This is the story of one man’s tough journey from the Workhouse to the Custom House; and ultimately to his death in the country he’d both served and been jailed by.

Past Highs & Lows

Anyone who has researched their family history knows it can be a double-edged sword. Every nice surprise and yaaaay! moment can be countered by sad and even shocking finds.

This writer was relieved in a way not to discover any ancestors in the records of Workhouses, Jails, or British military but disappointed at the absence of Old IRA. So it’s usually of interest when they feature in the backgrounds of others. And it was a real bonus to see Custom House prisoner Peter O’Brien apparently ticked all four boxes.

There was an initial buzz from the finds. Then, the sad reality of the dreaded Workhouse brought to mind “There – but for a lot of luck – go I”.

O’Brien certainly didn’t enjoy any of that early in his life.


Peter Paul was born on 3 July 1899 at 4 Bolton Street, Dublin to Thomas O’Brien, a Printer-Compositor and Elizabeth (née Power).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
From NAI

Looking at their 1901 census return at 28 Upper Dorset Street gives no hint of sad and traumatic events to occur over the next 15 years. The parents are in their late 20s, both are literate and the father is working. Peter, at 20 months, is the middle son, with brothers aged 7 years (Robert, going to school) and baby Joseph just 14 days old. In 1904 another lad, Anthony (Tony), arrived to the family.

Family Troubles Emerge

Shift forward to the 1911 census and the picture is dramatically different. The father is listed as a married Compositor living on his own at North Brunswick Street.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Location of Peter’s Workhouse School, now the site of Kempton housing estate, Navan Road (OSI)

Young Peter (scholar aged 11) is in Pelletstown Auxiliary Workhouse School (run by South Dublin Union) near the Halfway House Pub, then way out in the country north west of the city. His mother and youngest brother were apparently living at Lower Gardiner Street. There is no sign of the eldest son; and it turns out at least 4 other children had died in infancy.

….And Continue

The surviving family members, in several combinations, were in-and-out of the Workhouse between 1910 and 1913. Just one example is shown below.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Workhouse Minutes Book entry for the three O’Brien lads, 1910

Then in 1914 the father Thomas died aged 38 at Upper Dominick Street, his death registered by his widow Elizabeth. That year she was once again admitted to the Workhouse with her youngest son Tony.

Unfortunately both the O’Brien parents were alcoholics, according to Kieran Goddard in Scotland, a grandson of Tony and grandnephew of Peter. As a result, young Tony ended up in the notorious Artane Industrial School. He didn’t get out till 1920 when he immediately joined Na Fianna at the age of 16. We will return to Tony’s story later below.

Military Service

His older brother Peter had joined a military force earlier – in his case the Royal Air Force. He enlisted on 27 August 1918 for the duration of World War 1. Originally a Private, he was re-classified as AC2 (Aircraftman Grade 2, ground crew). O’Brien was at least spared the horrors of the front line trenches and did not have to serve too many months before the Armistice was signed. Some good luck at last.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Peter’s military service card (findmypast)

From the RAF record we learn some personal details. Height 5 ft 2½ inches; chest 28 inches; dark hair, blue eyes, fresh complexion. Health Grade 1 A. Address 43 Upper Wellington Street; next of kin mother Elizabeth; previous occupation Messenger.

Peter served with the Adriatic Group at Taranto, Italy and a seaplane base on Malta until transferred to the Reserve in December 1919. He was awarded the standard war medals and was discharged on 18 February 1920. The same day he re-enlisted with the Royal Army Service Corp.

Arrested on 25 May 1921

The next time Peter’s name appears is on the Custom House Prisoner list, address matching with the RAF record – 43 Upper Wellington Street, Dublin. He was interned in Kilmainham Gaol till 6 December 1921.

IRA Or Not?

There appear to be a couple of pointers suggesting he was not a Volunteer.

  • Not on any IRA Membership List or other document, but this alone is not conclusive. There were many omissions from their records.
  • Re-enlistment with the crown forces as late as 1920 when the War of Independence was well underway hardly fits with an IRA involvement a year later. But that is conjecture.

On the other hand there is an entry in a Kilmainham autograph book kept by James Doyle where Peter O’Brien signed he was in Cell 24, Section D. This is the strongest hint he was a Volunteer. The autograph books seem to have been kept between active IRA men. Others arrested at the Custom House having lower profiles with the authorities (and no traceable IRA record in archives) do not appear as signatories. But there is no certainty involved.

There is one later document related to Peter which raises another link to the Custom House and Kilmainham. His 1922 marriage cert names the best man as a fellow Custom House prisoner William Adderley from no. 5 Wellington Place, very close to the street where O’Brien lived. And, in 1921, their names had been entered consecutively on the Custom House arrest list.

