Born in Clare, son of an RIC man who features in a few colourful family stories; went to school in Manchester then worked in the Belfast shipyard as a teenager; joined Dublin Brigade; arrested at the Burning; was a bodyguard for Arthur Griffith and a Commandant in the National Army; and, closing a family circle, died in Monaghan. A really interesting life path for a Custom House Fire Brigade Man. Thanks to Charles’ descendants in Co Monaghan we can add a great deal to the basic records discovered in our research.
Origins and Background
Charles James McCabe was born in Kilkishen, east Clare just over 122 years ago on 8 July 1899. He was the youngest of four.
His father James was an RIC policeman originally from Co Monaghan. Constable McCabe served in the mounted contingent of the police for two periods. He had postings to Co Donegal, the Phoenix Park Depot, Cos. Armagh and Cavan before his allocation to the Reserve in 1887. In the same year he received an award, the Jubilee Record. But that was followed by an Unfavourable Record just 2 years later and a series of monetary fines between then and 1893 for various breaches of regulations (No details survive).
Family lore says James had eloped to marry Monaghan woman Maryanne Goodwin in Killaloe, Co Clare on 15 May 1889. Almost unbelievably from our current viewpoint, that would have been a major breach of regulations for a member of the RIC. Policemen required the permission of their superiors to wed (and then only after at least 7 years service). Their intended brides and in-laws were subject to vetting.
A Few Minor Mysteries
However, the RIC record for James McCabe simply shows the date of the wedding and native place of the bride. No disciplinary action appears against him at that time.
Additionally, he is not shown serving in Co Clare at any stage, while it is known that he did. Combined with the absence of a civil marriage record online and a reference to him joining the RIC from Aldershot, England it adds a bit of mystery about the father of two future IRA men.
But James did continue serving in the force and was in fact based in east Clare, known from the births of four children – Mary Josephine and John Francis ‘Frank’ (in Killaloe), Elsie Anne (in Scariff) and Charlie himself – between 1890 and 1899. The full family appears in the 1901 census in Kilkishen.
One final interesting snippet about Const. McCabe is the family’s belief that he had a dispute with his superior officer, struck him and emigrated to Manchester. It may have happened, but again his service record is silent, merely noting he was pensioned in 1906.
However, not long after James left the RIC, he and at least four of his family did indeed move to Harpurhey, Manchester where James (a widower), Elsie and Charles are listed in the 1911 census. The father was an Irish police pensioner and Labourer in a Coach Works, 14 year-old Elsie had a job as a Cashier while Charlie, aged 11, was attending school.
The mother Maryanne had died over there in 1908, while Mary Josephine (a Typist) and Frank (a Tram Conductor) were working in Dublin.
In 1913 the MacCabe’s father passed away in Manchester after which Charlie moved to Belfast aged about 16, according to family history. They believe he worked as an apprentice in the famous Harland and Wolf shipyard. How a Catholic blow-in from the south got a job there is an interesting question. What his experiences were in the Loyalist dominated shipyard in Unionist East Belfast are unknown. But they may have influenced his political outlook.
In any event, it is said he came down to Dublin in 1916 and tried to join the Irish Volunteers like his brother Frank who fought with F Coy, 1st Battalion, Dublin Brigade. Charlie’s obituary says he was turned down because he was too young, being just seventeen. It seems the entry age of 18 was strictly applied in his case, even though several lads even younger than him are known to have ended up taking part in the Rising. So Charlie returned to Belfast before permanently coming back to the capital. Still in his teens, the younger McCabe finally got into Dublin Brigade with F Coy, 2nd Battalion.
The McCabe in the Easter Rising
The oldest brother Frank had been involved in the 1914 arms landings by the Volunteers at Howth and Kilcoole, took parts in arms raids in 1915 and was out in 1916. After fighting in the North King Street/Church Street area he evaded capture and served as an officer during the post-Rising reorganisation of the Volunteers. But early the following year he was arrested and deported to Britain. Here is a brilliant photo of him over there with a group of other Irish Rebels, some big names included!
The deportation order was rescinded a few months later and he returned to Dublin to continue his Volunteer activity. He emigrated to New York in 1920 (MSP34REF17411). His descendants in the USA keep his Irish Volunteers uniform displayed on a mannequin.
Meanwhile, his sisters were making important decisions in their own lives.
The Musical McCabes
In 1917 the eldest McCabe daughter Mary Josephine got married at the Pro-Cathedral to a Civil Servant named James Ennis.
She was an accomplished fiddle player while he was a prize-winning piper and Irish dancer.
One of their sons was the famous uileann piper, singer and collector of traditional music, Seamus Ennis (1919-1982) from Finglas and later Naul, Co Dublin.
Another Soldier Under a Different Flag
The youngest McCabe girl Elsie married in Belfast. As Mrs William McLarnon she later emigrated to the USA. One of her sons, Terry, a nephew of Charlie, served in WW2. He survived that conflict but was killed in action during the Korean War, aged 26, as a 1st Lieut., U.S. Army 155 mm Field Artillery, 4th Division. He died on 8 October 1952, north of the 38th Parallel.
