Memoirs of James Harpur



This is some of our family history on the Connolly / Harpur side. To see the memoirs of my Father-in-law, Ken ‘Johnny’ Johnston, please see my wife’s site

Lieut.-Colonel James Harpur


Swords Road

Dublin 9.

From a hardcopy kept in the family. A PDF is available from the Bureau of Military History collection.

Dictated in 1950
Following the general release of the 1916 prisoners, efforts were made to reorganise the Volunteers in Dublin.  Early in 1917, at the age of 15, I joined “C” Company of the 4th. Battalion, Dublin Brigade. At that time the Company was commanded by Garry Byrne.  John V Joyce was Lieutenant.  Afterwards, Joyce became O/C. of the Company.  For a considerable time after I joined the Volunteers our activities in the Company were mainly concerned with organisation, drilling and training. Drilling was carried out at the Sand Pits in the Crumlin area. The first occasion on which I had to use arms was on a night when the Police raided our parade ground. I was on guard duty that night and as Police approached a few of us opened fire while the remainder of the Company made their getaway.

Armistice Parade 1918:
We were told of the Armistice Parade in the City in1918 and I was mobilised for duty at 41 Camden Street. The Battalion O/C., Phil Cosgrave and the Vice O/C., Joe McGrath were there. I was given an old Spanish revolver and three rounds of ammunition by Joe McGrath and my instructions on that occasion were to patrol from the Evening Mail Office in Parliament St. down to the River Liffey. I was to prevent anyone taking photographs of the Parade, the idea being that this British Military Parade was to be denied any publicity in the local papers. I was accompanied on this occasion by another Volunteer, Jim Fulham. As the Artillery was passing, I saw a cameraman with a tripod camera on the north side of Capel Street Bridge endeavouring to take photographs of the Parade. As we were making our way towards him to prevent him from doing so I observed two other Volunteers approaching him from the Quayside.  I recognised these as Paddy Holohan and Pat Doyle, who was afterwards executed. They reached the camera-man first and I heard an altercation going on between them. The next thing I saw was the camera and the Cameraman being thrown into the Liffey. We resumed our patrol.

Raid on Ship, Alexandra Basin:
Early in 1919, I was transferred to “F” Company of the 1st Battalion where I was appointed Section Leader. The O/C of this Company was Paddy Holohan, (later to become my brother-in-law). At the time I was transferred activities were increasing, starting with raids for arms on private houses. The first raid of importance I remember was a raid on a ship that had anchored at Alexandra Basin which, we were informed, contained a number of arms.  For this raid, a number of us were specially selected from the Company and Charlie Dalton of the Intelligence Department directed the raid. My job, with Paddy Doyle, was to take up position on the bridge of the ship. A number of rifles and a Lewis gun and several revolvers were taken away. I think this ship had some connection with the Naval Service at the time. Our party got safely away with their ‘booty’. A short time afterwards the whole area was taken over by British military.

The Active Service Unit Organisation:
Late in the year 1920, the Company Commander sent for me and informed me that it was the intention of the Army Council to increase the activities of the I.R.A. to counter British activities in Dublin and to this end, an Active Service Unit was being formed. He asked me if I would leave my job and go with this unit, at the same time informing me that he had already nominated me to the Brigade Council and that my nomination had been approved. I asked him what did it imply. He informed me that active night-and-day operations were going to be carried out openly against the British Forces in Dublin. This would mean that I would be employed full-time and for this reason, I could not work at my ordinary civilian employment. I told him I would be happy to join the Unit, I was then instructed by him to attend at Oriel Hall at the back of A miens Street Railway Station on a certain night, late in 1920, for the formation of the Unit. I attended at Oriel Hall on the appointed night and there I met between 40 and 50 other members from different units in the Brigade. We were addressed by Oscar Traynor. First of all, he told us that Michael Collins was to have been there but was unable to make it. He then informed us that the British were becoming too ‘cocky ‘in the city and were being allowed too much freedom of movement to carry out their policy of subduing the population and that it had been decided to counter this activity by giving them battle on our own ground. Whilst complimenting us on our patriotism in coming forward he said that he did not hold out much hope of us surviving but then he added that there would be more men to take our places. We were then organised into four Sections, one Section to operate in each of the four Battalion areas. Our assignment to the different Sections was decided by our individual places of residence in the city. As I was residing at that time in the 4th Battalion area I was assigned to the Section in that area. On that night also, Paddy Flanagan, who came from the 3rd Battalion, was appointed O/C of the Unit.  Section Commanders were appointed for each Section and Gus Murphy was appointed Section Commander of our Section with the 4th Battalion. When Gus was killed Micky Sweeney took his place. The Unit worked in the following manner:

