METICULOUS PLANNING. DETAILED CHOREOGRAPHY. AND NO PLAN B

A hundred years ago, the IRA destroyed one of Dublin's most iconic buildings, in a strike at British rule in Ireland.

The chance to score a global propaganda coup proved too great to ignore. But a failure, or refusal, to face up to the military implications of a daylight raid, in a city crawling with heavily armed, highly mobile, and battle-ready troops and police, meant the Custom House raid could only end in disaster for the IRA in Dublin.

A GATHERING. AND A DECISION.

When any of the men gathered in the stuffy front room of 40 Herbert Park that afternoon looked around them, it must have occurred to them that if the British raided the premises, the War of Independence would be, to all intents and purposes, over.

Because the men gathered there were the brains of the war.

The Commander of the IRA's Dublin brigade, Oscar Traynor, recalled later that those with him in that room were:

Éamon de Valera

Cathal Brugha

Austin Stack

Richard Mulcahy

Dermot O'Hegarty

Michael Collins

Gearóid O'Sullivan

Liam Mellows

Seán Russell

JJ O'Connell

Seán Mac Mahon

Piaras Béaslaí.

Image - Sinn Féin President Eamon De Valera; for months he had wanted the IRA to mount a Spectacular. Credit: Alamy

Sinn Féin President Eamon De Valera; for months he had wanted the IRA to mount a Spectacular. Credit: Alamy

For these men, gathering like that was a major gamble, so something big was afoot.

Sinn Féin President Éamon de Valera was throwing down the gauntlet to the IRA leadership.

Since de Valera had returned from America at the end of 1920, there had been serious tension in the leadership about the conduct of the war. He had wasted no time upon his return, in questioning the impact of the guerilla nature of the war being waged.

De Valera believed that international attention on the War of Independence would be a major incentive to the British to seek a settlement.

The Republican movement's Directors of Publicity, Desmond FitzGerald and then Erskine Childers, worked to keep the Irish story on the world's front pages. Particular attention was paid to briefing the newspapers in America, and in the English-speaking dominions like Canada, South Africa, and Australia.

At the peak of its operations, the Publicity Bureau was sending regular bulletins out to 650 different publications across the world, to the UK, Continental Europe, the US and the Commonwealth.

The British knew that the coverage of the war was damaging their standing in the world and giving dangerous encouragement to nationalist movements around the world, especially in India.The need to get Britain's conduct in Ireland off the world's front pages was as much the motivation for peace feelers, as a desire to sort out the Irish Question.

Image - Before the storm: The Custom House, as it would have looked on the morning of 25 May 1921. Credit: South Dublin County Libraries

Before the storm: The Custom House, as it would have looked on the morning of 25 May 1921. Credit: South Dublin County Libraries

Éamon de Valera believed that to keep the focus of the world's newspapers on Ireland, the conduct of the war needed to change.

De Valera told IRA Director of Intelligence Michael Collins, and the Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy that the clandestine way the war was being fought was doing nothing to advance the Republican cause internationally. What was needed, he said, was more open warfare:

"What we want is one good battle once a month, with about 500 men on each side".

De Valera wanted the IRA to mount one "spectacular" in Dublin, to show to the world that there was an armed struggle to assert Irish independence, and that the Republican cause had the wherewithal to engage the British out in the open.

He wanted a step-change, he wanted the IRA to contemplate an operation multiple times larger than anything it had attempted to date, bigger even than the Bloody Sunday assassinations. He wanted the world to see how serious a claim the IRA was making, to be considered a war-fighting army.

He looked around the room that afternoon, and called for ideas.

Image - A painting of the fire as seen from the quay across the Liffey. Painted by Archibald McGoogan, 1921. Credit: Dublin Fire Brigade.

A painting of the fire as seen from the quay across the Liffey. Painted by Archibald McGoogan, 1921. Credit: Dublin Fire Brigade.


CHOOSING A TARGET

From that meeting, two options emerged.

The Beggar's Bush Barracks was the headquarters of the Auxiliary Police. It was considered as a target for an all-out attack. Then it was dropped from consideration, as it would have meant an immediate full-scale battle out in the open, against potentially hundreds of well-armed policemen.

The Custom House was the other target considered. It was one of Dublin's finest buildings, designed by the architect James Gandon, in the golden age of Georgian architecture in the late 18th century.

