The news of one son’s death on 25 May 1921 was surely shattering enough for the O’Reilly* family of Wellesley Place, Dublin City. It must have felt like the worst case scenario when they heard Paddy was dead.

However, what happened two days later strains comprehension. Imagine the added shock and sorrow when they discovered who was laid out beside Paddy in the morgue. None other than the ‘baby’ of the family, Stephen, supposedly ‘safe’ in custody at Arbour Hill. With a third lad, Seamus, interned and another on the run, the cost of the War of Independence was mounting horribly for the O’Reillys.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Paddy (left) and Stephen, both killed in action 25 May 1921

Tragically, they were not of course the only family to suffer multiple violent deaths of IRA Volunteers in those times. The Floods, the Doyles and many others paid a heavy price in blood for Ireland’s cause.

Tough Childhoods

Those Tan War traumas were not the O’Reillys’ first hard knock. The father Thomas had died young in 1901, shortly after the census was taken in April. At least ten years earlier he had moved from his native Drogheda, Co Louth to Seville Place in Dublin City where he worked as a Printing Compositor. In 1891 he married Meath-born Sidney Masterson then living in Bray, Co Wicklow. They settled in Wellesley Place, Russell Street, off Dublin’s North Circular Road where they raised a family. Thomas died suddenly while on a visit to his brother Patrick back home in Drogheda. He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Sidney was left to raise 5 boys – Stephen yet to arrive – and one girl, all under eight years. She took in lodgers and her three eldest sons went out to work in their early-to-mid teens. Mrs O’Reilly may have had help from a brother-in-law living two doors away but in any event she ensured all her children were schooled. It is known that Stephen attended St Vincents’ Orphan School in Glasnevin (from 1911 census). All the O’Reillys grew up educated, had reasonably good jobs and seemed to be doing well in life.

Budding Republicans

As the War of Independence loomed, the five sons joined the Volunteers – Paddy, Tom and Séamus (in 1917) and Stephen (in 1918, or 1920). Three, if not all, were in F Coy, 2nd Battalion Dublin Brigade. The eldest, Charles was also in the the IRA (unit unknown). Their sister Sidney ‘Ciss’ was an active republican supporter with the Thomas Ashe Branch of Cumann na mBan.

One inspiration for their politics may have been their father Thomas, reputed to have been a Fenian (BMH.WS1693). Some of his relatives in Drogheda were later in the IRA. Most of the Dublin-born O’Reillys were involved in Irish language organisations, at that time hot-beds of nationalism. And, at their ages, the 1916 Rising and Thomas Ashe funeral must have had a big impact on their outlook and sentiments.

Things Hot Up

During the War of Independence the O’Reilly home became a safe haven for 2nd Battalion men and was also used to hide arms. Crown forces repeatedly raided the house and while damage was caused, nothing incriminating was ever discovered. However Charles and Tom were forced to go on the run. Then Séamus was arrested at home late in 1920 and interned in Ballykinlar Camp, Co Down.

Paddy (born Patrick Thomas, 1894) continued working as an accounts clerk in the famous Dublin department store Arnott’s, still trading in city centre Henry Street.

Stephen John (born 1901) was a particularly good scholar and became an ardent member of the Gaelic League. He developed a passion for writing essays and poetry and was regarded in literary circles as a promising writer with budding talent. As a student at the famous St Enda’s School he was heavily influenced by Brian Ó hUigínn, a Sinn Féin founder, leading Irish language promoter and 1916 man.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Stephen O’Reilly ‘Banba’ (Pól Ó Duibhir via Mícheál Ó Doibhilín)

Stephen contributed his work to Ó hUigínn’s Irish-language publication ‘Banba‘ (a pen name he used himself). He also held a temporary job as commercial traveller/journalist for The Catholic Herald and the Carlow Nationalist. Stephen seems to have done a bit of painting too.

Custom House 1921

Stephen’s depiction of the GPO (courtesy Kilmainham Gaol Museum & Archives KMGLM 2010.0102 via Mícheál Ó Doibhlín)

Soccer Connections

Although the O’Reillys were nationalists and Irish language activists, it did not stop them playing soccer. A letter-writer to the Evening Herald (12 January 1968) recalled many “Soccer Men Who Gave Their All for Ireland” who had played inter-schools matches for St Vincent’s CBS, Glasnevin. Included in the list was Dick Barrett, along with three of the O’Reillys – Paddy, Stephen and Tom. The last-named was later on the management committee of Bohemian FC (where Custom House man Sam Robinson played).

