You could say Joe Griffin lived up to the Cute Kerryman tag. He kept his real identity to himself and his comrades during captivity in Kilmainham. Griffin must be the only man to have taken part in destroying British records in two Custom Houses. And, during the Civil War, while serving as IRA Director of Intelligence, he survived the raid in which Harry Boland was mortally wounded. Joe was also clever enough to later enjoy a long and successful career in business.

Origins and Background

The neighbourhood where Joe Griffin was born and grew up in Tralee, very close to the town’s Custom House (OSI)

Joseph John Martin Griffin was born on 9 January 1900 in Stoughton’s Row, off High Street, Tralee. One of eight surviving children for Cattle Dealer Martin and his wife Ellen née Kirby, Joe was educated by the Christian Brothers. At the age of 17 he passed the Civil Service entrance examination and was posted to Limerick as an Income Tax Officer.

In 1918 he was transferred back to his home town where he joined the local Battalion of the Irish Volunteers. He was an active and committed member who followed Volunteer orders on the Oath of Allegiance to the crown newly demanded of Irish Civil Servants. GHQ required them either to refuse the Oath or resign from the organisation. Joe was duly dismissed from his job in November.

Joins Dublin Brigade

In early 1919 Griffin moved to Dublin to do income tax claim work in the employment of Joe MacDonagh, brother of executed 1916 Proclamation signatory Thomas. He also transferred to Dublin Brigade, G Coy, 1st Battalion, undertaking organisation and training work as well as raiding for arms and organising policing activities.

During 1920 he became Battalion Intelligence Officer (IO) under Peadar Clancy and was then promoted Brigade IO with Dick McKee as his O/C. However, one of his major jobs took place in his native Kerry. Under orders from GHQ, Griffin assisted in the destruction of British Income Tax records from the Tralee Custom House on 3 April.

Record showing Joe Griffin’s involvement in the Tralee Custom House Raid (Military Archives, Brigade Activity Reports)

He was attached to A Coy (Strand Street), 9th Battalion, Kerry No. 1 Brigade for the operation. In all, a half ton of papers were taken out of the building and burned!

Fallout from the Tralee Custom House raid

Arrested!

Back in Dublin later that year, on the evening of 21 October Joe was arrested along with six others in a military raid on 11 Great Denmark Street when ammunition and seditious literature were allegedly found. Griffin was described as 5 foot 9 inches tall, 145 pounds in weight with brown hair (other sources say red), blue eyes and a fresh complexion.

British record of Griffin’s arrest with others in October 1920 (findmypast)

Three of the men were quickly released, but the other four, including Griffin, refused to be photographed by the authorities (This was a new practice introduced by Col. Winter, known as ‘O’, the Police Advisor and head of the ‘Secret Service’ bureau in Dublin Castle). For that, they were remanded in custody, charged under the ROIR and sentenced to one month in Mountjoy Prison. Allowance was made for time served and the four were free by early December.

Griffin returned to his Intelligence activity, now working with Brigadier Oscar Traynor, the new Dublin Brigade O/C following the murders of Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy on Bloody Sunday.

His Second Custom House Raid

Joe Griffin would have been heavily involved in planning the Dublin Custom House attack and subsequently took part in the Burning on 25 May 1921. However, unlike the Tralee job the previous year, it did not go to plan. This time, he ended up among the men captured. Having been previously arrested, he decided to use a false identity – only possible because he’d evaded that police mugshot the year before.

From Cyril Daly‘s autograph book (Kilmainham Gaol Museum)

He was not so reticent in front of the Custom House Fire Brigade’s secret camera. He also signed his real name, as Gaeilge, in a Kilmainham autograph book. His alias remains a mystery which we have failed to solve. The sign of a top class Intelligence Officer?

Civil War

Free again, Joe Griffin resumed his Brigade Staff Officer role. In early 1922 when the IRA fractured over the Treaty he became Director of Intelligence for the Executive forces – among his staff were two other Custom House Men Jim Gibbons and Paddy Rigney (see MSP34REF3493) – and was among the men who set up HQ in the Four Courts. When the Garrison surrendered on 30 June, Griffin, along with Ernie O’Malley, Sean Lemass, Paddy Rigney and Paddy O’Brien slipped away from temporary detention in the nearby Jameson’s Distillery. He then took part in the fighting in O’Connell Street and managed to evade re-capture at that stage.