Was that a pure coincidence or were they old friends? Did they became pals during their time in Kilmainham Gaol? Were they just innocent civilians caught up in the aftermath of the Burning who couldn’t convince their captors to release them? Or, less likely, were they former IRA comrades? The answer is unfortunately lost to history. Bill Adderley is not on Dublin Brigade lists either; and his death notice makes no mention of an IRA connection. Neither man enlisted in the National Army nor is there any hint they were actively involved in the Civil War.

So the question was Peter an IRA Volunteer remains open. Hopefully that does him no disservice which is not at all intended. As this writer knows to his chagrin from his own ancestry, not everyone alive back then joined the Old IRA!

Family Life and Emigration

Peter was recorded as a 22 year-old Labourer when he married in November 1922. His wife was Ellen Mary (Nellie) Slater from Dominick Street, aged 18. Her brother Frankie was then serving with the National Army, based in the Curragh for the Army Census. He too had previously been with the crown forces. The two brothers-in-law in British uniform are pictured below.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Frank Slater (seated) with Peter O’Brien (ancestry member Nicole Franks O’Brien)

Peter and Nellie began a family and their first of many children were born in Dublin. It appears sometime after the Second World War they all emigrated to the north of England where more children arrived – there were at least 11 in total. Perhaps that large brood was in some way compensating for the loneliness and separation from his parents and siblings he himself had suffered in his own childhood? It seems to have been a loving family anyway, judging by the number of anniversary notices for Nellie’s death in 1973 in Rochdale.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Peter in later life (ancestry member Nicole Franks O’Brien)

Almost nothing is known of the family’s time in England. Obviously Nellie was kept busy raising all the kids while Peter would have needed to work hard to cater for his large household. Back home in Dublin his mother Elizabeth passed away in 1953.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Peter & Ellen O’Brien in a classic Mr & Mrs in the pub pose (ancestry member Nicole Franks O’Brien)

Eight years after losing his wife, Peter Paul O’Brien passed away in a Rochdale hospital on 1 September 1981, aged 82. According to his son Robert Charles’ input to the death record he had been a Painter and Decorator before retiring. He was laid to rest locally alongside Nellie.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Headstone for Peter’s wife Ellen (ancestry member Nicole Franks O’Brien)

The Kid Brother

Returning to Peter’s younger brother Tony mentioned earlier, he became a member of Na Fianna, B Coy, 2nd Battalion. As a teenager his duties were delivering messages and weapons. His grandson Kieran says:

“I had always assumed Tony was groomed for military action [by the Christian Brothers] in Artane, but now I wonder if his brother Peter had that influence, or if Peter too was sent to Artane”. An interesting point.

Kieran adds: [Tony] was captured and beaten which left a scar on his forehead. He was imprisoned at Portlaoise where he was a participant in hunger strikes….[which] left him with stomach ailments for the rest of his life.”

Such events (sounding like they relate to the Civil War) have yet to be traced, but the younger O’Brien brother was awarded a Service Medal in 1969 (ref. MD45823, file contents not online). Interestingly his O/Cs included anti-Treaty men Sean Cole (murdered by Free State agents in 1922) and Sean Harling (a highly controversial figure later).

A 1916 Connection

Another link to the fight for freedom was cemented when Tony married Theresa Geoghegan, daughter of ICA (and ex-RDF, Boer War) man George Geoghegan, killed in action at City Hall on 26 April 1916. Tony worked as a Tailor for Clery’s Department Store in Dublin and was a lifelong member of Whitehall Gaels GAA Club.

The couple lived on Thatch Road, Whitehall, coincidentally the scene of an attempted big ambush during the War of Independence. They had 14 surviving children before the death of Tony in 1985 and Theresa in 1990. Some of their immediate descendants have passed away and their eldest living daughter is Kieran Goddard’s mother, now in her late 80s.

Conclusion – Hope for us all?

We know that the younger of the O’Brien brothers was definitely an IRA man but there is a question mark over the other. However, it would be wrong to dismiss the scenario that Peter was sympathetic to the IRA or perhaps assisted them, if not officially a member.

The O’Brien duo survived very tough childhoods with many years lost in harsh institutions through no fault of theirs. Innocents forsaken by society and British administrations in the past. A long time ago, but nothing much has changed since for their modern counter-parts, despite the ‘Irish Revolution’ and Independence.

Something positive to be taken from their stories is that, sometimes, there can be happy endings even after sad beginnings. Human spirit does survive.

Peter and Tony O’Brien never lost their way or the will to better themselves. Neither let their experiences in institutions define or limit them. One stayed in Dublin, the other moved across the water, but both went on to live long productive lives and raise large families. It was a bit of an irony that Peter ended up living out his life in Britain, the country which ‘rewarded’ his past military service with the hardships and indignities of internment in his native land. But it was his choice and it seems far from a bad one.

Ireland had let the two of them down in terms of child welfare (under crown rule) and probably failed Peter on economic grounds later (under Irish rule). But during the struggle for Irish independence they played their parts and suffered – again – for doing so, in different ways.

May they Rest In Peace.

Des White