A Fateful Day in May

Sadly two of the brothers’ fledgling careers and young lives came to a sudden end at the Custom House on 25 May 1921 when Paddy was 27 and Stephen just 19. They were young officers on the staff of 2nd Battalion. Paddy was Captain and Quartermaster, while Stephen was a Lieutenant and Assistant Adjutant.

There are two stories about their involvement in the Custom House operation.

Liz Gillis in her excellent book ‘May 25 1921 The Burning of the Custom House‘ connects passages in accounts by Ned Corcoran and Joe Leonard to show the two brothers were on a secret mission to take away cash, postal and money orders from the Custom House post office. The proceeds would be used for Battalion or GHQ funds.

However, a 1977 interview with Tom O’Reilly (the last surviving sibling) produced a different account. Tom told John Dorins (grandnephew of Eddie Dorins KIA at the Burning): “Stephen O’Reilly should not have been at the Custom House at all; he was only 17 [sic] and had been told to go up into the office in Parnell Square and tidy up. He tearfully obeyed, but while tidying he found a bag full of grenades. Thinking they had been left by accident, he cycled to the Custom House with them. This was not the case, but he was allowed to stay anyway. It was his first and last engagement.” Paddy then had to look after his younger sibling. Tragically both were shot down trying to escape the building.

It is most likely these two sad and graphic images taken on the day of the Burning show the body of an O’Reilly lying close to Butt Bridge.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Likely to be Capt. Paddy O’Reilly, KIA (credit Toírdhealach Ó Braoín).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

An Auxiliary searches the same IRA casualty (The Kerryman)

Aftermath

Their deaths led poor Sidney and Ciss to the the military morgue and the shocking discoveries there; the harrowing drawn-out attendance at military inquiries; and arrangements for separate Requiem Masses on either side of the weekend – as decreed by the military authorities.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Irish Independent 30 May 1921

Funerals

Mrs O’Reilly was supported by daughter Ciss and sons Charlie and Tom – Séamus was denied parole to attend the funerals – and relatives from her own family and her in-laws.

There was a large turnout from Arnott’s and the Drapers’ Assistants’ Union for Paddy’s removal to St. Agatha’s Church on the Saturday. For Stephen’s funeral to the same church on the Monday there was a huge throng to pay respects to him and young Dan Head also KIA. Harry Colley, Dublin Brigade Adjutant received the coffins. Each was surrounded by many large floral wreaths, among them three carrying the inscription “In loving memory of a brave soldier of the Irish Republic”.

Colley says that Tom O’Reilly opened his brother Paddy’s coffin and privately showed him a small puncture wound surrounded by scorching marks close to the deceased’s nose. This suggested to them a bullet fired at very close range to finish Paddy off. Joe Leonard said the O’Reilly brothers had been shot in cold blood by the Auxies; notably he did not use that term about the others killed at the Custom House.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

The O’Reilly’s’ funeral leaving the church (Derek Jones Collection via Mícheál Ó Doibhilín)

Dan Head’s funeral proceeded to Kilbarrack. The O’Reillys were brought together to Glasnevin Cemetery where they were buried together in their father’s plot. The inscription shows they died for Ireland. 

Memorials

On the first anniversary of the Burning, the family inserted bi-lingual in memoriam notices in the newspapers. They included the following verse:

‘We loved them, oh! No tongue can tell, how much we loved them and how well; God loved them too, and thought it best, to take them to His Heavenly rest”.

There were also notices from the Commandant, men and the Quartermaster, 2nd Batt (Executive IRA, i.e. anti-Treaty). One for Stephen was from St. Enda’s Literary Club.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Mass cards for the brothers (Derek Jones Collection via Mícheál Ó Doibhilín)

Memorial cards were circulated and a postcard went on sale. A copy of the latter is in the Arthur Griffith papers at the National Library of Ireland.

Custom House Burning 1921

The postcard (NLI)

Family memorial notices in the papers continued to appear each year until 1951, the 30th anniversary of their deaths.

