By Liam Smith
Standing proudly by the banks of the River Liffey is one of the finest works of architecture in Dublin City; the Custom House. This magnificent creation, brainchild of the celebrated English architect, James Gandon, has dominated the north bank of the Liffey since its opening over two-hundred and thirty years ago.
Although responsible for many of Dublin’s finest buildings, notably, the Four Courts and Kings Inn, it was to be the Custom House – inspired by the grandeur of Parisian buildings that graced the banks of the Seine – that would become Gandon’s crowning glory. With a total length of 325 ft and width of 205ft, this magnificent edifice has now become one of Dublin’s most elegant landmarks.
Completed in 1791, ten years after work first began; the Custom House bears all the hallmarks of an age when architecture was sublime. Adorning the Doric portico are statues by Agustino Carlioni, and Ireland’s greatest sculptor, Edward Smyth, whilst the Tympanum bears representations of Hibernia and Britannia holding emblems of peace and plenty.
These magnificent statues are accompanied by a statue of Neptune banishing famine and despair. Fourteen keystones along the front of the building are decorated with masks representing the Atlantic Ocean, the River Liffey, and twelve other principal rivers of Ireland. Crowning this architectural gem is the central dome that rises to a height of one-hundred and twenty-five feet, topped with the statue of commerce.
Although the Custom House stands in tranquillity by the banks of the River Liffey, twice during a period spanning nearly forty years, it encountered moments when its very existence was threatened. In August, 1883, a major fire which raged for three days engulfed the whole of the interior of the building, destroying merchandise stored within. The destruction of wine, whiskey, sugar, and oil, amounting to a total value of over half-a-million pounds so greatly affected hundreds of traders in the city of Dublin, many were sent into financial ruin.
This fire which was to rage for three days before finally being brought under control, left the interior of the Custom House intensely damaged, however, the design and structure skills employed by James Gandon ensured that the outer structure was to remain intact.
In 1921, just thirty eight years after the destructive blaze of 1883, the Custom House was to be engaged in an incident that would not only threaten the fabric of the building once again, but would also send the name of Gandon’s mighty edifice reverberating around the world. It was in May, 1921, during the War of Independence, that the Custom House was to play a most dramatic role in Ireland’s fight for independence.
For several months high ranking leaders of the Irish Republican Army had been considering staging a spectacular military operation that would capture the imagination of the world. Several proposals were put forward, including a daring attack on Beggars Bush barracks, the Dublin headquarters of the Auxiliary division of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
After much deliberation this operation was deemed too difficult and near impossible to execute, so an alternative suggestion by Eamon de Valera was put forward and agreed upon – the destruction of the Custom House.
At the time the building not only housed the administration of both the Local Government Board and the Inland Revenue Department, but also several other British administration departments. To the British authorities it was not considered an important enough building to be guarded; however, to the I.R.A. it was a symbol of British oppression and deemed a worthy target.
The enormity of the task that lay ahead took a combined strength of five Battalions of the Dublin I.R.A.. With detailed plans of both the structure and interior of the building obtained by two reconnaissance Volunteers, Liam O’Doherty and Thomas Ennis, the Irish Republican Army prepared to embark on a mission that was to become one of their most spectacular assaults on British administration in Ireland.
Meanwhile, while the planning of the attack went underway, Sir Henry Robinson, chairman of the Local Government Board, heard rumours that an attack on the Custom House was being considered. His request for a military or police guard to be placed on it was turned down by the Intelligence Service at Dublin Castle, even though they had known for some time that the I.R.A. were preparing for a spectacular coup, and discounted an attack on the Custom House as merely a bluff.
However, just after midday on May 26th, 1921, British Intelligence was taken completely by surprise. Whilst fire stations in the Dublin area were taken at gunpoint and occupied by members of the 3rd and 4th Battalions, Dublin I.R.A., one-hundred and twenty Volunteers led by Oscar Traynor stormed the Custom House.
With telephone wires cut, severing links with the Custom House and the outside world, administration staff were ushered into stone passages on the ground floor before the rebel force began the task of destroying the mighty building. Cotton bales soaked in paraffin, alongside every kind of combustible material available, ensured the Custom House quickly became a blazing inferno.
While the attack was going on, a Dublin Metropolitan Policeman was cycling by and heard that the I.R.A. was raiding the building. Cycling at a furious pace to reach Dublin Castle, he informed Black and Tans in the castle yard of the assault. Within five minutes of hearing the news, Black and Tans arrived at Custom House Quay, engaging and dispersing Volunteer pickets outside the Custom House.
Inside, the volunteers having completed their task were about to leave the blazing building when the sound of gunfire could be heard outside. The Tans having dispersed the pickets outside, turned their guns towards the building itself. On opening the iron doors to leave the building, the volunteers were met by a hail of gunfire from the Black and Tans. Trapped inside the burning inferno were 120 volunteers and their prisoners.
By then the Custom House was engulfed in flames, and with passages filling with smoke, many of the young volunteers began to panic, screaming and shouting at their commanders to get them out.
Their anguish was soon over when Black and Tans stormed the building. In the mayhem several dozen volunteers broke through and escaped – the rest of them surrendered. Sorting out the clerks and officials from the volunteers was no easy task for the military, with many Volunteers claiming to be members of the Local Government Board. All were lined up outside and the assistant secretary of the board identified the clerks and officials.
After the assault on the Custom House the building burned for a week. The inside of the building was completely gutted and the central dome in a state of near collapse. Valuable records of government administration in Ireland and historical documents were destroyed in the attack. The Dublin Brigade of the I.R.A. had achieved a famous victory but the price was high, losing five men, many wounded and eighty prisoners.
The Black and Tan casualty list amounted to four wounded. The assistant secretary of the board who had identified the I.R.A. prisoners was next day informed by Dublin Castle that the I.R.A. had put a price on his head and for his own safety, was advised to leave Ireland. Taking the Castle’s advice, he immediately gave up his appointment, sold his house and left for England, never to return.
The attack on the Custom House was a serious blow to British administration in Ireland, and within seven weeks this was reflected when a Truce was negotiated between the British and the I.R.A. This Truce was to be a lifesaver for one of the captured volunteers who took part in the Custom House operation – Thomas Flood.
After his capture he was charged with treason and committed to stand trial. Fortunately for Flood the enforcement of the Truce came on the eve of his trial, and subsequently he was spared the death sentence his brother Frank had endured three months earlier in Mountjoy Jail.
After the signing of the Treaty and the establishment of the Irish Free State, the newly formed Irish Government restored the Custom House to its former glory, and made it the headquarters of the Irish Revenue Commissioners.
Today, one-hundred years on, James Gandon’s majestic Custom House, now stands in peaceful tranquillity by the River Liffey, and a permanent reminder of that eventful day in May, 1921, when the name of Gandon’s glorious creation echoed around the world.