It may not be widely known that the Custom House was a War of Independence target before the Burning. In fact the previous year the IRA invaded the building attempting to capture arms but withdrew for tactical reasons. At that time O/C Dublin Brigade was Dick McKee, the man who had many times pressed GHQ to attack the place. Sadly he did not survive to see it go up in flames ten months later.

Anyone who has read Liz Gillis’s book 25 May – Burning of the Custom House 1921 will have noted her account and interesting conclusions about the raid in chapter 4.

Here’s our take on the abortive operation, based on the reports in newspaper archives and the account by one IRA man involved. Plus a few details on himself and two comrades who took part.

On the One Hand

The story was picked up by the Press Association news service and their report appeared in full or very brief versions in Irish, British and US newspapers.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Some overseas press coverage from Britain and the USA.

The source quoted was the corporal of the guard in the building who claimed a hall porter had been held-up. There was apparently no official comment from Dublin Castle – an unusual lapse in their propaganda stream. Perhaps, for once, the administration was actually too embarrassed to invent some positive spin?

The headlines varied from admiration for a daring coup, through puzzlement over a pointless event, to sarcasm at the “military guard on a lavish scale” being eluded. The last was particularly true of English papers. The single exception – isn’t there always one – was The Times.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Typical interpretation by a ‘British Establishment rag’?

There were more details in local press reports. A couple of them also surmised the truth – that the raiders were indeed after the military guard’s weapons.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Local news is best (Freemans Journal)

The Evening Herald’s ‘Late News’ on the date of the raid quoted the“watchman named Pilkington” at the Beresford Place door who claimed he was held up by a number of men who came in between 2.30 and 3 o’clock. He was told to face the wall and would not be harmed if he complied. According to him the men went to a nearby room formerly used as the military guardroom and found it empty. Mr Pilkington said the guard had been moved elsewhere in the building. The men then looked around some LGB offices without interfering with anybody or anything. They seemed slightly disappointed and left hurriedly.

An IRA man gave a very different version of the story as we shall see. So was it a case of excitement during Mr Pilkington’s 15 minutes of fame? Or did he recount what had really happened to him?

The corporal of the guard cheerfully added that four men had held up the porter and about “30 well-dressed young men” had invaded the building and disappeared without trace before his unit was alerted.

On the Other Hand

It is slightly surprising that the operation seems to be mentioned in online military archives by only three men – in one Witness Statement and two Pension Applications (open to correction). And that no reference was included in the Brigade Activity Reports. Perhaps it was regarded by most as a non-event.

The IRA man who left us an account was James ‘Jimmy’ Fulham, a member of C Coy, 4th Battalion, one of 15-20 men from his unit, he says, who invaded the Custom House around lunchtime on 16 August 1920 under the command of Captain John V. Joyce.

According to Jimmy, he did not get to the point of confronting anybody. And he should know, as it was going to be his task to take care of the hall porter at the main door on Custom House Quay. But before he could carry it out, he was told by a retreating comrade to get out, the others having discovered the guard was twice the size expected. All the IRA made a successful tactical withdrawal from the building – without being noticed, they believed. Fulham expressed surprise at the press reports and he and his comrades were left scratching their heads over how the British knew of their presence in the place.

Differing Views Explained?

So we are clearly left with two diverging accounts of the raid. Differences over details are to be expected. We can also anticipate the opposing parties might wish to hold their own side up in a good light. For example the claim that some raiders wandered around lost must surely be incorrect – the location of the guardroom was known to them.

But we can perhaps solve Jimmy Fulham’s confusion over how it was known the IRA had been there. Quite clearly some had revealed themselves to the watchman. Otherwise how would he have managed to concoct an event on the correct day and approximate time? If we accept Jimmy Fulham’s account, then it must have been his comrades at another door who held up Mr Pilkington and disclosed the IRA’s presence. That was going to be inevitable in any event, even if the raid had succeeded.

The differing accounts here remind us that during such events, nobody has a full overview of all that’s going on. That is strongly borne out in the stories told by those involved in the Burning, depending on their viewpoint and location.

Well Planned

According to Fulham, the planning of the raid had been greatly assisted by insider knowledge from C Coy officer Denis O’Brien, supposedly a clerk in the Custom House. But he appears to be mistaken, as O’Brien actually worked at Kingsbridge, now Heuston, Railway Station. Preparations seem to have been very thorough. They had layout plans and details of the guard’s location on an upper floor and daily movements. There was even a rehearsal.

Results and Legacies

It was pure bad luck the daring operation did not succeed. Otherwise it may have become as celebrated as the King’s Inns arms raid. However, the incident surely was another factor in forcing the British military to withdraw isolated small guard detachments in key buildings around Dublin. That was to facilitate the men who carried out the Burning.

