On this date (12 January) in 1922 over 300 political prisoners held in Irish jails were released following the ratification of the Treaty. An amnesty was declared in respect of political offences (under British law) which had taken place prior to the Truce on 11 July 1921.
There were 186 men in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin. Some had been sentenced to death, other were serving long terms up to life.
Among them were the six IRA captured at the Burning charged with the capital offence of Treason against the British crown – Ned Breslin, Paddy Brunton, Tom Flood, Seán Sliney, Michael Watchorn and Johnny Wilson.
Also there was Michael Stephenson who escaped from the Custom House but was arrested a week later at the ASU dump in Strand Street where a weapon was found by raiding Auxiliaries (Seán Ward, wounded and captured with a firearm at the Burning, had also been in the Joy but was discharged a free man on 8 December 1921).
One newspaper reported there had been rumours and high expectations of release on Sunday 8 January, two days following the Dáil Treaty vote. However, that proved a false hope, obviously to the great disappointment and frustration of the men, their families and friends. Some prisoners had even packed their bags in anticipation of going home after Mass, but were forced to endure almost another week behind bars.
At last, on Thursday 12th, the releases began at 4.30 pm and continued until 10 o’clock that night. The newspapers reported the freed prisoners were given a rousing welcome by enthusiastic crowds outside the gate. Some relatives had been at the prison from as early as 8 am and stood patiently and expectantly in the cold for hours on end waiting for their loved ones to appear. It was a slow and tedious process, with intervals of an hour and more between batches of about 30 men emerging to liberty, but good humour and high spirits prevailed. The Freeman’s Journal said:
“None of the men appeared to be anything the worse for their confinement and their joy at being free again knew no restraint. They trooped out on to the roadway like schoolboys and were then marshalled by their commandants. They fell into military formation and, with their kits on their shoulders, marched to the Ierne Hall, Parnell Square, the headquarters of the Christian Brothers’ Past Pupils Union (many of the men would have been educated by the Brothers in various schools).
Here an excellent repast was provided by Cumann na mBan and many of the men took part in a Céilidh which lasted until a late hour.
Arrangements were made for the distribution of men without relatives in Dublin in city hotels and private houses.”
So, the last of the Custom House Men were finally free from the very real threat of hanging, their almost inevitable fate had they been court-martialled as intended. But good fortune meant they lived to return to their families and friends.
Only a Brief Peace
It must have seemed to many that 1922 would be a happy and peaceful new year for the 26 counties due to become the Free State in December. Unfortunately, however, republicans were already divided and in less than six months the men from Mountjoy would have to fight again. This time against some of their old comrades and fellow Custom House men.
In February all seven (including Stephenson) joined the new Irish Army. Six remained in that uniform as Civil War loomed. Paddy Brunton re-considered his position and returned to the anti-Treaty IRA.
Thankfully all survived that conflict and eventually went back to civilian life. Fate had contrasting futures in store. Some fell on hard times or suffered misfortune, others did well. Ned Breslin became embroiled in Civil War controversy, while Michael Watchorn was jailed for armed robbery then went blind. Seán Sliney suffered ill-health and passed away aged just 41. Tom Flood was wounded, later to become a hotel owner and a local councillor. Only Paddy Brunton and Michael Watchorn lived long lives, coincidentally both passing way in 1978.
In the Shadow of the Noose for The Cause
Unlike the Custom House Fire Brigade interned in Kilmainham, Ned Breslin, Paddy Brunton, Tom Flood, Seán Sliney, Michael Watchorn, Johnny Wilson, Seán Ward and Mick Stephenson did not enjoy as much free association, supportive camaraderie or opportunities to create a bit of craic in captivity after the Truce.
They weren’t as lucky as ‘The Blacksmith of Ballinalee’ Sean MacEoin, sentenced to death but freed a few weeks after the Truce as a condition demanded by Michael Collins for the continuation of negotiations. They had been fortunate to avoid court martial before the Truce put a halt to those proceedings (some would call them kangaroo courts). But If the Treaty had not been ratified, who knows what their fate may have been. Living with that potential threat for so long must have been very stressful for all concerned.
Although prisoners in Mountjoy could receive limited visitors and parcels, confinement there remained tight and security was strict, with armed military sentries and guards. There were about a half dozen IRA sympathisers among the Irish warders. However, Auxiliaries also carried out those duties in the jail (although, to be fair, there are no real horror stories concerning their behaviour).
So there are no smiling prisoner photos or autograph book verses like those shown elsewhere on this site for the other men held in Kilmainham. One exception we know of – in the autograph book of fellow republican prisoner Sean Kavanagh (later governor of Mountjoy Prison), Tom Flood dedicated his entry on 23 September 1921 in memory of his executed brother Frank. Quite possibly the other Custom House men in Mountjoy also signed Kavanagh’s book, we would love to know more.
One hundred years later we are proud to remember the sacrifices made and hardships suffered by The Custom House Crew and their comrades before their release from Mountjoy and the other jails in Ireland and Britain.