Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Pat Moynihan in civvies surrounded by Sam Robinson, Tom Kehoe, Specky Griffin, Jim Slattery and Joe Dolan of the Squad (Military Archives).

If remembered at all, the name Captain Moynihan is probably associated with Oriel House rather than the Custom House. He was a Post Office man who stayed in the shadows of Intelligence during the Tan War, only later emerging as a colourful and controversial character with several irons in the fire. Among his many important and necessarily secret contributions to the IRA were interception of official mails and the acquisition of the Squad’s HQ. He also rented stables to store paraffin for the Custom House attack. A close associate of Micheal Collins, he became Director of the notorious Criminal Investigation Department during the Civil War. Sacked by the Cosgrave government in 1923, nevertheless he continued working in various fields to a great age. Sadly, after a long life and fifty four years of marriage, Moynihan and his wife Mary met their end together in a 1947 domestic accident.

Origin and Background

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Where Patrick originally came from (townlands.ie)

Patrick Michael was a son of Patrick Moynihan, a Farmer, and Honora nee Ryan. Born on 7 October 1865 at Ballygarvan, Co. Cork (where Cork Airport is now), he had at least two younger brothers James and Michael and a sister, Bridget. Pat grew up to join the Post Office as a Clerk in Cork city.

He showed a great ability to decipher the many illegible addresses encountered daily by postal sorters. This was an essential skill in days when almost all postal items were hand addressed and sorted by eye, while literacy was patchy. Handwriting was (and remains) infinitely variable in style and readability. Given the volumes of post, sorters could not afford the time to scrutinise problem items. They were put into a pile for what was termed the Blind Letter duty. Pat excelled at making out the myriad of styles of senders’ scripts or scrawls unintelligible to his colleagues.

Moynihan married Mary Kennedy (daughter of the Postmaster at Roche’s Point) in Aghada church on 25 July 1893. In the 1901 census, the Moynihans are listed at 12 College Road in Cork city. Ten years later the childless couple were living on Connaught Avenue and Pat had been promoted to Assistant Postal Superintendent.

New Horizons

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Press report of the disciplinary action against Moynihan being raised in the British Parliament (NLI)

Around October 1911, Moynihan got into trouble with his employers over his strong nationalist sympathies and political activities. It would not be the last time he would fall out with his bosses. As a punishment, Moynihan was downgraded and compulsorily transferred to Dublin at his own expense. It was no small upheaval for a man in his mid-forties. He and his wife had to up sticks to the capital where they settled and he remained working as a postal official. In the GPO the bi-lingual Pat was responsible for interpreting Irish language addresses – previously regarded as ‘blind’, i.e. illegible!.

From Zero to Hero

After the destruction of the GPO during the 1916 Rising, postal sorting was moved to the Rotunda Rink on Parnell Square and Moynihan worked there as the ‘Gaelic translator”. While he was on duty on 16 May 1918 an accidental fire broke out in the locked and unoccupied kitchen, setting the floor and walls alight. Smelling the smoke, Moynihan leapt through a window and using buckets of water passed in by colleagues, succeeded in extinguishing the flames. He suffered bad burns to one arm and his clothes were destroyed. Pat was presented by the Post Office Controller with the “Blue Record, a rare and much coveted decoration, granted for meritorious conduct”.

Agent Number 118

In an unsuccessful application for a Military Service Pension under the 1934 Act, Pat said he became involved with the Irish Volunteers in December 1915. He made no mention of any connection to or participation in the Easter Rising in which of course his place of employment featured centrally. He made no claim to have been on active service (i.e. in combat) but gave no details of his Volunteer affiliation or subsequent activities until 1920/21.

From other sources (National Library of Ireland) it seems more likely he got involved with the Volunteers in 1918. As ‘No. 118’, he was invited to a session of the Dáil on 9 May 1919 by no less than Arthur Griffith, T.D.