Harry Boland

However, on the night of 31 July/1 August 1922, another tragic event took place at which Griffin was present. He was in the Grand Hotel, Skerries, Co Dublin with Harry Boland T.D., acting Dublin Brigade IRA Quartermaster, when National Army troops raided and discovered the two Republican officers.

As many Readers will know, Boland was shot in contentious circumstances and later died. Joe Griffin was arrested unscathed, but the death of his comrade deeply affected him and, even decades later, any mention caused him distress.

He was interned in Maryborough (Portlaoise) Prison where he claims he was O/C Republican Prisoners and “planned and organised the destruction of the Prison in an unsuccessful effort to escape”, and then Tintown Camp, Curragh until September 1923.

Business and Private Life

After release Joe Griffin went back to income tax refund work with MacDonagh Boland Accountants (although partner Joe MacDonagh had died on Christmas Day 1922). In September 1925 Griffin married Mary ‘Maureen’ Nicholson, a Clerk and Bank Manager’s daughter, in Donnybrook Church. His best man was Cecil Malley, a fellow Custom House Brigade Man and brother of Ernie O’Malley.

The following year he set up his own business with Michael Lynch, establishing Griffin, Lynch & Co., Chartered Accountants with head office on Westmoreland Street, Dublin and a branch in his hometown, Tralee. The firm specialised in income tax claims and became successful in its field. In 1933, Griffin left to take up an appointment as Secretary of the new semi-state Irish Sugar Company (Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann Teo.) which at that point had a single factory in Carlow.

An example of the tough job Griffin faced in getting Irish Sugar off the ground

The new concern faced many initial challenges but became a success. By the time Griffin moved on from his role five years later, there were four factories in operation and output had quadrupled.

Joe Griffin is 2nd from left in the back row at the 1939 Dublin Brigade reunion which included several other senior figures involved in the Burning (From Liz Gillis’ Revolution in Dublin).

Griffin also involved himself in politics, joining Dev’s Fianna Fáil for which he was Co. Dublin director of elections during the 1932 General Election. This was, of course the historic breakthrough victory for the party which went on to hold power for most of the rest of the 20th century.

Following the introduction of the 1934 Military Pensions Act Griffin had been awarded £140 per annum for 7 years service. In 1938 he was reinstated to the Civil Service as a Principal Officer with the Department of Supplies (and his Military Pension ceased). He served in the key role of Controller of Prices and Secretary of the Prices Commission for the duration of the Emergency (World War II). In his day, he became one of the most well-known Civil Servants (a bit like State CMO Dr Tony Holohan is now).

At the end of the conflict in 1945 he resigned from the Civil Service and took up a senior position as assistant to former IRA man Joe McGrath, managing director of Hospitals Trust Ltd., the Sweepstakes (That meant his military pension resumed). In 1946 he became joint-owner, again with Joe McGrath, and a director of Irish Glass Bottle Ltd. (IGB) a major employer in Ringsend, Dublin.

By that stage the Griffin family had grown to include seven children. Sadly another daughter had died as an infant in 1940. They had moved house from Sandymount to Rathmines and later relocated to Blackrock, Co Dublin.

Career Goes from Strength to Strength

In the 1950s Joe Griffin’s profile as a leading ‘industrialist’ (a term of the times) grew in Irish business circles In addition to his senior roles in the Sugar Company, Sweepstakes and IGB, he served as a board director of the Irish Press newspaper, the semi-state Industrial Credit Corporation and a few private companies. Moving with the times, he also set up Irish Plastic Packaging in the early 1960s.

Human Relations

During his tenure as joint managing director of IGB, he worked hard to ensure harmonious industrial relations which to him simply meant human relations. Among the company-funded facilities for IGB employees were two social clubhouses and an on-site oratory.

In this 1954 photo at IBG, Joe Griffin is 2nd from left at back, with Joe McGrath 2nd left seated (Irish Press)

Like many contemporaries, he was a devoutly religious man. But he appears to have applied that in practice, through a Christian ethos in business. He was regarded as a decent and fair-minded boss and enjoyed a good reputation in business dealings.

Through IGB in 1950, Griffin and McGrath were also behind the revival of the once-extensive Waterford crystal industry. Reformed as Waterford Glass it was subsequently transformed into a world-renowned success. This was largely due to Joe Griffin’s long-standing personal interest and guidance.

