Revenue Over the Years


February 21st 1923, six months after his death, the wish expressed in Michael Collins's last known letter materialised. On that date his objective of an organised body to collect the State's revenues got final approval when Government Order 2/23 became law. Setting up the Office of the Revenue Commissioners, Order 2/23 stated there would be a single Board of Revenue Commissioners. Consisting of three Commissioners, one of whom would be Chairman and Accounting Officer, the Board would have its chief office in Dublin.

William O' Brien, a native of Cappamore, Co. Limerick, was appointed first Chairman. Charles Joseph Flynn and William Denis Carey were nominated as the two Commissioners. Both Commissioners were Corkmen. All three had backgrounds in either the UK Inland Revenue or Customs & Excise Services.

The Order stated that the Revenue Commissioners shall, in the exercise of their duty, be subject to the control of the Minister for Finance and shall obey all instructions issued to them in that behalf by the Minister. On March 13th, 1923, the Minister for Finance further clarified the role of the Revenue Commissioners, as follows:

"While the Revenue Commissioners will be responsible directly to the Minister for Finance for the administration of Revenue Services, the Commissioners will act independently of Ministerial control in exercising the statutory powers vested in them in regard to the liability of the individual tax payer." This position was reiterated by Ministers throughout the years in various Oireachtas debates.

The mandate of the Office of the Revenue Commissioners was to carry out all the functions previously exercised by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue and the Commissioners of Customs & Excise in the area of the State. This brought all revenue collection under a single Board. Earlier Government debate had rejected proposals of separate Boards for Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise.

Before the new Office of the Revenue Commissioners could function, large scale adaptations of UK revenue legislation had to be carried out. Legal effect was given to laws enacted before the Treaty, provided they were not repugnant to the Constitution of Saorstát Éireann. In effect, most legislation required to raise taxes and duties was carried forward from the UK administration. Likewise, the commodities or services attracting duties or taxes did not change. The legal mechanism necessary for all of this was quickly implemented and deemed to take effect from April 1st 1923. The War of Independence followed by the Civil War had wreaked havoc with the country's finances. Survival of Saorstát Éireann was dependent on the collection of taxes and duties on the Exchequer.

The main areas of revenue collection in the fledgling State were:

  • Customs duties on imported goods
  • Excise duties on beer, spirits, tobacco, wine and hydrocarbon oils
  • Licences for publicans, brewers and distillers
  • Income Tax and Super Tax
  • Estate Duties and Stamp Duties

The Board, the legislation and tax heads were put in place. But what of the professional expertise necessary to ensure that the changeover of revenue collection took place as smoothly as possible? Article 10 of the Treaty gave civil servants the option of transferring to Saorstát éireann or remaining with the UK administration. Within Revenue, many Irishmen opted to transfer. These included Bill McGarry, one of the few surviving transferred officers, who in time would become Chief Inspector of Taxes. Another was the late Maurice Walsh, later to gain international fame as an author. From Lisselton, near Listowel, Walsh had entered the UK Customs Service as an Excise man or Gauger in the 1890s. A condition of the Treaty guaranteed certain rights of salary and conditions to officials, like Maurice Walsh and Bill McGarry, transferring from the UK administration. These rights were for a seven year transition period. This made the transfer even more attractive.

Revenue's responsibilities fell into the following categories:

(a) Customs & Excise

The Superintendents of Customs & Excise (C&E), reporting directly to the Board, were the controlling grade in this area. Reporting to them were the C&E Collectors each of whom managed a Collection. Dublin had several such Collectors, including a Higher Collector. The remainder of the country was divided into the C&E Collections of Cork, Waterford, Galway and Limerick.

Customs & Excise was the largest part of the Office of the Revenue Commissioners. Over 75% of revenues then collected were through Customs & Excise duties and licences. Staff were dispersed throughout the country and indeed few Irish towns were without a C&E official. Because of its varied functions, C&E was further sub-divided as follows:

Officers of Customs & Excise

Recruited by special examination, C&E Officers were also referred to as Gaugers. Working at the ports, parcel post depots and the new road stations on the land frontier, they examined and cleared goods for export and import. The ability to gauge casks of spirits and wine in order to assess the proper duty was a prerequisite for this work. Hence the term gaugers. Resident in all breweries, distilleries and bonded warehouses, Officers of Customs and Excise inspected pubs for licences and to check that only duty paid spirits were being sold. In 1923, Customs & Excise were also responsible for old age pensions which had been introduced thirteen years earlier. The staff association of the C&E Officers was Comhaltas C�na.

