Readers may have come across BMH.WS1410 “Burning of the Custom House, 25th May, 1921” by Michael O’Kelly. It is believed to be based on a contemporary account written shortly after the Custom House attack. And in the 1930s it was used as a lecture in Defence Forces training.
Here we will have a look at its background and begin a review of its contents in detail.
Emmet Dalton‘s papers in the National Library include a typed document almost exactly the same as the Witness Statement. It is not signed or dated. But could it be that Dalton was the writer in 1921? He was of course very close to Michael Collins and was IRA GHQ Director of Training at the time. Given his military officer training and combat experience with the 9th Dublin Fusiliers in World War I, he would have been in an ideal position to review operations.
A clue may be the high praise it contains for Comdt. Tom Ennis who was in charge of the destruction of the Custom House. Dalton and Ennis were comrades during the Tan and Civil War and became close friends. After hostilities had ended they were even in business together for a time (as private detectives).
The writer had the opportunity of running those views past Sean Boyne, author of the excellent biography of Emmet Dalton (‘Somme Soldier, Irish General, Film Pioneer’). Glad to say Mr Boyne agrees that Dalton was the most likely writer!
The Author wasn’t there?
Another clue is the scope and nature of the report. It is a third-party account and largely objective overview covering all aspects of the operation. Compare that with the majority of accounts in other Witness Statements. Their viewpoints are understandably more limited and recount personal experiences or relate to specific aspects or phases of the event. They reflect the recollections of men who did not have an overall view (That is not a criticism; all are valid and valuable documents). Exceptions are the Witness Statements of Oscar Traynor, Harry Colley and Sean Prendergast – senior officers. Unfortunately Tom Ennis did not live long enough to leave his own account.
From a different perspective, junior officer 2nd Lieutenant Peadar O’Farrell (D Coy, 2nd Battalion) reckoned Dalton would have been among those from GHQ who reviewed the Custom House operational plan beforehand. That is neither surprising or unlikely. But what is unusual is the level of criticism aimed by O’Farrell at Ennis, Michael Collins and, it appears, everybody else involved with planning the Burning.
We have previously suggested that O’Farrell’s antagonism may have resulted from the anti-Treaty position he adopted later during the Civil War. His general attitude of dismissal towards fellow-officers in his 2nd Battalion is notable because they all opposed him in the conflict over the Treaty. This may have magnified his scepticism about the tactics for the attack on the Custom House. After all, he did get captured that day and spent time interned in Kilmainham, a tough and frustrating time for himself and the other Kilmainham internees who naturally wanted to be free to carry on the fight.
But he wasn’t alone in the view among the IRA that the Custom House attack was a disaster- allegedly. We’ll come back to that issue again!
Later Use of Document
Michael O’Kelly (1902-1959) was a Lieutenant with E Coy, 2nd Battalion who took part in the Burning. He was one of those arrested and interned in Kilmainham. O’Kelly joined the National Army in 1922 and remained with the Defence Forces after the Civil War, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel.
In June 1935, then-Commandant O’Kelly delivered a lecture based on the document at the Infantry School, Irish Military College. Section headings were added and, for the benefit of his audience, it ended with three short Lessons titled Surprise, Protection and Quick Decision (We will discuss those in a future part).
The lecture was published in the Army’s magazine An Cosaintóir in the 1940s and was re-printed in Our Struggle for Independence edited by Terence O’Reilly (Mercier Press, Cork, 2009).
Michael O’Kelly found another use for the document later.
We can thank him for submitting it to the Bureau of Military History.
It became BMH.WS1410 dated 30 April 1956.
This time the Lessons were omitted and the ending was a stirring passage calling for Ireland to be prepared to defend her liberty – won by the blood of the Volunteers of 1916-1921 – should the need arise again.
At some point in the future we’ll look at the first part of the document covering the conception, planning and logistics of the Burning.
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