Among the Kingdom’s Famous

Kerryman photo, December 1954

In 1954, the Kerryman newspaper included Griffin on a list titled “Some Who left Kerry and Achieved Distinction”. A selection of other luminaries were leading Volunteers like Thomas Ashe, The O’Rahilly and Austin Stack; Patrick Shortis (KIA Easter 1916); and Batt O’Connor, close friend and ally of Michael Collins; Peig Sayers of schooldays Irish class infamy; Tom Crean, Antarctic explorer; Dublin shopkeeper Denis Guiney; Janie McCarthy, a decorated WWII French Resistance figure; Kathleen O’Connell, de Valera’s private secretary; US labor union organiser Mike Quill; literary figures J.J. O’Kelly ‘Sceilg’ and ‘An Seabhac’ (Pádraig Ó Siochfradha); and John Joe Sheehy (ex-Chief Warden of Sing Sing Prison). Naturally in ‘Holy Catholic Ireland’, a host of clerics made the list. Most notable was the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ of the Vatican Monsignor Hugh J. O’Flaherty (It emerged much later he had saved thousands from Nazi terror in Italy during the Second World War).

Industrialist and Educationalist

Joe Griffin was also among the prime movers behind the Irish Management Institute (IMI) which still provides training and qualifications for managers in Irish businesses. He was a founder director and gave many lectures in the IMI to inspire others. A regular public speaker at business meetings and functions, he believed strongly in third level education and was a member of a 1960s Commission on Higher Education. Griffin promoted the argument for stronger links between universities and companies to create mutual benefits for businesses and graduates. His vision was acted on and, today, many universities offer business degree courses.

Final Years

In 1963 Griffin suffered a serious illness which left him partially paralysed. He retired from business in 1965, apart from his directorship of IGB (His eldest son Noel had become managing director there and also at Waterford Glass. Sadly he drowned aged 55 in 1981). Reflecting the esteem in which Joe Griffin was held, the whole workforce of IGB voluntarily subscribed to a retirement gift for him.

Two years later, on 2 March 1967, Joseph Griffin passed away at home in Blackrock, Co Dublin.

Irish Press obituary

Irish newspapers ran obituaries paying tribute to his activities with the IRA in the War of Independence and Civil War; and detailing his successful business career. He was survived by his widow Maureen (1901-1999), five sons, two daughters and one sister, Kathleen, living in England.

The Griffin Family plot (discovereverafter.com)

Joe’s funeral to Deansgrange Cemetery was attended by President de Valera, Taoiseach Sean Lemass and other former Old IRA figures such as C.S. ‘Todd’ Andrews, Sean McEntee, Tom McEllistrim and Joe McGrath. Dublin Brigade Old IRA and Na Fianna were represented. His coffin was draped with the tricolour and military honours were rendered at the graveside (Plot A/126, North section). The attendance also included other Old IRA comrades as well as union representatives and employees from the companies Joe Griffin had been closely involved with over the years. He was well regarded as a boss.

So ended the remarkable life of a man from Tralee who rose in the ranks of the Old IRA and then followed an upward arc in business circles. His story is fairly untypical among Custom House Men who, in general, were not so fortunate in life after their Volunteer days.

Legacy of Building Ireland

It’s a matter for discussion whether martyrdom in Dying for Ireland’s Cause is often given more weight when it comes to determining who advanced the country’s situation. With due respect to the fallen, that mindset can overshadow constructive activities by many who survived the struggle. Exceptions may be Todd Andrews and Sean Lemass, while Dev is highly debatable! Among the Custom House Men who helped build the independent Irish state are Oscar Traynor and Joe Griffin. Both lived through the wars, went against the Treaty and found success in their chosen career. The former followed a political path, the other a business one. But “n’ere the twain shall meet” did not apply.

It is hard to deny that Joe Griffin’s political connections and the IRA old-boy network helped a little by opening some doors for him. Yet those opportunities needed to be grasped and built upon. In fairness, his sustained success must be credited to his own intelligence, skills, hard work and commitment to Irish businesses.

Interestingly (and subject to correction) every one of the companies in which Griffin operated are, like himself, sadly long gone. That is no reflection on the man – it happened well after his time.

In their prime, each outfit contributed to the Irish economy and provided jobs for many. But nothing in this world lasts forever. So it may have been for the best that Joe Griffin did not see the sad demise of his two favourite companies. IGB and Waterford Glass were taken over by multi-nationals and eventually closed on financial grounds. The latter finished with an employee sit-in over redundancy payments. An outcome unthinkable under Griffin’s control.

Few, if any, of Joe Griffin’s Custom House Fire Brigade comrades operated in company boardroom environments like he did. He does, however, have one thing in common with nearly all of them. His name, patriotism and many achievements are unfamiliar to most people today. But not entirely forgotten.

Des White