National Library of Ireland

Moynihan was still working in the Rotunda Rink post office and had earned the confidence of Michael Collins. The Big Fella made him “Chief Intelligence Officer in the Post Office”, reporting to IRA GHQ under the codename ‘ No. 118’ (Almost unbelievably, this came from the number of his house on Clonliffe Road – not exactly very obscure!).

Pat ran a network of Post Office men in Dublin intercepting large volumes of official British mail and diverting them to three separate offices where they were dealt with. Moynihan was the one who brought the letters out. He passed important items to Collins at Kirwan’s Pub or Michael McMahon‘s Knocknagow Diary on Parnell Street and also used other trusted intermediaries. One significant document Moynihan captured was the British secret list of Republicans whose letters were to be detained and sent to the Castle. He also compiled and maintained an IRA Blacklist of suspect persons and places and a list of people whose correspondence was to be captured.

As he put it, “I was in charge of operations in GPO for capture of British Govt. correspondence which I delivered in thousands at the various dumps“. Those IRA dumps included some rented by Moynihan, like premises on Fitzgibbon Street, Charles Street, Bethesda Place and most famously, Morelands at 10 Upper Abbey Street which was HQ for the Squad under the cover of an antiques and cabinet-making business. Pat Moynihan was something of an expert on antiques and masqueraded as Geo. Moreland, Antique Dealer, when renting the latter and carrying out other undercover work.

Some of his activities and clever tactics in intercepting and passing on British mails are described by fellow Post office man Diarmuid O’Sullivan (IRB and IRA Intelligence) in BMH.WS0375 (pages 12-14).

In Exalted Company

He gives an impressive list of those he worked with closely which includes several very well-known names. He claimed to have been in constant personal touch with Michael Collins. His other main contacts were Tom Cullen and Frank Thornton of Intelligence, Richard Mulcahy, Pat McCrea of the Squad, Mrs. Catherine O’Shea Leamy and Pat Swanzy, a key informant. Also the two Parnell Street publicans who were active supporters and facilitators of the IRA’s activities – Seamus Kirwan and Liam Devlin. Without a hint of modesty (well, he was looking for a pension), Pat added: “In short, for any Old IRA man of any prominence, it would be unnecessary for me to explain myself, as my activities were well known.

A Few Anecdotes

If well-known within IRA circles, he was never exposed by the British. Although there was one close shave after the Custom House attack when a raid on a dump in Mary Street uncovered a considerable number of incriminating letters in Moynihan’s own hand. It is said that when Collins heard of this, he humorously presented Pat with a small typewriter!

One other story is that Collins gave Moynihan the task of identifying those responsible for the Sack of Balbriggan in September 1920. Pat spotted an opportunity at, believe it or not, a bazaar and sale of work to be held in the Fowler Memorial (Orange) Hall in Dublin. Noting a particular woman he knew had associations with the Tans in Gormanston would be on a prominent stall, he offered his services as designer, carpenter and decorator. He ended up working all day on building the stall alongside the lady’s Tan pals while listening to their tales of the burning of Balbriggan. He was then able to build up a detailed account of the outrage for Collins.

Another little-known fact about Moynihan was his expertise at sleight of hand and conjuring tricks. He actually travelled as a conjurer on a journey to London with a party of British forces, amusing and mystifying them en route as he all the while listened and gathered useful intelligence. Moynihan often had to keep company with many such undesirables from an IRA viewpoint. In fact on one occasion he was formally reported to Collins for being too friendly with “obnoxious personages”. He had to go along with some internal investigations before being totally exonorated.

Such tales may or may not be apocryphal. But by all accounts, Pat Moynihan was a highly-regarded and key intelligence agent. This was put very clearly by Liam Tobin, former Assistant Director, GHQ Intelligence in a pension reference: “Moynihan was a Postal Official and because of his position in the enemy service, his work for our Intelligence Department was outstanding.

The Custom House

Moynihan was not involved in the action but he did some important preparatory work by renting stables for storage of the paraffin. His pal Swanzy was arrested during the operation. After the building was destroyed, Moynihan very quickly reported to GHQ the new addresses of the civil service departments burned out of the building.

