Burning of the Custom House: ‘From the ruins would rise a free country’

Event to mark the centenary of the fire hears from relatives of those who died

The burning of Custom House in May 1921 signalled to the world that Dublin would “no longer be an impoverished city in a global empire”, a commemoration ceremony has heard.

Speaking from the grounds of the building a century after it was set alight, Minister for Heritage Darragh O’Brien said few moments in Ireland’s history of defiance stood out as vividly as the “audacious assault on the Custom House”.

The Custom House was the administrative heart of the British civil service in Ireland, holding all local government records, including tax files for Ireland. Plans to set it alight had been in train for three months prior to May 25th, when IRA volunteers stormed the central hall.

Mr O’Brien, who laid a wreath on behalf of the Government, noted the “high sacrifice” paid by the Dublin Fire Brigade, which offered crucial information to the IRA volunteers and the civilians who were caught in the crossfire.


“The city sky was lit up by the inferno for days afterwards. However, from the smouldering ruins would rise a free country,” he said.

The flames sent a signal to the world that Dublin would “become a capital of an independent republic”, Mr O’Brien said. “The independent project embarked upon a century ago has had many stumbles, but the people of Ireland can now take pride in the peace and prosperity achieved,” he added.

Four civilians

Pauline Moynihan, whose cousin John Byrne was killed in the crossfire when cycling past, paid tribute to the four civilians who died during the assault on the building.

Byrne’s family history was like many others at the time, with members from “both sides of the tide”, she said. His granduncle was one of the first British soldiers to be awarded a Victoria Cross in India in 1858, while his cousin became an active IRA volunteer during the War of Independence.

“With that tradition of soldiery it is a sad irony that John Byrne, a civilian, was the one person in my family to die in conflict,” she said. Ms Moynihan urged people to respect the past and to cherish and safeguard the “wonderful peace” Ireland now enjoyed.

In the years following the attack the building was restored “brick by brick” to revive it as the “jewel in the architectural crown of our city”, Mr O’Brien said.

“It stands today as a testament to the beauty of our capital and as a solemn reminder of the heavy toll freedom can ask of us.”

A redeveloped visitor centre will open at the Custom House in September that will tell the building’s long history. The Department of Heritage will also examine how the grounds can be opened up for members of the public to enjoy, Mr O’Brien said, adding that he was “certain” such a step could be achieved this year.

The grounds and courtyard of the historic building, which houses the Department of Heritage, are encircled by railings, and access is through a security barrier.

“It’s a small piece of green in Dublin; it would be nice to be able to have people come in here to enjoy it,” Mr O’Brien said.

Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan is an Irish Times reporter