Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Lieutenant Patrick Brunton was a member of the Four Courts Garrison in 1922 following his resignation from the National Army. As he saw it, the fight for independence was not over despite the peace settlement with Britain he’d helped achieve. Even in 1933, Brunton made headlines as a Republican activist.

But when the same Free State (although re-named) he’d opposed for years was threatened during The Emergency, Paddy signed up to defend it. Life and loyalties became very complicated for men like himself.

Yet they never lost sight of their beliefs and patriotism.

The Tan War Didn’t End His Revolution

Paddy had shared a common experience with five old IRA comrades arrested at the Burning on 25 May 1921. Along with Ned Breslin, Tom Flood, Seán Sliney, Michael Watchorn and Johnny Wilson, Brunton faced a probable death sentence for High Treason against the crown they could not tolerate as ruler of their country. All were reprieved by the Treaty ratification. Nevertheless Paddy Brunton decided he could not accept that piece of paper defining the limits of his country’s freedom and status. That meant he opposed the other five spared the noose who took the pro-Treaty position and actively fought for the new Free State. Political and personal loyalties were in conflict for many, even before the last of the British garrisons quit the 26 counties. Men like Paddy Brunton had to adapt to the new chaotic situation and make up their own mind about where they stood. He chose to keep fighting for the Republic proclaimed By Pearse in 1916 and declared by the Dáil in 1919.

Origins and Background

Patrick Brunton was born at 33 Bull Alley in Dublin’s Liberties on 20 August 1898. His dad James was a Butcher’s Porter whose wife was Bridget née Walsh. They were Dubliners who had married in St Nicholas of Myra Church on Francis Street in 1891. Bridget was a local from Golden Lane who worked as a Weaver, a skilled trade associated with the area. James lived on Chancery Lane, off Bride Street, not too far away. The couple went on to have ten children of whom eight survived. Paddy grew up with seven sisters in the Liberties as the family moved home a few times before settling in the Coombe.

The former landmark building and 1916 Garrison (TCD Library)

A major employer in the area was the Jacob’s biscuit factory where a couple of Paddy’s sisters were working in 1911. During the Rising the complex was of course occupied by the Volunteers under Thomas MacDonagh. The Garrison was not seriously attacked by the crown forces and saw little fighting. They faced more hostility from locals, especially the Separation Women, before the Surrender Order was delivered on Saturday 29 April 1916. Whether those events influenced Paddy Brunton’s later decision to join the IRA is not certain. But after completing his schooling he did become a Jacob’s employee himself and worked as a biscuit maker.

War of Independence

Paddy’s military record recognises active service with the IRA from 1920. Living at 128 Coombe, his local IRA unit was actually 4th Battalion and there is a reference to him being in C Coy. He joined in the first half of 1920. It seems he was highly regarded as he was selected for No. 4 Section of the ASU at its inception later that year. Apparently due to lack of activity in its area, several members of No. 4, including Brunton, were transferred to No. 3 Section. He is listed with that unit by both Joe Gilhooly and J. V. Joyce.

ASU No. 3 member Patrick Collins (originally with A Coy, 4th Battalion) says Paddy was one of the men who attacked a Ford car carrying British Intelligence officers on Holles Street. He names the others involved as: himself, George Nolan, Gus Murphy, Paddy Rigney, John Dolan, Patrick Mullen, Willie Phillips and Phil Quinn in two teams of five and four respectively. Nolan also refers to that attack – in early January 1921 – but names only Collins, Rigney, Mullins, Murphy, Dolan and himself. That may have been just one of the pair of teams taking part, or simply the names he recalled.

Unfortunately further details of Paddy’s service are sketchy. There are some hints contained on one Military Pension file, in a reference Paddy wrote for James Doyle, a 1916 Clanwilliam House veteran and fellow comrade in C Coy and No. 3 ASU. He said he remembered Doyle taking part in a list of actions from late April 1921. That implies Paddy was also involved in the following:

  • Dumping in the Liffey of a military lorry captured at Fishamble Street;
  • Ambush at Bachelor’s Walk;
  • Ambush at City Quay;
  • Raids on chemists in Grafton Street for binoculars etc;
  • Sniping at the Auxy base at North Wall (Doyle says this was done from the south quays using Peter the Painters); and
  • Doyle being captured as well as himself and many others at the Custom House.

One other notable operation Paddy was on is included in an undated reference signed by J. Caffrey, for the Honorary Secretary, Headquarters Active Service Unit Association. It was no less than the spectacular capture of an armoured car on 14 May 1921, less than two weeks before the Burning.

At the Burning

Arrest sheet for Patrick Brunton alleging he was captured while armed (Findmypast.ie)

James Doyle was more fortunate than Brunton as he avoided being charged with a capital offence and was interned in Kilmainham. Paddy was allegedly found with a gun when arrested by some of the Auxies in the burning Custom House with other ASU men. In a 1970s interview with James McCormick, Paddy recalled what happened to the group of Volunteers he was caught with. “It was the Auxiliaries got in first. They had eight of us lined up against the wall and were going to shoot us when an old major in khaki came in. ‘Get those men outside,’ said he.” They were hauled off for savage interrogations in the Castle before himself and five others were charged and jailed in Mountjoy awaiting trial by military tribunal.

