Analysis: The IRA's destruction of the Custom House remains one of the most famous incidents of the War of Independence

By Thomas Tormey, UCD

On Wednesday May 25th 1921, members of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Republican Army set fire to the Custom House in the centre of the city. At roughly 12.53pm, a time chosen to take advantage of workers coming in and out for lunch, members of the specifically chosen groups of Volunteers entered the building, held up the staff at gunpoint, and simultaneously spread out through the complex. Many of the IRA men involved were carrying tins of paraffin. The various groups of Volunteers were divided up by the unit they belonged to so most were operating with men they knew.

The tactical plan had been authored by Oscar Traynor in conjunction with both the Dáil ministry (cabinet) and IRA general headquarters (GHQ). The original proposal had been a choice between attacking the HQ of the Auxilliaries at Beggars Bush and the Custom House. The choice of the latter highlights both the limited capabilities of the IRA and the importance of the republicans’ campaign against British civil administration.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Elaine Keogh looks back at the burning of the Custom House by the IRA in 1921

At 1.25 pm, as the incident was still in progress, two tenders (lorries) of Auxillaries drove along Beresford Place and made for the main entrance on the northern side of the building. There has been a great deal of speculation over the years as to why the Auxilliaries arrived. Many veterans of the IRA’s elite units blamed the ordinary battalion and company Volunteers, who had been spread along Beresford Place as a covering party, for opening fire on the passing tenders. Others blamed the Volunteers in the building for ignoring orders to keep the windows closed, as this resulted in smoke being visible from the street.

But, as British internal documents make clear, the Auxilliaries were responding to a call from the Dublin Metropolitan Police that the Custom House had been rushed by a group of men. The severing of the Custom House’s communications was given prominence in the accounts of the operation by senior IRA officers, but it was either ineffective or futile.

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From RTÉ Archives, 1978 interview with IRA Director of Intelligence Emmet Dalton about the burning of the Custom House in 1921.

As the Auxies arrived, Traynor was in conversation with another senior Dublin IRA man, Paddy O'Daly, at the main entrance. The conversation had begun at 1.22 pm and Traynor was concerned that the building was not yet on fire. His plan had laid down that the operation should only take 20 minutes. Traynor later claimed that this delay was due to the premature blowing of a whistle which had been chosen to indicate withdrawal in the original plan.

However, it does not seem that this was correct as several Volunteers who were inside the building only remembered hearing the whistle blast after they had heard some gunfire. It seems more likely that the plan was unrealistic to start with, although there may have been a slight delay caused by an incident in which the building's caretaker Frank Davis was shot dead for disobeying the IRA’s instructions.

From RTÉ News, archive video of the burning of the Custom House in 1921

The gunfire started as those on sentry duty and on Beresford Place opened fire on the Auxillaries as they arrived. Many of these Volunteers had to flee in haste as they were in the thick of the crossfire. Others such as the Southside elements of the active service unit withdrew slightly to Butt Bridge before keeping up a level of supressing fire on the Auxiliaries for some time.

Traynor and O'Daly found themselves being cut off by a tender of Auxililaries until a young Volunteer from Ballybough, Daniel Head, deposited a grenade into the vehicle, with predictably deleterious consequences for the occupants. The 17-year-old Northsider died himself in a hail of gunfire almost immediately afterwards. O’Daly remembered seeing Head just before the shooting started but had assumed that he was too young to be a Volunteer. Historian Padraig Yeates has correctly asserted that Head’s 'heroism provided valuable seconds that allowed other Volunteers to flee’. Traynor and O’Daly’s accounts concur with Yeates’ assessment of Head’s valour.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, historians Liz Gillis and Paul O'Brien discuss the Custom House attack, while Lorcan Clancy reports on the role of Dublin Fire Brigade in the operation

Volunteers escaped in any and every direction. The sentries at the door and the covering gunmen on Beresford Place scattered, with some heading for local shops. Traynor and O’Daly escaped this way. Those inside who had responded to the whistle blast were sent back to their assigned task in the building and most were eventually captured. One Volunteer, Patrick ‘Ninepence’ O’Connor, was guarding the back door of the building overlooking the Liffey and managed to avoid the attentions of a British armoured car on the quays in ducking his way out of the Custom House and across Beresford Place.

Others, including Seán Doyle, shot their way out, but died of his wounds in hospital some days later. He was the second of his family to die for the Republic: his brother Patrick had been executed in Mountjoy on March 14th 1921 and later became one of the 'Forgotten Ten'. Another set of brothers, Stephen and Paddy O’Reilly, both died in the Custom House fight. In later life, some Volunteers felt that an escape through the back entrance might have been possible, although Ninepence O’Connor’s experience suggests that they were mistaken.

Prisioners under guard after the attack on the Custom House in 1921. Photo: Independent News And Media/Getty Images

The British Army’s daily operations report lists 121 men as being arrested. Many of the captured expressed satisfaction that they had followed orders and remained in the building to complete the task of setting the fire. Some resistance was attempted but, with the building surrounded by Crown Forces, the remaining IRA men’s position became untenable. These men attempted to mingle with the staff whom they had detained, but they were soon identified.

The conflagration eventually gutted the Custom House and caused its famous copper dome to collapse. Three civilians and five IRA Volunteers died. They are commemorated today in the gardens of the building, meaning that the Custom House complex has the distinction of hosting a monument to those who once burnt it down.

Inside the Custom House after the fire. Photo: Walshe/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The destruction of the Custom House has remained one of the most famous incidents of the War of Independence. This has led to at least two contradictory myths building up around it. One myth, that has been pushed by Traynor amongst others, was that the furore caused by the burning of such a prominent building helped to convince British Prime Minister Lloyd George to open negotiations. There is simply no evidence to support this and the British were neither impressed nor intimidated by the destruction of an unguarded building.

Another myth is that the loss of men in the raid meant that the Dublin Brigade struggled to continue with their campaign. This is entirely untrue. The weeks that followed the incident saw the Dublin Brigade increase their levels of activity. It was this fact, part of a rising nationwide tide of minor incidents, that allowed the Volunteers to alter British thinking.

Dr Thomas Tormey is a Tutor in the School of History at UCD


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