100 YEARS AGO: Foundation of the New Ireland Assurance Company

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2017), Volume 25

By Joseph E.A. Connell Jr

Above: Michael (M.W.) O’Reilly, one of the founders of New Ireland Assurance in 1917, was still its managing director in 1953, when he made his BMH witness statement (No. 886).

In the early 1900s, Arthur Griffith proposed that the Irish were capable of operating their own businesses, and that thousands of pounds were needlessly sent to Britain every year to profit British companies at the expense of the Irish people. Among the companies Griffith noted were the insurance companies of the City of London, and Griffith’s Sinn Féin newspaper called for the establishment of Irish insurance companies. Michael Collins and others had discussed an insurance company in Frongoch.

In April 1917 there was a meeting in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, and the original partners were brought together. Collins encouraged Michael Staines (who had been the O/C at Frongoch), Michael (M.W.) O’Reilly, Jim Ryan, Liam Tobin and Frank Thornton, all of whom had been in Frongoch, to form the company. Joe McGrath, who preceded Collins as secretary of the Irish National Aid and Volunteers’ Dependants’ Fund, was brought in to assist in accounting, as he had worked for chartered accountants Craig, Gardner & Co.

In his Bureau of Military History (BMH) witness statement, Frank Thornton, one of Collins’s intelligence operatives, described how the company was founded and operated:

‘… which resulted in the formation of the New Ireland Assurance Collecting Society. During an earlier period, before 1916, in preparation for things to come, Arthur Griffith had in his papers frequently urged that something should be done to stop the flow of insurance premiums out of this country as part of a campaign to deal with the economic situation. It always was the first plank of Sinn Féin that everything Irish should be supported and that every effort should be made to keep the monies of the country circulating around amongst the people and re-employ these funds to create further industry … He was always very keen on trying to solve the problem of how to retain that £5,000,000 of insurance premiums which were being annually exported from the country. One of his biggest supporters in that direction was Mr M.W. O’Reilly, who became the founder of an Insurance Society at a later stage. As can be seen from the following history of events, Michael Collins, Doctor Jim Ryan, Liam Tobin, Éamon de Valera, the late Dick Coleman, Michael Staines and myself became the prime movers in bringing this idea to fruition.’

The second floor of the premises at 56 Bachelor’s Walk, Dublin, housed the New Ireland Insurance Company, run by O’Reilly, who was in the GPO during the Rising. Until the police figured out what was going on, both the Dáil Loan and Collins’s intelligence department were being run under the cover of the insurance company.
O’Reilly was from Stillorgan, and had worked in his parents’ provisions shop there. After attending the Christian Brothers School in Kingstown, he was apprenticed to the grocery and provision trade with the firm of Messrs Bewley, Sons & Co. Ltd in their branch premises at Blackrock, and after serving there for some time was transferred to their Henry Street premises.

In his witness statement, O’Reilly indicated how he came to be involved in insurance:

‘I subsequently returned home to assist my parents in a small shop that they were running at Stillorgan. While there during this period I contacted a Mr J.F. O’Kelly, who was then the superintendent for the Prudential Assurance Company Ltd, in the Dún Laoghaire–Blackrock Districts, and he suggested to me the advisability of taking up insurance as a career. Meanwhile, my late manager at Bewley’s in Blackrock offered me a position in the business which he had opened for himself at Brighton Square, Terenure, which offer I accepted and remained with him for approximately twelve months when my old friend, Mr O’Kelly, again came on the scene and informed me that there was an agency vacant in the Dalkey district and that, if I should apply for it, he thought there would be little difficulty in my securing the appointment. I accordingly applied and in June of 1910 I had my first introduction into the life insurance business.’

Joseph E.A. Connell Jr is the author of Michael Collins: Dublin 1916–22 (Wordwell Books).

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