We are delighted to publish this unique contribution by Mel Mac Giobúin, grandson of a Custom House Man. Transcribed from a written account recently discovered among a hoard of papers left by Volunteer Jim Gibbons, it contains some really interesting personal opinions on the Burning and senior figures behind the operation – from a man who was there.

We hope to have more from Mel about his grandfather in the future.

Full Name: James Joseph (Jim) Gibbons, Séamus Mac Giobúin

Address: 3 Donard Terrace, Hanlon’s Corner

Unit: Active Service Unit, Dublin Brigade, Irish Republican Army

Born:  14 November 1891, Cregganroe, Louisburgh, Co Mayo

Parents: John Gibbons (a small Farmer) and Mary née Mclaughlin

Siblings: John, Thomas, Myles, Bridget, Austin and Mary

Military Service: C Company, 3rd Battalion and ASU, Dublin Brigade, IRA. Following his release from Kilmainham in December 1921 he joined with Republican Volunteer anti-Treaty forces serving in the Intelligence Directorate until his capture at the surrender of the Four Courts in July 1922. He was held in Mountjoy Jail and in Tintown on the Curragh until 1924.

Brief Details: Jim lived on the small family farm holding until he went to serve an apprenticeship at Flanagan’s Drapery in Bridge Street, Westport, Co Mayo before 1910. He then worked in Hilliard’s, Killarney, Co Kerry. In 1915 he was working in Arnotts, Belfast. At Easter 1916 he travelled towards Dublin but was unable to get further than Drogheda by Thursday 27 April. Jim moved to Dublin in 1917, where he was active with C Company and Paddy Flanagan. He was employed with a number of large outlets in Dublin City in those years. He was working across Connacht for Hugh Mac of Belfast in 1919 until the commencement of the Belfast Boycott in autumn 1920.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Jim Gibbons in Kilmainham Gaol (Kilmainham Gaol Museum)

After prison he got married in 1925 to Brigid Curran from Aughavas, Co Leitrim. They had six children. Brigid died along with the last child on his birth in May, 1936. Jim raised the children, ran clothing businesses and remained involved with Republicans through Cumann Na Poblachta and Fianna Fáil. He spilt with De Valera over the Constitution in 1937. He was then involved with Córas Na Poblachta and briefly with Clann Na Poblachta. He remained adamantly Republican, though successful in business in Irish linens, tweeds and garments. But he fell foul of government bureaucracies for his Republican stance in the 1950’s and 60s. His businesses suffered considerably yet he continued on, never wavering in his views and never retiring from work. James Gibbons died of a heart attack while travelling from Limerick when he was 84, in October 1976.

What follows below is a first-hand account written by him in a copy book during the 1950’s reproduced ‘as is’, with minor syntax corrections and a little context added.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Cover of copy book used by Jim Gibbons (Courtesy of Mel and the Mac Giobúin family)

This narrative focuses on his actions, views and those of his comrades in the Active Service Unit (ASU) of the Dublin Brigade, IRA concerning the big ‘Custom House job’ towards the end of the War of Independence. Jim was Adjutant of the ASU at the time of the Burning. It was a bright day with light rain forecast…

Mel Mac Giobúin

Burning the Custom House – by Jim Gibbons

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
Extract from Jim Gibbons’ manuscript (Courtesy Mel and the Mac Giobúin family)

“About 10.30am on May 25th, 1921 all the ASU men that were fit for service were assembled at 17 Strand Street on the first floor.”

[Mel Mac Giobúin – 17 Strand Street was the ASU ‘Barracks’, one of a number of premises in the city centre where the unit assembled, took orders, held meetings, brought and collected weapons and ammunition and reported after actions. It was also ASU man Michael Stephenson’s tailor’s shop and upstairs work rooms].

“They were addressed by their O/C Comdt. Paddy Flanagan. He told them he had got instructions from HQ that they were to proceed at 1 o’clock to the Custom House and burn it.

The Comdt. said that 1st and 2nd Battalions of Dublin Brigade were also to take part as well as HQ which included Collins’ Bodyguard, better known as Collins’ Squad. They were 12 men picked for special work under the control of P. Daly [Paddy O’Daly] who was brought out of Ballykinlar Camp early in March 1921.

