In the first part of a series of articles on Ireland's Decade of Centenaries, we examine events that occurred 100 years ago: the burning of Dublin's Custom House, which was designed by James Gandon, took 10 years to build and was completed in 1791. We will look at the design of the building; its architect; and reconstruction works in the 1980s.

At 12.55pm on May 25, 1921, the IRA seized the Custom House, Dublin, which was designed by James Gandon. In what was the IRA’s largest single operation during the War of Independence, it then set fire to the building. Nine people – five IRA members and four civilians – were killed in the gun-battles, which took place in and around the building. The Custom House, one of the British government’s most important administrative buildings in Ireland at the time, was completely destroyed.

The building's administrative records were also destroyed. Six weeks later, the Irish and British sides in the conflict reached a truce, thus marking the end of the War of Independence. 


Dublin’s Custom House is regarded as one of the jewels in the city's architectural crown. A masterpiece of European neo-classicism, it took 10 years to build and was completed in 1791. It cost the then not inconsiderable sum of £200,000.

Enhancing streets and public buildings of Dublin

It was the greatest achievement of James Gandon who had been brought over from England to carry out the work. Gandon had been chosen by John Beresford, chief revenue commissioner and a small coterie of the Irish ascendency who were then in the process of enhancing the streets and public buildings of Dublin.

The sculptures which are located in various parts of the building were by the famous Irish sculptor, Edward Smyth.

Initially the building was exclusively the headquarters of the Commissioners of Custom and Excise; however by the beginning of the 20th century, the dominant role of the Custom House was in relation to local government. The building was the home of Inland Revenue and the Local Government Board. 


Following the fire attack, restoration work was competed by 1928. A second programme of restoration began in the 1980s and was completed in time for the bicentenary of the Custom House in 1991.

As part of the government’s Decade of Centenaries, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage held a remembrance event, in conjunction with relatives of both those who took part in the attack and civilians who were killed in the attack, on May 25, 2021.

Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Darragh O’Brien TD, said: “Today marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most significant events of the War of Independence. It is with a strong sense of history that my department and I, as custodians of the Custom House, remember the nine people who were killed in the attack, while also celebrating this remarkable, 230- year-old building.”

Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Catherine Martin TD, added: “We are now in the most sensitive and complex period of the centenaries programme. I welcome today’s commemoration, prompting all of us to reflect upon the significant historical event that took place at the Custom House a century ago. When exploring our history we have a responsibility to recognise the value of ideals and sacrifices, including their cost.

"On this significant centenary, we remember the nine people who lost their lives at the Custom House and the subsequent impact on their families and the campaign for independence.”


Refurbishment of Custom House Visitor Centre

As part of its work to celebrate the Custom House’s architectural and historical significance, the department – in conjunction with the Office of Public Works, and with the support of Fáilte Ireland – are carrying out a refurbishment of the Custom House Visitor Centre, with the installation of new exhibition and interpretation displays.

The centre will cover not only the 1921 attack and fire but also the history of this remarkable building. Unfortunately due to COVID-19 restrictions its opening has been delayed until later in 2021. Details will be announced later this year.

Minister O’Brien said: “The new permanent visitor centre in the Custom House will properly celebrate James Gandon’s architectural masterpiece, while also giving a detailed account of the 1921 attack. This will be really significant for Dublin’s north inner city.

“We hope to offer a very informative and interesting visitor attraction that will be visited by many. And later this year, when COVID-19 restrictions are hopefully lifted, my department and I will be engaging directly with schools in the area around the Custom House, making history come alive for our students.”

Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Patrick O’Donovan TD, added: “The Custom House is one of Dublin’s most accomplished neo-classical buildings and it has been in the care of the Office of Public Works for more than a century.

In the aftermath of the fire on May 25, 1921, the OPW reroofed the building and skilfully reinstated its iconic dome, and through this, as well as through the careful conservation of the exterior and interior over the decades, it has ensured that the Custom House is preserved for generations to come.

