Of the Custom House Men who left these shores, Robert Halpin settled far from his fellow Old IRA emigres, in a small city in Michigan, USA. Well off the beaten track. It seems the bright lights of New York or the West Coast were not for him. He went on to marry a woman associated with a U.S. murder case. A strange echo of a shooting mystery in Dublin when a woman died in the Halpin house at Ballybough in 1921.
In this article we will see that Robert led a ‘relatively quiet life’ compared to many of his family, if we judge that on newspaper coverage alone. It seems most got second chances in life after various escapades.
Readers are warned in advance there is an extensive cast of characters and many side-bars and bye-roads in what follows. It could be termed Keeping Up With The Halpins, featuring real people – not so-called celebrities in a certain ‘reality TV’ series!
Robert Halpin was a son of Patrick, a Printer-Compositor with the Freeman’s Journal newspaper and Mary Jane Jones. He was born at 16 Bessborough Avenue, North Strand, Dublin on 22 December 1889 and grew up with 5 younger siblings who survived childhood (from thirteen born). In the order we will meet them they were: Jack, William, Patrick, Michael and Gertrude.
The family moved home several times in the north inner city – Inisfallen Parade (1901), St Joseph’s Terrace (1904), Foster Terrace (1906) and Portland Row (1911) before settling at Summerhill Parade, Ballybough.
At some point between 1908 and 1911 the head of the family, Patrick, moved to Manchester in England, apparently never to return.
The Halpin Ex-Soldier, Later IRA Volunteer
Robert was not recorded at home in the 1911 census but military records for 1908 show he had served for all of 59 days as a Private with the 5th Lancers after enlisting at York, England. He was discharged on 14 August as “Not being likely to become an efficient soldier”. It appears he returned to Dublin and lived at his mother’s home on Summerhill Parade, near the Royal Canal Bridge. According to the army papers Robert had followed his father into the printer-compositor trade but had problems in getting work.
Whether he re-joined the British military during WW1 is not known. He does not feature again in public records until April 1921. But two of his younger brothers do.
A Halpin Casualty of the Great War
In 1908 teenaged Jack Halpin had a spot of bother with the law over a quantity of stolen lead and was sentenced to a month in Mountjoy Prison. In those times, on occasion a young first-time minor offender would be offered a ‘choice’ between time in jail and joining the military. Another scenario was a father or family of a troublesome youth pushing him into the army to “sort him out”. Although we cannot be certain how or why, Jack did end up as a British soldier.
In the 1911 census he is listed as John (aged 19 years from Dublin), a Private with the 1st Battalion, Leinster Regiment at Crownhill Hutments, a military camp in Devon, England. At some later stage he transferred to the 2nd Leinsters and was shipped out for service on the Western Front early in World War I.
Jack was wounded in action in the first half of 1916 and evacuated to a military convalescent hospital in London. Sadly he succumbed to his wounds there on 18 July. His remains were repatriated and buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. In 1918 his father Patrick applied from his address in Salford, Manchester specifically for his son’s 1914-15 (‘Mons’) Star, the most unusual of the three medals posthumously awarded to Jack.
A Halpin Accused in Mystery Shooting at the Family Home
The next records, in fact headlines, created by one of the Halpins involved another death. During the evening of 31 March 1921, a Mrs Mary Patterson, aged fifty one, from 15 Clonmore Terrace, Ballybough died from a gunshot wound at the Halpin’s house, 24 Summerhill Parade. The victim was the wife of a railway company law clerk, a mother of five and close friend of Mrs Mary Jane Halpin whom she was visiting at the time (and who herself would be dead before the year was out).
Mrs Halpin’s son William (aged 20), who was extremely hard of hearing, was actually in the same room when Mrs Patterson was shot. He had his back to her and did not even realise what had happened until his mother rushed from the kitchen to find Mrs Patterson swaying before collapsing. Nobody saw the shooting. There was mention of a squat man in a dark coat hurriedly leaving the scene; and the victim’s husband later claimed some of the housekeeping money he’d given her from his wages earlier that day was missing (Mr Patterson was a unionist and frowned upon his wife’s associations with Mrs Halpin).