But one negative legacy was still in place when the 25 May attack was undertaken the following year. While the Custom House military guard had been withdrawn, barbed wire and sandbags placed in the building entrances as security precautions were retained and all external doors – apart from one – were kept locked. This proved a major difficulty for those trapped in the building during the Burning when crown forces arrived.

The arms raid may not exactly have been a prequel to the Burning. But it showed Dublin Brigade could organise a well-planned operation involving a large group of Volunteers investing a public building in broad daylight. Perhaps lessons learned were indeed applied when the Burning was being planned.

Three Interesting Characters

As it happens, the three IRA men referred to are worth reading about – despite not taking part in the Burning. Hopefully the brief notes below will do them justice.

The IRA Witness

James Fulham, the man who left us the only account of the raid, was born the eldest of twins at Basin View Terrace, off Blessington Street, Dublin in October 1899. His Dublin-born parents were Patrick (who worked in the potato supply trade) and Mary née McCann. Sadly Jimmy’s twin sister Margaret died as an infant and the family ended up with 5 surviving children. By 1911 the Fulhams had relocated to Nicholas Place on the southside of the Liffey.

In his early teens Jimmy joined Na Fianna and encountered many who would become famous in 1916, such as Countess Markievicz, Con Colbert and the Mellows brothers. He confessed he and his young comrades were just out to enjoy themselves and didn’t take the instruction they were given about signalling and other matters seriously. They didn’t appreciate the usefulness of what they were being taught and slowly drifted away.

However in 1917 Fulham, then living in Francis Street, joined the local Volunteers, C Coy, 4th Battalion, Dublin Brigade. His Witness Statement gives a wide-ranging account of operations some of which were completed and others called off. One of the latter was an attempt to break IRA prisoners out of Arbour Hill Barracks. Other subjects covered range from Head Constable Igoe, political canvassing and election duties and planted defective ammo, to the unpopular campaign of stripping British soldiers of uniforms. He also outlines internal disciplinary processes of the Volunteers and many other aspects of IRA activities.

In late 1920 Jimmy was a Section Leader in C Coy and ended up himself in Portobello Barracks, then Arbour Hill for a few days before, to his amazement, being released without fuss. From subsequent occurrences he strongly believed it was an intelligence ruse to use him to lead the British to his higher-up IRA comrades. He managed to avoid such consequences but says he was twice beaten up on the street by “Black & Tans”. He believed two of them were later executed.

Another abortive operation he took part in was the planned interception and rescue of the captured Longford IRA Commandant Sean MacEoin who was due to be brought to Dublin for court martial in early 1921. The British succeeded in using a route which evaded the IRA’s net.

Shortly before the Truce Fulham was posted to a training camp in the Wicklow countryside beyond Blessington and became an instructor in musketry and physical training. Fourth Battalion volunteers would rotate to the camp from the city and local men were also trained there. After some time the camp was moved to Glenasmole near Tallaght, Co Dublin where Fulham became Lieutenant and Adjutant to the Coy Captain.

When the Truce began, the camp was taken over officially by IRA GHQ and designated as the training base for 4th Battalion. Jimmy became Camp Adjutant. In 1922 when the IRA split, Fulham chose the pro-Treaty side while the O’Brien brothers, two of his former Coy O/Cs, took the other path as we shall see. James Fulham joined the National Army at Celbridge, Co Kildare and served during the Civil War as a Captain with the First Eastern Division Training, in Mullingar Barracks. A fellow officer there was one of his old O/Cs, Staff Captain John V. Joyce.

While in Mullingar, Jimmy met his future wife, Emily Mary Grimes whose family ran a shop in the town. They married in June 1924, at which time he was an Army Captain based in the Curragh. It appears he remained in the military and reached the rank of Commandant. The Fulhams raised a large family and lived in Mount Merrion, south Dublin.

Comdt, James Fulham (retd.) died suddenly at his home on St Stephen’s Day 1969 aged 70. His widow Emily lived until 1984. They are buried together with one of their sons, Noel, in Deansgrange Cemetery.

The Military Bureau Man

The operation’s leader and C Coy O/C included his part in the abortive raid on his military pension application. John Vincent Joyce, a native of Longford, had attended the famous St. Enda’s school and later organised a Volunteers unit at UCD. His involvement with the IRA forced him to abandon his medical studies in 1921, a year before graduation, owing to his arrest by crown forces.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Col. J. V. Joyce

Joyce was a 1916 veteran and highly regarded by GHQ as an energetic and capable officer. His Coy was the largest and viewed by many as the most active in the 4th Battalion. He was entrusted with difficult jobs and would have been a logical choice for the 1920 Custom House raid.

Capt. Joyce became attached to GHQ Organisation that October but was arrested by Auxies on Grafton Street in January 1921. He ended up in Ballykinlar Internment Camp until the General Amnesty in December. Joining the National Army at Celbridge, Co Kildare on its formation, he went on to have a long Army career, including membership of the Special Criminal Court and a committee to review the cases of men jailed under the Offences Against The State Act; and a productive spell with the Bureau of Military History. He left a useful (debatable, naturally) list of members of Old IRA GHQ units.

