On 25 May 1921, Dublin’s magnificent Custom House was set ablaze by the 2nd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. The centre of Local Government for the British administration in Ireland, the building was of enormous political and symbolic importance.
That the IRA succeeded in burning the building isn’t entirely surprising, owing to the level of collusion between the revolutionary forces and Dublin Fire Brigade, well-detailed in The Firemen’s Tale (Available at this link).Not only had the IRA sought advice on how to burn the building from republicans within the DFB, but on entering the burning premises firefighters did what they could to ensure the building was destroyed. DFB historian Las Fallon has written of how the Chief Officer of the Fire Brigade, Captain John Myers, did not seek any external help from other fire services (like those of Rathmines and Pembroke) who could have assisted in bringing the blaze under control, while firemen “made down their hoses with a marked lack of speed or urgency.” One firefighter who entered the building, Michael Rogers, recalled:
We had the building practically at our mercy. And I can tell you now that many parts of it that were not on fire when we entered were blazing nicely in a short while.
Firefighter Joseph Connolly was an active member of the Irish Citizen Army at the time of the burning of the building. Following the act, ICA Captain Michael O’Kelly was actually snuck into the building disguised as a firefighter to recover weapons, remembering that about 35 revolvers were salvaged, and that “we took them out and delivered them in Fairview that night in a Dublin ambulance.”
For the IRA, the ICA and indeed the DFB, it was all in a day’s work. Five Volunteers were killed that day, and dozens captured, but the images of the destroyed Custom House which would make their way across the world did much to counter the lies that the war in occupied Ireland was little more than unarmed policemen being shot by thugs. The capacity of the revolutionary forces was clearly demonstrated before the world, in a way that was totally at odds with the cinema newsreels of 1921.
Fire was a weapon in the revolutionary period, more often deployed by crown forces. As Las Fallon notes, the burning of co-operative creameries and community services “as a general reprisal against a local population was possibly the most targeted use of incendiarism by the police and British military. In general they struck more widely, burning towns and villages…to strike fear into the locals.”
In France, this imaginative illustration appeared in the pages of Le Pelerin days after the burning of the Custom House. A few things should be noted; perhaps the illustrator was thinking too much of the events of 1916, as the scene is more reminiscent of the GPO than the reality of the Custom House. While men entered the Custom House armed with revolvers, here we see rifles being fired out of the windows. Note also the presence of women, perhaps Cumann na mBan activists, one of whom has had the misfortune of having her dress catch fire! Looking out one window, we see a Dublin Fire Brigade firefighter hard at work too, pointing his hose inside the inferno. It’s quite funny to think, owing to recent historical research and revelations, that may be the most ludicrous or inaccurate dimension of the work!