Walking to Work Through a Battle Zone

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.

Customs House

The Custom House

At luchtime on May 25, small groups of IRA men had gatheerd in the area surrounding the Customs 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 Customs 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…

Customs House body

IRA prisoners being rounded up after 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 defenceless 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.”

Michael full image 2

Michael Lawlor

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 Customs 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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About historywithatwist

I am an Associate Editor with a national newspaper. I have a keen interest in history and in writing. I have published one novel, Tan, and am currently working on a sequel
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13 Responses to Walking to Work Through a Battle Zone

  1. What a fascinating story, David. It means even more to me now that I am touring Ireland and hearing so many stories of Irish history. I agree we should seek out these stories. You are lucky to have your grandfathers battle experience documented in this way, though since it was written by the British we may at least wonder If the truth is all there. Amazing that your grandfather and his comrades each had only six bullets to work with.

  2. Thanks Carol. With regards to your trip, here’s a tidbit for your fellow Americans. While you were near Leenane you may have passed Louisburgh, or been close to it. A terrible tragedy occurred there during the famine when starving wretches were walking along the lake road in search of sustenance. A gale blew and hurled many of them into the waters, where they drowned. The Choctaw indians heard about this tragedy – it resonated with their own struggles during their forced removal from their homeland.
    As a result, they raised $170 and sent it to Ireland to help the famine victims. Each year, that famine walk is remembered, as is the generosity of the Chotaw nation. A member of the tribe travels to Louisburgh, accompanied by many Irish people, to walk the route the famine victims took. I’ve written a novel about the Choctaw generoisty which I’ve yet to publish.
    Enjoy the rest of your trip. I hope to meet up with you, but understand the tight schedule you are probably on with the group. I’m also working a varied shift pattern, so I may not even be able to meet even if you are free. We’ll see…

  3. Another wonderful article David in every way. You have such a gift for personalising your blogs. Your grandad was quite a man by the sounds of it. As if all you’ve said is not feast enough that is a let’s move to some afters comment above. I am going to read your novel when it comes out. Several branched of my mother’s family came to Scotland at the height of the famine. I often think about their struggles to survive, what they left, what they came to. A holocaust in every way.

    • Thanks Shehanne. Yes, it was a terrible time. I never thought about Irish emigration to Scotland during the famine, that’s interesting. Your family history must be rich with stories.

      • Aye my family history is… In every way. ( Some I don’t like to admit to.) But yeah. The timing on this famine was so good in terms of some of the largest mills in Europe opening in Scotland and looking for workers, you really can’t help cynically wondering about these ‘farmers” crops obligingly failing and those who could get out of Ireland–I gather that wasn’t easy either– escaping. I guess I just often see the famine as I do the Highland clearances that way, largely because the Government of Britain did nothing and you have to ask yourself why. I am from Dundee and there was a massive influx here from the famine that the population was ill prepared to deal with the way the town was swamped overnight. People were letting out sheds, spaces beneath the stairs–you name it.– an desperate people were living in these spaces too.

  4. How lovely that you feel that connection with your grandfather on your journey to work, David. I suppose I can blame him so, for the loss of records that are making my family tree research more difficult 🙂 Only joking, he was a brave man to stand by his convictions and you should be proud of him.

    • You’re right about my grandad, Jean – first destroying the Custom House, then firing the guns on the Four Courts and destroying hundreds of years worth of documents – the man was an historical wrecking ball! 🙂

      • Don O'Connell says:

        What side did he side with in the civil war. He is certainly a lucky and interesting chap

      • He fought on the Free State side, and was one of the men manning the guns that fired on the Four Courts. He was also one of the party in the firing squad that executed Erskine Childers

  5. Tuula Kontio says:

    Hearing and reading about Irish history brings my thoughts to Finnish Civil War in 1918 right after our independence from Russia in 1917. You can find same kind of crude imagery from fierce battles in Tampere http://vapriikki.fi/en/nayttelyt/tampere1918/

    Be warned, next images are disturbing https://www.google.fi/search?q=tampere+1918&espv=2&biw=1517&bih=697&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjI0NX1xqLNAhXGHJoKHc1oDrsQsAQIGA

    Interestingly Irish tv-drama “Rebellion” based on the 1916 Rising is currently showing on Finnish TV. The director of drama, Finnish Aku Louhimies, also parallels between events in Finland and those in Ireland a century ago. http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/tv-radio-web/rebellion-what-an-outsider-s-eye-brings-to-rt%C3%A9-s-easter-rising-centrepiece-1.2476448

  6. jazzfeathers says:

    Great article, David. I knew about the event, but I never read such a detailed account.
    That was a terrible war…

  7. Brutal. Civil wars are the worst, I think. Incidentally, Sarah, was it you who sent me the Liebster award? I was on holidays at the time and never replied. I did read yours, though, and was struck by our similar interests. One of the books you mentioned (can’t remember themnow), I had read and there was something else we both shared in common. I can’t find the original email, so I can’t be sure what they were. Still, I’m terrible at replying to things like that. Thanks for thinking of me though! 🙂

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