Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Paddy is 3rd left in front row at 1939 ASU Reunion

Paddy’s long active military career saw him:

  • Out for the Easter Rising aged 15½;
  • Fighting through the Tan and Civil Wars;
  • Wounded three times (only once by crown forces);
  • Imprisoned by the British and his own countrymen; and
  • Serving during The Emergency.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Yet he lived to the great age of 91. His exceptional story surely epitomises the long, hard fight carried on by the Dublin Brigade Active Service Unit.

Out and Active Day and Night

Rigney’s military pension files paint a vivid picture. Referees mention extended periods without proper breaks from duty in all weathers; long gaps between meals; scarcity of proper food; lack of relief on night-time jobs; and constant mental strain from active service on the run.

For Paddy, on top of all that came gunshot wounds and surgery in 1921 and 1922 (twice); a few months in prison with bad food under the British; and a hunger strike while in Free State internment. It is no wonder he made an appeal in 1984 for reconciliation between Irishmen of all creeds and politics. A great shame that more people and politicians don’t heed his sound advice. Spoken from the heart and head. Learned the very hard way.

Perhaps the greatest surprise is how long he lived, given all his hardships. Ex-ASU men who survived the conflicts generally died young. Rigney saw the dawn of the 1990s; by then almost all his old comrades were long in their graves.

An Early Start

What Rigney’s early influences were are yet to be discovered, but the Na Fianna teenager was involved in The Rising. By his own account he saw little action. Yet he had the sobering experience of helping away a wounded Volunteer passed out a gate from South Dublin Union. He also came under British fire when attempting to recover the body of dead Volunteer Sean Owens. If that wasn’t much action to him, his experiences during the War of Independence were surely more than enough for any one man.

He was out on Bloody Sunday…. an original ASU man…. involved in the escape of Teeling, O’Malley and Donnelly from Kilmainham…. took part in numerous ambushes and raids…. was shot…. and got arrested. Yet more escapades awaited during the Civil War.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Death of his O/C

On 25 March 1921, the Grim Reaper passed closer than before to Rigney. Walking up Clanbrassil Street with his No 4 ASU comrades O/C Gus Murphy and Joseph (Alec) O’Toole they encountered two drunken off-duty squaddies from Prince of Wales Volunteers, Wellington (later Griffith) Barracks. The soldiers were waving handguns and “holding up” passers-by. Trying that on with the 3 IRA men would have been highly provocative.

Accounts of the consequences differ. One said a melee broke out and that Murphy was shot while he grappled for a pistol with one soldier. Another version says Murphy was shot before he tried to get the gun. One of the British ran off. The other was beaten up by eye-witnesses incensed at what happened.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Gus Murphy (Freemans Journal)

What is certain is that Augustine ‘Gus’ Murphy, ASU No 4 Section Commander, was mortally wounded in the struggle for the pistol. He was aged 29, single, and a Guinness worker from 12 Watkin’s Buildings, Ardee Street in the Coombe. Gus died shortly after Rigney and O’Toole had brought him to the nearby Meath Hospital.

They made statements to a DMP Sergeant on duty there and handed in the pistol wrested from the soldier. The two IRA men were called as witnesses to a military inquiry but refused to attend. They could not be seen to recognise any British court. Instead they were forced to go on the run.


The military tribunal found the shooter, Private Thomas Williams, was drunk at the time and should not have been armed while on a pass. However he carried an officer’s mislaid weapon found in his barracks. Despite several civilian witnesses’ testimony – including damning evidence from an outraged ex-serviceman – and the statements by the absent Rigney and O’Toole being admitted, wilful murder was not proved. Williams was found guilty of manslaughter.

Down the Dardanelles

Rigney’s own first wound occurred in March 1921 during an attack, he says, on British staff officers in Camden Street, a favoured ambush location for his ASU. Because of the number of attacks and casualties inflicted on the military in the sequence of streets leading down from there towards the city, it became known as “The Dardenelles” (Named after the notorious WWI narrow expanse of water dominated by Turkish forts and artillery on high ground. It became the graveyard for several warships and thousands of Allied sailors and soldiers, including many from Ireland. Dublin’s Dardanelles consisted of narrow streets with tall buildings and warrens of side streets. Good urban hit-and-run ambush territory).

In fact there were so many gun and grenade ambushes in Dublin’s Dardenelles, it is not possible to decide in which specific one Paddy was hit. A few dates are given. But he definitely took a rifle bullet in the left knee. Rigney was brought to a friendly medical facility (Geraldine O’Donel’s private nursing home, Eccles Street) and successfully operated on.

The Burning

It seems incredible he managed to recover quickly enough to be at the Custom House less than two months later. But, on that famous day, 25 May, Paddy Rigney was with Padraig O’Connor, Jim McGuinness and others of No 4 ASU as a screening and protection unit on the south quays opposite the Custom House. He and all his unit got away after doing their best to draw off the Auxiliaries. Oscar Traynor credited their efforts with saving him and many other attackers from capture or death.

