Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Smiling and pointing his revolver at the camera outside the Four Courts in 1922, Custom House Man William ‘Billy’ Doyle looks every inch the classic IRA volunteer in his iconic trilby hat, plain clothes, military webbing and belt (Photo from (Kilmainham Gaol museum via Liz Gillis, Revolution in Dublin and Fall of Dublin).

But far from idly posing, he was showing his continued commitment to the Republic following the Tan War. Billy was serving with the IRA Executive forces who would shortly be attacked by their former comrades in the first major hostilities of the Civil War.

Ironically, the Four Courts bombardment and assault was led by his former O/C at the Custom House Burning, Major General Tom Ennis. And many other survivors from that operation also took part as members of the Provisional Government National Army. Lots had changed since the Truce. In less than a year, men who had soldiered together at the Burning among other operations had become bitter opponents.

As 1922 wore on things were rapidly escalating towards armed conflict. To Doyle it must have felt like an age since he’d joined Dublin Brigade, the Tan War a lifetime ago. And his affiliation with the anti-Treaty forces did not prove straightforward, as we shall see.

Origin and Background

William Joseph Doyle was born on 7 December 1898 at Blackberry Lane, off Rathmines Road in Dublin, near Portobello (now Cathal Brugha) Barracks.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Location of Bill’s birth. Next door was was Lissenfield House, later home, from 1922 to 1966, to IRA Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy.

Billy’s father John was originally from Woodside, near Barnacullia, in the Glencullen area of south Co Dublin and worked as a Stonecutter. Various branches of Doyles have traditionally been in the granite stone mining, cutting and working trades in the locality. In fact there were so many different Doyles they were given nicknames to distinguish them. Billy’s people were the ‘Wave Doyles’. His mother was Jane (originally Daly) from the townland of Kingston, near Dundrum, south Co Dublin. There was one other son, Joseph, two years older than Billy.

By 1901 the family were still in Rathmines. Ten years later the parents and son Joe were living out in Mrs Doyle’s native place, Kingston. Young Scholar Billy was staying with his auntie Mary Daly at 7 Montpelier Hill, near the Phoenix Park north of the Liffey. His descendants say his mother had arranged for him to live with her sister as she believed he would get a better education in a city school.

Coincidentally Montpelier Hill also lies within an extensive complex of former British Army facilities, all in use at the time. One was Arbour Hill Detention Barracks in which Billy would spend a few weeks in 1921. It seems the military was destined to play some part in Billy’s life.

Active Service Unit

As young adults Billy, a Grocer’s Assistant, and Joe ended up living and working in Dublin city. There were few details available on the brothers’ IRA careers apart from their membership of northside C Coy, 2nd Battalion from May 1917. However, with the November 2022 release of military pension files, significant new information has emerged on Billy’s activities (MSP34REF21587).

Up to his selection for a paid, full-time Active Service Unit (A.S.U.) role in December 1920, Billy’s service had involved mainly routine stuff such as drilling, weekend maneouvres, a couple of raids for arms, police duty and intelligence work. The level of his activity ramped up with the A.S.U. Comrades included future Custom House Men Jim Heery, George Gray, Paddy Evers, Christy Fitzsimons, John Muldowney and Joe Gilhooly under O/C Tom McGrath (who was in hospital wounded when the Burning took place). Initially Doyle was in No. 2 Section (northside-based). But within a short time he transferred to No. 4 Section which covered his locality (according to BMH.WS0390 by Joe Gilhooly).

ASU No. 4 was highly active in the south-west city area including hot-spots like the ‘Dardanelles’ where they mounted many ambushes. Christy Fitzsimons tells of an abortive assassination attempt in April 1921 on an Auxiliary Capt. Tams at Harcourt Street and Billy Doyle’s involvement. On that occasion the target escaped. Conor McHenry, godson of IRA man Joe McHenry and a researcher into the Tan and Civil Wars, believed Doyle was an Intelligence man with the two units he was with before his arrest. This has proved correct.

Billy took part in one highly controversial action. He was among the execution party who took the informer/spy John ‘Hoppy’ Byrne from his hospital bed on a stretcher and shot him dead within a courtyard. It is little wonder that Doyle himself described it in the 1930s as “a nasty job in Jervis Street hospital“. Other events Billy planned and took part in included raids for arms at British army posts; capture of crown forces stores at Westland Row railway station and Fishamble Street; sniping and ambushes on military and Auxiliary patrols and vehicles; and ongoing intelligence work. He said his O/C (Paddy Flanagan) would pass him information in advance of operations which he had to verify and would then help work out detailed tactics. He was clearly a highly regarded A.S.U. operator playing a leading role in their untiring campaign against the British forces.