G.H.Q. Intelligence Section collected data for ‘jobs’.  If the action to be carried out was an ‘execution’ it was passed on by the Intelligence Section to the ‘Squad’ who were a special unit to deal with such matters. If the action was an ambush it was passed on to the appropriate Active Service Unit. In addition, the ASU had its own Intelligence Section which was with the 3rd Battalion.  This Section collected information which it passed on to the ASU Headquarters in Eustace Street. The 4th Section Headquarters was in the Brickworks in Dolphin‘s Barn. The Section Commander, Gus Murphy would attend at Unit Headquarters each morning and bring whatever instructions he received back to us at Dolphin’s Barn. The ASU started with an approximate strength of 50 men and although a number were killed and executed it was not until after the Custom House attack, when we lost practically half of our strength, that new members were brought into the Unit.  After the Custom House burning, the Squad and the ASU, who had previously worked in cooperation, were amalgamated under the leadership of Paddy Daly. As we had left our civilian employment to be engaged full time on Active Service work, it was arranged that we would receive subsistence allowances.

Active Service Unit Operations:
Before embarking on any operations one of our first duties was to familiarise ourselves thoroughly with the area in which we were to operate.  This meant a comprehensive reconnaissance of the main streets, back streets, laneways, cul-de-sacs, etc. in the 4th Battalion area. We found to our advantage that the knowledge gained stood to us well later.  The first ambush by the Unit took place at Bachelor’s Walk in 1921. We were told beforehand that this was to be the debut of the Active Service Unit. Bachelor’s Walk was in the 1st Battalion area and I don‘t recollect if the whole of our Section was selected for the job or only a representative number, but I do know that all the Sections were represented there that day. The ambush took place between O’Connell Bridge and Liffey Street.  I was stationed with Padraig O’Connor at Liffey Street. We were told that a number of lorries with Auxiliaries arriving from England would come along and that the signal for the ambush would be the first grenade bursting at O’Connell Bridge. The Tans did not arrive at the scheduled time and we remained in position for a considerable period.  Eventually, the firing started at O’Connell Bridge and continued right down along the Quays. When the Auxiliaries got to Liffey Street I could see at least four trucks coming towards me with the personnel firing in all directions, apparently panic-stricken. We carried out our part of the job and got away by Abbey Street to the North Wall The Auxiliaries continued to fire in spite of the fact that the A.S. U. had completely withdrawn from the area. We were the last people to leave.

Shortly after the attack on the Auxiliaries at Bachelor’s Walk a number of us were seconded to the 3rd Battalion Section to carry out a job against four intelligence Personnel travelling between the Dublin Castle and the Auxiliaries’ Barracks at Beggars Bush. ‘Onion’ Quinn from the 3rd Battalion Section was to give us the signal when the car was coming. We took up positions as follows:- Paddy Rigney and I were at the Holles Street /Merrion Square corner; two other men, whose names I cannot recall, were at the archway of Goff’s Sales Yard with two more men at the corner of the street at the first turn to the left after passing Goffs Sales Yard. Quinn took up his position at Merrion Square East corner, in order to give the signal when the car came along. We saw a closed car approaching from the Clare street direction along Merrion Square. As the car was halfway up Merrion Square, Quinn crossed the road and when in the path of the car, he took out a white handkerchief and waved. He then rushed down Holles Street. As well as giving the signal to us, he had also given the signal to the people in the car who started firing before we opened fire on them. When they were about 2 yards from us we opened up with a grenade and revolver fire. The grenade landed in the centre of the car and as it passed us and before arriving at Goffs, the grenade exploded.  At this time the car was practically stationary, and the other lads opened fire from the other two positions. By this time we had retreated down Holles Street and into Sandwith Street. From the information afterwards received this job was a complete success with 100% results.

