From rural Cavan to the City That Never Sleeps via Dublin, Liverpool and Buenos Aires sounds like an interesting journey. Add in the Tan War, internment in Kilmainham and Civil War service and you have a quick summary of the life of Bernard McGrath – before he settled in the USA. After all that, he sadly died only seven months after receiving his Service Medal in the early 1950s. But at least we now have a few more details about him to share.


Bernard was born on 4 June 1891 (see note at end) at Derrynananta Upper, Glangevlin, in the ‘neck’ of Co Cavan between neighbouring Leitrim and Fermanagh.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Bernard’s birthplace in Co Cavan (

His father Patrick was a Farmer who had 9 surviving children with his wife Celia Corrigan between 1882 and 1896. Bernard was the sixth of the seven McGrath boys, with just one sister.

Like most of his siblings, he left home for work in his teens. In 1911 he was a Farm Servant with the McManus family in Derrylester, Co Fermanagh not too far from his birthplace. His father Patrick died in 1917.

With Dublin Brigade

Following his subsequent move to Dublin he became a member of C Coy, 2nd Battalion. His Medal application summary shows his O/Cs as J. Burke, Andy Doyle and Oscar Traynor. Beyond that, no further details of his IRA service are available – with one exception. He was arrested at the Custom House on 25 May 1921.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Where Bernard was living at the time of the Burning (Google streetview)

At the time he was living at 9 O’Sullivan Avenue, off Ballybough Road. McGrath was among the main body of IRA captured that day and interned in Kilmainham Gaol.

A photo of him survives in Cyril Daly’s autograph book kept in the Gaol Museum.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Bernard’s photo with autograph (Kilmainham Gaol Museum)

There is also a hopeful romantic verse written by him in one of Dan Rooney’s autograph books. It’s not known who he meant – nor is the identity of the writer of the sarcastic remark addressed to “Barney”…

Courtesy of the Rooney family.

Civil War National Army

McGrath enlisted with the new Irish military forces on 28 February 1922 at Beggar’s Bush and became a member of Tom Ennis’ 2nd Eastern Division. He was posted to Portobello (now Cathal Brugha) Barracks as a Private in the Military Police (Army Census). Bernard was demobilised or resigned from the Army in the early part of 1924 and soon took a major decision and a new direction in life.

Off to the Americas

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
SS Desna carried Bernard to Argentina in 1924 (Statens maritima museer)

On 3 May 1924 he boarded a ship at Liverpool bound for the capital city of Argentina, Buenos Aires. His last address was 9 O’Sullivan Avenue, occupation Labourer. There were two other men from northside Dublin listed as passengers with him but it is not clear if they knew each other. Although Bernard stated his intention was to live permanently in Argentina, that did not come to pass. Passenger records imply he returned to Ireland and then sailed from Southampton to the USA in October 1926 on the SS Zeeland.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
McGrath emigrated to the USA on this vessel (Wikimedia Commons)

His said his occupation was Seaman and he was going to his brother John in New York City where other siblings also lived. The 1930 census shows Bernard working as a Subway Conductor and living in Brooklyn with his older brother Martin ‘Murty’ (who had arrived in 1929).

The following year Bernard became a naturalised US citizen. A poor quality, very unflattering ID photo from his petition paperwork is shown below.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
ID photo for US Naturalisation (ancestry)

Personal Life

Three years later Bernard married Grace Marie McDonough on 21 October in Brooklyn, NYC. She was the New York-born daughter of Irish immigrants who had landed in America during the early 1880s. His address was 199 Amsterdam Avenue and he moved in with his new wife at 417 64th Street in Brooklyn. By the 1940 census he had become an Agent for the GRT (Board of Transportation, City of New York). The McGraths did not have any children of their own. They did foster one young lad with Irish roots between 1943 and 1952 (see Reader Bob Glennon’s comment at end) and stayed living on 64th Street, the address for Bernard’s Tan War Medal awarded on 20 August 1952.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The McGraths’ old home (centre) in Brooklyn (Google streetview)

Bernard McGrath passed away at the age of 61 on 12 March the following year. Four days later he was laid to rest in Holy Cross Cemetery, Brooklyn, Sadly, his wife was to join him before 1954 was out.

Family Tribute

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Plenty of information in Bernard’s death notice

Bernard was the first of his generation to die, survived by his 8 siblings, all listed in the notice. Most of them were living in the USA at that point along with their widowed mother Celia. Late in life she had left Derrynananta with her eldest son Charles back in 1927 after he became a widower within a year of marriage. Mrs Celia McGrath died in New York in 1929.

The other US-based McGraths, including Murty, did have children and his granddaughter Pat Fox-Butler was recently in touch. She had been aware of her granduncle Bernard’s IRA past and mentioned that family lore also connected her Grandad, who died in 1978, with the movement.

We are glad to be be able to give some acknowledgement to another largely forgotten Custom House Man and his family who rest in graves far away from home.

Des White

Note: Most US records show Bernard’s date of birth as 15 December 1890. This may well be correct, but his official Irish birth record states the one used above.