Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Seán Sliney was among the Dublin ASU’s “Littlers” captured at the Burning. But his story belies his small physical stature.

As one of the men allegedly armed when arrested by the Auxies, he was lucky to survive beatings, evade the noose and make it through the Civil War.

Sadly he did not live a long life afterwards. Nowadays his name is relatively unknown. However, thanks to his family we can give you some insights into the man.


He was born on 2 September 1899 at 2a Derrynane Parade close to Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail in Phibsborough. His name was registered as John Slyney (not the last variation to appear).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Two of Seán’s addresses, where he was born and one place he lived in later (OSI Maps)

Seán’s dad James had been born to Irish parents in Pembroke, Wales where his father John was stationed as a Coastguard. While James was still a tot, they were transferred to the Coastguard Station in Courtmacsherry, Co Cork. At the age of 15 James joined the navy. He followed in his father’s footsteps and became a Coastguard too. After James retired from that service he settled in Dublin marrying a local lass Mary Ellen (originally Kelly) hailing from Royal Canal Terrace. James found work as a cook in Mountjoy Prison. They also had four daughters, three older than Seán.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
A lovely studio portrait of young Seán with his parents and sisters (Yvonne Sliney)

The 1911 Census shows the family had moved to 15 Lower Dominick Street, closer to the city centre. However, five months later the father James died in the Mater Hospital aged 60. Mary Ellen was left to rear their five young kids, four still in school.

Seán became a Basket Maker after leaving school and continued living at home. To support the family his widowed mother had to go out to work herself. Her great great granddaughter Yvonne Sliney says she was actually working in the kitchen of the GPO at the time of the Rising.

IRA Career

In 1917 her only son joined the Irish Volunteers, A Coy, 3rd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade. Volunteer Seán Sliney was selected for the ASU in 1920. Sadly in that same year he lost his sister Katie aged just 21.

With ASU No. 1 Section under his O/C Tom Flood, he was involved in all the major actions undertaken by his unit, mostly on the city’s northside. These included:

  • A raid on Shelbourne Road Post Office, 15 December 1920. Mail addressed to the Auxiliaries’ HQ at Beggar’s Bush Barracks and a police Ford car were seized. There was a gunfight but no casualties among the ASU;
  • An ambush on an Auxy lorry at St Peter’s Phibsborough Chapel;
  • The burning of military tenders at Fairview and Newcomen Bridge;
  • Two ambushes on Auxiliary tenders at Ormond Quay by the Liffeyside; and
  • The shooting of a police despatch rider on Mary Street, 12 April 1921. Interestingly, he says the target was Lord French’s despatcher.
Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
His journey from home to the Custom House wasn’t a long one. His return took a very different and winding path! (OSI Maps)

In addition, he transported weapons around the city. Says his granddaughter Yvonne “My Grandad was a gun smuggler, cycling around the town with guns and ammunition carried in his little satchel. It brings a smile to my face just thinking of him pedalling around on his bike with his bag of tricks“. Carrying weapons and ammo between shooting jobs and arms dumps was yet another hazardous task for some of the Volunteers and their female associates in Cumann na mBan.

Sliney was mobilised for the Burning on 25 May 1921 and was on duty indoors. Unfortunately for him, he did not manage to evade the Auxiliaries when they surrounded and entered the burning building. He was caught in a hallway along with his O/C Tom Flood and a few more ASU men. They had made sure to discard their weapons into the flames but the Auxies who rounded them up still claimed they were caught armed.

Custom House Arrest

Seán became one of sixteen men separated from the general crowds in and around the building. They were destined for special treatment by the Auxies.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
National Museum of Ireland

According to his family, he is 4th from left, beside Johnny Wilson, in the iconic photo above showing a group of IRA held captive under the Railway bridge beside the Custom House.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Arrest sheet for “John Shiley, in possession of a revolver”

“High Treason”

After thorough searches and rough questioning on the spot, they were arrested and taken to Dublin Castle. The group were subjected to savage beatings during interrogations over a number of days. It was a brutal experience for the captives. Most were transferred to Kilmainham Gaol, with six being sent to Mountjoy Prison:

  • Paddy Brunton (Prisoner 541)
  • John Shiley, Sliley or Sliney (Prisoner 542)
  • John James Wilson (Prisoner 543)
  • James T Shiels, actually Tom Flood (Prisoner 544)
  • Ned Breslin (Prisoner 545)
  • Michael Watchorn (Prisoner 546).
Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
This time he’s called Sliley, corrected to Sliney.

