Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

One hundred years ago on this date my father’s uncle, Edward Dorins, one of the IRA men later to die in action at the Custom House, had a shocking experience at the hands of crown forces. It almost killed him and made news headlines.

The event is mentioned in a previous article on Edward’s life. On its centenary I would like to elaborate on the circumstances of him being lifted from his home, beaten and thrown into the Liffey on 3 February 1921.

Family Background

Edward Christopher Dorins was born in 1898 in Dún Laoghaire (then named Kingstown). His father Thomas Dorins (aka Doris) came from the Donegal Gaeltacht. His mother’s father, Patrick Travers, was a sailor from Co Cork and his mother Mary Ellen’s mother came from a family with roots near Dalkey, south Co Dublin. The couple met while working in Scotland, in Greenock outside Glasgow. They married there in 1892 before moving back to Kingstown.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Edward’s parents Thomas and Mary Ellen

Mary Ellen was a Seamstress while Thomas worked with steam engines as a Stoker and Engine Driver and later as a River Pilot. In all, there were eight Dorins boys but only four survived to adulthood – Cornelius, Patrick (born in Greenock), Edward and Michael.

Illnesses took three of the others, while my namesake John tragically died after being badly burned when a candle overturned and set fire to his bedclothes.

A Nationalist Upbringing

Mary Ellen and the females in her family had a strong influence on the Dorins boys in their formative years. The Travers were a family of strong, radical women and unstable men with an unhealthy love of alcohol.

The names of Edward’s uncles, Patrick and Ignatius Travers, both seamen, occur with monotonous regularity in the jail records of Kilmainham and Mountjoy (and Limerick on one occasion – that must have been some weekend!) for various combinations of drunkenness, petty vandalism and random violence in the 1890s and 1900s.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Edward’s auntie Nan Travers, an influencer of his political views

On the other hand, Edward’s grandmother Catherine Travers worked hard after the death of her husband to support her family through a combination of running a drink-shop in Patrick Street, Kingstown and Midwifery. Her girls, Mary Ellen, Nan, Julia and Agnes were all grounded, intelligent and politically nationalist.

New Horizons and Dublin Brigade

After his mother’s death in 1908, Edward’s father Thomas remarried and the family moved to the northside Docklands of Dublin city. This placed the young lad in the catchment area of Irish Volunteers 2nd Battalion E Coy, which he joined. Unusually among his footballing comrades he was a member of St Joseph’s GAA Club (founded by soldiers returning from the WWI trenches), rather than St Laurence O’Toole’s.

Into The Clutches of Dark Forces

We do not know what activities he had engaged in with the IRA but he must have come to the notice of the Auxiliaries. He certainly had very up-close and direct experience of them before the Custom House.

On the fateful night of 3 February 1921, the family’s house at 145 Church Road in East Wall (now the local Clinic) was raided by an Auxiliary party. Edward was beaten and threatened, then taken on a winding route through dark streets in a tender while the abuse continued. When they reached Grattan Bridge (across the Liffey at Capel Street/Parliament Street), he was given the choice between “the water and the gun”.

According to the version handed down in the family, he defiantly chose the gun, but was further beaten up and then thrown into the river. As he was carried downstream in the water, the Auxiliaries shot at him from the banks of the river. At the Ha’penny Bridge he found a ladder and attempted to climb out but heard an English voice warning him “Don’t get out here, son, keep on swimming”. He dropped back into the water, and just at that moment the wall above him was sprayed with machine gun fire.

He eventually managed to swim down to the area of the Custom House, where he found another ladder near Butt Bridge and hauled himself out.

To us, of course, it seems that the English voice calling from the quay above was part of an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse. Edward, apparently, believed that the man was trying to help him. Later, he told his aunt Nan Travers about the incident, and her comment was that “There’s good and bad everywhere.”

Amazing Escape

He was lucky to survive so long in the cold water and he must have been a strong swimmer, either because of his childhood near the sea in Kingstown or because it was in the genes. His uncle Conall Dubh Doris, who lived in Lettermacaward, Co Donegal, used to swim across Trawenagh Bay from Dooey with his clothes tied to the top of his head with a belt to court his future wife in the townland of Marameelan!

After Edward escaped the river, in spite of the curfew he somehow made his way to Jervis Street Hospital, off the quays upriver close to where the swim for his life had begun.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The stretch of cold river Edward had to survive for a distance of about 850 meters (OSI Maps).

He spent a week under treatment for pneumonia. Still not completely recovered, he was forced to leave in a hurry after a tip-off of a raid on the hospital for wounded republicans. A few years ago, I remembered hearing from my father’s cousins that Edward was friendly with the Protestant family next door on Church Road, the Picketts. As this is an uncommon name in Ireland, I randomly sent out a mail shot to a few Picketts. One of them kindly answered to say they did indeed recall hearing the story of how Edward had arrived home late one night wearing hospital-issue pyjamas. The next day he went to the Travers family in Kingstown and stayed with them for over a month.

In the meantime, the case of Edward Dorins and his ill-treatment by a mysterious group of armed men during curfew hours was discussed in the House of Commons in London.