The DMP thoroughly examined the room where the shooting had occurred. In the following days the Dublin press reported the arrest by the police of William Halpin as the main suspect in the killing. Shortly afterwards reports appeared that his brother Robert along with a John Nicholson of 4 Ulster Terrace were picked up in a subsequent military raid on the Halpin home and brought to Portobello (now Cathal Brugha) Barracks. In a search of the entire tenement house, a Colt .45 automatic, 39 rounds of ammunition, a holster and a steel helmet were discovered buried in the cellars. It is not known if the brothers’ arrests were connected.
A post-mortem found Mrs Patterson had died almost instantly from a single .45 calibre bullet wound through her torso. The military inquiry (in lieu of an inquest, banned under martial law) heard lengthy evidence from 13 witnesses. But William Halpin, despite making a voluntary statement to police, was strangely not among them. At the end of the proceedings the tribunal found the evidence conflicting and inconclusive and returned an Open Verdict. However their superior, head of the military in Dublin General A. F. Boyd, disagreed and took the view William had a civil murder case to answer.
In early May, William (an assistant at Bolton Street Technical School) was arrested, charged with murder and remanded in custody in Mountjoy. At his trial he pleaded not-guilty. One witness was his brother Robert, described as an unemployed ex-soldier, who testified to finding a spent cartridge and handing it up to the police (It turned out to be a different calibre to the fatal bullet, so Robert may have been clumsily trying to help William). A firearms expert testified that the gun found on the premises had never been fired. It also emerged the cellars were open to anyone who had access to the house. In early June, William was found not guilty by the jury and unconditionally discharged. The tragic killing of Mrs Mary Patterson remains an unsolved mystery.
The Halpin at The Burning
As for Robert, he was clearly not implicated in the shooting and must have been quickly released from military custody as he took part in the Custom House attack on 25 May 1921. That day he was unlucky enough to be arrested by the military once again. This time he would be detained for longer.
Two photos of him were taken in Kilmainham Gaol where he was interned until 8 December 1921. During his incarceration his mother Mary Jane passed away on 19 September.
UPDATE September 2021: Thanks to the family of fellow Custom House Man Charlie McCabe we now have another photo of Bob in Kilmainham.
Freedom, Civil War and Aftermath
After release from internment in Kilmainham, almost nothing is known of Robert’s position or activities. His name does not appear in either IRA or National Army records during the Civil War. However he does appear on a pay list of men serving with GHQ Intelligence for the week ending 25 August 1922. Whether he served for the duration is unknown. His entry on a 1935 (or 1941) Old IRA Membership Roll confirms he was with F Coy, 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade. That declared his present status as “USA, believed dead”. On this one occasion at least, the Old Dublin Brigade network’s information was totally wrong.
An Anti-Treaty Halpin
His younger brother Patrick did take an active Civil War position and opposed the Free State regime. He was active in Dublin before the Republicans’ withdrawal from the city and was among the IRA captured in August 1922 when National Army troops swept up anti-Treaty forces in Blessington, Co Wicklow. Patrick was locked up in Mountjoy initially, then probably interned.
Two years later, in 1924, shortly before midnight on Remembrance (‘Poppy’) Day, 11 November, the same Patrick was disarmed and restrained by DMP Constable 155C Thomas Dowling following a “fierce tussle” on the banks of the Royal Canal near Halpin’s home at Ballybough. Dowling claimed he was narrowly missed by one bullet; and the arrest required the assistance of a second Constable summoned by urgent blasts on Dowling’s police whistle.
Patrick Halpin, aged 26, of 24 Summerhill Parade, was sent for trial charged with attempted murder. It was alleged he had fired five shots, one directly at a policeman, from an illegally held firearm; and had told Const. Dowling to stand back or he would shoot him when initially challenged for firing a parabellum handgun into the air.
At that time Poppy Day was a very divisive and sore point in the Free State. There was often trouble on the streets of Dublin between “loyalists” such as Trinity College students waving Union Flags and opponents holding strongly anti-British feelings. Violence was common and firearms were too. It may have been the case that Patrick was out that night demonstrating his republicanism. In any event, police evidence declared he came across as very cool and was definitely not drunk.
