Not too far from Dublin Brigade HQ stood this former Dublin city centre landmark. It happened to play a small but vital role in the spectacular destruction of another iconic building on 25 May 1921. That is the writer’s only excuse for what follows!
Origins. The store was the flagship of a chain of grocery, wine and spirit shops established in Dublin in 1823 by merchant Alex Findlater. He was an immigrant from Scotland whose name still lives on in Dublin place names.
One legacy of his old business at the corner of Upper O’Connell Street/Cathal Brugha Street is that Dubs over a certain age still call the place Findlater’s Corner. After the famous shop was torn down in 1969, the ugly utilitarian office block which replaced it was named Findlater House (one of many places where this writer worked for Telecom Eireamm/eircom in a past era). It has since been totally re-modelled and converted to the Holiday Inn Express Hotel.
The adjoining cul de sac is still named Findlater Place (That brings to mind an annoyingly good quiz question – what is the nearest graveyard to the GPO? The answer is given at the end, below). Before the destruction caused during the Easter Rising and the later Civil War, the street layout was different.
Findlater Place was a narrow lane with buildings on both sides and Cathal Brugha Street had not been created. In pre-1916 days no. 5 Findlater Place housed the Irish Freedom newspaper run by Sean MacDiarmada (see here). Another address in Findlater Place, no. 17 mentioned in our article on Dick Seville and family was where young Annie Seville became a tragic victim of a stray bullet in March 1921.
The merchant family name is also associated with a local place of worship, built in the 1860s with funds donated by Alex Findlater. The Abbey Presbyterian Church on North Frederick Street/Parnell Square is more widely known as Findlater’s Church.
The family also ran the large Mountjoy stout brewery, hotels in Bray and Howth and built what is now the Olympia Theatre. They contributed to the building of Clontarf’s Presbyterian church as well.
During the 1916 Rising, Findlater’s shop survived the devastating fires lower down Sackville Street and was left relatively unscathed. Apparently the owner at the time, Willie Findlater, personally protected the stock against looters with his blunderbuss!
In 1921, Findlater’s, though simple happenstance, again played a peripheral role in a major Dublin fire – the Burning of the Custom House.
A Big Problem
On the morning of 25 May, some IRA men found themselves with a major difficulty. They were in urgent need of a replacement lorry to bring incendiary material to the Custom House.
A Handy Solution
As luck would have it, only a few yards from where they discussed their problem was a busy wholesale entrance with lorries constantly coming and going. It had not been Plan A, but Findlater’s presented a convenient and obvious opportunity.
According to Peadar O’Farrell, he had unexpectedly bumped into Jim Foley and Pat Swanzy outside the Gresham Hotel, close to Findlater’s. Foley was “in distress” – his lorry would not start and his driver was still working on it. It was decided to get another driver and commandeer a lorry. They looked up Foley’s friend Gerry Downes (manager of a mineral water distributor) and found him dressed to play golf, plus fours and all. This turned out to be very lucky as we shall see. Downes immediately agreed to help.
O’Farrell, Foley and Swanzy duly took one of Findlater’s lorries, a 3-ton Austin model, with no opposition (O’Farrell was armed just in case) and, with them on board, Downes drove it to a back lane garage off Gardiner’s Place.
Tom Kilcoyne, Tony Flynn and others were there and they all loaded the tins of paraffin and cotton waste to be used to burn the Custom House.
Drama En Route
Approaching the planned laying-up point at Oriel House they must have worried when Auxiliaries held them up at a checkpoint beside Amiens Street (Connolly) railway station. However, seeing Downes at the wheel resplendent in golfing kit with his clubs beside him, the Auxies merely smiled and waved them on.
Another Change of Plan
Then, around the very next turn the lorry was intercepted by Michael ‘Tiger’ Smyth on a bicycle. He warned that crown forces were all over the railway yards in the vicinity. The crew were to proceed instead to O’Connell’s Schools, North Circular Road and get back to the Custom House between 12.53 and 12.55 o’clock latest. At the new rendezvous driver Tony Flynn replaced Gerry Downes who hopefully got to enjoy his round of golf as planned. Peadar O’Farrell had gotten off the lorry by that stage and walked back to town to meet and brief his 4 men at Moran’s Hotel, Talbot Street. They subsequently went on foot to the Custom House.
Mission Successful, But
The lorry arrived safely and on time at the Custom House. However, according to Brigade Adjutant Harry Colley, there was a delay of ten minutes in getting access because of a locked gate. Once an alternative entrance was organised, the lorry was was quickly unloaded by the men assembled for the Burning. It is unclear whether all of the lorry’s IRA crew were subsequently captured (see Cyril Carroll’s claims). Flynn, Swanzy and Kilcoyne definitely were. The vehicle itself survived. It was listed by crown forces as one of their finds, parked outside the building after the fire.
Presumably it was returned in due course to Findlater’s, a respected loyalist business.
That is not to say they were hostile unionists or that no IRA men were ever among their staff. Even the O’Connell Street shop was raided by crown forces in March 1920 although no finds or arrests were made.
