The Custom House is one of Dublin’s most important and beautiful buildings, and the first major work designed by James Gandon. He was also responsible for such iconic buildings as the Four Courts, King’s Inns and the curved screen and portico for the Irish Houses of Parliament facing College Street.
John Beresford, who was appointed the Commissioner for Revenue in Ireland in 1780, was determined to have the new building further east and away from the Parliament Street – Capel Street axis. This decision met with great resistance from merchants who felt that it would reduce trade and property values. Construction was halted by members of Dublin Corporation and the High Sheriff who led a demonstration of may thousand. Beresford, however, was determined to have the building situated on the newly reclaimed land on the north quays and appointed Thomas Cooley as architect. When he died suddenly, Beresford contacted Gandon who came from London and began work in 1781.
Gandon’s drawing desk
Work continued for ten years providing employment for the city’s carpenters and stonemasons, and was officially opened on 7th November 1791. It cost £200,000, a huge sum at the time. The building is 375 feet in length and 205 feet in depth, and has four fronts, of which the south (facing the Liffey) is entirely of Portland stone, and the others of granite. The exterior is adorned with sculptures and coats-of-arms by Thomas Banks, Agnostino Carlini and Edward Smyth who carved a series of sculpted keystones symbolising the rivers of Ireland.
The building was destroyed in May 1921 during the Irish Civil when centuries of records were irrevocably lost. The dome, with the statue of Commerce atop, was replaced using Ardbraccan limestone that is darker than the original Portland stone. Sadly, most of Gandon’s original interior that was destroyed was impossible to replace, but the building is still one of the city’s favourites.
Custom Hose & Liffey – reflected beauty
The Central Dome
Dublin has many Georgian buildings and City Hall, built between 1769-1779, is one of its finest examples. Designed by Thomas Cooley, after he won a prize for its design, it is a first-rate example of the neo-classical style that was fashionable at the time in many European countries.
It was built as the place where Dublin merchants could meet, buy and sell goods, and pay with bills of exchange – hence its original name, the Royal Exchange. The central space, Rotunda, has a magnificent dome that is supported by twelve columns, and is surrounded by an ambulatory where the merchants met and did business. There are twelve murals, eight depicting famous Irish figures and the other four representing each of the Ireland’s provinces. In the centre of the floor, directly beneath the dome, is a large mosaic depicting the Coat of Arms of Dublin ‘Obedientia Civium Urbis Felicitas’ (The Obedience of the citizens produces a happy city).
Dublin City’s motto
The Act of Union in 1800 had a negative effect of the city’s economy, and the Royal Exchange went into decline. Dublin Corporation bought the building in 1851, converted it for its civic offices, and re-named it City Hall on 30th September 1852.
Like many other buildings in central Dublin it played a part in the Easter Rising of 1916. On the first day of action it was occupied by Volunteers of the Irish Citizen Army under Captain Sean Connolly. Being next door to the British HQ in Dublin Castle it soon came under intense and sustained fire, and Connolly was shot dead by a sniper. Under continuous attack the Volunteers abandoned the building later that night.
Today, Dublin City Council holds its meetings in the old Council Chamber, and in the refurbished crypt the exhibition ‘Story of Dublin’ is very informative, using a mix of old newsreel, video and a display of artefacts.