There are two routes I can take to my office when I leave the train station to go to work. They both pass a large 18th century building of Palladian, neoclassical design, which I used to admire as a child, long before I knew of its connection to my own family.
Now, as I pass it by, I study its pillars and façade for signs of bullet holes and shrapnel scars, and I imagine the men who died there.
I can almost hear the crack of gunfire, the screams of anger, pain, defiance, and the sight of red-gold flames flashing beneath billowing black-grey smoke.
My nostrils twitch at the imagined smell of cordite, and I wonder what my grandfather Michael’s role was when, aged just 20, he and scores of other IRA men in the Dublin Brigade attacked the Custom House in May 1921, on what would turn out to be the most disastrous raid in IRA history.
At lunchtime on May 25, small groups of IRA men had gathered in the area surrounding the Custom House – a symbol of British rule in Ireland. There were about 120 IRA men in total, many of them inexperienced fighters. Although that could not be said of my own grandfather Michael.
By that stage of the War of Independence he was something of a veteran, having joined up in 1919. Michael was a member of the Active Service Unit (ASU) of the Dublin Brigade.
That day, the ASU had been issued with revolvers (six rounds per man) and hand grenades. Their job was to position themselves beneath the Butt Bridge railway line, running beside the Custom House, and act as a protective force in the event of British troops arriving on the scene. The rest of the men were to enter the building and set it on fire using tins of petrol.
At one o’clock, the attack began. The first casualty was an elderly caretaker, who was gunned down as he tried to telephone for help. IRA men herded civilians together and set about torching the rooms.
Auxiliaries and several hundred British troops soon arrived to surround the building, and a heavy firefight ensued. Michael’s unit managed to hold them off for about half an hour, but with just six bullets each against machine-guns, the result was inevitable. An official statement issued by Dublin Castle later described the attack…
“Three tenders carrying Auxiliary Cadets, accompanied by an armoured car, approached the Dublin Customs House, which was occupied by a large body of Sinn Feiners. The Cadets dismounted from their tenders under heavy fire and surrounded the Customs House, which was seen to be on fire. Fire from the Auxiliaries and the machine-guns on the armoured car was poured into the windows of the Customs House, from which the rebels replied vigorously, and a series of desperate conflicts took place between Crown forces and seven or eight parties of rebels, who rushed from different doors of the building and made dashes for liberty, firing as they ran. The first party to emerge from the building consisted of three men, one of whom was killed and two wounded.
By this time smoke and flame were pouring from the building, and the official staff, including many women, who had been held prisoners by the rebels, came flocking out with their hands above their heads and waving white handkerchiefs. While these defenseless people were leaving the building the rebels continued to fire from the windows. The staff were taken to a place of safety by some of the Auxiliaries.
As the staff were leaving the building the rebels made their last sortie, and of this party, consisting of seven men, only one escaped, the rest being killed or wounded. Some of the Auxiliaries then stormed the blazing building, where many of the rebels surrendered. Some of them were found to be saturated with petrol which they had been pouring over the flames, and several of them were probably burnt to death before the Crown forces entered….at the conclusion of the fighting dead and wounded rebels lay about on all sides…Four Auxiliaries were wounded, 7 civilians were killed, 11 wounded, and over 100 captured.”
Despite the Dublin Castle statement, it would emerge that five IRA men were killed, as were three civilians. The British forces suffered four wounded. The greatest loss, though, was in the capture of 80 volunteers at the scene.
Michael was lucky to get out of there in one piece.
The same could not be said of the Custom House. It was gutted, with documents stretching back hundreds of years destroyed in the conflagration. In time, it was restored, and carries its scars to this day.
The attack was a stunt that the hard-pressed IRA, struggling in terms of manpower and resources, could ill afford. The operation was an unnecessary disaster -- the truce would come less than two weeks later, bringing an official end to fighting.
Now, as I walk beneath Butt Bridge on my way to work -- the same bridge where grandad fought – the hairs on my arms and neck bristle. Where, precisely, had he stood? Did he shoot anyone … injure anyone with a well-lobbed grenade?
I think of him … think of his youth and his bravery, and then wonder how I would have fared standing in his shoes.
The ghosts of that day still linger, their barely-heard echo masked amongst the sounds of rush-hour traffic and smothered by our own rush-hour lives.
If you pause and listen carefully, though, you might just hear them because the past is ever present and it wants its stories told, wants them to be read on buildings like those shrapnel-scarred, bullet-pocked walls that I walk by every day.
We should always seek out the clues to our past. The stories waiting to be discovered tell us more about ourselves than we’d have ever thought possible.
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