Possibly not the most well-known name associated with the Squad, Tommy McKenna was nevertheless on some of their most spectacular jobs. He was among the men arrested by the Auxies at the Custom House and suffered their ‘hospitality’ in Dublin Castle. Surviving that and 6 months in Kilmainham Gaol, McKenna fought on the pro-Treaty side in the Civil War. When war loomed again 20 years later, Tommy joined up a second time. In peacetime he raised a family and worked on the Docks and as an Electrician until his sudden death in 1968.
Dublin Brigade and The Squad
Tommy McKenna started his Rebel career with F Coy, 1st Battalion. He was selected for the third incarnation of the Squad and became a full-time paid operative as one of the reinforcements added to the unit on 2 May 1921.
That month was to prove highly significant in Tommy’s IRA service. We know he was involved in three Squad operations in May, two of which were headline-grabbing actions. Fellow Squad and Custom House Man Paddy Lawson tells about a couple of those events in BMH.WS0667.
Attempted Train Ambush
The first took place early in the month near Croke Park when the Squad planned to attack and seize weapons from a military train to be derailed by the Engineers Battalion. It was probably McKenna and Lawson’s first Squad job and they had been paired together. During a wait of about twenty minutes they were keyed up for action but saw only an innocent small train pass by. After a further interval of time they suspected something had gone wrong, so went down onto the tracks to look for their comrades. The two then copped that crown forces had thrown a cordon around the area. But they managed to get away safely and returned to the Squad depot at Morelands, Abbey Street. There they were told by O/C Paddy O’Daly the main group had withdrawn before them – but had forgotten all about Paddy and Tom. A sobering introduction to Squad life and almost a baptism of fire – or worse – for the newbies! Such narrow shaves were all too common for the Old IRA.
The Famous Abattoir Job
The next job, on the 14th, involved the capture of a British armoured car in a daring but unsuccessful attempt to spring Sean MacEoin from the heavily-guarded Mountjoy Prison. McKenna was in the hand-picked group led by Paddy O’Daly who infiltrated the City Abattoir that Saturday morning. Surprising the armoured car’s crew and other soldiers on the site, the vehicle was commandeered after a short, sharp exchange of gunfire. Tommy and his comrades had done their part, a smaller group would try to complete the operation.
It’s little wonder McKenna’s part in that escapade left a lifelong memory. According to his granddaughter Yvonne Herd, “My uncle [Tommy’s youngest son] said his father seldom spoke of any of the events he took part in, but he did once talk of an attempt to get someone out of Mountjoy.” (The full account of the rest of the exciting prison break mission that day is another story for another time).
And there were other details Tommy probably never mentioned to his family. According to Paddy Lawson, again, on their way back to Morelands they unwisely chose a route past the North Dublin Union – a base for Auxiliaries and military. Seeing the Auxy on guard outside, the two lads expected the worst and prepared for action. However, the sentry merely bade them good morning. The very relieved Squad men went on their way.
However, within a fortnight McKenna would not be so lucky with the next Auxies he encountered. They arrested him after he was surrounded in the Custom House (Lawson was also captured, but by the more disciplined British military). McKenna was on duty inside the building and had nowhere to go when the Auxies burst in after the firefight. Surrender was the only option for Tommy and his comrades. They were in some ways fortunate not to be shot out of hand or beaten up on the spot by the aggressive Auxies with itchy trigger fingers. And they were also lucky to avoid charges of ‘Waging War against the King’, a fate suffered by the six IRA men taken off to Mountjoy Prison that afternoon.
Nevertheless, Tommy and the fifteen others captured with him would pay a price all too soon. Taken to the Guardroom in Dublin Castle, they were subjected to vicious treatment, being savagely interrogated and badly beaten long into the evening of 25 May.
Then they were packed off to Kilmainham Gaol and held in solitary confinement in the oldest part of the prison where conditions were dismal. Tommy and the others were joined in a few weeks by a larger contingent of men arrested at the Custom House who had been held in Arbour Hill.
As the prison regime relaxed, especially after the 11 July Truce, McKenna and his fellow internees could enjoy free association and even managed to take photos of themselves with a smuggled camera.
Tommy appears in one picture included in Cyril Daly’s album and another group shot taken in the Gaol.
Release and Tragedy
The very same day the Custom House Fire brigade were freed, 8 December 1921, a McKenna family tragedy occurred when Tommy’s mother Bridget passed away aged 63.
We can only imagine his emotions on such a bittersweet day for him. Any joy at his freedom must have been quickly stifled by the news of his mam’s death. He hadn’t seen her at home for almost six months. Such lengthy separations from family and sad bereavements while locked up were part and parcel of life for Old IRA men, one of many sacrifices made for their country.
Subsequently McKenna rejoined his unit, now called the Dublin Guard, at their Celbridge Workhouse training camp. He was transferred to Beggars Bush Barracks and enlisted in the National Army on 2 February. McKenna was one of the Guards contingent who marched through Dublin to take over the facility after the Auxiliaries had evacuated it.
Here he is in the famous photo taken there on 4 February.
On the IRA split, McKenna remained with the GHQ forces and was made a Lieutenant in the National Army.