From the Prison Register we learn that Brunton was aged 22, with brown hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion. He stood 5 ft. 9¼ ins. (175cm) tall and weighed 158 lbs (71.7kg) on admission, a well-built man. He would need all his toughness and strength to handle the stress from the daily prospect of being escorted to an enemy court at any time. And knowing the inevitable verdict would mean the noose.

Through fortuitous events their courts martial never took place before the Truce in July. A few months later came the signing of the Treaty in December. The latter triggered the release of their Custom House comrades and others from Kilmainham and the rest of the internment camps. They may have rejoiced at that news and reports on how the political situation was moving outside their prison. But there was no sign of freedom for them as Christmas passed and 1922 dawned. The hangman’s shadow was still looming over the Mountjoy prisoners from the Custom House.

Happily, a few days after the ratification of the Treaty, Paddy and his five comrades (Ned Breslin, Tom Flood, Seán Sliney, Michael Watchorn and Johnny Wilson) walked out of The Joy as free men. All British charges against them were scrapped.

Civil War

They all rejoined the ASU, which at that stage had been amalgamated with the Squad and renamed the Dublin Guards. Paddy was quickly fitted out with a brand new Irish Army uniform, Lee Enfield rifle, bayonet and other kit and was among the men who took over Beggars Bush Barracks on 31 January. Private Brunton appears in the famous first photograph of the new Irish Army at Beggars Bush Barracks, 4 February 1922. Circumstances had changed very fast for Paddy in a really short time. From being a prisoner effectively on death row for activities as a member of an illegal military organisation under Crown law, he now found himself a uniformed soldier in an Irish Army formally recognised by the British government.

Paddy is in the back row towards the right. Unfortunately the faces of the men in that part of the photo are slightly out of focus. And the caption of names is confusing!

But other things were changing too. In the Dáil political stances were diverging and the Treaty also deeply divided the IRA at all levels and among all ranks. It wasn’t long before anti-Treaty forces mobilised and an alternative IRA Executive GHQ was formed. Many Dublin buildings were occupied and garrisoned.

Paddy found himself in an army now regarded by many fellow countrymen and women as illegitimate and standing against the Republic. His own view agreed with them. He resigned from the Provisional Government forces to join the IRA GHQ garrison in the Four Courts.

Ironically, two fellow Mountjoy Prison inmates were in the attacking Free State forces early in the morning of 28 June 1922 – Tom Flood and Seán Sliney. Paddy’s subsequent experiences during the Civil War are not known. He does not seem to have been captured when the Four Courts surrendered. But he survived and later lived with his parents on Clarence Mangan Road in Dublin’s south city.

Bass Boycott Arrest

That was his home address in August 1933 when he appeared in news headlines connected with the IRA’s War on English Beer.

The 1930s were the era of Dev’s Trade War with Britain. Even before then, Republican activists had demanded boycotts against goods from Britain and were emboldened by the economic war. Tactics involved ordering pubs in Dublin and some other cities to cease selling imported Bass ale products. They were targeted not alone as English but because the chairman of the company, a prominent Conservative with strong anti-Irish views, was a figure of hatred to the IRA. Intimidation was employed and the armed visitors involved invariably made their IRA association very clear.

The Murphys, owners of the Dead Man’s Inn near Lucan, Co. Dublin, were targeted on 28 August 1933. Armed men warned the landlady to stop stocking Bass. The owner’s brother Michael Murphy reported the incident to the police. A return call by the men was made on the night of 12 September. They took over the pub, smashed some bottles of Bass and intimidated the owners again. Mr Murray was accused of ratting on one of them and taken at gunpoint by lorry to the Featherbed Mountain. There he was stripped of his clothes except for a vest and forced to put on “a pair of white knickers inscribed ‘Boycott Bass'”. The man was not harmed but was left to walk several miles to the nearest house in the early hours of the morning.

The frequency of similar raids on pubs in Dublin and elsewhere increased. On 4 September a particularly large crowd made a violent attack on a pub in Dun Laoghaire. Five men were arrested in the disturbances. Their trial ended in “wild scenes” in court, general uproar and jail sentences for the accused.

Irish Press 21 September 1933

The Garda followed up on other Bass raids and, over the Lucan incidents, twelve men including Paddy Brunton were picked up and held in the Bridewell, Dublin.

Brunton, at 35, was a good deal older than the others who were in their twenties and mainly from Clondalkin and Tallaght.

Paddy may have been hauled in as “guilty by past association” with the IRA or because of his known Republican sentiments.

