Photo courtesy of Mairead McGrath


‘Won’t you look after Dan for me Richie’ were the words of good-bye said by Mrs. Head, Dan Head’s Mother on the morning of 25 May 1921 as himself and Richie McGrath left to go to the Custom House.

Mrs. Head’s pet name for Richie was ‘The Ambassador’ because he frequently called for Dan when there were patrols or other jobs to be carried out.

Richie was twenty years of age. Dan was younger. Both were apprentice carpenters. They went to the Custom House and collected their tins of petrol together. Richie gave Dan orders to stick closely by him. As they moved through rooms throwing the contents of filing cabinets on the floor and dowsing them with petrol Dan took a moment to appreciate one piece of furniture. Moving his hand gently across it he said: “Isn’t it a shame Richie to have to burn this beautiful desk?”

Unfortunately in the confusion which followed Richie and Dan got separated. Dan fired at the British Military which had arrived on the scene and was shot dead by them. Richie, with the bulk of the Volunteers, was captured and interned first in Arbour Hill and later at Kilmainham from which he was released with the rest of his comrades in the General Amnesty on 8 December 1921.”

Thus starts the account of the life of Custom House man Richard McGrath, as kindly documented by his daughter Mairead.

Family Background

Richard McGrath was born on 26 March 1901 in South King Street opposite the Gaiety Theatre where – his grandfather being at sea – his grandmother ran a Lodging House. Shortly after his birth the family moved to the northside of Dublin where they spent most of their lives at No 3 Upper Northbrook Avenue, North Strand.

Richie was the fourth of ten children, the eldest of whom Paddy was on the roof of the GPO in 1916 when he was hit by a sniper’s bullet which entered his eye and lodged so near his brain it could not be removed. It remained there, its outline visible, until his death in 1967.

His father, Patrick McGrath, was Quarter-Master of 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade, Irish Volunteers.

Volunteer Activity

Mairead’s account continues:

“As a youth Richie was in the GPO briefly in 1916 and in Reis’s Chambers Wireless Centre and the Hibernian Bank from Monday to Wednesday morning in Easter Week when he was sent home by his father. He took messages from GPO to Capt. Weafer in Reis’s, to the Four Courts and to the Mendicity Institute.

In 1917 Richie transferred from Na Fianna to D Coy, 2nd Battalion of the Volunteers later to become the Irish Republican Army. As a Volunteer, he was involved in many activities, including:

  • The shooting of spies in the Gresham Hotel on 21 Nov. 1920.
  • Three ambushes in 1921: One on Auxiliaries at North Frederick Street and Blessington Street and two on British military at Dorset Street and Eden Quay.
  • The destruction of Raheny RIC Barracks in August 1920. 
  • The attack by 2nd Battalion in April 1921 on the L&NWR Hotel, North Wall.  
  • In May 1921 he took charge of a raid on Mason’s Opticians, Dame Street. He was Squad Commander and was attached to the Intelligence Branch.  

He also participated in armed patrols in the area assigned to 2nd Battalion.

Following the attack on the Custom House, Richie was arrested and interned in Kilmainham Gaol.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Richard’s entry in Autograph Book: Courtesy Kilmainham Gaol
Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Richard McGrath – middle row second from right. Photo courtesy Kilmainham Gaol

Following his release from Kilmainham, Richie enlisted in the National Army in March 1922 bringing with him all of his Section. He served as a Sergeant and was based in the Inchicore Railway Works in Dublin in November 1922. The following year he was made acting Second Lieutenant with the Coastal Defence Force.

Richie was discharged time-expired from the Army on 8 April 1924.

Later Life

In 1930 Eamon De Valera decided to open a newspaper office on the site of the Tivoli Theatre on Burgh Quay.  Working with his father Patrick McGrath, who had been invited by Eamon De Valera to become Works Manager, Richie (now called ‘Dick’) made the caseroom furniture.  He continued being in charge of maintenance in the Irish Press for the next fifty-five years until his retirement in 1986 at the age of
eighty five.

Courtesy Irish Press

In 1938 he married Kathleen Hyland from a Republican family whose father Andrew Hyland had been a member of the Engineering Company of the IRA. In 1920, Andrew, while participating in manoeuvres at Rockbrook in the Dublin Mountains, was captured by the Black and Tans and imprisoned in Mountjoy in Dublin and Wormwood Scrubs and Pentonville prisons in England.

During the Civil War the Hylands took the side of the Republicans while the McGrath’s were pro-Treaty.  As a result of this, Kathleen was imprisoned in the North Dublin Union where she was taught crochet by
Countess Markiewicz who also painted her picture seated in the prison kitchen.  Her sister Molly was in Kilmainham jail and her brother John was a prisoner in the Curragh.

On 8th February 1923 at 2 am twenty Free State soldiers with guns, picks and crowbars raided their house in Ranelagh.  They turned the family who were not yet in prison out on the street in their night
clothes and smashed the windows, doors, stairs, furniture and piano; broke all the crockery and emptied dried goods from cupboards onto the kitchen floor. In 1927 the Free State paid £300 in compensation to

It is worth mentioning that even though events relating to the Civil War and the War of Independence were often discussed during their fifty years of marriage, no bitterness or recriminations ever occurred
between Dick and Kathleen.

Richie and Kathleen shared fifty years of marriage.  He died on 13 January 1987.  She died five years later on 20 November 1992.

Richard’s Final Resting Place

I (Mairead McGrath) their only child, was born on 8 May 1939.

Mairead has also given us her recollections of attending past Custom House commemorations here.

Liam Grace