This was not the first time the building had been considered as a target. Three years earlier, during the campaign against the introduction of Conscription in Ireland, Dick McKee, Officer Commanding the IRA Brigade in Dublin, had suggested attacking it.

By the 1920s, the building was at the heart of the administration of Ireland. Inside were: The offices of The Inland revenue, Local Government, Estate Duty register, Company Stock Register, and Wills Office.

It had no military guard, despite the regular pleadings of senior Civil Servants.

De Valera's calculation was that destroying this building would inflict a loss to the British Exchequer, of two million pounds (Over €100 million in today's money) as well as destroying the records of British administration in Ireland.

The officers assigned to plan the operation estimated that to enter the building, take control of it, then burn every document inside, would take 120 men, then more men for keeping watch outside, and yet more to take over the city fire stations for long enough to prevent firefighters reaching the blaze too soon.

It is reported that de Valera believed that even were the entire contingent of volunteers carrying out the raid to be lost, it would be worth the cost, if the building's contents were successfully burned.

This really was an operation far beyond anything the IRA had yet attempted. An operation that would expose handfuls of lightly armed IRA Volunteers in the open, in broad daylight, with all the risk of confrontation with police and troops that this would mean.

In contemplating the attack on the Custom House, at a remove of a hundred years, two images dominate.

The burning building, smoke and flame pouring from every window; and the long lines of IRA men, disarmed, helpless, hapless, hands high in the air, surrounded by heavily armed police and soldiers.

Its that last image (even if at least one of the most famous photographs looks posed) that has informed the view that the operation was a farce.

Yet what is usually forgotten is that on the way to that outcome, the preparations were meticulous, the planning detailed. In that sense, de Valera's demand that the IRA step up and show itself capable of waging war, of conceiving and executing a massive daylight raid on an iconic target, was actually met.

The IRA leadership made a conscious, informed tactical choice about how the operation would be mounted, deliberately turning down offers of alternate plans made by men assigned to the operation, who had a bad feeling about what would happen if it all went wrong. The flaw in the plan chosen was that it depended on split-second timing, and an inordinate amount of luck. There was no contingency plan to fall back on, no escape plan. When things started to go wrong, they went very wrong, very quickly.


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THE PLAN

120 volunteers were detailed from the Dublin Brigade's 2nd Battalion, to carry out the raid. More were deployed outside, as scouts and guards.

It would happen at lunchtime, with many of the staff away from the building, and the surrounding streets crowded.

Michael Collins's Squad was detailed to overpower the police guard and gather the staff in the corridors near the doors, while the other volunteers fanned out inside, pouring paraffin and setting alight to wooden filing cabinets, and piles of records and documents.

In truth, apart from Michael Collins's Squad, and the Dublin Active Service Unit, many of the rest were untested in combat, and with only a few rounds of ammunition each for their pistols. They had enough ammunition to make civilians and a few unarmed policemen do as they were told, but not enough ammunition to shoot their way out of trouble. The orders were not to fire unless fired upon. The plan relied for its success on taking over the building and destroying its contents, without alerting the police or military. A drawn-out gun battle was not feasible, given the large numbers of civilians in the area.

The plan allowed for 25 minutes to get the burning underway, and then leave the building, using the crowds of civil servants fleeing the blaze, as cover.

Those standing guard outside were also lightly armed, pistols, no rifles. There was logic to this, as a key part of the plan to get the job done without clashing with security forces, was that IRA scouts all around the building would not attract attention in the lunchtime crowds in the surrounding streets.

The problem with all this thinking, was that nowhere in the city was more than a few minutes' drive from large police stations or military barracks. This was always one of the reasons large-scale operations like this were up to then (and afterwards) considered too dangerous to be mounted in the capital.

One of the auxiliary bases, the London and North-Western Hotel, was almost literally in sight of the Custom House, less than a quarter of a mile away down the quays.

There were thousands of troops and police officers, including RIC, Black and Tans and auxiliaries in the city.

They were heavily armed, mobile, battle-ready.

By contrast, there were never more than under a thousand active volunteers in the city.

Image - IRA Volunteers captured after the burning. Credit: Spaarnestad Photo

IRA Volunteers captured after the burning. Credit: Spaarnestad Photo


LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

The Custom House was one of the largest buildings in the city, with a complex layout of offices on different floors.