The authorities definitely had difficulties with Sean’s surname! But presumably they recorded his physical details correctly – 5 foot tall, weight 122 pounds (45.5 kg), black hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion. Men the size of himself and Jackie Foy were jokingly but fondly termed “Littlers” by their taller comrades.

Seán was known to the governor of the prison because his father James had worked there in the past. As handed down to Seán’s granddaughter Yvonne, the official’s greeting to the younger Sliney was “You’re a disgrace to your country and to your father!”

He and the other five were charged with High Treason and slated for Court Martial. They were kept in solitary confinement in the condemned cells. In a dream one night, Yvonne says, her grandad Seán’s deceased sister Katie appeared to him, assuring him he would be reprieved.

Escapes Hanging

Had proceedings taken their course, it is almost certain the result would have meant guilty verdicts and death sentences. However, Katie’s words from beyond the grave came true. All six were spared the noose by a combination of three events:

  • Tom Flood having his appendix removed on 10 July 1921 which postponed any trial for the six men;
  • The Truce coming into effect the next day which suspended hostilities and all courts martial of civilians; and
  • The ratification of the Treaty on 7 January 1922 leading to an amnesty for offences against British rule before the Truce.

On Christmas Eve 1921 Seán had been granted parole for 10 days. Hopefully he enjoyed some festivities with his family. But he had to return to prison on 3 January 1922 to await the result of the ongoing Dáil debates and the vote on the Treaty. He was still living in the shadow of the hangman’s noose. It must have come as a huge relief to the Lads and their families when they got the news on 7 January – the Dáil had narrowly ratified the Anglo-Irish settlement. Five days later the British monarch announced a General Amnesty for Irish political prisoners.

On that happy Thursday the Custom House Mountjoy Six could finally relax about their fate. The charges against them were wiped out. They had escaped execution and were among 183 men freed from the prison to the welcome of cheering crowds. It seemed Seán could look forward to enjoying a future of liberty and peace. Sadly any such optimism he may have felt would not last for long.

Civil War

After release he rejoined the surviving ASU who, along with the Squad, were based at Celbridge Workhouse, Co Kildare. That was HQ and training camp for the survivors from the two full-time IRA units in Dublin which were now amalgamated as the Dublin Guards. Soon they were fitted with new Irish-made green uniforms and kitted out with weapons.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Seán is at the back on left (South Dublin Libraries courtesy of the Brophy family)

At the formal takeover of Beggars Bush Barracks on 2 February 1922, Private Sliney proudly marched through the gates with about 50 comrades under Capt. Paddy O’Daly. Fellow Mountjoy survivors Ned Breslin and Paddy Brunton were among the veterans of the Custom House attack in the Dublin Guards Company. Many of them are in the famous photo taken on 4 February of the first unit in new Irish Provisional Government Army on parade.

As the days passed, however, a few of those in the same image such as Brunton, George White and Billy Doyle were to leave and join up with the Executive (anti-Treaty) IRA forces as the Treaty divided them.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
In National Army uniform (Brilliantly colourised by Ken Mooney for Yvonne Sliney)

During hostilities Seán was a Company Sergeant with the 1st Infantry Battalion, 2nd Eastern Division at Kehoe (formerly Richmond) Barracks, Inchicore, Dublin. He was in the assault on the Four Courts, June 1922 – thereby playing a part in the destruction of another iconic Dublin building!

Sad Saga of a Military Pension

In his Military Pension application he refers to a disability which affected him after his arrest at the Custom House. No further details are provided but it seems it was serious enough to see him discharged medically unfit on 21 February 1924.

Sliney was awarded a military pension based on 7 years’ service at NCO rank. He appealed on two grounds – seeking recognition of pre-1917 service and a higher grading like for other ASU men. He argued, with little support apart from one Labour/ICTU official, that if not for the disability he suffered he would have been made an officer. Unfortunately his efforts were not successful and the file was quietly closed.

The state bureaucracy did, however, show one unusual tiny glimmer of humanity in 1926. When an overpayment of £15 was discovered, its deduction from Seán’s payments was reconsidered and the amount was then repaid to him.

