Only seventeen when arrested at the Burning, it is not 100% definitely known which IRA unit young Ryan belonged to. However, there is a very warm smoking gun that he was a Volunteer – and he did lose his freedom for six months as an internee in Kilmainham Gaol. Happily that experience didn’t seem to have a long-term negative impact on his life. Joseph went on to marry, have a large family and work for an iconic Dublin business till retirement.


Joseph was born in the middle of E Coy, 2nd Battalion territory (OSI Maps)

Joseph Thomas Ryan was born on 8 January 1904 at 4 Emerald Place, off Seville Place. His parents were Thomas, a Ship’s Fireman/Stoker and Anne Rogers who married in 1901. There is no sign of the family in the 1911 census but their addresses can be traced through the birth of their children, four girls and two boys. They lived at Emily Place, Ralph Place, Corporation Street and in 1916, Corporation Place. They subsequently settled at 10 Talbot Place, near Store Street, very close to the Custom House.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
A stone’s-throw from the Custom House (OSI Maps)

That was the address Joseph gave when he was arrested at the Custom House on 25 May 1921.

No further details were recorded but he was definitely detained in Kilmainham Gaol as one of the Fire Brigade contingent.

The proof comes from the lad himself. Our colleague John Dorins has discovered a short verse signed by Joe Ryan in the autograph book put together by Custom House and 1916 veteran James Doyle while in the Gaol. The entry shows Joe spent at least some of his time in Cell 21, Section D – coincidentally with a man with the same surname – Charlie Ryan (no relation) of E Coy, 2nd Battalion. That as good as confirms that Joseph Ryan was a Volunteer.

Joe wrote “Never fear for Ireland, Boys. For she has soldiers still” (courtesy John Dorins)

From all appearances the autograph books were kept between IRA men while unlucky civilians arrested at the Burning and locked up with them were not included or chose to keep their pens dry in that context.

Joe does not appear on IRA membership lists put together later; nor does he appear in the Army Census 1922. The inference is he may have resigned from Dublin Brigade after release from Kilmainham or at least ceased his activity. Perhaps further information will emerge from Military Archives.

Worth mentioning is that another man arrested on 25 May 1921 was Michael Byrne, a near neighbour of Joe’s at 8 Talbot Place. Just a coincidence or a connection? Maybe some kind Reader can help us out with more information….

Civilian Life

The next record found for Joseph shows he married fellow Dub Mary Margaret Pauline (aka Maria) Field on 21 November 1928 at the Pro-Cathedral.

The witnesses at the Ryan’s marriage had fairly unusual names (irishgenealogy,ie)

Not long after that they lived on Mayor Street in the Docklands – according to the death record of Joseph’s father in 1932. When Thomas Ryan died at his old home on Talbot Place his passing was registered by Joseph. And from the birth registrations of Joseph and Mary’s growing family we can see they also lived on Mary Street and Cole’s Lane near Moore Street in the inner city.

Accepted at the Home of the Black Stuff

Joseph began working for the famous Arthur Guinness St. James’s Gate Brewery in April 1936. That a former political internee got a job there represented a huge change in the staunchly unionist firm’s long-standing hostility towards Irish independence displayed since its foundation. As early as the 1790s Arthur Guinness himself was labelled by the United Irishmen as an informer and active spy. In 1913 the then-owner of the brewery Edward Guinness (Earl of Iveagh) made a substantial donation of £100,000 to the Ulster Volunteer Forces’s gun-running fund.

1916 APC on a Guinness lorry chassis (Elsie Mahaffy’s Record of The Rising, TCD Library)

Then, notoriously, during the 1916 Rising, several Guinness lorries were modified at Inchicore Railway Works as crude armoured personnel carriers for the British military. Possibly they were not donated, but rather commandeered. However Guinness’s did dismiss employees suspected of involvement in the Rising or even of being sympathetic towards the Rebels’ cause.

A Job For Life

But the brewery’s attitudes had to soften somewhat after Independence. Opportunities for work were widened, despite the nepotism which they still advertise, with employment passing down generations. It helped, big-time, if your ancestors worked there! Yet, a job with Guinness was special, with benefits like a pension scheme, free healthcare and a daily allowance of stout for employees. It was hardly treason for an Old IRA man to look for a job there, if that’s what Joseph was and did. After all, he had a large family to feed.

According to the Guinness online archives, Ryan rose to become a Foreman in the Container Department which had been known as the Racking Department till the 1950s. His staff were responsible for cleaning, maintaining and filling (called racking) containers for stout.

On Custom House Quay, men handle Guinness casks processed by Joseph Ryan’s department (

Tens of thousands of them were transported all over Ireland and many were also loaded and unloaded on the Liffey quays. Originally wooden casks were used, but from the early 1960s metal kegs (‘iron lungs’) replaced them.

Guinness tanks at Bristol (

Ryan’s department also filled the 3,000 pint capacity transportable tanks used to send Guinness to Britain for bottling, on the brewery’s own ships, usually (and inaccurately) referred to as boats.

A ‘Guinness boat’ at Custom House Quay, 1969 (

Coincidentally these vessels used to moor for loading and unloading near the Custom House and the Guinness Ladies were a famous sight on the Liffey for many decades.

Still there in a 1970s photo (

Over 400 people worked in the Container department in the 1960s and Guinness was by far the top-selling alcoholic drink in Ireland back in those times, so Joseph had a busy and responsible job.

Private Life and Death

Himself and Mary had at least seven children between 1930 and 1947. In the early 1940s they moved to Drumcliffe Road in Cabra, part of a massive new housing development in the days when the state actually bothered to provide homes.

Unfortunately little more is known of their lives. Obviously Joseph would have seen many changes in Guinness’s over his career. But he did not live to see later developments like the end of the Guinness ship fleet in the 1990s, huge changes on the Liffey quays and in his home town generally while the Custom House still stood watch over it all.

Joseph & Mary Ryan’s resting place

Joseph Ryan died on 29 August 1976 in a Dublin hospital, a pensioner aged 73. Survived by his widow, children and grandchildren he was buried in Glasnevin, plot XB53, St Paul’s section (The family death notice used the middle name Patrick, although it was registered as Thomas at his birth).

The family announcement made no mention of an Old IRA connection. Perhaps Joe kept his old allegiance from his family. Or possibly they saw no reason to publish it. Not for this generation to judge or speculate about? All we can conclude is that Joseph Ryan suffered the loss of his liberty as a suspected Custom House attacker. For that alone, surely he deserves to be remembered in this centenary year. RIP.

Des White