It is a strange irony that the Custom House burned out 103 years ago next May still stands, nicely restored and in use as government offices, while the historic house where the attack was first proposed disappeared three years ago today (29 September).

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Before destruction, derelict but still standing
Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Reduced to rubble and matchwood

As many Readers will know, the demolished building – 40 Herbert Park, Ballsbridge, Dublin – also had an earlier historic connection to Ireland’s revolutionary period last century. It was the home of The O’Rahilly, the Irish Volunteer leader killed in action during the retreat from the GPO at Easter 1916. Many meetings of important players in the Rising were held at his home in the run-up to the action.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Michael Joseph The O’Rahilly’ in Volunteers uniform

Fateful Meeting for the Custom House

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Madame O’Rahilly

O’Rahilly’s widow Nancy and her children were still living at no. 40 in January 1921 when they hosted a meeting of senior Republican political and military figures, convened by President Eamon De Valera. He had recently returned from his sojourn in the USA and was critical of what he viewed as the minor operations the IRA were carrying out.

We will not go into detail about the meeting in this post, but one of the President’s instructions was to mount a major military action against the British administration. A significant high-profile building representing the occupying administration was to be targetted for destruction (see here).

And so, it was in 40 Herbert Park that the path to the Custom House Burning began.

Sadly, less than 8 months before we marked the centenary of that event, developers were allowed level a significant physical link to it and The Rising. Planning permission had been granted for construction of “luxury apartments” involving the demolition of no. 40 despite twenty-four objections being lodged (among the obkectors were the Dept. of Culture and the 1916 Relatives Association including O’Rahilly’s grandson Proinsias). At a very late stage the elected City Council members woke up and tried to get the building listed for protection. Far too little, far too late!

Burial of History Keeps Repeating Itself in Dublin

It seems that, just like the Moore Street battle site where The O’Rahilly and many comrades died, Dublin’s historic places will continue to be officially ignored and left to rot; or avariciously built over. At least there are a large number of people and groups who give a damn about this wanton destruction, make their views known and campaign to save them. Unfortunately they seem to meet official walls thicker than those of the Custom House or Dublin Castle.

Whether 40 Herbert Park was worth preserving from an architectural viewpoint is not the issue here. It was an “Arts and Crafts” house dating from 1908, admittedly vacant for a long time and not in good condition. However, it should have been on the preserved list out of respect to its former occupant who gave his life for Ireland. Surely it could have been re-purposed as a museum, with live-in curator and family? It was potentially a really unique and interesting feature of the new development and a facility for educating children about Irish history.

Following the outcry over the demolition, the City Council stated it “would investigate and take appropriate action”. This writer has heard nothing about that since. In October 2022 the local residents did successfully apply to the High Court for permission to seek a judicial review into the planning permission. What has happened in the meantime?

Some may claim the demolition was not illegal and permission had been granted to knock the house down. Yes, the building was not officially on the protected structure list. But surely, knowing the wheels were in motion for a review in that regard, the developers displayed the height of disrespect for Irish history by leveling the place?

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
One of the Shelbourne Hotel’s famous statues

Once again a historic site has been allowed to disappear by bureaucrats in the since-disgraced Bord Pleanála who continue to snub public opinion and ignore decisions voted by elected councillors.

No surprise that rich developers and investors can still do – or refuse to do – as they please with impunity. Not so long ago we had the ludicrous, ill-informed vandalism of the Shelbourne Hotel, a protected structure, by overseas owners trying to be ‘politically correct’. But who didn’t seem to mind breaking local laws by removing sculptures of so-called slave women (actually aristocratic figures) in front of the building. Thankfully, the City Council acted, reason prevailed and “The Shelbourne Four”, who survived the 1916 Rising and much more, have been restored to their rightful places on St. Stephen’s Green.

However, in the case of the demolition of 40 Herbert Park there are no ‘foreigners’ to blame, no revisionism was involved and no laws were broken. The approving authorities and developers are all Irish and cannot credibly claim ignorance of the former owner’s identity. That such a historic building could be dismissed by the highest-level planners as of no value, intrinsically or heritage-wise, is mind-boggling. And the City Councillors’ lack of action for more than a year – and subsequent posturing – on the issue of protected status for the building was pathetic.

One interested citizen wrote to a newspaper saying it’s high time a full list of historically significant buildings and sites in Dublin and nationwide was put together to ensure their preservation. Should we hold our breath waiting on any such action? Hardly!

It seems all we can do is keep on commemorating what we are proud of and trying to educate more people on the importance of our history. Local initiatives have proven their worth in the Decade of Centenaries. Looks like they have many future projects to tackle on the preservation of the places where history was made, as well as celebrating the people who made it.

Des White