Saturday, June 24, 2017


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What must surely be the definitive book on the Custom House Raid of 25 May 1921 has just been published. The author is Liz Gillis, a well respected historian of the revolutionary period. Her previous book, Women of the Irish Revolution, reflected her interest in the role and relative neglect of women of this period in the history books.

She has now turned her attention to the Custom House Raid. Well, not really. She has been researching this subject, along with Micheál Ó Doibhilín, for some years now and the book is the culmination of that research, for now at least.

It is a great read and unputdownable once you start. The style is in true storytelling mode and very engaging and it is all backed up by meticulous research incorporating the most recently available sources.

I was at the launch the other evening in Beggars Bush Barracks, former Headquarters of the hated Auxiliaries. Fitting.

The Publisher

The proceedings commenced with a word (or two) from the publisher.

Micheál Ó Doibhilín runs Kilmainham Tales and he has published a good few quality books around the general theme of Ireland's resistance to British occupation. Liz has published a few books in the same vein through her normal publisher, Mercier Press.

This is the first time that Micheál has published Liz and I'd say both of them are thrilled with the result.

I know Micheál since my schooldays when he was already an independent minded young man and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid bore the scars to prove it. But that's a story for another day.

My acquaintance with Liz dates from more recent times. I think I met her first when she gave a talk, with Micheál, on the Custom House Raid to the Howth Peninsula Heritage Society. It was a fascinating and provocative talk on a subject about which I knew nothing then. But my interest was stimulated and later intensified by a discovery in the course of my pursuing my own family history.

Mícheál started Kilmainham Tales some years ago to publish his own book on Anne Devlin. He also felt, through his work in Kilmainham Gaol, that there was a need for small, informative introductions to aspects of Irish history, a history that is often complex and difficult to grasp.

To date he has published a series of books, and also articles on his website, taking a fresh look at Irish history and telling it in an interesting, innovative and accessible way. He also wanted to stimulate fresh research and unearth new information.

He has certainly got all that, and more besides, from this wonderful book.

The Launcher

Éamon Ó Cuív

Who better to launch the book than the grandson of the man who argued strongly for a big push to strike at the British and at the same time achieve a major propaganda victory to consolidate international support for Irish independence. Eamon de Valera had just come back from a tour of America convinced that the IRA needed a major strike.

Dick McKee had long been advocating a strike on the Custom House, but that had been turned down twice in favour of other actions. Now it resurfaced as one of two possible locations, the other being Beggars Bush Barracks, headquarters of the hated Auxiliaries. The Barracks was eventually considered too well defended and attention switched to the undefended Custom House.

The symbolism here was important. The Custom House was not only the repository of records, such as tax returns and wills, it was the centre of the British administration and particularly that concerning Local Government.

Since the 1918 General Election and the establishment of a separate Irish parliament (Dáil on the run), and the January 1920 local authority elections in particular, a majority of local councils had sworn allegiance to the underground Dáil and a fully operational alternative system of local government and justice had been set up. This was accepted by the majority of the population but was obviously bitterly opposed by the authorities.

So a strike on the Custom House would serve both the propaganda need for a major coup and also strike at the heart of the British administration. It would show that, despite all the savagery of the reprisals of the preceding two years, the IRA was still very much in the game. At the same time it would contribute to their efforts to make Ireland ungovernable for the British.

Éamon reminded us of one of the reasons why the War of Independence had been so successful up to this point. Earlier revolutions had been riddled with British spies and basically fizzled out before they got properly started.

This time it was different. Michael Collins was in charge of intelligence and, as Éamon put it, our spies were better than their spies. And, of course, Collins also took the opportunity to take out their spies, the most dramatic example of this being his Squad's assassination of British Intelligence officers on 21 November 1920, the original Bloody Sunday.

Collins wasn't the only one who knew what he was at. Éamon was lavish in his praise of Liz as a true historian in contrast to some of the more lazy variety around the place. Liz went to the primary sources, where available, and she was meticulous both in her research and in her conclusions.