“The OPW guiding team looks forward to sharing the rich history of this building with visitors when the new visitor centre reopens later this year.”

James Gandon

James Gandon, Dublin's best-known architect, was responsible for the design of the Custom House, the Four Courts, the King's Inns and additions to the Parliament House (now the Bank of Ireland).Gandon was born in London of Huguenot extraction. 

James Gandon

At the age of 14 he was sent to Shipley's Drawing Academy where he studied the classics, mathematics, arts and particularly architecture. He met many of his future friends during his two years at Shipley's, at the end of which he became apprenticed to William Chambers. At that time Chambers was in the midst of composing his great work, his Treatise on Civil Architecture. Gandon's drawings are among these. Apart from the Treatise, work included the Arch at Wilton and the Casino at Marino, Kew.

In 1765, Gandon finished his association with William Chambers and began work on Sir Samuel Hillier's estate near Wolverhampton. Gandon's practice grew slowly and remained small. His first major work was Shire Hall in Nottingham, for use by the Grand Jury, which commenced in 1769. At the same time he entered a design in the competition for a new Royal Exchange for Dublin. The design entered by Thomas Cooley was chosen, Gandon's design was second.

He was married on July 26, 1770, to Miss Eleanor Smullen, Covent Garden. They bought a house in London and had six children. From 1771 to 1777 little is known of his architectural work. In 1780 a Russian Princess invited him to Russia to build in St Petersburg. This offer included an official post with a military rank.

Instead he accepted an offer from John Beresford, chief commissioner of the Irish Revenue, to design a new Custom House in Dublin. Gandon arrived in Dublin on April 26, 1781, but work did not commence for a couple of months as there was angry opposition from the merchants who were against the relocation from the existing Custom House at Capel Street Bridge. The first stone was eventually laid on August 8, 1781, and was completed in 1791.

During the building of the Custom House, Gandon went to London to visit his wife and family. He intended to sell his house and return to Dublin with his family but his wife was ill and died soon after his arrival. He returned to Dublin in March 1782 with his three youngest children; James aged eight, Mary Anne aged ten and Elizabeth aged six.

In 1784 Gandon undertook the building of the new courthouse in Waterford. During the 1780s Gandon became a consultant to the Wide Streets Commissioners of Dublin and designed a number of buildings including Carlisle Bridge and improvements to the Rotunda lying-in hospital and gardens.

Meanwhile he was commissioned to make extensions to the Parliament House, Westmoreland Street. Work commenced in May 1785 and was completed by April 29, 1789, at a cost of a little more than £20,000.

After the death of Thomas Cooley in 1784, Gandon was appointed to complete the work of building the new Four Courts. The foundation was laid on March 3, 1786. In 1798, the foundations were laid for the east wing of the remaining offices. Work was finally completed in 1802.

The King's Inns was his last great building in Dublin. Standing with Henrietta Street to its rear and Constitution Hill to its front, it was built between 1795 and 1827. It has recently been extensively restored by the Benchers of the Honorable Society of King's Inns. The dining room there now contains the only Gandon interior (apart from some rooms inside the east portico of the Bank of Ireland building) to survive intact in a major public building. All the others have been burnt or bombed during the wars of the early 20th century or have since been radically altered.

After a long and fruitful life he was buried by his own request in the grave of his lifelong friend, Francis Grose in Drumcondra Cemetery. The inscription reads: "Such was the respect in which Gandon was held by his neighbours and friends from around his home in Lucan that they refused carriages and walked the 16 miles to and from Drumcondra on the day of his funeral."

Description of Custom House

Freestanding symmetrical 29-bay two-storey custom house, having displaying raised basement to garden and side elevations and having concealed basement to riverside elevation. Begun in 1781, to designs of James Gandon, with advanced nine-bay central block having attic storey, pedimented portico and domed cupola, reconstructed c.1925. 

