By Mel MacGiobúin, grandson of ASU man Jimmy Gibbons who took part in the Burning on 25 May 1921.
When we lived in Ridgewood, Queens in the late 1960s/early 70s, in nearby Sunnyside, Dr. John O’Flanagan was our family doctor. I knew he was an old friend of my grandfather but I did not know then what they had got up to as young men.
The Flanagans were farmers, one of the larger holdings in the Calluragh South townland. His grandfather, James was the named tenant in 1855 of the land, rated at some 51 acres, as listed in Griffith’s Valuation. Cattle-breeding was the farm’s main activity.
John was born on 11 February 1899 at the family home in Calluragh, south of Lahinch in Mid-Clare, near to the coast with the land rising towards the Burren, inland to the east.
John was the oldest son, the second child of his father Michael’s second marriage. There were two older sisters from the first marriage Delia (Bridget) and Ellie. Their mother Mary Malone had died four days after Ellie’s birth from post-natal haemorrhaging. John’s mother, Kate was of the neighbouring O’Dwyer family. She had lost a child before the birth of Mary, the eldest. John also had four younger brothers. Another lad James only lived for fifteen months, dying of bronchitis. Early child mortality and mothers’ illnesses and deaths often after childbirth were all too common in Ireland at that time.
Perhaps these tragic family incidences were motivation for John to seek to study medicine.
In the 1911 census his father and the lodging farmhands were listed as Irish speakers. John later adapted the ‘O’Flanagan’ surname.
Ennistymon, Lahinch, Miltown-Malbay and Rineen – all local to John’s homestead – were to become part of the renowned IRA Mid-Clare Brigade’s actions and Black & Tan reprisals in the Irish War of Independence. There was much support throughout the area amongst the people, as Tomás Mac Conmara’s excellent ‘Time of the Tans’ has brought to life through the words of locals.
During 1917, the Easter Rising of the previous year was marked in Dublin and the last of the Rising prisoners including Countess Markievicz were released. De Valera won the East Clare by-election in July. At the end of September leading Republican Thomas Ashe died after force-feeding when he went on hunger strike in Mountjoy Prison.
Late in that momentous year, John O’Flanagan from West Clare aged 18 years moved to Dublin and began studying to become a doctor.
A Fighting Doctor Emerges
The School of Medicine of the National University of Ireland was then located in Cecelia Street in what is now the Temple Bar quarter. That busy area was also the main location of Dublin’s clothing and shoe factories and various offices of the IRA at this time.
Like many of the medical students in those days, John also joined the 3rd Battalion of the Irish Volunteers, Dublin Brigade. He recorded becoming a member in December 1917.
In O’Flanagan’s initial application for a Service certificate made in December 1934, he claims to have attended drills, manoeuvres, general operations and activities such as night guard duty at No. 6 Harcourt Street, the Sinn Féin head office.
His pension and medal applications include written statements from a number of IRA officers. George White, Intelligence Officer, said O’Flanagan was with C Company under Captain Paddy Flanagan, when they disarmed two RIC officers up at ‘Three Rock’, on 21 January 1919.
On Easter Saturday in April 1920 while visiting his family home in West Clare, John was involved with local units in burning the Rate Collector’s Office in Miltown Malbay and the destruction of the RIC Barracks there and in Lahinch. He also treated volunteers wounded as a result of those actions.
Andy Cooney, C Company and later a Brigade commandant and organiser, wrote, “I have known him to be present at a number of actions carried out by the company the most notably being that at 28 Pembroke Street in the morning of November 20th 1920 (Bloody Sunday)”.
Simon Donnelly, Vice-Commandant of 3rd Battalion also verified these actions.
1916 Veteran James Doyle wrote, “[O’Flanagan] volunteered for service with the ASU in or about the time of its formation, in December 1920 and was appointed M/O [medical officer] to same.” John O’Flanagan left his medical intern residency in the Richmond Hospital to join the full-time unit in December 1920.
James Gibbons, ASU stated, “Flanagan was appointed Medical Officer to the unit with the rank of Lieutenant. He operated with the unit as a fighting member, as well as Medical Officer.” Another ASU man George White said “The ASU had a Medical Officer, Sean O’Flanagan…. He was with them always”.
“Numerous Raids In Dublin – Optical Glasses Carried Off”.
Published in the Irish Times on 23 May: ‘Rarely a week goes by in Dublin without some new audacity on the part of armed civilians. Shortly after city shops opened for business on Saturday, optical retail houses were quickly raided by a small group of men who carried away a selection of articles which have considerable military value.
A series of optical shops Pollock’s, Grafton St. Wicklow St., Masons, Dame St. Grafton St. and Yeates on Nassau St. were raided for field glasses, electric lamps, pockets torches and other useful items”.
Most daring was a raid carried out on a Dame Street house, within about twenty yards of Dublin Castle gates…”
The raiders calmly drove away in a motor car.
Later that day (20 May) another more notorious event occurred. O’Flanagan asserted that he was one of the five ASU members that carried out orders by GHQ to execute a spy, ‘Hoppy’ Byrne by name, said to be an informer in the Kevin Barry Case.
This incident took place at Jervis Street Hospital on the afternoon of Saturday 21 May 1921. The target had been wounded in an earlier attempt to assassinate him and was hospitalised. The ASU party put Byrne on a stretcher, carried him to an internal yard and shot him dead. This seems particularly ironic given that O’Flanagan was later to become a doctor and his action outraged and horrified his future medical colleagues. His claim to have taken part was backed-up by James Doyle and also by George White, one of the other ASU men involved.
The Custom House Attack
“He was with me in charge of the Custom House staff on the 25 May 1921, when the Custom House was burned….” wrote James Gibbons, late Adjutant, Dublin Active Service Unit, 1921.
