Aug 8th 1781
MY DEAR SIR
We this day laid the first stone of the new Custom House and have proceeded without interruption. We gain ground every day in spite of every effort of those who think their properties will be injured.
Letter from Hon John Beresford to Mr John Robinson
Above: The Custom House and some comemorative crockery from the time of its construction in the 1790s.
Architect: James Gandon
The concept of ‘customs’ has hardly changed in 1,000 years. If you’re bringing goods into a foreign country, you need to declare them and you probably need to pay a tax. This means paperwork. Back when most goods were carried by water, such formalities took place in a Custom House. If you were exporting or importing merchandise, you had to check in at the Custom House and pay the necessary duties. Dublin has had a Custom House since 1621. The first one was located on lands reclaimed from the River Liffey at the south end of present-day Grattan Bridge. Its arcade-style successor, built in 1707, stood where the Clarence Hotel is now, but became redundant with the construction of the present-day Custom House. The new Custom House was entirely necessary. Over the course of time, merchant ships had inevitably grown in size. Eighteenth century vessels had tremendous difficulty navigating the rocky bed and tidal waters of the Liffey to access the crowded wharfs of the old Custom House. Their only option was to load and unload goods onto smaller vessels, a time-consuming and costly performance.
Left: James Gandon, architect of the Custom House.
Right: John Beresford who commissioned the building.
By 1770, a new, wealthy elite had emerged in Dublin, headed up by the Gardiner and Beresford families. They acquired ‘nearly a square mile’ of tidal swamp along the north shore of the river, closer to its mouth, where they proposed building a new Custom House. In 1780, the Hon John Beresford was appointed 1st Commissioner of the Revenue. Within a year, he had the go-ahead from London to start construction. He commissioned up-and-coming English architect, James Gandon, for the job. Gandon arrived in Dublin in April 1781 and work began in August. Early spectators went swimming in the foundation trenches. The old guard of the Dublin Assembly were less amused by what they perceived as Beresford abusing his power. Napper Tandy led a mob who smashed down a site fence. Building recommenced soon after and finally, in November 1791, the new neo-classical Custom House opened for business. Its copper dome was visible from miles around. Its Doric exterior was sumptuously enhanced by the innovative use of sculptured keystone heads, representing the Atlantic Ocean and the rivers of Ireland, set above the windows and doors. The building cost £200,000, close to €24 million in today’s money. Commissioner Beresford ensured his apartment occupied the best rooms in the house. Wags dubbed it ‘Beresford’s Ballroom’ although, in fairness, Beresford was famed amongst his contemporaries for the considerable devotion he brought to his job.
By the close of the 18th century, Irish taxpayers were contributing £3.5 million to British chest, almost exclusively from customs and excise duty. However, the Custom House only enjoyed nine years of prosperity before the Irish Parliament foolishly voted itself out of existence and Dublin’s Golden Age came to an end. The building stumbled uncertainly through the 19th century but was dealt a severe blow in 1866 when, despite massive objections, the Loopline Railway Bridge was constructed across the Liffey. This utterly obscured Gandon’s masterpiece from the eastward view. Considered a potent symbol of British power, the Custom House was a notorious meeting place for spies and informers. In 1921, 120 Irish Republican Army volunteers attacked the building. It burned for five days. The dome melted, the stonework cracked and many irreplaceable documents relating to Ireland’s history were lost to the flames. Five volunteers and two staff members died in the attack. This was one of the last major conflicts before the 1921 truce.
Above: The Custom House on fire in 1921.
The Irish Free State government commissioned a restoration of the building in the 1920s. Unfortunately, they did not waterproof the dome beneath the parapet properly. Over the ensuing decades, the rusting metal expanded, dislodging some of the stone and allowing more rainwater to seep in, freeze and expand. Three government departments were then located in the building, including that of the Environment. When Ruairi Quinn took office as a junior Minister for the Environment in 1982, he was appalled by the dilapidated state of the building. He recalled one room where ‘two buckets were strategically placed to catch rainwater from a leak in the roof'. Quinn set the wheels in motion for a second restoration which, complimented by the cleaning of the stone exterior, was completed in 1991. The building presently houses the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The revival of Dublin’s Docklands over the past 20 years has greatly helped to reinstate the Custom House as one of Dublin’s very finest civic buildings.