Quadrangular on plan arranged around two internal courtyards with three-bay advanced corner pavilions, nine-bay side ranges and pair of three-storey central ranges. Destroyed by fire in May 1921 during the War of Independence, it was rebuilt between 1926-9 by TJ Byrne. Copper-clad shallow pitched roofs hidden behind Portland stone balustraded parapet walls with embellished parapet blocks to all corner pavilions surmounted by carved trophies to front and rear depicting arms of Ireland and surmounted by large urns to side elevations. Decorative cast-iron hoppers breaking through facades and cast-iron downpipes.

Attic storey to central nine-bay block advanced to portico and surmounted by four statues depicting Mercury, Plenty, Industry and Neptune (from left to right).
Square-plan granite ashlar drum base with chamfered corners supporting drum and Corinthian peristyle built in limestone ashlar (Ardbraccan) surmounted by diminutive attic level, copper dome and statue of Commerce on drum pedestal.

Columns arranged in pairs flanking round-headed window openings with oculi above, advanced to four corners and supporting full entablature and dentillated cornice. Diminutive square-headed window openings to attic level flanked by paired pilasters and supporting further cornice interrupted on all four sides by open pediment framing clock face and garland below.

Below cupola is pedimented tetrastyle pro-style Tuscan portico to advanced stylobate with three-bay recessed entrance. Pediment's corona and raking cornice enriched with mutules, floral panels and filled with statuary to tympanum with bucrania enriched frieze below, hide swags and harp motifs.

Four Giant Tuscan columns on attic bases with neck mouldings enriched with harp and rosette motifs and egg-and-dart mouldings below square abacus. Responding Tuscan corner piers to façade with decorative cast-iron railings and gates enclosing recessed porch. Principal central square-headed door opening having decoratively carved over-panel and gilt fanlight with riverine ancon and swags with replacement double-leaf timber panelled door.

Four statues fronting attic storey

Corresponding portico to north elevation without pediment and surmounted by four statues fronting attic storey representing Europe, Asia, Africa and America (left to right) with rectangular panel and draped swag.

Responding Tuscan pilasters to façade flank three round arches having riverine ancons and swags opening into recessed porch with groin-vaulting, central round-headed door opening flanked by empty niches and two round-headed windows with further empty niches to either end.

Three bays to either side of portico with central recessed bay flanked by Giant Tuscan columns below frieze having pedimented window to first floor and square-headed opening to ground floor with decoratively-carved over-panel and gilt fanlight with riverine ancon and swags.

This columnar device is repeated to north and south elevations of corner pavilions. Seven bay wings to south elevation are arcaded to ground floor with rusticated walls and piers rising from full-span steps with decorative spearheaded cast-iron railings enclosing recessed groin-vaulted arcade with corresponding square-headed door openings having architrave surrounds, timber panelled doors, webbed fanlights and roundel with swag over each door. South front elevation walls built in coursed Portland stone ashlar with plain plinth course, dentillated platband between floors and deep moulded cornice enriched with guttae, mutules and decorative panels.

North and side elevation walls built in coursed granite ashlar, rusticated to ground floor of side elevations only, with Portland stone plinth course and platband between floors and surmounted by cornice and balustraded parapet as per front elevation. Square-headed window openings with replacement timber sliding sash windows throughout having architrave surrounds to attic storey, entablatures to remainder and pedimented to first floor of wings to both elevations.

Braced cast-iron railings

North portico opens onto replacement paved stylobate and front paved area with basement exposed and enclosed by braced cast-iron railings. Single-storey with attic wing to east, connecting front and rear ranges with hipped slate roof having dormers behind balustraded parapet and rusticated arcaded granite walls with recessed round-headed window openings and recessed round-headed bay to either end, that to south providing access to internal courtyard.

Two bitmac paved internal courtyards accessed via vehicular ramps with stone parapet walls. Seven-bay two-storey over railed basement to west, connecting front and rear ranges with arcaded bays set in rusticated granite walls to ground floor, pedimented windows to first floor and round-headed recessed bay to either end, that to south providing access to internal courtyard.

