The war in Ireland had reached its terminal stage. Throughout the country, though primarily in Cork, Dublin and parts of Ulster, the death toll had remained consistent, then skyrocketed. The electoral process that the British hoped would point the way towards a political solution was a failure before it had even been implemented. It must have seemed to many observers, inside and outside of Ireland, that the maelstrom of conflict had no visible endpoint, especially with the IRA in a position where they had been able to withstand British counter-moves, and continue to hit back whenever they could.
Such perceptions belied the increasingly fraught situation engulfing the IRA, it’s leadership and the political wing of the Republic. The IRA was hard-pressed in many areas, far more than it had ever been. British counter-offensives had increased the number of Volunteers dead, wounded or imprisoned, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain supplies of arms or men in the field: it followed then that it was also increasingly difficult to initiate successful ambushes of the scale that was required.
And then there was the divide at the top. We have already noted that the returning de Valera had expressed a preference for larger-scale operations, that bordered on the activities of a regular army. In January GHQ had successfully killed the idea, but later in the year de Valera returned to it in full force. He wanted “a smashing blow”, the kind of high-impact, high-publicity operation that would mark the Republic out as a sovereign entity with its own army capable of taking the Crown Forces on at their own game, and perhaps there was also an element, certainly in the way that GHQ acquiesced, in wanting to make that smashing blow before the IRA were incapable of it. A number of significant targets were considered and discounted, among them Beggars Bush barracks, that would simply have been too difficult to capture owing to its physical infrastructure and actual garrison. Instead, it was decided to focus on the less well-guarded civil administration of the British government.
The target was to be the Custom House, located then, as it is now, on Dublin’s Custom House Quay, on the north bank of the River Liffey. Built over a decade in the late 18th century, the grand Georgian style building had served as the main facility for levying customs duties on shipping using Dublin port. However, in the near 130 years that had passed from its opening to 1921, the building had become somewhat obsolete for its intended purpose, as the city expanded and port services moved eastwards. As such, by 1921 it instead was chosen to house the the Irish Local Government Board, the arm of Dublin Castle that liaised with local authorities in Ireland as appropriate, as well as the Inland Revenue. This made the Custom House a vital building to the functioning of the British administration in Ireland – it would have held numerous records related to duties, taxation and business registration – though perhaps not as vital as some made it out to be: while undoubtedly an important and, given the nature of the physical building, imposing symbol of British authority, it was crucially unguarded by regular military forces at the time of the attack.
And the idea of hitting the Custom House was not a new one: it had actually been raided the previous August by a few Volunteers of the Dublin Brigade, apparently seeking to capture the arms of its limited military guard, a task in which they failed, either because the guard in the building had turned out to be larger than expected or because the guardroom had been moved without the IRA realising: accounts differ. Since then the guard had been withdrawn, though other defensive measures, like sandbagged entrances and a policy of locked doors in the interior, had been implemented. Planning for a larger raid on the Custom House had been taking place for a few months.
The 1921 raid was to be different to the 1920 version. This was to be an operation that would involve men and units from the entire Dublin Brigade, all five battalions, as well as elements of “the Squad”, internal divisions or not. The total number of Volunteers engaged would later be estimated at over 120 men, making the Custom House attack one of the largest operations of the entire war. The 2nd Battalion, whose Commandant, Tom Ennis, is recognised as the overall commander (though Oscar Traynor did most of the planning), would do the actual raiding, their job to neutralise the guards, secure the building and its inhabitants, and then set fires with stolen paraffin throughout the interior, with the overall aim of gutting the structure. Meanwhile the other battalions would cover the approaches to the building, do their best to intervene with the responses of emergency services, most especially nearby fire brigades, and sever communications between the Custom House and the rest of Dublin. In terms of both the approach to the building, and the withdrawal afterwards, it was intended to use the cover of civilians, and what was easily predicted to be a chaotic, confused state of affairs after the building was set alight.
The last part was to be the critical one in terms of evaluating the operation’s overall success: while there was a decent amount of thought put into the larger plan of temporarily capturing the building, destroying it and making sure no-one could interfere, not enough was put into making sure the men involved could get away safely. It was not a small consideration: aside from the regular RIC, major detachments of the Auxiliaries could be expected to respond to what was happening within minutes, and British regulars would not be all that far behind. Much depended on how fast the IRA could secure the building and set the required fires, with Traynor planning for just 25 minutes. A grander plan to enact ambushes in other part of Dublin and to barricade streets was nixed by Collins, who thought such things would cause the British to react like a repeat of 1916 was happening. Collins also prevented certain intelligence officers from getting involved, fearful, rightfully, that they would be heading into disaster. The plan was not one that he supported, doubtful of both its point and its planner.
After a final briefing and assembly on the morning of the 25th May, the force set off. At first, things went generally to plan. The IRA moved towards the Custom House in small groups, many disguised as workmen. At the appointed time, the limited guard on the outside of the building was rushed and subdued. The building was entered and, at gunpoint, staff corralled into an interior square. One civilian, a caretaker who resisted, was shot dead.
From there, things went wrong. The lorry with the stolen paraffin found its intended route blocked by a locked gate, so had to divert to a different entrance into the Custom House, arriving ten minutes behind schedule. While Volunteers rushed to assemble the materials for their fires, two whistle blasts were heard from two floors, the pre-arranged signal for Volunteers to evacuate the building. Sounded apparently by accident, they caused a few more minutes of delay and confusion, to the extent that members of the Squad, supposed to stick to the perimeter, were sent into the Custom House to make sure the fires had been properly prepped.
