A chance mention of a household chore for Custom House Man Patrick Sharkey set in motion a famous Irish assassination attempt in 1919. Small talk between two Volunteers one December evening led to an ambush on the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland being mounted the next day. So says Vinny Byrne in his Witness Statement.

Contrasting Experiences

He and Paddy Sharkey had a few things in common – membership of the same Dublin Brigade IRA Company, parts in the Custom House attack and later National Army service. But beyond that their experiences and legacies diverged widely. Byrne, a young veteran of 1916, went on to take part in the ill-fated Ashtown ambush, Sharkey didn’t.

Even 25 May 1921 ended differently for them – Vinny got away, Paddy was arrested. Byrne was a noted member of the Squad and his IRA career is very well documented. Sharkey’s activities are mostly unknown. In later life Vinny had a public profile and led many Old IRA commemorations, Paddy never did. It’s a similar story with obituaries.

As a result one of their names is famous and celebrated in Irish history, the other largely forgotten. So let’s try and change that in a small way by telling what is known of Paddy Sharkey.

Origins and Background

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Paddy’s birthplace at lower left and, upper right, where Viscount French, a future adversary, had his private residence (OSI)

Patrick Joseph was named for his paternal grandfather and shared the name with his father, a Railway Guard from Dooneen, Co Roscommon. His mother was Catherine (née Flynn) from Ballaghaderreen (Transferred from Co Mayo to Roscommon in 1898). Patrick junior was born there on 19 November 1899, the first of an eventual 11 surviving children, a mix of boys and girls including twins.

As was normal for many rail workers, the father’s job took the family to different parts. This is shown by the birthplaces of the other kids – Newry, Co Down (1900) and Dublin City (from 1905) where the Sharkeys lived in Rutland Cottages, then Summerhill Place just around the corner.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The ‘Block’ where the Sharkeys lived in Dublin (OSI)

About 1918 they settled at 1 Bella Street close by, off Lower Rutland Street on the city’s northside.

It is known that Paddy Sharkey was a member of E Coy, 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade at latest by the first year of the War of Independence. But the only information about his IRA activities before the Burning as yet in the public arena relates to his indirect role in two attempted high-profile attacks in Dublin. For the first, he provided intelligence. On the second occasion it seems he played an inadvertent but vital role.

Ambushes at Ashtown

The fiercely unionist Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Sir John French, had been a target for assassination by the newly-named IRA since the start of the War of Independence. However, he led a charmed life. Planned attempts were either abandoned for fear of civilian casualties or called off as he managed to avoid anticipated travel routes. These operations had been due to occur in the heart of Dublin.

However, French owned a residence in Co Roscommon. He travelled to and from there by train via Ashtown station close to his official residence, the Vice-Regal Lodge (now Áras an Uachtaráin) in Phoenix Park. That was how Paddy Sharkey’s father’s railway job led to two events in December 1919. Mr Sharkey happened to work out of Broadstone station on specially-designated trains (i.e. on government business) run by the Midland Great Western Railway.

On 10 December, Paddy Sharkey passed on word from his father to Tom Ennis, his Coy O/C. Ennis immediately contacted Mick McDonnell, O/C of the early Squad – French would be departing Ashtown station shortly after 11pm that night.

Fortunately for the target and to the frustration of the assembled attackers, nothing happened. The train was indeed kept ready under steam at the Broadstone, but French was a no-show. Mick McDonnell’s Witness Statement says he heard later that the Lord Lieutenant had taken too much drink at a function in his official residence and was unable to travel!

Another Opportunity

Eight days later the glimmer of a second chance arose for Dublin Brigade. That evening, Vinny Byrne was in the Sean Connolly Sinn Féin Club sitting beside Paddy Sharkey. The two were chatting when Sharkey announced he had to go. Byrne slagged him about a hot date, but there was a far more mundane reason. Paddy said he was due at home to make up his dad’s lunch basket for work the next day.