Civilian Life

He returned home to his mother’s place in Dominick Street and apparently had difficulties finding employment. For about a year he was on Road Relief Work with Dublin Corporation Paving Department at the huge new housing development in Marino.

On 7 June 1926, in St Paul’s Church, Arran Quay, Seán married Mary Ellen ‘Nellie’ Carroll from 3 Royal Canal Terrace in Phibsborough – the same street his mother had lived years before. His sister Lizzie was Bridesmaid and the Best Man was Charles Purfield, a pal from childhood. Seán stated his occupation as Chair Maker.

A Past Tragedy on Talbot Street

The War of Independence had also impacted on Seán’s bride. Nellie lost her younger brother Patrick, shot dead at the scene of Sean Tracey’s killing on Talbot Street back in October 1920. There were three other fatalities – a British agent named Price and two innocent civilians.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Irish Independent

Patrick (16) was going about his work as a messenger boy for Gilbey’s Wine Stores close by. In the wrong place at the wrong time when a squad of Tommies and an armoured car opened fire, deliberately yet indiscriminately, on the busy street. The British military resorted to devastating firepower in their desperation to get one of their Most Wanted IRA men. ‘Collateral’ casualties didn’t seem to matter at all. In addition to young Carroll, innocent passer-by Joseph Corringham (54), a married Shopkeeper, was killed and an uninvolved DMP man lost an arm (British agent Christian was wounded too).

In a baffling finding, the military inquiry decided Mr Corringham had been wilfully murdered while Patrick Carroll’s death was accidental – both shot by persons unknown. Yet the two victims had died in the same incident. The British claim that their troops had returned the fire of civilians explains the “unknowns”. But why the different classification of the deaths?

If you think more about it, one distinction is striking. Patrick Carroll was a working-class Catholic Irish lad. Joseph Corringham was a Protestant English-born businessman. A sign of the times back then. But at the end of the day, two more innocent civilians lay dead at the hands of the trigger-happy military on Dublin’s streets.

Something else striking is the absence online of the proceedings of the military inquiry (open to correction, this writer has been unable to find it anyway). ‘Mislaid’, or still closed over 100 years later?

Life’s Struggles Go On

Seán was unemployed for a couple of years before getting a civil service position with Customs & Excise in 1928. In an amazing coincidence, where else but in the Custom House!

About 1932 the couple moved to Belvedere Place off North Circular Road, then in 1934 to Clonliffe Avenue, Ballybough, where they settled to raise a family of three boys and three girls. One son was named Patrick Christopher after his youthful uncle killed in 1920. The family continued to struggle financially. The unsuccessful appeals by and on behalf of Seán seeking better pension terms as an ex-ASU man – all stymied by rules and red-tape – make for sad reading.

Another Wartime Tragedy

Unfortunately things were only to get worse for the Slineys. In the early morning of 31 May 1941 during the Emergency, three Luftwaffe bombs were dropped on Dublin, one in Ballybough close to where they lived. There were no direct casualties and little damage. But about an hour later the nearby North Strand was devastated by a large aerial mine. Destruction was widespread, 28 died and 90 were injured.

David Sliney recalls hearing how his grandfather Seán was particularly badly shaken by the events. He sat chain-smoking for hour upon hour afterwards, his wife lighting the cigarettes for him. The two terrific explosions nearby must have triggered past nightmares. The poor man ended up almost in a state of catatonia. He was never the same again and this huge shock, the Slineys are convinced, led to his premature death a few months later.

On 13 September, just 11 days after his 42nd birthday, Seán died suddenly at home. Sadly echoing what happened his with own father, he left a widow with six young children. He was also mourned by his mother and three of his sisters. The national papers carried obituaries reciting his record with 3rd Battalion, the ASU, his part at the Custom House and time on death row in Mountjoy 20 years previously.

