His surname may have appeared several ways, but Peter Ratcliffe was a Dubliner and member of the same IRA Company as Kevin Barry and Frank Flood. He went on to join the Active Service Unit and took part in the Burning when he was arrested. During the Civil War Ratcliffe was a National Army Lieutenant. Peter married the daughter of an RIC man and fathered three children but split from them in the 1930s. In his lifetime he lived or worked in various parts of Ireland. He was employed by the ESB before retiring in 1955 and died ten years later.
Origin and Background
Peter arrived in 1899 at the Rotunda Maternity Hospital, a very appropriate birthplace for a future IRA man. The hospital is on the site which would in 1913 host the founding of the Irish Volunteers. The practice of the famous old baby factory administration was to churn out birth records as quickly as possible. It was seldom that a child’s forename was entered and this was the case with the male Radcliffe born on 28 May. His parents were Christopher (a Vanman) and Kate née Dempsey of 13 St. Joseph’s Terrace (now Avenue), Clonliffe Road who already had five children. The seventh, a little girl, would complete the family in 1901.
The Ratcliffes were still living in the same house for the 1911 census. The father was then working as a Furniture Packer, the eldest son Bernard aged 19 was unemployed, William (17) was a Railway Engine Cleaner, Mary (16) was a Draperess and fifteen-year-old Annie was a Housekeeper. The youngest three, Christy, Peter aged 10 and Lizzie, were going to school. They all moved to Empress Terrace, Portland Row in 1914.
Of course in the same year WW1 began and Peter’s bother William enlisted with the Royal Garrison Artillery and served in France. The following year, Mrs Kathleen Ratcliffe died at home. By the time William returned home on de-mob in 1920, the Easter Rising had led on to the War of Independence. In those intervening years his younger brother Peter had become a Motor Mechanic by trade. He had also joined the Irish Volunteers and been selected for the Active Service Unit. William decided to join up too. That meant at least three Ratcliffes were Volunteers – Bernard, the eldest was with E Coy, 2nd Battalion.
Volunteers, IRA and ASU
Unfortunately, Peter’s IRA service and activities are only sketchily outlined in his Military Pension files. One referee stated he took part in numerous raids, etc. However, it is known he did join H Coy, 1st Battalion Dublin Brigade on its formation in 1917 and within a year had been made a Section Leader. He was clearly well-regarded as a reliable and committed Volunteer, being selected for the full-time Active Service Unit in March 1921. One ASU shooting he mentioned was that of the dispatch rider, DMP Constable Steadman, in Mary Street; he also took part in destroying goods as part of the Belfast Boycott enforcement campaign and the capture and burning of British Army lorries taken on Dublin streets in broad daylight.
There is conflicting information on which ASU Section he was with – No. 1 or No. 3 – but the former seems more likely. That section needed many replacements after the loss of six members, one killed, five captured – four later hanged – following the Clonturk ambush disaster. Ratcliffe’s address at the time, 19 Emmet Street, also suggests Section No. 1. One of the Clonturk men executed was a near neighbour of Ratcliffe – Frank Flood, from the highly active republican family living on the same street in no. 17. He was former leader of Section No. 1 who was succeeded by his brother, Tom. The Floods and Ratcliffes must have known each other because of their homes’ proximity and through IRA circles.
The Custom House
On 25 May Peter was on duty in the building with other members of his ASU section including their O/C Tom Flood. When the Auxiliaries burst in after the street gun battle, there was little option open to the trapped IRA men but to surrender. It is not known where Ratcliffe was captured but he did well not to be caught with Flood and some others who were charged with carrying weapons and hauled off to Dublin Castle, then to Mountjoy Prison to face capital charges. Peter’s fate was detention at Arbour Hill – where, three days after being arrested, he ‘celebrated’ his 22nd birthday – and then internment in Kilmainham Gaol.
While there, he appeared in photos taken by the prisoners and also signed a couple of autograph books.