Patrick’s defence solicitor gave a different account (not very plausible) but the District Justice sentenced him to 3 years Penal Servitude which he spent in Maryborough (now Portlaoise) Prison. After his release he emigrated to Canada and lived for many years in Michigan, USA where he worked as a mechanic in a creamery and later a refrigeration engineer. He married Mina Rattray, a Scottish-born divorcee in 1933 and had one son (since deceased). Former IRA man Patrick died in Los Angeles, California in 1978.
The Halpin Emigrant Trail Well-Trodden
Returning to Robert, the next time he appears in records is on a ship’s passenger list dated 25 January 1930 when sailing to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada from Liverpool. As we have seen, he was not the first of his siblings to leave Ireland – and would by no means be the last.
On 2 April, himself (a Compositor) and his brother Michael (a Printer) passed through US Immigration at the Port of Detroit, Michigan on the Great Lakes en route from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Michael was already a US resident and Robert declared his intention was to live permanently in the States. He was described as 5 foot 6 and a half inches, with brown hair, medium complexion and hazel eyes.
Robert went to live in Brighton, Michigan. Having been in transit at the time of the US Federal Census 1930, he had missed being recorded on that occasion. By the time the next one came around ten years later, a lot had happened in the life of the woman he had married in the meantime.
A Crime of Passion
This part of the tale takes us back, briefly, to 29 June 1932 when Gertrude Robinson McFadden (42), the wife of a former Deputy Sheriff, died in Pontiac, Michigan. The deceased was on regular medication and the cause of her death was originally certified as apoplexy. However, following an anonymous tip-off to local police about purchase of poison, her husband was traced to Kalamazoo, Michigan and arrested along with a female in his company.
Under questioning, Edward J. McFadden confessed to have added the poison to the deceased’s medicine as he was infatuated with his younger companion, a 27 year-old telephone operator from Brighton, named Nellie Elizabeth Pentlin.
Within 14 hours on 23 July 1932, Edward J. McFadden (39) pleaded guilty to murder, was convicted, sentenced to life imprisonment and married in the county jail to the pregnant Ms. Pentlin!
Authorities said the wedding was sanctioned to allow the baby she was expecting by McFadden to be legitimised. Nellie was then released as she was not in any way complicit in the killing. On 9 November 1932 back home in Brighton, Michigan she gave birth to a daughter Sally Jane.
Second Time Around
How Nellie met Robert Halpin is not known but the couple were married in Brighton on 30 October 1935, shortly after her divorce from her jailed husband. The 1940 US Federal Census records the small Halpin family of Robert, wife Nellie and daughter Sally at 1325 Brighton Lake Road, with himself shown as a 50 year old Labourer – Resort Overseer. Possibly he had legally adopted Nellie’s daughter by Edward McFadden, but in any event Sally had taken the Halpin surname and had become a loved member of the family. In 1942 a son arrived and was named Robert T. Halpin, Jr., known as Bobby.
Robert senior subsequently worked for some years in the Brighton Advance Stamping Corp. on 2nd Street, not too far from his home. The family seem to have lived ordinary law-abiding lives and created no more newspaper headlines.
It appears their former residence at 1325 Brighton Lake Road still stands in a picturesque setting as a classic example of an American clapper-board house.
Former Custom House Man Robert Halpin passed away in a Brighton hospital on 9 February 1953 following a long illness. He was survived by his widow, daughter and son and four siblings. His name was published with the middle name Turner in one obituary giving quite of bit of personal background. But there was no mention of the Old IRA or the Burning of the Custom House.
After a funeral service by the pastor of the local First Methodist Church, Robert (baptised a Roman Catholic) was buried in St Patrick Calvary Cemetery, further to the west on Brighton Lake Road. His widow Nellie continued to live in the family home and reached the great age of 100 years. In 2005 she was buried beside her second husband.
Their daughter Sally had married locally in 1952 to Charles ‘Chuck’ Bidwell and they had two girls. She passed away in 2018 aged 85, survived by her husband, both her daughters, 5 grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren. The local newspaper ran an informative obituary for a woman who sounds like an active contributor to her local community.
