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The Burning of the Custom House was one of the landmark events in the War of Independence - here's what happened

It’s 100 years since the IRA attacked the administrative heart of the British civil service in Ireland.

Archibald McGoogan's painting of the burning of the Custom House.
Archibald McGoogan's painting of the burning of the Custom House.
Image: Dublin Fire Brigade

BY MAY 1921, the Irish War of Independence had been raging for nearly two and a half years. The IRA had suffered significant losses, many Volunteers were in prison and the British had executed a number of IRA men.

However, despite these losses, the IRA continued the fight and showed they were not beaten. Although there was talk of peace, neither side was backing down, no one knew if and when the conflict would end.

The Custom House was the last symbol of British civil administration in Ireland. After Dublin Castle, it was the most important building in Ireland. It housed many government departments including, most importantly, the Department of Local Government.

The Custom House was always in the sights of the IRA. As early as 1918, in response to the threat of conscription, Dick McKee, Officer Commanding (O/C) of the Dublin Brigade, suggested they attack the building.

McKee again put forward his plan to IRA General Headquarters (GHQ) in early 1920 but GHQ had a much bigger operation in mind – to destroy the local tax offices around the country. These attacks were successfully carried out on the night of 3 April 1920, thus leaving the only copies of the Income Tax records in one place; the Custom House. It was not a matter of if the Custom House would be attacked, but when.

Dev returns

Sinn Féin leader Éamon de Valera returned from his fundraising tour in America in December 1920. He had seen how the international press was portraying events in Ireland.

At a meeting of the Army Council, De Valera “made it clear that something in the nature of a big action in Dublin was necessary in order to bring public opinion abroad to bear on the question of Ireland’s case”.

Two possible targets were suggested: Beggars Bush Barracks or the Custom House – the administrative heart of the British Civil Service machine in Ireland. 

Oscar Traynor, O/C Dublin Brigade, suggested that they should attack the Custom House. It held all local government records, including all the tax files for Ireland. If the operation was a success, “its destruction would reduce the most important branch of British Civil Government in Ireland to virtual impotence and would, in addition, inflict on her a financial loss of about two million pounds”.

Three months was spent planning the operation. It would involve sections of all of the battalions of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA. Surveillance was carried out easily. By simply carrying official looking envelopes, Traynor was able to walk freely through the building. Plans came from a friendly contact in the Board of Works.

Intelligence also came from a number of IRA men who worked in the building, including Harry Colley.

the-custom-house-river-liffey-dublin-ireland The Custom House in modern times. Source: The Irish Image Collection

Colley noted that for the operation to be any way successful, they needed to destroy the Will Room, which was on the ground floor in the middle of the building, under the dome, as “this was the only combustible part of the building capable of forming a large fire”.

Tom Ennis, O/C 2nd Battalion, was in charge of the operation. His men would carry out the assault inside assisted by members of the Squad and Active Service Unit (ASU), with men from the other Battalions providing cover.

Traynor planned to erect barricades near the military barracks to delay any troops that might arrive. It was estimated that at least 120 men would be needed for the attack, but as new research has shown, close to 300 men and a number of women were involved.

Michael Collins, at that time the IRA head of intelligence, did not favour Traynor’s plan to isolate the barracks or the amount of men required as he feared they could be lost.

A compromise was reached; Volunteers would be on duty in the immediate vicinity of the Custom House. It has been stated that De Valera commented “…that if these 120 men were lost and the job accomplished, the sacrifice would be well justified”.

The Dublin Fire Brigade, whose members included both IRA and ICA, were vital in
 providing information on the best way to burn such a large building. The operation was to last 25 minutes. Each man would have six rounds of ammunition.

Occupied 

On the morning of 25 May, the Volunteers met at specified locations across Dublin. At 12.55pm, Ennis and his men, with some members of the Squad and ASU, entered the building, each carrying tins of paraffin. The other battalions including the ASU took up positions in the surrounding area and occupied the fire stations around the city.

As the Volunteers entered the building, the 5th Battalion cut the communications from the Custom House. The Volunteers gathered the staff and brought them to the Central Hall to be supervised by the ASU and the Squad. Once the rooms were cleared they prepared to set them alight.

