Next Tuesday 25 May 2021 will be a very special date for all who had people involved in or affected by the famous IRA operation 100 years ago. There will be lots of media coverage. Articles and video reports are appearing and more will follow. Some have been excellent, others maybe not so good. We’ve already picked up some glaring errors in a few. No doubt more mistakes will appear.
Obviously this is not aimed at our regular Readers or members of the Custom House Commemoration Group. It is for the information of a general audience who may not know much if anything about what happened in Dublin on a sunny May Wednesday, a century ago.
We would like to dispel some myths and untruths about what became known as the Burning of the Custom House (or Customs House), a major event which gave rise to a complex, multi-faceted web of stories still emerging after all this time.
It was the Custom House, 1921 – NOT the Four Courts, 1922!
Too often we see an unforgiveable and ludicrous mix-up between the destruction of the Custom House and the battle of the Four Courts at the outset of the Civil War! Hard to believe such a mistake ever happened. But it still pops up far too often. People who can’t tell one famous building from another can hardly lecture about what records were destroyed where and when.
Only a couple of years ago a leading Dublin auction house confused paintings of both events by Norman Teeling! Need we say more….
But didn’t they burn my family history?
We have already seen this classic mistake being repeated. It’s probably too much to hope for that nobody else will trot out the hoary old falsehood that the bad-old IRA destroyed all of Ireland’s historic records in the Custom House! Doubtless most Readers will have come across such rubbish and will know the truth.
Oh no they didn’t!
No family records like birth/marriage/death (BMD) certificates, wills or Irish census returns were involved. BMDs were safely stored elsewhere in 1921 and have never suffered any loss through fire (They are also now digitised).
“All wills” and other valuable historic records were not held at the Custom House. They were destroyed in the Four Courts fire, 1922. Any wills lost in the Custom House would have had duplicates elsewhere. The number of families able to avail of such legal processes in Ireland at that time would have been relatively small.
Similarly with some surviving pre-1901 Census returns. Never at the Custom House. But the fate of those stored in the Four Courts in 1922 have a more complicated story.
In case you don’t believe us, have a look at ace-genealogy expert Clare Santry’s analysis of what was lost when the Public Record Office (PRO) in the Four Courts exploded and burned on 30 June 1922. So if those records were there in the PRO a year after the Custom House, how could they have been gone since 25 May 1921?
So what did the IRA destroy on 25 May 1921?
For the benefit of Readers unfamiliar with all the details, we would like to make it clear that the records burned on 25 May 1921 related to various taxes charged by British crown services like Local Government, Inland Revenue, Customs & Excise, Estate Duty and so on. Some were destined to be sent north to the newly created administration in the Six Counties and had been separated for transfer to Belfast.
Why was the Custom House a target?
The building wasn’t an army or police barracks. But it was a very visible symbol of British rule and was even more vital to maintaining control than any of the many military bases!
The Custom House contained key British government departments – Local Government Board, Inland Revenue, Customs & Excise, Estate Duty, Stamp Duty. All collectors of revenue for the crown.
One major aim of the attack was to further damage government finances following the destruction of 21 local Inland Revenue offices all over Ireland just over a year before. Part of the strategy adopted by the elected Dáil and its legitimate army to make Ireland ungovernable by the crown administration on civil and military levels.
IRA action sanctioned by the Dáil
The attack was sanctioned by the Military Council of the body of elected representatives chosen by the vast majority of the Irish people. In fact it was mooted by the President of the Dáil.
It was not an act of mindless, wanton vandalism by a gang of murderers as the British tried to portray the operation and the Irish Republican Army.
The attack was a military operation carried out with thorough planning and great skill, determination, courage and daring. Intended as a bloodless coup, sadly it did cost the lives of five IRA Volunteers and four civilians.
Did they really have to burn such a lovely building?
The destruction of Gandon’s architectural masterpiece, rightly admired both at home and internationally, was not the primary objective. It was an unfortunate consequence of the need to win another battle in a war against an unwanted occupying power.
The official statement issued in the Irish Bulletin made it very clear the Dáil also regretted that the building had to burn. The fact the Free State government restored it as soon as possible after independence shows how highly the Custom House was valued.
Nothing to justify
So, in case some ill-informed comments do appear, we can all be very clear in rejecting and/or refuting them – based on real history.
It’s hardly necessary to say none of us should ever feel a need to defend the Burning of the Custom House in 1921. Revisionism, falsehoods or swipes at the men and women who helped create the independent Irish state should have no place in our history or heritage. They are not worthy of debate or argument. They can be treated with the contempt they deserve.
Commentators, check the Facts!
We suggest media outlets carrying features on the Custom House attack should familiarise themselves with the background, numerous accounts by participants and recent books easily found. Some ‘experts’ seem to ignore facts and indulge in baseless criticism of the motives and courage of the Irish men and women who accomplished a dangerous and vital mission on 25 May 1921. More get basic facts totally wrong. And others use sources selectively to suit biased agendas.
There’s nothing wrong with informed debates or arguments about the success or otherwise of the Custom House attack.
But in our opinion, armchair comments by the uninformed are lazy, worthless and add nothing to our understanding of Irish history.
What’s so wrong with a bit of Pride & Gratitude?
We are sure that all relatives, friends and admirers of the Custom House Fire Brigade feel great pride in their achievements and sacrifices. Perhaps everyone living in Ireland today should be thankful to those men and women for the freedom and standard of living most of us are lucky enough to enjoy.
It would be very fitting if we all could stop and reflect about that at 12.55pm next Tuesday.
We hope, wherever you may be, you all enjoy the Centenary Day Commemoration on 25 May!
Comment by Mícheál Ó Doubhilín — May 23, 2021 @ 7:49 am
Absolutely correct Gary. Well said.
Comment by Margaret Hayes — May 23, 2021 @ 8:14 am
Many thanks for this illuminating article so clear and well researched
I have been thinking this week of the men and women mobilising for this event in the days leading up to the 25th . They must have been facing it with no little trepidation not withstanding their detailed preparations They were motivated by patriotism and committment to the endeavour and its desired outcomes. 100 years on, I am in awe of their bravery and courage .
My grand uncle Tom Ennis demonstrated this courage and bravery on that day and for many years before and after. He was seriously wounded on the 25th May 1921 and suffered the sequences for the rest of his all too short life
Comment by chcadmin — May 23, 2021 @ 2:47 pm
A brilliant tribute to all involved on 25 May 1921, thank you very much.
The whole Ennis family were great patriots. Including your own grandfather Peter, one of Tom’s brothers and 2nd Battalion I.O.
He’d probably have had a major role in the Burning had he not been jailed in England at the time.
All the best