The rescue of Robert Byrne from Limerick Union hospital (April 1919)

On Sunday 6 April 1919, several dozen members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Limerick city were mobilised to take part in a dangerous operation. Their mission was to enter the public area of a hospital during visiting hours and rescue a bed-ridden comrade who was being closely guarded around the clock by armed policemen.

The day’s events, which took place in the opening months of the War of Independence, left two individuals dead and several wounded. Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Constable Martin O’Brien was shot dead while attempting to prevent the escape of the IRA prisoner Robert Byrne who was also shot and later died of his wounds.

The release of the Brigade Activity Reports (BAR) by the Military Service Pensions Project in February 2019 provided historians and researchers, for the first time, the names of the approximately 54 IRA members who took part in the planning stages and the execution of the rescue operation. 

Robert Byrne (1D260), known to his comrades as Bert or Bob, was employed as a telegraph operator in Limerick’s general post office and was an active trade unionist. He was dismissed from his position in 1918 for his republican and political activities including attending the funeral of the Fenian John Daly [in 1916] and an anti-Conscription meeting at Limerick Town Hall in 1918.

Description of how Robert Byrne lost his job. Ref: 1D260

Robert Byrne held the rank of Battalion Adjutant of 2 Battalion, Mid Limerick Brigade IRA in 1919 and is listed in the nominal roll (RO/133) of the Brigade.

Robert Byrne listed in the nominal rolls. Ref: RO/133

Following a raid on Byrne’s family home, he was arrested, charged with possession of a revolver and sentenced to 12 months imprisonment. In Limerick County Gaol, Byrne led other Republican prisoners began a campaign for political-prisoner status which escalated into a hunger strike. After a number of weeks of refusing prison food, Byrne’s health deteriorated and he was moved to the hospital of the Limerick Union Workhouse in March 1919.

It is stated in the Mid Limerick Brigade BAR (A12) that the operation to rescue Robert Byrne was “entrusted to men mainly drawn from B and C Company” of the 2 Battalion, Mid Limerick Brigade. A replica of the hospital ward “showing the position of Byrne and his guards” was reconstructed at the headquarters of C Company in Gerald Griffin Street to enable IRA members to plot out the operation in precise detail.

Peadar Dunne (MSP34REF2414), Battalion Commandant of 2 Battalion, Mid Limerick Brigade, told the Advisory Committee on 11 January 1937 that he put together the rescue plan but “could not take part” on the day as he was “too well known to the police”.  

Typed transcript of Peadar Dunne’s evidence in front of the Advisory Committee, 11 January 1937. Ref:

The BAR also reveals that David Dundon, Company Captain of C Company, procured a carriage from an undertaker named C. Thompson with the intention to transport Byrne safely away from the hospital.

Robert Byrne was being guarded at his hospital bed by five members of the RIC and one prison warder.

Cornelius McNamara (MSP34REF4702), Company Captain of A Company, informed the Advisory Committee on 31 May 1935 that each Company within the 2 Battalion provided up to five men for the operation to ensure that they outnumbered the guards two to one.

Typed transcript of Peadar Dunne’s evidence in front of the Advisory Committee, 31 May 1935. Ref: MSP34REF4702

Michael Stack (E Company) and John Gallagher (D Company) were in charge of the operation on the day and were the only two IRA members armed with revolvers.

It is believed that around 20 IRA Volunteers filtered into the hospital disguised as ordinary visitors. Another 15 or so took up positions in the surrounding corridors and hospital grounds. The IRA members in the public area distributed tobacco and gifts to the patients and did their best to blend into their surrounding while they waited for the signal to spring into action.

At 3pm, the whistle was sounded and the unarmed IRA Volunteers threw themselves at the police surrounding Robert Byrne’s bed. The struggle was “fierce and short” but the IRA had numbers on their side. It was claimed that the RIC men were “overpowered, disarmed… gagged” and had their hands and feet tied up. It is believed that RIC Constable James Spillane shot Robert Byrne “through the apex of the lung” from close range as he tried to get out of bed.