In the Spring of 1921, Billy was with a party from the Squad and A.S.U. sent to intercept a military ambulance carrying the captured and badly wounded Longford Brigade O/C Sean MacEoin from the midlands to Dublin. The plan had to be abandoned when the vehicle took an unexpected circuitous route and never showed up at the ambush location.

Even on the morning of the Custom House attack Billy was out in charge of an unspecified A.S.U. job, although he said it was unsuccessful. Later on he joined up with the rest of the A.S.U., mobilised in its entirety for the Burning.

Arrested at the Burning

On 25 May 1921 most southside ASU men were assigned outside protection duties at the Custom House. However some, like Billy, were allocated roles inside the building, he being posted in the Stationery Department with the A/S.U. Adjutant, Jimmy Gibbons, keeping guard on the staff held there. The majority of his No 4 Section comrades were located on Butt Bridge and the south quays and managed to retreat after expending their ammunition. Unfortunately Billy and Jim Harpur did not have an escape route, so were captured and interned for over 6 months in Arbour Hill Detention Barracks, then Kilmainham Gaol.

In Doyle’s case his former membership of 2nd Battalion may have resulted in him being on duty inside the building. Battalion Comdt. Tom Ennis had wanted former members of his Battalion with other units to rejoin the ‘Fighting 2nd’ just for the Burning and to have the honour of carrying out the destruction; several men are known to have done so.

In later years Billy was paid a handsome compliment by a comrade, Sean Ward, O/C of F Coy, 2nd Battalion, despite having chosen the opposing Treaty position in 1922-23. Ward said “[At the Custom House, Billy Doyle] was of the greatest assistance to me personally when I was badly wounded“.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
ASU men captured at the Custom House. Billy Doyle in right foreground (Kilmainham Gaol Museum)

The day before he was freed Billy wrote his hopes for his country and himself in an autograph book. How could he have guessed the path for both would be tortuous, bloody and unfinished 100 years later?

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Courtesy of Winnie Doyle Dunne

He himself also kept an autograph book which was signed by a good number of Custom House Men. It is a treasured family heirloom kept by Billy’s daughter Eileen and handed down to his granddaughter Winnie Doyle Dunne.

IRA Split And a Big Dilemma Looms

After his release the following day (8 December 1921) Billy got back with the A.S.U., by then amalgamated with the Squad as the Dublin Guard. They were based at Celbridge Workhouse training camp. When the new Army was being formed in early 1922, he was transferred to Beggars Bush Barracks and took part in the march to the takeover. Doyle appears in the famous photo taken there on 4 February. It is likely he was one of the five Corporals in the Guards at that stage.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Billy on left beside Mick Walker and Mick Stephenson at Beggars Bush Barracks (South County Dublin Libraries – The Brophy Family).

But Doyle obviously agonised over his allegiance to the pro-Treaty faction and concluded he could not support them. He, along with other Custom House men in the same photo, like Paddy Rigney, Paddy Evers and Paddy Brunton, resigned from the National Army and joined up with the Executive IRA forces in April. Fellow anti-Treaty Custom House comrade Jimmy Gibbons said Doyle brought arms with him and believed he had been offered officer rank to stay with GHQ, but turned it down. And that’s how Billy came to be pictured outside the Four Courts not too long afterwards.

Civil War

Little was known of Billy’s part until, as stated, his military pension files were released in November 1922. They provide excellent insights to his extensive IRA activities.

Just three days before the Four Courts was attacked, Billy was sent home on sick leave with a septic throat. When he leaned of the opening of hostilities, he established contact with other republicans and joined the garrison occupying Hely’s licensed premises on Parnell Street. At the end of the week they evacuated the position to carry on the fight elsewhere. Billy and the anti-Treaty A.S.U. would adopt their old tactics against the Free State forces.

Soon he was appointed Assistant Intelligence Officer for Dublin Brigade and worked closely with A.S.U. O/C George White, based in the Co-Op on Middle Abbey Street. Billy Doyle went on to participate in operations against the National Army and planned the machine gun attack on Wellington (later Griffith) Barracks. This took place on 8 November 1922. One soldier was killed and fourteen wounded, seven seriously, when republicans fired on troops drilling on the parade ground from positions across the Grand Canal. Billy Doyle said he was watching from a safe distance. That was fortunate for him as Free State reinforcements quickly arrived, killed two attackers and captured six, along with a machine gun. Two civilians died and others were wounded in crossfire.

