It’s unlikely that Michael O’Kelly was the original author of a general report on the Burning, but he used it twice over the next three decades. In the Custom House attack, O’Kelly was a teenager and apparently a Lieutenant of E Coy, 2nd Battalion, when captured in the aftermath. Following Civil War service for the Free State he went on to become a career Army officer. Following retirement as a Lieutenant Colonel, he sadly did not live long.

Origins and Background

Michael’s birthplace in north city Dublin (OSI Maps)

Born at 8 Lurgan Street (off North King Street), Dublin city on 3 January 1902, Michael Edward Kelly was the fourth child of ten born to a Shipwright named Joseph and his wife Catherine née Scully, both Dubliners. After several changes of address over the years, by 1911 the family were living nearer the Docklands, on Aldborough Place, North Strand. Young Michael attended the famous O’Connell Schools, the alma mater of many republicans – Kevin Barry being the most well-known.

Into Action with Dublin Brigade

O’Kelly joined D Coy, 2nd Battalion but few details are known about his activities prior to May 1921. In two Witness Statements (BMH.WS1635 and BMH.WS1636) he tells of his part in two ambushes on the occupants of British military vehicles. They are interesting illustrations of the IRA’s hit-and-run tactics using handguns and grenades. They also highlight the risks faced by the ambushers and the hazards created for unfortunate passersby on the streets of Dublin. It is noteworthy the two ambushes covered did not involve the ASU who were the main

His accounts raise two questions:

  • All three of his Witness Statements state he was a lieutenant in E Coy rather than D Coy; and
  • He says the second ambush occurred on 1 June 1921 at a time he should have been interned in Kilmainham.

Michael is listed as a member of D Coy in the IRA Membership rolls as of 11 July 1921 (the Truce date) signed off by Frank Henderson, 2nd Battalion O/C after the split in 1922. He does not appear on the E Coy list. While that is somewhat strange, it does not preclude his transfer at some stage to E Coy – after all, his address in 1921 was deep in that unit’s territory. There is also no mention (on either Coy list) of his internment which was one of the criteria covered in the lists. Another slight mystery.

As for the date of one event, many Readers will know the vast majority of Witness Statements – including O’Kelly’s BMH.WS1636 – were made three decades after the Tan War. So, a simple mistaken recollection about when Whit Sunday fell in 1921 is totally understandable. O’Kelly said it happened on 1 June. It was actually 15 May – before the Burning and his capture.


Moving on, British records show Michael Kelly of 20 Lower Oriel Street as one of those arrested at the Custom House on 25 May. There is no doubt about his internment in Kilmainham Gaol as he was photographed there.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
He adopts a new version of his surname
Looking very mature for his 19 years, Michael poses with his pipe while interned (both images courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Archives, from Cyril Daly’s photo album)

Along with the rest of the Custom House Fire Brigade he was released in December 1921.

Civil War Service

At the IRA Split Michael – along with his older brother Martin – chose the pro-Treaty position and on 28 January 1922 he enlisted in the National Army at Beggars Bush (from his entry in the Army Census, November 1922). First Lieutenant Michael Kelly, Infantry, 2nd Eastern Division at their Mountjoy Prison post was aged 20, address 20 Lower Oriel Street, Next of Kin his mother, same address. The entry is actually crossed out on the form but that is not uncommon. He may have been on leave at the time. His brother Martin appears as a Captain based at Aldborough House, Dublin. Unfortunately there are no further details available about either O’Kelly brother’s Civil War experiences.

Post War Like and Early Death

We do not see Michael in records again until 1930. On 5 February of that year he married Mary Margaret Gaskin (a “Lady” and daughter of a Carpenter) in her local Rathgar Church, Dublin. He is shown as a Soldier from Sarsfield Barracks, Limerick and his best man was a Lieutenant James Dolan.

The couple went on to have a son Maurice and a daughter Collette. Michael continued with his Army career and served in Limerick, Gormanston, Co Meath, was O/C of 13th Battalion in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary and was also based in Collins Barracks, Dublin city. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Michael O’Kelly was living with his family in Terenure on Dublin’s southside when his life ended at the early age of 56. On 12 November 1959 he died suddenly at his home on Parkmore Drive. His funeral proceeded from St Joseph’s Church, Terenure to Mount Jerome Cemetery where he was buried with full military honours. Several newspapers carried reports or short obituaries.

Some personal details revealed.

The chief mourners were his immediate family, eight siblings including Comdt. Martin O’Kelly, in-laws and other relatives. The attendees also included political figures such as W.J. Cosgrave and Richard Mulcahy T.D.; the Army Chief of Staff; and other senior officers such as Old IRA men still serving like Col. Pat McCrea, Comdt. Frank Thornton, Capt. J.J. Mack and Capt. Jim Harpur, a fellow Custom House Man. Mrs Mary O’Kelly survived her late husband by almost 40 years before joining him in the grave (Photo of headstone).

A Significant Legacy

With due respect to the man’s life and service, perhaps the most important of Michael O’Kelly’s legacies from a historical viewpoint was his submission of BMH.WS1410 in 1956. He had previously used it as the basis of an Army Training School lecture back in 1935.

The significance of the Witness Statement is when its contents were originally written. As pointed out here, it is actually a contemporary report made shortly after the Custom House Burning. The likely original author was Emmet Dalton, IRA Director of Training, whose papers in the National Library include a copy (minus the last paragraph in the WS). By turning the report into a Witness Statement, O’Kelly unknowingly helped bring an obscure, hidden IRA document into the public eye – now available online for all to read.

For that and his service to his country, we are pleased to remember Custom House Fire Brigade Man Michael O’Kelly.

Des White