Michael Stack (24SP1777), of E Company, recalled before the Board of Assessors that he took part in the operation armed with a revolver and admitted that he was the one who shot RIC Constables James Spillane and Martin O’Brien.

I was armed + another chap. I shot two police myself, one d(ied), one wounded”.

Handwritten notes from Michael Stack’s interview with the Board of Assessors, c. 1925. Ref: 24SP1777

O’Brien died immediately while Spillane, who was shot in the spine, recovered from his wounds. The other policemen and one prison guard were badly beaten by the IRA men and received hospital treatment for their cuts and bruises.

Patrick Dawson (MSP34REF5711), Second Lieutenant of B Company, told the Advisory Committee on 18 June 1935 that he took part in the disarming of the RIC men and escaped from the hospital with some of their weapons.

Typed transcript of Patrick Dawson’s evidence in front of the Advisory Committee, 18 June 1935. Ref: MSP34REF5711

The wounded Byrne, already weak from his hunger strike, was taken to a farm house about a mile from the hospital where he died of his wounds later that evening. His funeral, attended by up to ten thousand mourners, brought the city to a standstill. Cornelius McNamara states that he took part in the firing party at Robert Byrne’s funeral under the command of Captain M. McCann and Commandant Michael Brennan (24SP9375).

Following the hospital raid and funeral, Limerick was declared a “special military area” by the authorities. This led to a two-week ‘General Strike against British Militarism’ by workers in the city. It was dubbed ‘The Limerick Soviet’ by several dozen foreign journalists who incidentally were in Limerick at the same time to cover a (cancelled) transatlantic air race.

Robert Byrne’s mother Ann made an application to the Cumann na nGaedheal government for a dependent’s allowance under the Army Pensions Act, 1923. She was offered a gratuity of £100 which was increased to £150 but she refused to accept it on the grounds that it was not adequate. Ann Byrne died in May 1929. Following Fianna Fáil’s election victory, Robert’s brothers James and John Byrne made a second application in 1933 for a dependent’s allowance. They were informed that no further award could be made under the terms of the Army Pensions Acts as their mother Ann Byrne had already been awarded a gratuity of £150.

Appendix 1

The Mid Limerick Brigade BAR (A12) listed the following 56 members of 2 Battalion who played some role in the rescue operation whether it was intelligence work in the lead up, scout work on the day or taking part in the rescue attempt itself.

A Company (BAR A12, p.36)

  • John O’Rahilly
  • John Hanrahan
  • Joseph Judge
  • Patrick McNamara

B Company (BAR A12, p.37)

  • P. Troy
  • D. Maher
  • J. Downey
  • M. Lyons
  • S. Cusack
  •  J. Collopy
  •  M. O’Connell
  •  M. Maher
  •  P. Doyle
  •  A. O’Sullivan
  •  Patrick Dawson
  •  M. Mulcahy

C Company (BAR A12, pp. 19; 41)

  •  Thomas Ryan
  •  H. Corbett
  •  D. Kennedy
  •  M. Kennedy
  •  M. Griffin
  •  A. O’Shaughnessy
  •  Thomas Gough
  •  R. Murphy
  •  Michael O’Brien
  •  D. O’Brien
  •  John Butler
  •  Patrick McGrath
  •  F. O’Callaghan
  •  James McMahon
  •  James Tydings
  •  F. Connolly
  •  David Gleeson
  •  Joseph Tydings
  •   David Dundon
  •  Patrick O’Brien (aka ‘Twenty’)
  •  John Graham
  •  S. Kennedy

D Company (BAR A12, p.46)

  •  William Hayes
  •  Michael Hogan
  •  John Enright
  •  T. Glynn
  •  Joseph O’Brien
  •  Edward Doran
  •  Daniel Gallagher
  •  Michael Danford
  •  John Gallagher
  •  John Clancy

E Company (BAR A12, p.62)

  •  Michael Stack
  •  P. Saunders
  •  W. Wallace
  •  J. Blake
  •  T. Kelly
  •  J. Cowhey