The next operation I was engaged in was an attack in Camden Street and was carried out against a Military Staff car containing Court-martial Officers moving from Portobello to Dublin Castle. These Court-martial Officers were the same Officers who had conducted the Trial of our comrades in the 1st Battalion who had been captured at the Clonturk Park ambush and had been sentenced to death. We took up positions. I was at the Camden Row corner, at the public-house, with Jimmy McGuinness. Others of the Section took up positions between there and Bishop Street. We ambushed the car and fire was returned from it. One of the shots from the car wounded Paddy Rigney in the leg. With Jimmy Mc. Guinness covering, we got Rigney away. As my own house was the nearest place at the time and my own three sisters were always on ‘stand-to’ when an operation was being carried out in the area, we brought Rigney there where he was treated by the ASU Doctor -Dr. Flanagan. Afterwards, he was removed to the Mater Hospital.  While we had one casualty there were definitely two casualties, at least, amongst the British party. One of the Officers in the car, to my mind, was a very brave man. From the very beginning of the ambush, he sighted each shot of his Parabellum. I am of the opinion that it was one of his shots that wounded Paddy Rigney.
I was still in touch with my old Company and speaking one night with Paddy Holohan, the Company C/O., he told me that his Company had an operation lined up for an ambush in North Frederick St He asked me if I was not doing anything at that particular time with the ASU, would I go on the job with them. I told him, “Yes “, I would go. Again the attack was on a British military lorry.  Three of us were stationed at Findlater’s Church; Tom Sheerin, who was the Lieutenant of the Company, Rossa Mahon and myself. We started by firing grenades at the lorry.  Others who were in position at the LSE garage joined in the attack I was told that this operation was a success and there were no casualties on our side. My Section Commander in the ASU, Gus Murphy, however, became aware of my activities in the North Frederick St affair and gave me what was known as a “Disciplinary Choke-Off’. I was told that, in future, I was to confine myself solely to those operations ordered by him.
About this time, we received information through our own sources about an R.A.F. group, who were stationed in Tallaght, and who came regularly into the City to collect mail. I was detailed with Jimmy and Joe Mc. Guinness and Padraig O’ Connor to get ‘tabs’ on this lorry. We accumulated the necessary information and verified the fact that the lorry came into the city along the Naas Road after curfew hours, which at that time began at 10:30 p.m. A decision was made to carry out an action against this lorry. For us, speed of action was essential as we were aware that either “C” Company or “F” Company of the 4th. Battalion were also after this job. One night we took up position behind what was known as the Valley wall, just on the Naas Road over Dolphin ‘s Barn Bridge. We waited there for a considerable time but the lorry failed to show up. Subsequent investigation elicited the fact that the route had been altered and the lorry was now coming in via the Crumlin Road. One night sometime later, we went into position on the Crumlin Road.  Padraig O’Connor was appointed Look-Out man and at about 11 p.m. Padraig signalled that the lorry was coming, and we prepared to ambush it. We were all set up for the job when word was passed on to lie low and hold our fire that this was not the target we had expected. Instead of the Mail lorry, this was a convoy of about eight trucks with a very heavy escort and three armoured cars.
We now learned that our target was still using the Crumlin route but was coming in during daylight hours and so it was decided to set up another ambush, this time on its way back to Tallaght from the City. The lorry was known to be a big one and loaded with about 15 soldiers. It had steel plates practically up to the cover and the difficulty of getting grenades into the vehicle was our chief worry. At this time our lads in the munitions factory in Vicker Street were turning out what was known as the famous No. 9 grenade and we were given two or three of these grenades to try out. I believe that the time fuse on them had been reduced from seven seconds to three seconds. Mc. Guinness and Sweeney, prior to the evening of the ambush, made a thorough examination of the area and selected the best location at which to carry it out. This proved to be in the vicinity of Yeates Public House, also known as the “Half-Way House”. It was considered to be an ideal location because:

  • It was on a left-hand bend on the road
  • A gable end faced on to the road, against which a concrete lavatory had been built which had an opening facing the city which commanded a full view of the road for a couple of hundred yards and
  • Beyond the building was a triangular field with a low stone wall fronting on to the roadway.

