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 long time ago. And his affiliation with the anti-Treaty forces did not prove straightforward, as we shall see.


William 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 south Dublin city. There are few details available on the brothers’ IRA careers but both started out with their local C Coy, 2nd Battalion.

Billy was selected for the ASU on its formation in late 1920. 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). When arrested at the Custom House, Billy gave his address as St. Kevin’s Cottages on Synge Street in Portobello.

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, believes Doyle was an Intelligence man with the two units he was with before his arrest.

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. The majority of his’s No 4 Section were located on Butt Bridge and the south quays and managed to retreat after expending their ammunition. However Billy and Jim Harpur did not have an escape route, were captured and interned for over 6 months in Kilmainham Gaol.

In Doyle’s case his former membership of 2nd Battalion may have resulted in him being on fire duty. Battalion Comdt. Tom Ennis had wanted still active ex-members of his Battalion to rejoin just for the Burning and several are known to have done so.

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 he 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

Civil War And a Dilemma Looms

After his release the following day (8 December 1921) Billy got back with the ASU. 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 enlisted at Beggars Bush. Doyle appears in the famous photo taken there on 4 February. He may in fact have been ranked as 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. And that’s how Billy came to be pictured outside the Four Courts not too long afterwards.

His activities during the Civil War are unfortunately not known but he did survive physically unscathed.

Peacetime and Family

After hostilities ended he resumed work as a Grocer’s Assistant and lived in 2 Crawford Terrace, Ballybough, Dublin.

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 at Barnacullia, Co Dublin. Their house was named Wave View. That is doubly appropriate. You will see the scene to be seen from their windows below. And ‘Wave’ was their Doyle 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.