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Captain Michael Dunne, one of the dead of Knocknagoshel

Laois Local Studies > Articles > Captain Michael Dunne, one of the dead of Knocknagoshel

Mick Dunne, Tom Flood & Vinny Byrne

by Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Residence

On the 6th of March 1923 a party of Free State soldiers were lured out of Tralee to their deaths in a booby trap explosion near the village of Knocknagoshel. The vicious retribution their comrades went on to visit upon the enemy guerrillas is well-known to this day. They say the victors write the history books but with the exception of a particularly photogenic Clonakilty man the dead of the Civil War’s pro-Treaty side have little place in public memory (though this is perhaps beginning to change). This article tells something of the story of one of the dead of Knocknagoshel, Captain Michael ‘Mick’ Dunne, who, appropriately, had Laois connections via his father.   

Tenements and Trams

Michael Dunne was born on the 14th of December 1897 in Queen’s Square, which is now Pearse Square, opening out onto what is now Pearse Street, all on the southern shores of the river Liffey.  The 1901 census lists over 50 houses there – most broken up into one or two room tenements and a few not.  His father John’s occupation was listed in the birth record as labourer (there was no entry place for mother’s occupation in these records).

In the 1901 Census the family are recorded on the other side of the river in Great Britain Street (now Parnell Street) – with a new addition, a baby sister for Michael, named Elizabeth, and a new occupation for John – electrical fitter. This seems to be the opening of a phase of social mobility for the family. Michael Dunne will also be employed as a fitter, working for the Tramway Company at Ballsbridge. Skilled workers, white collar workers, and the lower-strata of the professions tended to be well-represented in the ranks of the I.R.A. so Dunne in this respect was not that unusual.   

John Dunne’s Homeplace?

In the 1901 census John Dunne gave his place of birth as the Queen’s County (present day Laois), while Michael’s mother Catherine was from Meath.

Dunne household in 1901 Census

As John was then 36 I searched for birth registrations circa 1864 to try to find his Laois homeplace. The 1901 census was carried out on the 31st of March 1901, so assuming John’s age was recorded accurately he had to be born between the 1st April 1864 and the 30th of March 1865 to make him 36 at the time of the census. The problem is there were several John Dunnes born in Laois in that time-frame. Earlier I incorrectly fixated on one from near Portarlington but the dates are actually wrong for it to be him. One from the townland of Camira Glebe to the north-west of Mountmellick now seems most likely to me, but the very slim evidence singling him out is only that the father of this John was named Michael and there is some probability that the grandson was named after the grandfather.  If he was a descendant of the Camira Glebe Dunnes then his ancestors were smallholders — joint tenants of 12 acres on the Kemmis estate —  that is to say those 12 acres were shared between three different families of Dunnes, likely an extended family.  

In the Active Service Unit

From 1918 onwards Mick Dunne was in the 1st Battalion of the Dublin Brigade, I.R.A., and then was in Number 1 Company of the Dublin Brigade’s Active Service Unit from its founding in December 1920 – within that formation he held an officer’s role.  The Active Service Unit was divided into 4 companies each based on battalions 1 through to 4 of the Dublin Brigade. In the urban context the sharp point of guerrilla action was more in the way of sudden attacks with grenade and revolver before disappearing back into the cover provided by the concrete jungle —different from the better-known image of the countryside ambush. Charles Walker’s statement to the Bureau of Military History recounts Dunne’s involvement in one such attack on a military lorry at North Frederick Street. Quite a brave action as by Walker’s account they only had five rounds for each revolver held by each Volunteer.  

Dunne was involved in the burning of the Custom House on the 25th of May 1921 – coolly escaping captivity by talking his way past the Auxiliaries. After the heavy amount of prisoners taken on that day the Active Service Unit was re-formed by merging the survivors with The Squad – which was the Dublin-based assassination team of the G.H.Q.. This new amalgamation was named The Guard – later renamed Dublin Guard when it became the first unit of the new National Army. On the 1st of February 1922 the Dublin Guard left their training camp in Celbridge for a march from the Gough monument in the Phoenix Park to take-over Beggars Bush on Haddington Road, marching past a review by prominent politicians of the Provisional Government at Dublin City Hall. One wonders what Field Marshal Hugh Gough would have made of it all. He was commander of British forces in the First Opium War and the First and Second Anglo-Sikh Wars to name but a few of his many campaigns.

The Guards, Irish Republican Army, Beggars Bush, 1922

The parade was a major media event, for instance filmed by British Pathé, and was a very significant symbolic moment in the founding of the new state. Interestingly, given the framing and terminology of posterity which often puts these men outside of republican tradition, they were actually at this juncture still being described as the Irish Republican Army.   

A Cruel Aftermath

The Dublin Guard went on to be involved in notorious atrocities in the Civil War – particularly those in retaliation for the deaths of Captain Michael Dunne and his comrades at Knocknagoshel, County Kerry, on the 6th of March 1923.  By this stage though the original Dublin Guard cohort were mostly found at officer level and mass recruiting had diluted the old I.R.A. core. Dissent and ructions within the National Army reaching a head in March 1924 made a further severing from the ambience of the old days. 

What happened after Captain Michael Dunne’s death showed the precarious nature of the family’s social mobility – a rise into the ranks of the trades and then to having a son as an Army officer. His mother died in a hospice in Harold’s Cross late in 1924 – while she was briefly awarded a pension – Elizabeth, his sister, was not.  In the intervening period the remaining family (John Dunne had died sometime before) had to move home due to the loss of income – Elizabeth’s wages at the Savoy Chocolate Factory being particularly low (at least relative to a male wage packet). Whether there was a particularly gendered aspect to the parsimonious treatment of Elizabeth Dunne by the pensions board I don’t know enough about the pensions process to say – it would seem however, at the very least, this would be worth further inquiry.  Undoubtedly the military service pension files are destined to be important sources for understanding the dynamics of ordinary life after 1922.  


The Clock Is Still Going, Commemorating the Attack & Burning of the Dublin Custom House 25th May 1921 especially the pages on the 1st of February 1922 parade and on Michael Dunne the group behind the website were also generous with sharing relevant photographs.

The Military Archives Pension Files: W3D164 Michael Dunne and WC14 Michael Dunne.

Military Archives, Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement no. 266, Charles Walker.