All three siblings survived Charlie and were named in his obituary.
With the Dublin Brigade
Unfortunately no Military Pension file for Charles McCabe is online, so very little is known about his activities before his involvement in the Burning. He said he joined the Irish Volunteers in 1917 and is mentioned (with Christy Fitzsimons) in the file (24SP2772) for Thomas Donnelly of F Coy – who came from Glaslough Street, Monaghan – as having seized a rifle from Clontarf Town Hall in 1920. In his Army record shared by the McCabe family, Charlie just mentions he “took part in nearly all the engagements in his Coy area…. was arrested on 25 May 1921”. It seems he was being his modest self – his obituary says he was wounded twice during the Tan War. And his 2nd Battalion was of course recognised as a highly active fighting unit.
Most likely he was involved in their big attack on the London & North Western Railway Hotel used as a base by Auxy Q Company on 11 April 1921. Charlie did live in the close vicinity, at 5 Commons Street, only a short walk upriver off the North Wall. His son Frank says the address was a safe house owned by Monaghan couple John and Kate McCarney. “My father lived in the attic room for ease of escape [in case of military raids]. Many a night he slept on the roof”.
The Custom House and Kilmainham Gaol
We do know that Charles McCabe was definitely mobilised for the Burning the following month and took part in the operation.
By the way, here is an amazing Custom House coincidence.
Charlie’s granddaughter Eleanor McDermott says that some years before her paternal grandad helped burn the building, her great grandfather on her mother’s side Patrick Duffy was actually the head of Customs & Excise there!
Anyway on 25 May 1921, Charlie was rounded up as one of the prisoners and spent a few weeks in Arbour Hill Detention Barracks before being interned in Kilmainham.
We were aware that he features in a couple of photos taken of the Custom House Fire Brigade.
The first appears in Cyril Daly’s autograph book on display in the Gaol Museum. By the way, Charlie penned a clever verse on the back:
“In cell 5 I do dwell. And in bloody bad mood I’m feeling.
I’d go right down into Hell – just for a tip from Teeling”C. J. McCabe, 13 October 1921 – courtesy of the McCabe family
He was of course referring to the famous escapes from the Gaol by three IRA men earlier in 1921.
In the other, a group photo, he holds a handkerchief to his mouth after an experience which sounds excruciating and horrifying to most of us.
He needed work on his teeth but refused to sign an undertaking not to make an escape attempt on an escorted visit to an external dentist. So the procedure was carried out in the Gaol – without an anaesthetic! Another example of how courageous, tough and loyal to their principles the Custom House Men really were.
Now the family have shared two great new photos of Charles with some of his fellow internees from the Custom House attack.
One has an interesting the note on the back. Familiar faces all, we hope to add the missing name as soon as possible!
Following his release with the rest of the internees in December 1921, Charlie rejoined his unit.
Foreign Trips and National Army
In his duties he is said to have rubbed shoulders with many leading IRA and Sinn Féin personalities, including Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith.
This may have been the key influence for his decision to follow them after they had signed the Treaty leading to his freedom. It is not clear in what timescale, but he was in charge of the bodyguard detail for Griffith and travelled to America twice and England in the course of special duties (sadly no details).
Charlie enlisted in the new Irish Army in July 1922 and was made a Staff Lieutenant with Intelligence, 2nd Eastern Division at Portobello and Wellington Barracks. His name appears on the GHQ Intelligence pay list for the week ending 25 August 1922. Just after the Free State had suffered the double loss of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins.
No doubt the whole Civil War was anything but a happy experience for the vast majority of participants. Men and women lost pals or former friends, relatives too; and some even saw them die horribly, on both sides. This must have been especially traumatic and demoralising for pre-Truce veterans like McCabe. He hated having to fight fellow Irishmen, some he’d stood shoulder-to-shoulder with against the British.
On top of that the sudden death of Griffith, a man Charlie had closely guarded, must have affected him greatly. His sorrow on that occasion was possibly only exceeded a few weeks later when Collins, a leader and friend he greatly admired and who trusted him highly, also met his end.
A year later, when hostilities had ended, Charlie McCabe attended the first anniversary commemoration at Béal na Bláth. He is listed among the Army officers paying their respects. Also there were three who had been with him at the destruction of the Custom House – Tom Ennis, Jim Slattery and Specky Griffin. At that stage McCabe had been promoted to Commandant (although he was never gazetted) and posted to the Special Infantry Corps.
In early February 1924 Comdt. McCabe was de-mobbed from the Army. His record recognises he actively served his country during the entire period from 1st April 1919 to 30 September 1923. He also received glowing references from Sean Ward, Bill Stapleton and Joe Shanahan.
A great pity so little is documented about his activities in those momentous years.
According to his obituary, he was wounded for a third time during the Civil War. That was correct – during 1922 he suffered a bullet wound in his right elbow which left him unfit for heavy manual work.
His granddaughter Eleanor says the family know he was also injured in a motor accident at the Curragh in which a comrade was killed. She believes her late father Liam may have been named after the fatality but would love to learn more. Perhaps some Kind Reader can assist? (An alternative influence – suggested by his brother Frank – for the name Liam was the anti-Treaty IRA leader Liam Mellows, notoriously executed by the Free State in 1922).
