This Custom House man was one of the midlands Volunteers who claimed to have struck the first blow in the Easter Rising. Yet his participation was never acknowledged when it came to honours and military pensions in the aftermath of the War of Independence and Civil War he fought in.

Origin and Background

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Where John was born and grew up (OSI maps)

John Joseph Muldowney was born on 25 April 1894 at Ridge Road, Mountmellick, Queen’s County (now Laois). He was named after his father (a Mill Worker) and his mother was Mary Brewder (with many spelling variations). The family moved to Maryborough (now Portlaoise) and were recorded on Green Lane in the 1901 and 1911 censuses. John had four older sisters – Mary, Julia, Catherine and Theresa – and younger brothers Patrick and Timothy.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
John’s old neighbourhood in Portlaoise

Early Volunteers

John and Patrick Muldowney joined the small Portlaoise Company of the Irish Volunteers at St. Patrick’s hall in the town in 1914 and were also sworn into the IRB. They and their comrades, only a dozen in all, took part in weekly parades, getting instructions on arms and drilling. They were also active in procuring large quantities of gelignite and fuses from from the Wolfhill coal mines in the locality. These were passed on to Volunteer GHQ in Dublin. In addition they organised fund-raisers to buy arms. In 1915 the Company members attended a lecture in Dublin on railway demolition and also marched in the O’Donovan Rossa funeral.

The Rising

On Holy Thursday 1916, the Company was informed by Eamon Fleming, a Volunteer officer sent down from Dublin, that the Rising was due to begin at 7 am on Easter Sunday, the 23rd. Fleming said P. H. Pearse had ordered them to cut local railway links to hinder British reinforcements coming through ports in the south-east. He would take two men to deal with the Kilkenny-Kildare line while his 2nd in command Paddy Ramsbottom took a larger party to deal with the route between Waterford and Portlaoise. There, a section of line at Colt Wood, between Abbeyleix and Portlaoise was selected. In addition to Ramsbottom, the Volunteers were Laurence and Thomas F. Brady, Michael Sheridan, Colum Holohan (a railway worker who obtained tools to cut wires and dismantle the rails) and the two Muldowney brothers.

There is an excellent summary here of the lead up to the action and subsequent events written for the 1916 centenary by Adam Murphy, a great grand nephew of Paddy Ramsbottom (Adam was then a 5th Class pupil at Gaelscoil Eoghain Uí Thuairisc, Ashgrove, Carlow. A budding historian!). Full details can be found in the Witness Statement by Patrick J. Ramsbottom.

After a section of rails had been removed and telegraph and signalling poles cut down, what are reputed to be the first shots of the Rising were fired by the Volunteers at a railway employee sent to investigate the communications outage. He managed to get away. After the Rebels had left the scene, a small train carrying RIC and railway workers checking the area was derailed and the line was significantly damaged.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Image of the derailed train on the Colt Wood memorial (Irish War Memorials)

Despite the Company’s successful operation and standing by under arms awaiting further orders for a full fortnight after the Surrender before going on the run, most of the Portlaoise men, including John Muldowney, received no recognition for Rising service when it came to pensions and medals (John’s files are here).

Panel showing the names of the Portlaoise Volunteers including John Muldowney (Irish War Memorials)

The topics of how differently 1916 Volunteers outside Dublin were treated and the strange inconsistencies involved in the outcomes of applications are discussed on the Military Archives Blog.

Dublin Brigade and the ASU

John Muldowney had worked locally as a Shop Assistant but lost his job over the Rising. He had to move to Dublin in search of work which he managed to secure as a Grocer’s Assistant with Kennedy Brothers of Westland Row. By 1917 he had joined up with the re-organised D Coy, 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade under O/C Paddy Moran (later hanged by the British). Muldowney was actively involved in parades, drilling etc. and also procuring arms from British soldiers. He actually worked in the same shop as Martin Savage (KIA at Ashtown, 1919) and, owing to police suspicions over their association, Muldowney had to quit his job and keep a low profile.

His IRA activities increased to involve armed patrols and an ambush on Dorset Street. At the end of 1920 he joined the Active Service Unit. His Coy Adjutant at the time, Michael Kilkelly, says he was a very good soldier and was the first man in the Company to volunteer for the ASU. As a full-timer with No. 2 Section, John took part in their specialty hit-and-run tactics, participating in ambushes at Bachelors Walk, Beresford Place, Ormond Quay and operations on Grafton Street, Trinity College, the Killester train attack and Fairview among other jobs.

Mudowney was on duty in the Custom House on 25 May 1921, was captured and held in Arbour Hill Detention Barracks before transfer to internment in Kilmainham Gaol. He would have been living mostly on the run, but gave his address as 29 Hardwicke Street (near Dorset Street and Parnell Square).

He appears in a couple of autograph books and also in an ASU group photo taken in Kilmainham.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
John’s page in Cyril Daly‘s autograph book
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Here, John Muldowney is second from left, back row.

He shared Cell 8, Section C with James Angleton and they traded a bit of good humoured banter on the topic of drink in Dan Rooney‘s autograph book.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Courtesy of the Rooney Family via Daniel Breen

After his release in December 1921 John rejoined his unit, now amalgamated with the Squad and named the Dublin Guard. He was then living at 17 Meath Street. John became one of the first Army contingent to march in uniform to occupy Beggars Bush Barracks on 1 February 1922. He formally enlisted the following day and appears in the famous photo taken on the square a couple of days afterwards.

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John shown behind Vinny Byrne at Beggars Bush, 4 February 1922

On 28 August 1922 Muldowney marched in the Army formation at the funeral of Michael Collins. He was pictured beside one of the cars carrying wreaths in the procession.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
John, left. in the funeral cortege of Michael Collins (courtesy Barra Ó Cochlain)

When the Army Census was taken in November 1922, Muldowney was a First Lieutenant with the Guards in Portobello (now Cathal Brugha) Barracks.

John Muldowney was awarded a military pension based on 8 years service. He made several appeals against the rejection of his claim in respect of his Easter Rising service but to no avail. He was also refused a 1916 Service Medal. These confusing and inexplicable bureaucratic decisions must have been hard to take for Muldowney and others in the same boat.

Private Life

On 25 April 1923 John married Brigid Prior in St. Catherine’s Church, Meath Street. The cert shows him as a Lieutenant with the National Army at Portobello Barracks. Brigid was the daughter of an Engineer from 8 Rutledge Terrace, Donore Avenue, South Circular Road. John continued in the Army and later served in Athlone with the Canteen Board, 105th Battalion.

He was demobbed on 7 March 1924 and seems to have struggled to find a job for a while. However on 5 September he enlisted in the Garda Siochána, registered no. 6039. He served in Goresbridge, Co Kilkenny until a transfer to the Phoenix Park Depot in 1928. He was then posted as uniformed Garda with badge no. 42A at Newmarket Garda Station on the south side of the city. The couple lived at 2 Rutledge Terrace and raised three daughters – Mary, Margaret (later Kelleher) and Eileen (later Foley).

John was pensioned from the Garda in the mid-1950s but was widowed in 1959 when Brigid died at home. He subsequently moved to Carlow Town where he resided with one of his daughters at 18 Sycamore Road. John Muldowner, retired Garda and Custom House Fire Brigade Man, passed away aged 85 in Carlow County Hospital on 27 December 1979.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Headstone in Glasnevin

He was the last survivor of the Portlaoise Company’s Colt Wood action in 1916.

The Muldowneys are buried in plot ME56, St Paul’s Section of Glasnevin Cemetery.

Des White