What emerged got Vinny’s mind racing. “….I asked him what was the basket for and he told me his father was a guard on the railway and that he was going down to Roscommon “to bring ould French back to Dublin tomorrow morning”.

I said: “Oh, is that so?” then asked him what time his father would be back in Dublin, and he told me about eleven or twelve o’clock.

When Sharkey left the Club, I immediately went to [Squad O/C] Mick McDonnell’s house …. and reported to him what I had heard. Mick said: “That’s the best bit of news I’ve heard for a long time”. The next thing he said was: “You had better be here in the morning at about ten o’clock, as we might have a go on French….. ”

In all probability there was no other time in Irish or world history when a man’s lunch basket triggered an attempted political assassination!

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Lieutenant Martin Savage (1897-1919) – Wikipedia

On a serious note it had tragic consequences for Lieut. Martin Savage, Assistant Quarter Master, 2nd Battalion who was the only fatality at Ashtown. Ironically, he had insisted in taking part even though not mobilised. A shortage of men meant he was included.

Others notable among the assassination unit were the Famous Four from Tipperary (Messrs Breen, Treacy, Hogan and Robinson) and other future Custom House Men Paddy O’Daly, Joe Leonard, Tom Kilcoyne and Tom Kehoe. The man who would be O/C at the Burning, Tom Ennis, played a liaison role and also dramatically saved Dublin Brigade records from capture. There are several accounts online, but we will offer two Vinny Byrne sources for interested Readers:

At The Burning

Paddy was still living at home on Bella Street when he was among the many E Coy men picked to carry out the destruction of the Custom House. Following his arrest and a few weeks in Arbour Hill, he was one of the large contingent sent to Kilmainham Gaol and not freed until 8 December 1921.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Page from Cyril Daly’s autograph book (Kilmainham Gaol Museum)

After release he rejoined his unit and, like the vast majority of his Company comrades decided to support the Treaty. Sharkey enlisted in the Dublin Guard on 23 February 1922, at Beggars Bush. He served with Kerry Command at the rank of Sergeant during the Civil War and is shown at Rathmore in the Army Census.

Family Life

Paddy Sharkey was still with the Army in 1925, based in Dublin, when he married Catherine ‘Kathleen’ Hughes, a Farmer’s daughter. The wedding was held 27 July in her local church at the (then) rural village of Blanchardstown, Co Dublin.

The couple went on to have a large family while living on the city’s northside and subsequently in the south suburbs. After leaving the Defence Forces Paddy got a job in the Board of Works. He used to have a drink in Crumlin with his old IRA and Army comrade William Deering (ex-A Coy, 3rd Battalion), grandfather of Group co-founder Gary.

The year 1957 proved a very sad one for Paddy Sharkey. His father and his wife Kathleen both passed away within 2 months of each other. His mother followed in 1963. Five years later he attended his pal William Deering’s funeral.

Custom House Man Patrick Joseph Sharkey himself died on 28 March 1986, aged eighty six. He was a retired widower, late of 89 Downpatrick, Road, Crumlin. The family death announcement noted his past military career with the Department of Defence and Old IRA. Paddy was mourned by his children, grandchildren, brother, sisters and extended family at his funeral to Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold’s Cross.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Patrick Sharkey around 1984 (courtesy of his grandson Kevin McCann).

Paddy’s grandson recalls meeting him as a child and says it was Paddy’s youngest siblings, twin sisters Margaret and Bridget who identified his photo and address in the Kilmainham Gaol autograph book which appears above (see comment below). The two women lived to great ages. When Margaret passed away in 2009 she was ninety-eight. Bridie survived her by six years and had reached the remarkable age of 105 years before passing away.

We are please to join with Kevin McCann in remembering his grandfather and Custom House Fire Brigade Man Patrick Sharkey.

Des White

Note: Two other men named Patrick Sharkey were awarded Tan War Medals for service with Na Fianna Éireann in Dublin (Military Archives references MD2389 and MD5191). Neither was related to the subject of the above article.