Unfortunately there is little information about Sally’s brother Bobby beyond where he resided when his sister died.
The Rest of the Halpins
That leaves two of Robert’s siblings whose stories haven’t appeared so far. Michael Kempis (born 1890 in Bessborough Avenue, Dublin), a Printer; and his youngest sibling, the only girl in the family, Gertrude Mary (born 1908).
Michael was working as a servant in a hotel at 4 Lower Sackville (now O’Connell) Street when the 1911 census was taken. The following October he landed in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. A few years later while living in Michigan and working as a restaurant/bar manager, he met Mabel May Davis, a cashier who was known as Lovey or Lovie (She was later to be a witness at Robert and Nellie’s wedding). In 1918 the couple got married in her native city, Toledo, Ohio. They settled in Detroit, Michigan and in 1926 had their only child, a son named John Michael (now deceased). Michael died in 1952 and his wife lived until 1978. They are buried in the same Brighton cemetery as Robert.
The baby of the Halpin family, Gertrude, also made a new life for herself in North America. In 1924 her brother Patrick (the anti-Treaty man we met earlier) paid her fare to Canada. Was it a case of him looking after his 16-year-old sister who would otherwise have been left unsupported in Dublin after the death of their mother and his own imprisonment? She initially went to a cousin in Ontario and resumed her schooling. In what looks like a nice sisterly gesture of reciprocation, she sailed back to Ireland in 1927 to meet Patrick on his release from Portlaoise Prison. That year they travelled together to the New World.
A Halpin In-Law World War Two Casualty
In 1929 Gertrude had married English-born James R. Cruddas in Windsor, Ontario. He had been baptised an Anglican but converted to Roman Catholicism. They had a daughter and two sons. In 1942 during World War II, James joined the Canadian Army. Sadly he was killed in action in the savage fighting in the Caen area of Normandy on 30 July 1944. James was a Trooper (driver) with the 8th Recce. Regiment of the 14th Canadian Hussars. He was aged 40 and had only arrived in France twelve days before. The grief in the Cruddas household in Ontario can only be imagined when this official letter was received.
Gertrude’s husband is buried in Beny-Sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, Calvados, France. Among his personal possession recovered were a set of rosary beads, a prayer book and family photo wallet.
His widow continued to live in Windsor and raised her children there. It is believed she died in 1979.
The Stay At Home Halpin Sibling
William became the sole family member who did not emigrate. He had been very badly shaken up by the 1921 shooting and the aftermath was tough too. But he managed to move on with his life, married in 1924 and raised a large family in Dublin. William is listed on the roll of E Coy, 2nd Battalion on 1 July 1922. so his IRA membership is clear. He worked for many years as the resident Attendant in Rathmines Town Hall. William died in 1969, followed in 1987 by his widow Nora (née Brogan). Both are buried in the Glasnevin grave of his mother and older brother Jack the victim of WWI.
On the same plot is a CWGC memorial recently added (showing Jack’s actual date of death).
The life and times of Robert Halpin emerged slowly after initial confusion with two other men of the same name (a father and son unrelated to him from Great Brunswick (now Pearse) Street who both served with the National Army in 1922). Then there seemed little information about the correct Robert until a few lucky breakthroughs online. Building a Halpin family tree on ancestry proved very worthwhile.
Remarkable Family Stories
As a result this article may be the first we’ve done which contains more about the family of a Custom House Prisoner than the man himself. Hopefully the Reader has found something of interest among their individual stories, involving hard times, low points, jails, wars, tragedies, happy days and second chances in life. Unsung in their native country, the Halpins left their mark on history to varying degrees and in different ways at home in Dublin. Then most of them settled in as successful citizens across the Atlantic. They have many descendants in Ireland, the USA and Canada, perhaps elsewhere too.
There is no indication of Robert’s Old IRA activities on his headstone in Brighton (now a suburb of Detroit) far from his home in Ballybough, Dublin. But the memory of this Custom House Man still lives on in his native place. RIP.
Thanks to contributors to findagrave.com and Brighton Area Historical Society on Facebook.