Oriel House

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Oriel House (By Fallduff – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8288835)

Pat continued working for Collins after the Truce and remained in the Post Office where he was made Chief Investigation Officer in April 1922. Then he was “seconded” as Director of Oriel House, HQ of the CID, with an allowance of £250 per year (not pensionable, as the Post Office was responsible for his base salary as a Higher Executive Officer). He was also in charge of the Protection Officers Corps who guarded members of the government and, often, the CID.

As for his military title, he claimed to have been gazetted as a Staff Captain and kept the papers signed by Liam Tobin and dated 25 July 1922 in his possession.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The funeral of Arthur Griffith passes Oriel House on 16 August 1922 (https://connectcentre.ie/news/on-this-day-in-1922/)

Based in Oriel House at the corner of Westland Row and Fenian Street, Moynihan worked closely with his chosen assistant, Capt. Peter Ennis, previously head of the IRP in Dublin and a brother of Tom. The men working out of there earned a reputation for heavy-handed action against Republicans, being dubbed the Oriel House Murder Gang. Their office was targeted on many occasions by snipers and at least two significant attacks were mounted on the building during 1922. In the first, claimed to have been led by Ernie O’Malley, one CID man was killed. Second time, a mine was exploded at the front door on 31 October, shaking the entire place. In his office, Moynihan was knocked to the floor. Rushing downstairs he spotted three more mines in the hallway and cut the electrical detonation wires just in time before the IRA outside could activate them. In any event they did fail to go off (as acknowledged by the attackers in captured reports), damage to the building was slight and its occupants survived. But seven innocent passers-by were injured, with widespread destruction of windows and roofs in the neighbourhood and the attack was widely condemned.

As was his way, Moynihan had an amusing story from the event. He had long complained of a filthy double-glazed window in his office which made the room gloomy. The inside could not be cleaned and a replacement was ruled out on cost grounds. Seeing the offending fogged glass had survived the bomb blast, Pat gleefully grabbed the opportunity to smash all the panes with a poker. His problem solved – at no cost to the government.

Out of the Shadows

In November 1922, the Freeman’s Journal ran this profile of the man formerly known to a few as 118 and as George Moreland in other circles, identifying him as the obscure civil servant P. M. Moynihan running Oriel House. Pat, who previously had to keep under cover, was now almost a celebrity! It seemed to suit his larger than life personality and ego and his name would appear in the papers many times from then on.

On a more serious note, in 1923 captured IRA intelligence reports indicated Moynihan’s movements were being noted and timed. He was also warned by Emmet Dalton that he was on a Republican target list.

Yet the closest death came to him was when his driver, Thomas Fitzgerald, an old 4th Battalion man, died on 19 October 1923 after an armed robbery by three men at Ashtown. Despite Moynihan claiming he was at the scene in a tribute to his respected driver written many years later, he was not mentioned in contemporary press reports. Detective Fitzgerald was killed while holding William Downes in custody. After a shootout with other CID men, one accomplice, James McDonald, was mortally wounded and the other, George Cullen, arrested. The robbers turned out to be National Army privates from Portobello Barracks. Downes was arrested at home later that evening. Found guilty of murder by a jury, he was hanged on 29 November. Cullen was handed five years penal servitude.

That killing was an example of the many dangers faced by CID men from several directions, not solely from anti-Treaty Republicans. Dublin was a lawless place in those days with a high level of serious ‘ordinary’ crime in addition to political offences. The CID were ruthless and pretty efficient in their work and, despite being involved in extra-judicial killings of Republicans, were never reined in by the government. It suited the politicians to have men like those under Moynihan fight fire with fire to maintain their grasp on power. Three CID men were killed by the IRA in the process.

“An Official Murder”

On the other hand, the CID were implicated in several extra-judicial killings of anti-Treaty IRA. One example was the shooting of Henry McEntee in August 1923. His body was found in a field in Finglas after he’d been taken from his home in the city “by Oriel House men”.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Extract from Irish Times

Moynihan was called as a witness at the inquest and was cross-examined by the victim’s father. He denied knowledge of all the points Mr. McEntee put to him. The bereaved man’s heartfelt view on the cause of his son’s death, shown above, need no further comment.