Arrest by crown forces

Not too long after, just a few days before the Truce, Paddy Rigney’s luck ran out. Along with fellow Volunteers Stephen Butler and James McEvoy (alias Pat Kelly) he was held up by a military patrol while travelling in a Ford motor van at Kilmainham on 6 July 1921. A British officer searched them and the vehicle, discovering 3 loaded handguns. It turned out the van had also been stolen.

All three were arrested. At a court martial, they were found guilty of possession of arms and given 12 years penal service, with 5 years remitted. Locked up in Mountjoy Jail, the young men were looking at a stretch of seven years behind bars.

Prison Break

Now, would the Kind Reader care to speculate whether or not the redoubtable Paddy Rigney would meekly accept such a dismal fate?

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

One of the headlines generated by Rigney & Co’s sensational escape

No way! Instead he made a spectacular escape from the high security prison. Disguised as Auxiliaries wearing ‘home-made’ bonnets and armed with revolvers with most chambers empty (some say wooden dummies), he and 6 others made it to freedom on 12 November. But Rigney’s leg injury hampered him badly. Telling the others to scatter, he spotted a stranger on a motorbike who happened to be near the prison. Hearing Paddy’s situation, the man proved friendly. The unknown biker gestured Rigney on board and carried him almost to his front door! His fellow arrestees Butler and McEvoy/Kelly had to wait 2 months longer for freedom in the January 1922 releases.

Another War, Another Wound

By that time the Treaty was ratified and the internal rift in the IRA and Sinn Féin emerged onto the streets. The two factions mobilised and geared up for possible conflict.

Shortly afterwards, Paddy’s second wounding was caused by Provisional Government (Free State) troops. He had actually been gazetted as a 1st Lieutenant in the new pro-Treaty National Army, Dublin Guards (Unable to enlist as he recuperated, he says he never officially joined or got paid). But he concluded he could not support the Treaty. Approaches to join the Free State side were made to him by many senior men, including it is said, Michael Collins. Paddy remained loyal to the IRA and the Republic.

Targeted by former Comrades

It is claimed that certain former comrades, and in particular “one well-known officer” in the new Irish Army, had a ‘dead set’ against Rigney over his refusal to join the force (He was actually gazetted as a Lieutenant). In February 1922 he was shot at by passing pro-Treaty individuals in Harold’s Cross. Three or fours days later, while on active service in Grey Street, The Coombe, he was again fired on by military personnel in a Ford car. This time a bullet did strike home. Rigney was hit in the left leg once again and his shin bone fractured. He got to the Meath Hospital for treatment but the bullet was not removed until that October.

Escape from the Four Courts

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

The Four Courts during the fire and afterwards

In the meantime Paddy had taken part in the Four Courts takeover by the Executive (anti-Treaty) IRA and was part of the garrison during the bombardment. After the surrender he was captured. But, thanks to an old friend, now National Army Capt. Padraig O’Connor, he managed to escape from Jameson’s Distillery. Ernie O’Malley, Sean Lemass and a few more took the opportunity to slip away with him. Rigney was then ordered by O’Malley to take charge of south Co Dublin and organise others who evacuated Dublin to continue the fight. He became a Commandant on O’Malley’s staff leading a Flying Column during that phase.

Shot, Arrested and Saved Once Again

The third time Paddy Rigney stopped a bullet it was again fired by a soldier with the National Army. It is little wonder that our own Gary Deering has referred to Rigney as a “lead magnet”!

During a round-up in Dublin, in November 1922, he encountered the troops after a meeting with Joe Griffin, IRA Director of Intelligence, at 45 Mespil Road by the Grand Canal. He received a shoulder wound while resisting arrest. Taken prisoner, after yet more medical treatment he was court-martialled by the Free State. Because he was captured with a weapon, he could have faced the death sentence.

However, his former ASU comrade Padraig O’Connor again came to the rescue. He testified to giving the gun to Rigney as a memento. So, Paddy was interned in Newbridge Camp, Co Kildare. He went on hunger strike for 17 days during captivity before his eventual release in late 1923.

Ordinary Life Resumes

War had, at last, finally ended for Paddy Rigney. In 1924 he opened a grocery and newsagent shop. Eight years later he got married and found other employment. But his health was impaired from the leg wounds and he also developed stomach problems. He put them down to the stress of active service. In his pension file there is a long list of doctors he had to attend over the years. Rigney finally received military and wound pensions after Fianna Fáil came to power (MSP34REF295).

In peacetime Paddy became an active member of the National Association of the Old IRA and worked hard to heal old divisions. As early as 1937 he was one of those calling for unification of old comrades in the common interest of themselves and the country.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Paddy Rigney reads the Proclamation, GPO, Easter 1937

Paddy kept up his long-standing friendship with Padraig O’Connor which went way back to the days before the Civil War put them on opposing sides. Over the years he attended many commemorations and funerals of old comrades.

