On Thursday 8 December 1921 the release of political prisoners interned without charge began under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in London two days previously. Thousands of men (and seven women) were freed from jails and camps around Ireland – among them the Curragh, Ballykinlar, Maryborough (now Portlaoise) and Kilmainham.
The 225 men held in Kilmainham Gaol included the bulk of the Custom House Fire Brigade arrested back on 25 May (Listed here). A small number had been paroled early on medical grounds; and seven of them were to be held in Mountjoy Prison till January.
Overall, this date 100 years must surely have been a joyous one for the men who had burned the Custom House. At last they could go home to their families, freely mix with old friends and comrades, or resume romantic relationships. They could wave goodbye to the infamous dragons over the front gate and try to pick up their lives again.
For the majority, that involved rejoining their old IRA units, while some ended their military activities at that point. A handful of Custom House prisoners not in the IRA could walk away and resume their lives – hopefully still employable.
The internees had been informed of their impending release on the Wednesday when a British officer addressed the assembly. The news was, understandably, loudly cheered and spread far and wide.
From early next morning huge crowds of relatives, friends and supporters began to gather outside Kilmainham Gaol in anticipation of the releases. Starting at about noon, the men were freed at half-hour intervals in batches of 25, so it took quite a few hours for all to walk out the gates onto the crowded Inchicore Road. Their O/C, Christy Byrne, oversaw their exodus while a British officer handed each man his release document and shook hands with many of them.
The British Pathé newsreel can be found here.
They were greeted by the happy and excited throng of cheering relatives and well-wishers under the gaze of a smiling group of British soldiers on a balcony above the gate. Good humour prevailed all round. A press reporter noted the hardest working and most serious-looking man on the scene was the Tommy who had to unlock the gates to let out each batch and chain them shut again!
The papers highlighted the Custom House contingent being among the internees freed. Celebrities all!
They also reported that the men appeared in the best of spirits. However, some were not in the best of health after captivity.
The Freeman’s Journal and Cork Examiner reports said they expressed themselves thoroughly satisfied with the peace terms to its representative.
One of one of the released men speaking on behalf of the party said: “What is good enough for Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins is quite good enough for us”.
He added that they “would work as energetically for the welfare of the country in the future as [they] had fought for its freedom in the past”.
They were reluctant to speak of their prison experiences, according to the Evening Herald which quoted one man saying “As we are free men now, we want to forget all we went through in there”.
Another said they had expected to get out earlier – through a tunnel they had been digging. He claimed it had been discovered about two weeks previously and filled in, but that did not matter now.
One of the lads freed was highlighted in particular.
“A group of wildly excited friends caused smiles of sympathy among onlookers when young George McLean, aged 15, came forward pale and thin and excited looking. “Here he is! Here he is! Ah Georgie!” And he was forthwith swallowed in the crowd”.
Later, on College Green, another liberated man enjoyed a mundane activity for the first time in a good while. Descending from the top deck of a tram he exclaimed “God, but it’s queer to be coming down these steps again!”.
Others said “Yes, it’s great joy, great joy!”.
A couple of them got newspapers on the tram and stared at the photograph of the signatories to the Peace Treaty. There was a lot to take in for men who had helped win the War of Independence.
No full list of names of the Kilmainam releases was published. The Irish Independent did report some – maybe J. Robinson was Jeremiah ‘Sam’ Robinson of the Squad; and a few other names may refer to Custom House Men.
Many men caught trams away from the Gaol. Others were conveyed to their home districts by transport made available by hackney operators Messrs. Medlar & Claffey of James’s Street and the firm treated a number of men to lunch. One group decided to drive past the Mansion House on Kildare Street where The Dáil was in session. Outside, they cheered the Lord Mayor and the Treaty Delegates.
However, as we know, inside the Mansion House tempers were already flaring and tensions running high over the terms of the Treaty, as reported in the papers on the same pages as the news of the prisoner releases. These political and military divisions would of course widen and tragically lead to Civil War in June 1922.
That conflict would involve many of the Custom House Fire Brigade – on both sides – and result in death for four of them and injuries for several others.
But that was all in the unforeseeable future on the happy day the gates of Kilmainham opened for the men arrested at the Custom House.