RESPONSE

Over several days, Oscar Traynor and others, holding fake official correspondence, walked through the building, asking directions, noting the layout, and location of important offices. Floor plans were sourced in the National Library and studied.

FUELLING THE FIRE: PREPARATIONS

An operation this size needed resources greater than anything the IRA had ever attempted. Massive amounts of accelerants - paraffin, petrol, and oil - would be needed to set the blaze, and let it spread too fast to be brought under control.

RESPONSE

In the weeks before the raid, horse-drawn fuel tankers were hijacked, and their contents drained and stored. When this did not yield enough accelerants, the British Petroleum yard in Dublin was raided.

The accelerants would need transporting to the target in heavy vehicles, that could move through the city without attracting attention.

RESPONSE

It was decided that stealing and hiding heavy trucks in the days before the raid would be too difficult. Instead, on the morning of the raid, the trucks needed were seized, and their drivers 'induced' to co-operate.

To delay the inevitable armed response, telephone communications between the Custom House and the outside world, especially Dublin Castle, would need to be cut, just before the raid began.

RESPONSE

Volunteers from the IRA's engineering unit posed as telephone company workers, and in broad daylight, cut the wires.

Sources inside the telephone company warned the IRA that they believed there was a secret hotline from the Custom House to the castle, but that so far they had not been able to trace it. It was finally discovered, and cut, by a telephone technician who climbed a pole outside Store Street police station, the night before the raid.

Fire stations across the city would have to be simultaneously seized. In addition to the fire brigade headquarters station at Tara Street, five full-time stations across the city were to be taken over just before the raid was scheduled to begin, and no engines allowed depart for 30 minutes.

Image - The Custom House as the flames took hold. Credit: Getty Images.

The Custom House as the flames took hold. Credit: Getty Images.

THE DOUBTERS

Despite the extensive preparations, some of those detailed to take part in the raid were asking searching questions of the leadership, about fallback plans in the event of confrontation with police and army units, that would inevitably be drawn to the Custom House at some stage in the operation.

Volunteer Harry Colley asked Oscar Traynor why the streets around the Custom House were not to be barricaded. He was told that Michael Collins had vetoed Traynor's specific plans to do this, as this would turn the operation into more of a general uprising, than the lightning raid that was envisaged.

Officer Padraig O'Connor expressed concern about how close to the Custom House the scouts would be, so that the police and military would be outside the doors in minutes, once they were alerted. He asked that men be placed in firing positions on the railway bridge, so that they could fire down on any approaching forces. He was told to forget it, the aim was to be in, finished, and gone, without firing a shot.

Every single element would have to go off without a hitch.

Image - Police firing into the Custom House. Some of the civilians lying prone in the background may have already been hit; at least four died in the crossfire. Credit: Alamy.

Police firing into the Custom House. Some of the civilians lying prone in the background may have already been hit; at least four died in the crossfire. Credit: Alamy.


THE BURNING

The raid began at 1pm on 25 May. Dozens of volunteers entered the building, some carrying axes to smash down doors, some with cans of paraffin and bales of cotton waste. Staff found themselves confronted by armed men, who ordered them to collect personal property, and get out of the building.

The alarm was raised when a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police saw the unusual activity outside the main entrance to the building, and alerted the authorities.

Civil Servant Daniel McAleese gave graphic testimony later, about the scene inside the Custom House, as staff and members of the public were gathered in the halls:

"The crowd was a mixed one male and female. Everybody was frightened and nobody knew what was happening outside as the exit was barred. Occasional reports of rifle or revolver fire could be heard and some of the womenfolk became very restive.

"The position inside worsened quickly as smoke from the upper rooms began to billow downstairs. The upper rooms were now heavily on fire and as the thickened smoke descended to our congested quarters in the corridor, the atmosphere became almost unbearable. There were shouts and screams to open the door.

"At this stage there was heavy machine gun and rifle fire outside. The crowd inside now became panicky; hysteria raged. Caught between smoke and fire inside and incessant gunfire outside, the crowd kept clamouring to get outside. As the smoke and fumes became almost overpowering, the volunteers tried to quieten the people, telling them that all would be well and that they would shortly be allowed to leave. This advice was of little avail as the smoke drenched downstairs in an unending column, accompanied by the crackling of burning woodwork".

The paper-thin contingency plan folded fast.

