Pat Liddy takes a look at Dublin’s Custom House
Arguably the most significant 18th century classical public building in Ireland is Dublin’s Custom House and when completed it represented Ireland’s short-lived but strident sense of independence from the economic and political controls of England. The originator of the project, John Beresford, Chief Commissioner of Revenue, built his headquarters of taxation to impress all and sundry and in this he supremely succeeded.
He first picked a location where everyone arriving upriver to the port and tying up at the quayside would be faced with the impressive vista of his creation. Beresford then convinced an architectural genius, Huguenot and Londoner, James Gandon, to come to Dublin. He had been on the cusp of accepting an offer from Catherine the Great of Russia to design imperial wonders for her in St Petersburg. Gandon, who went on to design other great Dublin buildings including the Four Courts and the King’s Inns, set about tackling the enormous construction problems he knew he would face as soon as he saw the site.
Beresford’s choice of location was on recently reclaimed slob-land and it would have required an excessive amount of piling to carry the huge weight of the massive new building. Instead, Gandon came up with a simple but ingenious idea of covering the newly levelled trenches with a deep bed of cut heather over which open-topped timber boxes filled with brick and mortar were constructed and topped with thick planking. Admiring architects and engineers from other countries came to look at this new technique.
Less admiring were the enraged merchants further up the river who feared that this outlying new development would suck the commercial activity away from the traditional heart of the city. They hired a mob to attack the new works but hearing of the approach of the threatening rabble Gandon had whiskey distributed to them before any harm was done and after a bit of frolicking-about the crowd went on their merry way home. Nevertheless, Gandon, fearing for his personal safety, in future always carried a sword-cane.
Bit by bit the huge building (114m in length) went up until it was topped by its elegant copper dome. It was finally completed in 1791, ten years after the work first started, at a cost of almost £500,000 (€78 million today). The Custom House was built from Portland stone and granite and has four differing facades linked by pavilions at each corner. The Palladian masterpiece was intended to be functional in the first place to house the various departments of taxation but the internal and, principally the external decorations and sculptures, were meant to be of a high order. Several famous and soon-to-be-famous sculptors were engaged to produce their best work.
The bas-reliefs in the Tympanum (the triangle over the central columns), the Royal Arms of Ireland (at each end) and the fourteen Riverhead sculptures representing the main rivers of Ireland and the Atlantic Ocean, (Anna Livia, or the River Liffey, is the only female head, and is placed over the centre door) were all carved by Edward Smyth, Ireland’s greatest 18th century sculptor. On the riverfront façade Smyth also carved the figures of Industry and Plenty above the pediment and that of Commerce, resting on her anchor, on top of the dome. Italian, Agostino Carlini, carved Neptune and Mercury and designed the scene inside the tympanum of Hibernia (the symbol of Ireland) and Neptune on his chariot banishing famine and despair, a sentiment which would be echoed fifty years later when the Custom House would become the main centre organising relief during the Great Famine of the 1840s. The four large roof urns were a clever classical decorative device used to mask the chimney flues. On the north face at Beresford Place are personifications of the four continents of world trade – Africa, America, Asia, and Europe.
A fire in 1835 caused a good deal of destruction but was quickly repaired and some internal modifications were carried out. But this incident was nothing compared to the conflagration deliberately caused during the War of Independence against England in 1921. In an effort to disrupt the governance of Ireland by destroying all the public records contained within, the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) set fire to the building. They did such a thorough job that the edifice was completely gutted. The heat was so intense that the dome melted and the stonework was still cracking because of cooling five months later. Gandon’s interior was completely destroyed.
Reconstruction appeared hopeless and the building seemed doomed. However, the basic walls were still standing so it was decided to go ahead. The dome and drum had to be totally rebuilt but this time darker Irish limestone was used instead of the former English Portland stone and the colour difference is notable today.
In the late 1970s it became apparent that there was serious deterioration to the fabric resulting from the last fire. Major repair, replacement and conservation works were undertaken from 1984 to 1991 at a cost of around €8 million.
Except during the winter period, it is possible to see some of the rich splendour of the restored interior by dropping in to the Visitor Centre (entrance from the quayside). The exhibition recounts the history of the building (now the seat of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government), its role during revolution and some famous people who once worked there. Admission is free. See http://www.housing.gov.ie/corporate/1916-2016-centenary-programme/custom-house-visitor-centre