Writers are told to ensure the Reader always knows where, when and why things are happening in stories. That’s simple to deliver about the Burning.

  • Dublin Custom House
  • 25 May 1921
  • Hit British control and impact world opinion
Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The burnt out Custom House

Some Other Wheres – Sites connected to the Burning

We regularly mention places in our articles. Sometimes we show maps of where men came from. However, on other occasions perhaps we assume every Reader is familiar with all the locations or buildings mentioned? So, let’s have a look at some sites associated with the Burning which have come up for various reasons.

Sadly none of us can visit and most can’t even get close to these places during the COVID-19 restrictions. So we’ll try to give a bit of a virtual tour as best we can.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Dublin’s famous Custom House (Dennis Horgan, ‘Dublin – from the Air’ via Irish Independent)

Obviously the Custom House itself will be familiar to regular Readers. It had an interesting history even before the Burning. Maybe we’ll tackle that someday. Volunteers – step forward!

However, other places are regularly mentioned. Such as where the arrested men were detained – Kilmainham Gaol, Mountjoy Jail and Arbour Hill Detention Barracks.

Possibly the last mentioned is the least familiar? It happens to be within easy walking distance – well within the 2km limit – of the writer’s home. So bear with me if we begin there (Photos below are from 2019 when some places not usually freely accessible were open to the public during the Stoneybatter Festival).

The Arbour Hill area

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Located in the northside Dublin 7 postal district, west of the city centre, are many physical reminders of British rule and its urban military garrisons. The street named Arbour Hill runs east to west from the Belfry Pub in Stoneybatter to Montpelier Hill. When you pass beyond the small houses and the intersecting Viking streets, some larger grey stone buildings appear (Google streetview – move straight on if you’d like to follow the road).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Turn left here for Arbour Hill

The Bigger Picture

The Arbour Hill site is just one element of the extensive former British military complex just north of the River Liffey, behind Croppy’s Acre. It was almost like a small town, a major enclave within the city. Across the street from Arbour Hill (on the river-side) stands the huge centrepiece – the Royal Barracks (marked green), once the largest in Europe. Later renamed for Michael Collins and now one of the National Museum of Ireland’s major sites (Free admission, well worth a visit for military exhibits and lots more. When it re-opens….).

Not far away is the former King George V Military Hospital, now St. Bricin’s (marked blue). Other sites further to the west on Infirmary Road were also used by crown forces (Royal Army Medical Corps) pre-Independence. The former Royal Infirmary on the Phoenix Park side is now the DPP’s office. But the other buildings are in ruins now (orange). A shameful waste of Dublin City Council land in a housing crisis, although plans for social housing have been drawn up.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The wider Arbour Hill area c. 1909 (OSI Maps)

Arbour Hill itself has several sites of historic interest (below). They speak of Ireland’s entangled past with Britain. The revered 1916 Executed Leaders mass grave (marked black+green) within a former British prison parade ground; a British military graveyard (black); the former garrison’s Protestant chapel, now a Catholic church for our Defence Forces (yellow); and the Irish U.N Veterans’ Association House and Garden (green). Largest of them all, the former Detention Barracks (red).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The Arbour Hill complex as it was around 1921 (OSI Maps).
Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Outside the IUNVA building on Mount Temple Road is a well-maintained memorial to those who fell on peace-keeping duty. Behind its boundary wall is a tranquil garden with flower displays, wind-chimes, garden ornaments, small statues of buddha and benches (Access is via a gateway beside the house. The path leads on into Arbour Hill Graveyard, see below).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
IUNVA garden views

One artefact in the garden is a 25-pounder field gun. Another is the stump of the flagpole from the former Parkgate HQ of the British, then Irish Army (now used by the Director of Public Prosecutions). A neat Custom House connection is provided by James Gandon who designed both buildings!

