While history may have forgotten Thomas Bates, he was accorded military honours at his funeral 65 years ago. His contribution in the War of Independence and Civil War deserves the same respect today as it did back then. Now we can re-tell his story for a new audience.


Thomas Peter Bates was born on 28 June 1896 in Portrane, a small coastal village in north Co. Dublin. Its most well-known feature apart from the sandy beach is the former St. Ita’s Mental Hospital (originally named Lunatic Asylum), an imposing red-bricked complex visible for miles around. In later life he would work there. But he would have some interesting adventures before that.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Where Thomas Bates was born and lived most of his life (townlands.ie)

He was third of four surviving children of Thomas and Bridget Bates (originally a Coyne from the west of Ireland) and had a brother Harry and sisters Kate and Mary. Their dad was a Carpenter and the younger Thomas would grow up to learn a trade as well. But first the family moved to an area of nearby Donabate called Ballalease North. He went to school locally in advance of completing an apprenticeship as a Fitter.

With the IRA

Moving to Dublin city, Bates joined 2nd Battalion Engineers, Dublin Brigade in 1917. He was transferred to No. 2 Section of the dedicated 5th (Engineers) Battalion on its formation.

Unfortunately we are short on details about what activities he took part in. But as an Engineering Volunteer his duties would have involved working with tools and materials in connection with demolitions, communications and transport as well as anything needing assembly, building, repair or maintenance. As a qualified Fitter he would have been a valuable asset.

Meanwhile, back at home in Donabate, Thomas and family suffered a close bereavement in May 1920 when their father passed away.

The Custom House

On 25 May 1921 it appears Thomas took part in the Burning attached to the 2nd rather than with the 5th Battalion contingent who were tasked with cutting communications links (All those men successfully withdrew). So he would have been on duty carrying incendiary materiel into the building, then helping to break up furniture and douse rooms with paraffin. He became one of the men rounded up by crown forces. Bates gave his home address as 28 Goldsmith Street, Phibsborough.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Thomas’s house in 1921 looking very well 100 years later.

The road is close to Mountjoy Prison, but luckily he avoided being sent there on a serious charge.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Some famous names on the streets where Thomas lived in 1921 (OSI Maps)

Instead it was to Arbour Hill Detention Barracks and then internment in Kilmainham Gaol.

Thomas was snapped there by his comrades for Cyril Daly’s autograph book during captivity.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Courtesy Kilmainham Gaol Museum

He was in Cell 33, Section A of Kilmainham Gaol and wrote an entry in at least one other comrades’ autograph book. This is the patriotic verse he left in Dan Rooney’s:

“When Ireland first rose from the dark swelling flood

God blessed that dear island and saw it was good

The emerald of Europe, it sparkled and shone

In the ring of the World, the most precious stone”

Thomas Bates, 17 August 1921

National Army Service

After release in December 1921, Bates rejoined his unit and on 10 February 1922 enlisted in the new National Army at South Wall, Dublin city. He was made a Lieutenant and posted to the Supply and Transport Corps, serving with Kerry Command during the Civil War. In the Army Census of November 1922 he is listed at Ballymullen Barracks in Tralee.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The Barracks at Ballymullen Street, Tralee (Wikipedia)

Later Years

In peacetime Thomas left the Army and resumed work as a Fitter. He joined the engineering staff of St. Ita’s in Portrane. In such a vast complex he and his colleagues would have been kept busy with maintenance work in the buildings erected back in 1903.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The now abandoned St. Ita’s Hospital in Portrane

His widowed mother passed away in 1947 and his three siblings got married. Thomas himself remained single and lived on Portrane Road, Donabate.

After more than 20 years working in St. Ita’s he fell seriously ill in 1955 and was admitted to Jervis Street Hospital in Dublin city. The condition was terminal and he passed away on 15 October that year aged 59. Thomas Peter Bates was survived by his siblings and their spouses, cousins, other in-laws, nephews and a niece.

Military Honours

The family death notice included his service with the Engineers Battalion and National Army. The national papers ran obituaries. The local Drogheda Independent helpfully published the most detailed version plus a photograph.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Drogheda Independent photo, 1955.

It also carried a report on his funeral to the graveyard adjoining St. Patrick’s Church, Donabate. An Army honour guard fired three volleys over Thomas’s coffin and the Last Post was sounded by a bugler. Local Fianna Fáil T. D. Patrick J. ‘Bishop’ Burke, delivered a graveside oration. Thankfully any old Civil War divisions were put aside for the occasion. Burke was of course a member of the political party which had evolved from the anti-Treaty side. Against whom Thomas Bates had fought.

A fitting final tribute to the Fingal man with Dublin Brigade Engineers who helped burn the Custom House 100 years ago. RIP.

Des White