An office in Harcourt Street—the first Irish Department of Finance

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2020), Volume 28

A ‘grey, eighteenth-century house’ that witnessed the turbulent birth of a new Irish administration and later became a refuge for ‘fallen women’.

By Frank Cogan

A truly dramatic scene in Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins is when the eponymous hero is forced to emerge through a skylight and take a perilous route across the rooftops of the adjoining buildings in order to escape from the pursuing Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP). In the film, Liam Neeson (as Collins) completed his escape by descending through another skylight into an adjacent hotel and then coolly walking out the front door as if he were one of the guests, proceeding to join the throng of onlookers in the street below as the police continued their fruitless search for him. The scene was not a fictional exaggeration; it was based on historical fact and it took place at 76 Harcourt Street. This ‘grey, eighteenth-century house’, overlooking Iveagh Gardens to the rear, witnessed the turbulent birth of a new Irish administration, and later became a refuge for ‘fallen women’.

After Sinn Féin’s victory in the election of December 1918, the first Dáil was convened on 21 January 1919 at the Mansion House. The objective was to set up a rival government and to muscle the British out of the way in controlling administration at the local and national level. Following the Declaration of Independence, a constitution was adopted which provided for the appointment of a cabinet consisting of a priomh-aire (president/prime minister) and four other ministers—for finance, home affairs, foreign affairs and defence. Eoin McNeill was minister for finance, but when the Dáil met again under de Valera’s presidency in April, a new, revised cabinet provided for up to nine ministries. Among them, Michael Collins was appointed minister for finance.

Above: The Crown forces raid on 76 Harcourt Street on 19 November 1919, as depicted in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996).

Batt O’Connor—estate agent for the Dáil

Records indicate that Collins carried out his finance responsibility more ably and determinedly than any other cabinet member. He proved adept at raising revenue and ruthless in defending it from prying British officials: one, Alan Bell, a real threat, was unceremoniously shot dead in Ballsbridge. Collins and other ministers operated initially from Sinn Féin’s headquarters at 6 Harcourt Street but that was raided by police in the summer of 1919. Collins took to the rooftops to evade capture. Convinced that he needed to locate a new office premises, he engaged a trustworthy Kerryman, Batt O’Connor, with an insider’s knowledge of the real estate market in Dublin, to find one.

O’Connor, a stonemason from Brosna who had worked in America as a builder, from the early 1900s built houses in Dolphin’s Barn and in the new fashionable suburb of Donnybrook—Anglesea Road, Eglinton Road and Brendan Road (named after the Kerry saint). When Collins launched the Dáil loan fund the initial target was £250,000 but it eventually raised about £400,000. A portion came in gold bullion, for which he needed a safe hiding place; he entrusted O’Connor with the task. O’Connor devised a hidden compartment beneath the floor of his Donnybrook house, in which he secreted £25,000 in gold, in four boxes, each weighing about 2cwt, and a baby’s coffin. Despite the house being searched by Crown forces several times in the 1920–1 period, it lay there undiscovered until after the Truce.

After the raid on 6 Harcourt Street in mid-1919, in which Collins and others escaped (but at a cost, both in personnel—Ernest Blythe and Paud O’Keeffe were arrested—and in documents), he enlisted the expert help of O’Connor, who takes up the story:

Above: The Sinn Féin headquarters (and bank) at 6 Harcourt Street following the Crown forces raid on 12 September 1919. (NLI)

‘His [Collins’s] papers fell into the hands of the raiders and no. 6 being now useless he gave me instructions to buy a house which was for sale further up the street, no. 76. As I was in the building trade it was easy for me to buy houses without arousing suspicion. We had to move cautiously, not only with an eye upon the enemy but upon the people with whom we did business. With the propertied classes, Sinn Féin naturally was not popular. The owner of a house in Stephen’s Green had refused to sell when he discovered that it would be used as one of our offices. So we learned to keep our counsel and when I was commissioned to buy a house for one of our Departments—and I did nearly all of this part of the business—I took care to buy it for “a client” or some “friend of mine” who wanted “a nice residence in Dublin” or “good business offices”.’

Above: Michael Noyk—one of those who helped secure accommodation for Dáil offices.

In his memoirs O’Connor does not identify the owner from whom he purchased the house, but Eithne Lawless (later a Mercy nun), then Collins’s secretary, recalled that ‘it was Cosgrave that carried on the negotiations for acquiring the house. It had been a dentist’s house.’ Thom’s Directory for 1918 confirms that the house was occupied by a Samuel Weinstock, dental surgeon. (Indeed, Harcourt Street then seemed largely populated by dentists, doctors and small hotels.) Obviously, Batt O’Connor’s role was discreet; Collins’s staff were unaware of it. Mr Weinstock’s name suggests a Jewish connection—and, indeed, one of Collins’s most trusted ‘non-combatant’ lieutenants throughout this period was the Lithuanian-born Jewish solicitor Michael Noyk; according to Daithi O’Donoghue, secretary for the Dáil loan, Noyk was one of those who helped secure accommodation for the Dáil offices.