Back to the Post Office

Moynihan emerged from all of this physically unscathed. But his role in the CID, indeed the CID itself, did not last long. He was removed on 24 October 1923 as he informed his old comrade Pat Swanzy with a few barbed remarks against former colleagues. The CID was disbanded at the end of that week.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
He took a few swipes at some colleagues and his boss after being sacked (Military Archives)

Pat resumed his job with the Post Office. He would complete forty-five years service before he retired with a civil service pension in the late 1920s.

Moynihan did not apply for a military service pension under the 1924 Act. But, when the 1934 legislation was enacted he wrote requesting an application form. However, the referee deemed him ineligible and his case was not examined further. But he was awarded a Service (Tan War) Medal..

“The Handwriting Expert”

Over the years, Moynihan had capitalised on his reputation as a handwriting expert. At one stage he was retained in that capacity by the Chief State Solicitor’s Office. He was called to give his opinion in a good number of cases in the High Court and other courts around the country, as reported in various newspapers. There were a mix of civil and criminal trials ranging from threatening letters, disputed wills, cheque forgeries etc. He appeared sometimes for the defence, on other occasions for the prosecution and was always referred to as Captain Moynihan.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Amazingly he actually gave his opinion in one civil case in October 1922 while CID Director. That seems very strange given his CID duties and all that was going on in Dublin at the time. Many of Pat’s appearances led to sarcastic exchanges with opposing legal representatives who regularly called into question his rank, status, expertise and taunted him over previous cases he’d ‘lost’ etc. Moynihan usually gave as good as he got.

In one extraordinary appearance before Divisional Magistrate Edmund Lupton, K.C. at the Police Court, the two verbally sparred the whole time with barely-concealed mutual loathing. Lupton was so shocked he ended the proceedings, leaving the case to another magistrate for another day. Moynihan had stormed from the court and refused to return to sign his deposition until he had a change of mind.

Afterwards Pat was criticised in the Dáil and reprimanded by his employers (Home Affairs), over the poor behaviour and attitude he had displayed as a public servant and policeman in a law court.

On the other hand, he was favourably regarded by judges in higher courts.

One interesting political case was a military tribunal prosecution in 1934 of an Army Reserve officer for attempting to bribe a detective and former Army comrade. The defendant, a Capt. Patrick Hughes, was closely allied with Eoin O’Duffy’s Army Comrades Association (Blueshirts) and League of Youth. It was alleged that Hughes had written a letter asking the policeman to pass him official documents on government policy towards the League of Youth. This letter’s authenticity was disputed. Moynihan appeared as an expert witness for the defence but was replaced during the trial by another expert from London (By the way, the opposing handwriting expert was a Capt. Quirke who’d succeeded Moynihan in the Chief State Solicitor’s Office. Small world. The two seemed to have a friendly rivalry with mutual back-scratching involved).

There were some controversies during Moynihan’s evidence. It emerged that four years previously he had acted for both sides in a will dispute, gave them contrary opinions – and was paid by both parties! Maybe there is a lot of truth in what a barrister quoted during one case: “There are three types of liar – liars, damned liars and handwriting experts…” (As an aside, a reference was made to Moynihan’s support for Fianna Fáil. Given how he had been treated by the Cosgrave government in 1924, his subsequent support of their main rivals is probably no surprise).

Celebrity Will Case

One high profile case Moynihan claimed involvement in was the family dispute over Irish-American Tammany Hall politician Richard Croker‘s will. Cork-born ‘Boss’ Croker had returned to Ireland after many years in the USA and lived in Stillorgan until his death in 1922. Croker had cut the children from his first marriage, apart from one daughter, out of his will. With an estate worth between $3 and $5 million left to his second wife Bula (fifty years his junior), the estranged children went to court. A Dublin jury found in favour of the widow, but the case was later reopened in the USA and dragged on for years. At the end, most of Croker’s fortune went into the pockets of lawyers. Moynihan’s role is not clear but he said he visited Buenos Aires, Palm Beach and Miami in connection with the case and he was listed on the S.S. Franconia from Cobh to New York on a business trip in September 1927. His told a reporter later his fee was a cool £1,000. In earlier days he usually charged a fee of 10 to 15 guineas (£10 10s to £15 15s) per court case.

