Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Iconic buildings & key events can create fake news

Our guest writer is a grandnephew of Edward ‘Tommy’ Dorins, E Coy, 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade, killed in action at the Burning. John Dorins has long held a major interest in the Custom House attack.

Big Stories spawn Fake News

Three major events could be said to have punctuated and defined the history of Ireland from 1916 to 1922. All involved major public buildings which were as important as symbolic targets as they were for practical reasons. The first, of course, was the occupation and shelling of the GPO in 1916, which arguably changed the political atmosphere entirely and made the War of Independence inevitable. The second was the 1921 Custom House Burning, which effectively brought the War of Independence to an end. The third was the Shelling of the Four Courts in 1922, which marked the beginning of the Civil War.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Because of their symbolic value, events like the Custom House invite comparison with the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on 9/11/2001.

One of the most notable elements of the Twin Towers attack was the hundreds of conspiracy theories and items of fake news. From a CIA plot to who-knows-what other crazy ideas were thrown out for public consumption, widely spread and believed.

And it is very interesting to see how much this applied to the burning of the Custom House, long before the days of the Internet and social media.

Graphic Tales from The Burning

One of the more gruesome Burning rumours claimed a large number of Rebels had been trapped in the building and incinerated.

For example, a Spanish newspaper, El Cantábrico, reported on 27 May:

Se cree que numerosos rebeldes fallecieron entre los escombros”. (It is believed that numerous rebels died among the debris.)

Many of these reports claimed that trapped Rebels died by suicide. A New Zealand Press account of 28 May 1921, stated:

‘Auxiliaries who gallantly entered the burning Custom House found the bodies of three rebels partially burned, each with a revolver wound in the forehead. They undoubtedly died by their own hands.’

The Irish News and Belfast Morning News of the same date reported that, while there were rumours of burned bodies of rebels inside the building,

“exhaustive inquiries failed to obtain the slightest confirmation of this. The police have absolutely no knowledge of the alleged discovery, and it is fairly obvious that nothing tangible on this subject can come to light till the debris has cooled down and is turned over.”

We do not know who was responsible for feeding these lurid accounts to the press immediately after the Burning. However, there are archived statements by several Auxiliaries in reports or evidence to the military inquiry in the following days which were also picked up by the papers. It is worth reminding ourselves that opinions and statements by crown forces were not subject to censorship – as long as they maintained the official British line “we have murder by the throat”. So they carried a lot of weight.

The suicide theory was advanced by the O/C of Auxiliary F Company, Lieut/1st DI R.K. Caparn. In his opinion:

“….quite a number of rebels, some dead, were cut off in the building by the fire and either burnt [sic] or shot themselves, as for quite a long period occasional revolver shots could be heard”.

Quite. This despite him leaving the scene for the Castle for further instructions some time before 2.30pm when the Auxiliaries withdrew after the military took over.

Lieut/ 2nd DI Kenneth F. Crang (second-in -command), stated that after entering the building, he found two bodies there, “which he did not see being removed” afterwards. He also said shots were heard from inside the building at intervals up to 2.30pm when his company left the scene.

Adding to their stories, both above-named claimed 3 bombs were dropped from the overhead railway bridge and one “personally saw men on the bridge” – with a machine gun, to his best belief – firing at his party. Lieut/3rd DI L. Fruen also claimed bombs were thrown from the railway bridge.

So, a few myths to dispel there:

  • We know that the “shots in the building” came from discarded IRA ammunition ‘cooking-off’ in the fire.
  • There were no IRA men or machine guns on the railway bridge – several participating IRA themselves (Padraig O Concubhair among them) later vented their frustration or puzzlement at the failure to use either.
  • According to any other source, the only bombs used were thrown from street level, one by by Dan Head, killed in action.

The final Auxy culprit is Temporary Cadet Thomas Sparrow, who claimed:

“I found one rebel whom I thought dead, but he was only shamming as he fired at me. I killed him.”

This seems highly improbable. Five IRA were killed and there is no evidence of another. Also, we have a fairly good idea where those fatalities occurred – all on the streets outside. Sparrow, a Londoner, demoted from Auxiliary K Company (disbanded after the arson of Cork City centre), was one of the few who lived up – or down – to the image of Auxies and Tans as jailbirds. He had served a short term in prison for theft from his employer, so his honesty is in question.

Possibly the Auxy reports demonstrated the combat weariness/stress of WWI veterans? Or were simply the kind of inflated claims regularly made by survivors of combat? Or……?

