Over the last few years we have tried to tell the story of as many as possible of the men involved in the Custom House Burning, So far we have managed to cover over sixty of them. But I don’t think we have yet written about even one conspiracy theory?

Nicholas Tobin’s story is closely linked to that of Charlie Dalton. Both men were friends. Both were over-shadowed by their older brothers who were Generals in the National Army. And both families seem to have been surrounded by myths, half truths, conspiracy theories and the Army Mutiny of 1924.

Nick Tobin

Dublin Custom House Burning
Nick Tobin (courtesy of Jim Langton)

Nicholas Augustine Tobin was born on 9 November 1898 at 12 Great George’s Street in Cork City. His father David was a shop assistant and his mother Mary Agnes (nee Butler) is listed as a house keeper in the 1901 census. Nicholas was the third child after William (Liam) and Catherine born to David and Mary. By 1911 the family had moved to Kilkenny and the father David is listed as a hardware clerk .

Nicholas joined the IRA Dublin Brigade in 1917. Following his big brother Liam’s footsteps, he joined C Coy, 1st Battalion. He took part in the Custom House attack as part of a cover party posted outside the building. He managed to escape when the Auxiliaries arrived by making his way through Brooks Thomas builders’ providers yard. His Section Commander Martin Finn says:

“On the 24th May the evening previous to the attack on the Custom House, a number of us who were on parade at Tara Hall were instructed to remain over after the parade. When the parade was over, we were instructed to report at 12.30 pm, or 12.45 pm, on the following day to Lower Gardiner Street (Beresford Place), armed with a grenade and revolver each. There were twelve of us in all from our Company and, when we reported next day as instructed, we were placed in position from Liberty Hall around to Lower Gardiner Street. I did not know what was in the air.

At 1 pm I noticed a lorry pulling up outside the Custom House and a number of men getting out of the lorry and bringing petrol tins into the Custom House. It is difficult to remember all the details, but I remember the Auxiliaries arriving and one of them standing on the tender and pointing to the smoke issuing from one of the windows of the Custom House.

The Auxiliaries were attacked with grenades and firing at this stage became general. There was an armoured car firing from a position in Abbey Street. Nick Tobin, Jim Plunkett and myself retreated through Brooks Thomas and made our way to my lodgings in Gardiner Street.

Nick joined the new National Army in April 1922 as a Lieutenant on the Adjutant-General’s staff. Quickly promoted to Staff-Captain, he was attached to Military Intelligence in Wellington (later Griffith) Barracks.

During the Civil War he was on active service in Co Cork and was with Tom Kehoe when the latter was killed at Carrigaphooca in September 1922. Back in Dublin, on 21 October Nick Tobin was leading a raid on an IRA bomb factory in Gardiner Place and was killed by a bullet fired from one of his own men’s guns.

Where the conspiracy theory comes in

When Nick Tobin’s name has been mentioned in certain circles over the years, the first thing normally said is “Oh he was shot by his own”. Or “Charlie Dalton set him up to be shot”. So where does this all come from?

It arose from an atrocity two weeks before his death. Nick Tobin was with Charlie Dalton when he arrested three Na Fianna boys on the evening of 7 October 1922 for putting up anti-Treaty posters near Drumcondra. The next day the young lads were found dead, their bodies dumped near the Red Cow out beyond Bluebell on the other side of the city. The sad story is well documented so no need to go into it too deeply here. The finger of blame has always been pointed at Charlie Dalton, who in turn always denied involvement.

But the fact that Nick Tobin was with Dalton when the arrests were made, got the rumour mill going. Supposedly Tobin was going to spill the beans on Dalton. Of course Dalton was not going to let that happen so he got Tobin shot?

Demolishing the Myth

First of all, Charlie Dalton and Nick Tobin were friends. They had also served together in the IRA where looking after your comrade was always top of their list. It’s rare to see any IRA men in later years bad mouthing each other’s actions or lack of action, as the case may be, during the War of Independence.

If Charlie had really ordered Nick’s death then he ran the risk of crossing the victim’s older brother Liam Tobin, a Major General at the time and a very dangerous man to make an enemy. As it turned out the very opposite appears the case. When Liam became the main instigator in the Army Mutiny of 1924, none other than Charlie Dalton was his right hand man. An incredible scenario if Tobin had believed Dalton was behind the murder of his brother Nick.

And when Liam Tobin applied for his military pension the witness was James Dalton, Peace Commissioner. The father of Charlie and Emmet Dalton. A reality which is hardly grounds for any notions of some plot by the younger Dalton to have Nick Tobin taken out.

So either Liam Tobin himself conspired in his own brother’s murder or the conspiracy theory is pure nonsense.

The Facts

So what did happen the day Nick Tobin was shot dead?

Breffni Manor at 8 Gardiner’s Place contained flats and, at the rear, a bead factory doubling up as an anti-Treaty bomb factory. On Saturday 21 October a National Army raiding party burst into the building from the front, led by a Captain Patrick Dalton (No relation to Emmet or Charlie). When entry was gained it appears Capt. Dalton’s section proceeded to the right, towards the factory at the rear; while Nick Tobin and his men went left, down a hallway that was partitioned off from the factory area.