Controversial Denials, As Usual

The incident was reported in the newspapers and a Welsh Labour MP, Thomas Griffiths, asked the Irish Secretary Hamar Greenwood about it in Parliament on 23 February 1921. Greenwood, of course, denied that the British forces had been involved. The following is taken from Hansard, the official record.

“Mr. T. GRIFFITHS asked the Chief Secretary whether he is now in a position to state the result of his inquiry into the case of Mr. E. Dorrins [sic], a member of the United Operative Plumbers and Domestic Engineers’ Association, who was taken from his bed at his own home in Dublin at 12.30 a.m. on 3rd February by Crown forces, and after ill-treatment by them was conveyed in a motor lorry through the city and was asked by the officer in charge whether he would like to be drowned or shot, and was taken to Capel Street bridge where three members of the Crown forces flung him into the river; and what action he proposes to take in the matter?”

“Sir H. GREENWOOD I have made careful inquiry into this matter and am informed that Mr. Dorrins [sic] was admitted to the Jervis Street Hospital, Dublin, about midnight on the 3rd ultimo, suffering from shock as the result of being immersed in water, and was detained as a patient for a week, but that the police have been unable to obtain any information as to the persons by whom he was assaulted. The military authorities to whom I have also applied have no knowledge of the occurrence.”

The Freemans Journal reported this story, adding that the answers by Hamar Greenwood were greeted with jeers and laughter. It was obvious to the Welsh and English radicals listening to Greenwood’s replies that he was not being entirely honest. The men who abducted Edward Dorins in the middle of the night were clearly Auxiliaries and constituted what we would now call a ‘Death Squad’ (as termed back then, a ‘Murder Gang’).

The Notorious ‘Tudor’s Toughs’

Although Edward’s luck would run out a few months later during the Custom House attack, he was far luckier in February 1921 than two other Volunteers who fell foul of the same Auxiliaries or a similar group just a few days later. James Murphy and Patrick Kennedy were arrested by the Auxiliaries of F Company in Dublin.

Two hours later, some DMP constables found the two men shot in Clonturk Park, Drumcondra – with buckets over their heads. Kennedy was dead already and Murphy was dying. He passed away in the Mater Hospital two days later, but not before he had testified that the man in charge of those who had taken them was Captain William Lorraine ‘Tiny’ King, who had arrested them with the words that they were “just going for a drive”.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
No justice for the Drumcondra victims (WO35-136)

King and two of his men, Hinchcliffe and Welsh, were tried for murder in mid-April, but acquitted. James Murphy’s dying declaration was ruled inadmissible and officers from F Company provided perjured alibis for King at the time of the shooting. The prosecution case collapsed. But King was quickly transferred from F Company and then out of Dublin, to Galway.

Another name which could also be linked to the incident is Major Jocelyn Lee ‘Hoppy’ Hardy, famous for brutally torturing and beating prisoners during interrogation sessions in Dublin Castle. Both he and King were implicated in the murders of Dick McKee, Peadar Clancy and Conor Clune there on 20 November, 1920 as well as other unsolved night-time shootings in the city such as at Manor Street and the Exchange Hotel.

If it was the same gang of Auxiliaries of F Company under King and/or Hardy who beat Edward and threw him in the Liffey and murdered Messrs Murphy and Kennedy a week later, then there is a certain irony to this. It was of course the very same F Company that came from the Castle to the Custom House on 25 May; and it is more than likely members of this group were responsible for shooting Edward dead in Beresford Place. We will probably never know for sure.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Edward’s name included on a memorial recently erected in Deansgrange Cemetery to Rising Volunteers and IRA killed in action, 1916-1922. He is also recorded on the family’s headstone there.


What we do know is that Edward Dorins was loved and very much missed. By his father Thomas; his brothers Michael and Cornelius (although he, my grandfather, strongly disapproved of Edward’s politics); his aunts and other relatives in Kingstown; his friends; workmates in the Dublin Port Company; and E Coy comrades. And by his girlfriend, his sweetheart.

I was told many years ago that he was collecting the small silver coins called Thrupenny Joeys to make a bracelet for her at the time of his death. Recently, I came across a piece (on the East Wall For All site) which names her as Sarah Fagan of 18 Gardiner Street. That morning, he passed her house and she came out and greeted him. She noticed that his clothes were shabby, though he was normally well-dressed. She shouted to him and he shouted back: “I’ll see you later. I’ll be a bit late.” She never did see him again.

When Edward’s father Thomas visited his family in south Donegal in the 1930s, he used to ask the children to sing the nationalist ballad Slievenamon because it had been Edward’s favourite song. As he listened to them singing, the tears flowed down the old man’s face.

“In the festive hall, by the starwashed shore,
Ever my restless spirit cries.
My love, oh, my love, shall I ne’er see you more.
And my land, will you never uprise?
By night and by day, I ever, ever pray
While lonely my life flows on
To see our flag unfurled and my true love to enfold
In the valley near Slievenamon.”

Charles Kickham (1828-1882)

Sadly those hopes were never to be realised in Edward’s short but eventful life. May he Rest in Peace.

John Dorins