Pat’s role in the Post Office Investigation Branch also involved him in many prosecutions over embezzlement, fraud and theft of post by employees or contractors. The name Captain Moynihan regularly featured in press reports over the years and he was often commended by judges for his good work in solving the crimes. Though, from today’s remove, his methods of obtaining confession statements from defendants in some cases does look to have been a little dodgy at times!

End of a Remarkable Life

Pat and Mary had moved to Ulster Terrace, Stillorgan Park, Blackrock south of Dublin where they lived alone. After retirement, Moynihan kept himself active. He spent many happy hours working on his flower garden and dabbling in his antiques hobby. When aged 80, he was described by one contact as looking twenty years younger.

In early April 1947, neighbours had not seen the Moynihans for a couple of days and noticed a build-up of deliveries outside their house. Concerned, they called the Garda. Gaining entry to the house, they discovered Patrick (aged 81) and Mary (77) both dead in the kitchen with remains of recently eaten meals on the table. The gas cooker had somehow been left on unlit. The couple had been overcome by the poisonous coal gas fumes, dying peacefully. There was no fault with the gas connection and nothing suspicious about the scene.

An inquest was held, at which J. E. Fitzpatrick from Cork (Pat’s nephew, a son of his sister Bridget) attended. From all the evidence, the Coroner found it was an accident, although an open verdict was recorded.

The Moynihans’ deaths, recorded as occurring on 9 April, were widely reported and there were obituaries recalling Patrick’s colourful past. He and his wife were laid to rest in Deansgrange Cemetery (plot U1/15, St. Fintan’s section).

Legacy and Conclusion

Thanks, presumably to his relatives, some of Patrick Moynihan’s papers and ephemera were donated to the National Library. They have been digitised and most can be viewed online. Well worth a look, they added a lot to this article.

Moynihan’s ego and sense of self-importance, plus a black humour style – come across in his own recollections as well as press reports over the years when he was newsworthy. Then again, that is not unique among some of his contemporaries. Moynihan was in a way larger-than-life and seems an unlikely hero, let alone a top secret agent.

But arguably the same could be said of all the ordinary people who did extraordinary things in many roles during the exceptional and dangerous times of Ireland’s struggle for freedom.

The white-haired Moynihan, described by his profile writer in 1922 as “a medium-sized [he was 5 foot 8], middle-aged, kindly, genial-looking man of quiet talk and demure demeanour” didn’t always live up to that assessment of his personality, as we have seen. It seems a usually mild-mannered Moynihan could be very prickly when pushed too far. He was definitely a colourful character who lived a very interesting, long and eventful life – to say the least! A journalist in the 1940s told him he should write a book on his life. Sadly, he never did that or made a Witness Statement to the BMH. He left only a few reminiscences in short memos, as well as a heap of press cuttings to be found by trawling the archives.

Moynihan seems to have been strongly opinionated, with a strong self-belief and comes across as a guy with a hard neck. Yet, he never did take up a gun in anger (nor did he claim to have done so). He just posed with one in the photo above with a few real Old IRA gunmen. And shot from the lip!

But that does not demean his record. After all, there is no doubt he did his country some real service over many years and survived both the Tan and Civil Wars in the dangerous world of intelligence-gathering. He may have been a bit of a chancer in his sideline as a “handwriting expert”, all the while being paid as a serving or pensioned civil servant. But he was not doing anything illegal, probably paid his taxes and did no real harm to innocent parties. He was just making the best out of his talents.

Perhaps that is not the worst epitaph for No 118, Pat Moynihan, an honorary Custom House Man.

Des White

PS – Credit to Reader Brian McNamara whose interesting contact via email pointed us to the NLI material and inspired the above effort.