Like Jimmy Fulham, Joyce had also married in 1924, in his case at University Church on St Stephen’s Green. His bride was Marion Fogarty, the daughter of an Accountant.

Colonel J. V. Joyce (retired), aged 69 and married, late of Rathmines, Dublin died on 13 March 1964 and is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery. He was survived by his widow and a son.

Obituaries appeared in the two opposing Civil War tradition national newspapers, the Irish Press and Irish Independent. Unusual.

A former Army colleague, retired Col. Niall MacNeill (ex-Old IRA 3rd and 6th Battalions), wrote to both criticising their efforts as falling short of what J. V. Joyce’s Tan War leadership and fighting record with the 4th Battalion deserved. Interesting, as MacNeill was not just standing up for an old Coy comrade and must have been genuinely impressed by his fellow officer.

The Republican Poacher Turned Gamekeeper

Dubliner Denis ‘Dinny’ O’Brien (Donnchadh Ó Bríain) became C Coy Lieutenant when Joyce was captured in January 1921 (Paddy O’Brien, a brother of Denis, took over as Captain). Another Easter Rising man, Denis O’Brien had been a member of the Roe’s Distillery and Marrowbone Lane Garrisons aged 17. He was not interned due to his youth and went on to fight through the Tan War. He also listed the aborted Custom House arms raid in his pension application, rather sardonically it must be said.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Excerpt from Denis O’Brien’s testimony to the Pension Board

Among his many other War of Independence activities were involvement on Bloody Sunday and in the famous 1921 escapes from Kilmainham Gaol. Shortly before the Truce Denis succeeded his brother as Captain of C Coy.

In 1922 he was briefly a staff officer with the new Army in Beggars Bush, brought there to set up a Railway Department, he said. But he changed sides after the Army Convention. He was a captain on the communications staff in the Four Courts, was arrested at the surrender of that Garrison and interned until early 1924. His two brothers Paddy and Larry, also pre-Truce men, were also active with anti-Treaty forces. The former was killed in action against the National Army in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford in 1922.

Dinny remained an active Republican till 1933 when he joined the so-called ‘Broy Harriers’, a cadre of Old IRA anti-Treaty men recruited into the Garda Síochána (police force). They were tasked by Dev’s administration with countering the potential threat from the militant fascist Blueshirts. O’Brien was promoted to Detective Sergeant with the Garda Special Branch in 1937. During The Emergency (World War II), a new threat emerged. The biggest danger to Eire’s neutrality was seen as the IRA because of its links to Nazi Germany’s Abwehr (Military intelligence service, albeit a joke) and bombing campaign in Britain. These days they would probably be termed ‘dissidents’.

The Special Branch actively hunted down such IRA members and sympathisers and foreign spies. D/S O’Brien and his Old IRA colleagues proved highly effective and kept the IRA under pressure with high numbers arrested and interned in the Curragh. However, Denis O’Brien paid the ultimate sacrifice for his success. He was shot dead by 3 IRA gunmen outside his home on Bodenstown Road, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin while leaving for work on 9 September 1942. An eyewitness was a young neighbour, 12 year-old Justin Keating (1930-2009), later a Labour T. D. and 1970s Coalition Government cabinet minister. Two years later, then-IRA Chief of Staff Charlie Kerins from Kerry was hanged for the murder of the detective. He was identified from fingerprints on the bicycle he left at the scene.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Irish Independent coverage

It seems highly ironic that the name Bodenstown, the iconic burial place of Wolfe Tone, featured in the tragic killing of a pre-Truce Republican by later-generation Republicans, divided by their different visions of the Irish Republic. D/S Denis O’Brien (43) was given full military honours by Old IRA Gardaí comrades at his funeral to Mount Jerome Cemetery. The ceremony was also attended by over 300 Old IRA men led by Paddy Rigney.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The O’Briens’ headstone in Mount Jerome (Findagrave – Tim Reynolds). Jimmy McKeown was their daughter Eithne’s husband.

Only the year before his untimely death, Denis had been presented with his 1916 and 1917-1921 Service Medals by President de Valera. He was survived by his widow Annie née Cooney, a Cumann na mBan 1916 participant he had married in 1926; and their two daughters Fiona aged 14 and Eithne (12). Annie Cooney O’Brien’s own revolutionary career is well worth checking out. She died in 1959 but her military pension application (MSP34REF8809) and those of two sisters, is online.

Custom House People Are Special!

The writer was pleasantly surprised to discover the personalities and stories which emerged from just three names involved in one small Tan War incident at the Custom House.

On this site we rarely look beyond the Burning and the lives of the people involved in that big event. But the tales told above go to show that the history of the Custom House is packed with many more characters waiting to be discovered and researched.

Des White