As for the funds themselves, in cash, cheques etc., the servants of the Dáil had to be extremely cautious in entrusting them to banks for fear that they would be seized by the Crown authorities, so considerable sums were kept, temporarily, on the premises. Batt O’Connor’s ingenuity was called on also for the task of concealing Collins’s papers—especially those relating to his other role as IRA Director of Intelligence:

‘When we had completed the purchase of no. 76 I went to Mick Collins. “Michael”, said I, “they raided no. 6 and it is within the bounds of possibility that they will spot and raid no. 76. How about putting in a hiding place for your papers?” He was pleased with the idea and I found a recess suitable for my purpose in a fitted-in wardrobe in one of the rooms. It was a simple job to partition off a portion of the wardrobe and, having made it accessible by a secret spring, to re-paper the whole while the general repapering and repainting was being done.’

Dáil proclaimed illegal

Collins and his staff moved into No. 76 in early September 1919, a few days before British authorities proclaimed the Dáil illegal. Soon they were under siege as the raids intensified and the finance ministry only lasted about two months in that location. Nevertheless, for a time No. 76 was used as a centre for Dáil administration and meetings of TDs in a semi-open manner. As well as Collins, the offices accommodated the home affairs minister, Austin Stack, and Richard Mulcahy, IRA chief-of-staff, as well as Diarmuid Ó hEigeartaigh, secretary of the Dáil, and Daithi O’Donoghue and Dan Donovan, who administered the Dáil loan. Collins occupied a front drawing room on an upper floor, with pre-planned access to the roof via a skylight and a ladder. His staff used the adjacent consulting and waiting rooms.

For correspondence discretion was essential. Collins and his Dáil associates avoided direct use of the office address. Instead, letters went to a number of convenient alternative addresses—including businesses in nearby Camden Street and St Stephen’s Green—from which they would be collected each day by secretaries or by Joe O’Reilly, Collins’s general factotum. Collins instructed that letters should not be addressed to a named person but to the ‘Aireacht’ (or ministry). Nevertheless, headed ‘Dáil Éireann’ notepaper was printed for Dáil purposes. Some of this fell into the hands of the Castle in a raid and was subsequently used by its intelligence service in forgeries to create confusion.

Above: 76/78 Harcourt Street today—currently occupied by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

On 19 November 1919 a police and military raid, under Inspector McFeely (who had previously failed to arrest Collins in the raid on 6 Harcourt Street and who seems to have had an ambivalent attitude towards his prey), forced Collins to make his dramatic escape via the rooftops and (suffering bruised ribs) down through the skylight of the Standard Hotel (at the corner of Clonmel Street). Several of the Dáil staff were arrested; thereafter, No. 76 was managed by caretaker Seán McCluskey and used by secretarial staff for a while, but its insecurity led to its abandonment. On 11 December it was again raided, and on 7 January 1920 it was sealed up by the police and a formal order prohibited use of the premises. Collins, through O’Connor, Noyk and his network, found alternative accommodation, initially at 5 Mespil Road and subsequently at various premises around the city, where he could conduct business in a more clandestine manner.

Legion of Mary hostel

The building remained in Dáil hands—Thom’s Directory in 1921 records it as ‘The Irish Club’. In 1922, after the establishment of the Free State, it was acquired by Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, for use as a women’s hostel. Duff, a civil servant in the Land Commission in 1922 and, shortly after that, in the Department of Finance, prevailed on W.T. Cosgrave to make the transfer. This refuge for ex-prostitutes was the first to be used by Duff and his collaborators in the Legion in the ‘clean-up’ of the city centre, particularly the ‘Monto’ red-light district between Amiens Street Station and O’Connell Street, closed down in police raids in 1925. Edel Quinn, the notable Legionary, supervised the hostel in the early 1930s.

The Sancta Maria hostel became a well-known landmark in Harcourt Street. In the early 1970s it was sold and, merged with the adjacent No. 78, was substantially demolished and completely rebuilt for modern office use. Just opposite the well-known night-spot ‘Copper-faced Jack’s’, it is currently occupied by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Frank Cogan is a retired Irish diplomat and current president of the Meath Archaeological and Historical Society.

FURTHER READING

R. Fanning, The Department of Finance, 1922–58 (Dublin, 1978).

F. Kennedy, Frank Duff, a life story (London, 2007).

K. McKenna, A Dáil girl’s revolutionary recollections (Dublin, 2014).

B. O’Connor, With Michael Collins in the fight for Irish independence (2nd edn, Aubane, 2004).

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