Pádraig Thornton (b. 1936), his wife Anne (née Tobin) (b. 1939), and her nephew Brian Hand (grandson of Liam Tobin)
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Pádraig Thornton (b. 1936), his wife Anne (née Tobin) (b. 1939), and her nephew Brian Hand (grandson of Liam Tobin)


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Frank Thornton was Captain, 26th Battalion of the Old IRA and was active during the revolutionary period. Pádraig Thornton initially recalls his childhood days when his father Frank was away from home during the Emergency years. The Thornton family came from Drogheda, and Frank moved to Liverpool to a job as a ship-building painter prior to 1916. He was already a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and his role was to help in setting up a cell in England. He was captain, under the name of Proinsias Ó Draighneáin, of a group which came to Dublin in 1916. He was known as ‘Drennan’ to the British services in his role as double agent. Pádraig discusses the Fenian tradition in his father’s family. He had two uncles, Hugh and Patrick, who were also active in the Troubles and were shot as young men, and their sister, Nora, was a member of Cumann na mBan. Pádraig has her medal in his possession. As a child he recalls visiting Cork with his father to meet Tom Barry and he also remembers meeting Seán Lemass and Éamon de Valera. He recalls his father’s meetings with his English army counterpart at the Wicklow Hotel, when they would chat about old times. This hotel was an important meeting place for the insurgents of 1916. Pádraig explains that as a child he often heard his father and old comrades speaking about times past, but much of the detail he cannot now recall. However, an ambush which had to be cancelled due to the presence of a woman with a pram is recalled, as is a story about a group who went to London to gather intelligence with a view to killing the Prime Minister. Brian Hand provides more detail about this story. Brian explains that members of the Irish diaspora returned to help with the Rising in 1916. They did not have the language tradition but were steeped in Fenianism, he says. Pádraig recalls that his father had very little Irish but he would say that one did not have to speak the language to be a patriot. Liam Tobin is recalled by his grandson Brian. He was born in Cork and grew up at the family farm at Clolefin near Mitchelstown, and later in Kilkenny city, before the family moved to Dublin when Liam was 13. His father, David, worked in the carpet department at Clerys. There were three children in the family, Kitty, Nick and Liam. Nick Tobin was shot in his early 20s. Anne Thornton (née Tobin) does not remember any talk about the Rising at home, explaining that her father, Liam Tobin, was very private person and people who wanted to discuss that period with him were turned away. He worked as an intelligence officer, though he had not been educated to a high level in comparison to the highly educated men on the British side. Brian discusses the correspondence between Liam and his mother. It is understood that Liam joined the Irish Volunteers at a time when much militarism prevailed in Dublin, and it is known that he would turn up with other young men to disrupt military recruitment meetings. A photograph taken at Liam’s wedding in the late 1920s, when Frank Thornton was best man, is discussed. The meeting of Liam Tobin and Frank Thornton is described. Anne’s older sister Máire was Frank’s god-daughter. Liam Tobin was in prison until July 1918. He had been held in solitary confinement, and Brian explains that his health was not good at this time. He was later connected to GHQ. A legitimate cover had to be found for the IRA intelligence men who were travelling around the country, it is Brian’s opinion that the New Ireland Assurance Company was set up to provide that cover. Pádraig discusses the founding of the insurance company. Brian explains that both Frank and Liam worked for Michael Collins’s Squad. His three lieutenants were Tom Cullen, Frank Thornton and Liam Tobin. The men worked out of an office in Crow Street and Liam was Deputy Director of Intelligence. Their work was solely in intelligence, particularly in attempting to turn the staff at Dublin Castle so that they became agents. Tom Cullen died in a drowning accident in 1926. The British knew Frank Thornton as ‘Drennan’, Pádraig explains. He remembers his father telling him that at one time while working as a double agent, his instructions were to “get Thornton and Tobin”! He describes the time when his father was ambushed and shot while on a mission for Michael Collins. He survived but his health was affected. He remembers his father as an extrovert but Liam Tobin as an extremely quiet man. Brian and Pádraig examine some old