The plan was that Mickey Sweeney, who was now Section Commander, (Gus Murphy having been killed) and Jimmy McGuiness would position themselves in this lavatory each with a No.9 grenade and watching the roadway for the approach of the lorry. The remainder of us would be in position inside the stonewall of the field beyond the building. The plan was when the lorry neared the bend, the two lads in the lavatory would time themselves, emerge from there to cross the road, talking to each other casually, and they would arrive at the edge of the road having to stop there to allow the lorry to pass. As it was passing they would lob the No. 9 grenades through the narrow opening in the lorry. We were then to open fire with revolvers, ‘peter-the -painters’ and grenades, one man being specially detailed to get the driver of the lorry to force him to stop. We would then fight it out with them and get their guns. We were not long in position when we got word that the lorry was coming.  McGuiness and Sweeney timed themselves perfectly and as the lorry was passing they lobbed their grenades. Sweeney’s grenade struck the outside of the cover and fell back; exploding at his feet.  He was severely wounded in the legs and received superficial wounds around the face. McGuiness‘s grenade exploded in the centre of the lorry. The lorry swerved towards the Landsdowne Valley Road and by this time we were giving it everything we had. We were preparing to cross the wall when the lorry engine picked up again and gathered speed up the road. We retired from the position and came out on the road leading to Walkinstown Cross and immediately in front of Walkinstown House where we met Jimmy Mc. Guinness who was holding Micky Sweeney. We realised that Sweeney had been badly hit and Paddy Rigney, Alley O’Toole and myself went into Walkinstown House where we knew there was a chauffeur and a car. We located the chauffeur in the kitchen but when we tried to get him out, he could not move off the chair with fright We could get no good of him and we returned to the road. Just as we arrived there, the workers from the Blessington Steam-Tram Works came cycling down towards us, having finished work. They immediately grasped the situation and without request or order from us they jumped off their bicycles and handed them over to us to enable us get away. Either Jimmy Mc. Guinness or Simon Mc.Inerney took Micky Sweeney on the back-step of one of the bikes and escorted by Paddy Rigney and one or two other chaps, they made away. After they departed, the rest of us mounted bicycles and made for the canal bridges to get back in to the city. We were not long over the bridges when they were taken over by the Military and everybody going into the City was searched and examined. Were it not for the action of the lads from the Steam -Tram Company in giving us their bicycles we would have found it very difficult to get back in to the City that night.  Paddy O’Connor would have been with us that night but for the fact that he had wounded some time previously. Nevertheless, knowing that the job was taking place that night, Paddy and his younger brother, Sean, who was not a member of the ASU, were actually making their way over Landsdowne Valley to get to the Half-Way House when they heard the firing. I was very troubled later that night as I had lost a new velour hat in the hedge in my get-away. I feared that if it was located, its owner’s identity would be known in a very short time. Next morning, against the wishes of my comrades, I returned to the area and retrieved my hat.
I believe that this was the most successful ambush carried out in the Dublin area. Its success was underlined by the fact that an official reprisal was carried out that night by the Auxiliaries by burning down Yeates’ “Half-Way House”.

The Igoe Gang.
Previous to the Half-Way House ambush we had, on numerous occasions, acting in conjunction with the Squad, and on information supplied, gone to different locations in an endeavour to get the Igoe Murder Gang. On one occasion towards evening in the City, When returning from one of these chases, Johnnie Wilson of the Squad and myself, having dumped our guns in the Strand Street dump, were walking up along the Quays towards O’Connell Bridge we heard an order from behind us to keep going, not to move our hands or make a move in any direction. Turning round, we saw Igoe and his Bunch immediately behind us.
We did as we were told and as we reached the ‘Home of Billiards ‘on Bachelors Walk we were told to turn left down the laneway alongside the billiards saloon. Igoe & Co. came after us, some of them blocking the entrance to the laneway and others going to the far end. Igoe and his Assistant started to question us. We always had our individual stories made up as to what we would say in the case of such an eventuality and we gave an account of our movements accordingly. (They questioned us together and since I was unaware of Johnnie ‘s story until I heard him tell it and likewise, he was unaware of mine until he heard me, I felt fortunate that they questioned us jointly rather than separately.)   Whether they trying to frighten us or not I’m not sure, but they told us that they had decided to shoot us there and then and ordered us to turn our faces to the wall and gave us three minutes to make our preparations. At this point I had given up all hope of coming out of the laneway again, knowing the record of Igoe and his henchmen; but as the men he had placed at the entrance to the lane were having difficulty with the crowd which had collected, they decided to take us to Dublin Castle.  A strange coincidence arose here regarding our route to the Castle They took us via Eustace Street, where our own Headquarters was situated.  I was sure that in passing our Headquarters something was bound to happen as we had been chasing the Igoe Gang for weeks and as someone was always on observation duty at Headquarters I had no doubt our side would avail of this opportunity of getting,  at least, some of the gang. As luck would have it no one was observing at this particular time and as we went up Dame St towards the Castle I felt disappointed and depressed. At the Castle, we were separated and questioned individually but by this time we were each on our guard. When I was questioned about Wilson I stuck to his story and when he was questioned about me he stuck to mine. After about three-quarters of an hour, we were told we could go but this did not allay our fears as we now believed we would be shot ‘trying to escape’. To our amazement, we reached the Castle gate and gained the street without being shot.  Neither one of us could believe our luck that we were alive and free.
My one purpose now was to get home to my own house as quickly as possible. I knew that Padraig O‘Connor was there, in bed and seriously wounded, and as the British now had my address and would most likely raid the house it was imperative to get him away.  Fortunately, the house was not raided and shortly afterwards it continued to be used as a First Aid Station for the wounded of the Squad and the ASU. Simon McInerney of the ASU., Joe Byrne of the Squad and Harry Pender of the 4th. Battalion were each subsequently treated there.