Comdt. Flanagan detailed each man of the unit to a special post. He said they were all to enter the Custom House at 1pm. He gave details of the posts that the men were to take up and that they were not to open fire with guns unless they were first fired on.

I remarked that “We were to be caught like a lot of sheep”. I also said that “I was going in anyway but I felt that I was not coming out of it under these circumstances.”

At 12.45pm Comdt. Flanagan, Michael Stephenson and the writer went down Talbot Street and across to the Custom House entrance near Store Street and into the building.

Comdt. Flanagan put Sean O’Flanagan, James Doyle (one of the four survivors of Mount Street Bridge Battle of 1916), Billy Doyle, Paddy Ivers [Evers] and I down to the Yard where the Stationery was kept. He told me that ‘No matter what happened we were to see to it that none of the Custom House staff was to be hurt so far as we could help’, as all the staff working in the Custom House were brought from their different rooms and down into Yard under our control.

In Strand Street, Comdt. Flanagan had given us a detailed outline of the building. At the end of the Stationery Yard there was a high iron gate opening onto the plot of ground adjoining the docks.

He said that Collins said that the gate would be left open for our retreat as that was the last place that the fire would reach. When we went down to take our control of the Custom House staff, we found this gate was locked. However we were told our O/C would call us when to get away.

Comdt. Flanagan went up through the building placing the rest of the unit to their posts. In quick succession the Custom House staff was assembled in the Yard. There were about 150. At around 1.20pm we heard the first bomb exploding and then the rifle fire.

The Custom House staff, particularly the ladies, commenced to get hysterical and they could not be calmed. I called over a stoutish man with a ginger moustache and told him to tell the ladies and the rest that nothing would happened to them if they stayed quite. He went back to them and we had no more trouble.

By this time the building was blazing on all sides. The only place where the fire had not reached was the Stationery Yard. The passage between the front of the building and the Yard was in flames.

Comdt. Flanagan got out a side door leading to the Dock before it had caught fire. He dashed on the patch of green grass between the building and the docks.

The Auxies posted at the corner of Store Street opened fire on him just opposite the locked iron gate. Sean O’Flanagan and I were watching. Comdt. Flanagan dropped flat on his stomach. The fire ceased as the British thought they had hit him.

Immediately Comdt. Flanagan sprang to his feet again ran to the railing which runs between the Custom House and the Dock. He sprang up the railing, gripping it with his powerful hands, crossed and down the other side. The British opened fire on him when he was sliding down the railing.

He dropped on his belly again, crept across the bridge by the quay. The other side of the bridge, a donkey and cart was abandoned. He got on the cart, put coal over his face and drove down the quay.

Shortly after that he met with two lorries of Tans, coming from the London & North Western Hotel where they were stationed, to the assistance of the British forces. They swerved out of his way to let him pass.

When he got to Seville Place he left the donkey and cart and went straight to the [Hotel] Plaza, HQ.

There he found Oscar Traynor O/C of Dublin Brigade and Paddy [O’] Daly. The first question Traynor asked him, ‘What did he mean, by leaving his men?’

[Mel Mac Giobúin – I take it that Jim‘s suggestion here is that Flanagan should also have been captured in the trap. He elaborates the point in further written accounts around the War of Independence and early Civil War].

“Michael Stephenson had got out the side door with Flanagan. Stephenson dashed across the green to the docks. He was fired on by the Auxies from Store Street, was hit in the back with a bullet. He fell into the Dock and was picked up by a boat man and taken care of.

The locked Stationery Yard gate and the side door and bridge used by Flanagan and Stephenson in their escape (OSI Maps)

The firing went on until about 2pm. It then ceased. The Secretary of the Custom House staff opened the big gate on to the docks and all the staff went out onto the green patch near the docks.