Preventive Customs & Excise

This separate stream was the uniformed branch of C&E. Their functions included boarding and rummaging ships and vessels from abroad, accepting ships' reports, health certificates, certain immigration controls, examination and clearance of passengers and their baggage, policing the land frontier and dealing with temporary importation of motor vehicles and passengers. This stream was represented by the Preventive Staff Association.

Indoor Customs & Excise

Working mainly in the Custom Houses, Indoor C&E dealt with the clerical aspects of Customs documents before presentation to the Officer of C&E for clearance. Responsible for duties and money received and its subsequent transmission to the Accountant General, Indoor C&E staff issued most Revenue licences, logged ships' reports and maintained the important records of ships' files. The Indoor Staff Association represented this body.

Although inextricably bound together, each C&E stream had operated almost independently of the others. From early on there was some movement between the Indoor and the C&E Officer grades. There were 995 people employed in these three C&E streams in 1923.

(b) Income Tax.

The Chief Inspector of Taxes controlled the assessment and collection of Income Tax, Sur-Tax and Corporation Profits Tax. Its grading structure comprised Senior Inspectors of Taxes, Inspectors Higher Grade, Inspectors who had passed the departmental examination for commission, Assistant Inspectors, Tax Officers Higher Grade, Tax Officers and Tax Clerks. As early as 1923, it was considered essential that Inspectors of Taxes should show that they possessed a sound knowledge of the principles of accountancy in relation to Income Tax law and practice before they could be considered competent to hold a commission as Inspectors of Taxes. Some 20 Tax Inspectors remained "on loan" from the UK with the new Chief Inspector to assist with the transition years. The administration of Taxes was conducted through Tax Districts around the country. In the new administration, Tax Officers formed their own staff association - the Association of Officers of Taxes (AOT). The Inspectors were represented by the Association of Inspectors of Taxes (AIT), in existence as a separate Irish entity from the previous year. In 1923, the total number of staff under the Chief Inspector of Taxes was 374.

(c) Estate Duty Office

This area dealt mainly with Death Duties. A mutation or transfer duty levied on deceased persons' property, Death Duties were based on what the deceased stepped out of rather than what a beneficiary stepped into. Death Duty provisions were very complex and inextricably bound up with the laws governing the devolution of property. While the entry grade of Assistant Examiner to the Estate Duty Office was recruited from the open Executive Officers examination, most officials dealing with Death Duties graduated as barristers-at-law. With a staff of twenty seven, the Estate Duty Office was entirely Dublin-based.

(d) Revenue Secretariat

Attached to Revenue's head-office, the Secretariat's functions included framing Revenue legislation. Working closely with the Department of Finance, the Revenue Secretariat were actively involved in Budget proposals and changes in taxation or duties. The Secretariat also dealt with appeals of decisions made by front-line Revenue staff. A particular aspect of the Secretariat's work was to ensure uniformity of practice throughout the country. Responses to Parliamentary Questions, of which there were many on Revenue matters in the early days, were drafted by the Secretariat.

(e) Common Services

As the term implies, this area dealt with matters common to all Revenue streams. With a total staff of over 1,750 in 1923, the Office of the Revenue Commissioners was one of the State's largest employers. In fact, if all Revenue people had been placed together, they would have outnumbered the populations of many Irish towns at the time. It was vital that cohesion and uniformity of practice was maintained in the organisation. To this end, Personnel Branch was formed to look after staffing matters in all streams and to deal with staff associations. Likewise, the Office of the Accountant General dealt with all taxes and duties received, along with paying staff salaries. In 1923 there was a staff of 107 in the Accountant General's Branch of Revenue and 152 in Common Services/Secretariat.

(f) The Stamping Branch

This area of Revenue carried out most Government security printing at the foundation of the State. Not only dealing with Revenue's own security printing, the Stamping Branch printed postage stamps for the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, licences, postal orders, money orders, savings certificates and pension books. Prior to the Treaty, some security printing and stamping for Ireland was carried out in London. Packed in sealed wicker baskets, the documents were accompanied by an official from the Dublin office. He remained in London while the stamping was carried out in Somerset House. After the foundation of the State, several UK officials from Somerset House were kindly loaned to Ireland to set up a new Stamping Branch. After their departure the first Director of Stamping in Ireland was Bulmer Hobson. Of Northern Ireland Quaker stock, Hobson became actively involved with the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Associated with the Irish Theatre, Bulmer Hobson edited a book on Dublin's Gate Theatre. There was also a Stamping Branch in Cork which still operates under the Customs & Excise Collector.

