Burning of the Custom House
On 25 May 1921, during the Irish War of Independence, the Custom House in Dublin was occupied and then burnt in an operation by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The Custom House was the headquarters of the Local Government Board for Ireland, an agency of the British administration in Ireland, against which the IRA was fighting in the name of the self-proclaimed Irish Republic. The operation, involving over 100 IRA volunteers, was a propaganda coup for the republicans but a military disaster for the IRA in the Irish capital. A force of British Auxiliaries quickly arrived and a gun battle erupted. Five IRA volunteers were killed, along with three civilians, and about 80 volunteers were captured.
The Irish War of Independence was a guerrilla campaign by the IRA in support of the Irish Republic. The conflict entered its bloodiest phase in the first six months of 1921. In Dublin, a total of 309 people were killed in the conflict and several hundred more wounded.
Dublin was garrisoned by over 10,000 British troops and 1,600 police including 400 men of the RIC Auxiliary Division. Most IRA actions in the city consisted either of assassinations of selected police, military or administration figures by the Squad, or ambushes on British forces by one of the four Active Service Units of the IRA's Dublin Brigade (together comprising about 100 men). These were usually rapid and fleeting attacks using grenades and handguns, followed by a quick getaway. There were strict orders given to IRA units to avoid prolonged engagements with the better-armed British forces.
However, this policy was reversed after an Irish cabinet meeting in May 1921 where the President of the Republic, Éamon de Valera, called for a spectacular public show of force by the IRA, to reinforce the idea that it was an army representing an Irish government. For this reason it was decided to attack and burn the Custom House, which, although an important government building, was not defended by the British military. Michael Collins was against the attack but was overruled.
In the early afternoon of 25 May 1921, roughly 120 non-uniformed IRA Volunteers began to gather around the Custom House in groups of twos and threes. 75 percent of those involved belonged to the 2nd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade under Tom Ennis. Only a minority of them were experienced guerrilla fighters and they were armed only with pistols and a limited amount of ammunition. At 1pm, they rushed the Custom House and overpowered the police guard. A lorry pulled-up outside the building with tins of petrol and bales of cotton, which were then sprinkled throughout the building. The IRA Volunteers herded all the staff into the main hall. The caretaker of the building was shot dead when he tried to call the police.
However, at about 1:10pm, a watching policeman notified British forces and 60 Auxiliaries in three lorries and an armored car quickly arrived on the scene. IRA Volunteers from the 1st, 3rd and 4th battalions were positioned outside the building to stop the enemy from approaching. Four Auxiliaries were wounded in a gun battle with one of these IRA protection teams outside the building. Other Auxiliaries fired into the building with rifles and Lewis machine guns, exchanging fire with the IRA fighters inside. A number of IRA Volunteers and civilians were killed or wounded by the Auxiliaries. As fighting raged outside, IRA Volunteers inside the building were ordered to set it alight.
The ammunition of the IRA Volunteers quickly ran out and the firefight ended within 30 minutes. Some Volunteers were shot as they tried to run away. Tom Ennis, in command of the operation, escaped but was hit twice in the leg. Many others were arrested along with civilians as they came out of the now burning Custom House with their hands up. The Fire Brigade, which had been delayed from responding by other IRA companies in the city, arrived too late to put out the fire. British military forces composed of units from the Wiltshire Regiment arrived and took over the operation from the Auxiliaries at this point. A total of 111 people were arrested of whom 70–80 were IRA members.
The Custom House burned for five days and was all but completely destroyed by the fire. With it were destroyed many centuries of local government records. The Irish Bulletin, official gazette of the Irish Republic, reported:
A detachment of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Army was ordered to carry out the destruction of the Custom House in accordance with a decision arrived at after due deliberation of the ministry of Dáil Éireann. We in common with the rest of the nation regret the destruction of historical buildings. But the lives of four million people are a more cherished charge than any architectural masterpiece. The Custom House was the seat of an alien tyranny.
From the republican point of view, the operation was successful for its propaganda value, but it was a heavy blow in terms of the numbers lost, both killed and arrested. Following the operation, the Dublin Brigade and The Squad were amalgamated into the Dublin Guard. However, the operation did not disable totally the IRA's campaign in Dublin. The Dublin Brigade carried out 107 attacks in the city in May and 93 in June, showing a fall-off but not a dramatic one.
The armed conflict was brought to an end on 11 July 1921 and negotiations were opened which would produce the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December of that year. The Custom House was re-built after the end of the war.
Irish local government records from the 1600s had been brought from rural parts of Ireland to the Custom House for safekeeping, and these were lost in the blaze. As the time, the New York Times sub-titled their report on the fire as "Priceless Records Lost". Some genealogists still lament the loss of these historical records.
- Today in Irish History - The Burning of the Custom House - The Irish Story
- Eunan O'Halpin, "Counting Terror", in, David Fitzpatrick Ed., Terror in Ireland 1916-1923. p152
- Sheehan, William. Fighting for Dublin, The British battle for Dublin 1919-1921. p125
- Dwyer, T Ryle. The Squad and the Intelligence Operations of Michael Collins. pp240-244
- Dwyer, pp.244-248
- Sheehan, p53
- Hopkinson, Michael. The Irish War of Independence. p102
- Colley, Sen. H., (1957) BMH file WS 1687, page 74.
- "Irish Custom House Is Reduced To Ashes; Fire Continues Despite Rain, Leaving Only Walls Standing Of Once Beautiful Structure. Priceless Records Lost". New York Times. 27 May 1921.
- "Lost historical sources". markhumphrys.com. Mark Humphrys. Retrieved 2 April 2019.