But the company’s owners were also pragmatists and adapted well to the new Free State despite a scary start during the Civil War. As a result of the Battle for The Block in the summer of 1922, O’Connell Street was once again ravaged by huge fires. This time they came far closer to Findlater’s, part of which was burnt. Before and during the fighting the premises was occupied in turn by each side and some damage and ‘looting’ (anti-Treaty IRA requisitioning) occurred. The Free State troops who mortally wounded Cathal Brugha were actually located in Findlater’s. But the building and business survived.
Saved by Dublin Fire Brigade
Fire crews had worked strenuously and successfully to prevent the flames reaching the huge stocks of spirits in the cellars, much of which was removed to prevent an even wider conflagration. This Fire Brigade map shows how close Findlater’s (in blue) came to destruction (shaded red).
Afterwards the then owner William Findlater made a presentation to Capt. Myers in appreciation of his crews’ achievement. Although it is said the merchant cursed under his breath about not getting a new replacement premises like neighbouring businesses which did burn down!
The Findlaters stayed in Ireland through thick and thin and drastically changing times in the country and the wider world. And their business thrived for many decades until the impact of the new supermarket chains forced its closure in 1968.
Under a new-generation Alex Findlater, their flagship store was sold to developers Lyon, one of whose directors was ex-Taoiseach Sean Lemass. He and the Findlaters had crossed swords over policy through the years, but there was underlying mutual respect and all ended well between them.
It is worth saying that Findlater’s were good employers who looked after their staff well over the years. In turn the staff were very loyal. They were not dragged into the 1913 Lockout and only had one strike, in 1924 (Well after all, even the Army mutinied that year!). When it came to closure the firm was generous with their redundancy payments too. Findlater’s moral decency stands in stark contrast to the more recent disgusting treatment of workers at another iconic Dublin store, Clery’s. Alex Findlater publicly expressed his outrage over that shoddy episode.
Alex ‘The Grocer’
To this writer, he sounds a very interesting character. The early death of his father in 1962 put him in charge of the business aged 25. He ran it well and did not cause its demise, but was wise enough to know when to wind it up properly. He was also active with charitable causes and involved in the arts in Dublin. In 1974, after five years of travel and studying languages and business in Europe, Alex Findlater returned to Dublin and set up a new wine and spirit import operation. It did very well and was expanded until sold to Cochrane & Cantrell in 2001.
Alex The Author
That year saw publication of his well-received history of the family (outline here). Alex Findlater married for a second time in 2010 and settled in Cong, Co Mayo. For the Rising centenary year he wrote a further book. This one was on the experiences of his maternal grandfather – 1916 Surrenders: Captain De Courcy-Wheeler’s Eyewitness Account.
But in all his writings, the last of the Findlater businessmen never seems to have mentioned the part played by one of his firm’s lorries in the IRA’s destruction of the Custom House in 1921.
A Sudden End
Alex Findlater was always a keen sportsman and took up horse riding in later life. However, that proved his undoing as he died from a fall from a horse in the Punjab, India in 2019. Respectfully known as ‘The Chairman’ in business circles and affectionately as ‘The Grocer’ to his friends, the 81 year-old was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery.
An Eye-Witness to History
The mother of Alex Findlater, Elizabeth Dorothea, actually lived through the conflicts mentioned above. She was a daughter of the Capt. De Courcy-Wheeler mentioned above. As a child she watched with her mother from the top of the water tower at Curragh Camp as the distant smoke rose from Dublin’s Rising, in which her father was on the British side. She was an 11 year-old when the Custom House was burned but was not in Dublin to view it. Mrs Findlater was Ireland’s oldest woman when she died in 2017, five weeks from her 108th birthday.
Thankfully some of her memories along with of others of her era are recorded for posterity in the brilliant little documentary ‘Older than Ireland‘, available on DVD.
Yet another Lorry at the Custom House?
From press reports, two were used on 25 May 1921. The other one, apparently hijacked from Brittain’s motor dealers, seems to have escaped with its crew (That needs some further research). But in the meantime here is another IRA man’s alternative account of how a vehicle supposedly used on 25 May 1921 was sourced.
“Finglas village, on account of its location near the city, was a favourite place for soldiers from the British garrisons in the city, to come out to, to do their courting with their girls. It was quite a regular operation of ours to hold up these soldiers and strip them of their boots and underclothing. The articles taken from the British soldiers were given, for their personal use, to our men who were on the run. Soon, no soldier would dare to come into the area when not on duty and fully armed.
On one occasion, a military ambulance, carrying seven soldiers and a driver, pulled up in the village, and the occupants went into a public house. I quickly assembled a small party of Volunteers and held up the soldiers, and took the ambulance from them. We drove the vehicle to Molloy’s of Cappagh where we dumped it. The military now scoured the area with large forces in an effort to locate it, but failed to do so. With the help of a carpenter, we changed the body of the ambulance and painted it over. We also changed the registration numbers on it. We used that vehicle many times afterwards.
It was used to carry petrol [sic] into the Custom House on the day that building was burned, and I think was captured by British forces there.” (Thomas Markey, Comdt. 3rd Battalion, Fingal Brigade).
We will leave the Reader to decide who to believe – the men involved or an interested party who was not on the Custom House crew.
So ends this potted history ramble which appears here only because a lorry wouldn’t start on the morning of the Burning.
Quiz answer: In St Thomas’ churchyard on an island at the Marlborough Street end of Findlater Place.