(g) The Revenue Solicitor

Because of the nature of tax and duty collection, there had always been a Revenue Solicitor to handle the legal issues involved. Every aspect of Revenue work has a legal foundation. At the setting up of the Office of the Revenue Commissioners, sixteen people, including the Revenue Solicitor, were employed in this area. The first Revenue Solicitor was Richard J Martin and the Assistant Revenue Solicitor was Bartholomew Collins. A native of Rathluirc, Co. Cork, Collins succeeded Martin on his retirement shortly after the setting up of the Office of the Revenue Commissioners. He held that position until his retirement fifteen years later. His publication on Estate Duty matters was widely regarded by the Irish legal profession.

And so the newly established Office of the Revenue Commissioners began to function in 1923. Not only was the infant State in economic turmoil but most of the public buildings had been badly damaged. The burning of Dublin's beautiful Georgian Custom House had major implications for Revenue. During the British administration, the Custom House was the headquarters of Revenue in Ireland. After a brief sojourn in the old Jury's Hotel, College Green, the Board, Secretariat and Estate Duty Office moved into Dublin Castle. The Stamping Branch also moved to the Castle where they were housed in Block 16, underneath the present State Apartments. A place of ghosts, it was here in Block 16 that James Connolly had been imprisoned prior to his execution in Kilmainham Jail. In 1923, the Courts, pending the restoration of the Four Courts, sat in what are now the State Apartments. A false ceiling of cotton wool and sawdust had to be constructed over the stamping machines in order to reduce the noise levels reaching the Courts above.

When the public buildings were destroyed, many valuable Revenue documents and papers were lost. The Estate Duty Office which heavily relies on legal precedent suffered badly in this regard. Liam Walsh, formerly of the Estate Duty Office, recalls being told by an older colleague how they had to start from scratch in the early days of the new Revenue administration. Likewise many Customs & Excise and Income Tax files perished.

Another difficulty faced by the new Office of the Revenue Commissioners was the amount of tax arrears. Paying taxes, previously due to the Crown, was discouraged in the lead up to the Treaty and non-compliance was deemed to be patriotic. In fact, these arrears were to cause problems for many years to come.

The setting up of Saorstát éireann introduced the land frontier or the Border with Northern Ireland. This boundary of 250 miles, cutting through fields, woods and houses (in some cases), is intrinsic to any account of Revenue's seventy five years. Scheduled to come into operation on April 1st 1923, it posed enormous practical difficulties for the Revenue Commissioners. With a mere six weeks to go before the land frontier became operational, Customs frontier posts and road stations had to be established. Staff had to be relocated. Approved roads for transporting goods had to be designated, while the problems of Unapproved Roads also required attention. Like the question of tax arrears, the arrangements for the land frontier did not meet with universal approval. Caught in the political crossfire of the still raging Civil War, Customs & Excise men on the land frontier faced hostility and intimidation. Indeed, in the early days, army assistance was necessary for Customs & Excise staff to carry out their business in the border posts. It also gave rise to the oldest profession in border areas - The smuggler.

Against this backdrop, the reader might well ask why anyone would consider working for the Revenue Commissioners. But there were other considerations and compensations. The overriding factor was patriotism and commitment to the survival of an Irish State, run by Irish people. There was also among many of those who opted for transfer to the new administration a deep love of the Irish language. In far flung places of the British Isles, they had nurtured their proficiency and eagerly awaited a time when they could speak and write it more freely. Among these were Seán ó Catháin, Seán ó Ciarghusa, Donnchadh ó Liatháin, Micheál ó Griobhtha and many others who not only promoted the Irish language but who were also prolific writers in it. In fact, Micheál ó Griobhtha was later to assist and advise in compiling the Irish version of the Constitution (Bunreacht na h-éireann). Maurice Walsh's letters to Caroline, his wife, then living in Scotland and waiting to move to Ireland, are richly flavoured with this patriotic fervour. Another Revenue official in the new State described it as: "an aura of romance, an atmosphere still breathing of the pioneer days."

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