As told by his Grandson Frank Fagan.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Thomas Fagan


Originally from Fairview in Dublin, I now live in west Sligo and volunteer in the Jackie Clarke Collection in Ballina. It is a private collection of Irish historical memorabilia, rare books and artifacts which were bequeathed to the town of Ballina by local businessman and lifelong Republican Jackie Clarke. I have become fascinated by the extraordinary local stories and experiences from the War of Independence and particularly the Civil War which have been shared with me by the elderly sons and daughters of the men and women who fought.

I have an interest in the legacy and aftermath of conflict in a small rural area, but in particular the inter-generational aspect of the remembering and not remembering.

While reading Rebecca Graff-McRae’s book “Remembering and Forgetting 1916” I came across this quote from Margaret Atwood, which captured perfectly for me the experience of suffering by the families of those who carried the physical and psychological scars of the conflict for the remainder of their lives :

Time is not a line, but a dimension, like the dimensions of space

I began to think of time as having a shape, something you could see,

Like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of the other.

You don’t look back along time, but down through it, like water.

Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing.

Nothing goes away”.

I thought of men like Captain Harry Langan from Foxford, not far from where I now live. He fought during the War of Independence, and suffered eleven months of imprisonment by the Free State during the Civil War. Harry was admitted to St. Mary,s Mental Hospital, Castlebar on the 29th of November 1927 and remained there until his death on 22 December 1977.

Family Involvement – Active Grandfathers

As a child growing up in Fairview during the 1970s, I was aware that both of my Grandfathers had been Volunteers during the War of Independence. They had lived in different parts of the country, and had never met, but each had played an active role in the Revolutionary period.

Thomas Fagan was born in the townland of Prospect Upper, Newcastle Upper, Co. Wicklow in 1890 and was one of seven children of Edward and May Fagan. Thomas came to Dublin in 1910 to work in Grangegorman Mental Hospital (or the Richmond Asylum as it was known at the time) as an Attendant, so when my father Christy retired as a male nurse in 1981 it ended a seventy one year family connection.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Attendants in Grangegorman. Thomas is 2nd from right, front row

My Mother’s father, Jer O’Toole had lived all his life in Co. Carlow. He was born in 1902 and had been a member of E Coy, 3rd Battalion, Carlow Brigade. Jer was captured by Free State Forces during the Civil War along with my Granduncle Bob Curry. Both were imprisoned in Carlow Gaol, Wicklow Gaol and the Curragh Internment Camp. I was a teenager when he died; my siblings and I had always known him as a gentle, warm soul and we were devastated by his death. My abiding memory of his funeral was of the tricolour on the coffin and the volley of shots over the grave, in a small country cemetery in Ballon, Co. Carlow. The graveyard was surrounded by armed soldiers, who were there to make sure that the firing party’s weapons could not be seized by Republicans. So fifty nine years after the end of the Civil War which my Grandfather had participated in, the ghosts of the past were very much present and all around us on that cold morning in March 1982.

Jer never spoke about his experiences of imprisonment, but reading any contemporary material from Republicans who were imprisoned at the time leads me to believe that it must have been a very frightening and brutal experience.

Thomas’ Military Career

As children, my father had told us that his father Thomas had been a very active Volunteer during the War of Independence, and would regularly have to change his appearance. But it was only in the mid-1990s when my father became very sick that I began to research in detail.

I wrote to the Department of Defence looking for a copy of his Pension Application and after six months of hearing nothing, I phoned them to be told that his file was classified! I persisted and after further assistance from some helpful officials, I was given a partial copy of his application (The full file has still not gone online, 24 years after I first applied to view it). The papers I received form the basis of the following information.

The Early Years

Thomas Fagan joined G Coy 1st Battalion, Dublin Brigade in October 1917. Along with many others, I am sure that the death on hunger strike of Thomas Ashe the previous month had played a significant role in his decision.

1917 was an important year for him, as he also married my Grandmother Lizzie Flanagan from Spring Garden Street in Ballybough at St. Paul’s Church, Arran Quay on 31 December.

In the coming months he would take part in field training, with and without arms.

In 1919 he was one of the armed guard to protect Sean McGarry when he made his first appearance in Irish Volunteer uniform at the Mansion House after escaping from Lincoln Gaol with DeValera. He also provided armed protection during Army Council meetings in Parnell Square.

Thomas carried out intelligence duties and assisted in looking after an arms dump at his place of employment in Grangegorman.

War of Independence

In 1920 he states that he took part in armed street patrols and the transport of arms for Flying Columns. He was also under arms for the rescue of Kevin Barry, and armed protection in the Talbot Street area.

In 1921 he says he took part in the Burning of the Custom House and was also part of an armed patrol for a general ambush on Bolton Street.

