The Custom House in Dublin is regarded as one of the jewels in the city’s architectural crown. A masterpiece of European neo-classicism, it took 10 years to build and was completed in 1791. It cost the then not inconsiderable sum of 200,000 sterling. It was the greatest achievement of James Gandon who had been brought over from England to carry out the work. Gandon had been chosen by John Beresford, Chief Revenue Commissioner and a small coterie of the Irish ascendency who were then in the process of enhancing the streets and public buildings of Dublin.
Government of Ireland
Construction started in 1781, and for his assistants Gandon chose Irish artists such as Meath stone-cutter Henry Darley, mason John Semple and carpenter Hugh Henry. Every available mason in Dublin was engaged in the work. When it was completed and opened for business on 7 November 1791, it had cost £200,000 to build – a considerable sum at the time. 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 and other statues. . . . As the port of Dublin moved further downriver, the building’s original use for collecting customs duties became obsolete, and it was used as the headquarters of the Local Government Board for Ireland.
During the Irish War of Independence in 1921, the Irish Republican Army burnt down the Custom House, to disrupt British rule in Ireland by destroying tax records. Gandon’s original interior was completely destroyed in the fire and the central dome collapsed. . . . After the Anglo-Irish Treaty, it was restored by the Irish Free State government. The results of this reconstruction can still be seen on the building’s exterior today – the dome was rebuilt using Irish Ardbraccan limestone which is noticeably darker than the Portland stone used in the original construction.
This great edifice is jointly the House of Customs and Excise ; and, besides all the offices necessary for these purposes, contains dwelling houses for the Chief Commissioners, Secretaries, &c. The doors on each side of the portico in the south front, lead into passages running the whole depth of the building, with a range of offices down them on one side. The great stair-case, with its Ionic colonnade, is deservedly admired. The Long-Room is a superb apartment, 70 feet by 65, ornamented with composite columns, and enlightened by two large circular lanterns. The Trial and Board-rooms, in the north front, are also very handsome apartments ; but the Long-room is the only one worthy the visitor’s notice.
. . .
On the east of the Custom-house is a wet dock, capable of containing forty sail of vessels ; and along the quay that bounds it on the east and north is a range of capacious and commodious houses. . . . To the north-east of the former docks and stores an extensive piece of ground has been enclosed with a wall fifty feet in height, three sides of which are to be occupied with stores. Inside of this a new dock, measuring 650 feet by 300, has been formed, with a basin 300 feet by 250. In a line with the Custom-house, to the east, stands the Tobacco-store, which covers nearly an acre of ground, and in the construction of which no materials of a combustible nature have been used.
“The new picture of Dublin : or Stranger’s guide through the Irish metropolis, containing a description of every public and private building worthy of notice”, Philip Dixon Hardy, 1831
The ground selected for the new building had not even been purchased at this time, but when this was arranged the difficulties that presented themselves dismayed Gandon the more he advanced. He relates soon after his arrival — “At last I ventured, but at very early hours in the morning, to walk over the grounds,” and the necessity for being cautious will be understood when it is told that a meeting v/as held to devise some way of preventing the project from being carried into effect, and the Sunday after the site had been marked out, hundreds of the people met there, and it was feared that the trenches, which had been dug, would be filled up. On this occasion, however, the mob, perhaps rendered good humoured by the amount of whiskey and gingerbread consumed during the day, only amused themselves by swimming in the water with which the trenches were filled. Later, however, in response to a meeting convened by the Corporation and headed by some of the leading citizens, the people paid another visit to the place and pulled down a fence that had been erected on the river side.
“Sketches of old Dublin”, Ada Peter, 1907