The IRA took too long. Traynor had been worried about the Custom House contacting Dublin Castle by telegraph wire, and had taken special steps to make sure this would not happen, but some signal may have gotten through. He also reckoned without over-enthusiastic sentries. They opened fire on a routine patrol of Auxiliaries, who responded and then suddenly arrived into Beresford Place, to the north of the Custom House itself. It has also been claimed that a policeman in the area was able to notify the Castle once he realised what was happening. Battalion men and Squad members on the outside of the building, and a few at windows on the inside, opened fire and the Auxiliaries fired back. For the first time since 1916, a major sustained firefight was underway in the streets of Dublin.
The engagement did not last very long, but there were significant casualties on both sides. A Volunteer, who died in the process, was able to pitch a grenade into an Auxiliary lorry, wounding many of the enemy. Civilians in the area were caught in the crossfire, a situation exacerbated by the fact that the IRA were dressed in civilian clothing. IRA members were also both shooting and attempting to flee, before a cordon could be established. Those still inside the Custom House were faced with the choice of staying in cover but then being surrounded, or taking their chances outside. Those who took the latter course faced rifle and machine gun fire, with many hit. Among the wounded was Ennis, who died sometime later from two gunshot wounds to the lower body. The IRA suffered from a paucity of ammunition, as few had prepared themselves for an extended gun battle. But by bit, the Auxies advanced, with the advantage in firepower readily apparent.
By that time, the fires inside the building had been lit, and were already reaching an uncontrollable point. The civilian staff were released, and as they fled outside Volunteers attempted to mingle with them. For most, this was of no avail, as the Crown Forces had instituted a cordon, and everyone in the area was detained. Some, like Vinny Byrne, bluffed their way out, Byrne’s story of being a contracted carpenter helped by carpentry documents he had made sure would be on his person. The others were inevitably found out and arrested. Other Volunteers, more obviously identifiable, had thrown down their guns and surrendered.
Five Volunteers were dead, three wounded and an astonishing 83 had been captured, the vast majority of the overall force. Most of them came from the 2nd Battalion, the men who had been inside the building and then essentially trapped when everything started to go wrong. As a fighting force, it was largely finished. A huge portion of the Squad was also captured, though the British may not have fully realised this. Many valuable guns were also captured. It is difficult to over-estimate the effect that this had on the Dublin IRA for the remainder of the war, with many of its very best men now in prison. Traynor pushed for a “business as usual” policy to deflect from any possible weakness, and many battalion members engaged in small-scale hit-and-run attacks in the city over the following days, many of them little more than pot-shots aimed in the direction of the Crown Forces. It was just a mask. The IRA in the city, and in GHQ, were horrified at the scale of the losses, that severely impeded the Dublin IRA’s ability to make war. Indeed, it necessitated yet more unit re-structure, with the Squad and battalion ASU’s soon amalgamated into a new entity dubbed the “Dublin Guard”, a unit that would have a critical role to play in the coming Civil War. In exchange, five Auxiliaries were wounded. Three civilians were killed.
But the Custom House was burnt down, the delayed fire brigade arriving too late to be able to fight the blaze that engulfed it. It took five days for it to finally cease, after which it became clear that the interior was ruined, and that centuries worth of documents had gone up in smoke (the loss of revenue, duty and customs documentation was a major thing, though perhaps not the crippling blow republican propaganda painted it as). Five years on from the memory of the city centre in flames from British artillery, the billowing smoke and subsequent gutted shell were powerful symbols in their own right. They were a demonstration that the British administration in Ireland remained incredibly vulnerable to attack. If they were incapable of defending what was apparently a vital centre for the proper working of revenue and local government services, then how could they claim to be winning the war? A cabinet meeting the same day had come to the conclusion that the war had to be brought to a close soon, whether it was through a truce or a massive all-out military effort: the latter option was deferred. Pressure was intensifying on Lloyd George: the smoke that rose into the sunny May sky would be seen by Dublin and London, but also Washington and other international places who had an interest in what was happening in Ireland.
In that sense, it is difficult to offer a final evaluation on whether the Custom House attack was a victory for the IRA or not. The losses were large, a consequence of the lack of back-up plans, or lack of adequate planning for a withdrawal under fire, that became likely as soon as there was even the slightest delay. But the objective was achieved, and its symbolic/propaganda value was utterly immense, especially with the benefit of hindsight: many who were on the fence about a possible truce would have found it hard to argue in favour of continued military operations in the face of such a major blow in the country’s capital. Within the next twelve months, many of the British soldiers withdrawing from Ireland would march past the ruins of the Custom House on the way to the ships. So, despite the losses, I must myself consider the attack to have been a success, the final major blow in the capital, where the subsequent cessation of hostilities justified the short-term loss of manpower.
We are now entering that period of conflict where accounts are dominated by that imminant truce, and the negotiations that took place in the lead-up to it. But the war itself did not cease, and the months of June and July were full of violent moments. In the next few weeks I want to cover a few of those moments, some of the last individual actions of the War of Independence. The first will take us to Mayo, and one of the war’s last major ambushes.
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