By then, Mrs Sidney O’Reilly was 3 years in her grave with her husband and 2 sons killed at the Burning. She had a tough life, having to survive on a paltry £1 per week military dependent’s pension after losing her sons who had supported her. The press ran obituaries in recognition of her sacrifices and her family’s contribution to Ireland’s freedom.

Stephen’s Written Legacy

Back in May 1922 Stephen’s writings had been posthumously published by his mentor Brían hUigínn in a volume titled ‘Spirit Flowers’ (online here). His literary skills and death at the Custom House were fondly recalled in a column in the Irish Press in 1932 by a writer looking back to his youth and his memories of the summer of 1921 in Dublin.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Cover of book of Stephen’s writings published 1922

In 2019, a new edition of Stephen’s works, edited by Mícheál Ó Dóibhlín, was published by Kilmainham Tales Teo. ‘I Could Not Stay Behind’ includes photos not previously seen, some kindly supplied to this writer by distant relatives and old neighbours of the O’Reillys from Drogheda.

The Other O’Reillys

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

L-R front: Mrs Sidney O’Reilly, ‘Ciss’ O’Reilly & Margaret Howard. L-R back: Michael, Patrick & James Howard (courtesy of Sheelagh & Anne Howard)

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Reilly/O’Reilly plot, Glasnevin

Ciss remained single and living at Wellesley Place.

She worked for Dublin Corporation and then as a railway ticket issuer until her health deteriorated. Certified as permanently unable to work she was invalided, then hospitalised long-term.

In late 1953 she was eventually awarded a small military dependant’s pension, £125 per annum. However just one year later Ciss passed away aged 53. Her obituary paid a fitting tribute to her and her family’s role in the War of Independence.

She is buried with her family in Glasnevin.

There is less information about her oldest brother Charlie, said to have been on the run during the Tan War – although he was reported at the funeral of Paddy and Stephen. He was, however, with the 2nd Battalion. At the IRA Split he went against the Treaty and was interned for some time.

Charles O’Reilly is in this photo of Republican Civil War internees (courtesy of Sheelagh & Anne Howard)

Charles was an electrician and worked at Dublin Airport for Aer Rianta. He died in 1961, survived by his widow Catherine (née Mulvany), son and daughters. His death notice mentioned his Old IRA connection. 

Séamus was released from Ballykinlar on 3 November 1921. He also took the anti-Treaty position in the Civil War and was interned as well. He later worked as a clerk for Great Northern Railways and then CIE. He was based at Lurgan, Newry and several Dublin stations over a career spanning 48 years. Séamus finally settled with his wife Veronica (née Byrne), two sons Stephen and Séamus and daughter Máire at Station House, Hill of Howth, Co Dublin. There he died in 1978. Like his long-lost brother Stephen, he was an Irish language activist and supporter. In the 1920’s and 30’s he had been a prominent member of Árd-Chraobh de Chonradh na Gaeilge. At an earlier age Séamus was a pupil of Sinéad Bean de Valera.

The last surviving sibling Tom attended the funeral of Séamus to St. Fintan’s Cemetery in Sutton, Co Dublin. Tom himself is said to have been in C Coy, 2nd Battalion as O/C or Captain (although no record has been found). He followed the family line in opposing the Treaty and spent a year in captivity in 1923.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Michael O’Hanrahan, executed 1916

In 1930 he married Eileen ‘Eily’ O’Hanrahan, youngest sister of the executed 1916 Rising leader Michael. They then lived in Clontarf but moved later to Northumberland Road, Dun Laoghaire. Tom worked as a bank official, then manager, until his retirement.

He was widowed in 1974 and lived to the age of 89. Tom was buried in Glasnevin on 21 April 1982, almost 61 years after losing two brothers at the Custom House.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

O’Hanrahan-O’Reilly headstone, Glasnevin

So passed a generation of one Dublin family, all strong-willed men and women, who made a significant contribution during the War of Independence and paid a heavy price.

May they all Rest In Peace.

Des White

The writer is grateful for information and photos supplied by Anne & Sheelagh Howard and Brian & Anne Parsons; and to Mícheál Ó Doibhlín for images, other inputs and literary expertise.

*Reilly was their original surname and appears in early records. Most of them, like many Gaelic activists, later adopted O’Reilly. To avoid confusion O’Reilly is used throughout unless, literally, carved in stone.