When all the rooms were ready, Ennis, with one whistle blast would signal that the rooms were to be fired. Once done, two whistle blasts would indicate the completion of the job and evacuation. Daniel McAleese, an employee in the Custom House, later recalled:

Several young men passed us carrying tins of petrol. One of the leaders announced that the Custom House was being set on fire and warned us against causing any commotion.

However word did get to the military that the Custom House was being attacked and a party of troops was dispatched. The Volunteers had been told that they were not to open fire first. Some Volunteers, surprised at seeing the military, opened fire as the troops came by Liberty Hall.

When they heard the shots; the men inside returned fire. In the confusion of the blast a whistle was heard, yet not all of the rooms were ready. The men were ordered to finish their task, causing a delay of a few minutes, but the building was set alight.

Panic 

As the fire began to take hold, panic set in amongst the crowd. Worried civilians phoned the city’s fire stations. All calls were answered and the people were reassured that help was on the way. But no help was coming; the fire stations were in the hands of the IRA.

With every round of ammunition spent, the order to evacuate was given. They were ordered to dump arms and mix in with the crowd. The majority did this; others decided to take their chance and try to escape.

Traynor and Captain Paddy Daly were observing the situation outside when they came under fire from the Auxiliaries who were in one of the military lorries. Seeing his Commanding Officers in danger, Volunteer Dan Head threw a bomb at the lorry. A number of Auxiliaries were wounded. His actions gave Traynor and Daly the opportunity to make their escape. However, Head was shot and killed. He was 17 years old.

Ennis was the last to leave the burning building. He made a dash from a side gate to a laneway opposite. He was hit twice, but managed to get to safety. Those who had mixed with the staff were gathered outside. Each staff member was identified and led away; those left were searched by the military and questioned.

Against a backdrop of the Custom House engulfed in fire, those who were in custody were taken away. Most were brought to Arbour Hill, others were taken to Mountjoy Gaol and Dublin Castle, as IRA man Christopher Fitzsimons remembered:

We were segregated on the quayside and taken to Dublin Castle. We were interrogated at the Castle for three days and suffered pretty severe handling from the Auxiliaries.

After some weeks the majority were transferred to Kilmainham Gaol.

Despite their losses – five dead and over 100 captured, and many guns lost – in the
 days and weeks that followed, the Dublin Brigade carried on the fight.

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suspects-being-searched-in-dublin-ireland-in-1920-during-the-irish-war-of-independence-aka-anglo-irish-war-from-story-of-twenty-five-years-published-1935 Suspects being searched in Dublin during the War of Independence in 1920. Source: Ken Welsh

International impact

News of the day’s events raced around the world, focusing, as De Valera intended, international attention on what was happening in Ireland.

Thousands of records essential for running the country were lost. The success of destroying such documents was not just down to the IRA but also the Dublin Fire Brigade. It was their task to try to save the building. However they did the complete opposite. Michael Rogers, fireman and IRA man, recalled in an interview with the Irish Press that on entering the building, he and others had the building at their mercy and actually spread the fire throughout the building. The Custom House burned for days.

Sadly nine people died – five volunteers and four civilians. It was never the intention that anyone should die that day. They were Volunteers Edward Dorins; Dan Head; the brothers Patrick and Stephen O’Reilly; and Sean Doyle, who was fatally wounded. The civilians killed were John Byrne; James Connolly; Francis Davis, housekeeper in the Custom House; and Mahon Lawless.

Later, many claims were made that the operation was a disaster and the IRA had been wiped out, that is not the case.

The aim of this operation was to bring international attention on Ireland. That happened. It was carried out to make Ireland ungovernable. That was achieved. Most importantly, the IRA were not decimated – the 2nd Battalion was most affected due to those arrested, but the other battalions were still up to strength.

Despite losing some guns, the IRA adapted their tactics very quickly and continued the war, thus calling the bluff of the British government, and within weeks negotiations to end hostilities had begun. 

Liz Gillis is an author and historian. She is hosting a series of talks as part of events to mark the centenary of the burning of the Custom House and you can find details here

About the author:

Liz Gillis

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