But when the cases came to court – somewhat ironically in Kilmainham – the prosecuting Garda Superintendent immediately asked that Paddy be discharged as he was fully satisfied Mr. Brunton had not been involved. He was duly freed.

The trial of his co-accused included shouts of “Up the Republic”, accusations of Garda corruption and trumped-up charges and refusals to recognise the court. However, in the absence of definite identification by the publicans, all but one were released for lack of evidence.

Those types of incidents may sound trivial or amusing in hindsight. However, to committed Republicans they were anything but. Court appearances offered opportunities for propaganda, political protests and statements from the dock. Refusing to recognise courts or accept bail or fines led to inevitable jail sentences being handed down. The prisoners then often went on hunger strike.

They were uneasy and frustrating times for IRA members, with their sworn enemies the Army Comrades Association, aka the fascist Blueshirts, also active as ‘protectors’ of pubs selling Bass. Despite Fianna Fáil, the self-styled Republican Party, having assumed power in 1932, Dev as head of government showed no support or sympathy for the contemporary IRA.

The War on English Beer petered out and was quietly abandoned.

Continued Loyalties

Paddy Brunton stood by his old allegiance again in a more positive light in 1936. After the untimely death the previous year of the original ASU O/C Paddy Flanagan, a Relief Fund was established to assist his widow, five children and elderly mother. Paddy Brunton was on the Committee along with many former comrades.

He attended an ASU Reunion in 1939 among men from both sides of the Civil War. In one photo he appears surrounded by Johnny Wilson, Jackie Foy and Tom Flood (pro-Treaty) and Mick White (anti-Treaty).

Active Service Unit survivors in 1939. Paddy is 3rd from left in the second row.

Two photos of the group were also taken on the steps of the Custom House. In one, Paddy Brunton is partly obscured by Tom Flood, while Mick White is again beside him.

Brunton is on the left of the second row
Same photo from a different angle. Tom Flood, standing in front of Paddy, was one of the National Army officers who assaulted the Four Courts in 1922 while Brunton was with the IRA garrison.

Personal Life

On St Stephen’s Day in the same year he married Annie McGillvery from Whitefriar Street in St Nicholas of Myra Church on Francis Street.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The church marriage cert (Daithi Brunton)

He was then living at Clarence Mangan Road on Dublin’s southside and working for the Dublin Gas Company.

The couple moved across the city to set up home on Broombridge Road in Cabra where they raised a family.

Their first child, born in 1940, was named James for his Brunton grandfather who sadly passed away the following year.

A Volunteer Once Again

When World War II broke out and neutral Eire needed to mobilise some defence, Paddy Brunton was among the Old IRA who joined up.

He served with the 26th Battalion, Volunteer Defence Force and earned an Emergency Service Medal to add to his 1919-1921 Service Medal with Comhrac bar.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Paddy’s Certificate for Emergency Service (Daithi Brunton)

For his earlier military activity Brunton was also awarded his IRA GHQ Active Service Unit Certificate in 1950. On this occasion he was not included in the photo published in the newspapers, so it is uncertain whether he attended the event with the other survivors from the ASU. Five years later he lost his widowed mother Bridget. He continued with his job in the Gas Company and got on with family life. Perhaps he found finally found lasting peace in his own mind. In 1971 he was a recipient of the Medal awarded to mark the 50th Anniversary of the end of the Tan War.

Death and Remembrance

Patrick Brunton had long retired from work when he passed away in Blanchardstown Hospital on 9 January 1978 at the age of 79. He was buried in the family plot in Mount Jerome Cemetery. Sadly there were no obituaries or press coverage about the death of the staunch Republican. His widow Annie lived on in Cabra till 2003.

Their descendants are proud of Paddy’s part in the Independence struggle and his continued activism later. His grandson Daithi Brunton remembers Paddy fondly as a real old-style Dub. “He had his little tap on the window of a couple of pubs for an early pint. I remember him sitting in the house pouring his tea onto his saucer and slurping it.” Daithi also recalls a time he was nervous in Temple Street Hospital before a childhood operation. “Paddy came in to visit and must have seen the worry on my face. He proceeded to tell me that he’d been in the same boat once himself. Granda said after a few days he got fed up waiting and called the nurse. He announced he was going home. And she informed him he’d had his surgery two days previous and was getting out the next day! He told me not to worry about anything, that I wouldn’t even know I had it”. Great reassurance from a kindly grandad who knew what it was like to get through even scarier times as a young man.

Framed display kept by Daithi Brunton

Memorabilia of Paddy’s military career are given pride of place on display. Daithi with his son Darryl and brother Stephen attended the Centenary Commemoration of the Custom House attack last May. Undoubtedly, they are grateful that the Burning – which almost led to their ancestor’s execution – turned out to have a happy ending for him and his bloodline. Otherwise they would not be around today to remember his sacrifices for the country we live in.

Des White

Many thanks to Daithi Brunton for sharing material, some of which is used above.

For more about the Bass Boycott, see here.