By Paul O’Brien MA – Photos as a credited
On Wednesday 28th June 1922 one of the most recognisable buildings in Ireland, the Four Courts on Inns Quay in Dublin, was enveloped in a cloud of dust as artillery shells pounded into its edifice. The Irish Civil War had commenced.
As the War of Independence came to a close with the signing of a ceasefire in July 1921, Republican forces were divided in relation to ending the conflict. On 7th January 1922, following extensive peace negotiations, Dáil Éireann ratified the Anglo-Irish Treaty by 64 votes to 57. This action not only divided the Dáil but also divided the country.
Throughout the country, armed groups of pro- and anti-Treaty forces occupied strategic positions. On 14th April 1922 anti-Treaty forces under the command of Rory O’Connor occupied the Four Courts and several other buildings in Dublin city and a tense standoff between pro- and anti-Treaty forces commenced.
Anti-Treaty forces hoped that their occupation of the courts would ignite a confrontation with British troops and thus unite the pro- and anti-Treaty forces but this never materialised. Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith came under increasing pressure from London to assert the new government’s authority in Dublin and remove those occupying the courts.
On 2nd June 1922, two men assassinated the former soldier and Unionist politician Sir Henry Wilson in London. Though it was stated that the men were acting on their own initiative, it was suspected that they were acting on orders from anti-Treaty forces. This action produced an ultimatum from the British government that they would attack anti-Treaty forces in the Four Courts unless the Free State government took action. In response Collins issued a final ultimatum to those occupying the courts. The three-armed parties involved had now reached a point of no return. Civil War was now inevitable.
Rory O’Connor deployed his men in a defensive role within the Four Courts. The complex had been well fortified, with Lewis machine-guns and rifles covering the main approaches to the building and a commandeered armoured car placed at the gates, its Vickers machine-gun covering any threat that might materialise. The armoured car could also be moved rapidly from point to point depending on the direction of the attack. Windows and doors had been barricaded and a number of improvised explosive devices had been placed at possible entry points.
Outside the walls the newly established Free State Army included many ex-British Army soldiers, many of whom were Irishmen who, having served in British regiments during the First World War, had gained extensive expertise in tactics and the handling of weapons, giving the National Army a distinct technical advantage.
Michael Collins, now commander-in-chief of the National Army, devised his plan of attack. A frontal assault against a fortified building would be costly but those within the courts had to be removed as a matter of urgency. With a number of 18-pounder field-guns borrowed from the British army, Collins placed General Emmet Dalton and Colonel Tony Lawlor in command of the assault. The plan was to bombard the occupants into submission and on 28th June at 0410hrs the bombardment commenced. Shelling was to continue for a number of days.
By Friday 30th June a fire was raging out of control in the headquarters block that also housed the records office. A huge explosion rocked the city as the office disintegrated into a cloud of dust. Whether a shell or a mine caused the explosion is not known. Smoke and debris littered the courts as the beleaguered garrison clung on, many of them hoping in vain for a relief column while some planned a breakout. As the shelling and machine-gun fire increased the position became untenable and the anti-Treaty headquarters staff that included Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows decided to surrender. At 1600hrs on 30th June 1922, having held out for three days, the Four Courts garrison, consisting of 140 men, unconditionally surrendered to the Free State forces. Casualties consisted of three anti-Treaty forces killed and eight wounded. The Free State forces had seven killed and 70 wounded. However, the battle for Dublin was far from over.
As the battle raged at the Four Courts, other anti-Treaty units took up positions in and around Sackville St (now O’Connell St). Commandant Cathal Brugha, with an estimated 70 men and women, took command of what was to become known as ‘The Block’, a section of the city consisting of 14 buildings on the east side of Sackville Street that stretched from the corner of Cathedral St up to Findlater Place. Comprising four hotels and a number of smaller buildings, the Block had been turned into a fortress by means of mouse-holing (a technique that involved burrowing through internal walls to connect each position and not exposing one’s men to enemy fire). Anti-Treaty commanders such as Eamon De Valera, Séan T O’Kelly and Austin Stack joined Brugha in the defence of the buildings.
As the battle for the Four Courts drew to a close, Free State forces turned their attention to the centre of the city. Commandant Tom Ennis was given the task of removing the anti-Treaty forces from the Block. On Monday 3rd July at 0200hrs he moved his troops into position.
Fire-fights erupted between the rival factions as Free State forces attempted to a gain a foothold. Free State armoured cars and personnel carriers careered onto the city’s streets disgorging their cargo of troops. Machine-gun fire from the turrets of the armoured cars ripped along the frontage of the Block. A cordon was established around the centre of the city and by 0315hrs Free State forces had completed their enveloping movement.
Artillery was moved into position and the bombardment of the Block commenced. Small anti-Treaty units fought from each post within the Block and when their position became untenable they withdrew further into the labyrinth of tunnels that linked each building. At 2000hrs on Tuesday 4th July, Free State forces unleashed their final assault on the Block. Artillery fire, rifle fire, rifle grenades and machine-gun fire were directed on to the row of buildings. However, it wasn’t until 1700hrs on Wednesday 5th July that the last Anti-Treaty stronghold, the Hamman Hotel, was in flames. The building burned fiercely as Commandant Brugha, realising his position was untenable, ordered his unit to surrender.
With his pistol drawn, Brugha calmly walked out the front door towards the waiting Free State troops. He was shot and seriously wounded, a bullet severing his femoral artery. Though he received immediate medical attention, he died two days later on July 7th in the Mater hospital. Cathal Brugha’s death was just one of a long list of prominent figures that would, in the following months, lose their lives during the Civil War. Though the battle for Dublin had ended, the battle for Ireland had just begun.
Further recommended reading: ‘The Fall of Dublin’ by Liz Gillis – €11.69, Mercier Press, ISBN: 9781856356800
Crossfire: The Battle of the Four Courts 1916
On Easter Monday 1916 Commandant Edward Daly commanding the 1st Battalion of the Irish Volunteers occupied the Four Courts and the surrounding area.
Crossfire, 1916 & the Battle for the Four Courts is the true story of one of the bloodiest engagements against crown forces in Dublin city during the 1916 Rising. Surrounded and out gunned the Volunteers held their positions and were the last Battalion of the Rising to surrender. This book examines the battles that were fought in and around the Four Courts area of Dublin city and the atrocities that were uncovered on North King Street as the Rising came to an end.
Published by New Island Books, March 2012 – ISBN: 978-1848401297 – PB €9.95 (128pp)
This article was published in the June 2012 issue of An Cosantóir: The Defence Forces Magazine. www.DFMagazine.ie