He was also pictured with fellow Army officers in two photos shown below.
He served with O’Daly’s Southern Division, Kerry Command in Killarney and was later promoted to Captain. It is believed he left the Army around 1924.
Origin, Background and Family Life
Thomas Joseph McKenna was born on 19 February 1900 at 28 King’s Avenue, Ballybough, Dublin city to Thomas (a General Labourer and former Gas Fitter) and Bridget née Hughes, both originally from Co. Dublin. They had moved to Dublin city before getting married in the Pro-Cathedral in 1877. The family first lived in the southeast city before moving to Ballybough on the northside in the 1890s.
Tommy was youngest of eight children, with older brothers Hugh, Francis, Christopher and Peter as well as sisters Mary, Margaret and Bridget. At the 1911 census, the five still living at home on Bella Avenue had been joined by two young female nurse children (foster kids). The family later moved back to King’s Avenue, this time to house no. 10.
After completing school Tommy took up a trade, following the path of his father and an older brother, becoming an Electrician. Of course he also, as outlined above, joined Dublin Brigade – when, we have yet to learn. At the time of his arrest at the Burning, he said he was still living in his parents’ house.
While serving with the Free State forces Tommy got married in St. Agatha’s church, North William Street on 7 August 1923. He was recorded as an Army Captain from Killarney. His bride was Monica Wheatley, a Carpenter’s daughter from Newcomen Avenue, North Strand. Yvonne Herd says “The couple spent their honeymoon in Killarney where he was stationed. They were given a portrait of Michael Collins by the men in his Battalion for a wedding presentation”. The gift was in the family’s possession for many years but sadly was badly damaged while being taken from storage in an attic and no longer exists.
Yvonne adds “After leaving the Army Tommy had several jobs i.e. on the docks and as an electrician in various jobs till he retired“. He and Monica raised a family of 3 girls and 3 boys and lived at a number of addresses including St. Brigid’s Avenue, North Strand. In 1927, Tommy’s father Thomas Senior died at the old Kings Avenue home.
Sadly, in later years Tommy and Monica’s marriage broke down and they separated. She went to live in Ballyfermot while he rented a room on Gardiner Street. They remained on good terms, but just could not live together. Yvonne tells how “I remember him coming to visit us regularly and doing the garden for my Nan [Monica]. I think he would have liked to get back together and I’m sure he was lonely living on his own, but my Nan always said too much had happened.” She adds “I’m sure he was very affected by the Civil War with probably no psychological support.“
During the Emergency (1939-1946) Tommy McKenna again volunteered for military service with the 26th Battalion (Old IRA), stepping up for his country once more when it needed him.
A few years later he was among the Old IRA men who attended a ceremony in December 1950 when Service Certificates were presented to surviving members of the ASU, Squad and Intelligence units for their outstanding active service during the War of Independence. The years had taken a high toll, through deaths alone. And the march of time plus the impact of deprivations from active service are also clear on many faces in the photo below. A sadly-depleted group of Irish heroes who had looked so young and fresh-faced not too many years before.
But it was almost 30 years on from the Custom House and they were no longer in the bloom of youth. It was amazing so many had survived and it is great to see the Old IRA lads in the picture were still together and and, mostly, looking fairly happy. No doubt they shared memories, recalled missing faces and reflected on all they had gone through as comrades and then, tragically, as opponents during the Civil War. Hopefully they shared a pride too. After all, they were living in an independent, recently re-named Republic of Ireland, something they devoted their youthful years to achieve, their legacy. Back then it may not have delivered everything they had hoped for (nor has it now), but a free 26 out of 32 Irish counties was a nation to make its own path in the wider world.
The men pictured went on to further shape the future of the country in their own ways and indeed continue to do so through their descendants. Some left us Witness Statements and several are well-known historical figures. Too many did not survive much longer, some are almost forgotten. But Tommy McKenna, one of the unsung Squad heroes, was among those who would live to see the celebrations on the 50th anniversary of The Rising.
A Sudden End
Sadly, his life would not continue for even another two years. Thomas Francis McKenna, retired Army Captain and Electrician, died suddenly in hospital on 4 March 1968, just a month after his 68th birthday. He was late of 37 Charleville Avenue, North Strand and was survived by his widow and children. Tommy was buried in Deansgrange Cemetery (plot Y/23, St Kevin’s section).
There was no obituary or report published for Tommy’s funeral but some of his old Dublin Brigade, Squad and Army comrades were at the graveside to pay their respects and military honours to a man who helped destroy the Custom House in 1921. Says Yvonne, “I was at his funeral but I was young. I do remember him having the tricolour over his coffin and some men coming up to talk to my Nan afterwards. I was told they were men he was in the Army with. I would love to have been old enough to chat to them!” Eight years later his beloved Monica, Yvonne’s fondly remembered Nan, followed Tommy to the grave.
Treasured memorabilia like Tommy’s medals and officer’s sword are held by the McKenna family. His memory is proudly kept alive by descendants like his granddaughter Yvonne, a Commemoration Group stalwart who has kindly shared the fantastic photos and family information used above. We are delighted to help a little by telling the story of Custom House Fire Brigade Man Tommy McKenna’s service to his country.