George White was arrested by the National Army around that time and Doyle then worked with his replacement Phil Kennedy and also received instructions from IRA Director of Intelligence Mick Cronin and the Dublin Brigade O/C. Billy continued to serve as an Intelligence Officer until he was arrested on Pearse Street in May 1923. He was held in Oriel House, then Kehoe Barracks before being sent into internment at Hare Park, Curragh. He took part in a 15-day hunger strike before being released in the December general amnesty.

Peacetime and Family

After being freed he resumed work as a Grocer’s Assistant and lived at 2 Crawford Terrace, Ballybough, Dublin city.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Billy and May Doyle’s wedding photo (Courtesy Winnie Doyle Dunne)

On St. Valentine’s Day 1926 he married (Annie) May O’Reilly, a Cooper’s daughter from the same address, in their local parish church St Agatha’s on North William Street. The couple stayed in Ballybough into the late 1930s while raising a son Liam (RIP 2011) and a daughter Eileen.

They later moved nearer to the Doyle family’s roots in the mountains at Barnacullia, Co Dublin. Their house was named Wave View. That is doubly appropriate. You will see the scene visible from their windows below. And ‘Wave’ was their Doyle family nickname. Billy opened a shop there. His granddaughter Winnie Doyle Dunne recalls it from her childhood and her sister worked there during school holidays. Winnie learned that “During the [Second World] War years he fed half of the mountain when there was no money and until the day he died people still owed the shop money but he never went looking for it.”

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
What a vista on a fine day from Wave View, Billy’s house and former shop in the mountains. Howth Head and Dublin Bay on the horizon (Google streetview)

She adds “Some of my friends remember my grandad letting them use the shop after hours as a kind of meeting place where they played darts and he provided a few minerals to keep them off the roads”.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Billy and May Doyle, about 1955 (Winnie Doyle Dunne)

Billy was widowed in 1958 when his wife May passed away while Winnie was a baby. She says “So [he] had quite a lonely life after that. Growing up I always thought he was a loner but looking back now I think he was probably suffering from some sort of post traumatic stress. He was always trying to talk about his involvement in the various activities but no one wanted to listen, supposedly because he was constantly talking about it and people got fed up” Winne adds a rueful and heartfelt comment “If only I was around him more then!”

It is perhaps notable that Doyle does not appear in photos taken at the ASU Reunion in 1939 or the presentation of Active Service Unit Certificates in 1950. However he remained close friends with fellow anti-Treaty man George White who’d been in the same ASU section. And he did make it to a commemoration at Kilmainham Gaol in 22 March 1970, pictured among the men paying their respects to the executed Rising Leaders in the Stonebreakers Yard.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
From left: Billy is 3rd, Tony Flynn 4th, Sam Robinson 5th, Dan Rooney 7th (Courtesy of Daniel Breen)

William Doyle had retired from his shop work before his death on 10 September 1974 in a Dun Laoghaire hospital. He was aged 75. Billy was buried beside his late wife in the cemetery at Glencullen on the foothills of the Dublin Mountains. His Old IRA comrades had not forgotten him and a party fired three volleys at the graveside, according to Winnie.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Picturesque view of Glencullen Cemetery (B. Gray, Google Maps photo)

An obituary listing some of his revolutionary activity was published in the Irish Press. It also noted his conscientious and honourable change of allegiance over the Treaty.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Newspaper tribute to Billy’s contribution to the Cause.

His memory is kept alive by his descendants, in particular Winne – a staunch Commemoration Group supporter – and her auntie Eileen, Billy’s surviving daughter. We were honoured to meet them both at a Custom House event a few years ago.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Eileen and Winnie showing a photo of Billy, Custom House 2018 (Gerry Cassidy)

We are glad to join with his family in remembering the Custom House Man from the Mountains.

Finally, there may have also been a later Doyle connection to the Custom House. Winnie says Billy got her dad a job with Dublin stone masons and marble works where he worked for 47 years. The firm was Burnell’s, an off-shoot of C. W. Harrisons. It is believed Harrison’s supplied the plinth for the Custom House memorial sculpture. As Winnie says, if that’s true, what an amazing coincidence.

Des White

Many thanks to the Doyles for the family insights and to Group member Johnny Doyle for the Harrison’s info.