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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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 one of 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
Very 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.
Comment by Maureen Griffin — February 23, 2021 @ 11:18 pm
That’s my grandad. Thanks so much. That’s amazing. My own dad didn’t have that info.
Comment by chcadmin — February 23, 2021 @ 11:28 pm
Great to hear from you and pleased you liked the article on your grandfather. He led an amazing life.
Pity your father didn’t know the story but he couldn’t access online what we can now.
I don’t suppose you can answer the burning (sorry) question we have? What false name did Joseph Griffin use when he was arrested and jailed?
A tribute to his cleverness that we can’t work it out, 100 years later.
Thanks for getting in touch.
Comment by Anne — February 23, 2021 @ 11:50 pm
Omg!!! My grandfather… Absolutely fantastic piece… Wow thank you… My mom was Joan Griffin
Comment by chcadmin — February 24, 2021 @ 1:09 am
Thanks for your kind comment, Anne.
My pleasure to have written about a great Irishman.
All the best
Comment by Maureen Griffin — February 24, 2021 @ 12:48 am
Thanks again, I am pretty sure it was Murphy but will ask my uncle for clarification. The whole family are thrilled and delighted with this wonderful article. We all have bits and bobs of info. We all knew he was with Harry Boland when he died and that it had affected him deeply but to get the nuts and bolts of the actions he was involved in is amazing. The recognition he is finally receiving. We all knew he was a great man. He was also very humble. And therfore not much has been written about him in the history books. He was the quiet man. Full of integrity and honour and as you said a very devout Catholic. As soon as I find out for sure what his false name is I will let you know.
Thanks again. There is a huge family delerious with all this info tonight.
Comment by Maureen Griffin — February 24, 2021 @ 7:27 am
According to this article he gave the name John J Murphy. I can’t vouch for its accuracy. But I do remember reading witness statements I discovered were available online and of course can’t find now, and they mentioned it too if I remember correctly. But I could be mistaken.
Link to article: https://www.independent.ie/regionals/fingalindependent/localnotes/anniversary-of-morning-when-td-taken-from-grand-hotel-27776163.html
Comment by chcadmin — February 25, 2021 @ 12:35 am
Many thanks for taking the time to send that link.
So Joe made a habit of using false names – as an intelligence officer, why not!
I’ll send you an email.
Comment by Griffin Joanna — February 24, 2021 @ 10:50 am
What an amazing in depth article Des. Joe Griffin was my husband Noel’s grandfather (Noel Griffin was his Dad)
I had heard many stories about Joe but it’s wonderful to have it written down to hand over to the next generation. What an incredible man!
Comment by chcadmin — February 25, 2021 @ 12:32 am
Thanks for your kind comments. I’m relieved my effort has gone down well with Joe’s family!
All the best
Comment by Noel Griffin — March 10, 2021 @ 4:06 pm
Des thank you for this wonderful piece of historic and family treasure. Its wonderful to see it written down. I still remember Grandad Joe Griffin well even though I was a child, and the amazing stories overhearing my father, uncles and aunts talking about his life and exploits. The abiding memory I have of his philosophy was service, humility, a deep sense of concern for the welfare of employees, fair play in sharing the spoils of their stake in an enterprise. I remember hearing wonderful stories about how he dealt discretely with IR issues directly and behind the scenes, a belief his eldest son inherited in business during the Waterford glass decades. Always looking at the human picture rather than just the balance sheet. A true patriot believed in working hard for his community and nation, who believed enterprise was the best way to generate good employment and raise living standards for all. My father was immensely proud of his father (Grand dad) and his contribution to humanity and the birth of our nation. Thank you again for this wonderful piece.
Comment by chcadmin — March 10, 2021 @ 6:18 pm
Thanks very much for those insights and the nice feedback.
I’m just relieved I managed to correctly interpret the vibes about your grandfather from the research sources!
But I bet your family could write up a far better life of Joe Griffin.
By the way, apologies I messed up after your previous comment. Drafted a reply but never sent it….
All the best
Comment by Kathleen satchwell — April 25, 2021 @ 8:22 pm
Joe Griffin was the maternal uncle of my mother Margaret Beaton. His father , Martin Griffin, left Tralee with all 7 children , but without his wife and mother of the children , Ellen ( born Kirby) after 1901. Martin and the 7 children came to South Africa where they lived in Kimberley and on the Witwatersrand.
The second eldest child was Margaret , Maggie, who trained as a nurse in South Africa, served as a military nurse in WW1 and married Hector Beaton, from the Isle of Skye. They lived in Springs outside Johannesburg where my mother was born.
Martin Griffin did not return to Ireland. However all but two of the children did return to their mother Ellen in Tralee.
When my parents , Margaret Beaton now married to Murray Satchwell, lived in England after the War – Uncle Joe was very kind to my mother and often said that his sister and her mother, Maggie, had looked after him like a mother .
What is of interest is why my great grandmother, Ellen Griffin, did not go to South Africa, how could Martin Griffin take all those children, how did some of the children return without a parent???
I would love to know.
Comment by chcadmin — April 25, 2021 @ 9:31 pm
Many thanks for your fascinating addition to the story.
I did wonder what became of Joe’s father. Amazed to learn of his departure to South Africa!
I’ll send you an email.
All the best
Comment by Kay O'Leary — May 21, 2021 @ 8:20 am
A fantastic article. Just wondering if you know what part of Kerry Joe Griffins father Martin was from?
Comment by chcadmin — May 21, 2021 @ 11:30 am
Thank you for your interest and for that kind feedback.
Will check with the family about your query and let you know.
All the best
Comment by Sam Quirke — July 28, 2022 @ 5:39 am
Hi Des, great article. Can you shed more light on the statement regarding the Custom House men who didn’t fare so well in life after the war? Any specific names or stories?
Comment by chcadmin — August 1, 2022 @ 2:30 am
Thanks for the feedback and question.
Sadly too many Lads had their lives shortened or fell on hard times after their fight was all over, or lost in the case of anti-Treaty men.
Most ASU men did not survive long after the physical and mental hardships they went through – on the run, out in all weathers, jail and worse.
Many Old IRA were forced to emigrate either from economic necessity or their unbending allegiance to the Republic.
May I suggest you search “They Died Far Too Young” or “No Country for Old IRA Men” on this site. They are series of articles on guys such as George Gray, Chris Byrne, Richard Downes, Phil Flynn, Michael Duggan and several others in different circumstances like Sean Sliney.
Hope you’ll find some tales of interest.
If you’d like any further specifics, drop us a line on email at email@example.com
All the best