The Kevin Street Librarian and the Rising
Formally named as Byrne (the family later changed their surname to O'Byrne, a practice not uncommon at that time), James O'Byrne was from Lower Mayor Street in Dublin's North Wall area.
Young James was recruited to the city libraries as a 'boy' library assistant in 1913 and from that time was assigned to the Charleville Mall, North Strand library. He was 20 years old by Easter Week 1916.
Image: James O’Byrne, AKA James Byrne (1896 to 1947)
As he didn’t provide a witness statement to the Bureau of Military History owing to his untimely death in 1947, details of O'Byrne's Easter week activities are sparse. He was attached to the second Battalion, 'F' Company of the Irish Volunteers Dublin Brigade, a small company which was under the command of Captain Frank Henderson and 1st Lieutenant Oscar Traynor. O’Byrne attended Fr Matthew Park in Fairview on Thursday evenings for drilling and on Sundays for rifle practice. In Easter week, he was engaged in combat across a number of sites - at Fairview, the Metropole Hotel, Eason's, the GPO, Moore Street and Henry Place. After the surrender, he was arrested and interned first in Knutsford and later Frongoch Prison from where he was released in July 1916.
O'Byrne had been working since 1913 under well-known Gaelic Leaguer Patrick J. ('Paddy') Fennelly, Charleville Mall Head Librarian, who had been appointed there in 1907. According to local historian Hugo McGuinness, 'The IRB had infiltrated most of the GAA Clubs in the Fairview/Clontarf/North Dock area by 1910 and practically controlled the Gaelic language clubs'. Fennelly was clearly sympathetic to the Volunteers during the Rising. According to Volunteer Harry Colley, about midnight on Easter Monday, Fennelly, who lived in nearby Cadogan Road, brought him out tea and sandwiches to where he was manning a barricade at Fairview corner (now Edge’s corner), near Annesley Bridge.
As the Charleville Mall librarian was responsible for the management and staffing of the Clontarf public library - which was housed in the Clontarf Town Hall - both Fennelly and O’Byrne clearly also had a lot of direct contact with Mick McGinn, the Fenian caretaker of the Town Hall in the years leading up to the Rising. It would seem reasonable to speculate that this must have helped McGinn to provide a cover for the IRB Supreme Council meetings frequently held in the Town Hall, which played a key part in facilitating the planning of the Rising.
After the surrender, O’Byrne was arrested and interned first in Knutsford and later Frongoch Prison from where he was released 'about' 21 July 1916.
He rejoined his company following his release from Frongoch and was subsequently active in the War of Independence, where he was engaged in armed patrols, raids for arms and was mobilised for the attempted rescue of Kevin Barry. By 1923, O'Byrne had to resign his library job in order to join the National Army, rising to the rank of Captain. After some time he was finally reinstated in his library job after his demobilisation in 1924, and went on to become Head Librarian at Kevin Street library by 1946.
Tragically, he collapsed and died at his place of work on 13 November 1947, aged only 51 years. He never married.
About our Guest Blogger
Evelyn Conway is Librarian at Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive.
The above is based on an essay in the book 'Dublin City Council and the 1916 Rising', published by Dublin City Council, March 2016. Evelyn is one of a number of contributors of essays exploring events of the Rising and biographies of persons involved and either employed by the Council at the time, or subsequently. Read this recent blog post for more.
Part of a series looking at Dublin City Public Libraries staff and the 1916 Rising. See also:
- Tommy Gay: The Capel Street Librarian and the 1916 Rising
- Róisin Walsh: Dublin City’s first Chief Librarian and the Rising
- Paddy Stephenson: Dublin City Council's second Chief Librarian and the Rising
- James Thomas Dowling: Dublin's County Librarian and the Rising
- The Clontarf Town Hall Caretaker and the Rising