A masterpiece of European neo-classicism, the building of a new Custom House for Dublin was the idea of John Beresford, who became first commissioner of revenue for Ireland in 1780. In 1781 he appointed James Gandon as architect, after Thomas Cooley, the original architect on the project, had died. This was Gandon’s first large scale commission.
The new Custom House was unpopular with Dublin Corporation and some city merchants who complained that it moved the axis of the city, would leave little room for shipping, and was being built on what at the time was a swamp. Purchase of land was delayed and proved exorbitant. The project was dogged by protests.
When it was completed and opened for business on 7 November 1791, it cost £200,000 to build. The four facades of the building are decorated with coats-of-arms and ornamental sculptures (by Edward Smyth) representing Ireland’s rivers. Another artist, Henry Banks, was responsible for the statue on the dome.
As the port of Dublin moved further downriver, the building’s original use for collecting custom duties became obsolete, and it was used as the headquarters of local government in Ireland. During the Irish War of Independence in 1921, the Irish Republican Army burnt down the Custom House, in an attempt to disrupt British rule in Ireland. Gandon’s original interior was completely destroyed in the fire and the central dome collapsed. A large quantity of irreplaceable historical records were also destroyed in the fire.
After the Anglo-Irish Treaty, it was restored by the Irish Free State government. Further restoration was done in the 1980s.
For quite a few years, the Custom House Visitor Centre was closed but it re-opened in March 2017. Current exhibitions are:
- The Custom House and 1916 – the story of staff dismissed for participating in the Rising, Bureau of Military History statements regarding prisoners held in the Custom House after the Rising, and activity in the area of the Custom house during the Rising
- The development of scientific meteorology in Ireland with a special focus on the weather of Easter Week 1916 and the weather on the 25th of May 1921, when the Custom House was attacked
- Gandon – the story of the architect, James Gandon, and the construction of the Custom House
- The Custom House Fire of 1921 and the subsequent restoration.
Visitor Centre usually open 7 days including Public Holidays from 10.00 am to 4.30 pm from 17 March to 31 August inclusive. However, the Centre is currently closed for operational reasons. The plan is to have the Centre redeveloped and upgraded as a Decade of Centenaries legacy project to mark 100 years since the burning of the Custom House on May 25, 1921.
Custom Quay, Dublin 1
Tel: 01-888 2000
[Historical summary provided by Wikipedia]