A Brief Emigration
Charlie had been saddened by the Civil War and it seems he also became disenchanted with the national situation. He wrote the word ‘Emigration’ on his Army de-mob papers under the question “Prospects of employment…”.
He sailed to New York in July 1925, as shown by a US visa stamp on his passport. A letter to him from an old IRA friend, Joe Shanahan (MSP file 24SP2326) on 24 July, wished him well in his new venture. Another letter dated October from Fionán Lynch T. D., Minister for Fisheries, was addressed to Charlie at 444 West 20th Street, New York.
However, if McCabe had plans for a life in the New World they obviously changed fairly soon. He sailed back to Ireland via Liverpool in February 1926, reasons unknown.
On both travel records his occupation is shown as Boilermaker, a trade he had acquired as a teenager in Belfast. He had also worked in the Dublin Dockyard Co. after his move to the capital. The firm is known to have had many Dublin Brigade men on its books.
Peacetime Life in Monaghan
Charlie’s grandson Christy kindly provided the following information.
“After the war Charlie moved to Monaghan [his parents’ native county] to live with his elderly cousins Charlie and Paddy Boylan in Greaghglass, Ardaghy. There he helped them on the farm and was the local postman out of Braddox Post Office.”
He became widely known and respected by all in the area. His late son Liam remembered IRA men calling to the house to hand in weapons during arms amnesties.
Charlie was a well-known sportsman too. He played soccer for several clubs in Monaghan. Long-term supporters rated him one of the best centre-halves (modern term centre-back) they had seen. He also liked to fish and hunt game with his dog and gun and it is believed he also raced greyhounds.
Christy adds: “He met my Grandmother, local woman Brigid Winters, and they married in 1927 [Her father had been a recruiting sergeant for the British Army during WW1]. They had six children, two of whom remain alive, my father Frank (88) and Uncle Jack who is 91.” (Sadly Jack has since passed away).
Family life went well for the McCabes for many years. Then in 1948 they suffered the loss of their second eldest son Cathal, aged just 19. Subsequently Charles was diagnosed with cancer of the throat, an extremely painful condition. Eleanor McDermott says her late father told her that several of Charlie’s old comrades, including Squad man Jim Slattery, visited him during his long illness. Indeed, her uncle Frank remembers Slattery having only one hand. The family are aware the two old soldiers were long-time close friends.
They have shared this photo taken in earlier times – that definitely looks like Slattery on the right. The message on the back (not shown here) is to Jim from Charlie.
The friendship between the families of the two men lasted over the decades since they had soldiered together in the Tan and Civil Wars.
Among other memorabilia held by the McCabes is an in memoriam card for Jim Slattery’s wife Mary who died in 1963, well after Charlie had passed away.
But before that sad eventuality he had to battle his illness while looking after his family.
He needed to regularly travel for treatment at hospitals in Monaghan and Dublin.
However, the cancer persisted over the years.
In February 1954 he returned home on Tuesday 16th after yet another arduous trip to Dublin.
Just three days later Charlie passed away. The family had been fully aware of his serious condition but, nevertheless, the sudden end of his long and final battle came as a devastating shock. He was aged just 54.
Commandant Charles James McCabe’s funeral mass was held in St. McCartan’s Cathedral, Monaghan Town. The chief mourners were his widow, five surviving children and his sister up from Dublin.
The coffin was draped with the Tricolour and an honour guard was provided by an Old IRA party from Clones. Full military honours included three volleys over the grave and the Last Post sounded by a bugler. An oration was delivered paying tribute to Charlie’s part in the fight for freedom.
Duly respectful (and highly informative) obituaries were published in the Northern Standard and Monaghan Argus newspapers.
So ended the life of a well-travelled Custom House Man. Sadly his service to the country has largely been forgotten. He has been overlooked in accounts of the Irish Revolutionary period. By all accounts he was a very modest and self-effacing man who never sought the limelight.
However, Charlie McCabe’s life and times are still celebrated by his descendants in Ireland and wider afield. Many mementos of his military career are treasured in their homes in Co. Monaghan and some have been shared with Kilmainham Gaol Museum.
It’s now just over a hundred years since the Custom House attack, the Truce and the end of the War of Independence. That seems like a long time to this writer and most Readers will probably agree.
Yet just to prove how recent such momentous times in Ireland’s history actually are, it is fantastic that until very recently two of Charlie McCabe’s sons – Jack and Frank – were still hale and hearty and rightly proud of their father’s contribution to the birth of a sovereign Irish state. Sadly Jack passed away at his home in Dundalk on the 13th of this month, RIP.
They both helped keep his story alive, passed it down in their extended family – and now it has been shared with us.
We are really pleased to have been able to join with them in paying respects to their ancestor Charles McCabe and highlighting his largely forgotten service to Ireland. And also to acknowledge the part played by his brother Frank (1891-1969), a 1916 Volunteer.
Many thanks to the McCabe family for generously sharing so much of their fascinating memorabilia (not all of which was used above).