In an additional note at the end of his Pension Application he states “I was one of the party at the arrest of Capt. Rennie and other bank robbers and did guard same at 5 Blackhall Street. I was also at the North King Street/Anne Street corner to attack a lorry of Auxillaries with sawed shot guns, the lorry did not come that night.”

Some Unsavoury Characters

In relation to the arrest of Capt. Rennie, and only as a consequence of research for this article, I found a fascinating account of the activities of this particular group of criminals which was written by Donal Fallon in 2018 (the full article is available to view on the “Come Here to Me” site).

“In 1921, an eight-man gang were responsible for a number of armed robberies in Dublin. The core of the group was made up of British Army deserters from the Royal Air Force (RAF). After an intelligence operation, the group was tracked down by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and handed over to the authorities.

The gang has been recalled in different accounts as “Claude Gunner’s gang”, named after their ringleader, and “McNally’s gang” named after their first robbery victim.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

The four key members were RAF deserters and a mixture of English, Irish and Scottish. All were aged between 21 and 23 at the time of the robberies. They were:

  • Claude Gunner from Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, England. DOB 24 June 1900.
  • Thomas Speers from Greenock near Glasgow, Scotland. DOB 10 April 1899.
  • Denis Marry (or Marrey) from Balbriggan, north Co. Dublin. DOB 17 July 1898.
  • George Collins from Dewsbury, Yorkshore, England. DOB 10 February 1900.

They were aided by:

  • Charles Rennie, a former Scotland Yard detective.
  • Jimmy Marry, brother of Denis, from Balbriggan.
  • James Kenny, the owner of the ‘Silver King’ fleet of buses, Dublin.
  • An individual with the surname Wobberley, allegedly a former IRA Volunteer in Dublin.
  • An unnamed caretaker of the Soldiers’ Central Club, College Street, Dublin.”

Characters of a Higher Calibre

Thomas’ employment in Grangeorman brought him into contact with a number of amazing individuals who were as committed to the Revolution as he was.

The Female Psychiatrist & Republican

One such person I have only recently discovered was Dr. Elonora Fleury (1867-1960). In Brendan Kelly’s wonderful book “He Lost Himself Completely” – Shell Shock and Its Treatment at Dublin’s Richmond War Hospital, 1916-19, he notes the following:

“Dr. Fleury was a remarkable figure who attained first class honours as the first female medical graduate of the Royal University of Ireland in 1890 and a gold medal for her MD degree in 1893. In 1894 she became the first female psychiatrist in Ireland or Britain. She worked in both Grangegorman and St. Ita’s Hospital in Portrane and was also highly politically active in the Irish Republican cause resulting in her eventual imprisonment by the Free State.”

An article in the British Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 203, Issue 1 from July 2013 also contains reference to Dr. Fleury:

“Free State forces arrested Dr. Fleury during the Civil War, and in 1923, she was detained in Kilmainham Gaol. She had been involved in an organised assistance and escape programme for Republican prisoners centred on the asylum at Portrane. While in Kilmainham she served as medical officer to the Republican prisoners using whatever sparse resources were available to her. The Government that had imprisoned her, remained in power until 1932. On her release she returned to her duties at Portrane.

Dr Fleury never married and she died in 1960. She spent the last years of her life in Rathmines.”

It appears to me that she has been completely airbrushed out of the history of this period.

The Forgotten Manchester Volunteer

Another individual that my Grandfather would have known very well was a man that I had often heard my Mother speak about (she had worked as a nurse in Grangegorman) but only last year discovered his incredible story. The following is an extract from “Hidden Heroes of Easter Week” by Robin Stocks:

“In January 1916 Redmond Cox was working in a Manchester grocer’s shop and  living with his sister. Three months later he was behind barricades in  Church Street, Dublin fighting against  the overwhelming might of the British army as a Volunteer in the Easter Rising.

Cox was one of four volunteers from Manchester who secretly travelled to Dublin to prepare for the insurrection they had heard was in the offing. He remained under fire for the whole of Easter Week until the rebels were all forced to surrender. After serving a period in prison he re-joined the Irish independence struggle, fought again through the War of independence and eventually settled and lived the rest of his life in Dublin.

Sadly, the experiences of Cox and the other Volunteers from Manchester had been written out of the history books. The Volunteers who returned to England remained at risk of arrest for their entire lives so were frightened to tell their stories except to their immediate families. Only now as families can speak freely and new documents are released can the part played by the Manchester Volunteers be finally added to the histories of Ireland and of Manchester.”

Redmond Cox had been a member of F Coy 1st Battalion, Dublin Brigade during the Easter Rising and surrendered at the Four Courts. After the Rising he was sent to Knutsford Gaol in England.