photographs and Brian talks about the photograph taken at the wedding of Tom Barry in 1919, which shows both Michael Collins and Liam Tobin ducking their heads, while Frank Thornton shows his face. Anne shares her memories of her father, Liam Tobin, from the mid 1940s. He was not in good health and he died when she was in her early 20s. Anne’s mother was Mona Higgins who was born in Dublin. Her father’s character was strong and disciplined, she says. She remembers a priest who organised retreats at Milltown each Easter with a view to bringing the two opposing sides together, and she says her father was involved with getting the men to this retreat. After Collins’s death, Liam took no active part in the Civil War though he supported the Treaty, Brian explains. He worked with Leo Henderson, who was on the opposing side of the political divide, to set up Cumann na nGaedheal in the early 1930s. They hoped to bring together the pre-Treaty IRA for the 15th anniversary of the Rising in 1931. Pádraig remarks that after the ambush Frank Thornton was medically unfit, but was also disinclined to take sides. He was happy to get both sides to attend the opening of a monument to Michael Collins. As far as Pádraig is aware he never joined a political party. Brian explains that Liam Tobin did join Fianna Fáil, though he had been a Major-General in the Free State Army. Seán Lemass was a hero in Frank Thornton’s eyes because he was trying to move Ireland forward economically, whereas De Valera was seen as stopping economic progress. Frank was General Manager of the New Ireland Assurance Company and Pádraig recalls his travels around the country. Brian reads aloud a list of the names of those who attended the first meeting of the New Ireland Assurance Society and Pádraig explains how the agency operated. M. W. O’Reilly had been an agent for an English insurance company and had a large book of clients, and when he came on board the company started off with many customers. Pádraig worked with the New Ireland Assurance Company in the Personnel Department until after his father’s death. Frank Thornton was in prison with Michael Collins, De Valera and others but never spoke of it when Pádraig was a child. Brian recalls the discovery of Liam Tobin’s letters from prison and a postcard he sent in which he described his terrible experiences there. He was the third person to be court-martialled and sentenced to death, and Brian discusses the countermanding of the death sentences by Lloyd George. Liam’s sentence was commuted to ten years’ hard labour. Brian also discusses the ill-treatment of the rebel prisoners at the Rotunda Gardens after the surrender in 1916 by a certain British officer. This man would be shot by Liam Tobin and Frank Thornton during the War of Independence in 1920. Pádraig recalls seeing his father wearing his miniature medals on ceremonial occasions and marching with his Old IRA group. A uniform was made for Pádraig when he was about 5 years old. Brian explains the possible reasons why Liam did not make a witness statement. Later he did talk to Geoffrey Hand but he died before a taped interview could be made. Frank did give a Radio Éireann interview, a copy of which Pádraig has on vinyl. Brian discusses an incident when Liam apparently was asked to go through the Department of Defence files of the outgoing Cumann na nGaedheal government in 1932, though it is unknown whether or not this occurred. Anne talks about her childhood memories and Brian reads from a statement made by Nora Thornton in which she describes the period after the surrender in Dublin in 1916. There were three brothers and two sisters in the Thornton family. Frank was the only one who married and Pádraig is an only child. Pádraig explains his attitude towards his father’s story and stresses the importance of keeping it alive. Anne recalls her wedding day in 1961, and says that her father Liam was very unwell at the time, and attended the reception with his doctor. Patrick McCartan, who died when she was about 8 years old, was Anne’s godfather and a member of the IRB. She remembers staying in the McCartan home and seeing the election posters when McCartan stood as a Presidential candidate. Brian discusses the connections between the 1913 Lockout and the buildings occupied in 1916. Frank Thornton is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery and his son describes the military involvement at his funeral.

Additional information



Audio series:

The 1916 Rising Oral History Collections


128 kbps

Download time limit:

48 hours

File size(s):

63.75 MB

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Frank Thornton (1st Interviewee’s father) and Liam Tobin (2nd Interviewee’s father / 3rd Interviewee’s grandfather)

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