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Speaks for itself. The flagpole stump itself is unremarkable.
Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The Church of the Defence Forces at Arbour Hill

The church is worth a visit for its stained glass windows from the Harry Clarke Studios commemorating the Irish dead from 1916 to 1923. However, experts place these works well below the heights of his best artistry.

More interesting (to this writer anyway) is the large display of Defence Forces unit flags and colours hanging from the galleries.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Flag of the Army’s 2nd Battalion, successors to the IRA unit which carried out the Burning.
Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Some of the other flags
Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Part of the museum collection

The former military school now houses a museum with a fascinating display of Irish military uniforms and kit, plus memorabilia from UN missions.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Some of the helmets on display in the museum

Arbour Hill – Glorious and Notorious

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
One OPW information board at the 1916 Memorial

Today, people with an interest in Irish history would associate Arbour Hill with the Easter Rising. At the back of the complex is the burial place of the 14 men executed in Kilmainham after the Surrender in 1916. Their memorial is the venue for annual state commemorations. It’s a quiet, thought-provoking and inspirational place to visit and spend time reading the inscriptions of the Proclamation and the men’s names. And feel pride as an Irish person.

To others, the name Arbour Hill may have a totally different connotation – the prison currently used to hold convicted male sex offenders. It is an imposing, unfriendly-looking grey stone edifice surrounded by high walls topped with security devices. This writer speeds up when passing by, the vile nature of the convicts in the place causing raised hackles.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Arbour Hill Prison as it is now

Arbour Hill Detention Barracks

Designed by the Royal Engineers to hold military offenders, the building was constructed between 1835 and 1848. Military prisoners were of course all male in the 19th century and well beyond. One exception was Maud Gonne McBride who said (on page 24) she spent one night there before being taken to prison in England, at the time of the ‘German Plot’. Subject to correction, she may be a unique case.

By 1920, in addition to its original use it had become a regular holding centre for Irish political prisoners. The commandant of the barracks was Major Robert Gore Tappenden Currey (born in Co Waterford) of the 2nd Leinster Regiment. Men arrested or rounded up on suspicion of being ‘Rebels’ were regularly held there on a temporary basis Afterwards, they were moved on to jails or internment camps, or – less often – released.

The large number of men arrested at the Burning meant the British needed a suitably-sized and convenient ‘human corral’. They were held on suspicion without charge, so a civilian jail was not appropriate. A secure facility under military control within the city was required and Arbour Hill fitted the bill. So the Detention Barracks was the destination for the men picked up by the British military at the Burning (listed here).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Arbour Hill prison in its military detention barracks days. The signs say so – honest! (Getty Images)

There the British could subject their captives to interrogation, investigation, police checks and identity parades at their leisure. As we will see, it also facilitated surreptitious observation by Dublin Castle secret service operatives. Over a period of 3 weeks, they were either released or, in most cases, sent on to Kilmainham Gaol for internment without charge.

Custom House Tales from Arbour Hill

Three men left us a few insights about the place – although only one was kept there over the Burning.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Paddy O’Daly spent a few days in Arbour Hill after his arrest following Bloody Sunday in 1920. He described the place as over-crowded, with two or three in each cell. He was moved on to Mountjoy Jail, Kilmainham Gaol and Ballykinlar Camp before agreeing to be released in February 1921 under GHQ orders.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

From mid-April 1921 Bill Stapleton was also in Arbour Hill for about a month (He masqueraded as ‘Michael Schweppe’, an innocent brother of IRA man Fred home on a break from Scotland, and was released on 12 May).

Bill also thought the place was packed, adding: “Conditions generally in the prison, particularly with two in one cell, and the rigid discipline, were very embarrassing as from approximately 4 o’clock each day until about 11 the following day we were not allowed to leave the cells to visit sanitary conveniences.”