It looks like he was pretty good at drawing too. We wonder who the lady was?
Peter was freed on the general release of internees in December 1921 and rejoined his comrades at the combined Squad-ASU training camp at Celbridge Workhouse.
Civil War and Marriage
On the split over the Treaty, Ratcliffe chose the pro-Treaty position. He enlisted with the National Army at Beggars Bush on 18 February 1922 and subsequently became a Lieutenant with the Transport Corps. He was recorded with the 2nd Southern Command in that capacity at Kilkenny in the Army Census, November 1922. His home address was 19 Emmet Street, Dublin, Next of Kin, his sister Annie.
Again, there are no details available about his Civil War service. But it appears his time in the Marble City led to a romance before his posting back to Dublin. After the end of hostilities, Peter returned to Kilkenny to marry in St. Canice’s Church on 24 September 1924. The record shows he was an Army officer serving in Portobello (now Cathal Brugha) Barracks. The best man was Capt. Maurice Higgins of the National Army. His bride was Beatrice Scott, originally from Co. Limerick – one of 12 surviving children from 15! Her late father had been an RIC Constable, then a Prison Warder in Kilkenny Prison and later a jeweller. Two of her brothers were also ex-RIC who had served with the British forces in WW1; and a third had been in the Royal Navy. But the well-respected family had a republican connection too.
Peter and Beatrice chose some uncommon names for their children. The first, Randall Barry Kieran, was born in Kilkenny in 1926 and announced in the national press; next came Beatrice Alacoque the following year. The birth of their final child, Desmond Peter, was also announced in the newspapers. It is worth noting that Peter was then based in Cork, possibly with the Army Reserve? A man of many parts.
Mystery Family Death
In the meantime, in 1925, there had been a family tragedy in Dublin when Peter’s brother William died from carbolic acid poisoning. He drank it from a baby whiskey bottle while visiting his brothers in Emmet Street. Peter and Bernard gave evidence to the Coroner’s Inquest. The Jury could not decide if William had taken it by misadventure or otherwise. The deceased, a former National Army Corporal discharged on medical grounds, had been found fit on enlistment in 1922 and again on re-enlistment two years later. Shortly after, he was found to have contracted T.B.
It was a really sad case. William’s death left his pregnant wife Helena and their young infant boy dependent on her elderly parents.
The Military Archives files on the widow’s claim make sobering reading. Her arguments that severe damage to William’s health during his ordnance work with highly toxic chemicals at Islandbridge Barracks had led to his death were rejected.
The following January, the Ratcliffes’ father Christopher passed away following a short illness.
Civilian Life and Family
Peter Ratcliffe retired from the Army in March 1929 at the rank of Lieutenant, while serving with Western Command Coy, Transport Corps based in Custume Barracks, Athlone, Co Westmeath. He transferred to the Army Reserve at Parkgate GHQ, Dublin. He had applied for a Military Service Pension in 1926 and on leaving the Army his award based on seven years active service became payable.
On leaving the Army, Peter did live for a short time with his wife and three children in Kilkenny. Then the Ratcliffes’ marriage broke down. It appears they had mostly lived apart. By 1930 he had moved to Marino, Dublin, after the couple had legally separated. Beatrice remained living in Kilkenny city and in 1932 unsuccessfully applied to have part of her ex-husband’s pension of pay allocated to her in lieu of missed alimony payments. She had a little better luck in 1943 when she won a decent prize of £51 11s 2d in the Sunday Independent newspaper crossword competition.
In 1955 Beatrice and her children Barry, Alacoque and Desmond from St. Rioch’s Terrace, Kilkenny attended the funeral of her brother William, a jeweller in Dublin. Notably, there was no reference to Peter Ratcliffe. The obituary mentioned that his wife’s late brother Rev. Patrick D. Scott, formerly of the British Army, was later a weapons trainer for the Old IRA Flying Columns in Cork. He enlisted in the National Army in August 1922 and was a Commandant based at Cork County Jail. Scott had been wounded wearing two uniforms – in Mesopotamia (WW1) and Co. Cork (Civil War). He was ordained in Rome in 1937 and apparently the first mass he celebrated in Ireland was at an official Michael Collins anniversary commemoration. He later became a missionary in Liverpool where he died in 1950.