IRA hiding in the Cellars

More general rumours quickly began to circulate in the city. Another one held that a number of rebels had disappeared into the cellars of the building to avoid the flames and were awaiting their chance to escape. A variant said these men had already escaped on boats across the river.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
A French magazine’s lurid illustration of the Burning (from Come Here to Me).

There seems to have been no truth in these stories but they were probably expressions of people’s hopes and dreams. The Unionist population would have been delighted at the thought of rebels burning to death in the fire they had set, hoist by their own petard; or driven to suicide by fear. While the supporters of the Nationalist movement would have been pleased think the IRA outwitted government forces and made their escape from the ruined building in the dead of night.  Even though there was no truth to the stories, they seem to have been taken seriously by the British military, who threw cordons around the building in the days following the attack.

Even local Dublin papers got things wrong. Reports immediately after the Burning said the military guard at the Custom House had been overcome. This was (correctly) denied by Dublin Castle who had left the building unguarded. Furthermore, a few papers named one Auxiliary as having been killed. This was also incorrect.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Reports of the death of “Cadet Bowman” were slightly premature……
Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
…. as shown by an interview with the man himself, former Auxy Harold Beaumont, early 1980s (screenshot from Robert Kee’s ‘Ireland, a Television History’, part 9 – Terror 1919-1921).

Daring Escapes Reported

The Irish News of 28 May:

It is stated that about midnight on Wednesday, a number of men who had been watching the first opportunity to escape, crept stealthily from the vaults and passed on unobserved till they reached the Spencer Dock.

Here they waited for a few minutes, and then slipped one by one across the roadway till they all met on the quayside. They then crossed the river in ferryboats and made off to some “unknown” destination.

Early yesterday morning, it is further stated, a similar thrilling exploit was carried out, and the erection of barricades round the building today, and the presence of a large party of troops lent considerable colour to this theory which is being eagerly discussed all over Dublin.

In other words, it seems the military authorities took these rumours sufficiently seriously to post guards at the building.

The dreaded word of mouth

On a more gossipy level, a passerby’s mistaken “identification” of a civilian fatality led to a bitter-sweet story nobody could have invented.

Then there was the gory tale of a body impaled on the railings after leaping from a window of the Custom House. Where that originated is unknown. But it never happened. Years later Ernie O’Malley wrote in ‘On Another Man’s Wound‘ that a neighbour of his family reported two men jumping from a window, one being shot and the other captured. Worse, the informant was convinced that the man killed was O’Malley’s own brother Cecil (who was captured uninjured and lived to 1981).

I have even seen tales in which my granduncle ‘Tommy’ Dorins was that particular IRA casualty. However, he was in fact shot dead on the street close to Butt Bridge.

The Truth Does Matter

Establishing the truth of what happened in the past is important to interpreting and understanding history. When researching or reading it, we need to continually ask ourselves who stood to gain from various claims. Propaganda has never let the truth get in the way of spin.

In the case of the escape of men from the building, it is clear the IRA had a vested interest in portraying they had sustained smaller losses in the battle than the reality. In the days after the Custom House attack, they concentrated their efforts on small attacks all over the city to give the impression it was ‘business as usual’. So this story needs to be seen in that context.

From the British viewpoint, there was obviously good propaganda in allowing (or promoting) publication of stories showing the rebels in a poor light. Another factor to reckon in.

Truth Ruins Some Good Stories?

In some cases, false information is simply the result of a story growing and changing in the telling. A perfect example of this is found in relation to Vinnie Byrne. In his Witness Statement to the Bureau of Military History, Byrne tells about items found in his pockets at the Burning, which he had deliberately put there to suggest he was an innocent tradesman calling into Brooks Thomas. Things like a carpenter’s rule and some papers with sizes of timber written on them.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
From RTE Archives

In another account of the same story, Byrne says he had inadvertently left pieces of paper in his pockets detailing arms like grenades, guns and rounds of ammunition with single letters like ‘g’ and ‘r’. He was forced to invent innocent meanings to convince the Auxiliaries he was just going about his work and not a Volunteer. While the later version is probably a better story, it actually reflects less well on Byrne. In the original version he had been clever enough to cover himself in advance.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
“Hope Still Stands” – several Dublin papers invented a new name for the statue of Commerce!

In other cases, inaccurate information just seems to be the result of mistakes or misreporting.

For example, some people who were definitely not present at the Custom House on 25 May 1921 were credited in newspaper reports as having been there.

Like Seán Brunswick who, according to an Irish Press obituary, had taken part. In reality, on that day he was among the internees held in Ballykinlar Internment Camp Compound No. 1 near Dundrum, Co Down.

But the case of Cyril Carroll is a more difficult one.