The Burning of the Custom House May 25th 1921
A few days before the burning of the Custom House the entire ASU. was called together at Strand St and we were given an outline of the proposed action by our O/C., Paddy Flanagan. He told us the 2nd. Battalion would do the job and that we, in conjunction with the Squad would protect the 2nd. Battalion in the operation. For this purpose, a number of us were detailed for ‘outside ‘protection aid others for ‘inside’ protection. As far as I can remember, the majority of the ASU. were to be used for outside protection and a small number, who would work with the Squad would go inside the building. I was one of those sent inside and I think the majority of the 1st Battalion were also inside. Our mission inside was, first of all, when we entered we were to cover all the doorways and allow no one out and allow no British Forces in. We were to shut the doors; if the British arrived they would be engaged, on the outside of the building, by our comrades outside and if they got into the building, we were to engage them. On the day of the operation, I assembled with some others of the ASU. and the Squad in the vicinity of Brook Thomas’s at about 12:45 p.m. At 1:00 p.m. we crossed the street and entered the Custom House by the Beresford Place door. At the same time, I saw other parties converging on the Custom House from other directions. As soon as all the lads were inside we closed the doors and remained there until the fighting started.  The first we heard was the explosion of grenades and the sounds of gunfire outside. At this time our men had not commenced to burn the building, so we mounted the windows and I could see in Beresford Place that two British trucks were pulled up and British Auxiliaries were lying on the ground firing at the building. We returned fire and whilst engaged on our block we could hear firing all round the building. I saw military in lorries moving into position along the Quays covered by an Armoured Car. The Armoured Car, as it approached, was also firing at the Custom House. Eventually, we were forced back from the windows but by this time fires were starting all over the inside of the building. I heard the order being passed that all guns were to be dumped and that all Volunteers were to mix themselves amongst the staff At this time I was in an office which 1 believe was the Stationery Office. It was adjacent to the Custom House Dock. There I met Tom Keogh of the Squad. I asked him how the job was going and what the instructions were regarding the guns of the ASU. and the Squad. Tom, at this time, looked very happy and said that the job was going to be a huge success. Nothing could now stop the fire. It would now be safe to dump the guns and mingle with the staff and try to get away. There was no other hope, he said, as he had already tried himself and could see no other way out. In a corridor off the Stationery Office, some other offices were burning furiously. Tom Keogh and I, and I think, Tom Flood with some other Volunteers from the 2nd Battalion, smashed our weapons and threw them into the fire. At this time we felt very naked and at the mercy of the British who were already in the building.  We mixed with the staff and eventually found ourselves outside on the Custom House Dock. However, in passing out, there was a gentleman present, with some Auxiliary Officers, who was identifying Custom House staff to the Officers. He did not identify Tom Flood, Tom Keogh, Ned Breslin, Mick Dunne or myself as staff and we were separated from the staff and brought down to another group on the Quays. We recognised all of this group as Volunteers. We were searched and during the search, a hole was discovered in the lining of Ned Breslin’s pocket. On feeling around at the back of Ned’s coat a round of ammunition was discovered. The Auxiliaries who were searching him then took him out and gave him an unmerciful beating. Ned was then separated from us, as was Tom Flood. Both, I learned afterwards, were taken to Mountjoy Gaol.  Mick Dunne, during his interrogation, persuaded his questioners in his inimitable way that he was a respectable businessman of the city and he was allowed to go free. The rest of us were bundled into lorries and taken to Arbour Hill Barracks.
During the time we were held on the Quay, our lads were still sniping from the south side of the River Liffey.  On our departure from the scene on the lorries, it was good to know that there were still people left outside who were not going to be subdued by the fact that more than half our number were either killed or captured during the operation. We were kept in Arbour Hill for about a fortnight and then transferred to Kilmainham Gaol where we were imprisoned until December 1921.