That didn't in the least interfere with her style of presentation which was clear, economic and engaging. He said he had learned a lot from the book and that it had clarified the great success of the Custom House Raid by putting it firmly in context.

The Author

The book having been launched we finally got to hear from the author. Liz is brimming over with enthusiasm and jizz and a keenly developed sense of humour. And we got a taste of all of this as she gave us some background to the book and her own enthusiasm for it.

She not only painstakingly trawled the latest written sources, as a perusal of the endnotes will confirm, but accumulated a vast amount of oral history, speaking to relatives of those who took part in the raid. This may, to some extent, explain the immediacy and readability of the book.

Her hope is to have transformed what was generally considered a failure by later generations into the the pivotal success that it really was, and so do justice to those who conceived, planned and participated in it.

Having now read the book, I have no doubt about her complete success on this score.

Eating her Words

Not everybody noticed the clunky volume on the table as they arrived. I certainly didn't and had to have it pointed out to me.

Thankfully, a paperback version soon appeared to keep it company and this was accompanied by the offer of a serious discount on the normal selling price for those who had made the effort to turn up on this fine summers evening.

I've heard of people having to eat their words but have never seen it so graphically executed. There was no hardback. It was a cake, a magnificent creation by Micheál's daughter Aisling Whelan.

And just like the communion service, in its original conception, we all partook of Liz's project. That's my slice you see, full of lush and biscuity things, and soon demolished.

The Long Road to City Hall

Photo: Micheál Ó Doibhilín

I can't let pass Liz's recent marriage to James Crowe in the magnificent setting of City Hall.

Kilmainham Tales commented:
This was the final event in a 23-year courtship, proving that Liz, who is renowned for the depth of her research and attention to detail in her books, applies the same attention to choosing her life partner!

Photo: Micheál Ó Doibhilín

As if that location, with all its resonances of living history, wasn't enough the couple walked straight into an ambush in Parliament Street en route to the reception.

The Audience

Three generations

The Sales Team

My Interest

I mentioned above that, at one point in following up my family history, my interest in the Custom House Raid intensified.

Peggy Medlar was a cousin of the husband of my grand aunt. She was from a staunchly Republican Kilkenny family, and in February 1923 she was arrested at her home in Adelaide Road by Free State Forces.


Among the items they confiscated from her was this photo of a young man. It carried the inscription Do Chara, Stiofán Ó Raghallaigh (Banba).

With a pen name like that he was clearly a writer in Irish and most likely a member of Conradh na Gaeilge. For a good while I got nowhere in trying to find out more about him. But then one day it all fell into place.

I read at that he was one of the five volunteers who lost their lives in the raid on the Custom House. And I now read in Liz's book that he, and his brother who also lost his life, were likely deputed to collect the money, stamps and money orders, from the building's Post Office before it was set on fire.

As Crown Forces turned up a little sooner than expected, well over 100 volunteers were trapped in the building and faced with a choice between (i) trying to leave quietly amid the genuine employees leaving under police supervision, (ii) just making a run for it and hoping for the best, or (iii) come out shooting. Stiofán (Stephen O'Reilly) apparently opted for (iii) and that was the end of him.

The book's Foreword opens with the comment:
The Custom House, as one visitor remarked, must be one of the few buildings in the world with a "monument to the guys who burned it out front".
And a fine monument it is, from Breton sculptor Yann Goulet.

Stephen is specifically mentioned on the plinth.

Peggy's cousin, husband of my grand aunt, was actually on Dublin City Council between 1920 and 1924, and in following up his story I had become aware of the fight to the death between the Council and the British Local Government Board. The stories are legion but the matter was resolved when the Treaty was signed in December 1921.

A final and purely chance connection came about when I was on holidays in Knockananna in County Wicklow and happened on this most unusual grave stone in the local graveyard. It turned out to be that of Tom Keogh/Kehoe who was a member of Collins's Squad and who took part in the Custom House Raid. He survived that only to be killed the following year in the Civil War.

Buy and read the book.

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