In 1919 he became a work colleague of my Grandfather’s. By this time he was also a member of G Coy 1st Battalion, Dublin Brigade. This was a significant year for Redmond in anther way, for on 4 June he married my Grandaunt Christina Fagan in Dublin.

The Volunteer Fired from The Brewery

Another work colleague of my Grandfather’s from 1917 to 1921 was John Saul, who had fought in the Easter Rising, and was imprisoned in Richmond Barracks, Knutsford and Frongoch. His pension application states that “owing to participation in the Rebellion, dismissed from Guinnesses Brewery in July 1916, reinstated in 1921 which meant a loss of five years service and possible promotion.”

The Custom House Invader 1920

An interesting letter in John Saul’s pension application is from John Keys (of 39 Thomas Street who ran a Tobacconist shop), a member of the Intelligence Staff of C Coy, 4th Battalion, Dublin Brigade. His home and shop were used for Battalion Intelligence meetings. Mr Keys confirms that John Saul was involved in maintaining the arms dump in Grangegorman. It also states Saul took a huge personal risk -possible imprisonment or death – on the Friday before Bloody Sunday in November 1920. That day, John Saul safely removed Intelligence Papers from the home of John Keys who had been arrested earlier.

When I then looked for information on John Keys, I discovered he had participated in an action that I had not heard of before. From the newspaper reports of the time, it appears that up to thirty armed members of the Dublin Brigade entered the Custom House in August 1920 with the intention of seizing the arms held by the sentries. The raid was unsuccessful, but it must have given the planners plenty of food for thought regarding future operations.

Witness to Mental Toll from Combat

Another reality of the Revolutionary period that my Grandfather would have seen at first hand through his employment in Grangegorman, was the devastating trauma suffered by some of the young Volunteers who had participated in the killing of British agents. Dr. Vincent Ellis has submitted a witness statement to the Bureau of Military History regarding this.

Also the pension application of James Paul Norton, who had participated in the Burning of The Custom House amongst other activities, includes the following information:

“File also relates to James Norton’s receipt of a pension under the Army Pensions Acts in respect of recurrent mania and cyclic insanity deemed to be attributable to his service. During the War of Independence as well as taking part in IRA arms raids, armed street patrols and surveillance at the residence of Lord Glenavy in Miltown, Dublin, James Norton and references state that Norton took part in the IRA attack on suspected British intelligence officers at Morehampton Road, Dublin on 21 November 1920 (Bloody Sunday), an attack on British forces at Clare Street, Dublin [January 1921], a raid for armour plating at the Dublin and South Eastern Railway Company depot at Westland Row, Dublin (May 1921) and obstruction of fire brigade services during the IRA attack on the Customs House, Dublin. Arrested by British forces on 9 July 1921 Norton was imprisoned in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin and Liverpool and Dartmoor prisons, England before being released in January 1922.”

James Paul Norton would have been only twenty years of age when he took part in the attack on Morehampton Road.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Thomas with his daughter Betty at her wedding in 1956

Thomas’ Later Life

After their marriage in December 1917, my Grandparents lived in Eccles Street where my Father Christy was born in 1925, one of six children for Thomas and Lizzie. In 1932, the year of the Eucharistic Congress, the family moved from Eccles Street to Ellesmere Avenue, North Circular Road. My Grandmother died in 1948, and my Grandfather married again. He went on to have another son Kevin, who lives in America and attended last years Custom House Commemoration Conference.

My father told me that at the end of the Civil War, my Grandfather had access to two handguns (no doubt from the arms dump in Grangegorman) which he buried in the Phoenix Park, close to his home. As a memento of the struggle, he gave my father a long bayonet which remained in our home up until the mid 1980’s. That is, until my father took it to his allotment one day to cut cabbage, and left it behind!! Never to be seen again….

Thomas Fagan died on 10 January 1957, six years before I was born.


As a middle aged man now myself and a Grandfather, reflecting on the experiences of both my Grandfathers, I am very proud of their actions and their willingness to risk all for what they believed in.

A special word of thanks to my wonderful wife Aoife for all her encouragement, and also to my comrade Sinead Brennan in the Jackie Clarke Collection, whose knowledge of, and love for the history of Co. Mayo has been an inspiration.

Frank Fagan

Further reading/Sources used

“He Lost Himself Completely” – Shell Shock and Its Treatment at Dublin’s Richmond War Hospital 1916-1919 by Brendan Kelly.

Claude Gunners Gang (1921)” – Come Here to Me Blog.

British Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 203 Issue 1, July 2013.

“Hidden Heroes of Easter Week” by Robin Stocks

“Remembering and Forgetting 1916” by Rebecca Graff-McRae

Irish Military Archives.

The Jackie Clarke Collection, Ballina, Co Mayo.