The Irish Republican Army men mixed with the staff as the Auxies could not distinguish who was who.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Finally the Secretary picked out his own staff. There were also some people visiting the Custom House who were made prisoners by the IRA while it was being burned. When people were lined up by the British on the Quays, many of our men got away by saying they were ‘in on business’ and held as captives.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

I was left out on the roadway to be let off, when at that moment Major Ryan of the Auxies came up with a police sergeant from Store Street. Ryan questioned the young Auxy why I was there, in reply he said I was just being let off as I was ‘in on business’ and was made a prisoner by the raiders. The police sergeant tipped off the Auxy Major.”

[Mel Mac Giobúin – Jim Gibbons was known to the DMP. His digs by the old Cattle Markets, near the top of Stoneybatter, had been violently raided and searched as a follow-up police action in November 1920].

“I was pushed back to the wall again and was afterwards the first of the Custom House prisoners to be identified by the same Auxy. I understand I was also identified by the Secretary of the Custom House staff.

Sean O’Flanagan, who was M/O to the ASU, was standing beside me. He was questioned and asked what he was; he said he was a Doctor. The Auxies asked him to give first aid to some of their men who were lying wounded along the street. He did so and was sent with them in an ambulance to the Hospital, now St. Bricin’s.

He was being brought back again in a lorry with two soldiers to be made a prisoner, but passing by Swift’s Row, Ormond Quay, Flanagan jumped off the lorry and away to freedom.

When the first lorry pulled up at the Custom House, standing at one of the Pillars, Jim Conroy near the quay and Jack Foy of the ASU 1st Section, each fired a bomb into each lorry and at that moment Oscar Traynor and Paddy Daly were standing on the footpath at the corner near Liberty Hall. [Editor – Accounts by Traynor, O’Daly and others credit the bombing to Dan Head, killed in action at that early stage].

Immediately the lorries pulled up, according to Conroy who told the writer afterwards in Kilmainham ‘Traynor and Daly ran for all they were worth and that was all the part they took in the Burning of the Custom House that day’. This bears out what Comdt. Flanagan said about his arrival at the [Hotel] Plaza that he found Traynor and Daly there.

There seems to be some mystery in the Burning of this building. There were 12 of the Active Service Unit made prisoners. In all, out of 111 prisoners brought that day to Arbour Hill, there were 76 of the Dublin Brigade.

It seems it was to be destroyed a week earlier but was postponed. The first arrangement was to snipe at all posts in and around Dublin while it was being burnt but this was changed and decided that unless the British forces surrounded the Custom House and opened fired they were not to be attacked or fired on. They were strange military tactics indeed.

The fighting at the Custom House lasted from 1.20pm to 2.10pm. The IRA men were setting fire to the front of the building when the British arrived; men were faced with fire from the burning building on one side and from the British bullets outside. So they had to fight their way out and many of them did, but many fell in the breach too. Two brothers Paddy and Stephen O’Reilly, young Dorrin [Edward Dorins], [Dan] Head.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921
The IRA fatalities, L-R: Dan Head, Edward Dorins, Paddy O’Reilly, Stephen O’Reilly and Sean Doyle

Tom Ennis, O/C Second Battalion, was badly wounded and so was [Sean] Doyle who died later in the Mater Hospital.

The Auxies and Tans suffered many causalities, but the majority of the IRA in the Custom House were made prisoners because they were caught by not having any protection outside the building with the exception of the few that fired their bombs when the Auxies jumped from their lorries.

Seventy-six were made prisoners – was this the spectacular operation that Mr de Valera wanted in order to ginger up American opinion? He had been sent back from Paris [Editor – the post WW1 settlement conference at which Ireland vainly sought support for independence] empty-handed a short time before he went to the States in 1919 when he got the smell of gunfire; and returned when it was practically all over. He went to the States under the protection of the IRA and returned under the protection of the British CID; a very strange man indeed.

The Custom House prisoners were first brought to Arbour Hill and kept there for six weeks; they were then transferred to Kilmainham prison and kept there until the treaty was signed on 6th December 1921.

In the foregoing concerning the Burning of the Custom House I have stated what I know to be true facts. I have not stated all the facts, as where I was placed I could not have witnessed all the action.”

Séamus Mac Giobúin, former Adjutant, ASU Dublin.