Three or four truckloads of auxiliaries had arrived outside the building, armoured cars fired machine guns at the exit, volunteers inside fired back, but with so little ammunition, the lightly armed volunteer scout positions were brushed aside, and after a brief firefight, 70 IRA volunteers were taken prisoner, along with a huge haul of weapons.

Five volunteers were killed, and at least four civilians, caught in the crossfire. Four auxiliaries were wounded.

The scene that greeted the civil servants pouring out of the building, hands in the air, summed up exactly why such 'spectaculars' as this had never been contemplated before:

Truckloads of auxiliaries, Black and Tans, soldiers, armoured cars, machine guns, all summoned within minutes from the barracks and stations all around the city. Kneeling, standing, lying, guns pointed at the Custom House entrance.

As people emerged from the burning building, the police had a problem; who was IRA, and who was civil servant?. The volunteers had dressed that day to be inconspicuous in and around the Custom House; they were described as varying in appearance from 'working class' to 'smart looking' and 'clean-shaven'.

So, the police assumed everyone was a volunteer, until proved otherwise.

Everybody who came out of the building was detained. Senior civil servants had to come forward and identify their colleagues. As more and more civil servants were identified, the more obvious were the volunteers inside the cordon, nearly 100 IRA volunteers were arrested out of the crowd.

Image - Men escaping from the building are challenged by troops; are they civilians or Volunteers? Credit: South Dublin County Libraries.

Men escaping from the building are challenged by troops; are they civilians or Volunteers? Credit: South Dublin County Libraries.

Image - The aftermath: troops and the body of one of the Volunteers killed during the attempted breakout. Credit: Getty images.

The aftermath: troops and the body of one of the Volunteers killed during the attempted breakout. Credit: Getty images.

Image - The first units of the Dublin Fire Brigade arriving as the blaze takes hold of the building. Credit: Michael Ward.

The first units of the Dublin Fire Brigade arriving as the blaze takes hold of the building. Credit: Michael Ward.

AN INSIDE JOB?

As the fire took hold of the Custom House, the army and police at the scene noticed something odd about the behaviour of the Dublin Fire Brigade.

It was bad enough that they had been prevented from leaving their stations by armed men, for 30 crucial minutes.

Now, arriving at the blazing building, and deploying their equipment, they seemed to go about the job with hesitancy. One auxiliary remonstrated without effect, with a fireman whose hose was playing water steadily but uselessly onto the footpath just short of the burning building.

A fire of that size would have given the Fire Chief John Myers the authority to call in reinforcements from the outlying brigades in the city, from the large employers like Guinness, even from the army's own firefighting units. He called none of them into action.

Dublin Fire Brigade had been thoroughly infiltrated by the IRA, some were active volunteers, some were sympathisers.

Fire Brigade Historian Las Fallon has written that members of the Dublin Fire Brigade entered the burning building, keeping everyone else out, and when they discovered the fires had yet to take hold in parts of the Custom House, took unused paraffin and petrol left behind by the volunteers, and began soaking the surviving offices with accelerants. The flames followed soon after.

This would explain why fires kept breaking out in the ruins, even in the days after the attack. It's reported that eventually the army had to order its own firefighters in, to douse the last embers.

Image - The interior, destroyed in the fire, then soaked in water. Credit: Getty Images.

The interior, destroyed in the fire, then soaked in water. Credit: Getty Images.

Image - A civil servant retrieves files from the destroyed building. Credit: Getty Images.

A civil servant retrieves files from the destroyed building. Credit: Getty Images.


PROPAGANDA

The propaganda effect was undeniable. It made front pages around the world, just what de Valera was hoping for.

And that is about where the 'good news' ended.

THE EFFECT

In terms of actual hinderance to the running of the administration, local government officials claimed afterwards the destruction barely affected their work. One senior civil servant, Sir Henry Robinson, said most of the documents destroyed were of historical value "only". He said that by 10am the next morning, all the departments were back at work, in other buildings.

Was there any effect on British resolve?

None. Apart from bafflement at both the target and the timing. In his diary for that evening, Mark Sturgis, one of the top civil servants in Dublin Castle, summed up the British response:

"On all sides we are told Sinn Féin wants peace ... yet how can this make settlement anything but more difficult, and it is difficult enough already … peace or no peace, to burn the finest building in one's own capital city simply because the hated Saxon uses it as a government office, and as an anti-British stunt seems sheer lunacy".

