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The Battle of Dublin: It's 100 years since the Four Courts assault that launched the Civil War

Pro-Treaty forces hoped the attack would bring conflict to a close but historians say it prolonged hostilities.

The National Army attacked anti-Treaty forces in the Four Courts on 28 June 1922.
The National Army attacked anti-Treaty forces in the Four Courts on 28 June 1922.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

IN THE EARLY hours of 28 June 1922 Provisional Government forces began bombarding the anti-Treaty garrison at the Four Courts in Dublin city centre, launching the Battle of Dublin and Ireland’s Civil War.

The outbreak of hostilities had been brewing since Ireland’s negotiating team returned from London with a compromise agreement that fell short of a Republic and did not include the six counties in Northern Ireland.

The irregulars in the Four Courts represented the extreme wing of the anti-Treaty position. They had occupied the buildings in April and were seeking to collapse the Treaty by launching attacks on British forces and provoking a retaliation.

The group had already split from less hardline elements in the anti-Treaty IRA and the Provisional Government had hoped that it would further fracture and disintegrate.

However, everything changed following the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson on 22 June.

Wilson, a staunch unionist who was an advisor to the Northern Ireland government, was gunned down in London by two IRA members, Reggie Dunne and Joe O’Sullivan.

It’s still far from clear who ordered the attack but the British government pointed the finger of blame at the Four Courts garrison, which had vocally argued for resuming hostilities against British forces.

Historian John Dorney – author of The Civil War in Dublin – said anti-Treaty forces, ironically, appeared to know nothing about the attack on Wilson. But exactly whose orders Dunne and O’Sullivan were acting on, if any, is not known.

“The British write to Michael Collins – who was head of the Provisional government – and they say: ‘Look, these guys in the Four Courts said they’re going to declare war on Britain, this is clearly them. It’s time to move against them and if you don’t do it, we’re going to do it and the Treaty is over. We’re back to square one.’ And that’s basically the trigger,” he said.

Dorney, who is chief editor of The Irish Story history website, told The Journal that the pro-Treaty side then used the kidnapping of National Army General JJ ‘Ginger’ O’Connell by anti-Treaty forces (which itself was a retaliation for the arrest of anti-Treaty leader Leo Henderson) as its justification for launching the attack.

Ultimatum

On 27 June, Collins issued a final ultimatum to the Four Courts garrison to surrender and then shortly after 4am the following morning it began bombarding the Four Courts using British 18-pounder field guns to carry out the offensive.

the-battle-of-four-courts-dublin-ireland-during-the-irish-civil-war-in-1922 The Four Courts garrison was given a final ultamatum on 27 June and the attack began shortly after 4am on 28 June. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

It was the first use of artillery by the Free State army. Despite the heavy fire power, the assault did not initially go to plan for the Provisional Government and by the end of 28 June they had made little progress in dislodging the anti-Treaty forces.

Dorney argues that the anti-Treaty side – which contained the majority of the IRA from the War of Independence – may have been able to defeat the National Army had they been better organised.

While the Provisional Government forces were equipped with better weapons, they had not been trained how to use them and the force was still in its infancy.

“They could conceivably have defeated them, if they had got people up to Dublin they could have overwhelmed them by weight of numbers. But the fact is that they had no plan. They were just reacting to events,” he said.

Their strategy was to provoke a crisis with the British. It wasn’t necessarily to fight the pro-Treaty side. So they allowed them (pro-Treaty forces) to surround the Four Courts.

“They even allowed them to disconnect the mines that they had on the streets outside and they didn’t fire on them because Joe McKelvey, who was their chief of staff, told them not to fire the first shots against fellow Irish men.”

After the assault began, the Dublin Brigade of the anti-Treaty IRA occupied several buildings around the city to distract attention from the Four Courts and there were various skirmishes around the capital.

“But it was all reacting to events that were happening. Even compared to 1916, it was very thrown together and there was no real plan or strategy,” Dorney said.

“Had the anti-Treatyites been acting decisively, ruthlessly and in a coordinated way, they could certainly have won the battle.

“But the flip side to that is; had they, for example, stormed government buildings and taken the Provisional Government prisoner, the British would have stepped in.

The British had 6,000 troops in Dublin, they had artillery, they had an air squadron in what’s now Dublin Airport. There would have been a British intervention and the British would have retaken Dublin city.

“That would have happened but it would have collapsed the Treaty. So, where we would have been then is anyone’s guess.”

Amidst the fighting the Public Record Office was destroyed in an enormous explosion, incinerating government records dating all the way back to Norman times.

The anti-Treaty forces abandoned the Four Courts within three days and the Battle of Dublin was over within a week.

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Despite the battle being relatively brief, Dorney says it entrenched positions and ensured the conflict was prolonged.

“Perspective in hindsight is always different from perspective at the time. We think of it as the start of the Civil War but what the Provisional government thought at the time was ‘we’ll mop up this nest of extremists in Dublin, and then that will be the end of it.’

“Liam Lynch was actually arrested during the fighting but he was let go because they thought he was a moderate and he was going to smoothen things out in the rest of the country. Lynch goes back and he says: ‘this is now a war to the end of the Free State.’

“So, it became a civil war but the government wasn’t thinking that way. Initially, it was, to borrow Vladimir Putin’s phrase, a ‘special military operation, it wasn’t a war’.

“They hoped it could be wrapped up with this operation against the Four Courts but within weeks it was clear they had to do the same around the country.”

About the author:

Céimin Burke

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