Seán’s funeral at Dominick Street Church drew a huge crowd. In the cemetery he was given military honours by Old IRA comrades. A firing party, led by fellow Custom House man Ned Breslin, comprised Paddy Evers, Jackie Foy, Peter Larkin, R. Purcell, P. O’Connor and B. Keogh. Old IRA men and Customs & Excise representatives offered condolences to his extended family and relatives. It must have been a heart-breaking and lonely time for Nellie at the graveside. Even though she had support from her people, the children were far too young to fully comprehend their loss.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
A tribute from his co-workers (Courtesy of Yvonne Sliney)

Nellie would at least receive a civil service widow’s pension but that was undoubtedly of little emotional comfort. It would not be enough to keep them going either. Says her descendant Yvonne “My Gran was left with six children to rear and the Church wanted to take them into care as they reckoned it would be difficult for her to raise them all on her own. But Gran wouldn’t give up her children; she had a good job as printer which she gave up to look after her family. Instead she worked as a cleaner, doing two jobs to make ends meet. One early in the morning and the second late in the evening, so that she could be a home during day to look after her family and cook their dinner during lunch hour. Being a cleaner affected her health, she got contact dermatitis and her poor hands were in a terrible condition as a result.” It would take until 1971 before she received a Military dependant’s pension.

In 1949 the family was invited to a commemoration for widows and children of fallen Old IRA men held in Dublin Castle. Several of them are included in a group photo with Eamonn De Valera, young Noel wearing his dad’s Tan War medal.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Slineys shown are Nellie (3rd from right, 2nd row) and four of her children Noel (extreme left, back row), Kathleen (extreme right 4th row), Evelyn (kneeling on left, front row) and Patrick (sitting at Dev’s feet) – Yvonne Sliney.
Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Sean’s widow Nellie with family including Yvonne’s late dad in front

They also carried on their own more private private remembrances of Sean.

“Every Sunday they walked to Glasnevin cemetery to visit my Grandfather’s grave”, says Yvonne.

Here is a picture she shared of them outside the gates of Glasnevin Cemetery on one of their weekly pilgrimages.

Mrs Mary Ellen Sliney passed away in September 1977, coincidentally the same month in which she’d lost her husband 36 years before. The couple are buried together in Glasnevin Cemetery (Plot DC81, St. Paul’s section). Resting with them are two of their daughters Monica and Kathleen; Sean’s mam Mary Ellen and all four of his sisters – Mary, Lizzie, Katie of the dream and Maggie. His father James, buried in a nearby plot, is also remembered on the headstone.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The Sliney roll of honour

Later Generation Slineys

The inscription on the headstone base says “Never Forgotten by their Loving Family”. Far from simply words, they are backed up in practice. Yvonne has extensively researched her family past and keeps their stories and memories alive, sharing some on the Custom House Group page. Her late father Patrick and her uncle Noel attended the commemoration in 2017. Sadly her dad passed away just under a year later. But at least Patrick had been able to pay his respects to his own father at a place which featured large in their family history.

Two interesting connections had been made when Patrick married. Firstly the family believe his dad Seán would have definitely approved, on the double. The bride Breda Kernan (RIP) was from an old Dominick Street family. Seán had grown up with her mother Louisa née Brannigan. And the Brannigan girls were renowned beauties – as Dubs would say, stunners!

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The Brannigans including Yvonne Sliney’s great grandmother Cecilia and her gran Louisa to right (Yvonne Sliney)

The other link involved a major coincidence and closed a loop of history. Breda’s father was Peter Kernan, an expert sheet metal contractor. In the reconstruction of the Fours Courts he’d replaced its copper dome. Destroyed by fire after the 1922 assault by Free State troops – one of whom was Seán Sliney! It’s an ill wind….

The Slineys have maintained a connection to the Defence Forces, too. Yvonne’s brother David, currently serving in Kosovo, is an NCO with the Army Medical Service. In 2015 he was part of the Irish element of an international team controlling an outbreak of Ebola in Sierra Leone. Surely Seán would be very proud of that.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
David Sliney, 2nd from left, with his medical colleagues on return from Africa in 2015 (Cpl. Brian Doherty, Defence Forces via Yvonne Sliney)


It is difficult not to feel a great deal of sympathy for the Slineys of the past. Seán had given up a lot for the Cause but when he fell on hard times himself there was precious little support from the State he had fought to set up. Unfortunately he was but one of many pre-Truce men left in such dire straits as many of our articles have shown.

But he stuck it out and did his best for his family before an early death took him from them. Seán Sliney was a fighter to the end, as was his widow Nellie. Their lives deserve to be remembered more widely than by their descendants alone. RIP.

Des White

Many thanks to Yvonne and David Sliney for family information and photos.