A Low Profile
Following the end of his full-time military career, details of Peter Ratcliffe’s subsequent life are scanty. He made no headlines in any event, although a 1936 newspaper did report him being fined for a minor road traffic offence in Fairview.
On 1st Battalion’s membership roll assembled in 1935, Peter appears under “Interned” (during the Tan War), no address shown (His brother Willie is on the Deceased list). He does not seem to have been at the Old Dublin Brigade and ASU Reunions held in 1939; well, at least he is not in the photos taken on that occasion.
However, Peter did attend the presentation of Service Certificates to the surviving ASU members in 1950 and was pictured among his old comrades.
Ratcliffe was employed with the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) and lived for some time at 122 Pembroke Road in Dublin before retiring in 1955 and buying a property ‘Green Hollows’, on the Hill of Howth, north Co. Dublin. His death record shows he died there on 23 October 1965, a married ESB Pensioner aged 66.
Peter Ratcliffe was buried in plot N47, St. Fintan’s Cemetery, Sutton on the Howth Peninsula. There were no press obituaries or funeral reports and his very brief death notice gave no details of surviving family or relatives.
However, his Pension file shows his sister, Annie Metcalfe, received the balance of his military pension due at the time of his death; she was also the sole beneficiary of his Will.
Family and Descendants
Peter’s estranged widow Beatrice passed away in Dublin in 1993 at the age of ninety-one. The surname Radcliffe was supplied by her surviving family for the death notice. She was buried in St Kieran’s Church Cemetery, Kilkenny.
Her children had all adopted the Radcliffe name. From all appearances, their parents’ marital problems and early separation – social stigmas in their time – do not appear to have hampered them in their lives.
- Desmond moved to Lincolnshire in England, married in 1953 and died in 2010.
- Barry qualified from UCD as a doctor, got married in 1956 and emigrated to the USA where he ran a medical practice in Houston, Texas. He and his wife Joan née McGrath raised a family. One son was named Kevin Peter with a nod to Barry’s own father. Dr. Radcliffe died in 2015, survived by four children and three grandchildren. His obituary named his parents as “Captain Peter and Beatrice Radcliffe”.
- Their daughter Beatrice Alacoque married Liam Creaven, a Galwegian who was a Fianna Fail member of Dublin County Council for the Howth area from 1991-2004 (His name came up on the periphery in press coverage of the Flood/Mahon Tribunals into corrupt planning practices). The Creavens lived in Sutton, Co. Dublin and owned Flintstones shop in Baldoyle. Mrs. Creaven was widowed in 2014 and passed away herself as recently as 2022. She left six children, 16 grandchildren and three great grandchildren. Interestingly, all of her children’s names begin with the letter C – following her parents’ penchant for quirky naming?
As for Peter’s siblings, his sister Annie married Edward Metcalfe (sometimes Medcalfe) in 1933; they had a son Christopher in 1935. She died in 1967. His brother Christy married Teresa Power in 1939 and had a son (another Christopher) in 1942 and daughter Mary in 1950. The eldest brother Bernard, a Railwayman, died suddenly in Mullingar in 1948 after driving a train from Dublin. He left a widow Nan (née Lynch), but no children.
It seems Custom House Fire Brigade Man Peter Ratcliffe lived as bit of a loner for much of his life and went to his grave in relative obscurity. Despite an early separation from his wife and children, some of his descendants may well be aware of his military past. But in any event, his service to his country has not been totally forgotten. RIP.
Radcliffe, Rathcliffe and several other variations appear in various records. Ratcliffe is used above unless the context demands otherwise.