He was the teenage rebel who became the last man standing from Michael Collins's squad. In this extract from the Dictionary of Irish Biography, Lawrence William White and Pauric J. Dempsey tell his story.
Vincent Byrne ('Vinnie') (1900–92), revolutionary and soldier, was born 23 November 1900 in the national maternity hospital, Holles Street, Dublin, the elder among one son and one daughter of Vincent Byrne, carpenter, of 33 Denzille Street (latterly Fenian Street), and his wife Margaret (née White).
By 1911 the family were living with maternal relatives at 1 Anne's Lane. Educated at St Andrew's national school, Westland Row, he was apprenticed as a cabinet maker under Thomas Weafer, a company captain in the Irish Volunteers, who was subsequently killed in the Easter Rising.
Aged 14, Byrne joined the Irish Volunteers in January 1915, and was posted to Weafer's E Coy, 2nd Battallion, Dublin Brigade, Weafer vouching for his reliability notwithstanding his youth. His training included lectures on street fighting by James Connolly.
A teenage fighter in the 1916 Rising
During the 1916 rising he served with the 2nd Battallion in Jacob's biscuit factory under Thomas MacDonagh. At the surrender he was slipped out a factory window to safety by a priest who was acting as an intermediary.
Arrested in his home a week later, he was held in Richmond barracks with other youngsters, all of whom were released after an additional week. Active in the post-rising reorganisation of the Dublin Brigade, he claimed to have voted twenty times for Sinn Féin candidates in the 1918 general election.
In November 1919 Byrne was recruited to an elite counter-intelligence squad of the Dublin Brigade, whose primary mission was the assassination of plainclothes detectives of the DMP's political (‘G’) division. He participated in the attempted ambush of the lord lieutenant, John French, at Ashtown, Co. Dublin on 19 December 1919, a combined operation of the Dublin and the 3rd Tipperary brigades.
In March 1920 he left his civilian employment with the Irish Woodworkers, Crow St., when the squad was constituted as a full-time, paid, GHQ guard, under direct orders from Michael Collins. Dubbed ‘the twelve apostles’, the squad also included James Slattery, a workmate of Byrne since their apprenticeships.
For the duration of the Anglo–Irish war, Byrne took part in the stakeouts and killings of police detectives and military intelligence agents; his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History recounts his participation in some fifteen such operations.
On ‘Bloody Sunday’ he commanded an IRA detail that killed two of the ‘Cairo Gang’ agents in their boarding house at 38 Upper Mount Street (21 November 1920). He took part in the Custom House raid (25 May 1921).
Owing largely to his devoted allegiance to Collins, he supported the Anglo–Irish treaty of December 1921, regarding it as a stepping stone to complete independence. Enlisting in the national army, he served in the Dublin Guards; promoted five times from January 1922 to February 1923, he rose in rank from company sergeant to commandant.
Changing of the guard
He was OC of the guard at the handover of Dublin Castle from British to Irish authority (16 January 1922). During ensuing months he commanded guard details at government buildings and the Bank of Ireland, College Green. He foiled an attempt by anti-treaty forces to seize the bank with the aid of mutinous soldiers within the building's guard (March 1922); having displayed courage and presence of mind throughout the incident, he was promoted captain in the field.
Resenting the role given to ex-British-army officers in the national army, and feeling that the political elite of the Free State were betraying the national interest, he was among the group of officers involved in the failed army mutiny of 1924, and accordingly was forced to resign his commission (21 March). He then worked as a carpenter on the industrial staff of the OPW, and in the post office stores, St John's Rd, Kilmainham, Dublin, until his retirement.
Byrne was a founding member of both the Association of Dublin Brigades and the 1916–21 Club. Long lived, and a willing raconteur with a colourful turn of phrase, he became probably the best known of Collins's squad (of which he was the last surviving member), granting many interviews to journalists and historians.
He expressed no misgivings about his role as a revolutionary hit man, arguing the necessity of the ruthless methods employed, which deterred potential informers, and eventually won the struggle by crippling British intelligence.
He lived in Dublin at 59 Blessington St., and later at 227 Errigal Rd, Drimnagh. His last address was 25 Lein Rd, Artane. His wife Eileen predeceased him. He died 13 December 1992, survived by two daughters and one son.
The Dictionary of Irish Biography is Ireland's national biographical dictionary. Devised, researched, written and edited under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy, its online edition covers nearly 11,000 lives. Read more about Dictionary of Irish Biography
SOURCESGRO (birth, death certs.); 1911 census, www.census.nationalarchives.ie; Charles Dalton, With the Dublin brigade (1917–1921) (1929); Vincent Byrne, witness statement (NAI, Bureau of Military History, WS 423); Michael Hopkinson, Green against green: the Irish civil war (1988); Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins: a biography (1990); John P. Duggan, A history of the Irish army (1991); Thomas J. Morrissey, A man called Hughes: the life and times of Seamus Hughes 1881–1943 (1991), 183–5; Ir. Independent, Ir. Press, Ir. Times, 14 Dec. 1992; Michael Hopkinson, The Irish war of independence (2002); Francis Costello, The Irish revolution and its aftermath 1916–1923: years of revolt (2003); Robert Kee, Ireland: a history (2003 ed.)