It has been claimed that the burning of the Custom House brought the British to the negotiating table. It did not. The British were headed to the negotiating table on a set timetable already, driven by a growing acceptance - long before the Custom House raid - that the war was unwinnable except at an exorbitant cost, and the knowledge that within weeks, Northern Ireland would be an established fact, and that negotiations with Sinn Féin could begin.

The ceasefire and truce were announced just six weeks after the burning.

Image - The gutted interior. In some places, the temperature of the fires reached 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Credit: Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and OPW.

The gutted interior. In some places, the temperature of the fires reached 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Credit: Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and OPW.

Image - Much of the stunning Georgian interior was lost forever. Credit: Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and OPW

Much of the stunning Georgian interior was lost forever. Credit: Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and OPW

Image - Steel and iron melted, stone calcified and crushed, timber incinerated. Credit: Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and OPW.

Steel and iron melted, stone calcified and crushed, timber incinerated. Credit: Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and OPW.

Image - The remains of the dome. Credit: Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and OPW.

The remains of the dome. Credit: Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and OPW.

THE COST

In the destruction of one of the finest buildings in the country, nothing of any military value was accomplished - at the cost of most of the Dublin IRA's capacity to continue waging war. The IRA Chief of Staff, Richard Mulcahy, had always maintained that to maintain a credible challenge to British rule in Ireland, it needed to be strong in the capital. Now the Dublin IRA had, at one stroke, been so decimated that Michael Collins had to amalgamate the handful of men left in the squad and the Dublin Active Service Unit.

Many of the weapons carried by the volunteers were either discarded in the attempt to escape or captured after the gun battle. Weapons that could not be easily replaced. The losses in men and weapons would have been even greater, had not the Fire Brigade smuggled both men and guns out of the gutted building, and through the security cordon.

To judge by the testimonies of Dublin IRA veterans to the Bureau of Military History decades later, the reaction of the surviving volunteers ranged from despondency at the losses in men and weapons, to defiance and a determination that at least the appearance of continuity be maintained.

Keeping up appearances was about as much as the IRA in Dublin could achieve, given their losses.

The military cost of the operation must have weighed heavily on Mulcahy and Collins. Collins was increasingly alarmed at the growing success of the British counter-intelligence operation against his operation in Dublin. Did the IRA leadership regard the British offer of a truce as a last-minute reprieve, and therefore not to be rejected? Would they have advised rejecting the terms of the truce, had the IRA's capacity in Dublin not been so reduced?

Image - From the ashes 1: The Custom House reborn, 1926-1929. Credit @Arch_Archive/ Irish Architectural Archive.

From the ashes 1: The Custom House reborn, 1926-1929. Credit @Arch_Archive/ Irish Architectural Archive.

Image - From the ashes 2: The new interior. Credit @Arch_Archive/ Irish Architectural Archive.

From the ashes 2: The new interior. Credit @Arch_Archive/ Irish Architectural Archive.

POSTSCRIPT: THE CUSTOM HOUSE REBORN

With the Civil Service relocated, and attention soon moving on to the ending of the war just a few weeks later, the ruins of the Custom House stood lamented, if not quite forgotten.

The building was as thoroughly destroyed as if it had been bombed from the air. Temperatures during the fire reached 2000 degrees Fahrenheit in some places. The roof and dome were gone, and the remains of the magnificent Georgian interior were open to the elements.

Luckily for the nation's heritage, that state of affairs did not last long. Along with the even more devastated Four Courts, the fledgling Free State saw restoration of the Custom House as a declaration of intent to the outside world. Given the demands on the new government, an estimate of the cost of rebuilding, put at over £1 million (£45m or €52m in today's money), called for some very hard thinking.

To put that million-pound estimate into perspective, these figures might help:

Amount of money the Free State agreed to pay to Britain in settlement of the new State's share of the UK National Debt: £5 million over 60 years.

Amount of money raised by the government to fund itself by public subscription through the National Loan, floated in December 1923: £10 million (Oversubscribed by £200,000).

TJ Byrne, OPW Architect, is credited with persuading the government of William Cosgrave, that the building should be restored, and that by hiring direct labour instead of going to contractors, he could cut costs. He also oversaw the salvaging and re-use of a quarter of a million bricks. Much of the actual building work was done by men recently demobilised from the National Army.

TJ Byrne's promise came good, the final bill came to half a million pounds. The building reopened in 1930.


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Special report: Looking back at the burning of the Custom House