John O’Flanagan himself stated that he “entered Custom House with Active Service Unit. Duties entailed leading Custom Employees and other civilians to a place of safety….”
“He was placed under arrest with the staff by the British Forces, and when questioned by Black and Tans, he said he was a doctor”, stated Gibbons. “They asked him to dress some of their wounded and sent him with them in the ambulance and [he] got away on the quays….”
O’Flanagan continued in his application “….I informed them I was a Doctor whereupon he requested me to render what aid I could to the wounded. This I proceeded to do. Very soon an ambulance arrived. I recognized the Fireman in charge of it and through his cooperation I was taken with the wounded to King George V Hospital….”
Joe Connolly, a 1916 veteran, was a member of Dublin Fire Brigade on ambulance duty on 25 May. He was also supporting the IRA men and their actions that day.
The following dialogue is taken from the Sworn Statement of Fireman Joseph William Connolly (FN56783) to the Military Pensions Board in 1939:
“Q. As regards the fire at the Custom House did you go there?
A. Yes. Having been on the ambulance that day I was ordered first to take the wounded after from the Custom House to hospitals, and then I was ordered to go back to the fire.
Q. To help put it out? A. Yes
Q. Did you use your discretion in any of these cases you took to hospitals? A. Yes.
Q. Where did you take wounded men from? A. From around the adjacent streets.
Q. Did you take any volunteers away? A. Yes, I had Flanagan . . . . . – I think that was his name.
Q. Anyone else? A. Others, but I cannot think of their names at the moment.”
O’Flanagan concluded the story, “….Having delivered the wounded, the ambulance returned, letting me off on the quays near O’Connell Bridge.” This story was also corroborated by George White (see MSPREF344155GEORGE P WHITE, page 15).
John O’Flanagan went on to lead a number of ASU operations over the next month up to the Truce, outlined in his own pension statement.
Gibbons also wrote about O’Flanagan “….he refused to join the Dublin Guards on the formation of that unit on 26 June 1921, under Capt. Paddy Daly, but remained faithful to Comdt. Paddy Flanagan, O/C Active Service Unit. After the Treaty was signed he renewed his studies at the university which were interrupted in 1920 when he volunteered for Active Service.”
Jimmy Gibbons, also known as MacGiobúin (my grandfather), escaped on the day of the Burning of the Custom House but was arrested a number of weeks later in a house near the Cattle Markets. * He was held in Kilmainham Gaol, with the ‘Fire Brigade’ men until the first release of prisoners on 8 December 1921.
John O’Flanagan returned to his hospital intern duties and studies, as the Truce commenced in July 1921. He fully qualified as a Doctor in 1922, graduating on 9 November, 1922.
The Leaving of Ireland
He emigrated to New York in 1923. Two years later he married native New Yorker Mary Dunne. The family lived in Queens, New York City and they had five children. Two sons became doctors like their father. One child survives, at the time of writing. There are at least 12 grandchildren.
John initially worked in a number of hospitals in New York City. He established a family practice in Long Island City, Queens in a new development in the early 1930s at Sunnyside near the 46th Street Bliss Street Train station.
John applied for a service certificate and pension in 1934 and conducted lengthy correspondence to establish recognition of his actions in the War of Independence. In 1938, letters to Minister Oscar Traynor T.D., who was the Dublin Brigade Commandant and had appointed him to the ASU, swiftly concluded the process.
The quote below is taken from a letter date 20 September 1938 from Traynor’s office, about correspondence received by the minister from John O’Flanagan Esq. MD., Long Island City, N.Y:
“You may recall that I was Medical Officer of the Active Service Unit and for that reason should have some claim to be considered a pioneer among the Medical Officers of the Irish Army. Prior to that, I served about four years in ‘C’ Company of the 3rd Battalion. These facts of course can be verified by several members of ‘C’ Company including Doctor Andy Cooney, James Gibbons, Jimmy Doyle, John Neary and Doctor John Dunne, Supt., Grangegorman Mental Hospital.
Now that the “Old Country” seems steadily advancing in prestige and independence, exiles, especially those who were forced to leave through various circumstances attending the revolutionary struggle take pride in the part they had in aiding the National Achievement. For that reason, I feel very much lost that so far I have nothing to show to my sons or to anybody else in proof that I stood at one time in ‘Bearna Baoghal’. I hope, therefore that you will be good enough to ascertain if you will, the cause of the delay that has attended the disposal of my case.”
The query was responded to on 24 September that the case had been brought to a conclusion and the applicant notified. John O’Flanagan wrote a letter of acceptance on 30 September.
John O’Flanagan was awarded a Service Certificate and an IRA pension for actions during the War of Independence. He had on-going correspondence with the Pensions Board as there were some lengthy delays in issuing cheques and repeated requests for completed forms. He requested and was awarded an active service medal in the late 1960s.
O’Flanagan was awarded a service certificate and an IRA pension for his actions during the War of Independence. He had on-going correspondence with the Bureau as there were some lengthy delays in issuing cheques and repeated requests for completed forms. He requested and was awarded an active service medal in the late 1960s.
Dr. John O’Flanagan died of heart failure on 31 March, 1983. He is buried along with his wife, who passed after him in 1987, and two of his children at Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens, New York. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha dílis.
As I said at the start when I knew Dr. John in New York almost 50 years ago, little did I guess what he and my grandfather had done together in the Tan War. I’m glad to say I know a lot more now and I am very proud of both men.
All images provided by Mel. We hope to have him back here again soon with the fascinating story of his grandfather Jimmy, another Custom House Fire Brigade Man.
*This interesting account differs from most records which apparently show Jimmy Gibbons was among those captured at the Custom House on 25 May 1921.