One hundred years ago, one of Dublin’s most iconic buildings was set ablaze.
n May 25, 1921, IRA volunteers stormed the Custom House, ransacked it, splashed petrol throughout, and torched it.
The fire was a key action of the War of Independence and seen as a propaganda win for the IRA. But it also left nine dead, destroyed the building and its contents, and saw many volunteers captured.
One hundred and thirty years before, the Custom House first opened – a big, neoclassical birthday cake of a building designed for Dublin by star-chitect of his day, James Gandon.
Both events are vividly evoked in a new Custom House Visitor Centre, which tells the story of Dublin from the late 1700s through displays, models, touchscreens, audio-video narratives and a small smattering of artefacts.
For a visitor like myself, it also presents a new opportunity to step inside an iconic building I’ve seen in countless images of the city, but am rarely close to or engaged with – unlike, say, Trinity College or Belfast’s City Hall, which are right at the heart of the 21st century cities.
Custom House Quay can be a bit foreboding. For all of its busy docklands heritage, this isn’t a quayside locals or visitors have much to do with today, and arriving in the early winter darkness, I pass a couple drinking on the steps, and several discarded bottles and cans.
The quays are noisy with passing buses and traffic, but stepping inside those historic doors, I am soon swept up in the spanking new displays, and the modern metropolis fades away.
Free to enter, the new Visitor Centre occupies the entire central area of Ireland’s longest-serving purpose-built government building, and stepping into those halls feels thrilling. It’s a behind-the-scenes look not just at Dublin’s, but Ireland’s history, right down to the burn scars on its interior walls.
Built in the late 1700s, I learn that the Custom House was conceived of to alleviate shipping logjams further up the Liffey – previously, Grattan Bridge, which links Capel and Parliament Streets, was the last bridge before the Irish Sea, with the Old Custom House located on the river alongside it.
There was massive resistance from a merchant class fearful of shifting the axis of the city, however, and protests were a feature of its 10-year construction.
“While the foundations were being dug, a comet appeared in the sky over Dublin,” one display reads. “It was visible at night for almost two weeks, and many saw it as a bad omen.”
Despite everything, the building and its new docks opened in 1791.
Gandon’s desk is one of disappointingly few artefacts on display, but it’s a goosebump moment – “he would have sat here to draw up plans of the Custom House,” a matter-of-fact note states.
From there, displays thread me through a series of elegantly-proportioned rooms, telling the story of the building, its architecture and famous people who worked there (including Percy French and Brian O’Nolan, better known as the novelist and satirist Flann O’Brien).
Displays explain the stonework on the building’s four facades (one of Portland Stone, three of granite), and river gods carved by Edward Smyth, a sculptor Gandon described as “equal to Michelangelo”.
That would make a hell of a LinkedIn endorsement.
Dublin’s Custom House was originally headquarters of the Commissioners of Custom and Excise, but came over time to be viewed as “the administrative heart of the British civil service machine”, as republican and later Fianna Fáil minister Oscar Traynor put it.
Traynor was one of those involved in the 1921 attack, which the displays take a step up in bringing to life – adding an audio-visual oomph as the chart the planning, execution and aftermath of the operation.
It’s the highlight. While some of the earlier displays can feel a little dry, this is an immersive section steeped in red, featuring intricate video on the operation’s planning, execution and aftermath, and it keeps me hooked.
It’s a balanced enough take on a contentious act, too.
“In the months, years and even the decades that followed, the burning of the Custom House has been described as a botched operation, a military fiasco, a watershed moment and a propaganda success,” a display reads.
“The objectives had been to gain the world’s attention and destroy the records housed there, and that was achieved. But at what cost?”
The building was restored by 1930, and today over 400 people work there at the Department of Housing, Local Government & Heritage.
The new Visitor Centre was funded by the Department, with investment from Fáilte Ireland and the OPW, and aims to add a “flagship” visitor experience to the Docklands.
That’s an ambitious description (it doesn’t have the scale of the National Museums in Dublin or the spooky, authentic power of Kilmainham Gaol – I’d like to have seen a little more of the building opened up, or the IRA attackers’ actions linked to the spaces you visit), but it will sit nicely as a heritage attraction alongside others like EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum and Jeanie Johnston Famine Ship.
And perhaps it will help make this quay feel like a more inviting public space. Passers-by may also notice that the stone facade has been cleaned, the granite paving and steps repointed, the Liffey-facing windows refurbished and the cast-iron railings painted.
Separately, Fáilte Ireland is shortly to complete €1.7m worth of enhancement work on 10 visitor attractions in the capital through its ‘Dublin Surprising Stories Scheme’, which aims to bring the city’s history to life using interactive technology, audio visual and improved foreign language provisions.
The hope is that more immersive, engaging attractions will help position the city for recovery when visitors eventually return in number.
Recipients of the funding include Dublinia, Glasnevin Cemetery, Christ Church and St Patrick’s cathedrals, Teeling’s Whiskey Distillery and EPIC, which was recently named Europe’s Leading Tourist Attraction at World Travel Awards for the third year running.
The Custom House Visitor Centre is open from 10am to 4.45pm daily, with free admission. Tickets can be booked online at heritageireland.ie.