Rigney was at the ASU Reunion in 1939 when several group photos were taken.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Former anti-Treaty man Paddy Rigney 2nd from right front row, flanked by Padraig O’Connor and Bill Stapleton, both pro-Treaty men.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

In the back row, 6th from left

He also attended the Dublin Brigade ASU Service Certificate award function in 1948. In public, Paddy kept well away from the limelight and did not get involved in politics. He wrote no memoirs and left no Witness Statement. But it was himself and Padraig O’Connor who put together the history of No 4 ASU for the Dublin Brigade Review 1939.

Jail Escape Recalled

And the story of his Mountjoy Jail escape appeared in a couple of Irish history collections (see note at end below). Paddy finishes his account with the amusing tale of bumping into one of his former Mountjoy guards, an Auxiliary no less, on an empty street not long after his escape. They at once recognised each other. The Truce hadn’t started, so Rigney didn’t know which way to run. But the Auxy came up to him, thrust out his hand, addressed Paddy by name and warmly congratulated him on the pretty cool little stunt you fellows pulled off the other day. Then the man wished him luck and walked away leaving a very relieved jailbreaker to go about his business.

Origins and Life Events

Patrick Joseph Rigney was born on 26 August 1900 at the Rotunda Maternity Hospital. His parents were James, a Blacksmith and Kate Dunne of 83 Rialto Cottages, South Circular Road, Dublin. He was 3rd of eleven children born between 1897 and 1917. Seven of them were girls and his youngest sister Anna was born in South Dublin Union Workhouse when the family lived in Upper Basin Street.

On 12 April 1932 Paddy married Ann Jane Cullen in Crumlin Church. His occupation is shown as Traveller (a rep for the Irish Press). The couple had four sons before Mrs Rigney passed away aged just 41 in 1946. Two years later Paddy remarried and went on to have one daughter with his second wife Kathleen Pauline Lally. The couple were together until Kathleen’s death in 1987.

Paddy himself died on 24 September 1990 in the Royal Hospital, Donnybrook. He was late of Monkstown and had formerly lived in Templeogue, Harold’s Cross and Crumlin. One of only a handful of his comrades to see their 91st year, Comdt. Patrick Rigney was buried in the family plot in Mount Jerome with his two deceased wives. He was survived by two sisters, his grown children and grandchildren.

Been There, Done That

In his long, action-packed life he’d worked as a shipwright, shop-keeper, newspaper rep, milk inspector and more…. Been a teenaged 1916 veteran… Active member of Na Fianna, B Sluagh, C Coy, 4th Battalion Volunteers then IRA and No 4 ASU…. Took part in Bloody Sunday, the Kilmainham Gaol escapes, numerous ASU actions…. Escaped from Mountjoy…. In Four Courts 1922…. Twice imprisoned…. Three-times wounded…. A hunger striker…. Commandant, 26th Battalion during the Emergency. Also married twice, surviving both his wives…. Father of 5 children…. Worked for the Irish Press Circulation Department for 5 years from its foundation in 1931…. Held a senior position in the Irish Hospitals Trust (The Sweepstake) for 30 years.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Paddy defending The Republic, 1922

Appropriately Rigney features in two iconic photos of anti-Treaty IRA in 1922 – at the Four Courts (above) and in Grafton Street (below).

Burning of Dubin Custom House 1921

Front and centre in dark coat. Identified by his late son, Brian (Information courtesy of Conor McHenry whose uncle and godfather Joe is front left).


In Paddy Rigney’s Military Pension file, glowing references were contributed by notable figures on both Civil War sides. From Ernie O’Malley calling him “the most daring and energetic officer….his word I could always trust”; to Paddy O’Daly and Padraig O’Connor who wrote: “He was one of the most energetic and conscientious members of the [Active Service] Unit and was always available for duty.”

On his death several newspapers ran obituaries. An appreciation appeared in the Irish Independent, traditionally seen as pro-Treaty and anti-Republican. But if Paddy Rigney had ever held any such bitterness, it had long been banished. On the death of his old comrade and later opponent retired Colonel Padraig O’Connor in May 1953, Rigney expressed his sadness and echoed tributes to O’Connor’s work and sacrifices for Ireland

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Tribute in Irish Independent – “a very honourable man…. who cherished peace and reconciliation”

High praise indeed. But thoroughly deserved and very hard-won.

Des White


Dublin’s Fighting Story 1916-1923, The Kerryman 1948 and revised edition by Mercier Press, 2009 pp 337-345; and IRA Jailbreaks 1918-1921, Anvil Books, 1971 and re-published edition, Mercier Press 2010, chapter 24, pp 274-284. An account by Christie Smith who escaped with Rigney can be found in the Witness Statement by Mary Flannery Woods, Cumann na mBan, here (Appendices A and B).


Sleep Soldier Sleep, The Life and Times of Padraig O’Connor (by our own Diarmuid O’Connor & Frank Connolly) was a really useful reference.