We were delighted when Mairead, daughter of Custom House man Richard McGrath, decided to document her recollections of attending the annual Commemoration as a child. It’s an evocative and rare account of these earlier events and we are indebted to Mairead for agreeing to share her story.

Richard McGrath with daughter Mairead

Mairead’s Story

As an only child I was brought up on the stories of my father’s involvement in the Movement.  He told me things.  About patrolling the North Strand several times each week, sometimes with mills bombs in his pockets.  About the raid on Mason’s Opticians in Dame Street.  He said the officer in charge didn’t show up on the night – possibly because its position was so near Dublin Castle it made it a highly dangerous maneuver – but those who were there carried it out anyway.  Then one Sunday when we were out for our afternoon ramble in Harold’s Cross, he pointed to the barbed wire covering a six foot high wall beside which we were walking and showed me a scar on his little finger.  He had torn the flesh as he was escaping back over the wall having raided the house inside the grounds.  I suppose they were looking for guns but when he and my Mother got married he brought with him a magnificent pair of copper binoculars which I still have and I wondered if he had nicked them from one of those raids. What a pity inanimate objects can’t tell their story!

From my earliest childhood, the annual Mass for the Custom House was a very important date on our calendar. My Mother and myself  were always informed in advance by a loudly proclaimed statement that the forthcoming Sunday was the Custom House Anniversary.  And for those few days my father moved with an accelerated energy and sense of purpose.

The night before my Mother put curlers in my hair.  They produced a tortuous night’s sleep but ensured I would have ringlets to go with my best Sunday clothes the next day.  It was probably the only Mass in the whole year that we were in time for and was at eleven o’clock in Dublin Castle. 

Going into the Chapel gave me a real sense of importance. It was small but hugely historic and as I grew older I read the names of the various Viceroys on the plaques on the balcony.  I always wanted to go up on the balcony because each plaque had its own private open cell-like space with a beautiful small polished wooden door into it and I found it hard to believe I was actually in a space formerly occupied by the Viceroy, the King of England’s Representative in Ireland. Unfortunately I only achieved that once or maybe twice when my Mother wasn’t with us.  She always wanted to be downstairs – probably because no-one else went up there so we stuck out like a sore thumb.

Nevertheless the Mass was mesmerising.  Coming up to the Consecration, the most solemn moment of the Mass which was of course said in Latin, there was a clatter of boots along the floor as a Colour Party from the Defence Forces marched up the aisle, stood in front of the altar, shouted Orders in Irish, dipped the Tricolour and presented arms after which a bugler played a military tribute.  The priest continued saying Mass as if nothing else was happening and the Colour Party stood with heads bowed until just before Holy Communion when, with the exception of the bugler, they did the whole thing in reverse and then marched out.  The first time it happened I nearly jumped out of my skin.  In fact even at that tender age I thought the noisy invasion of soldiers into the most solemn moment of the Mass was a contradiction to my understanding of the God of Love versus the God of War.  Nevertheless it was exciting and I looked forward to it each year.

After Mass the congregation, mostly men,  gathered in small groups in the Castle Yard talking to each other.  The priest who had celebrated the Mass [Rev. Thomas (Maurice) Walsh, O.P., chaplain to Old Dublin Brigade] joined them in his white Dominican habit because he had been one of the Lads in 1921. 

My father’s closest friend was Richard Mulcahy whom Dad called “Mul”.  I was disappointed he wasn’t General Richard Mulcahy who went to Mass in Rathmines on Sundays and who was much more important but “Mul” was good fun and even at that age I could see he was a flirt.  One year my Mother had gone to the local Tech to learn millinery and had made a lovely black velvet ‘cooley’ hat with a veil which she was wearing.  Mul had been enjoying himself flirting and getting off his mark with her when he suddenly turned to my father and said “How is Kathleen?” Dad laughed and told him he’d been talking to her for the last ten minutes.  Mul hadn’t recognised my Mother behind her veil and I wonder now what thoughts had been going round his head about my father’s relationship with the strange woman he himself had been chatting up!    

When the moment arrived the men formed up, and marched from Dublin Castle to the Custom House.  My Mother and I walked along the footpath and arrived at the same time. They stopped under the railway bridge at Beresford Place where there was a two-minute silence. I remember wondering as we stood there with these men who had taken part in such an important episode in the achievement of our country’s freedom why the grounds around the Custom House were never opened for them. The Last Post was then played and they dismissed. 

Mairead as a young girl

As I write this I am sitting beneath a painting on linen which my Mother arranged to be done from a postcard of an artist’s impression of the Burning of the Custom House. It has pride of place on my diningroom wall together with a painting of my Mother done by Countess Markiewicz when they were in jail with other women in the North Dublin Union in 1923.  Anyone looking at her painting who asked her about the part she played in the Movement, always received the reply: “I did nothing.  Dick was the one with the marvellous record.”  They were both on opposite sides in the Civil War and as they talked about old comrades it was always to the accompaniment of “He was one of ours”  or,  alternatively, “one of yours!”  They never spoke with any bitterness.

These are my reminiscences of the 1940s.

© Mairead McGrath

   April 2023

Liam Grace