Details of Carroll’s life and military career appeared in several Irish newspaper reports around thirty years ago. Some aspects of them check out. On the face of it, his credentials seem impeccable. After leaving Ireland, he went to Australia where he had a successful career as an engineer. He was a prominent member of the Australian Labour Party, a former Alderman of Sydney, and his eldest grandson was married to a daughter of Australia’s Prime Minister, Bob Hawke.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Irish Press 1991 write-up of Cyril Carroll’s IRA exploits

There is no doubt that Joseph Cyril Carroll was born in Warrenpoint, Co. Down, in late 1901. His father, also Joseph Carroll, was an English-born solicitor. His mother, Mary McQuaid, was a Dubliner. By the 1911 census, the family was living in County Clare. However, on census night itself, the father was absent, and so was Joseph Cyril. We don’t know when the family moved back to Dublin (or even if they did so).

So, Carroll was about fourteen at the time of the Easter Rising. According to one of the newspaper reports, he was at school in Sandycove, Dublin when it began. However, the details of his subsequent military career seem odd, to say the least. In one account he gave the press, he joined the Volunteers in 1917 or 1918, after nearly being killed in a dramatic encounter. It was after curfew when he and three colleagues had made emergency repairs to a ship berthed near their place of employment. “We were standing on the docks at 2.30 in the morning watching as the ship sailed away when suddenly a light came on and an armoured car raked us with gunfire. They killed an apprentice and the senior labourer, who had a family of ten. I was shot in the leg and then beaten with rifle butts. They left me for dead.”

This sounds detailed and convincing but there are problems. The curfew was not imposed until February 1920. While there were armoured cars in Dublin from 1917 (at least), I have failed to find any account of anyone being shot dead by one of them between the Easter Rising and the (sporadic) outbreak of hostilities in 1919.

Again, according to these newspaper articles, Carroll was involved at the Custom House when:

“….he ‘borrowed’ a lorry and some kerosene [sic] from his employer. He says that eight people, including himself, escaped in that lorry, contrary to reports at the time that only five escaped.”

The interviews include Carroll’s claim of seeing action on Bloody Sunday as well but provide no further details. While many of the names of the IRA involved that famous day remain unknown, most of them were Second Battalion. But Carroll was supposed to have moved into the Sixth Battalion quite soon after joining the Volunteers. Other accounts state he was promoted to Lieutenant and recruited for special operations by Michael Collins. Yet again, there seems to be no mention of him anywhere.

Further, according to the newspapers, by the Truce he was apparently a Captain and fought with the republicans in the Civil War. One article said he was made Adjutant of 2nd Eastern Division (Executive IRA) under Commandant Andy McDonnell (Adjutant is essentially a right-hand man to the commanding officer and did tend to be drawn from the rank of captain). Carroll was captured then interned for 11 months in Mountjoy and Gormanstown and, after his release, emigrated to Australia under the false name John Charles Murphy. Some documents show a man of that name in the merchant navy in places like Hawaii in the 1920s. This was presumably Carroll, but it is hard to be certain.

However going back to Blessington in 1922, it appears he was actually there. Lists of anti-Treaty prisoners lodged in Mountjoy Jail on 11 July 1922 include himself and Andy McDonnell. That tallies with the Fall of Blessington. And Carroll gave his address as Sandycove.

Still, the larger question remains. Why are there (apparently) no references to Carroll in any document relating to the War of Independence? He seems to have been heavily involved during the Tan War. If we believe the newspapers.

At the very least, there are problems with the dating and details associated with his story. He may well have been sincere (our knowledge of some of these events is patchy, to say the least) but made mistakes in his accounts. However, I think we would need some corroborating evidence before accepting much of them at face value.

If it is true he was involved in such major events in modern Irish history as Bloody Sunday, the Custom House Burning and the Fall of Blessington, then his role should be commemorated. But if the story has grown in the telling, that needs to be established as well. It is important to check the realities.

We owe it to the people who really did fight and those who died or suffered injury or imprisonment, to establish the facts as accurately as we possibly can.

John Dorins

Editor’s Notes:

Fake news from the War of Independence is a topic of the moment, it seems. Even the formerly unionist Irish Times has belatedly admitted the British were guilty!

And in the same paper the Custom House Burning has again been dismissed as a failure. This time by historian Diarmaid Ferriter. Does that count as fake news? (A subscription may be required to view both articles, but probably not).

We can assure you that our guest writer John had his article written well before those just mentioned!

Update. Totally coincidentally, ‘Fake News and the War of Independence’ was the subject of a talk by historian and Group member Michael B. Barry at the NLI on 10 March. Squeezed in just before the current public health measures.

Speaking of which, stay safe – and beware of fake news on Covid-19!