When the main party under Capt. Dalton reached the factory floor they found it contained five lathes, anvils and empty grenade cases – and three men working at benches. Hands up orders were shouted. Two men complied, but the third hesitated or seemed make a move for something (a gun is mentioned in some reports). So a Lieutenant Sean Bolger fired his gun in the direction of the man. The bullet, he said, was a warning shot but again the story is a bit confused. One report says he fired to one side of the man, another that he fired at the floor. Whichever version is the truth, the bullet passed or ricocheted through the partition wall hitting Nick Tobin directly in the heart. His last words were “I have been shot, get me out!”.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Memorial Card (Gary Deering)

An Inquest was held a few days later in the City Coroner’s Court. The verdict was “The Jury finds the deceased died from shock and haemorrhage caused by perforation of the heart by a bullet”. They added a rider in the following terms “We don’t attach any blame to the officer who fired the shot”.

Nick’s Big Brother

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Liam Cullen

As mentioned above, Nick Tobin had a more famous older brother Liam who fought in 1916 at the Four Courts. After the Rising Liam was sent to prison in England and later Frongoch. He returned to C Coy, 1st Battalion and was soon transferred to Intelligence. By the time of the Truce in July 1921 he was Deputy Head of GHQ Intelligence Department answering only to Michael Collins. He went pro-Treaty and was appointed a General and Director of Intelligence in the National Army from October 1922 to December 1922. He was later assigned as Aide de Camp to the Governor General, Tim Healy.

Liam Tobin led the Army Mutiny in 1924 and was forced to resign on 28 March. He applied for his military pension and was granted £280 a year. He appealed, arguing he should be granted a higher rank. He won his case and his pension papers confirm his rank as above Major General. His award was increased to £350 per year. He later joined Fianna Fáil and worked in the Sweepstakes and also as an official in the Dáil. Liam Tobin passed away on 3 April 1963, aged 67.

Charlie Dalton

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Charlie Dalton

Born on 29 January 1903 into a middle-class family in Drumcondra, Dublin, he was third of the five children of Irish-American parents who had moved back to the old country. Charlie joined F Company, 2nd Battalion in 1917 aged 14. Quickly promoted to Michael Collins’ Intelligence Office, young Charlie did most of the ground work for the assassinations of Ames and Bennett in 28 Pembroke Street on Bloody Sunday, 1920. He was present in the house with the hit team that morning. Having just turned 17, the sight of two men being killed at close quarters was to have a terrible effect on the young Charlie and would lead to mental health problems for the rest of his life.

As mentioned above, Charlie had arrested the young Na Fianna kids on Clonliffe Road on 8 October 1922. Their names were Brendan Holahan, Joe Rogers and Eamonn Hughes (brother of Custom House Man Gerald Hughes alias Hugh William Fitzgerald). After being put into a car, they were never seen alive again. Dalton always denied any involvement in their murders, insisting he left them in Wellington Barracks. It seems he was not very co-operative at the Inquest into the murders.

He was transferred from Intelligence to Adjutant of the Army Air Service replacing Ned Broy (who was not murdered as portrayed in the Michael Collins film). Charlie had to resign from the Army in March 1924 after playing a leading role in the Mutiny.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Charlie (right) with Emmet

In 1929 Dalton wrote a book With the Dublin Brigade: Espionage and Assassination with Michael Collins’ Intelligence Unit. He went on to become a director in the Irish Sweepstakes.

Charlie Dalton passed away at the age of 70 on 22 January 1974.

Sean (Flash) Bolger

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Courtesy Jim Langton

Flash Bolger seems to have been a well known IRA man in his time who is almost forgotten now. Except maybe for some readers who might be ex-employees of the Sweepstakes. When I asked around online about him last year as part of my research for this piece, the responses were on the lines of “Oh he kept a gun in his desk”, “He used to do bank lodgements for the Sweep and always carried a gun”. In fact guns seem to have been a big part of his life. His nick-name ‘Flash’ came from his speed and accuracy with a pistol.

Sean joined the Volunteers E Coy, 4th Battalion just before the Rising and was involved in mobilising volunteers and carrying despatches. He was sent home on the Friday as he was too young to fight. He continued his involvement with the republican movement after 1916, being transferred to K Coy (No Battalion listed, possibly the 3rd) in 1919; 4 Coy, 5th (Engineers) Battalion in 1920; and Intelligence in 1921. He joined the National Army in July 1922, staying with the Intelligence Department till his resignation in 1924. He was a member of the IRAO, so we can presume he jumped before he was pushed.

After leaving the Army his work life was a bit chequered. Something which seems to have been the norm for ex-IRA men in the 1920’s. He got a job with the civil service but was dismissed for his involvement with the IRAO. He later got worked as a messenger with the Board of Works before joining his fellow comrades in the Sweepstakes where he seems to have done well, holding the position of Transport Manager. He also ran a shop in the Cabinteely area, so in later life his fortunes did change. He passed away on 12 September 1973.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Gary Deering