Baptism of Fire – Frank McNally on the Irish Free State’s incendiary origins
An Irishman’s Diary
Reader David Kennedy sent me an eye-witness account of the burning of the Custom House by his late father Paddy, aka Padraig O’Cinneide. Photograph: Getty Images
Prompted by the recent centenary of the burning of the Custom House, reader David Kennedy sent me an eye-witness account by his late father Paddy, aka Padraig O’Cinneide. Then a junior civil servant stationed in the building, O’Cinneide wrote the piece for the 1921 issue of The Belvederian, an annual publication of his old school, Bevedere College.
And for reasons we’ll come back to, he knew a bit more about the burning than he was at liberty to let on.
Here, however, he describes how the initial giddiness of staff, as they were ordered to grab their belongings and reassemble on the ground floor, gave way to astonishment at the armed takeover.
“At first the general inclination was to treat the matter with a certain amount of levity,” he wrote, “but the appearance of an apparently endless stream of tins of ‘Pratt’s Perfection No. 1’ carried rapidly from a waiting lorry outside through a passage kept open in the crowd soon induced a more serious view of […] affairs.”
Pratt’s Perfection No. 1 now sounds like something you might buy in a garden centre: a rose variety, perhaps, or a type of lawn seed. In fact, it was a brand of petrol, marketed by the Anglo-American Oil Company and used by the few hundred car owners Ireland had then (the Free State’s first roadside pump did not open until 1923, across the river Liffey, at Nassau Street).
“Occasionally a sharp order would ring out,” recalled O’Cinneide of the unfolding event, “and now and again in the distance could be heard the tinkle of breaking glass and the smashing of wood as presses and doors were burst open and their contents scattered around the floors to be liberally sprinkled with motor spirit.”
His account of that part of the raid was later fleshed out in a Military History Bureau statement by one the IRA commanders, Thomas Gregan: “I was supplied with a hammer to break all before me. There were three men told off for each department: one man with a gun and two men to take down all the books off the shelves and pile [them] on the middle of the floor […] When the whistle blew, we were to strike matches.”
But getting back to O’Cinneide, he was not quite as surprised by the attack as the rest of the staff. He had worked in London during the first World War, became involved in the Irish republican movement there, and met Michael Collins.
Transferred back to Ireland in 1918, he had also been based for a time in Dublin Castle, where he was one of Collins’s sources.
After moving to the Custom House, he was tipped off about the May 25th attack. The dangers of turning up for work that morning, suggests David, were outweighed by the bigger risk of taking the day off.
Historians still weep for the burned records, dating back centuries. And in general, posterity has decided that the event was a military disaster. Five IRA men and four civilians died in the shootout – O’Cinneide describes seeing one of the former, a youngster of about 18, being shot dead on the corner of Abbey Street – and 100 of the raiders were arrested.
But there is also a counter view, advanced notably by Liz Gillis in her book May 25: Burning of the Custom House, that the operation was a strategic success, crucial to bringing about the truce that followed in July. In any case, a new state rose from the ashes, as eventually did a restored Custom House. And in one of those quirks of history, the building would in 1947 accommodate the secretary of the then newly formed Department of Health, a certain Padraig O’Cinneide.
Despite the scarcity of cars on Irish roads in the early 1920s, the products of Anglo-American Oil were much in demand. According to a report by this newspaper in November 1922, the company was thirdhighest in the latest list of compensation claims, for malicious damage or loss of property, lodged with the Provisional Government: £1,071.
Its unwitting role as incendiary supplier to the revolution may or may not have been a factor in the decision to set up Irish operations – as the Irish-American Oil Company – in December. The Free State was only months old and still fragile.
But celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary in 1972, by then as part of Esso, the producers of the former Pratt’s Perfection boasted of the “massive” morale boost they had given the new Ireland by being “the first major company to be registered” here.