Interior generally dates from 1929 reconstruction with 18th-century vestibules to north and south fronts retained. South vestibule lit by galleried octagonal vestibule to first floor with carved Bath stone walls and door surrounds in turn lit by replacement concrete dome located within drum base. North vestibule has double Ionic columnar screen to stair hall with open-well balustraded stone stair adorned with riverine heads.

Open-well stone stair located to southwest pavilion with colonnaded screens to each floor, inserted in 1929. Rectangular pool to rear with bronze statue, asphalt car park to west below railway bridge and landscaped area to east, all enclosed by cast-iron railings on reconstituted plinth wall with matching gates.
Sham ruin of classical columns to grounds, comprising un-reused original parts of building.


This magnificent Neo-Classical essay in civic building was built to replace the Custom House on Wellington Quay by renowned architect James Gandon as his first large-scale commission. The exterior carvings are by Edward Smyth. It was inspired by Somerset House in London by William Chambers, Gandon's master, and commissioned by John Beresford, First Commissioner of the Revenue.

The emphasis of design was laid on the south river front, executed entirely of Portland stone and surmounted by an ambitious dome with a mirrored rear elevation in a slightly more restrained style. 

Gutted by fire in 1921, the building was re-roofed and restored by 1929 by TJ Byrne of the Office of Public Works, with the reinstatement of the dome using Irish limestone as opposed to the original imported Portland stone.

Restored again in the 1980s by the OPW, the exterior was repaired while the 1920s interior was restored. Standing as one of Ireland's most accomplished Neo-Classical buildings, the troubled history of the structure and its current context, having substantial 20th century buildings to two sides, has not diminished its impact or its status as one of Dublin's key architectural set-pieces. Its burning was also one of the key events of the War of Independence.

Renovation of 1990

According to RTE's Nature of Things, which was broadcast on January 31, 1990, by reporter Áine Lawlor: 'Restoring a living building that is also a work of art is the challenge for the team at work on the Custom House in Dublin. An architectural team from the Office of Public Works have been given the task of bringing Dublin’s premier Georgian building back to its original intended splendour. When it opened in 1791 it replaced the old Custom House on Essex Quay.

'Time had not been kind, and the building’s location near the sea has exposed it to salt damage which has corroded the white Portland stone. Air pollution has not helped either, discolouring and attacking the stone to such an extent that "parts of the building were so badly damaged they could have fallen away".

'Architect David Slattery from the Office of Public Works (OPW) was given the job of restoring Gandon’s Georgian masterpiece in time for its 200th anniversary celebrations. When his team began a survey of the building they found damage all over the building caused by air pollution and by original metal rods used to hold stonework together.

'Their biggest issue facing them was widespread damage caused in 1921, when the IRA attempted to burn it down, almost destroying it in the process. Subsequent repairs have only added to the headaches of the restoration team decades later. "A failure of a later repair and an indication that there’s activity with metal expanding inside."

'Fortunately, they have been able to use modern techniques such as ultrasound technology to pinpoint cracks in the stone. The Defence Forces also came to their aid, using land mine detection expertise to find out where problematic metal was located underneath or within stone blocks. Once the building was structurally sound, work could begin on cleaning and restoring the facade, made from granite and specially imported white Portland stone.

'The principle behind the restoration means that as much as the original fabric as possible is conserved. Damaged stone was re-cut to be used again in different parts of the building, ensuring that "when completed, the Custom House will still be Gandon’s building, warts and all".

'Liam Moore and his team restored the statues and sculpture around the building. He demonstrated one of the more unusual techniques, which is to moulds from silicone rubber to make replicas and restore the 200-year-old stone carvings. 

Conservationists at the Royal Coat of Arms, Custom House, Dublin (1990)

'Already in use among restoration projects on mainland Europe, this technique has only recently been used in Ireland, and their next task is to restore the coats of arms of Ireland which adorn the building using this method.'

('Nature of Things' was a series featuring science, technology and the environment. It was first broadcast on October 26, 1989, and ran for two series in 1989 and 1990.) 

Lecture series and further information:

The ‘Burning of the Custom House Conference’, a weekly online lecture series is available to view here: