Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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THE DOCKLANDS - THE CUSTOM HOUSE (1791)

'Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyageis a work in progress, commissioned by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and due to be completed in the autumn of 2008. The following tale represents research I have undertaken for the project which may or may not be used in the final book.

THE CUSTOM HOUSE

Completed: 1791

Architect: James Gandon

The concept of ‘customs’ has hardly changed in a thousand years. If you’re bringing goods into a foreign country, you need to declare them and you may need to pay a tax. This means paperwork. Back when all trade was carried in ships, these 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. Otherwise you could be classified as a smuggler.

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. 18th century vessels had tremendous difficulty navigating the rocky bed and tidal waters of the Liffey to 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.

By 1770, a new, wealthy elite had emerged in Dublin, headed up by the Gardiners and Beresfords. 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; work began in August. Early spectators went swimming in the foundation trenches. But 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.

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.

In 1866, despite massive objections, the City seemed to disown the building with the construction of the Loopline Railway Bridge, obscuring Gandon’s masterpiece from the eastward view.

Considered a potent symbol of British power, the Custom House was also 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.

The Irish Free State government commissioned a remarkable restoration of the building in the 1920s, complimented by further acclaimed restoration and stone-cleaning between 1979 and 1991. These works have ensured that the Custom House remains one of Dublin’s very finest civic buildings. It presently houses the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

James Gandon (1743 – 1823)

In 1781, Gandon was preparing to move to St Petersburg to work for Catherine the Great when Commissioner Beresford gave him an offer he could not refuse – Dublin’s Custom House. The London-born Huguenot, winner of the Royal Academy’s 1768 Gold medal, had mastered neo-classical architecture under Sir William Chambers. Gandon subsequently planted his roots in Ireland, designing numerous civic structures such as the Four Courts and Carlisle (now O’Connell) Bridge, and many private mansions, perhaps most notably Abbeville House for Beresford, later home to Taoiseach Charles Haughey. He lived on Mecklenburg (now Railway) Street for many years. He died in Lucan in 1823.

Edward Smyth (1749 – 1812)

Smyth’s career break came when he secured the post of ornament-carver for Henry Darley, chief stone-cutter at the Custom House. Assisted by sculptor Benjamin Schrowder and others, he created the fourteen beautiful riverine keystones, as well as the female figures of Industry, Commerce and Plenty, and the Royal Arms at either end of the building. He also made most of the sculpture at Gandon’s Four Courts. Edward and his son John Smyth were successively Masters of the Dublin Society School of Modelling and Sculpture. They lived at 36 Montgomery Street where their neighbours included another young sculptor, John Henry Foley.

James Napper Tandy (1740 – 1803)

Tandy’s association with the Docklands stems from his leading a mob in a short-lived protest against the construction of the Custom House in 1781. An ironmonger by trade, Tandy was a member of the Merchant’s Guild and served 18 years on the City Assembly. He was a popular figure for working class Dubliners and may be seen as one of the pioneers of trade unionism. In 1791, he co-founded the Society of United Irishmen with Wolfe Tone and others. He subsequently fled to America where he remained until 1798. In that year he landed a French corvette in Donegal but then fled to Hamburg where he was captured and imprisoned. Released at the personal request of Napoleon, he died in Bordeaux in 1803.

Trivia: Napper Tandy is a Cockney rhyming slang for brandy.

Hon. John Beresford (1738 – 1805)

Commissioner Beresford was the second son of the Earl of Tyrone of the Curraghmore family. He represented Co. Waterford in Parliament from 1861 to 1805 and was Commissioner of Revenue in Ireland for nearly 22 years. In August 1781 he laid the foundation stone of the Custom House, which venture he brought to fruition by recruiting Gandon. He was William Pitt’s principal adviser in Ireland during the 1780s, for which he became known as ‘the King of Ireland’. In 1797, he and his son John Claudius Beresford were prominent among those warning the government of imminent rebellion. He supported the Union and died in 1805. In his private life, he had seven sons and ten daughters by two wives.

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