We have not established definite Old IRA connections for six of the men arrested at the Custom House and interned in Kilmainham. Their names and addresses appear on the Prisoner List drawn up by the British military but not in any list from IRA or other sources. Witness Statements make no reference to them. None appear in any known Kilmainham autograph book. They are not on the Army Census. And there are no relevant Military Service Pension files online. In addition, any family death notices discovered make no mention of Old IRA service.

In any event, Old IRA or not, these men were all arrested and spent almost 6 months in detention accused of hostile action against crown rule. They deserve to be remembered for that punishment and sacrifice.

On the face of it, all the names are those of actual people whose lives can be tracked through public records. But, apart from one of these men, no living family has been traced to contribute to their stories.

Perhaps some Kind Reader will be able to help us out. Is there a name you recognise as an ancestor or relative? Or even an old family friend or neighbour of your parents or grandparents? Or can you spot a familiar address?

Walter Doolan – Known Facts.

This man appears an unusual and sad case – if we take his identity as genuine. Walter was arrested separately from the other men at the Custom House. During the evening of 25 May he was watching the fire among a crowd near the military cordon. Sergeant M. G. White, 1st Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment reported to his O/C that Doolan had ignored repeated instructions to move on and seemed very suspicious. He was taken into custody and searched by the officer who found “one notebook, one photo of Mr McSweeney and a registered envelope”. It appears Walter Doolan was subsequently interned in Kilmainham Gaol. His address was recorded as New Ross.

  • Born: 22 January 1892 at Tinnakilly, Co Kilkenny (New Ross District, just across the border with Co Wexford).
  • Parents: Daniel (a Labourer) & Bridget née Doyle.
  • Other addresses: New Ross (1901), Tinneranny, Co Kilkenny (1911).
  • Marriage: Never married.
  • Death: 31 March 1956 in Kilkenny Mental Hospital. Aged 64, a single Labourer.
  • Burial: Graveyard not known.
  • Comments:
    • Liam Grace has found a number of newspaper reports of Mr Doolan’s troubles with the law in different locations in Ireland in the period 1927 to 1933.
    • He was quite often referred to as of no fixed abode but it is clear he originated in the south Kilkenny area.
    • The unfortunate man received several jail sentences after multiple convictions for breaking windows, minor theft and vagrancy in places as widely scattered as Cork City, Limerick, Birdhill and Nenagh, Co Tipperary and Ardnacrusha, Co Clare. One prosecuting Garda Superintendent stated in court that Mr Doolan’s “mental condition was not normal”. A District Justice who sentenced Mr Doolan to consecutive jail terms said the accused had “a mania for breaking windows”.

Innocent Civilian?

It is difficult to reach a definite conclusion about the real identity of the man who gave his name to the military as Walter Doolan. He may indeed have been the unfortunate man who some years later wandered around parts of the country smashing windows. Possibly he was in Dublin in May 1921 and, as an uninvolved civilian, got caught up in the excitement after the Burning.

An Alias?

Or, the name may have been the ‘missing’ alias used by one of the six prisoners known to have been in Kilmainham whose real names don’t appear on the British lists. Five cases have been solved. The the last man involved was Joe Griffin, 2nd Battalion Intelligence Officer. This alias theory arises through a process of elimination. There is nobody else on the list who gave an address outside Dublin, has no recorded connection to the city or the IRA and whose life is shrouded in some mystery.

But perhaps the strongest evidence for the theory involves an entry in the Kilmainham autograph book of James Doyle. It is signed Walter Doolan.

Kilmainham Gaol Museum via John Dorins

So it is confirmed that a man using that name was actually interned with the Custom House Fire Brigade. However Doyle himself did not include the name on the list of Custom House prisoners made from memory in his BMH.WS. But he did include Joe Griffin’s name.

Something else interesting is that the name was written as Gaeilge. Now that was not unique in the autograph books, but as it happens, Joe Griffin was a native Irish speaker who used to run Irish language lessons for his fellow prisoners in Kilmainham. Another smoking gun is that only genuine IRA captives seem to have signed their autographs, suggesting ‘Walter Doolan’ was one of them.

Kilmainham Gaol Museum

Our colleague John Dorins reckons there’s some similarities between the handwriting on that verse and what Griffin wrote himself in another autograph book (above) and on his military pension application (MSP34REF40). While John readily admits he’s not a handwriting expert (no more than this writer!) he tends to agree it seems to point to Joe Griffin using the name Walter Doolan as an alias.

Why or how Joe chose that particular name is unknown. And how he knew the real Walter Doolan came from New Ross is really intriguing. It does seem far too much of a coincidence that he just made up the name and correct area on the spur of the moment. Then again, he was an Intelligence man and a clever guy as well.

On the other hand, the name Walter Doolan means nothing to descendants of Joe Griffin. But his granddaughter Maureen told us her grandfather is said to have given the false name John J. Murphy when captured during the Civil War. So he had form in the matter of an alias.

Conclusion? Inconclusive!

You, the Kind Reader, can make up your own mind. But this writer is sticking with the theory that Walter Doolan was the alias used by Joe Griffin when arrested at the Custom House.

That of course raises a few questions. Why did such a senior officer leave himself open to arrest on 25 May by hanging around the scene of the attack and drawing unwanted attention to himself? As Brigade I. O. he may have been detailed to check how the destruction of the Custom House was progressing. But how he went about it seems to have been an unwise or even reckless course of action.

At this stage we will never really know the full truth behind the mystery of Walter Doolan’s arrest on 25 May 1921. But his unfortunate fate reminds us of the generally parlous state of mental healthcare in Ireland and gives us an insight into how sufferers were harshly dealt with by the law in the past. RIP.

Des White