TB victims on the grounds south of the original. That is now used as offices.
The hospital or grounds are not open to the public.
Indeed, it is difficult to get a good view of the complex as the site is surrounded by high walls. Perhaps the best view – of the rear of the buildings – is from the tiny park for local senior citizens on Thor Place. That can most easily be reached from the North Circular Road via Oxmantown Road and Cowper Street.
Because of its old-fashioned appearance, the interior of St Bricín’s has been used in many movies including “My Left Foot”. Wards are in the traditional early 20th century institutional format that Readers over a certain age may recall. Long open rooms with sanitary and washing facilities at each end. The wards are now unused. Other parts of the building have been modernised for ongoing use (Puns totally unintentional above!).
In 2005 the Defence Minister of the day proposed that St Bricíns be transferred to the civilian health service to relieve pressure on A&E departments. After inspection by the Health Service Executive (HSE) it was ruled out based on the investment needed for upgrades. Perhaps the move never really was a runner, just political posturing.
To bring this story right up to date. This writer is not aware if the military hospital was used during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. However, the current Covid-19 pandemic has led to the Defence Forces preparing the facility “for support to the HSE to generate additional capacity“.
Please follow Public Health Guidelines. Stay at home. Stay safe.