Surveillance by British security

Stapleton tells how he was….brought before an identification parade on two occasions. [It] was organised in this way. A large canvas screen was outstretched across the corner of the quadrangle with holes cut here and there, and behind this screen, individuals peered through at a prisoner….who was instructed to walk up and down, turn round, stand, bend down, speak, etc. We had no knowledge of the people behind this curtain except to hear them whisper.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

The third man, Peadar O’Farrell, did end up in Arbour Hill after the Burning. In a letter written in the 1970s to our US source James McCormick, he recalled being told two notorious British agents were snooping:

“We were 3 weeks in Arbour Hill Prison. I was one day sitting on a pile of logs in the Prison yard when Tom Keogh [Kehoe] came over and said did I ‘usually sit on my eyes? Now don’t look up.’ I did get a glance up and saw [Major Jocelyn Lee ‘Hoppy’] Hardy of the Black & Tans, [Head Constable Eugene] Igoe of the Murder Squad and two [British] Intelligence Officers in the window.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
OPW information board showing the executed men and view of their plot from 1916 (looking south-east). The schools over the wall were for children of the British garrison.

A Special Discovery

During one identity parade, Bill Stapleton and the other prisoners not involved were cleared out of the quadrangle into the adjoining walled cemetery. There he had a novel experience. Looking around, to his amazement he noticed one or two graves were marked MacDonagh or Pearse from 1916, the rest being unmarked. He was privileged as an Irishman. At that stage – and until after Independence – access to Arbour Hill cemetery and the famous Rising graves was closed to the public.

Other Prison Conditions

Bill Stapleton says the sweeping and cleaning of the corridors, etc. were carried out by [British] soldier prisoners; and that he and his cellmate (Fred Schweppe) were allowed to mix, in the forenoon and I think for an hour in the afternoon, with the other political prisoners for exercise.”

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Interior of the current prison. The decor is new but the architecture hasn’t changed since 1921 (irishprisons.ie)

Incidentally, none of the three men quoted above commented on the food. Perhaps suggesting it wasn’t too bad?

One man who did mention part of the menu was Eamon Broy, one of the IRA’s top agents in the police. He spent a fair time in Arbour Hill and refers to the usual breakfast of porridge, bread and tea. He also tells us an NCO warder informed him that no prisoners were ever beaten up in Arbour Hill. Rules dictated that armed crown forces visitors had to leave their weapons with the governor before being allowed to see prisoners. He speaks well of the governor and the English soldier-warders, noting they behaved far better towards the prisoners than a couple of Irish guards. By all accounts the place seems to have been run relatively humanely, despite cramped conditions.

A Planned Rescue Attempt?

In the Military Service Pension application by Michael Byrne (C Coy, 4th Battalion), there is this intriguing exchange (page 24, his interview board hearing):

“Question: Attempted armed rescue of IRA prisoners from Arbour Hill?

Answer: We all surrounded Arbour Hill. The escape was to come off at 12 o’clock in the day. It did not come off and we waited till 3 o’clock. Then one of the men had a look over the wall and he discovered there was a double guard on. The game was given away and the job was called off.

He places this as occurring in the 1 April to 11 June 1921 period. A second man from the same unit who corroborates Byrne’s account of a planned break-out goes into a bit more detail. The way Jim Fulham outlines his knowledge of the scheme makes it sound a bit hairy. But we should recall that such high-risk operations were a necessity and par for the course in the circumstances and did sometimes succeed spectacularly.

Conclusion and Further reading

Hopefully, the Reader has gained some insights into what early captivity was like for most of the Custom House Fire Brigade. Not too harsh, yet very stressful and far from any sort of picnic. But the men brought to Dublin Castle had far harsher treatment and darker tales to tell (see Christy Fitzsimons).

A far more extensive account of experiences in Arbour Hill during the Tan War (with favourable opinions on Major Currey the British military commandant and his warders) can be found in the Witness Statement of IRA prisoner Col. Joseph V. Lawless. By the way, a cousin of Custom House fatality Mahon Lawless.

Finally, further information on the history of Arbour Hill is here, plus details of a book on the cemetery.

Des White