On May 25th 1921 around lunch time the IRA launched their most grandiose attack of the War of Independence, the taking of the Custom House Dublin. The carefully planned attack was months in the making, carefully crafted to serve two main purposes, to attack the second most important centre of British administration in Ireland and to attract the attention of the international media. The attack was successful on both accounts, but it was also counterproductive on many accounts too.
Second to Dublin Castle the Custom House was the most important centre of British administration in Ireland. The strike at it was chosen over the taking of Beggar’s Bush Barracks, the Auxiliary Police Headquarters, because it was there were too many armed police, and a full scale battle would surely ensue. The Custom House was easier to take and there was a much lesser chance of instant bloodshed.
A few months earlier the at the home of the late The O’Rahilly, who died during the Easter Rising, in 40 Herbert Park a special meeting was called by senior IRA figures. In attendance were Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, Cathal Brugha, Austin Stack, Richard Mulcahy, Liam Mellows, Piaras Béaslaí and the Commander of the IRA’s Dublin brigade, Oscar Traynor. Eamon de Valera, who had just returned from America, where he had made an impression on the Irish diaspora there, was determined to create a sensational attack to force the British side in further negotiations and attract international attention to the Irish campaign for freedom.
In the early afternoon of May 25th 1921, more than a hundred plain clothed IRA members gathered about the Custom House waiting for the signal to carry out orders. Many of the assembly were, passionate and enthusiastic but they were also young, inexperienced and unarmed and not fully equipped to carry out the task at hand. The limited ammunition was consigned to small group who were more experienced in guerrilla warfare.
Under the command of Tom Ennis, they entered the Custom House and overpowered the guards, while outside a lorry complete with all the necessary equipment to set the great building alight. In the chaos the caretaker was killed while he tried to raise the alarm. But word got out anyway, and within minutes the British forces arrived. A gun battle, that was hoped to have been avoided ensued. The IRA didn’t stand a chance with the better equipped British Military. Nine lives were lost including a boy of seventeen, who had joined the IRA. Mass arrests were made, depleting the Irish side of troops and valuable ammunition. The whole operation was not considered a Republican success, however it did achieve attracting the attention of the international media.
The Custom House burned for ten days in total, helped on by the fact that many of the Dublin Fire Brigade sided with that of the Republicans and many were members, who purposely delayed quenching the fire. There was also a sort of victory in the destruction of a sizable amount of the documents of the British administration in Ireland, almost all of the rest would go up in flames when the Four Courts were burned a year later.
MAY 25: Burning of the Custom House 192, Kilmainham Tales, Liz Gillis
Freeman’s Journal 28 May 1921
Freeman’s Journal 26 May 1921